Radicalizing Jihadi John

By Michael Duffy

In the aftermath of the unveiling of Islamic State (IS) spokesman and executioner dubbed ‘Jihadi John’ as Kuwaiti-born Londoner Mohammed Emwazi, it became apparent that he had been on the radar of the intelligence services for some time, and that harassment by these services could have fuelled his descent into extremism.

The man in question whom made these allegations is Asim Qureshi, a research director at CAGE an independent advocacy organisation which focuses on the war on terror, who claimed to have been in contact with Mr.Emwazi for two years beginning in 2009 and was someone the now Islamic militant had confided in.

Mr Qureshi described Mr.Emwazi as ‘extremely kind, extremely humble’ but also as a man who had grown frustrated and angry at his treatment from British security services.

Mr Qureshi explained that Mr.Emwazi would be harassed by police officers at airports and in a separate incident physically assaulted, and that he believed the British government was responsible for pressuring Kuwait to cancel his visa and restricting his travel.

Mr Qureshi went on to blame the British establishment for ultimately sending Emwazi down the path of radicalization and into the hands of IS.

This conclusion though, is flawed.

Mohammed Emwazi had already demonstrated his inclination toward Islamic extremism and jihad.

Born in Kuwait, Mr. Emwazi moved to London at the age of six, he attended St Mary Magdalene Church of England primary school in Maida Vale, in 1999 he finished primary school and moved onto Quintin Kynaston Community Academy, where it is reported he began to embrace his religion further, wearing more traditional Islamic clothing, yet he was still described as a relatively normal young man.

His attendance at the University of Westminster to study computing appears to have been significant period during his life; and his radicalization.

Following his graduation, as revealed by the BBC, he travelled to Tanzania in 2009 on ‘safari’ however he was detained by authorities who believed he was intending to join al-Shabaab, the East African terror group, predominately based in Somalia. Court papers from 2011 linked Mr. Emwazi to a “network of United Kingdom and East African based extremists” and was involved “in the provision of fund and equipment to Somalia for terrorism-related purposes and the facilitation of individuals” The New York Times reported that this network was sometimes referred to as ‘The North London Boys’ a group which is associated with now deceased Lebanese-born British jihadist Bilal al-Berjawi.

Mr. Berjawi at the time of his death was reportedly a prominent foreign fighter in the ranks of Al-Qa’ida (AQ) in East Africa and reportedly only second to infamous AQ commander Fazul Mohammed. His association with the ‘The North London Boys’ and the fact he and Mr. Emwazi lived in the same area, St. Johns Wood [where Emwazi attended secondary school] suggests a significant possibility the two were acquaintances, moreover their attempts to gain entry into Somalia are eerily similar with Mr. Berjawi and his brother Sakr traveling to Kenya in 2009, telling their families their intention was to go on a ‘safari’.

These events highlight that Mr.Emwazi was not set down the path of radicalization by his treatment at the hand of British security services, but rather he had already begun his journey.

However, I do believe the security services played a vital role in this journey. Events following in return from Tanzania seemed to have greatly affected him. He told CAGE that during his return from Africa, when he arrived in Netherlands, he was questioned by British and Dutch Security services and alleges that MI5 discussed the matter with his fiancée, resulting in the termination of their relationship.

Nevertheless, it seemed Mr.Emwazi had moved on, he gained employment in Kuwait after moving back there with his father’s family[supposedly to escape the harassment of British authorities] and begun another relationship which, according to Mr. Qureshi, was leading toward marriage. Yet upon one of his infrequent returns to Britain, his visa was cancelled by Kuwait. Mr. Emwazi believed this was due to pressure from the British Government, in a 2010 email to Mr. Qureshi he wrote “I had a job waiting for me and marriage to get started…But now I feel like a prisoner, only not in a cage, in London.”

Mr. Emwazi appeared to have turned his life around; he had a job and was in a relationship, it is unknown how much his radicalized sentiments were tempered, if at all, but the revocation of his visa seems to have stopped any prospect of normality for Mr. Emwazi and only served to disenfranchise a man who had already shown indications of extremist intent. Feeling imprisoned in London, Mohammed Emwazi tried again to return to Kuwait changing his name by deed poll in 2013 to become Mohammed al-Ayan, he was unsuccessful.

One week after this he disappeared from his parents’ home.

It is difficult to blame any; authority, person or circumstance for the radicalization of an individual. It is often a myriad of complex forces which mould a person’s thoughts and ideas to extremity, yet I have to agree with Mr. Quershi to some extent, the security services did play a role in his radicalization and possibly a greater one than we are comfortable acknowledging.

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