The story of Londoner “Jihadi John” shows how difficult it is for the U.S. and its allies to monitor extremists, unable to arrest them and helpless to act before they commit murder for the Islamic State terror army.
The group’s slick online periodical, “Dabiq,” this month published an obituary of “John,” actual name Mohammed Emwazi, the masked executioner who abandoned his middle-class London existence to land in the Islamic State headquarters of Raqqa, Syria. With great fanfare, robed in black, he beheaded captured Westerners, including American journalist James Foley. The condemned came to Syria to cover the civil war or provide aid, and instead became Emwazi’s doomed props.
The horror videos prompted an intense British-U.S. manhunt that first identified the killer and then dispatched him with a November drone strike as he sat in a vehicle in Raqqa. The Islamic State, also called ISIL and ISIS, has already replaced him with another prime-time executioner.
An interesting theme in Emwazi’s obituary, some of it confirmed in the Western press, is the number of times authorities in London tried to contain him but failed.
It is a lesson for the West on the limits of surveillance. And it is a lesson, given Western traditions of due process under law, on how Muslims can evolve into Islamic extremists even under the watchful eyes of security and intelligence officials back home.
FBI Director James B. Comey has said agents are investigating over 900 Islamic State activists in all 50 states. Scores have left, or sought to leave, to join the terror organization, which has branched out from its base in Syria and Iraq into a dozen countries and has attracted thousands of homicidal fighters.
“The U.K. really allowed their extremists to fester openly for too long and did little to stop it,” said Steve Stalinksy, executive director of the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), which analyzed Dabiq’s latest issue, its 13th.
Kenneth Allard, a retired Army intelligence officer, said the Emwazi story reveals gaps in the counterterror arsenal.
“It is a cliche that Western intelligence agencies are playing checkers while Islamic terrorists are playing chess, but some cliches are true,” Mr. Allard said. “In applying their craft, intelligence officers are far better at monitoring and tracking than at intervening and destroying.
“Their reluctance goes back to their DNA and even the Ultra Secret in World War II,” he said, referring to the British project that broke German communication codes. “It is far better to monitor and passively protect our own secrets than to tip our hand with direct action.”
The English-language Dabiq obituary said Emwazi arrived in London as a young boy from Kuwait. Outwardly, he seemed to embrace the liberal West, graduating from the University of Westminster, working in the tech world and donning the caps of professional sports teams. But he came to despise the culture of personal freedom.
“This would become a place he grew to hate along with its kafir [infidel] people, whose customs were far removed from the praiseworthy values he was much accustomed to,” the obit said.
‘Brothers in creed’
It said his embrace of jihad began in 2005 with the terrorist attacks on London’s transportation system and the rise of the Iraq anti-U.S. insurgency that included the Islamic State of Iraq. He hooked up with two “brothers in creed” — said to be radicalized Britons released from the U.S. terrorist prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba — who would eventually be killed in Somalia.
“None of this went unnoticed by MI5 [British domestic counterintelligence], which started vigorously targeting [Emwazi] and those with him,” the article said. “Thus began the campaign of bugging devices, routine surveillance, house raids, arrests and no-fly lists, which also came to include the prevention of any form of overseas travel.”
At one point he tried to board a flight to Kuwait but was stopped by British agents and questioned. He would play dumb.
“During the interrogation, [Emwazi] would present himself as unintelligent, as was his method when dealing with intelligence agencies,” the obit said.
But the man who would become Jihadi John also admitted at times that being constantly under scrutiny from government security agents was stressful, telling a journalist in a 2010 email that he even contemplated suicide because of the constant surveillance from MI5 and Scotland Yard, according to the British newspaper the Daily Mail.
“Sometimes I feel like I am a dead man walking, not fearing that they will kill me,” the then-22-year-old wrote. “Rather, [I’m] fearing that one day I’ll take as many pills as I can so I can sleep forever. I just want to get away from these people.”
With the rise of the Islamic State in war-wracked Syria and its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Emwazi devised an underground route to escape his adopted country in 2012.
“Right under the nose of the much-overrated MI5 British intelligence agency, [Emwazi] together with his companion in hijrah [Islamic migration] carefully and secretly made their departure, utilizing every means available to them,” Dabiq stated. “Depending upon Allah alone for success, [Emwazi] with his companion embarked on a long and strenuous journey that totaled approximately two months and involved trekking the mountain ranges of Europe and its marshy farmlands, sneaking across borders, and being detained by the authorities of various nations on at least two occasions. The journey required a great amount of patience and a high degree of security precautions, two things for which [Emwazi] was well known.”
In Syria Emwazi rejected other Islamic terror groups, such as the al Qaeda-allied al-Nusra, in favor of al-Baghdadi’s growing empire.
“It was [Emwazi’s] sincerity, ambition and enthusiasm to work and tire himself for Allah’s sake that granted him prominence, as he grew to be loved and respected by many,” the article says.
He took part in ground operations to capture bases in eastern Syria.
The article argues the executioner had a soft side, at least by terrorist standards. He donated one of his women slaves to a wounded fighter who had no wife to nurse him back to health.
Some of the events described by Dabiq, such as being stopped by MI5 from traveling to Kuwait, where he found a bride and planned to marry, were related by Emwazi contemporaneously.
“I had a job waiting for me and marriage to get started,” he wrote in a June 2010 email to a London friend, according to The Washington Post, which reported the true identity of Jihadi John in February 2015. “I feel like a prisoner, only not in a cage, in London. A person imprisoned & controlled by security service men, stopping me from living my new life in my birthplace & country, Kuwait.”
U.S. officials expressed no sympathy for the disillusioned Londoner-turned-jihadi executioner.
“This guy was a human animal, and killing him is probably making the world a little bit better place,” said Army Col. Steven Warren in announcing the drone kill.
The conservative government of British Prime Minister David Cameron is clamping down on extremism.
The Home Office announced a counter-extremist strategy designed to protect public institutions, such as public schools, from infiltration. It also said it has the power to close radical mosques and deport violence-promoting clerics.
Mr. Cameron released an indictment of the Muslim Brotherhood, calling it a secret global fraternity that supports violence. He held out the possibility the brotherhood would be banned in Great Britain.
The investigative report was in contrast to the Obama administration’s policy of reaching out to groups tied to the Muslim Brotherhood.