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Jihadi John’s Past Has Ignited a Debate About Britain's Treatment of Muslims

The advocacy group Cage has claimed that British authorities persecuted Mohamed Emwazi, the young man identified this week as the masked Islamic State militant "Jihadi John."
February 28, 2015, 3:28pm
Image via Islamic State/Storyful

David Cameron has defended Britain's security service, MI5, from claims that the agency helped radicalize the man known as "Jihadi John" by persecuting him.

Jihadi John is the masked militant who has repeatedly appeared on camera beheading Western hostages in Islamic State videos. His identity was revealed Thursday as Mohamed Emwazi, a former computer programming student who grew up in West London.

Cameron responded to remarks by Asim Qureshi, executive director of the advocacy group Cage, which supported Emwazi during a period in which the young man complained British authorities were targeting him.


Emwazi claimed Kenyan authorities threatened him in 2009 when he was apparently detained based on information supplied by Britain that alleged he intended to join the Somali militant organization al Shabaab.

Related:Islamic State's "Jihadi John" named as Mohammed Emwazi from West London.

Emwazi maintained that he was going to East Africa on a safari holiday. Later, he told Cage that MI5 threatened him and tried to recruit him to work as an informant. He later tried to make a life in Kuwait, the country of his birth, but the authorities reportedly prevented him from leaving Britain for the Middle East.

Around 2012, Emwazi seems to have managed to escape to Syria. In 2014, he came to international attention brandishing a knife over American journalist James Foley, who was later beheaded. Hostages held by Emwazi in Syria have said that he appeared to be obsessed by al Shabaab. Court documents from 2011 allege that Emwazi was linked to a Somalia-focused terrorism network.

"He was such a beautiful young man that it's hard to imagine the trajectory, but it's not a trajectory that is unfamiliar to us," Qureshi said at press conference Thursday in London. "When are we finally going to learn that when we treat people as outsiders they will inevitably feel like outsiders and they will look for belonging elsewhere?"

David Cameron condemned Qureshi's remarks as "reprehensible."

"We should not be seeking to put blame on other people, particularly those who are working to keep British citizens safe," he said. "The people responsible for these murders are the people we are seeing in the videos."


London Mayor Boris Johnson called Qureshi's statement, "mad, parodic, beyond satire."

Qureshi defended his view that harassment by the security services contributed to Emwazi's radicalization.

"The way he was treated has definitely got to contribute to the ultimate destination he is in right now," he told Britain's Channel 4 News. "Of course that's not the only factor, there are many factors when it comes to these things."

'When are we finally going to learn that when we treat people as outsiders they will inevitably feel like outsiders and they will look for belonging elsewhere?'

Referring to the period of Emwazi's life between 2009 and 2012, Qureshi added, "We're talking about a three-year period here where he's trying, he's trying his best to make a life for himself abroad."

In that time, Qureshi said, Emwazi had not rejected the West, but was, "trying to make his complaint to the [Independent Police Complaints Commission], trying to use the media, trying to use the law, trying to use politics, going to his embassy in order to find diplomatic means of resolving the problem."

Channel 4's Jon Snow asked Qureshi if he condemned Emwazi's actions.

"The reason you ask that question about condemnation is just because I'm Muslim," Qureshi replied.

MI5 has previously been criticized for the sustained harassment of Muslims and minority groups, including the respected Channel 4 journalist Jamal Osman. Mahdi Hashi, a young British Somali, has claimed that he was harassed by MI5. Subsequently, while in Somalia, Hashi was stripped of his British citizenship, and transported under unclear circumstances to New York, where he is being held in solitary confinement.


School friends described Emwazi as a quiet and loyal child.

"He was very caring. He was very quick to defend people close to him if he thought they had been hurt," one remembered.

Emwazi reportedly prayed "on occasion" at a mosque in Greenwich.

At the Greenwich Islamic Center, the largest mosque in the area, worshippers expressed frustration Friday at what they saw as the media's conflation of their religion and their place of worship with the violence of the Islamic State.

They were also skeptical that Emwazi — whose adult photograph had not been released when VICE News visited — had ever attended the mosque. The original Washington Postreport that named Emwazi did not specifically name Greenwich Islamic Center, and there are other Muslim places of worship in the area. Emwazi's West London home is well over an hour's journey away.

Scores of worshippers spilled out of the squat brick mosque after the duhr midday prayer, moving past a Sikh couple distributing flyers calling for religious tolerance.

Abdi Jama, 23, a bus driver, told VICE News he had been attending the mosque for 16 years, and that during that time he'd been taught an interpretation of Islam that shared no common ground with that of the Islamic State.

"Someone might come here and pray for 10 minutes and go. It doesn't mean there's any connection to the mosque," Jama said. But he worried about the perception that might be created by the mosque having been named in the news media.


"People will see the news and think that this place is a farm for that sort of thing. The media is always one-sided, always negative about Muslims," he said.

The Greenwich Islamic Center was firebombed twice in 2006 and twice in 2009, injuring the caretaker.

"This is what happens when the media hypes the news," mosque director Dr. Tariq Abbasi told VICE News.

Related: 'If it were not for him, it would be somebody else': Victims' families give mixed reactions to the naming of 'Jihadi John.'

"If we'd known he was an extremist, we have kicked him out, as we did with the others," he said, in reference to a number of figures that were excluded from the mosque, including Usman Ali, a former associate of Al-Muhajiroun, an organization sympathetic to the jihadist cause.

"There were problems years ago, but we fought and we got rid of it," Abbasi said.

Now, he said, the police and army, as well as magistrates and schoolteachers, come to the mosque for "Islamic awareness training."

He said the authorities have not formally approached the mosque about Emwazi.

In 2013, Sunday Telegraph journalist Andrew Gilligan, known for his sharp criticism of institutions he believes may harbor violent variations of Islam, said the mosque was "mainly free of extremism." Two previous attendees of the mosque had been involved in the murder of Lee Rigby, a soldier.

Gilligan claimed that the nearby Glyndon Community Center was used for prayer meetings by some of those who had been ejected from the larger mosque, including Usman Ali.

"Anyway," Abbasi said in reference to Emwazi, "we don't even know who the heck he is."

Follow Tom Dale on Twitter: @tom_d_