The world knows him as “Jihadi John,” the masked Islamic State executioner with the British accent.
His real name, however, is Mohammed Emwazi, and he is a Kuwaiti-born, London-raised computer programming graduate, The Washington Post reported Thursday.
“I have no doubt that Mohammed is Jihadi John,” one of Mr. Emwazi’s close friends told the Post. “He was like a brother to me. ... I am sure it is him.”
Growing global concern
The Post's exposure of Emwazi’s identity comes at a time when concern reaches new heights over foreign fighters’ desire to join radical causes, especially in the Middle East. Last week, three teenage girls from London were reported to have flown to Turkey on their way to Syria to join the Islamic State.
On Wednesday, New York police arrested three men living in Brooklyn and charged them with plotting to join ISIS as well.
Thousands more have rushed to the region, many signing up in response to the Islamic State’s well-executed recruitment tactics that glorify jihadism.
As The Christian Science Monitor reported last July:
Through Twitter and Facebook, Instagram and Tumblr, jihadis easily spread their messages to Westerners. Yilmaz, a broad-smiling Dutch jihadist of Turkish descent, has become a social media sensation. His Tumblr account, called Chechclear.Tumblr.com, glorifies his stint in Syria as the ultimate adventure. A former Dutch soldier, he posts photos of warfare alongside those of kittens and Syrian children. In one photo, he shows a big bowl of M&M’s, under which he writes: “For those at home nothing but colorful candy. For those in Jihad gold :-))).”
Both governments and the families of these would-be jihadists – a majority of whom are between the ages of 18 to 29 – have called out for support in stopping the spread of radicalization to young people.
“Everybody helps the Nigerian [girls],” a man whose sister left for Syria told the Monitor. “But for our European girls and boys, nobody moves. I call to everybody in the world, help us, help us, help us. Please.”
Emissary and executioner
Emwazi became known to the public in late August, when he appeared first as Islamic State emissary and then as executioner in the video of the beheading of American journalist James Foley. He has since been broadcast killing other hostages, including another American reporter, Steven Sotloff, and Japanese journalist Kenji Goto.
In each video, Emwazi appeared dressed entirely in black, with a black balaclava covering his face but for the eyes. His accent – which experts early on identified as southern British – gave the only clue to his identity, and earned him the moniker “Jihadi John.”
His friends, who spoke to The Washington Post under condition of anonymity, told the paper that Emwazi, who is in his mid-20s, grew up in a middle-class London neighborhood and enjoyed wearing stylish clothes while heeding the tenets of Islam.
He began to radicalize in 2009, according to the Post, when a planned safari trip to Tanzania went awry after police in Dar es Salaam, the capital, detained and then deported Emwazi and two of his friends.
Emwazi then reportedly flew to Amsterdam, where he claimed to have been illegally interrogated by agents from the British domestic security department, MI5. The agency accused Emwazi, then identified as Muhammad ibn Muazzam, of trying to reach Somalia and the militant group al-Shabab, The Independent reported at the time.
He was later allowed to return to England.
Shortly afterward, Emwazi decided to move to his birthplace, Kuwait, where he found a job as a computer programmer and got engaged. He went back to London twice, and in June 2010, British officials detained him again, preventing him from returning to Kuwait.
"I feel like a prisoner"
By this time, Emwazi’s frustrations with the British government were beginning to boil over.
“I had a job waiting for me and marriage to get started,” he reportedly wrote in an email to Asim Qureshi, a human rights group representative who had been in contact with Emwazi before he left for Syria.
But now “I feel like a prisoner… A person imprisoned & controlled by security service men, stopping me from living my new life in my birthplace & country, Kuwait,” according to the email, which Mr. Qureshi, research director at British advocacy group CAGE, made available to the Post.
“This is a young man who was ready to exhaust every single kind of avenue within the machinery of the state to bring a change for his personal situation,” Qureshi told the paper.
Instead, Qureshi said, Emwazi ended up feeling criminalized and powerless.
Qureshi told the Post that he last heard from Emwazi in January 2012.
Hostages released by ISIS, or the Islamic State, have said Emwazi was one of four British jihadists – whom their captives have nicknamed, “John,” “Paul,” “George,” and “Ringo,” or collectively as “The Beatles” – guarding Western prisoners, the BBC reported.
Officials have so far declined to comment on the news, according to both the Post and the BBC.