In 2014, a series of videos horrified the world. On August 19th, members of the Islamic State uploaded to YouTube a video that showed the beheading of one of their captives, American journalist James Foley. The war correspondent had been kidnapped by extremists while reporting in Syria, and been held captive for nearly two years. The murders of more journalists and aide workers, including Isaraeli-American reporter Steven Sotloff, British humanitarian aide workers David Haines and Alan Henning, American aide worker Peter Kassig, and Japanese military contractor Haruna Yukawa and journalist Kenji Goto, would follow. Shown in each video, either murdering the men or posing with their corpses, was the same young man, who addressed the camera and spoke with a London accent.
The killer would become known as “Jihadi John,” and was a member of an ISIS cell that held, tortured, and killed or ransomed dozens of hostages. The captives nicknamed the gang "the Beatles" after noting their British accents, and the murderer in the videos that shocked the world was the group’s “John.” His real name was Mohammed Emwazi, and the story of his life and crimes is the subject of a new HBO documentary, Unmasking Jhadi John: Anatomy of a Terrorist, which interviews those behind the the hunt for the terrorist as well as former captives who survived their time as hostages of the group. Here’s a primer on on of the most infamous members of ISIS.
Who was Mohammad Emwazi?
Emwazi was born in Kuwait, and emigrated with his family to north west London as a child. The family was middle class, and he seems to have passed an unremarkable childhood. "He played football every lunchtime and at the after-school football club. Through football, he learned different words and expressions. Like all the guys, he always wanted to be the striker,” one former classmate told The Daily Mail. “He wasn’t so good in school, he was the bottom half of the class, but he was one of the sporty guys. He was popular.”
As a teenager, he was described as being quiet and socially awkward. "Girls thought he was weird and tried to stay away from him. He was short and got the nickname ‘Little Mo,’” said another classmate, The Guardian reports. "He shuffled around with his head down and his shoulders hunched. He had no confidence and held himself in a really nervous way. But at the same time, he wore trendy baseball caps and trainers. It made him look even more odd. Instead of coming across as cool, he became a figure of fun who everyone took the mickey out of.”
Violence against or misdeeds directed towards women is often found in the personal histories of multiple murderers, and something that Emwazi may have exhibited signs of—that same classmate described him as “borderline stalking” a female classmate.
How did he become "Jihadi John?"
Emwazi graduated from the University of Westminster with a computer science degree in 2009. During adolescence and early adulthood, he began to associate with other Muslim extremists in the city, men who were being monitored by authorities for ties with terrorists.
The year that he graduated from university, he and two men who would go onto join a Somali extremist group (and who would later die in drone strikes) went to Tanzania, ostensibly to go on safari.
But authorities believed that the jihadi-linked men were actually embarking on a trip to Africa to pursue extremist activities, and they were not permitted to enter the country. Now thoroughly in the crosshairs of British intelligence, Emwazi later spent time with family in Kuwait and took a job at an IT company, before returning to London. In 2013, he departed the city for Syria.
What happened to Jihad John?
It took a year for British and US intelligence to track down Emwazi. He was found in November of 2015 when "intelligence pinpointed him to a car in the centre of Raqqa, Syria, within a short walk of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’s headquarters in the old governorate building," the Telegraph reported.
According to the report the week of Emwazi's death:
At 11.40pm Syrian time (8.40pm GMT) the order to kill was passed to the drone operators at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada. Controlling their drone via a satellite link, and using a second Reaper as a “spotter” plane, they selected their target and released a Hellfire missile from 10,000ft. Experts say the Predator may have been several miles away at the time, invisible in the night sky. Its missile, travelling at Mach 1.3 (995mph) arrived at such speed that Emwazi would have known nothing before it struck. At 11.51pm the car, and its four occupants, were blown to pieces. The result was described by one US official as a “flawless” strike, a “clean hit” that would have “evaporated” Emwazi, with no collateral damage. “We are 99 per cent sure we got him,” the official said.
According to the report, though Emwazi was masked in the videos, he was identified through "his voice and accent, but also his skin colour, height, physique and vein patterns on his hands."
How many other Westerners joined ISIS?
Emwazi made global headlines for his heinous crimes, but he’s not the only young Westerner to join ISIS in recent years. In February, The Independent reported that 900 British citizens had joined ISIS since 2012, and more than 40,000 people globally have traveled to Iraq and Syria to join the Islamic State. Around 300 Americans have attempted to join the group, though some of this number were apprehended at the airport.
The Islamic State lost the last of its territory in March, and with the collapse of the caliphate, countries around the world are now deciding just what should be done with their terrorist émigrés. Expert Bennett Clifford told NPR of an American who joined the Islamic State and and later returned to the US, where he helped authorities by providing information about the group and participates in a deradicalization program to help re-integrate him into society.
Though the US has returned some of its citizens to face charges on American soil, other countries have decided not to take back their former citizens. Shamima Begum, who left her East London home at age 15 with two classmates and became an Islamic State bride, returned to UK headlines earlier this year. Unlike Emwazi, there was no evidence that she committed crimes while living in Syria. By February of 2019 she was 19 years old, living in a refugee camp with her newborn. She wanted to return to the UK, but Britain’s Home Office stripped her of her citizenship and her baby died of pneumonia in the camp.
"The notion that Britain could not handle her, could not show her a better future, could not try her, convict her, reorient her or support her, is worse than pathetic,” wrote Guardian columnist Gary Younge wrote of the decision. "Citizenship is not about character. It is not about risk or regret. It is about rights and responsibilities."
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