Mohammed Emwazi (born Muhammad Jassim Abdulkarim Olayan al-Dhafiri, 17 August 1988) is a British man, born in Kuwait, who is thought to be the person seen in several videos produced by the Islamic extremist group ISIL showing the beheadings of a number of captives in 2014 and 2015. Prior to his identification in February 2015, the media referred to him as “Jihadi John”. He is part of the terrorist cell known as “The Beatles”.
Emwazi was born Muhammad Jassim Abdulkarim Olayan al-Dhafiri, on 17 August 1988 in Kuwait, to Jassem and Ghaneyah. The family, who were Bedoon of Iraqi origin, moved to UK in 1994 when he was six. They settled in North Kensington and he attended St Mary Magdalene Church of England primary school, and later Quintin Kynaston Community Academy.
In 2006 he went to the University of Westminster, studying Information Systems with Business Management. He secured a lower second-class BSc (Hons) on graduation three years later.
At age 21, he worked as a salesman in Kuwait at an IT company and was considered by his boss as the best employee the company ever had. He was described as ‘calm and decent’. His relatives living in Kuwait, most of whom live in Taima area, are being questioned and told not to share any more information about Jihadi John.
Jihadi John was given the nickname “John” by a group of his hostages. The hostages said that he was part of a terrorist cell they called “The Beatles”, and that he guarded Western hostages while handling communications with their families. The nickname refers to John Lennon of the Beatles, and other members of the cell are known as “George”, “Paul”, and “Ringo”, in reference to the other Beatles. The cell members all had English accents. The nicknames “Jihadi John”, “Jailer John” and “John the Beatle” were created by the British press.
Ringo Starr expressed his disgust at the use of his former band’s name in this context, saying: “It’s bullshit. What they are doing out there is against everything the Beatles stood for,” and adding that the Beatles had stood for peace and opposed violence.
Jihadi John was identified by the FBI on 25 September 2014. British Prime Minister David Cameron has ordered MI5, MI6, and GCHQ to track and capture the killer.
In a video uploaded to YouTube on 19 August 2014, Foley read a prepared statement criticizing the United States, the recent airstrikes in Iraq, and his brother who serves in the United States Air Force. Jihadi John, wearing a mask, also read a prepared statement in which he criticized America and President Barack Obama and made demands to cease the 2014 American-led intervention in Iraq. The masked man then beheaded Foley off-camera, after which he threatened to behead Steven Sotloff if his demands were not met. The FBI and United States National Security Council confirmed that the video, which included footage of Foley’s beheaded corpse, was genuine.
On 2 September 2014, a video was released reportedly showing American journalist Steven Sotloff’s beheading by Jihadi John. The White House confirmed the video’s authenticity.
On 13 September 2014, a video, directed at British Prime Minister David Cameron, was released, showing British hostage aid worker David Haines being beheaded by Jihadi John.
On 3 October 2014, a video released by ISIS showing Jihadi John beheading British aid worker Alan Henning. Henning, a taxi driver from Salford, Greater Manchester, had volunteered to deliver aid to Syria when he was kidnapped in Ad Dana, an area held by ISIS, on 27 December 2013.
On 16 November 2014 a video was posted by ISIS of Jihadi John standing over a severed head, which the White House confirmed was that of Peter Kassig. Kassig’s actual beheading was not shown, and unlike earlier hostage beheading videos he did not make a statement.
The video that ended with a shot of Kassig’s severed head showed the beheadings of 21 Syrian soldiers in gruesome detail, by a group led by a masked Jihadi John. It was said by the BBC that, unlike previous videos, this one shows the faces of many of the militants, indicates the location as being Dabiq in Aleppo Province, and that this video “revels in gore.” Unlike previous videos that cut away without showing the killing, Jihadi John is shown beheading a victim.
Haruna Yukawa and Kenji Goto Jogo
Haruna Yukawa, age 42, was captured sometime before August 2014. Kenji Goto Jogo, age 47, was captured sometime in October 2014 while trying to rescue Yukawa. In January 2015, they were threatened to be killed unless the Japanese government paid a ransom of $200 million. Haruna was beheaded on 24 January, and Kenji on 31 January 2015.
It was claimed in August 2014 that ISIS held more than 20 hostages. Many hostage families chose not to reveal their relatives’ names in order to avoid drawing attention to them and compromising their safety. All or nearly all of the Europeans were ransomed by their countries. However, laws in the US and the UK prohibit payment of ransoms.
Cantlie is a British citizen held hostage who has appeared in a series of ISIS videos. He was kidnapped along with American James Foley on 22 November 2012.
Analysis of videos
Officially the FBI and United States National Security Council confirmed that the James Foley video, which ended with footage of a beheaded corpse, is genuine. David Cameron and the British Foreign Office also confirmed the authenticity of the video showing the death of David Haines.
The videos were produced and distributed by Al Hayat Media Center, a media outlet of ISIS that is under the authority of the ISIS’s official propaganda arm, the Al-Itisam Establishment for Media Production, that targets specifically Western and non-Arabic speaking audiences.
An unnamed forensics expert commissioned by The Times to look at the James Foley video said “I think it has been staged. My feeling is that the murder may have happened after the camera was stopped.” The Times concluded that “No one is questioning that the photojournalist James Foley was beheaded, but camera trickery and slick post-production techniques appear to have been used.” Two unnamed video specialists in the International Business Times of Australia claimed that portions of the video appeared to be staged and edited. Dr. James Alvarez, a British-American hostage negotiator, also claimed the James Foley video was “expertly staged”, with the use of two separate cameras and a clip-on microphone attached to Foley’s orange jumpsuit. Jeff Smith, Associate Director of the CU Denver National Center for Media Forensics said “What’s most interesting is that the actual beheading that takes place in the videos, both of them are staged.”
British analyst Eliot Higgins (Brown Moses) published photographic and video forensic evidence suggesting that the James Foley video was taken at a spot in the hills south of the Syrian city of Raqqa.
Identification and manhunt
Search for identity and early speculation
Jihadi John became the subject of a manhunt by the FBI, MI5, and Scotland Yard. In his videos, Jihadi John concealed his identity by covering himself from head to toe in black, except for tan desert boots, with a mask that left only his eyes visible. Despite this, several facts about Jihadi John could be ascertained from both videos. He spoke with a “Multicultural London English” accent and appeared to have a skin tone consistent with African or South Asian descent. In both videos, he was seen to sport a pistol in a leather shoulder holster under his left shoulder, typical of right-handed people, but his actions in the videos suggest he is left-handed.
Other factors that could have led to his identification were his height, general physique, the pattern of veins on the back of his hands, his voice and clothes. A team of analysts might use the topography of the landscape in the video in an attempt to identify the location. On 24 August 2014, the British Ambassador to the United States, Sir Peter Westmacott, said that Britain was very close to identifying Jihadi John using sophisticated voice recognition technology, but when pressed, refused to disclose any other details.
On 20 September 2014, the United States Senate approved a $10 million reward for information that led to the capture of anyone involved in the murders of James Foley, Steven Sotloff and David Cawthorne Haines, which includes Jihadi John. On November 20, the bill, extending the potential scope of the reward program to any American kidnapped and murdered by a “foreign terrorist organization” and limiting the reward to a maximum of $5 million, was referred to the United States House Committee on Foreign Affairs.
On 14 September British Prime Minister David Cameron confirmed that Jihadi John’s identity was known but had yet to be revealed.
On 25 September, FBI Director James Comey told reporters that they had identified the suspect, but did not give information regarding the man’s identity or nationality. “I believe that we have identified him. I’m not going to tell you who I believe it is,” Comey stated. Michael Ryan, an author and scholar from the Middle East Institute speculated “Maybe 98 percent of 95 percent sure is not sure enough to put a man’s name out.”
In August 2014, The Sunday Times reported that Abdel-Majed Abdel Bary (“L Jinny”), 23, a hip-hop musician from West London had “emerged as a key suspect” in the investigation. Other sources also stated that Abu Hussain Al-Britani, 20, a computer hacker from Birmingham and Abu Abdullah al-Britani, in his 20s from Portsmouth, were suspects.
On 26 February 2015, The Washington Post identified the perpetrator as Mohammed Emwazi, a British man in his mid-20s who was born in Kuwait and grew up in west London. The Washington Post investigation was undertaken by Souad Mekhennet and Alan Goldman.
Emwazi was born to Iraqi parents who moved to neighboring Kuwait from Iraq. When the Kuwaiti government rejected their application for citizenship, in 1994 they moved to Iraq and then on to Britain. According to his student card from the University of Westminster, Emwazi was born on 17 August 1988.
Scotland Yard and 10 Downing Street declined to comment on the reports. The Counter Terrorism Command of the Metropolitan Police Service released a statement saying: “We are not going to confirm the identity of anyone at this stage or give an update on the progress of this live counter-terrorism investigation.” The security services in the US and UK are believed to have known the identity of Jihadi John since September 2014, but have not revealed the name for operational security reasons.
In an interview with The Washington Post, one of Emwazi’s close friends said: “I have no doubt that Mohammed is Jihadi John. He was like a brother to me. … I am sure it is him.” Asim Qureshi, research director at the advocacy group CAGE, who had been in contact with Emwazi before he left for Syria, also identified the man in the videos as Emwazi, stating: “There was an extremely strong resemblance. This is making me feel fairly certain that this is the same person.” U.S. officials declined to comment for the Washington Post report, and Emwazi’s family declined a request for an interview. Qureshi said that Emwazi was “extremely kind, gentle and soft-spoken, the most humble young person I knew”.
The BBC stated that Emwazi is believed to be “an associate of a former UK control order suspect … who travelled to Somalia in 2006 and is allegedly linked to a facilitation and funding network for Somali militant group al-Shabab.” He reportedly prayed on occasion at a mosque in Greenwich. He graduated with a computer science degree from the University of Westminster. His final address in the UK before he went abroad was in the Queen’s Park area of north-west London.
The Post reported interviews with Emwazi’s friends indicating that Emwazi was radicalized after a planned safari to Tanzania following his graduation. According to the interviews, Emwazi and two friends, a German convert to Islam named Omar and another man, Abu Talib, never made the safari. Rather, upon landing in Dar es Salaam in May 2009, the three were detained, held overnight by police, and eventually deported. In May 2010, The Independent reported on the episode, identifying Emwazi as Muhammad ibn Muazzam. According to e-mails sent by Emwazi to Qureshi and that were provided to the Post, after leaving Tanzania, Emwazi flew to Amsterdam, where he claimed that an MI5 officer accused him of attempting to go to Somalia, where al-Shabab operates. Emwazi denied attempting to reach Somalia, but a former hostage told the Post that “Jihadi John was obsessed with Somalia” and forced captives to watch videos about al-Shabab. Tanzanian officials have denied that they detained and deported Emwazi at the request of MI5, saying instead that he had been refused entry for being drunk and abusive.
Later, Emwazi and his friends were permitted to return to Britain, where Emwazi met with Qureshi in late 2009. The Post quoted Qureshi as saying that Emwazi was “incensed” at the way he had been treated. Emwazi moved to Kuwait shortly afterward, where (according to emails he wrote to Qureshi), he worked for a computer company. Emwazi returned to London twice, however, and, on the second visit, he made plans to wed a woman in Kuwait.
In June 2010, Emwazi was detained by counter-terrorism officials in Britain, who searched and fingerprinted him, and blocked him from returning to Kuwait. In an email four months later to Qureshi, Emwazi expressed sympathy for Aafia Siddiqui, an al-Qaeda operative who had just been sentenced in U.S. federal court for assault and attempted murder. Qureshi said he last heard from Emwazi when Emwazi sought advice from him in January 2012. Close friends of Emwazi interviewed by the Post said that he was “desperate to leave the country” and one friend stated that Emwazi unsuccessfully tried to travel to Saudi Arabia to teach English in 2012. Sometime after January 2012, Emwazi traveled to Syria, where he apparently contacted his family and at least one of his friends.
In March 2015, following media reports that his mother had recognised Jihadi John’s voice as her son’s, his father denied that this had happened or that Emwazi was Jihadi John.
Barack Obama condemned the actions of Jihadi John and vowed punishment for all the militants responsible behind the videotaped beheadings. Secretary of State John Kerry also called Jihadi John a “coward behind a mask” and, echoing Obama, stated that all those responsible would be held accountable by the United States. British officials have also reiterated their commitment to capturing Jihadi John. Admiral Alan West, a former UK Minister for Security and Counter-terrorism, said that he is a “dead man walking” who will be “hunted down” like Osama bin Laden. David Cameron also stated that he was absolutely certain that Jihadi John would “one way or another, face justice”, he also condemned the actions. UK Justice Secretary Chris Grayling, and Secretary General of Interpol Ronald Noble also stated that Jihadi John should be brought to justice.
Reacting to the naming of Emwazi by the media, a spokesman for the family of Steven Sotloff told the BBC that they wanted to see him behind bars. Bethany Haines, widow of David, said “It’s a good step but I think all the families will feel closure and relief once there’s a bullet between his eyes.”
Lord Carlisle, a former independent reviewer of UK anti-terror laws, said, “Had control orders been in place, in my view there is a realistic prospect that Mohammed Emwazi, and at least two of his associates, would have been the subject of control orders with a compulsory relocation.”
In reaction to the revelation, Emwazi’s father, Jassem, has said that he is ashamed of his son. Previously, when he learned from his son that he was going to Syria “for jihad”, Jassem had told him that he hoped he would be killed. But the day after the naming he issued a statement denying that his son was Jihadi John. An unidentified cousin issued a statement which said, “We hate him. We hope he will be killed soon. This will be good news for our family.”
On 8 March 2015, according to The Sunday Times, Emwazi apologised to his family for “problems and trouble the revelation of his identity has caused” them. The message was conveyed via an unspecified third party.