Mohammed Emwazi, Terrorist Behind Gruesome Beheadings, Subject Of New HBO Documentary 'Unmasking Jihadi John'

The documentary explores the radicalization of a London citizen.

Who Is Jihadi John? New Details On Mohammed Emwazi, Subject Of New HBO Documentary 'Unmasking Jihadi John' youtube

In the last few decades, countries all over the world have been paralyzed and terrorized by Islamic extremism. Known extremist groups include al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, and ISIS. These groups gain members through radicalization, including using online messaging and social media. They seek out vulnerable individuals and subsequently manipulate them in participating in violent actions.

Most notably, these groups are known for videos depicting graphic scenes of violence and murder. And a recent documentary is focusing on one individual in particular, and how he went from a British IT salesman to a terrorist.


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Who is Jihadi John? A new documentary on HBO called Unmasking Jihadi John: Anatomy of a Terrorist focuses on Mohammed Emwazi, dubbed “Jihadi John,” who became the world’s most wanted ISIS terrorist, after posting videos of beheadings of Western hostages, including American journalist James Foley.


Here are 7 things to know about Emwazi, including his upbringing in London, how he became involved in ISIS, and his eventual demise.

1. He had a comfortable and normal upbringing.



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Born in August 1988, Emwazi was the oldest of five children. His family lived in Al Jahra in Kuwait and moved to the UK in 1994 after their application for citizenship in Kuwait was denied. The family lived in Maida Vale, St. John’s Wood, and Queen’s Park. The documentary includes rare footage of Emwazi as a little boy in London, as well as interviews with his elementary school teachers.

One former classmate told The Daily Mail, “He played football every lunchtime and at the after-school football club. Through football, he learned different words and expressions. Like all the guys, he always wanted to be the striker. He wasn’t so good in school, he was the bottom half of the class, but he was one of the sporty guys. He was popular.”


2. However, his behavior grew worrisome when he became a teenager.

According to a description of the documentary, “Vulnerable, malleable, and influenced by members of local gangs, his increasingly extremist views landed him on a terrorism watchlist. After a series of run-ins with British intelligence agents who tried to recruit him as an informant, Emwazi fled for Syria and went on to join ISIS.”

Another classmate revealed to The Guardian, “Girls thought he was weird and tried to stay away from him. He was short and got the nickname ‘Little Mo.’ He shuffled around with his head down and his shoulders hunched. He had no ­confidence and held himself in a really nervous way. But at the same time, he wore trendy baseball caps and trainers. It made him look even more odd. Instead of coming across as cool, he became a figure of fun who everyone took the mickey out of.”

3. He led a normal life before ISIS.



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He attended the University of Westminster in 2006, studying Information Systems with Business Management. When he was 21 years old, he began working as a salesman at an IT company in Kuwait. 


According to his former boss, “He was the best employee we ever had. He was very good with people. Calm and decent. He came to our door and gave us his CV. How could someone as calm and quiet as him become like the man who we saw on the news? It’s just not logical that he could be this guy.”

4. He was eventually radicalized.



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An article in The Washington Post reported that Emwazi’s friends believed he was radicalized after a safari trip to Tanzania after his graduation. Interviews with the friends indicate that, along with two friends on the trip — a German convert to Islam named Omar, and another man named Abu Talib — were detained upon landing in Dar es Salaam and deported. 

He went to Amsterdam, where he alleged an MI5 officer accused him of trying to go to Somalia, where al-Shabab, a jihadist fundamentalist group, operated out of. Emwazi denied trying to go to Somalia; however, a surviving hostage revealed that “Jihadi John was obsessed with Somalia” and forced them to watch videos about the group. Tanzanian officials say he was refused entry for being abusive and drunk.


According to Asim Qureshi, research director of CAGE (a London-based advocacy organization that aims “to empower communities impacted by the War on Terror”), Emwazi was “incensed” at the way he was treated, and moved back to Kuwait a short time later, working for a computer company. 

He made plans to wed a woman in Kuwait but in 2010, was detained in Britain by counter-terrorism authorities, who blocked him from returning to Kuwait. Qureshi last heard from Emwazi in 2012 when he asked for advice. Close friends of Emwazi say he was “desperate” to leave the country and tried to unsuccessfully go to Saudi Arabia. 

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But what caused him to become radicalized? In an interview with Peter Neumann, director of the International Center for the Study of Radicalization at King’s College in London, he provided an idea:


“So there’s a lot of pieces of the puzzle that we do not have yet. It’s certainly not unusual for someone from a fairly middle-class background who went to university to become radicalized. It is a fallacy to think that you necessarily have to be poor and uneducated to become attracted to that kind of ideology.

What we often observe with people like that is that wherever they come from, they do not feel that they have a stake in their society, and that they have conflicts of identity that do not automatically turn them into terrorists, but that make them receptive for the sort of black-and-white message that comes from extremists, the sort of message that says, you do not have a stake in this society because you do not belong to that society. You have to pick. Are you British or a Muslim? You cannot be British and Muslim at the same time.

I think, in the case of this particular individual, that may have happened too at the university where he was going, which is known to have been a university where radical groups were active.”

5. He posted videos of many victims.



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The first video was uploaded in August 2014 of journalist James Foley. He read a prepared statement that criticized airstrikes in Iraq, the U.S., and even his brother who was in the military. Emwazi then read a statement against President Obama and the U.S., demanding an end to intervention in Iraq by the U.S. Foley was then beheaded off-camera.

In September 2014, two videos were released. The first was a video of American journalist Steven Sotloff being beheaded. Sotloff was kidnapped in July 2013 in Aleppo, Syria. The other video depicted David Haines, a British aid worker who was kidnapped in 2013 while working in Syria.


Other victims of Emwazi included Alan Henning, a taxi cab driver and humanitarian aid worker who was delivering aid to Syria; Peter Kassig, an American aid worker taken captive by ISIL while delivering food and medical supplies to refugees; 22 Syrian soldiers, who were executed in gruesome detail on the video; Haruna Yukawa, a Japanese national captured in Syria; Kenji Goto, a Japanese freelance video journalist who attempted to secure Yukawa’s release but was captured.

6. He was nicknamed by his hostages.

His hostages dubbed him “John,” which refers to John Lennon of the Beatles, due to his British accent. Three other group members were named after the other Beatles, and were all part of the ISIL militant group. One of the members was arrested, the other two were caught in early 2018, and Emwazi was eventually killed.

However, journalists and the media began referring to him as “Jihadi John,” first used by Douglas Murray, a critic of Islam and writer for the British magazine, The Spectator.


7. He was killed in 2015.



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In November 2015, Emwazi was killed in an airstrike in Raqqa carried out by two U.S. drone aircraft and a British drone. The strike targeted Emwazi as he left a building to enter a vehicle.

UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, commented that Britain and the U.S. worked together to track his location. An obituary released by ISIL magazine, Dabiq, referred to Emwazi as Abu Muharib al-Muhajir and showed him unmasked.

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Samantha Maffucci is an editor for YourTango who focuses on writing trending news and entertainment pieces. In her free time, you can find her obsessing about cats, wine, and all things Vanderpump Rules.