Jihadi John: From ordinary schoolboy to world's most wanted man
Mohammed Emwazi, identified as 'Jihadi John', was just a regular schoolboy growing up in west London. Nobody imagined he would turn into the most barbaric terrorist on the planet
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about ‘Jihadi John’, 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.
The early years
‘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, came 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 to 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 Marybelone 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.
The schoolboy footballer
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.
“I’m just absolutely shocked that appears to be him. It’s just a 100 miles away from where I thought he’d be. It makes you wonder what can happen in the years when you don’t see these young people. It’s really scary. He was religious and I think as he got older he did become more devout. He would go the mosque and pray, but then a lot of the kids did that.
“He was somebody who would always seek the correct way of handling something. There was never any indication of any violence at all.”
During Emwazi’s time at secondary school the family moved again, this time to a modern apartment block close to lords cricket ground, staying there until 2005. The block is rundown, 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.
University and the path to radicalisation
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. 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; denied being sucked in to 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 dsiclsoed. 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.
The flight to Tanzania
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.
A Tanzanian immigration officer who worked at the international airport recalled the incident. “They arrived on KLM from Amsterdam and we had been told by our international security partners that they should be questioned closely,” the man told The Telegraph, refusing to be named and refusing to confirm that the order to stop the three came from British intelligence.
“I was on shift but I was not directly involved. Other senior men did it. They stopped them, the German and the British, and took them for questioning. They were supposed to be put back on the very same aircraft to return that night, but in detaining them, our officers missed the boat and the flight left.
“We hosted them until the next flight in a secure facility.”
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.
Detention in Amsterdam and the return to the UK
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-Qaeda 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, offers 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’.”
Officers even asked him about his view of Jews: “Then he asked me of my opinion about Jews, just he had asked others. I told him that it was their religion and every one had a right to have his own belief.” If Emwazi was harbouring extremist views at this point, he was belligerent in his denials. He even managed to slip in his interest in fashion, in part as a rebuttal to claims he had with him a camouflage combat jacket. Emwazi insisted the jacket was only for taking on safari. “I started laughing and asked how he could even suggest that it was military, what he was trying to prove. I had another jumper, a stylish Rocawear jumper, so I asked him what about this jumper. Was he not going to make any comment about that? He fell silent then,” he recalled in his Cage testimony.
But what really stung Emwazi was the realisation that while he had been in Tanzania, MI5 had visited his parents - who had known nothing of his ‘holiday’ - but had also approached his fiancee, a girl in Kuwait, to whom he had been introduced through his family.
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.
Trips back to Kuwait
pooked by the spooks and, on the advice of his parents, Emwazi next took a flight to Kuwait, his homeland, to live with his fiancee’s family. 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 the 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 fiancee 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. “During the process of answering these questions and many more, one random officer wearing an Indian turban entered, and started also searching through my bags. He reached out for the Holy Quran and put it on the floor and I asked him to put it onto the chair rather than on the floor.
“He started to get aggressive, changing his tone of voice. He said ‘I’ve put it onto the chair now, so just shutup’ and I replied ‘You shutup’. He stood up aggressively and came into my face, pushing me back onto the chair. At that point I told the other officers that I was not going to answer any-more questions until this aggressive and angry person, that had hate for me for no reason, got out of the room.”
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. Emwazi complained to Mr Qureshi: “I feel like a prisoner, only not in a Cage, in London. A person imprisoned and controlled by security service men, stopping me from living my new life in my birthplace & country, Kuwait.” His second engagement inevitably also was doomed to fail.
Links to other terrorists
Court documents seen by The Telegraph show how the Government clearly did not believe Emwazi’s claims of innocence. The documents, used in a court case against another terrorist, show how Emwazi was by 2012 believed to be part of an established network of local extremists, referred to sometimes as the “The London Boys” and all well-known to the security services. A number have since gone to fight jihad in Syria, and at least one killed. But in 2012, according to the legal document, they were part of “a network of United Kingdom and East African-based Islamist extremists which is involved in the provision of funds and equipment to Somalia for terrorism-related purposes and the facilitation of individuals’ travel from the United Kingdom to Somalia to undertake terrorism-related activity”.
That legal document names Emwazi as a danger to society but also connects him in with Bilal al-Berjawi, who grew up less than a mile from Emwazi. Al-Berjawi became a senior leader of al-Shabaab and was subsequently killed in a US drone attack in January 2012.
The court papers also connect him to four men known as “The London Boys”, who lived in the same area of west London. A mile from Emwazi’s family home also lived two Somalis who on July 21 2005 tried to blow up the London Underground in a repeat of the 7/7 attacks two weeks earlier. Although still a teenager at the time, it is likely security services will also investigate connections between Emwazi and those men, all supporters of al-Shabaab.
Another notorious figure from Ladbroke Grove is Abdel-Majed Abdel Bary, a former rapper who posted an infamous Tweet showing him holding a severed head in Syria, alongside the words “Chillin’ with my other homie, or what’s left of him”. Such was his bloodthirstiness that until recently, he was considered likely to be the man behind Jihadi John’s black mask. The coincidence makes it likely Bary and Emwazi know each other well.
The route 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 auhtorities 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.
His parents according to Cage become concerned at his disappearance and reported him as a ‘missing person’. Four months after that - presumably in the late spring or early summer of 2013 - police officers visited Mr and Mrs Emwazi at home and told him their son was in Syria.
How he got there will form part of the investigation into his activities and into his wider network. It is likely he entered via Turkey although a flight there should have been flagged up just as it had to Kuwait. How he became such an instrumental player so quickly in the Islamic State’s hierarchy is shrouded in mystery. It is thought he first surfaced at a prison in Idlib in Syria, where Western hostages were already being held. A former hostage, one of a handful freed after negotiations and who escaped Jihadi John’s brutality, said that the Briton was part of the team guarding them. A former hostage said Emwazi had taken particular relish in the “waterboarding” of four Western hostages. “He was the most deliberate” said the former hostage. In early 2014, the hostages accompanied by Emwazi were moved to Raqqa, the Islamic State’s stronghold in Syria. The Washington Post claimed that by that stage Emwazi and two other men with British accents, including one called ‘George’ had “taken on more powerful roles within the Islamic State”. Emwazi earned the monicker Jihadi John in the media because the group were given the names of the Beatles as nicknames.
The hunt for Jihadi John
Emwazi became the world’s most wanted man when on august 19 last year, the Islamic State 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.
Jihadi John then beheaded Mr Foley with a knife, and going on to carry out public beheadings of five other foreign hostages, the atrocities also recorded in videos used as Isil propaganda. His second victim was Steven Sotloff, another American freelance journalist. Two weeks later he murdered David Haines, a British aid worker. Hopes that a man helping civilian victims of the war might expect some mercy were dashed, as they were too in the case of Manchester’s Alan Henning, a taxi driver who had gone on an aid mission with Muslim friends.
The next beheading video featured Peter Kassig, a former US soldier who was again an aid worker, this time despite even pleas for clemency from a senior al-Qaeda militant, who said Mr Kassig had treated him for a wound he suffered in battle. That video also showed Jihadi John presiding over the mass beheadings of 21 Syrian soldiers.
As long ago as September, US and UK security services had declared they were certain they had identified Jihadi John. Reports surfaced that special forces had been despatched to Syria to seek out and destroy the hostages’ executioner.
But Emwazi’s name only emerged thursday in an investigation by the Washington Post. Mr Qureshi had confirmed the similarities but the newspaper drew on other sources as well. “I have no doubt that Mohammed is Jihadi John,” one of Emwazi’s friends told the newspaper, “He was like a brother to me... I am sure it is him.”
The hunt continues for him. Last night, David Haines’ teenage daughter Bethany Haines told ITV News that unmasking Emwazi was only the beginning. She was critical of the border agencies failure to stop jihadists such as Emwazi and in particular teenage girls from reaching Syria.
Asked what she thought of the security services knowing him, she said: , “It is shocking but they’re doing their job. They’re doing the best they can. They’ve not dealt with a so-called Islamic State like this before. There’s no right or wrong.”
On the subject of the border agencies, she added: “There is, especially with the three girls that went over, there should been more security in airports to stop people doing that and definitely for him, obviously he’s part of a terrorist group and is out to kill hundreds of people and it’s not right.
“The fact they’re so young. One of them is a year younger than me. They’ve been brainwashed. And it’s not their fault but there should’ve been someone there stopping them.
“They need to be monitoring airports more clearly. They need to be asking more security questions. Why are people going to Turkey and then getting a connecting flight? It’s not right. You don’t just go to Syria on holiday.”
The subject turned to Emwazi and the revelation he is Jihadi John. Did it offer closure, she was asked. “It’s a good step,” she replied, “But I think all the families will feel closure and relief once there’s a bullet between his eyes.”