Image Credit: Luis Vazquez/©Gulf News

There are some men whose cruelty only seems comprehensible with the aid of a jocular epithet: Comical Ali, or Uncle Joe. We can add Jihadi John to that list. He may have been unveiled on Thursday as the Londoner Mohammad Emwazi, and “cold, sadistic, and merciless” in the words of one hostage he guarded, but the incongruous, cartoonish nickname seems likely to stick.

Cage is a British organisation that “campaigns against state policies” towards “communities impacted by the war on terror”. It was in contact with Emwazi until 2012 and portrays him as an “extremely gentle, kind” and “beautiful young man” who was radicalised under relentless and arbitrary pressure from the government.

Emwazi, it argues, is a tragic victim crushed by the power of an overweening security state. This narrative is self-serving, disingenuous, and highly selective.

The story starts in 2010, Cage said in a press release, when Kuwait cancelled Emwazi’s visa — allegedly under British pressure — and he was prevented from returning to the country of his birth. This is presented as unprovoked harassment, borne of MI5’s sadistic compulsion to target the Muslim community as a whole.

Crucial omission

But Cage left out the back story, which may help us understand why Emwazi was on the government’s radar in the first place. In 2009 he had travelled to Tanzania to go on “safari”. He was refused entry, deported, and questioned by MI5 officers, who reportedly accused him of seeking to join Al Qaida’s Somali affiliate, Al Shabab.

This is entirely plausible. Why? Because British court papers and other accounts identify Emwazi as a member of a network of extremists connected to Somalia.

This network had been in contact with a 7/7 bomber, and one key member, Bilal Berjawi, also tried to go on a “safari” earlier that year — eventually ending up fighting in Somalia, and later dying in a drone strike.

It’s also worth noting that Emwazi, in his incarnation as Jihadi John, was “obsessed with Somalia” and forced hostages to watch Al Shabab videos. So if you think that Emwazi was really going on safari, I have some free advice: make sure you do not confuse reputable travel agencies with well-established extremist networks.

Such networks are close-knit, communications savvy, and difficult to penetrate. And as encrypted communications become commonplace, dependence on human intelligence sources will grow.

It would thus have been negligent of MI5 had it not attempted to question, monitor, and recruit Emwazi.

Cage also quotes Emwazi as complaining that “I feel like a prisoner... in London. A person imprisoned and controlled by security servicemen.”

This is nonsense. It doesn’t seem that Britain barred Emwazi from going abroad. After all, he travelled to Turkey en route to Syria in 2013.

British authorities may well have passed on to Kuwait their suspicions about the risk posed by Emwazi, and critics may argue that it is wrong for the state to single out citizens who have not been convicted of any crime.

Reasons to be sceptical

But what if Emwazi was refusing to give a complete picture to police? Cage alleges that Emwazi “sought to find redress within the system”. Perhaps this is right. But in light of his previous story of safari-going, we have reasons to be sceptical.

Finally, Cage complains that Emwazi’s story shows how “virtually entire communities” are being targeted.

This is untrue. Most Muslims in west London do not associate with extremists and do not try to join Al Shabab. Emwazi was an outlier. That is why he came on to the radar of our security services.

Jihadi John is a one-dimensional cartoon that personifies our fears of Daesh (the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) and our inability to comprehend the organised, institutional nature of their breathtaking violence.

But Cage’s portrayal of a fine young man pushed to barbarity in a matter of months is no less cartoonish. It is worthy of our scorn.

— The Telegraph Group Limited, London 2015


Credit: Shashank Joshi is a Senior Research Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London, and a PhD candidate at the Department of Government, Harvard University.