Notes From the Margins…

Jihadi John: The Man Behind the Mask

  • February 27, 2015
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So now we know the identity of  the smug executioner with the black balaclava and the knife who murdered James Foley, and the British media and politicians are struggling to understand how a boy who once liked S-Club 7 and wanted to be a footballer became a ‘monster’.

I don’t pretend to have an explanation for this, but I don’t believe in monsters, only in human beings who either lost their moral compass and their humanity, or perhaps never had either in the first place.

According to the advocacy group Cage, Mohammed Emwazi’s metamorphosis into ‘Jihadi John’ was due to an overbearing security establishment that destroyed his prospects of a normal life because he refused to become an M15 informant.

The Cage case file on Emwazi describes a four-year process of harrassment, in which the Kuwaiti-born former computer operator was arrested, intimidated and harassed and lost his fiancée and his right to travel, because he refused to become an informer.

Emwazi tried to protest against this treatment, using Cage as an advocate, and gave a detailed description of his treatment at the hands of the security services.

If true, and there’s no reason to think that it isn’t, it isn’t a pretty picture.   The British media was predictably outraged by this, particularly when  Cage spokesman Asim Qureshi described Emwazi as “a beautiful young man” who was “extremely kind, extremely gentle and the most humble young person I ever knew.”

Faced with statements like this, the tabloids and David Cameron have reacted with fury, and rejected any suggestion that the security services might have had any responsibility for Emwazi’s transformation.   Nevertheless, the emails published by Channel 4 certainly suggest a man with his back very much against the wall in 2010, when he was refused permission to fly to Kuwait:

I never got onto the flight, what was the point, I said to myself; I”ll just get rejected. I had a job waiting for me and marriage to get started. But now 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 and my country, Kuwait.

Qureshi has cited this history to observe “When are we going to finally learn that when we treat people as if they’re outsiders, they are going to feel like outsiders and they will look for belonging elsewhere.”

Some newspapers have accused Qureshi of attempting to ‘justify’ Emwazi’s actions, even though Qureshi has not said that they were justifiable.  Today the Daily Mail suggested that Qureshi himself is a jihadist and a closet supporter of Islamic State.

Neither the British government or its tabloid servants are likely to consider the possibility that the security services may have contributed to Emwazi’s ‘radicalization’ by leaning on him too hard.   The priorities of national security and  the good versus evil/moderation versus extremism rhetoric of the war on terror precludes acknowledging any responsibility whatsoever for any form of blowback or unwanted consequences.

Nevertheless Cage’s victim narrative isn’t necessarily the explanation for his grim trajectory, or at least not the whole explanation.

After all, there are many things that ‘outsiders’ can do in order to find ‘belonging’ that don’t involve cutting the heads of innocent hostages in a propaganda video.   Emwazi may not have realized that he would be doing this when he went to Syria to fight in 2012, since Islamic State didn’t exist then.   But there were plenty of other groups with a similar ideology and methodology, some of whom were de facto allies in the regime change program in Syria – something that is almost never recognized in the hysteria about what British jihadists might do if they come back.

Was Emwazi in touch with some of these groups? If so, does that mean that the security services had reasons for suspicion?   The Cage case file says that he was barred from flying to Kuwait three times and stopped at the airport.    Yet one week after his third flight ban, he “left his parents home to travel abroad” and his parents reported him as a missing person three days later.

How did he manage to get out of the country if he was on a no-fly register?     Why did the police not visit his home till four months later, if the security forces had him on the radar?     How did the police know that he had entered Syria?

We may never know the answer to these questions.    All we know is that Emwazi arrived in Syria in 2012, and two years later the man who once praised Cage for standing up against oppression stood in the desert next to his helpless prisoners and told the West that “this knife will be your nightmare.”

Perhaps two years of the nightmare of the Syrian Civil War were enough to obliterate what humanity Emwazi took with him to Syria.    But whatever the reasons that led him to play a starring role in Islamic State’s snuff videos, the man in the black balaclava is no longer a victim, but a murderer and a tyrant.

And the ultimate responsibility for that transformation is down to him, and the organization that gave him his orders.

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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