Jihadi John: from London adolescent to ‘human animal’

Killing of the British citizen called a ‘barbaric murderer’ has been broadly welcomed

He was neither a military commander nor a political leader in the so-called Islamic State (IS), but Mohammed Emwazi, or "Jihadi John", was the most famous jihadi in the world, his name a byword for cruelty and barbarism.

As news of his probable death in Syria in a targeted missile attack by US forces emerged yesterday morning, the reaction in Britain, where he grew up and spent most of his life, was almost universally one of celebration.

Prime minister David Cameron made a statement outside 10 Downing Street welcoming the killing of this British citizen, whom he described as a barbaric murderer.

"He was shown in those sickening videos of the beheading of British aid workers. He posed an ongoing and serious threat to innocent civilians, not only in Syria but around the world and in the United Kingdom too," Cameron said.

Celebrity status

Pentagon spokesman

Steve Warren

went further, describing Emwazi as “a human animal” and asserting that “killing him is probably making the world a better place”. Warren acknowledged Emwazi was not a major tactical or operational figure but “something of a Isil celebrity, if you will”, so his death would be a blow to the group’s prestige.

Although neither Washington nor London could say for certain yesterday evening that Jihadi John had been killed, they were confident the Hellfire missile fired into central Raqqa, the de facto IS capital in Syria, had hit its target.

Emwazi won his celebrity status in August 2014 when he appeared in an IS video showing the beheading of American journalist James Foley. The identity of the tall, masked figure standing next to Foley speaking in an English accent was a mystery at first. But Didier François, a journalist for French radio station Europe 1, who was held hostage for 10 months in Syria, recognised the masked figure as Emwazi, who had been one of his jailers.

“He was most probably one of the worst, who hit and tortured without the slightest restraint,” François said.

There were four British jailers, whom the hostages called The Beatles, naming them Paul, Ringo, George and, in Emwazi’s case, John.

“He was the tallest, the calmest but also the most determined, without the slightest scruple,” François said.

In the months after Foley's murder, Emwazi appeared in similar videos showing the killings of another US journalist, Steven Sotloff, and of British aid workers David Haines and Alan Henning. It was not clear in any of these videos if Emwazi had actually carried out the killings, but in November 2014 a video showed him killing a Syrian military officer and standing over the severed head of American Peter Kassig.

Jihadi John's last execution video was in January this year, when he was shown killing Japanese hostage Kenji Goto.


Emwazi was born in


in 1988 but moved to London with his family when he was six, growing up in north Kensington and attending a Church of England school in

Maida Vale


According to a school yearbook he was a fan of Manchester United and the band S Club 7, and his ambition when he grew up was to be a football player.

He was a quiet boy and as he entered adolescence and moved to a secondary school in St John’s Wood, he was awkward and self-conscious around girls.

"He had adolescent issues. Particularly at that age – year nine, particularly the boys, is a time when the hormones start raging, and he had some issues with being bullied, which we dealt with," his former head teacher Jo Shuter told the BBC.

“By the time he got into the sixth form, he, to all intents and purposes, was a hardworking aspirational young man who went on to the university that he wanted to go to.”

Emwazi went to the University of Westminster, leaving with a degree in computer science in 2009. It was around this time that he first came to the attention of the British security services.

Emwazi had travelled to Tanzania with two other young Muslim men, one British, the other a German convert. When they arrived at Dar es Salaam, they were refused entry to the country because, according to the Tanzanian authorities, Emwazi was drunk and abusive.

Emwazi claimed later that he was interrogated by MI5 on his way back to Britain and that they attempted to recruit him as an informant. He told Cage, an advocacy group based in London, that he was harassed by the security services from then on, particularly on trips to and from Kuwait.


In fact, he was already suspected of involvement with extremists and was linked to Bilal al-Berjawi, who became a senior leader of Somali jihadi group Al-Shabaab. He was killed in a US drone attack in January 2012.

In emails to Cage, Emwazi blamed British security services for preventing him from travelling to Kuwait, where he had a job and hoped to marry.

“I had a job waiting for me and marriage to get started. But know [sic] I feel like a prisoner, only not in a cage, in London. A person in-prisoned [sic] and controlled by security service men, stopping me from living my new life in my birthplace, and my country, Kuwait,” he wrote.

By July 2010, he was on a terror watch list and was prevented from travelling to Kuwait. By early 2013, he had changed his name by deed poll to Mohammed al-Ayan. After trying without success to travel to Kuwait again, Emwazi disappeared and made his way to Syria.

When Emwazi was identified as Jihadi John, his family issued a statement denouncing him. “We hate him. We hope he will be killed soon. This will be good news for our family,” they said.

Emwazi’s last known video appearance was in August, without a mask, when he threatened to return to Britain to carry out terrorist attacks and promised: “I will carry on cutting heads.”

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