The Life Of Jihadi John, aka Mohammed Emwazi, Before He Joined ISIS Was Unexpectedly Ordinary
Last week, the identity of Jihadi John, the British executioner in ISIS's beheading videos, was identified as Mohammed Emwazi. At the time of the reveal, reports painted a picture of an affluent Londoner who became disillusioned with life and chose the radicalized route, eventually becoming the unofficial face of ISIS. In the days since, those who once knew Emwazi have come forward to offer more bits and pieces to fill in what is still a deep mystery: How did the one-time "boy next door" who excelled in school and loved Western pop culture become a one-man symbol of ISIS's violent extremism? Here's what we know about Jihadi John so far.
Emwazi was born in Kuwait in 1988 and moved to London with his parents when he was 6. They settled into a middle-class neighborhood in West London, where his father reportedly worked as a taxi driver and his mother was a stay-at-home mom. According to numerous reports, Emwazi attended school at St. Mary Magdalene Church of England Primary School, where he participated in sports and had many friends.
One classmate told the Daily Mail that Emwazi came to the school knowing very little English, but was able to quickly pick it up on the field.
He played football every lunchtime and at the after-school football club. Through football, he learned different words and expressions.
Another former schoolmate also depicted him as sporty and likeable, describing Emwazi as a "typical northwest London boy" to The Telegraph.
He seemed like a nice guy.... He seemed like a down-to-earth person and humble. He liked football and he was friends with everyone. All the Indian boys, all the Pakistani boys, people from different religions, he spoke to everyone.
And a former teacher told the paper:
He was a diligent, hard-working, lovely young man, responsible, quiet. He was everything you could want a student to be.
Emwazi seemed taken with Western pop culture at a young age. The Daily Mail reported that when Emwazi was 10, he wrote in his yearbook that his interests included The Simpsons, the British pop group S Club 7, the computer game Duke Nukem, and the iconic British meal of fish and chips.
According to a former classmate, identified as Mohammed, Emwazi once tried to run away from another student who wanted to fight him and accidentally ran into one of the goalposts, smashing his head. Mohammed told radio station LBC that Emwazi was out of school for several weeks following the accident.
This was year six, we didn't see him for six weeks. He was not the same ever since that brain injury. I am telling you one million per cent. He was not the same.
By the time Emwazi reached secondary school, the easygoing boy had started to give way to a more angst-ridden teen. One of his teachers at Quintin Kynaston Community Academy in north London, who spoke to the BBC anonymously, described Emwazi's anger management issues inside the classroom.
We’d find that he’d get very angry and worked up and it would take him a long time to calm himself down. So we did a lot of work as a school to help him with his anger and to control his emotions.... It seemed to work. He had a lot of respect for all of the work that had been done for him at our school.
And like a typical Western teen, Emwazi was obsessed with rap music and even smoked pot, a former friend told the Sun.
He dressed like a gangsta rapper and was very into music at that time. He was obsessed with Snoop Dogg, Eminem and Tupac Shakur.
In other words, he wasn't exactly a devout Muslim growing up. The same friend stated:
I never saw him pray or wear Islamic dress. He would not even mention religion at all.
But that didn't impede the teen from going on to attend the university of his choice, University of Westminster, and majoring in computer programming. It was at university where Emwazi's radicalization process reportedly began. The Daily Mail reported that Emwazi, who at this point was attending mosque more frequently, became acquainted with Bilal el-Berjawi, a British al Qaeda member who was killed in a U.S. drone attack in Somalia in 2012.
After graduation in 2009, Emwazi flew with some friends to Tanzania, but was stopped along the way and detained by MI5 agents, who accused him of trying to join the Islamic militant group al Shabaab in Somalia.
Infuriated by this interrogation episode, Emwazi decided to move to his birth country, Kuwait, where he found employment at an IT company as a salesman. Even then, Emwazi seemed like a polite, harmless man and his boss at the company even called him "the best employee we ever had." He also described the then-21-year-old to The Guardian as "good with people" and "calm and decent."
A former co-worker echoed this description, telling NBC News:
He was very calm and polite, well-mannered. There was nothing at all that made us question him, nothing at all. He trained for one and a half months and then he began to visit customers. There were many steps in testing and he was very committed, disciplined. He never lost his temper or showed any violent tendencies.
But after he tried to visit London to finalize his wedding to a woman he met in Kuwait, Emwazi was detained by British counterterrorism officials and prohibited from leaving London again. In the years that followed, Emwazi became increasingly anti-Western and desperately wanted to get out, according to his friend, Asim Qureshi, research director at Islamic-focused advocacy group CAGE. Qureshi told The Washington Post:
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.
After years of exchanging emails, Qureshi said he last heard from Emwazi in January 2012. Soon afterwards, he traveled to Syria, and the rest is, unfortunately, history. Of Emwazi's role in the organization, one former hostage told The Washington Post:
He was the most deliberate.
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