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How a Journalist Uncovered the True Identity of Jihadi John

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)

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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.

“Is he Yemeni?” I asked.

There was silence, then laughter. “Who told you Yemeni?”

“So it isn’t Mohammed from Yemen?”

“It is Mohammed, but not from Yemen.”

“East London?”

“Not East. And I tell you, Souad, this man’s story is different than anything before. I can’t say more than that.”

He wouldn’t tell me the man’s surname or his country of origin. The name “Mohammed” is as common as John, Paul, or George in London.

I called Adam. Was he sure that Jihadi John was Yemeni? That’s what his sources had told him, he said. I suggested we broaden our search. I spent the next day in my hotel room, going over notes from my interview with Abu Yusaf, especially the parts when he talked about the “brothers from Britain.” I also reviewed published interviews with released ISIS hostages in which they spoke about “the Beatles” and learned that one hostage reported that Jihadi John was obsessed with Somalia and would show the captives videos about it. I had met one former French hostage myself, and I pored over my notes from our conversation, looking for clues. Finally I watched some of the terrible ISIS beheading videos again and listened to what Jihadi John said and how he said it. Then I made a list:

Mohammed
videos of Somalia
London (not East)
not Yemeni
The ISIS commander told me, “We have brothers from Britain of various descents: Pakistani, Somali, Yemeni, and even Kuwaiti.”
educated/university degree
deep hatred/personal vendetta

The last two items were based in part on instinct. In the ISIS videos, Jihadi John sounded educated; Abu Yusaf had also told me about the “brothers from Britain” with university degrees, and one of the freed hostages had said that his captors seemed well educated. “Deep hatred/ personal vendetta” was a hunch based on Jihadi John’s tone as he raged against British prime minister David Cameron, President Obama, and U.S. foreign policy. Something had angered him; the wound seemed personal.

I looked again at Abu Yusaf’s words: We have brothers from Britain of various descents: Pakistani, Somali, Yemeni, and even Kuwaiti. I knew already from Adam’s information that Jihadi John must be of Arab descent, so I crossed out “Pakistani” and “Somali.” That left Kuwait as his most likely country of origin. I made a new list:

Mohammed
Kuwaiti
London
hatred/personal vendetta
educated/university degree
videos about Somalia

I set up another round of meetings, including one with a source linked to the Finsbury Park mosque in North London, a well-known center of jihadist recruiting. We met at 2:00 a.m. on the outskirts of the city. I took a taxi to a cabstand, paying in cash so the intelligence services, if they were watching, couldn’t track my whereabouts too easily. My source picked me up there and drove me to a coffee shop owned by a friend. The place was closed at that hour, and it was just the three of us: my source and me sitting at a small table while the owner did paperwork at his desk in back.

*

Will you be jogging at 4:00 p.m. tomorrow?

My source was an ISIS sympathizer, and he knew people who had gone to fight in Somalia. Years before, he had been an acolyte of Abu Hamza al-Masri, the radical former imam at Finsbury Park, who was extradited to the United States in 2012, found guilty of terrorism, and sentenced to life in prison.

I asked if he knew anything about a Kuwaiti named Mohammed who had problems with the British authorities. He thought about it.

“Kuwaiti, Kuwaiti . . . yes! I remember there had been a Mohammed who got into trouble in Tanzania.”

“What trouble?”

“I don’t remember. It was related to Somalia, I think.”

I tried to keep my cool.

“Do you know his full name?”

“Why are you so interested in him?”

I didn’t tell him that I suspected this man might be Jihadi John. Instead, I said that I was trying find out if this Mohammed had gone to Syria.

“I’ll see what I can do for you,” he said, “but it will take some days.”

He dropped me off at the same cabstand. It was almost 4:00 a.m. when I finally made it back to my hotel in central London.

I decided that I had to get in touch with a senior Islamic State official I’d known for years, the man who had helped arrange my meeting with Abu Yusaf. After that story ran, he’d asked somebody to deliver a message to me: Salam. The Turks were pissed about your story; intel is asking about you. Don’t come to the border region again, and don’t reach out to me unless it’s an emergency.

This is an emergency, I thought. But to make contact with him, I had to go back to Germany, where I had a secure, if circuitous, way of reaching him. I would observe a strict protocol we’d developed years earlier to avoid detection by intelligence agencies or militants, who might punish him for talking to me.

First, I had to talk to a woman who was living in northern Germany. I called her and took a train north to speak to her in person. I told her I needed to talk to my source. She knew it had to be important and agreed to pass on the message to him. She also gave me an unregistered SIM card, which I would put into one of four old Nokia phones that I kept for communicating with people like him. Unlike smartphones, these primitive devices were hard for authorities to track.

A few days later, I got a text message from the woman I’d visited: “Will you be jogging at 4:00 p.m. tomorrow?”

“Yes,” I replied.

I’m not really a jogger. This was a code: whenever my source set a time for an appointment, I would double the number; if he said “p.m.,” that really meant “a.m.,” and vice versa. At 8 a.m., according to the text, I should leave my apartment, turn on my old Nokia, put in the SIM card she’d given me, and wait for my source to call.

A short while before the appointed time, wearing sneakers, a black pullover, and a warm jacket, I walked to a park near my apartment. The winter sky was blue and the air was chilly. I’d left my smartphones at home and carried only the old Nokia in my jacket pocket. Although we’d arranged the call, there was no guarantee it would happen. I strolled through the park, feeling antsy. I’d likely have just a few minutes on the phone with him; it was a onetime shot. He might tell me what I wanted to know or he might say nothing. He might tell me never to call him again.

The phone rang. I fumbled to answer it.

As’salam alaikum. How are you?” he asked in Arabic.

“I’m okay. And you?”

“All well. But what is urgent? What disaster are you working on this time?” He was laughing.

I started laughing too, relieved that he was in a joking mood. “Tell me about Mohammed from Kuwait, the man in black.”

Silence.

“Are you there?” I asked.

“Yes, I’m here.” His tone was serious. “Who told you?”

“Told me what?”

“That he is Kuwaiti and that his name is Mohammed?”

“I can’t tell you,” I said. “You know I can’t.”

There was another silence.

“Interesting,” he said after a while. “So I assume the British dogs are spreading these rumors to get their lies out and hide the truth about him?”

“What do you mean?” I asked. “What lies? What truth?”

Silence again.

I decided to take a risk. “Do you mean the Somalia story?”

“So they told you about the Somalia story?” he asked. “Dogs! I knew it. They’re trying to create their own narrative.”

Walking through the park with my headphones on, I opened my small black notepad and wrote “Somalia.”

“So tell me the true story then,” I said.

“He had suffered a lot. The British intelligence was after him and closed many doors to him. It’s too long a story to tell over the phone now.”

“I need to know the truth. How else can I write it?”

*

Delete this message and throw away this SIM now.

His tone grew serious again. “Listen, you know I admire your guts and honesty, but be careful. You’ve upset some people in Turkey.” He meant the intelligence services and government officials. “The man you are touching now, if you don’t write the narrative the Brits dictate, that will piss them off as well. No more shopping at Harrods.” He started laughing again.

I told him I didn’t have much time for Harrods anyway and that he shouldn’t worry.

“What do you want?” he asked.

“I want the truth. But I need his full name to get the right information about what you said happened to him.” Another silence. “Listen, the story will come out soon, anyway. So help me get it right.”

“You’re crazy, but okay. I need to get back to you. Keep walking for a few more minutes.”

The line went dead. I walked around the park, pulling my jacket tight against the wind. I felt this was my best shot at getting Jihadi John’s name. Just then, my phone buzzed, and a text message appeared on the screen in English: “Go to London, Emwazi had tried to solve his problems with help of a group, ask CAGE. Delete this message and throw away this SIM now. Wa’alaikum as’ salam.” I could barely believe it. For the first time, I had a possible last name for Jihadi John, the masked man, casually dropped in a text.

I looked around to see if anyone was watching, then noted down the information, took the SIM card out, and threw it away. Back home, I called Peter and Adam and said I might have something but needed to get back to the United Kingdom. I also shared the new information with both of them, using an encrypted messaging program. My next call was to CAGE, a British advocacy group that campaigns against rendition, unlawful detention, and other government abuses in the name of fighting terrorism. I had been in contact with the group before, while working on other stories. I said I wanted to talk to them about a case they’d worked on.

“What case are you talking about?” the CAGE staffer asked.

“Is there a case of a man called Mohammed Emwazi?” I asked. “It might be related to Somalia.”

The man said he would check the files. He called me back soon after. Yes, he said, they had worked on a case involving a man of that name a couple of years ago. He invited me to come to London to discuss it with Asim Qureshi, the research director of CAGE. I booked a flight.

I had spoken to Qureshi before. He’s a lawyer who has worked on cases involving detainees in Guantánamo and secret prisons around the world. British-born but of Pakistani descent, he speaks with a fine English accent, drinks his black tea with milk, and enjoys scones with clotted cream. Yet he’d told me that some people doubted he was truly British because of the nature of his work.

Founded in 2003 as Cageprisoners.com, CAGE has built a track record as an advocacy group for Muslim prisoners. It was among the groups pointing out alleged torture in Guantánamo, and in the past decade and a half many who didn’t trust other organizations have come to CAGE with stories of mistreatment and injustice. That’s partly because CAGE doesn’t shy away from speaking to young men like Emwazi, who have been in trouble with police in terror-related cases.

In fact, CAGE itself has had problems with the British authorities. Since March 2014, the group has been operating without a bank account and, according to its website, is “under constant pressure and scrutiny from politicians and various government agencies. Despite these difficulties, alhamdulillah we have been able to work on major cases of significance in the War on Terror and continue to advocate for due process and the rule of law.”

Qureshi and I met at a coffee shop close to CAGE’s office. He explained that the group had been in touch in the past with somebody called Mohammed Emwazi, who had been in trouble with British authorities. “But this case was many years ago. Why are you interested in it now?” he asked.

I didn’t want to tell him about my suspicions, given that so far I had only one source. But I needed to collect as much information as possible, and I wanted to be as truthful as I could. “I’m looking into a case that’s related to Syria, and his name came up,” I said. This was true. I asked if CAGE had any contacts for his family.

He shook his head. “We haven’t been in touch with this man in years.” Qureshi added that he’d had to go back through the archives to refresh his memory of Emwazi’s case.

“Why don’t you start from the beginning,” I said.


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*

It wasn’t how I envisioned the person I’d seen in videos cutting off journalists’ heads…. When he came to the CAGE offices, he brought sweets.

“That’s actually what I told him, when he came to the office the first time, why don’t you start from the beginning,” Qureshi recalled. He said that Emwazi was a British citizen whose family had come from Kuwait. “They were Bidoon,” Qureshi told me, “so they weren’t seen as full Kuwaitis.” When the British ended the protectorate in 1961, about a third of the Kuwaiti population were denied citizenship; Emwazi’s family belonged to this group.

He had gone to a sort of charter school called Quintin Kynaston, in the tony London neighborhood of St. John’s Wood. The school drew students from all over the city, including many from poor and immigrant families. Two other boys who had gone there had also become Islamist fighters.

Emwazi’s trouble with the law began when he and two friends were arrested in Tanzania in May 2009. My ears perked up when I heard that. I was looking for clues that might confirm that Jihadi John was obsessed with Somalia, and I knew that Tanzania was a frequent stop on the way to Somalia at that time.

According to Emwazi’s account, the local police detained them when they landed in Dar es Salaam. He told CAGE they’d been threatened and, at some stage, mistreated by the Tanzanian police, who suspected that the three planned to travel to Somalia. He told CAGE they were on their way to go on safari before beginning university or getting married.

He and his companions flew back to Amsterdam, where they’d changed planes on the way to Tanzania. “He said that an MI5 officer interrogated him there, together with a supposedly Dutch intelligence officer,” Qureshi said. MI5 is Britain’s domestic intelligence service. The MI5 officer, too, believed Emwazi and his friends had been on their way to Somalia to join al-Shabab, a militant group allied with Al Qaeda that operates in the southern and central parts of the country. Emwazi denied the accusations and claimed that MI5 agents had tried to recruit him.

Emwazi and his friends were allowed to return to Britain, but he said that he and his family subsequently felt “under pressure” from MI5. In the fall of 2009, he again met with Qureshi, talking about visits from MI5 agents, calls to his home, and strange cars following him. Finally, he and his family decided it would be better for him to return to Kuwait.

“Mohammed was quite incensed,” Qureshi said. He felt “that he had been very unfairly treated.”

In Kuwait, Emwazi got a job at a computer company, according to emails he wrote to CAGE. He came back to London at least twice. “He wanted to get married to a woman in Kuwait and settle there,” Qureshi said. “The second time, he came back to finalize the wedding planning with his parents.”

In June 2010, Emwazi emailed CAGE to say that British counterterrorism officials had detained him again during that visit to London, searched his belongings, and fingerprinted him. When he and his father went to the airport the next day, the airlines said he was on a list and refused to let him board a flight back to Kuwait.

I asked Qureshi if I could read this part of the email myself.

“I had a job waiting for me and marriage to get started,” Emwazi wrote, but now he felt “like a prisoner, only not in a cage, in London. A person imprisoned & controlled by security service men, stopping me from living my new life in my birthplace & country, Kuwait.”

I was surprised by the language in the email, which was very thoughtful. These were the words of someone who sounded emotional and slightly desperate. It wasn’t how I envisioned the person I’d seen in videos cutting off journalists’ heads. While reading his letter, I tried to picture the man in the black mask as its author. “What does he look like?” I asked. “Do you have a photograph?”

“No, we don’t,” Qureshi answered, but he described Emwazi as tall and good-looking with brownish skin and the fine features common in the Gulf. When he came to the CAGE offices, he brought sweets. Qureshi said he was very polite and grateful for their support and advice.

I had already typed his name into Google when I’d heard it from the ISIS source for the first time, but there had been no pictures. Either he was never very fond of social media or someone had cleaned up after him.

Qureshi said he’d last heard from Emwazi in January 2012, when Emwazi sent an email seeking more advice.

“No more emails or calls?”

“No, nothing from him,” Qureshi said.

“Do you know if he is still in the United Kingdom or if he has left the country?” I tried to avoid the word “Syria.”

“No, we don’t know,” Qureshi said, adding that he had emailed Emwazi in 2014 to check in, but there was no response.

I thanked Qureshi for his time and said I would be in touch again soon.

*

I need to have tea with you.

When I stepped out of the coffee shop, I felt as if I were carrying a weight. I was almost certain that Mohammed Emwazi was indeed Jihadi John. At the hotel, I went through all my notes from the conversations I’d had so far, and then watched some of the videos I’d downloaded on the Post server, because downloading certain violent online content was forbidden by Britain’s Terrorism Act of 2006. I wasn’t sure how the authorities would react to this Emwazi story, but I planned to leave the United Kingdom before it was published.

As I watched the videos, I tried to find one that offered a clearer view of his eyes. I took a screenshot and filmed some of the video clips on my phone.

But so far I had only one source, the senior ISIS official. I needed more. On one of my unregistered phones and SIM cards, I called my source in the United Kingdom who had already indicated that he knew something.

“I’m here in London,” I told him. “I need to have tea with you.”

“You are welcome,” he said.

I had to travel outside the city to meet him, and he warned me that he had time for only one cup of tea.

“It’s okay, this won’t take much time. You just have to tell me is Mohammed Emwazi this man?” I showed him the screenshot I’d taken of Jihadi John.

He looked at the photograph and then looked at me.

“Wait, we haven’t even ordered the tea yet,” he said, beginning to laugh.

We asked for tea, switched off our phones, and put them a few meters away from us, next to speakers blaring a mix of Hindi and Arabic music.

“You look tired. Are you not sleeping much?” he asked me. I acknowledged that this story wasn’t giving me much time to sleep.

“You know, one day a couple of months ago, a young man whom I had met on different occasions came to me and said he believed his friend was the man in black,” he finally began. “He said that from the voice and the body language and the eyes, he felt that this was someone he used to know, and he was the one who mentioned something about Somalia and other stories.”

I began to tremble. Maybe it was because I was exhausted, or because I felt we were very close to getting a second source.

“Did he tell you the name of his friend?” I asked.

“Yes. It was the name you mentioned, Mohammed Emwazi.”

He asked me to keep his comments off the record, given the sensitivity of the case, but promised to put me in touch with Emwazi’s friend. He picked up his phone, dialed a number, and spoke to the man, trying to convince him to meet me. He even handed me the phone so we could say Salam and I could hear his voice.

“I’d like to meet you,” I told him, but he didn’t agree then and there.

“I will give him the number for your unregistered phone,” my source said after they hung up.

“Where does he live? In London?”

He confirmed this but said he couldn’t tell me more and that he had to leave. I took a train back to central London, checking often to see if anybody was following me.

A journalist holds up a newspaper as she does a report outside a residential address in London on February 27, 2015, where Kuwaiti-born London computer programmer Mohammed Emwazi, identified by experts and the media as masked Islamic State militant “Jihadi John”, is once believed to have lived. (Credit: NIKLAS HALLE’N/AFP/Getty Images)

*

I worried about someone trying to destroy my notes, so I took pictures of each page.

As soon as I got to the hotel, I sent an encrypted message to Adam and Peter and gave them what I had so far. I also told them that I still had to meet with more sources and asked that nobody mention my name anywhere as the person who was on the ground for the Post in London.

Once I had met Emwazi’s friend, I’d have to go back to CAGE and confront them with our findings. I worried about someone trying to destroy my notes, so I took pictures of each page of my notebook and sent them to Peter and Adam.

“Did you get them?” I asked.

“Yes, but don’t worry, no one will ever be able to read your handwriting,” Adam said with a laugh.

It was clear that the Post would have to confront American and British authorities with our findings before we could publish the story. But first I hoped Emwazi’s friend would agree to meet me.

Finally, at about 8:00 p.m., I received a message on my unregistered phone from an unknown number: “Salam. I am the friend of Mohammed. I can meet you in one hour. Please come to the following address; you will be picked up from a different car then.”

So he knew I would most likely come by taxi and didn’t want anyone to know where we were going. After he sent the message, I received a call from the man I’d had tea with.

“Did the friend contact you?” he asked.

“Yes, he just did.”

“I thought since you weren’t sleeping much these days, you wouldn’t mind to meet in the evening, it’s better for him,” he said, giggling. He assured me I would be safe.

I had known this source for many years, and he had always helped me and been very particular about my safety, so I was not as nervous as I might have been about meeting someone I didn’t know alone in the middle of the night.

The place he wanted me to go to was almost an hour away by car. The address was a pub. When we got there, I double-checked it with the driver to make sure we were in the right place.

“Yes, my dear,” he said in his proper British accent. He sounded like the butler from Downton Abbey.

It was surreal to be meeting Jihadi John’s friend at a pub, even if it was just the pickup point. I’d gone through the dance of being dropped somewhere and then picked up to go somewhere else many times before, but I didn’t know what to expect this time. Could this person really be the second source I was looking for?

“Get out of the taxi, I can see you,” a new message on my phone read.

*

Why do you think he became who he has become?

After my taxi had left, a car on the opposite side of the road turned on its lights, and I saw a man in the driver’s seat winking me in.

“I am Mohammed’s friend,” he said. I recognized his voice from earlier on the phone. He was in his late twenties but asked that I not reveal any further details about him.

Before I got in, I asked him for the kunya, or fighting name, of the man who had called me earlier and who had put us in contact. I wanted to be 100 percent sure that this was the right man.

He knew the answer. I got into the car.

He said that he would prefer if we could walk a little, even though by now it was dark. He stopped in a residential area where streetlights shone into the car. When we got out, he asked for my mobile phones. I hesitated at first because I’d planned to show him the video clip of Jihadi John, but then I remembered that I had some magazine and newspaper clips in my bag with pictures of the ISIS executioner, so I switched off the phones and left them in the trunk of his car.

We started walking toward a park nearby, which was really just a small grassy area with a bench. He took a tissue from his jacket pocket and wiped the bench. By the light of a streetlamp, I showed him the clips and photographs of Jihadi John.

“Is this your friend?”

“Yes, I am very sure it’s him. It’s my friend Mohammed Emwazi.”

Then he told me the same basic story I’d heard from Asim Qureshi. I asked how he knew Jihadi John was Emwazi, or vice versa.

“There is another friend of ours, he is there as well,” the man said, and then he stopped for a moment. “When the first video came out showing him with this journalist, our friend contacted me and said I should watch it and that it was our friend Mohammed there.”

He said that parts of the video had been shown on the news and that he’d watched it again and again. He believed that the voice and the eyes were indeed Emwazi’s.

He never went to the police because he feared getting in trouble. “I recognized his voice and the eyes, but the person I saw in the video is not the Mohammed who used to be my friend.”

“Why do you think he became who he has become?”

“I don’t know what he might have seen there in Syria the last few years. Maybe this changed him.”

“But wasn’t he always interested in going to fight? Wasn’t he planning to travel to Somalia, and that’s how he got into trouble?” I asked.

“He was interested in what happened in the Muslim world, including Somalia, and he felt the West was following unfair policies and double standards,” the man told me. But he didn’t understand how his old friend could cut off the heads of journalists and aid workers. “This is very difficult for me to swallow. I am asking myself the whole time, why Mohammed?

I asked if he had a photo of his friend, but he said he didn’t. We walked back to the car, and he offered to drive me to a cabstand a bit closer to the city.

Back at the hotel, Adam, Peter, and I got on Skype, and I told them that we now had a second source: a friend of Emwazi’s who said he was Jihadi John.

“I guess we will have to contact British authorities now,” Peter said. He said he would speak to the Post’s top editors and let me know about next steps.

“I know it’s quite late where you are and it’s been a long day, but could you stay up so we can update you on what we are doing?” Peter asked.

I told him that I wouldn’t be able to sleep now anyway. The adrenaline was unbelievable. I understood that we had the name of one of the most wanted men in the world.

* * *

Excerpted from I WAS TOLD TO COME ALONE: My Journey Behind the Lines of Jihad by Souad Mekhennet, published by HENRY HOLT AND COMPANY. Copyright © 2017 by Souad Mekhennet. All rights reserved.

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