Thursday, February 26, 2015 5:45 pm
The masked Islamic State militant known as “Jihadi John”, who has been pictured in the videos of the beheadings of Western hostages, has been identified and named as Mohammed Emwazi, a Kuwaiti-born British man in his mid-20s from west London, who was previously known to British security services, who chose not to disclose his name earlier for operational reasons.
The BBC said Emwazi first appeared in a video last August, when he apparently killed the American journalist James Foley.
He was later thought to have been pictured in the videos of the beheadings of US journalist Steven Sotloff, British aid worker David Haines, British taxi driver Alan Henning, and American aid worker Abdul-Rahman Kassig, also known as Peter.
In each of the videos, the militant appeared dressed in a black robe with a black balaclava covering all but his eyes and top of his nose.
Speaking with a British accent, he taunted Western powers before holding his knife to the hostages’ necks, appearing to start cutting before the film stopped. The victims’ decapitated bodies were then shown.
Earlier this month, the militant featured in a video in which the Japanese journalist Kenji Goto appeared to be beheaded.
Hostages released by IS said he was one of three British jihadists guarding Westerners abducted by the group in Syria. They were known collectively as “the Beatles”.
Analysis: Dominic Casciani, BBC News
We don’t know exactly when the British or the American security services worked out that the masked man in the killing videos was Londoner Mohammed Emwazi – and nobody in official security circles is going to comment on how they got to that conclusion.
But we do know that he was, to use the jargon, a “person of interest” to MI5 going back to at least 2010 because he features in semi-secret court cases relating to extremism overseas and back in the UK.
Emwazi has been previously described as a member of a network involving at least 13 men from London – and at least two of them were subjected to house arrest control orders or T-Pims. One absconded. Another was killed in a drone strike. The chances of Emwazi ever returning to the UK are vanishingly small.
In a news conference, Asim Qureshi, the research director of the London-based human rights group Cage, which had been in contact with Emwazi over a number of years, detailed the difficulties he had had with security services in the UK and overseas.
Mr Qureshi said Emwazi, who is understood to be about 27, had been “extremely kind, gentle and soft-spoken, the most humble young person I knew”.
He said he could “not be 100% certain” Jihadi John was Emwazi although there were “striking similarities”.
Emwazi’s difficulties began when he travelled to Tanzania in May 2009 following his graduation in computer programming at the University of Westminster, Mr Qureshi added.
He and two friends had planned to go on a safari, but once they landed in Dar es Salaam, they were detained by police and held overnight.
Emwazi then ended up flying to Amsterdam, in the Netherlands, where he claimed to be met by British intelligence agents from MI5 who accused him of trying to travel to Somalia, where the jihadist group al-Shabab operates. He denied the accusation and said the agents had tried to recruit him before allowing him to return to the UK.
Emwazi later moved to Kuwait, where he got a job at a computer company. But on a visit to London in 2010, he was detained by British counter-terrorism officials and prevented from flying back to Kuwait, his friends said.
“I had a job waiting for me and marriage to get started,” Emwazi wrote in a June 2010 email to Cage.
“[But now] I feel like a prisoner, only not in a cage, in London,” he added, “a person imprisoned and controlled by security service men, stopping me from living my new life in my birthplace and country, Kuwait.”
Mr Qureshi said Emwazi had made persistent efforts to try to change his situation: “We had two-and-a-half years of communications talking about what he could do to alleviate his problems.”
He said he did not know what had happened to Emwazi, adding: “When we treat people as outsiders they will inevitably feel like outsiders – our entire security strategy has only increased alienation. A narrative of injustice has taken root.”
The Washington Post said Emwazi was believed to have travelled to Syria around 2013 and later joined IS, which has declared the creation of a “caliphate” in the large swathes of Syria and neighbouring Iraq it controls.
British police declined to comment on the reports, citing the “live counter-terrorism investigation”.
A spokeswoman for Prime Minister David Cameron would not confirm or deny reports that Emwazi was Jihadi John, adding that the police and security services were working hard to find those responsible for the murder of the British hostages.
The University of Westminster confirmed Emwazi had left six years ago, adding: “If these allegations are true, we are shocked and sickened.”
A White House spokeswoman referred journalists to the UK authorities.
The BBC’s Rajini Vaidyanathan in Washington says the FBI went on record last September to confirm it knew who Jihadi John was. However, US officials said this month they would not name him as they believed this would be the best strategy for finding him and bringing him to justice.
The London-based International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation said it believed the identification to be accurate. It said that the naming of Emwazi showed that “whatever efforts are made, the ability to mask one’s identity is limited or in fact impossible”.