Jihadi John: From shy pupil to terrorist
The descent of Mohammed Emwazi from quiet London schoolboy into the notorious ISIL executioner Jihadi John, has defied experts’ opinions on how young western Muslims can be radicalised.
As more becomes known of the early life of Mohammed Emwazi, known as Jihadi John after his appearance in ISIL videos depicting the murders of hostages, authorities on extremism are once again revising their views on how young western Muslims can become radicalised.
In the past, the classic route was presented as a dysfunctional family background followed by juvenile delinquency, low grade criminality and indoctrination while in jail.
Then, the increasing prevalence of militancy among brighter students, often those with serious ambitions for careers in professions such as medicine, forced a rethink.
Meanwhile, many analysts came to see another previous factor, the malign influence of vehemently anti-western preachers, as fading in importance, to be replaced by slick internet recruitment techniques.
Now, the case of Emwazi, born in Kuwait but brought up in London, suggests there may be at least one other path to barbarism dressed up as violence committed in the name of religion.
Could it be that his descent into depravity is a variation of the phenomenon of disturbed high school students massacring fellow pupils and teachers that has been seen in the United States?
The perpetrators of one of the deadliest of American school shootings, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, had been victims of bullying at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, where they shot dead 12 students and one teacher in 1999.
Emwazi is said to have been similarly targeted at his secondary school, the Quintin Kynaston Academy in north-west London.
“I think Columbine is a good parallel,” says Alyas Karmani, co-director of Street, an anti-extremist British group based in London and Bradford.
“I believe in Emwazi’s case, there were sociopathic tendencies all along. You often find such people can be highly charismatic and cover it up, giving no hint of their tendencies until they manifest themselves in a given environment. He found his outlet in Syria.”
But he feels the childhood spur is likely to have been a “significant unresolved traumatic event” more serious than bullying, such as sexual abuse, violence or bereavement.
His subsequent criminality, as a murderer or accessory to murder, had nothing to with Islam but was justified on spurious religious grounds.
Mr Karmani, who cites 66 sub-factors in his own research into what can drive young Muslims into the hands of extremists, says his theory may depend on details emerging “about something in his past that we don’t yet know about”.
Certainly, there is little to suggest a major turning point in Emwazi’s early life.
A photograph from his primary school days shows an outwardly typical child in London’s multiracial society – a smart, smiling boy seated among classmates.
In boyhood scribblings, he revealed dreams of becoming a professional footballer. Contemporaries say he displayed natural ability in the game.
At Quintin Kynaston he was “quiet and reasonably hardworking”, says his former headteacher, Jo Shuter.
There were “adolescent issues”, including the bullying, but she says he overcame them to become aspirational and conscientious, a successful candidate for his first choice of university.
Media outlets have spoken to former pupils at the school.
One said Emwazi smoked and got into fights. His communication skills were poor. But that is still a long way from proving he was radicalised at school.
Another said Emwazi was inseparable from the younger brother of Mohammed Sakr. They were schoolmates and allegedly fell under Sakr’s influence. Sakr became a member of Al Shabaab in Somalia and was killed in a US drone attack.
Bilal El Berjawi, a neighbour of the Sakr family, became a leading figure among radical young Muslims in their area of west London. He was also killed in a drone attack in Somalia, a month before his friend’s death.
Emwazi gained a degree in computer programming at the University of Westminster.
There, the atmosphere was more conducive to a lurch into extremism, according to other former students. One said there was a “toxic” atmosphere, in which groups created “a hostile environment towards non-Muslims, were anti-Israeli … and homophobic remarks were rampant at the campus”.
Emwazi was said to have been one of a loose-knit group of Muslims who played five-a-side football together, attended the same schools and mosques, and who were particularly impressed by one preacher.
Three are now reportedly dead, one is living in Sudan after being stripped of his British citizenship, another remains in the UK, and several others are in prison.
By the time he graduated, Emwazi was arousing suspicion.
He attempted to enter Tanzania, purportedly for a safari, but was detained and sent back to Europe where the British security service MI5 tried to recruit him as an informer – according to his correspondence with Cage, a controversial human rights lobby group.
Cage supports those it sees as victims of the “war on terror” but has been condemned as an apologist for extremism.
Emwazi told Cage that when he refused the MI5 offer, he was warned “life would be harder” for him.
A Cage video shows him insisting he told an MI5 agent called “Nick” that he disapproved of the terrorist attacks in the US on September 11, 2001, and the bombings in London on July 7, 2005.
He moved back to his native Kuwait in 2009-10 and spent a few months as a salesman for a computer software firm, where his former employer remembers him as “a model employee”. However, he was denied permission to re-enter the Gulf state after a trip back to the UK.
Asim Qureshi, research director of Cage, has described Emwazi as a “beautiful young man” whose treatment by the British authorities – preventing him from going on safari or returning to a job and fiancee in Kuwait – radicalised him.
In comments deplored by commentators ranging from the UK prime minister, David Cameron, to human rights campaigners, he spoke of several young Britons “whose lives were not only ruined by security agencies, but who became disenfranchised and turned to violence because of British counter-terrorism policies coupled with long-standing grievances over western foreign policy”.
In 2011, court papers identified Emwazi as belonging to a “network of UK and east African-based extremists” involved in supplying funds and equipment to Somalia for terrorism-related purposes. Emwazi denied all wrongdoing.
His parents, who returned to Kuwait some years ago, said they last heard from him in 2013 when he called from Turkey to say he had volunteered for humanitarian work in Syria. Beheading civilian hostages, or military prisoners of war, is not known to be humanitarian work. And the vast majority of Muslims are repulsed by such savagery. But a recent UK opinion poll revealed nuances of attitudes that some observers find worrying.
Mona Siddiqui, Pakistani-born professor of Islamic and interreligious studies at Edinburgh University, says the 95 per cent of Muslims polled who felt loyalty to Britain, and 93 per cent who supported obedience to British laws, “should comfort us all that the ‘them and us’ divide is not as great as we thought”.
But more than a quarter of respondents (27 per cent) had some sympathy for the motives behind the Charlie Hebdo killings in Paris, while 24 per cent disagreed that attacks on those publishing images of the Prophet Mohammed were never justified.
About 45 per cent did not accept that clerics who preached that violence against the West was justified were “out of touch with mainstream Muslim opinion”.
“I’m a great believer that what you hear at home and on the playground stays with you forever,” Prof Siddiqui told The National.
But while that implies a heavy responsibility for parents and teachers, in preventing extremism in the next generation, she does not believe pluralistic thinking can be “forced” on people.
She is convinced western Muslims – who may feel comfortable in being both British and Muslim, but still sympathise with some extremist acts – must somehow be encouraged to see they have a stake in the well-being and values of their country of residence.
However she is unsure how this can be achieved, or how young people can be diverted from the lure of extremism.
Another writer on radicalisation, Kenan Malik, argues that most recruits to the conflict in Syria rarely take their first steps for religious or political reasons.
“What is striking about the stories about wannabe jihadis is their diversity,” says Mr Malik, an Indian-born author whose books include From Fatwa to Jihad. “There is no ‘typical’ recruit, no single path to jihadism.”
And that may point to a more complex explanation of the case of the man known to the world as Jihadi John.
Perhaps his life was not fashioned by a single factor – latent sociopathy, teenage influences, exposure to radical preaching, internet brainwashing, peer group pressure at college or anger at his dealings with MI5 – but a combination of some or all.
Updated: March 4, 2015 04:00 AM