Yesterday, the Islamic State (IS) released their thirteenth issue of Dabiq. Among many things, it contained an admission of death for Mohammed Emwazi (“Jihadi John”). Referred to by his kunya, Abu Muharib al-Muhajir, Dabiq said Emwazi had been hit by an “unmanned drone in the city of ar-Raqqah” on November 12, “destroying the car and killing him instantly.” The biography that Dabiq offered gave some intriguing details, confirming some surmises I had made about Emwazi when his identity was revealed last spring, including his early involvement in an al-Qaeda network in London sending fighters to al-Shabab in Somalia—the thing that brought him to the attention of the security services, confirming that the truth was the inverse of CAGE’s infamous claim that harassment by the MI5 had radicalized Emwazi—and that Emwazi had left Britain to do jihad in Syria in the company of another British citizen. Emwazi was also in the thick of it when IS broke from al-Qaeda and offers an interesting and rare example of a European IS fighter entrusted with an internal security role for the caliphate.
Path to Radicalism
Emwazi was born on August 17, 1988, and was moved to Britain in 1994. After several moves, Emwazi’s last address was on the Mozart estate in Queen’s Park at the outskirts of Westminster, central London. Emwazi attended Quintin Kynaston academy in the north-west of the city, before attending Westminster University between September 2006 and September 2009, studying Information Systems with Business Management.
It has been reported that Emwazi’s family were Bidoon from Kuwait, descendants of tribes from southern Iraq who are stateless within Kuwait, and that Emwazi’s father was a Kuwaiti policemen who had likely been forced out of his job after Saddam Hussein’s annexation of Kuwait was reversed, at which point anybody with an Iraqi connection was under suspicion. Dabiq says “Abu Muharib” was “originally from the northeast of the Arabian Peninsula, while his mother originated from Yemen.” The rest of the profile of “Abu Muharib” matches too closely to Emwazi’s, however, for it not to be him, so the reason for this discrepancy is unclear, though potentially interesting.
The Telegraph reported that Emwazi was radicalized in Kuwait in 2007 by Khalid ad-Dossary, a Saudi national now in U.S. prison for terrorism, and Muhsin al-Fadhli, a senior al-Qaeda member, who was then facilitating resources to ISIS’s predecessor and who has since then returned to the Iran-based al-Qaeda network and joined the “Khorasan Group” in Syria, where he was allegedly killed in July. Most interestingly, this duo converted Emwazi from Shi’ism before instructing him in radical Sunnism, according to The Telegraph. (It is said al-Fadhli was also a Shi’a in origin.) “Associates recall [Emwazi] wearing a necklace with the symbol of a sword, strongly suggesting his loyalty to Shiism,” The Telegraph reported. The Bidoon originate in southern Iraq, the Shi’a stronghold in the country; “northeast” Arabia likely falls within the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, where most of the much-repressed Saudi Shi’ites reside. Thus it is conceivable that Emwazi began as a Shi’a.
Whether or not Emwazi was first radicalized in Kuwait, I have previously noted that he was radicalized around 2007, as court documentation shows, an important fact that takes an axe to the root of the contention by CAGE (formerly Cageprisoners) that it was harassment by the British security services that drove Emwazi to extremism. To the contrary, when Emwazi was detained in Tanzania in May 2009 as he ostensibly went on “safari,” it was for being drunk and disorderly (i.e. was not ordered by the British government) and he was already within al-Qaeda’s London network and trying to join al-Qaeda in an active jihad theatre—the “safari” gambit for joining al-Shabab being a well-worn one. It is also instructive that Emwazi was travelling with Ali Adorus, a Londoner who’s in prison in Ethiopia for terrorism, and Marcel Shrodl, a German national who has ostensibly forsworn radicalism but who remains of interest to German authorities, not least for his ties to Denis Cuspert (“Deso Dogg”), an important IS propagandist and a designated terrorist.
Emwazi was involved in the Berjawi network, named for Bilal el-Berjawi, a Brit of Lebanese extraction who was an al-Qaeda recruiter, sending young men to Somalia, where he was killed in January 2012 in a drone strike. Also in the Berjawi network (a.k.a. “The London Boys”) was Mohamed Sakr, a childhood friend of Emwazi’s, who was also struck down by a U.S. drone in Mogadishu, in February 2012. Sakr was an exact contemporary of Emwazi’s at high school, and both of them were close to Choukri Ellekhlifi, who was two years younger, a Briton of Moroccan descent, who had committed a series of robberies with a stun gun in Belgravia and skipped bail in August 2012 to Syria, being killed fighting for al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch, Jabhat an-Nusra, on August 11, 2013.
Around the time of the blessed raids that rocked London and its transport system in “2005” … Abu Muharib began to embark upon the path of hijrah and jihad. He would busy his days with jihad-related work together with his brothers in creed, including Bilal al-Barjawi and Muhammad Saqr … None of this went unnoticed by MI5 (British intelligence), which started vigorously targeting Abu Muharib and those with him.
Dabiq thus places Emwazi’s terrorist activity even further back than where the bulk of the currently-available evidence points (around 2007). There is one intriguing hint that Dabiq is telling the truth: Emwazi seems to have had some connection to the follow-on, July 21, 2005, attacks, being part of the same cell of terrorists as a man Britain is still fighting to deport for his suspected role in that failed attack.
Another interesting incident in Emwazi’s profile—if only to show the circles he was moving in—is a protest he attended on September 11, 2009, outside Harrow Central Mosque in north London. About 1,500 people attended the rally, one of whom was Michael Adebolajo, one of the murderers of Lee Rigby—and somebody else who had been in contact with CAGE, as had Berjawi. While the rally was ostensibly against the English Defence League, Emwazi waved al-Qaeda’s Black Standard and Adebalajo made a speech saying, “Do not be scared of these filthy kuffar. They are pigs. Allah says they are worse than cattle.” The crowd didn’t seem to mind. Emwazi and Adebolajo also seem to have prayed at the same mosque, the Greenwich Islamic Centre. Whether Emwazi interacted with Adebolajo is simply unknown.
Emwazi had left Britain for Kuwait in late September 2009, according to the CAGE profile of him. In February 2010, Emwazi was hired by an IT firm for a three-month probation period. Emwazi’s former boss says, “He was the best employee we ever had.” In May 2010, Emwazi returns to Britain and was prevented from leaving on June 2, 2010, being detained at Heathrow because the security services knew what he was. Emwazi wrote to CAGE in June 2010 complaining that he had a wife and job in Kuwait that Britain was cruelly stopped him returning to. “I feel like a prisoner, only not in a cage, in London. A person in-prisoned [sic] & controlled by security service men, stopping me from living my new life,” Emwazi wrote to CAGE, ostensibly referring to a “new life” in Kuwait. CAGE said this pushed him down the path of jihadism. But the language of feeling imprisoned away when being kept away from a jihadi theatre is common. Moreover, Dabiq says that CAGE’s version of events is flatly false:
Despite the efforts of MI5, Abu Muharib never ceased in his struggle to make hijrah for the sake of Allah. On his last attempt to leave the UK for his homeland of Kuwait, Abu Muharib was stopped at the airport and kept for questioning by MI5, the result of which was their refusal to allow him to travel. During the interrogation, Abu Muharib would present himself as unintelligent, as was his method when dealing with intelligence agencies.
Emwazi was no drifter; he was a stern ideologue and had been for a long time. Dabiq‘s lachrymose portrayal of Emwazi’s assistance to the families of suicide bombers to one side, Dabiq notes Emwazi’s “harshness towards the kuffar,” which made him an easy choice for the beheading videos.
Little is known of Emwazi’s life in 2011 and 2012. Emwazi met with the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) on July 24, 2010, to complain about his being held at Heathrow. Emwazi never filed the recommended formal complaint. Emwazi contacted The Daily Mail‘s Robert Verkaik in December 2010 and January 2011, trying to sell his story of State repression, which went nowhere, not least because Verkaik found Emwazi intensely paranoid. Verkaik seems to have been on to something: Emwazi claimed in December 2010 that the intelligence agencies were intimidating him by, inter alia, posing as the buyer of his laptop.
Piecing things together I had surmised that the reports that Emwazi had left Britain in 2013 were wrong and that he had left earlier, likely with Ellekhlifi. It is known that most foreign fighters joining IS in the last decade have “arrived with a group from their hometown,” and in Emwazi’s specific case there is clear evidence of opportunity for somebody who, as Dabiq puts it, “never ceased in his struggle to make hijrah”. With the Olympics (July 27-August 12, 2012), the security resources were redistributed away from “peripherals”—surveillance operations like those enacted on Emwazi and his network—and toward keeping the games safe. Ellekhlifi, who had been arrested on August 2, 2012 and shortly thereafter bailed, certainly slipped through this loophole, and further investigation of Emwazi strongly suggests he did, too.
Dabiq‘s reference to Emwazi leaving for Syria with Ellekhlifi in August 2012 is not quite as clear as the reference to Emwazi’s involvement in the Berjawi network prior to Emwazi’s encounter with law-enforcement, but it is relatively convincing:
Right under the nose of the much-overrated MI5 …, Abu Muharib together with his companion in hijrah carefully and secretly made their departure … Abu Muharib with his companion embarked on a long and strenuous journey that totaled approximately two months and involved … being detained by the authorities of various nations on at least two occasions. … Through their persistence and perseverance, Allah granted them safe deliverance into Sham in the latter part of “2012.”
That at least answers the timing question—Emwazi was in Syria by October 2012—and if Emwazi’s “companion in hijrah” was not Ellekhlifi, it would be interesting to know who it was.
From al-Qaeda to the Islamic State
Dabiq also seems to confirm my suspicions about how Emwazi moved from Jabhat an-Nusra, which he joined immediately on entering Syria, to IS. Emwazi was “among the very first to declare his disavowal of” Nusra’s leader Abu Muhammad al-Jolani, after the fitna erupted in 2013, says Dabiq, and was “injured within the first week of the Sahwah,” the Syrian rebel offensive against IS beginning January 3, 2014, shot in the back in Hraytan, west of Aleppo. Emwazi’s early defection to IS and his being based in Hraytan are significant and related.
When Emwazi entered Syria, he joined the group led by Tarkhan Batirashvili (Abu Omar a-Shishani), Katibat al-Muhajireen, an ostensible Nusra faction, headquartered in Hraytan, which in March 2013 combined with two other jihadi-Salafist groups to become Jaysh al-Muhajireen wa-Ansar (JMA) under Batirashvili’s leadership. By that time, Batirashvili had secretly been recruited by Samir al-Khlifawi (Haji Bakr), Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s deputy, who was responsible for IS’s expansion into Syria. Batirashvili had given his allegiance directly to al-Baghdadi rather than ultimately to al-Baghdadi via al-Jolani.
Al-Baghdadi had grown alarmed at Nusra’s independence and sought to have al-Jolani issue a public statement of subordination. Al-Jolani intervening, in late 2012, to stop Taha Subhi Falaha (Abu Muhammad al-Adnani), IS’s powerful spokesman, from organizing a terrorist attack against ETILAF in Turkey convinced al-Baghdadi he had totally lost control. Al-Khlifawi was dispatched back into Syria in December 2012 (he had been there in late 2010) to try to persuade al-Jolani to come to heel, but also to take steps to try to force al-Jolani’s hand. Al-Khlifawi’s key weapon was a “track two,” of men and groups like Batirashvili’s who were nominally Nusra but secretly loyal to then-ISI. This was a skill no doubt learned when al-Khlifawi was a senior intelligence officer in the Saddam regime, which had multiple lines of authority between the various security departments to ensure that they kept each other loyal to the dictator.
The central component of al-Khlifawi’s track two was the Aleppo-based extended family of Amr al-Absi, better known as Abu Atheer al-Absi, a senior IS leader to this day. It was Atheer that the caliph first met when he personally entered Syria in March 2013 and began trying to woo individual Nusra commanders away from al-Jolani. When al-Baghdadi attempted a hostile takeover of Nusra in April 2013, Atheer was the first to defect. Batirashvili hesitated, but al-Khlifawi let it be known—having failed with religious persuasion—that if Batirashvili did not publicly swear his allegiance to then-ISIS, al-Khlifawi would have him killed. Atheer’s presence in Kafr Hamra, directly adjacent to Hraytan, helped reinforce al-Khlifawi’s message. Batirashvili became ISIS’s northern emir in May 2013, a de facto statement of loyalty, and made this de jure in November 2013 by making his baya public and breaking with JMA, which had until then had an ambiguous position in the ISIS-Qaeda fight, taking with him a portion of JMA’s fighters—including Emwazi.
Confirming that Emwazi was in Syria in late 2012 has further implications. CAGE’s Moazzam Begg visited Syria between October 2012 and April 2013 and met with Batirashvili and Rabah Tahari, a British jihadi-Salafist who led the Qaeda-linked Kateeba al-Kawthar, at their terrorist training camp. Emwazi’s schedule means that Begg was in the same camp, at the same time as Emwazi.
Finding a Place in ad-Dawla
Dabiq claims that Emwazi participated in the offensive against Taftanaz (in January 2013), the attack on Saraqib (July/August 2013), the takeover of Division 17’s base in ar-Raqqa (in July 2014), and “many other battlefronts.” For most IS foreign fighters, especially Europeans, this could be dismissed as fabrication. At best the European IS fighters are tactically useful as suicide bombs or shock troops, proving Stalin’s dictum about quantity having a quality all its own; at worst the Europeans turn up with their families and live simultaneously as wards of the caliphate’s welfare system and colonizers of Syrian land. But there are a few IS foreign fighters who break the mould.
Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the director of the Paris attacks, was one muhajireen who managed to combine an extensive foreign rolodex with actual military skill, becoming a competent military emir in Deir Ezzor. Emwazi seems to be another. Not only was Emwazi “reported to be in Idlib [in 2013], assisting in guarding Western hostages,” which is not likely to be a job handed out to just anybody, especially so soon after arrival, but an IS defector revealed that Emwazi was part of Amn ad-Dawla, the internal “State Security” that liquidates dissidents, supervises the population and their communications, and most importantly does IS’s counter-intelligence, eradicating spies within the group and the territory it holds.
In August 2014, Emwazi appeared in the first of seven videos that ensure he will live in infamy: Emwazi was the murderer in the video-beheading of American journalist James Foley. Emwazi was then the “executioner” in the taped slaughter of American journalist Steven Sotloff, British aid workers David Haines and Alan Henning, American aid worker Abdul-Rahman (Peter) Kassig, Japanese adventurer Haruna Yukawa, and Japanese journalist Kenji Goto.
The United States-led Coalition finally caught up with Emwazi on November 12, 2015. Whether the reported intelligence sources that led to Emwazi were linked to the seeming intelligence successes that helped the U.S. eliminate the head of the crucial IS Military Council Fadel al-Hiyali and the British IS recruiter Junaid Hussain in August or not is unclear. In either event, it was a “clean hit” in ar-Raqqa City, said a U.S. official, meaning that no innocent bystanders were killed in the drone strike that basically “evaporated” Emwazi.
For all the effort Britain put into tracking down Emwazi and for all of Emwazi’s importance in combining a propaganda role with real military/security responsibility, the destruction of Emwazi is mostly a symbolic victory—he will be easily enough replaced, indeed might already have been. Last December saw the emergence of Anatoly Zemlyanka (“Jihadi Tolik”) for a Russian-speaking audience and earlier this month another British-accented, English-speaker fronted an IS snuff film. IS is a highly developed bureaucracy where the individual is expendable—it is a totalitarian movement, after all. Still, Emwazi’s path to IS and his role in the organization is an intriguing one, shredding some myths about radicalization and the reputation of CAGE along the way, passing through the contentious beginning of open hostilities between IS and al-Qaeda and the secret intrigue of Samir al-Khlifawi as he moved to set up IS’s statelet in Syria, and surely to be remembered as one of the classic case-studies in propaganda in the twenty-first century.
UPDATE: The opening article in IS’s weekly newsletter, al-Naba (The News), on January 26, 2016 (it goes online on a Tuesday, after the paper edition is out on a Saturday), was a long article on Mohammed Emwazi, including these pictures: