Sunday 24 September 2017

Jihadi John: the journey from 'lovely, quiet schoolboy' to the world's most wanted terrorist

Robert Mendick in London

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the world's most wanted man is just how ordinary he actually is.

'Jihadi John' - the barbaric executioner of Western hostages held in Syria - has been unmasked as a computer studies graduate who grew up in a leafy and affluent suburb of west London.

His real name is Mohammed Emwazi, the eldest of six children, who took pride in his appearance, wore nice clothes, and appears - on the face of it at least - to have been a diligent student. He doesn't even have a criminal record.

Nevertheless, over the course of six years following his graduation, Emwazi undertook a journey that transformed him from benign teenager to the most demonic of killers, a blood-thirsty murderer who beheaded hostages, including Britons David Haines and Alan Henning, broadcast to the world in propaganda videos for the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Isil).

Jihadi John as a schoolboy
Jihadi John as a schoolboy
Mohammed Emwazi, stands next to a man purported to be David Haines .
James Foley
Kenji Goto
Peter Kassig
Alan Henning
Jihadi John

'Jihadi John's' childhood gives no clue as to what would follow. Mohammed Emwazi, now 26, was born in Kuwait in 1988.

His parents Jasem (51) and Ghaneya (47) moved to London in 1993 in the aftermath of the first Gulf War. Mohammed Emwazi was just six and he arrived in the UK with his parents and a younger sister Asma, now a young architect with a bright future ahead of her.

Four more siblings would be born in the UK. Emwazi is an unusual surname - it is the only one listed in the UK - and transliterated from the Arabic al-Muazzem or al-Muazzam. At one stage, many years later in 2010, Emwazi would be referred to as al-Muazzam in a report that would give a hint of the terrorist path on which he was about to embark.

But during those early years, the family were happily ensconced in west London, in an area bordering David Cameron's famously wealthy and influential 'Notting Hill' set. Jasem runs a taxi firm while Ghaneya brought up the children.

The family moved a fair bit, Emwazi undergoing something of a peripatetic upbringing, repeatedly swapping one rented property for another in the Maida Vale area, one of the most expensive areas in the country.

Between 1996 and 1997, the family lived in a three-bedroomed, first-floor flat sandwiched between the Regents Park canal and the A40 overlooking the busy Marylebone flyover. Flats there currently sell for up to £800,000.

From that flat in Warwick Crescent they moved to nearby Desborough Close, a modern and run-down terrace surrounded by council blocks.

Emwazi lived with his family at this small house for four years until 2002. Neighbours either did not know them or were reluctant to talk. One, who did not want to be identified, said she was friends with his sister and that they were a lovely, quiet family.

By now the Emwazi children were beginning to enrol in the local secondary Quintin Kynaston, a popular and successful academy. The school refused to confirm if Mohammed Emwazi had attended the school, with a spokesman declining to comment, but postings on the internet show his siblings certainly went there and did well.

Asra was a prefect and won a £200 prize for looking after the school farm. Mohammed Emwazi, now a teenager, seemed to have no gripe with his life growing up in the West.

One schoolfriend from Quintin Kynaston, speaking anonymously because he feared just knowing 'Jihadi John' would damage his career, said Emwazi was a "typical north-west London boy".

The friend went on: "He seemed like a nice guy. He seemed confident in the way he carried himself but didn't really show himself off. He seemed like a down-to-earth person and humble. He liked football and he was friends with everyone. All the Indian boys, all the Pakistani boys, people from different religions, he spoke to everyone. I don't think he was particularly religious at the time."

One of Emwazi's former teachers said: "He was a diligent, hard-working, lovely, young man, responsible, quiet. He was everything you could want a student to be."

During Emwazi's time at secondary school, the family moved again, this time to a modern apartment block close to Lord's cricket ground, staying there until 2005. The block is run-down, and largely owned by the local authority. One neighbour said she remembered the Emwazis as a family that "were certainly not particularly friendly or chatty and kept themselves to themselves".

They pitched up next in a much more desirable spot, an Edwardian mansion block called Blomfield House, where a flat recently sold for £1.2 million. Residents spoke of their shock and astonishment that 'Jihadi John' was until 2008 their neighbour.

Emwazi did well enough at his A-Levels to gain a place on the computer programming course at the University of Westminster in 2006. The university has, along with other further education institutions, faced questions about the links between its student union and extremists.

Shock

In 2011, for example, a student connected to the radical group Hizb ut-Tahrir was elected as president of the University of Westminster's union. Security services will have been looking at any possibility that Emwazi became radicalised while at college. The university issued a statement appalled at its new association with 'Jihadi John'.

"A Mohammed Emwazi left the university six years ago," said a spokesman. "If these allegations are true, we are shocked and sickened by the news. Our thoughts are with the victims and their families."

The university went on to announce the establishment "of a dedicated pastoral team to provide advice and support" as a consequence of the disclosure.

Emwazi, although by now devout, has insisted he was never a radical at this time; and denied being sucked into a world of extremism. The 'Washington Post' has claimed he was an occasional worshipper at a mosque in Greenwich although nobody there, perhaps not surprisingly, could recall ever seeing him.

Graduating in his early 20s, he is described by those who knew him as a "polite" young man with a "penchant for wearing stylish western clothes" while at the same time "adhering to the tenets of his Islamic faith". He had grown a beard and was "mindful of making eye contact with women".

 

Everything appears to have changed - at least according to one version of events - with a post-graduation trip to Tanzania, planned with two friends, one an unnamed German convert student called Omar and another known only as Abu Talib, neither of whose real identity has been disclosed.

Emwazi would later insist it was just three chums heading for a safari in east Africa; intelligence agencies in the UK were convinced their plan was altogether more sinister.

In August 2009, Emwazi, his degree completed, boarded a flight for Dar es Salaam, the Tanzanian capital, with his "two close friends from childhood". They never made it to their safari, if that had really been their intention. Instead, at the airport on landing the trio were met by border control officers who denied them entry to the country.

The young men were put in waiting cars and driven to the nearest police station to the airport and thrown in a cell where they were held for 24 hours, a gun at one point pointed at the startled Emwazi.

Sources said the men were kept at Stakishari Prison, known for its brutal conditions. Put back on a plane the next day, the men were escorted to a flight to Schipol, Holland's main airport and a major hub for its national airline KLM.

Game changer

For what happened next at Schipol airport, there is only Emwazi's word for it. He claims to have been met off the plane at Amsterdam by four armed men, in a detailed version of events he gave to Cage, a controversial human rights group that campaigns for Muslim prisoners, in protest at his own detention.

According to Emwazi, he was locked in a room and interrogated by an MI5 agent he knew only as 'Nick', who accused him of being a terrorist planning to join the al-Qa'ida affiliate al-Shabaab in Somalia. Emwazi denied the claims strenuously, insisting he had only been a tourist heading for safari.

The extracts, as Emwazi relates them, offer snippets of a young man, still only 21, who denies being an extremist or dangerous but clearly bright and not afraid to stand up to his interrogators. By the interview's conclusion, the MI5 officers had offered to recruit Emwazi. The trio - they had been separately questioned - were then taken out of the airport and driven to the ferry terminal and back to the UK. In Dover, anti-terrorism officers were again waiting for him. The questioning was similar.

The officers asked him about his views on 7/7 and 9/11 and the war in Afghanistan. Emwazi told Cage: "I said, 'What do I think! We see innocent people being killed in news daily'."

According to Asim Qureshi, research director at Cage, Emwazi subsequently visited him to complain about his treatment. "Mohammed was quite incensed by his treatment, that he had been very unfairly treated," wrote Mr Qureshi. Shown video footage of 'Jihadi John', Mr Qureshi concluded there was an "extremely strong resemblance" between Emwazi, and Jihadi John. Spooked by the spooks and, on the advice of his parents, Emwazi next took a flight to Kuwait, his homeland, to live with his fiancée's family.

Threatened

He took a job in IT and remained there for eight months until deciding to visit his family in London in may 2010. By now, the Emwazis were living in a ground floor council flat on the edge of the notorious Mozart Estate, north of the Harrow Road in West London, a warren of red-brick blocks and towers built in the 1970s.

Residents there were wary of Emwazi. Elisa Moraise, a neighbour, said: "I haven't seen the young man for years but he was strange and unfriendly, he never said hello. My son is a similar age and they were never friends."

Emwazi was detained at Heathrow but allowed on his way and spent eight days in the UK before returning to Kuwait. In July 2010, he flew back to London, his engagement having ended but a new fiancée found. He was detained again but this time the questioning was far more intense.

Again his claims give a clue to his increasing radicalisation and defiance.

By now, security services convinced of his terrorist ambitions prevented him leaving the UK, putting him on a terror watch list that prevented his travel to Kuwait and should have stopped him going to Syria.

By January 2012, Emwazi was looking at ways of evading the security services and the scrutiny he was being put under. He was barred from returning to Kuwait and in evidence of his increasing desperation, changed his name in early 2013 by deed poll to Mohammed al-Ayan on the advice of his father, who wanted his son to start a fresh life free of the authorities in Kuwait.

Emwazi tried again under his new name to reach Kuwait and, according to Cage, "with one final roll of the dice... bought a ticket for Kuwait.... Once again he was frustrated as he was barred from travel, and once again questioned by the security agencies".

Three weeks later, he vanished.

Emwazi became the world's most wanted man when on August 19 last year, Isil released a video showing the beheading of James Foley, an American freelance journalist who had been kidnapped in November 2012. Speaking in what was clearly a British accent, he threatened Barack Obama with "the bloodshed of your people" unless he ended US airstrikes against Isil positions in Iraq. (© Daily Telegraph London)

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