The Washington Post appears to have identified the masked British Islamic State murderer called "Jihadi John," who has reveled in his videotaped decapitations of people like the American journalist James Foley. His name is Mohammed Emwazi, a Kuwaiti-born Londoner.
Mr. Emwazi's background certainly fits the classic profile of many senior leaders and hangers-on of groups like IS and Al Qaeda. Middle class, with a technical educational background (engineers, in particular, have been heavily over-represented in violent Islamist movements), yet feeling out of place in his society, in this case Britain.
But the Post's story, and much of the commentary that's followed, seems to put the blame for Emzawi's "radicalization" on his brief detention in Tanzania in 2009 and the subsequent interest in his activities from UK security services.
Understanding what attracts the tiny minority of the world's more than 1 billion Muslims to groups like IS is important and useful. But simplistic narratives of reaction to injustice or inclusion usually do more to obscure than reveal. That millions of Muslims in Western societies have endured unfair scrutiny and suspicion – from neighbors or co-workers or the government – is simple reality. Yet the vast majority of them haven't turned to violence and criminality.
Even if the narrative of what drove Emwazi is taken at face value as presented, it isn't really helpful. It doesn't do anything to explain why he is so different from the majority. The narrative itself deserves a suspicious eye.
Radicalized by Britain?
We can't know precisely when Emwazi headed down the road that led him to Syria, sneering behind his black mask and butcher's knife in elaborate murder shows. But the version of events that says the UK and Tanzania turned him into a monster mostly comes from dubious sources, including Emwazi himself.
In 2009, he turned to CAGE, a UK-based group formerly known as Cageprisoners. CAGE campaigns to end what it calls the UK's "War on Terror." The group's founder, British citizen Moazzem Begg, was kidnapped in Pakistan in 2002 on suspicion that he belonged to Al Qaeda. He was held by the US for three years, at Bagram prison in Afghanistan and later at Guantanamo Bay, before being released without any charges brought against him. Last year a British government case accusing him of attending a militant training camp in Syria collapsed shortly before trial, and he was again freed.
Though Begg has never been convicted of any crime, he and his colleagues are strident proponents of the position that the UK is seeking to criminalize merely being Muslim. When Begg was released last year, CAGE Research Director Asim Qureshi said: "We hope that Moazzam's release is a sign that the government are now willing to adopt a more measured strategy in relation to anti-terrorism policy and avoid the attempt to criminalize all dissent and crush any organization like Cage that stands up for the rule of law and justice."
In Begg's case, he certainly has grounds to be angry. But his group's assertion that Emwazi was driven to terror by UK security services should not be taken at face value. They haven't been subtle about it.
CAGE released a press release today titled, "Jihadi John: Radicalized by Britain." In it, Mr. Qureshi says: "Suffocating domestic policies aimed at turning a person into an informant but which prevent a person from fulfilling their basic life needs would have left a lasting impression on Emwazi. He desperately wanted to use the system to change his situation, but the system ultimately rejected him."
The group published another piece today that includes an interview with Emwazi after he and two companions – described as a German convert to Islam called "Omar" and a man called "Abu Talib" – were held for 24 hours, threatened, and then deported from Tanzania after flying in for what Emwazi said was a planned safari vacation.
It seems likely that UK intelligence had its eye on Emwazi and on his companions and had tipped off local authorities (this sentence was edited after first posting to clarify that the UK had probably tipped off Tanzania). In 1998, the US embassy in Dar es-Salaam and the embassy in Nairobi were attacked by Al Qaeda, killing over 200 people. Tanzania has been an important first stop for foreign fighters looking to join the Somali militant group al-Shabab in Somalia.
According to what Emwazi told CAGE, his plane from Dar es-Salaam to Amsterdam was met by a British intelligence agent, who accused him of trying to join Al-Shabab and tried to recruit him as an informant. Other attempts at recruitment, brief detentions by the UK at border crossings, and the loss of a work visa with Kuwait that Emwazi blames on the UK, are also recounted.
Still, it's hard to fathom how this would lead anyone to chop off the heads of aid workers and journalists – Emwazi was also involved in the murders of the American aid worker Peter Kassig, British aid worker David Haines, and the Japanese citizens Kenji Goto and Haruna Yukawa.
And while security services are often wrong in their suspicions against people, they also frequently get it right. Taking CAGE's word on what turned Emwazi to violence seems unwise. A former Western hostage of IS who was held by the foreigners around Emwazi told the Post that he was "obsessed" with Somalia and forced his captives to watch al-Shabab propaganda videos. Something, correct or incorrect, brought him to the attention of British intelligence. What was that? At this point, we don't know.