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Unmasking of 'Jihadi John' sheds little light on his radicalization

The transformation of Mohammed Emwazi into an ISIL stalwart defies easy comprehension, analysts say

The masked man seen prominently in hostage beheading videos released by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant was identified Thursday as British national Mohammed Emwazi. But charting the path to radicalization for the ISIL member dubbed by the media as “Jihadi John” — a trajectory which takes him from middle-class Londoner to one of the world’s most wanted men — is a fraught exercise that defies easy categorization, experts say.

Emwazi’s identity was first reported in The Washington Post on Thursday and later confirmed by government sources in the United States and the United Kingdom. It is thought that authorities have known his name for some time. “He was identified by the U.K. and U.S. some months ago,” Robert McFadden, senior vice president of The Soufan Group, an intelligence firm, told Al Jazeera via email.

But what has intrigued analysts about Emwazi — who graduated with a technical degree from the University of Westminster in 2009 — is how he emerged as a key player in ISIL’s violent propaganda machine.

CAGE UK, an NGO, offered one explanation on Thursday in a damning indictment of British counter-terrorism policy: British intelligence had helped radicalize him.

CAGE said the identification of “Jihadi John” as Emwazi was likely accurate, based on contact the group had with Emwazi after first coming to the attention of British authorities in 2009.

That year, British and Dutch intelligence picked up Emwazi in the Tanzanian city of Dar es Salaam. They accused him of attempting to go to Somalia to fight with the Al-Qaeda-affiliated group Al-Shabab.

"He was repeatedly detained at airports, deported, barred from entering countries and even allegedly assaulted by officers,” CAGE said in a statement. “This treatment prevented him from leading a normal life while having no means to obtain redress, even though no evidence was ever presented to suggest he committed any wrongdoing.”

Added Asim Quereshi, research director at CAGE: "We now have evidence that there are several young Britons whose lives were not only ruined by security agencies, but who became disenfranchised and turned to violence because of British counter-terrorism policies coupled with long standing grievances over Western foreign policy.”

But several analysts balked at assigning the process of radicalization to one root cause.

“What I object to is CAGE’s simplistic narrative of an innocent man radicalized by the British state,” Shashank Joshi, of the Royal United Services Institute, told The Guardian. “There is evidence to show he was associated with a jihadi network early on and the security services had good reason to watch him.”

“If it’s true he was going to join Al-Shabab, it’d be hard to say that he wasn’t already radicalized,” added Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.

Emwazi had denied claims that he was traveling for the purposes of joining Al-Shabab, saying instead that he was going on safari with friends before he was detained, British intelligence sources told Reuters. U.K. agents, he is said to have added, wanted to make him an informant in England. In subsequent interaction with CAGE, he alleged further harassment by U.K. officials, who prevented him from returning to Kuwait, his birthplace, after he had accepted a job there.

But Gartenstein-Ross said it was too soon to definitively assess Emwazi’s radicalization. “What you’re seeing now is why our public sphere is so broken,” he said, on the rush by some media to suggest the cause of Emwazi’s radicalization.

“Suddenly everyone’s thinking they can tell you why he radicalized and how,” Gartenstein-Ross continued: “We’ve only known his identity for less than 24 hours and there hasn’t been an opportunity to do real reporting on this, other than the initial Washington Post story that broke the news.”

Others suggested that, while fraught with potential for state abuse, the role of British intelligence in pursuing informants was a necessary task.

Magnus Ranstorp, a Swedish terrorism expert, said U.K. intelligence has a tough task. “There are so many radicals in the U.K. who pose quite a large security threat.”

“The U.K. is more aggressive (than other European countries) in the sense that there is more action seeking out informants who can be sensors in communities,” he said. “If they [the U.K. secret service] approach people, I think what they do — they may identify people that will be useful to them. That is part of their job.” 

But Ranstorp faulted the U.K. government for not setting in place a long-term preventive policy that focuses on community relations. “You cannot solve (radical extremism) through chasing fires all the time,” he said.

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