The outreach director of CAGE (formerly Cageprisoners), Moazzam Begg, went to Syria between October 2012 and April 2013. Begg was arrested in Britain on Feb. 25, 2014, on terrorism-related charges because while in Syria, Begg attended a terrorist training camp. Begg was held in Belmarsh until Oct. 1, 2014. Begg had been due to begin trial on Oct. 5, 2014, but that trial was abandoned because of new evidence that meant there was “no longer a realistic prospect of gaining a conviction,” and Begg was released.
Begg is on record as having said that he “help[ed] to run a training camp in the countryside near Idlib … where opponents of the [Assad] regime could undergo physical exercise and acquire the rudiments of first aid and military training, with fake wooden guns.” There is certainly an ambiguity here: the only real defensive policy for Syria’s civilians is one that overthrows Assad, so Begg’s claim that what he did “was not an act of terrorism, but an attempt to help people defend themselves,” is not, on its face, ridiculous. Begg’s problem is that this was not a camp for Syrians; the camp he “help[ed] to run” was for foreign al-Qaeda members, who have done immense damage to the anti-Assad cause, associating it with fanaticism and atrocity and warding off necessary international support that could have toppled the dictator.
On March 15, The Mail on Sunday reported: “Official sources have confirmed … the existence of a photograph” from December 2012 where Begg is sitting around a table with Tarkhan Batirashvili (Abu Omar a-Shishani), the gruesome Islamic State (ISIS) commander, who was at that time the leader of Katibat al-Muhajireen (KaM), and a British Salafi-jihadist Rabah Tahari of the Qaeda-linked Kateeba al-Kawthar, which had fighters from twenty nations among its number. “The photograph was never produced in court and its existence has not been acknowledged until now,” The Mail on Sunday notes. This is in itself important and underlines the kind of associates Begg keeps.
Another fact The Mail on Sunday brings to light is that Begg bought a Honda electricity generator for Gerrie Tahari, the wife of Rabah. Not incriminating in itself, but suggestive: al-Qaeda is known to care for the families of its fighters.
The important new question raised by The Mail on Sunday story is whether, during his time in Syria, Begg met with and/or trained Mohammed Emwazi (“Jihadi John”).
The Mail on Sunday shows a two-minute video of a masked man ranting in Arabic to a crowd of Salafi-jihadists, at a camp in northern Syria, and says it is Emwazi. The video announces the formation of Jaysh al-Muhajireen wa-Ansar (JMA), so it must be from early 2013. JMA was formed from a merger of KaM, created in northern Latakia in mid-2012, mostly by Libyans, but which had come under the leadership of Chechens, Jaysh al-Muhammad, and Kataeb Khattab. JMA’s members gave baya to Shishani.
“Emwazi’s training at KaM in late 2012 and early 2013 suggests an overlap with Mr Begg’s travels in northern Syria at the same time,” The Mail on Sunday says. This is a subject of some controversy. There is little difficulty in believing that the terrorist training camp Begg attended is the same as the one Emwazi attended; the question is one of timing.
Emwazi’s family only reported him missing in August 2013, saying he had disappeared a few weeks before that in July 2013. But the Washington Post’s Feb. 26 story, revealing that Emwazi was “Jihadi John,” said that that Emwazi “is believed to have traveled to Syria around 2012“. A CBS report from Feb. 27 also said Emwazi had gone to Syria in 2012.
A Times report in early March said that Emwazi left Britain in “early 2013” by slipping onto the back of a lorry to get to France on the Channel ferry, then into Syria via Turkey. By this report, British intelligence abandoned tracking so-called “peripherals” in favour of tracking those believed to be plotting internal attacks because of the 2012 Olympic Games in London (July 27-August 12), and this created a “hangover” that extended into 2013 that Emwazi exploited.
If either the Post or the Times is correct, then it does indeed present a suggestive overlap between Emwazi’s location and Begg’s.
If Emwazi went to Syria in the second half of 2012 or the early months of 2013, it would tally more closely with the timelines of the known British Salafi-jihadists in Emwazi’s London network. The Mail on Sunday describes as “friends” of Emwazi’s Ibrahim Mazwagi, Mohammed el-Araj, and Choukri Ellekhlifi—all of them “upwardly mobile …, well educated” Brits killed in Syria in 2013 fighting for al-Qaeda.
Mazwagi, who had fought with the Libyan rebellion in 2011, went to Syria in August 2012, and was the first British Salafi-jihadist killed in Syria in February 2013.
Araj was arrested and imprisoned for 18 months after a violent “protest” outside Israel’s London Embassy in January 2009. Also arrested with Araj were Mohammed Sakr, a friend of Emwazi’s since childhood, and Walla Eldin Abdel Rahman, both of whom were part of “The London Boys” network (a.k.a. Berjawi network, named for one of its leaders, Bilal al-Berjawi) with Emwazi, and both of whom joined al-Shabab in Somalia in late 2009. Sakr was killed by an American drone strike in February 2012, and Araj was killed in Syria in mid-August 2013.
Ellekhlifi is, however, the one to watch. As I explained in a previous post:
Another friend of Emwazi’s from Quintin Kynaston [high school] was Choukri Ellekhlifi, two years younger than Emwazi and Sakr, who had been a part of Berjawi’s network … Ellekhlifi (a.k.a. Abu Hujama) … had been arrested with two other men … in August 2012 for a string of brutal robberies in Belgravia using a stun gun. Astonishingly, they were released on bail, ‘and it appears that at this point Ellekhlifi fled the country and traveled to Syria’. … Ellekhlifi was killed on Aug. 11, 2013, in Syria fighting for [al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch, Jabhat an-Nusra].
The exact date Ellekhlifi left Britain for Syria is unknown, but this time-frame, between late summer 2012 and early 2013, and Ellekhlifi’s close friendship with Emwazi, is too coincidental to overlook. It would make much more sense if Emwazi left Britain with Ellekhlifi in this period, rather than later and alone in the summer of 2013.
[Update: An investigation by The Telegraph in November 2015 concluded that my surmise was correct: Emwazi left Britain in August 2012. And on January 19, 2016, ISIS itself confirmed that Emwazi was in Syria by the “latter part” of 2012, having departed Britain with a “companion in hijrah (emigration)”. It would be very surprising, on the known facts, if this companion was not Ellekhlifi.]
(Tangentially, Emwazi’s being part of JMA also answers when he moved from al-Qaeda to ISIS. In May 2013, Shishani gave baya to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and was appointed ISIS’ northern emir, but the major JMA split happened in November 2013, when Shishani tried to have JMA fighters give their baya to Baghdadi, and many refused, having previously given their allegiance to al-Qaeda’s Caucasus Emirate. Shishani left with a portion of JMA’s fighters, presumed to include Emwazi, and went under the ISIS banner. JMA continued as the Syrian branch of the Caucasus Emirate, and merged into Jabhat Ansar ad-Din in July 2014 with the other major independent Salafi-jihadist groups.)
CAGE’s answer to the questions raised has been to say that the “last contact we had with Mr. Emwazi was in 2012 over email.” The emails CAGE has released show the last email Emwazi responded to in January 2012, but they also show CAGE’s public spokesman Asim Qureshi emailing Emwazi in January 2014, asking Emwazi to get in contact because “a matter that has come up for me.” It would be interesting to know what that matter was.
Qureshi says he only made the connection between “Jihadi John” and Emwazi after being questioned by the Washington Post a few days before his disastrous press conference in February trying to explain-away CAGE’s connections with Emwazi. Emwazi’s first appearance as “Jihad John” was in August 2014 when he beheaded James Foley, so Qureshi can’t have made that connection in January 2014. But did Qureshi know Emwazi was on jihad in Syria, and realise the possible PR problems this could cause CAGE, because Begg had met Emwazi at an al-Qaeda camp? Begg’s lawyers say “no”: “Mr. Begg at no time ever met Mohammed Emwazi; he knew nothing of his existence in Syria”. It might even be true. But if it is true it still leaves the question of why Qureshi tried to get back in touch with Emwazi after two years of silence.