“Jihadi John”, the masked executioner in grisly beheading videos by Islamist extremists is Mohammed Emwazi, a British university graduate from a well-to-do London family.
Government sources in the United States confirmed his identity after it was revealed by the Washington Post, Reuters reported Friday.
The black-clad 26-year-old militant has been shown in jihadist propoganda videos brandishing a knife and speaking with an English accent, apparently decapitating hostages including Americans, Britons and Syrians.
He used the videos to threaten the West and its Arab allies and taunt President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron before petrified hostages cowering in orange jump suits.
Emwazi’s name was first disclosed by the Washington Post, citing unnamed former associates, but two US government sources who spoke on condition of anonymity confirmed to Reuters that investigators believe Jihadi John is Emwazi.
Hostages call him John because Emwazi and other Britons in the jihadist group are nicknamed the Beatles.
Emwazi was born in Kuwait but came to Britain aged six and graduated with a computer programming degree from the University of Westminster before coming to the attention of Britain’s intelligence service MI5.
An associate of Emwazi, a fluent Arabic speaker, said MI5 tried to recruit him and then prevented him from traveling abroad, forcing him to flee abroad without telling his family. He traveled to Syria around 2012.
MI5 does not publicly comment on such claims. The British government and police refused to confirm or deny his identity, citing an ongoing security investigation.
“Jihadi John” rose to notoriety in August 2014 when a video appeared showing a masked man raging against the US before apparently beheading American James Foley off camera.
US and British Intelligence services used a variety of investigative techniques including voice and facial recognition as well as interviews with former hostages to identify the man, with whom MI5 already had dealings.
But security officials made great efforts to avoid publicly naming Emwazi, fearing that would make him more difficult to catch. They are uneasy that the name was revealed.
There was no answer at two addresses in west London where Emwazi was listed to have lived. Neighbors described the family as “normal people” and “friendly”.
“This is the first time anything like this happens in this neighborhood,” said Fatima Al-Baqali. “We have to be careful now. I didn’t know this family and I usually know everyone here.”
Asim Qureshi, the research director of Cage, a charity that campaigns for those detained on terrorism charges, said that although he cannot not be certain Emwazi is John, he sdaid there are some “striking similarities”.
Qureshi painted a picture of a kind and thoughtful young man who faced harassment from MI5, which apparently suspected he wanted to join the Somali Islamist militant group al Shabaab.
British authorities have linked Emwazi to another British militant killed in Somalia in a US drone attack.
A december 2011 British court ruling reported that Emwazi was an associate of Bilal al Berjawi, a leader of al Shabaab, a person in possession of the court ruling said.
Qureshi said British spies had tried to recruit Emwazi.
“There’s one character that I remember, one kind person that I remember and then I see that image and there doesn’t seem to be a correlation between the two,” Qureshi told reporters.
“I feel like a prisoner, only not in a cage, in London,” Emwazi wrote in an e-mail to Cage.
He felt like “a person imprisoned and controlled by security service men, [who were] stopping me from living my new life in my birthplace and my country, Kuwait”.
Cage said Emwazi was detained in Tanzania, where he went for a safari holiday with two friends in August 2009.
He was deported to Amsterdam and interrogated by MI5 and a Dutch intelligence officer and then sent back to Britain.
It was impossible to verify the version of events given by the charity, which drew criticism for shifting the responsibility for Emwazi’s crimes.
“I think this is an attempt to deflect attention from Jihadi John,” said Shiraz Maher, a senior fellow at the International Center for the Study of Radicalisation, King’s College London.
“They’re trying to lay the blame for this at the feet of the British government,” he told Sky news.
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