Jihadi John: How Mohammed Emwazi Became ISIS' Most Notorious Executioner

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'Jihadi John' brandishes a knife in this still image from a 2014 video obtained from SITE Intel Group February 26, 2015.Credit: Haaretz

Jihadi John is a nickname given to the London-accented English of the black-clad, masked Islamic State executioner who featured in some of ISIS' most ghastly videos. His accent helped identify him as Mohammed Emwazi, a Kuwaiti-British citizen. There were reports that sophisticated voice-recognition software had helped the FBI, MI5 and Scotland Yard identify him, together with minute clues gleaned from his video appearances.

Emwazi was born in Kuwait and 1988 and came to the U.K. when he was 6, growing up in an ordinary west London suburb and attending a Church of England primary school.

Former teachers and friends at high school remember him as a quiet boy who loved soccer but was prone to occasional outbursts of anger.

According to former classmates, as a teenager he smoked marijuana, drank alcohol and was obsessed with rappers such as Snoop Dogg, Eminem and Tupac Shakur. There were rumors he was a rapper, but these turned out to be false.

In this May 27, 2011, file photo shows American Journalist James Foley, of Rochester, N.H., as he poses for a photo in Boston. Credit: AP

It was at university, where he studied computing, that his contacts with Islamists appear to have begun. Many of the associates he made during this period were already under surveillance by the security services; some of them are now dead.

In 2009, Emwazi tried to travel to Tanzania with Bilal el-Berjawi and Mohamed Sakr, two London friends from Islamist circles who were later killed in U.S. drone strikes in Somalia.

The British authorities did not buy the three friends' claim they were going on safari, instead suspecting they were headed for Somalia. The trio were turned back, with Emwazi later claiming that the British intelligence agency M15 had taken the opportunity to try to recruit him.

Later that year, Emwazi spent months living and working in Kuwait before returning to England. He again complained of harassment by the British security services, including being denied a visa to return to Kuwait to get married.

By August 2013, he had gone missing. His family thought he might be doing aid work in Turkey, but the British authorities determined he was in Syria.

It was a year later that he made his first grisly appearance in a film showing the beheading of American journalist James Foley, quickly followed by similar videos of other Western hostages being slaughtered.

A man purported to be Japanese journalist Kenji Goto outside of Kobani, October 2014.Credit: Reuters

Emwazi went on to play a gruesome starring role in the killings of journalist Steven Sotloff and British aid workers David Haines and Alan Henning. He was also shown to kill a Syrian soldier in a filmed mass beheading.

The last “official” Islamic State video featuring Emwazi presiding over the execution of a hostage came in January 2015, when he was shown apparently beheading Japanese journalist Kenji Goto.

Since then, Emwazi’s standing in the terror group has been uncertain. Rumors have circulated that he has either fled to Libya or is on the run in Syria, having fallen out with others in ISIS.

In November 2015, US forces carried out an air strike in Raqqa, Syria that targeted Emwazi. Although there was no absolute confirmation of his death in the drone strike, U.K. officials said that they was a "high degree of certainty” that Emwazi had been killed.

“This was an act of self-defense,” British Prime Minister David Cameron said following the strike. “It was the right thing to do.”

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