Understanding the boy who became Islamic State’s chief executioner – and his victims

British-born "Jihadi John" became one of the most iconic figures in Islamic State's propaganda output. But how did he become a terrorist - and what do we know about his victims?

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Of all the images issued by a group known for giving the world cinematic glimpses of horror and human depravity, few have become as enduring or indelible as that of an Islamic State executioner towering over his next victim. The sight of a masked murderer posturing with a cold, burnished knife is now depressingly familiar. Beheadings were common practice in the Syrian conflict from the start but they entered broader public consciousness once IS subjected the journalist James Foley – an affable, square-jawed American from New Hampshire – to this grisly fate.

Newspaper editors across the world immediately applied themselves to unmasking the man known in the media as “Jihadi John”. Months of rumour and speculation finally ended after Adam Goldman and Souad Mekhennet of the Washington Post identified him as Mohammed Emwazi, a British man of Kuwaiti origin who had grown up in west London.

What followed was surreal. An advocacy group called Cage organised a press conference and blamed MI5 for radicalising him. Between 2009 and 2012, the group had met with and represented Emwazi, who alleged that he was being “harassed” by intelligence officers who were trying to recruit him as an informant. Asim Qureshi, the research director of Cage, argued that contact with security officials had transformed Emwazi from a “kind, gentle, beautiful young man” into a murderer. Cage was widely condemned for its analysis; even the Prime Minister denounced the group’s comments as “reprehensible”. Cage responded by releasing the entirety of its email correspondence with Emwazi, thus revealing that he had also been in contact with Robert Verkaik, then a journalist with the Independent.

“It quickly dawned on me that I was now the story,” Verkaik writes in his new book, Jihadi John: the Making of a Terrorist. “I started to feel anxious and excited at the same time.” He carefully dissects the issues and allows readers to draw their own conclusions about how a 26-year-old Londoner became the most hunted man on Earth. This is no easy task, considering how emotive and politicised the topic has become. Verkaik presents the case articulated by Cage: that here was an ordinary man who, were it not for the security services, would have been a flourishing, middle-class professional. He gives this idea more space than some would like, though it is satisfyingly debunked at frequent intervals.

“It is clear that he [Emwazi] was much more engaged in Islamist thinking than he was prepared to reveal to me,” Verkaik writes, reflecting on their face-to-face encounters in 2011. Elsewhere, he reasons: “Emwazi was already on an extremist path before he had finished his studies at Westminster University.”

The chief strength of this book lies in its exploration of the radical subculture in parts of west London, especially around the Westbourne Park area, from where some young men have ventured to Syria as foreign fighters. The web of influences is complex but Verkaik skilfully unpicks it, while losing none of the atmosphere that makes his book so readable and engaging.

Context is crucial. It quickly becomes apparent that Emwazi was an established figure in a broader milieu of Islamists. Indeed, court documents show that five men he was connected to had travelled to Somalia in 2006 for terrorist training. This was a significant moment for the security service. Not only had home-grown terrorists successfully struck the London transport network the previous year on 7 July, but another group of men originating from the Horn of Africa had tried to repeat the atrocity just two weeks later. Only good fortune spared commuters on the second occasion.

Verkaik alerts readers to these challenges but does not go far enough. By the time Emwazi’s friends had disappeared into Somali terrorist cells, the domestic terrorist threat was so severe that it jeopardised Britain’s diplomatic relations with the United States. In one significant plot, directed from the tribal areas of Pakistan, British radicals planned to destroy seven transatlantic flights using liquid bombs.

“I think that the plot, in terms of its intent, was looking at devastation on a scale that would have rivalled 9/11,” Michael Chertoff, the then US secretary for homeland security, told ABC News. He estimated that thousands of lives would have been lost, and there would have been far-reaching economic implications. It was a watershed moment. Details of the plot came to light only after intelligence officials intercepted emails between the ringleaders, prompting a huge counterterrorism operation across the United States, Britain and Pakistan. The repercussions are still being felt today: travellers are restricted in how much liquid they can carry through airport security.

In late 2012 or early 2013, not long after some of his west London associates were killed in Somalia, Emwazi went to Syria. By that stage, Western journalists were already treated as prized commodities, snatched by criminals and jihadis alike before being sold. IS collected most of these hostages and, encountering the testimonies of those whom the group released, we now know just how brutal their ordeals were.

Many of their harrowing memories are included in James Harkin’s Hunting Season. While Verkaik takes his readers into the mind of IS’s best-known executioner, Harkin tells the story of those whom he tormented. There is little about Emwazi in this account but its purpose is different. Through an extensive series of interviews, most notably with the hostages and their families, readers are exposed to the sadistic culture that pervades IS.

Hostages were sometimes forced to fight each other, for no purpose other than the pleasure of their captors. The loser in these bouts was then tortured. Foley was singled out for particularly barbarous treatment because his brother was a captain in the US air force. On one occasion, he was waterboarded after a failed escape attempt.

These tales are not generally known beyond the small community of journalists and analysts covering Syria – and for good reason. When IS first released some Western hostages, it warned them against speaking publicly about their ordeal, vowing to inflict ever more punishing torture on those who remained if its demands were ignored.

Brief accounts of the hostage experience were published occasionally but the convention was observed by most of the press. Similar blackouts were imposed on the circumstances of individual kidnappings – when people were taken, where, how and by whom. All of these agreements exist to protect hostages by neither drawing attention to their case nor exposing potentially damaging information about them.

Harkin is aware of this, acknowledging: “Since kidnap investigations occur in real time, while the crime is still happening, one false move can make things worse.” This makes his book very troubling, not least because two of the journalists he discusses at length remain in captivity: John Cantlie and Austin Tice. Cantlie, a British journalist, has appeared under duress in a bizarre series of propaganda videos documenting life inside IS. Tice is a former US marine currently believed to be held by the Assad regime. Both have suffered terrible torture and their ordeals are ongoing.

Harkin has drawn criticism for reporting on these cases in the past, for detailing the circumstances in which the men went missing. That was bad enough. Yet here he goes further, in one case repeating a highly inflammatory (not to mention false) allegation relating to Tice’s background. Though he accepts that the allegation is false, the manner in which he presents it could easily put Tice in even greater peril.

The book is unsympathetic to the hostages, portraying them as naive or reckless. Peter Kassig is dismissed as “idealistic”; Steven Sotloff was “stubborn [and] rambunctious”. Both men were beheaded by IS. The accounts of Cantlie are even worse. Whatever his shortcomings, he is an experienced journalist who produced some extraordinary reporting in the early phases of the Syrian uprising.

Cantlie was kidnapped together with Foley at the end of a trip to Syria as they headed back towards the Turkish border. Harkin recounts the moments leading up to their capture, concluding: “They’d grown lazy and complacent, and attracted attention where they should have been trying to blend in.” Cantlie is consistently portrayed as a maverick who had it coming.

The families of these men have strong feelings about Harkin’s book – mainly that it should never have been written. Many of those who spoke with the author feel betrayed. These are grave errors for an otherwise accomplished journalist who writes seamlessly and is a gifted storyteller.

John Cantlie is the last remaining Western hostage in IS custody that we know of, but in the past six months a new wave of kidnappings has resulted in more journalists disappearing into the black hole of Syria’s miserable war.

Just as that procession replenishes itself, so does IS. Mohammed Emwazi was killed in a US drone strike in November last year but the group was quick to replace him with yet another British executioner in its next video. The hunt is on once again to find the new Jihadi John.

Robert Verkaik appears with Andrew Hosken and the NS deputy editor, Helen Lewis, at the Cambridge Literary Festival, on 9 April: cambridgeliteraryfestival.com

Jihadi John: The Making of a Terrorist by Robert Verkaik is published by Oneworld (302pp, £9.99)

Hunting Season by James Harkin is published by Abacus (246pp, £9.99)

Shiraz Maher is a New Statesman contributing writer and the director of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College London. 

This article appears in the 08 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Tories at war