The world knows him as “Jihadi John,” the masked man with a British accent who has beheaded several hostages held by the Islamic State and who taunts audiences in videos circulated widely online.
But his real name, according to friends and others familiar with his case, is Mohammed Emwazi, a Briton from a well-to-do family who grew up in West London and graduated from college with a degree in computer programming. He is believed to have traveled to Syria around 2012 and to have later joined the Islamic State, the group whose barbarity he has come to symbolize.
“I have no doubt that Mohammed is Jihadi John,” said one of Emwazi’s close friends who identified him in an interview with The Washington Post. “He was like a brother to me. . . . I am sure it is him.”
A representative of a British human rights group who had been in contact with Emwazi before he left for Syria also said he believed Emwazi was Jihadi John, a moniker given to him by some of the hostages he once held.
“There was an extremely strong resemblance,” Asim Qureshi, research director at the rights group, CAGE, said when shown one of the videos and asked to confirm whether Emwazi could be “Jihadi John.”
“This is making me feel fairly certain that this is the same person,” Qureshi added.
Authorities have used a variety of investigative techniques, including voice analysis and interviews with former hostages, to try to identify Jihadi John. James B. Comey, the director of the FBI, said in September — only a month after the Briton was seen in a video killing American journalist James Foley — that officials believed they had succeeded.
Nevertheless, the identity of Jihadi John has remained shrouded in secrecy. Since Foley’s killing, he has appeared in a series of videos documenting the gruesome killings of other hostages, including four other Westerners, some of whom he personally beheaded. In each, he is dressed in all black, a balaclava covering all but his eyes and the ridge of his nose. He wears a holster under his left arm.
- August 19 2014: Video in which US journalist James Foley is beheaded
- September 2 2014: Video in which US journalist Steve Sotloff is beheaded
- September 13 2014: Video in which British aid worker David Haines is beheaded
- October 3 2014: Video in which British aid worker Alan Henning is beheaded
- November 16 2014: Video in which Jihadi John is shown killing Syrian soldier in a mass beheading, which also shows the head of former US Army Ranger-turned-aid worker Peter Kassig
- January 20 2015: Video in which Jihadi John is seen standing alongside two Japanese hostages and demanding a ransom in exchange for their release
- January 31 2015: Video in which Japanese journalist Kenji Goto is beheaded
The Kuwaiti-born Emwazi, in his mid-20s, appears to have left little trail on social media or elsewhere online. Those who knew him say he was polite and had a penchant for wearing stylish clothes while adhering to the tenets of his Islamic faith. He had a beard and was mindful of making eye contact with women, friends said.
He was raised in a middle-class neighborhood in London and on occasion prayed at a mosque in Greenwich.
London flat that is reportedly the former home of Mohammed Emwazi
The friends, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the investigation, believe that Emwazi started to radicalize after a planned safari in Tanzania following his graduation from the University of Westminster.
Emwazi and two friends — a German convert to Islam named Omar and another man, Abu Talib — never made it on the trip. Once they landed in Dar es Salaam, in May 2009, they were detained by police and held overnight. It’s unclear whether the reason for the detention was made clear to the three, but they were eventually deported.
Emwazi flew to Amsterdam, where he claimed that an officer from MI5, Britain’s domestic security agency, accused him of trying to reach Somalia, where the militant group al-Shabaab operates in the southern part of the country, according to e-mails that he sent to Qureshi and that were provided to The Post.
Emwazi denied the accusation and claimed that MI5 representatives had tried to recruit him. But a former hostage said Jihadi John was obsessed with Somalia and made his captives watch videos about al-Shabaab, which is allied with al-Qaeda.
The episode was described in the Independent, a British newspaper, which identified Emwazi as Muhammad ibn Muazzam.
Emwazi and his friends were allowed to return to Britain, where he met with Qureshi in the fall of 2009 to discuss what had happened. “Mohammed was quite incensed by his treatment, that he had been very unfairly treated,” Qureshi said.
Shortly afterward, Emwazi decided to move to his birthplace, Kuwait, where he landed a job working for a computer company, according to the e-mails he wrote to Qureshi. He came back to London twice, the second time to finalize his wedding plans to a woman in Kuwait.
In June 2010, however, counterterrorism officials in Britain detained him again — this time fingerprinting him and searching his belongings. When he tried to fly back to Kuwait the next day, he was prevented from doing so.
“I had a job waiting for me and marriage to get started,” he wrote in a June 2010 e-mail to Qureshi. But now “I feel like a prisoner, only not in a cage, in London. A person imprisoned & controlled by security service men, stopping me from living my new life in my birthplace & country, Kuwait.”
Court papers naming Emwazi from 2011 (via BBC)
Nearly four months later, when a court in New York sentenced Aafia Siddiqui, an al-Qaeda operative convicted for the attempted murder of U.S. personnel in Afghanistan, Emwazi expressed sympathy for her, saying he had “heard the upsetting news regarding our sister. . . . This should only keep us firmer towards fighting for freedom and justice!!!”
In the interview, Qureshi said he last heard from Emwazi in January 2012, when Emwazi sent him an e-mail seeking advice.
“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 said. In the end, he felt “actions were taken to criminalize him and he had no way to do something against these actions.”
Close friends of Emwazi’s also said his situation in London had made him desperate to leave the country. It’s unclear exactly when he reached Syria or how.
One friend said he believed Emwazi wanted to travel to Saudi Arabia to teach English in 2012 but was unsuccessful. Soon afterward, the friend said, he was gone.
“He was upset and wanted to start a life elsewhere,” one of the friends said. “He at some stage reached the point where he was really just trying to find another way to get out.”
Once in Syria, Emwazi contacted his family and at least one of his friends. It’s unclear what he told them about his activities there.
A former hostage who was debriefed by officials upon release said that Jihadi John was part of a team known as “The Beatles,” guarding Western captives at a prison in Idlib, Syria, in 2013. The hostages nicknamed the facility “the box.” Emwazi was joined by two other men with British accents, including one who was dubbed “George.” A former hostage said Emwazi participated in the waterboarding of four Western hostages.
Former hostages described George as the leader of the trio. Jihadi John, they said, was quiet and intelligent. “He was the most deliberate,” a former hostage said.
Beginning in early 2014, the hostages were moved to a prison in the Syrian city of Raqqa, the Islamic State’s de facto capital, where they were visited often by the trio. They appeared to have taken on more powerful roles within the Islamic State.
About the same time, Qureshi said, he sent an e-mail to Emwazi.
“I was wondering if you could send me your number,” he wrote. “Inshallah [God willing] it will be good to catch up.”
There was no response.
Emwazi’s identity was confirmed by a senior British security official, who said that the British government had identified Emwazi some time ago but had not disclosed his name for operational reasons. The identification was also confirmed in Washington by a senior United States military intelligence official.
The naming of Mohammed Emwazi as “Jihadi John” means it is not the previously suspected British-born rapper Abdel Bary, who had been named by non-government sources in October 2014. However, Bary is still a terrorist wanted internationally.
MailOnline has published the first unmasked photo of Emwazi as a child at St. Mary Magdalene Church of England primary school in west London.
Emwazi Emails Detail Holland Interrogation and Alleged MI5 Attempt to Recruit Him as Informant in 2009 (via CAGE):
“As soon we landed and came out of the plane 4 armed men were waiting for us. It was the Schiphol airport in Holland and the men were policemen. They took us three specifically, they checked our passports. They were waiting for three men and had our name cards. So we went with them at least we felt more comfortable with them. This was Europe much closer to home. So we trusted them with our passports and did not ask many questions. We just said if you want to make sure and double check, then do it. So they took us downstairs to the immigration floor. We were waiting downstairs and they had our passport doing all the checks. They called us one by one. A man came in who was the head of immigration in the airport.”
Then they were subjected to the first stage of actual interrogation. In Tanzania officers questioned them through the cell taking notes, but it was more informal questioning. It was in the airport that each was called individually to an interrogation room. His friend was first and then Emwazi was called:
“When my friend came back in the room Nick wanted to see me, so I went in. There was this main guy in immigration. Two other men were also in the room. One was Fernando and the other was Nick. He said to me, “Mohammed you have to enter this cell now and my colleagues Nick and Fernando are going to ask you some questions.” I said that what if I do not want to enter the cell. He said, “Well you are not under arrest to be honest”. Then Nick stood up and started saying that we will let you know, we will let you know just enter the cell. He spoke in a cockney accent as if he was from back home. So we entered the cell and all three of us sat down. He introduced himself and his colleague. He said this is Fernando from Dutch intelligence. I thought ok. And then he said I am Nick from MI5. When he said that I thought wow! I can’t believe it. Am I so special? First I got spotted down and now MI5. This is a major thing. He said to me, “Mohammed not many people get to speak to MI5 so consider yourself lucky.” Like this was a major joke. Then he asked me to introduce myself. I said, “My name is Mohammed. I live in west London. I have just finished my degree so we booked our holiday and came here.” He asked me to tell him about my holiday plan. He asked me to start off from the beginning as how we reached here and everything. As we told you early on that we booked the train from that to ferry and from ferry to the plane. So I told him everything. So he said ok and did exactly the same thing as he did to my friend, in that he took out a map. I remember the map was labelled as East Africa. It was only for those areas. So he took out the map, slammed it on the table and said ok tell me now where were you going.
So he pointed to the map and said ok this is Tanzania and tell me where you were going. I said, “no, this is east Africa and I pointed out towards Tanzania and said this is Tanzania and this is where I was going as my ticket says departure 22nd of May and return on the 21st of June. So he said where else did you want to go? I said to him, “well I have not bought any other ticket. This is the only ticket I booked. Do you know if I have booked any other ticket? This is the only ticket I have going to and coming back from Tanzania. That is it.” He said to me, “no, I think you are lying and you wanted to go to Somalia.” And I just looked at him and said, “why the hell would I want to go to Somalia, where a civil war is going on?” he asked me that how did I know that there is a civil war in Somalia. I asked him if he reads the news or not? Did he not have a TV at home? I said to him that I had a TV at home which tells me that there is a civil war in Somalia so why would I choose to go there? And then I said to him, “Nick my friend, look! In the map there is Tanzania and above that is Kenya and then above that is Somalia. How would I have crossed Kenya to go to Somalia? It is a totally different country.” He just got baffled and then he said that oh, you might have someone in Tanzania to take you over there. I asked him that who I would have there. I have no relation over there, I do not know anyone. I did not know anyone in Amsterdam either. I said to him that it was a holiday and you do not go to places for holiday where only you know people. Whatever you do, wherever you go it is all part of holiday and it stays there. That is how I felt. Then he said that at the end of the day they had been following us and watching us closely. I told him that it was news to me and I had no idea about it. He knew everything about me; where I lived, what I did, the people I hanged around with. He also believed that I was lying and I wanted to go to Somalia. Then he made a face and said, “I am going out of the cell now and by the time I come back, I want you to think about what do you want to say to us.” I said to him that before you go out you have to tell me that what you want from me. He said that he wanted the truth. I said, “Bloody hell! I just told you what was our plan and where were we going and you still think that I am lying. What do you want from us?” he pointed out his finger at me and said to me, “Don’t try to play smart and lie on my face. Don’t try to fool me. YOU WANTED TO GO TO SOMALIA.” I said to him that I have just shown you my ticket for going to Tanzania. Now the argument had started going back and forth, same thing again and again, like in a circle. He just wanted to force it out of my mouth that I intended to go to Somalia. But I stood firm and maintained that I had no reason to go to Somalia. I was in Tanzania, how could I force enter into Kenya? How could have we managed that. So eventually he said ok, go Mohammed. He wanted my phone number before letting me go. He said that he was going to keep in touch and call me regularly. He even said that he would try to visit me. But I refused and told him that I did not want him to pay me a visit. He again said that he was going to keep a check on me and keep a close track of all my activities. It was like a threat. Then I was let go and went back to the immigration office with my friends…”
But after Emwazi explained how he planned only to go on holiday with the logical points set out above, the MI5 agent drifted away from accusing him of terrorism. He moved to courting him to work for the MI5. Emwazi recalled exactly what was said to him:
“Listen Mohammed: You’ve got the whole world in front of you; you’re 21 years old; you just finished Uni – why don’t you work for us?”
All this was said in front of the Dutch Intelligence officer. He asked Emwazi to help them out, telling him that this was an opportunity for him – not a lot of people got to meet MI5.
Emwazi told them he would not work for them and that, being a normal person, there was nothing he could even help them with.
At this, the MI5 agent’s tone became much more disturbing. He began speaking of freedom and Emwazi responded:
“I’m free, if I’m not going to work with you it doesn’t mean I’m going to go to prison does it?”
While assuring him that he would not go to prison for this, he issued a threat letting him know:
“You’re going to have a lot of trouble …you’re going to be known…you’re going to be followed…life will be harder for you.”
The last thing Emwazi received from the agent was his number on a piece of paper and the words:
“We’ll see you in London mate.”
The other two friends went through a similar interrogation with the same questions and offer to work for them.
The three were made to then book their own tickets back to the UK and were taken to the ferry.
Two medics who met the Islamic State militant known as Jihadi John in Syria have described him as a quiet man hiding an adrenaline junkie streak and a “gung ho” attitude.
The British men were working at a hospital in Syria near the Turkish border when they came across the militant – named today as London man Mohammed Emwazi – as he visited friends who were injured and sick.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, the men told ITV News they had previously known of Emwazi in London but never met until they came across him separately during stints in the war-torn country in 2013, some months before he became known as Jihadi John for his role in a series of videos showing the killing of hostages.
The medics said at the time they met Emwazi in Syria, he was unmarried and was a fighter with the al Nusra Front. He later switched allegiance to Islamic State.
A man who wore full combat gear at all times, even in safe areas during the full heat of summer, he earned his high-ranking position through his aggressive behaviour.
He was, they said, a man with “nothing to lose”, and who was “always ready for war”.