3 Mar 2015

Mohammed Emwazi to Jihadi John: what have we learnt?

A week ago very few people had heard the name Mohammed Emwazi – but after being named as Islamic State “executioner” Jihadi John, his life has been under the microscope. What have we learnt?

Mohammed Emwazi

Above from left: Mohammed Emwazi in 1996 (picture credit: The Sun/News Syndication), at university between 2006 and 2009, and as ‘Jihadi John’

The child

Mohammed Emwazi was born in Kuwait in 1988 to a Bedoon family. Bedoon’s are an ethnic group of Iraqi origin, many of whom live in Kuwait, and who enjoy few rights as the Kuwaiti government classes them as “illegal residents”.

At the age of six the Emwazi family moved to the UK, reportedly after having had a request for citizenship in Kuwait turned down.

The family lived in north west London and Emwazi attended the St Magdalene’s Chuch of England primary school.

Mohammed Emwazi at school

Above: Mohammed Emwazi at school in 1996 (picture credit: The Sun/News Syndication)

A former classmate described the young Emwazi as “one of the sporty guys” who was “popular”.

In a school yearbook when he was 10, Emwazi listed some of his favourite things including his favourite book, How to Kill a Monster, his favourite food, chips, and his favourite cartoon, the Simpsons.

He wrote that his dream by the time he was 30 was to play for a football team and “score a goal”.

The teenager

Emwazi went on to attend the Quintin Kynaston academy in St John’s Wood, north London. He was known as “Little Mo” because of his small stature.

One of Emwazi’s former teachers described him as a “diligent, hardworking, lovely young man”, adding “there was no indication of any kind of violence at all”.

Former classmates have painted a picture of a “painfully shy, nervous guy” who was “bullied and humiliated by girls”.

He was reported to have a habit of putting his hand over his mouth when he spoke to girls, after a girl had told him in front of other students that he had bad breath.

Other former students said Emwazi joined a gang at the age of 13, with one former classmate telling the Sun on Sunday “he smoked drugs, drank and was violent towards other boys”.

Another former classmate told the Sunday Mirror that Emwazi angered his parents by dressing like the “cool kids”, wearing low-slung jeans, baseball caps and hoodies.

“Instead of coming across as cool, he became a figure of fun who everyone took the mickey out of,” one former classmate said.

The student

From school Emwazi went to the University of Westminster, where he obtained a 2:2 in information systems with business management.

He was a member of the university’s Islamic Society and was often seen in the prayer room between classes.

Mohammed Emwazi as a student

Above: a photograph of Emwazi during his time at university

Emwazi was also part of a network of friends who were educated at the same schools, went to the same mosques and played football together.

Some of these associates were being monitored by MI5, including Bilal el-Berjawi who was stripped of his British citizenship after going to Somalia to join Islamist group al-Shabaab in 2011. Berjawi was killed in a drone strike in Somalia in 2012.

The man

In 2009 Emwazi travelled to Tanzania with Berjawi and Mohamed Sakr, saying they were going on safari. However, it has been reported that MI5 were monitoring the group, and assumed they planned to travel on to Somalia.

Emwazi was detained in Dar es Salaam by Tanzanian police and held overnight. He then ended up in Amsterdam where, he told advocacy group Cage, MI5 tried to recruit him.

Cage research director Asim Qureshi told Channel 4 News that Emwazi was a “beautiful person” during his dealings with the group.

In a recording from 2009, Emwazi described one session with security services in which he said an agent was “trying to put words into my mouth”.

Mohammed Emwazi at work in Kuwait

Above: A photograph from Emwazi’s work identification card in Kuwait

In September 2009 he travelled to Kuwait to stay with family, and got a job at a Kuwaiti IT company. His former boss told Channel 4 News that Emwazi was “trustworthy, punctual and polite” but reluctant to talk about why he had moved from the UK to Kuwait.

The 21-year-old returned to the UK in April 2010. In emails he sent to Cage, Emwazi described how, by the end of the year, he believed security services were targeting him.

He complained about the way security services treated him when he arrived at Heathrow, and described his fears that he would not be allowed to return to Kuwait.

In 2012 Emwazi is understood to have taken a teaching English language course, before trying to return to Kuwait one final time.

In August 2013 his parents reported him missing from his home. Four months later police are reported to have told his family that they had information he had travelled to Syria.

The ‘executioner’

In Syria Emwazi is understood to have first joined the Muhajireen, or Migrants Brigade, which was led by Chechen fighter Abu Omar. It is a group that a number of British fighters have joined, including Ibrahim al-Mazwagi, the first British fighter to die in the Syrian conflict.

Mohammed Emwazi as Jihadi John

Above: Emwazi as Islamic State executioner ‘Jihadi John’

He then went on to join the al-Qaeda affiliate al-Nusrah, and then the Islamic State group.

A source who spent time with Emwazi in Syria described him to Channel 4 News as personable and humorous on occasion, but also someone who was keen that fighters be portrayed by the media as people to be feared.

He was said to be an enthusiastic video games player and martial arts enthusiast.

The source also recounted an occasion when Emwazi, as one of the best Arabic speakers in the migrants brigade, led the interrogation of a man who was questioned and then badly beaten.

Emwazi first appeared as “Jihadi John” in a video posted by the Islamic State group in August 2014 in which the US journalist John Foley was beheaded.