The identity of the masked man in several Islamic State videos showing the beheading of foreign hostages has been widely reported as Kuwaiti-born Briton Mohammed Emwazi. He was previously known to British security services, and some are now asking why they did not prevent him from traveling to Syria.
The London-based civil liberties group CAGE claim British security services intercepted Emwazi in 2009 in Tanzania.
As to why security services did not stop Emwazi from leaving Britain to join IS, Raffaello Pantucci of the Royal United Services Institute said that with the current raised terror threat, monitoring terror suspects is a question of priorities.
“If we look at his activity he certainly didn’t seem that menacing a person, he seemed like a person who was trying to go abroad and fight," he said. "From the security services’ perspective, they’re more worried about people who are coming back to launch attacks.”
For months the man nicknamed "Jihadi John" was the anonymous face of Islamic State taunting the West. He appeared in videos showing the beheadings of Western hostages: U.S. journalist James Foley, fellow American Steven Sotloff; British aid workers David Haines and Allan Henning; American aid worker Abdul-Rahman Kassig; and Japanese hostages Haruna Yukawa and Kenji Goto.
The revelation of Emwazi’s identity prompted a big online reaction, said terror expert Shiraz Maher of Kings College London.
“He's become a huge character to the international community of what we call ‘fanboys’ and ‘fangirls’ that sit around and support the Islamic State virtually, are very loud proponents and cheerleaders of what the Islamic State does online. So ‘Jihadi John’ is a celebrity to them, he's idolized to an extent and they are angry about it, they are upset by it,” Maher said.
So what drove computer science graduate Emwazi from a housing estate in west London to the camp of IS militants?
CAGE research director Asim Qureshi said repeated harassment and attempts to recruit him as an informer pushed Emwazi into the arms of IS. Qureshi appeared to choke up while talking about Emwazi at a news conference Thursday.
“This is... Sorry, it's quite hard because, he's such a... I'm really sorry... He was such a beautiful young man, really... it's hard to imagine the trajectory,” he said.
Attempts to absolve Emwazi of responsibility for the murders should be dismissed, according to Pantucci.
“Even if we say that police were talking to him a lot or reaching out to him a lot and making his life difficult, does that justify him then turning up as a person who’s beheading aid workers and journalists in Syria?” he said.
Pantucci also said Emwazi is not the first Briton to leave London to join an Islamist militant group.
“It fits a pattern, we had seen this specific community of west Londoners, some of them rose to very senior positions within Al Shabab and died there [in Somalia], others came out and died in Syria,” he said.