26 Feb 2015

Why was ‘Jihadi John’ unmasked?

How did the alleged identity of Islamic State’s most wanted suspect fall into the public domain on Thursday morning? And where does the UK go from here in the fight against Islamic State?

Why was Mohammed Emwazi’s name released on Thursday?

While British and US security services have reportedly known his identity for some time, few expected the name Mohammed Emwazi to drop into the public domain in the way it did. Much of that appears to have been down to events in the US.

While the BBC claimed to break the news on Thursday morning, the Washington Post had much of the earlier detail.

According to the campaigning group Cage, a reporter from the paper apparently contacted the British advocacy group to substantiate their leads earlier this week – setting Thursday’s events in motion.

Senior sources have since told Channel 4 News that as the US do not have any reported hostages left in Syria, there may have been less operational incentive to keep the name withheld.

What do we know about him?

With a British education from the University of Westminster and nearly five apparent years on the radar of security services, many will wonder how a computer science graduate from West London ended up in Syria as one of the world’s most notorious murderers.

Indeed little about Emwazi existed online before his name was released. No social media accounts were found linking to him apart from an entry on the British electoral register. Members of his family appear to have deleted much of their online presence since the news has broken.

Cage claims to have been in contact with Emwazi from 2009 to January 2012. Director Asim Qureshi spoke of a man he once knew as “extremely kind, gentle, soft spoken”. “He desperately wanted to use the system to change his situation, but the system ultimately rejected him,” he said.

The campaiging group alleges that in 2010 Emwazi accused British intelligence services of preventing him from traveling to the country of his birth, Kuwait, where he planned to marry. “I had a job waiting for me and marriage to get started,” he is quoted as writing in an email. “But now I feel like a prisoner, only not in a cage, in London.”

But such impressions are likely to jar with that of the killer seen beheading at least six hostages with such cold-blooded conviction.

What have his victims said?

As of yet there has been little comment – but expect to hear more in the hours ahead. Emwazi has appeared in videos of the murder of US journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, British aid worker David Haines, American aid worker Peter Kassig and British charity worker Alan Henning.

The family of murdered US hostage Stephen Sotloff are one of the first to speak publically, saying they “look forward to the day they can see Emwazi sitting in an American courtroom”.

“We want to watch him sentenced and see him sent to a supermax prison to spend the rest of his days in isolation,” a statement said.

What will Islamic State make of the disclosure?

The publicity generated is likely to be welcomed in the short-term. But that could change in the days ahead. There is no suggestion that ‘Jihadi John’ wanted to be identified: all his appearances in propaganda videos were hooded and fully covered with his voice often digitised.

What is likely to happen now?

Scotland Yard has said that the investigation is ongoing and are not commenting on details. But Emwazi’s identification will almost certainly accelerate public demand for some sort of resolution.

It will also shine the spotlight on many of his dealings in the UK, including his time at the University of Westminster and his time in West London. Much of the media are camped outside his last registered family home.

Emwazi is one of an estimated 600 British citizens that have travelled to Syria to fighter. The Prime Minister has previously suggested he would like to see him caught and brought back to Britain for trial. However unlikely that may be, it is still probably the most desired outcome.