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How a Journalist Uncovered the True Identity of Jihadi John

Souad Mekhennet | Longreads | August 16, 2017 | 5,112 words
Posted inBooks, Nonfiction, Story

How a Journalist Uncovered the True Identity of Jihadi John

Souad Mekhennet’s thrilling tale of late-night rendezvous, burner phones, and secret codes — and her quest to reveal the man in black.
British daily newspapers photographed in London on February 27, 2015 shows the front-page headlines and stories on the identification of the masked Islamic State group militant dubbed "Jihadi John". (Photo: DANIEL SORABJI/AFP/Getty Images)

Souad Mekhennet I Was Told to Come Alone: My Journey Behind the Lines of Jihad | Henry Holt & Company | June 2017 | 19 minutes (5,112 words) 

Below is an excerpt from I Was Told to Come Alone, by Souad Mekhennet. This story is recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky

* * *

The same masked man always spoke first in the beheading videos.

He was known as Jihadi John, a name given to him by former hostages who reported that he and three other ISIS guards came from the United Kingdom.

The hostages called them “the Beatles,” and Jihadi John was their most prominent member.

Jihadi John. Via Wikimedia.

*

I tell you, Souad, this man’s story is different.

About a week after the massacre at Charlie Hebdo, while I was still in Paris, I got a call from Peter Finn. He wanted me to talk to another Post reporter, Adam Goldman, who was trying to identify the “the Beatles.”

Adam’s booming voice and thick New York accent reminded me of a character from a detective movie. He told me he’d heard that Jihadi John was of Yemeni descent, that his first name was Mohammed, and that he came from East London. He asked if I had good contacts in the Yemeni community in London. Not exactly, I told him, but I did have sources among radical Muslims there. I had reported in London and its suburbs after the transit attacks of 2005, and I’d interviewed Omar Bakri, a prominent British Islamist cleric, and some others who didn’t often talk to reporters. I told Adam I’d ask around.

I made some calls, but no one wanted to talk on the phone, so I flew to London. Once there, I reached out to ISIS and Al Qaeda supporters, jihadi recruiters, and a handful of Bakri’s former students. The identities of “the Beatles” was a hot topic around London, I learned. Some of my sources told me that even if they knew who the men were, they wouldn’t tell me for fear of being punished as collaborators or supporters, since they hadn’t shared their information with the police.

One of my sources was a bit older and lived outside the city. He had been involved with a couple of high-level Al Qaeda operatives and was seen as a sort of godfather by many radical young men in and around London. The man said he’d heard rumors about Jihadi John, and he thought he might have met him before he left to join ISIS.

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