Islamic State’s executioner-in-chief was finally unmasked yesterday as Mohammed Emwazi; hitherto known only by the moniker “Jihadi John”, he was revealed to be a Kuwaiti born British citizen in his mid-20s from west London. Details are far from complete and will no doubt be filled-in over the coming weeks but what we do know is that back in May 2009 he was apprehended by the Tanzanian authorities, seemingly at the behest of the British security services who suspected him of intending to travel on to Somalia for the purposes of joining militant group Al Shabab. Ejected from Tanzania and put on a flight to Amsterdam, upon arrival he was immediately detained and aggressively questioned by an MI5 officer who made an unsuccessful attempt to recruit him; his valedictory remark “we’ll see you in London” quite obviously a thinly-veiled threat.
Thereafter began a campaign of harassment by the security service whose malicious interventions prevented a young man from travelling to Kuwait to marry and settle down to a stable life in his country of origin. From e-mails released by the UK advocacy group, CAGE it seems that he exhausted every legal avenue to obtain redress for his grievances but to no avail. Shortly after one final attempt to return to Kuwait was blocked it seems that Mohammed Emwazi decided he’d had enough; managing to slip out of the UK he crossed Europe ending up in Turkey before, like some 1000 other of his fellow British citizens, crossing a long porous border into the Syrian warzone. Reports suggest he initially joined a smaller independent brigade of foreign fighters before defecting to the Al Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat an-Nusra and then subsequently Islamic State.
All of the above chimes depressingly familiar to those acquainted with the modus operandi of the British security services in their interactions with young Muslim men, especially those they deem “of a radical disposition”. His treatment in Africa and upon his return to the UK carries strong echoes of the case of Michael Adebolajo who was arrested and tortured whilst in Kenya before being returned home to face an incessant campaign of harassment by MI5, desperate to place human intelligence sources within alleged jihadist networks. What happened next, we are all too aware of and while most (likely informed by the hysterical tabloid coverage of the case) might balk at the idea that Adebolajo should be accorded even the faintest vestige of victimhood, it remains an inescapable fact that his abuse at the hands of his Kenyan captors, instigated by the UK intelligence services, played a pivotal role in his transformation from “radical young Muslim man” into merciless executioner.
The testimony of CAGE’s research director, Asim Qureshi, whose extended interactions with Emwazi were detailed at a hastily convened press conference, reveal a very different persona to the heartless, sang-froid killer presented to us in Islamic State execution videos. Previously, polite and deferential he betrayed no hint of any tendencies towards the type of wanton violence for which he has now achieved global infamy. Whilst convenient for some to attribute such vagary to the effects of “poisonous ideology” it does nothing to explain why someone who supposedly already harbouring such an ideology for many years had been intent on marrying and pursuing a peaceful life in gainful employment (as a computer programmer) in his country of origin before the interventions of the security services. It might certainly be the case that many young Muslim men oppose UK foreign policy towards the Middle East, often in the most strident, virulent terms but yet most are not actuated to become killers solely by such concerns. More often than not some form of trigger is required. In the cases of Adebolajo and Emwazi it seems this trigger was pulled by none other than MI5 and one can only wonder as to how many other young men currently enmeshed in the Syrian/Iraqi conflicts, have previously been victims of their twin-pronged strategy of harassment and coercion.
Instead of constructively engaging with organisations such as CAGE (and others) who understand the genuine concerns and grievances – whatever you make of the merits thereof – of young Muslims and whose members are well positioned to provide the type of reasoned, Islamically-sound guidance that will prevent such tragedies occurring, the British state has chosen to embark upon a grinding campaign to silence these entities by use of tactics more usually associated with third-world despotisms. The recently passed Counter Terrorism and Security Act, besides constituting a vicious assault on the very freedoms it is supposedly designed to preserve, is emblematic of the woefully misguided understanding of the causes of violent extremism that informs senior policy makers in Westminster. Far from serving to make Britain safer it will instead guarantee the precise opposite. It is a matter of immense regret also that such pernicious legislation can be attributed in no small part to the self-serving, oblique advice and “expertise” of the Quilliam “think-tank”; the recipient of millions in state subventions over the years it has achieved next to nothing by way of diminuation of the domestic security threat faced nor contributed anything meaningful to the debate on social cohesion – other than compiling a secret list of Muslim groups and individuals it deems as “Islamist” or “Islamist backed”.
The unfortunate case of Mohammed Emwazi has highlighted once again the failure of the current policy of alienation and stigmatisation (as well as outright intimidation) towards those who carry “radical” views. It is high time to reign in the security services, subject them to a higher degree of scrutiny and accountability than they’ve previously been accustomed to, and most crucially to roll back the entire PREVENT agenda. Laws have long been in place, even before 9/11, to prosecute those who conspire to cause or who incite others to commission acts of murder and mayhem. Nothing is gained by laws that effectively criminalise dissent – be it ideological or political. Nothing that is, except the likelihood of more Mohammed Emwazis.