By The Economist
Feb 26th 2015
The images last year of James Foley, an American hostage, apparently being beheaded by a masked fighter for Islamic State (IS) who spoke with a British accent, horrified the world. Since then the same man, dubbed “Jihadi John”, is thought to have appeared in a number of videos, committing similar atrocities. On February 26th the BBC, the Washington Post and others identified him as Muhammad Emwazi, a Kuwaiti-born British man in his mid-20s.
Friends of Mr Emwazi said that he was brought up in a middle-class part of West London and would sometimes pray at a mosque in Greenwich. He is thought to have been radicalised after being detained by police on a trip to Tanzania in 2009. He is said to have been known to both the British and American security services before he left for Syria in 2012. The Washington Post quotes an e-mail from 2010 in which Mr Emwazi wrote that he felt like a prisoner in London: “a person imprisoned and controlled by security service men, stopping me from living my new life in my birthplace and country, Kuwait.”
If the claims are true, Mr Emwazi would appear to have many of the attributes thought to characterise Westerners—including perhaps 600 Britons—who have gone to fight with IS. Few seem to be desperately poor nor do they necessarily demonstrate a failure to integrate into the societies around them. Nasser Muthana, a 20-year-old Welshman seen in other IS videos, had offers to study medicine from four universities. Mr Emwazi studied computer programming at the University of Westminster in London. For recruits to an ostensibly religious militia, many of those joining IS seem to display a notable ignorance of Islam. Before leaving for Syria, Yusuf Sarwar and Mohammed Ahmed, two young men from Birmingham who pleaded guilty to terrorism offences in July, ordered copies of “Islam for Dummies” and “The Koran for Dummies” from Amazon. By contrast, friends of Mr Emwazi say he was mindful of adhering to the tenets of Islam. He does not, however, seem to have been unusually conservative, and was happy wearing Western clothes.
Mr Emwazi seems to have had connections to jihadists longer than many others who have joined IS in recent months. That, and the interest security services took in him, may explain his low profile on social media. Twitter and platforms such as Tumblr and Kik have proved important tools for recruitment and propaganda for IS. Apart from his appearances in videos shared on social platforms, Mr Emwazi seems unusually absent from such networks in comparison to his co-fighters.
The details about Mr Emwazi highlight the difficulties for Western governments in preventing citizens who wish to join IS from doing so—and in dealing with them if and when they return. They are far from a uniform bunch. Their origins and motives are mixed. Many of those who went to Syria and Iraq at the same time as Mr Emwazi appears to have gone may have been inspired by a desire to help their fellow Muslims, either by bringing food and medicine or by fighting Bashar Assad, the Syrian president. Since then the war has grown bloodier and more sectarian. IS has become a more significant—and more violent—force. Whether Mr Emwazi sought such a group when he went to Syria or has been transformed by it is unclear. Neither explanation will bring much comfort to Britain or other Western governments.