ISIS militant ‘Jihadi John’ identified, U.S. officials say

Story highlights

  • Advocacy group CAGE says it had contact with Mohammed Emwazi
  • Reports: Militant known as Jihadi John is Mohammed Emwazi
  • London’s Metropolitan Police declines to confirm his reported identity

(CNN)A man with a British accent seen in ISIS videos showing the beheadings of Western hostages was identified Thursday as Mohammed Emwazi, a Kuwaiti-born Londoner, according to two U.S. officials and two U.S. congressional sources briefed on the matter.

The Washington Post and Reuters, citing the newspaper, earlier reported that Emwazi is “Jihadi John,” citing one of Emwazi’s close friends.

A Muslim-led human rights advocacy group in London, CAGE, which had contact with Emwazi over alleged “harassment” by UK security services, also said in a statement there were “some striking similarities” between 26-year-old Emwazi and the man seen in execution videos holding a knife.

London’s Metropolitan Police declined to confirm the reported identity.

“We have previously asked media outlets not to speculate about the details of our investigation on the basis that life is at risk,” said Commander Richard Walton of the Metropolitan Police’s Counter Terrorism Command.

“We are not going to confirm the identity of anyone at this stage or give an update on the progress of this live counter-terrorism investigation.”

A UK Foreign Office spokeswoman told CNN: “We will neither confirm nor deny the current reporting as to the identity of Jihadi John.”

Reports indicate a middle class upbringing

CAGE, a London-based human rights and Muslim advocacy group that interacted with Emwazi said on its website that he is a 26-year-old British citizen who was born in Kuwait in 1988. He moved to the United Kingdom when he was 6 years old, according to the organization.

He completed university studies in 2009, the group said.

He reportedly graduated from the University of Westminster in London with a degree in computer programming. Emwazi “hoped that with this degree, he could build a successful career in Arab countries, as he was fluent in Arabic, English and had a British accent.”

The Washington Post report, cited by Reuters, quoted unnamed friends of Emwazi as saying they believed his path to radicalization began when he went on a trip to Tanzania, in East Africa, in 2009 after graduating.

He was supposed to be going on safari there, but was reportedly detained on arrival, held overnight and then deported.

He was also detained by counterterrorism officials in Britain in 2010, Reuters said, citing the Post.

Emwazi is believed to have traveled to Syria in 2012, according to the newspaper, in reporting cited by Reuters, and later to have joined ISIS there.

Those details were echoed in CAGE’s online information and at a Thursday news conference by Asim Qureshi, CAGE’s research director. He said he had been in touch with Emwazi over several years. He said that a Post reporter contacted him and asked him if Emwazi could be the same man in the ISIS beheading videos.

The newspaper quoted Qureshi as saying, “There was an extremely strong resemblance” and “This is making me feel fairly certain that this is the same person.”

At the news conference, Qureshi told reporters that he could “not be 100% certain” that Emwazi is Jihadi John because Jihadi John’s face is covered but that there are “striking similarities” between the men.

Qureshi went on to describe the man he knew as Emwazi as a “polite” and “beautiful young man” who would drop into the CAGO office with treats to thank the group for helping him. Emwazi came to CAGE in 2009 looking for support when he felt that British authorities were — in Qureshi’s words — “harassing” him.

If Emwazi is indeed Jihadi John, Qureshi said, that makes him “sad” because “it’s hard to imagine the trajectory but it’s not a trajectory that’s unfamiliar.”

He said that many Muslims such as Emwazi feel alienated in their society.

“When are we going to finally learn if we treat people as if they’re outsiders … they will look for belonging elsewhere. Our entire national security strategy for the last 13 years has only increased alienation,” said Qureshi.

Alienation to ISIS?

Former CIA analyst Philip Mudd, appearing on CNN after that press conference, responded to Qureshi’s comments.

Mudd said there is much that’s unknown. If British authorities were pursuing Emwazi, then why? He dismissed the notion that investigators or federal agents could be blamed for radicalizing someone.

“You can be alienated … but that does not give you the authority to behead a human being,” Mudd added.

According to the Post, in June 2010, counterterrorism officials detained Emwazi in Britain, and he was stopped from flying to Kuwait the next day.

“I had a job waiting for me and marriage to get started,” he wrote in a June 2010 email to Qureshi, the Post reported.

But now “I feel 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,” the email said.

CAGE points the finger at British security services, who they say have “systematically engaged in the harassment of young Muslims, rendering their lives impossible and leaving them with no legal avenue to redress their situation.”

Qureshi drew a parallel with the case of Michael Adebolajo, convicted for the May 2013 murder in London of British soldier Lee Rigby, who said the UK domestic intelligence service MI5 had tried to recruit him.

Questions have been raised previously over whether CAGE lends support to Islamist extremists. One of its leading lights is Moazzam Begg, an ex-Guantanamo detainee.

On its website, CAGE says it is dedicated to securing the release of Aafia Siddiqui, nicknamed “Lady Al-Qaeda.” She is behind bars in the United States.

Haras Rafiq, managing director of the Quilliam Foundation, a UK-based counter-extremism think tank, told CNN that it was clear that Emwazi had been radicalized before 2010.

He said the intelligence agencies who stopped Emwazi traveling to Tanzania believed there was evidence that he intended to join the extremist group Al-Shabaab in Somalia.

Haras added that it was “very upsetting that an organization like CAGE would spin this in the way that they’ve done,” by blaming intelligence agencies.

‘Notorious celebrity’

Sajjan Gohel, director of international security at the Asia Pacific Foundation, told CNN that it had been an open secret for some time that the U.S. and British intelligence communities knew Jihadi John’s identity.

By not revealing it for operational reasons, he said, they may have created another issue.

“The problem was that it created more speculation in the media. In some ways, the nom de guerre of Jihadi John gave this individual a form of notorious celebrity,” he said.

The man’s reported background gives some clues, Gohel said. “We know that ISIS recruits a lot of Westerners who are skilled in new media, understanding of the Internet, because they use that as their platform as an oxygen of publicity,” he said.

A University of Westminster spokeswoman said: “A Mohammed Emwazi left the University six years ago. If these allegations are true, we are shocked and sickened by the news. Our thoughts are with the victims and their families.”

Student safety is the university’s chief concern, it said, and it is, like other colleges in London, working to implement the UK government’s “Prevent” strategy to tackle extremism.

Familiar figure in videos

The masked, black-clad figure believed to be Jihadi John has become a familiar sight in ISIS’ gruesome beheading videos.

He appears to be the ISIS militant shown in a video last month demanding a $200 million ransom to spare the lives of two Japanese journalists. That man looks and sounds similar to one who has appeared in at least five previous hostage videos.

U.S. and British officials have previously said they believe they know who Jihadi John is, but they haven’t disclosed the information publicly.

That could be because Western intelligence agencies believe they have more to gain from keeping quiet, Aki Peritz, a former CIA officer, told CNN last month.

“They can put pressure on his family, put pressure on his friends,” he told CNN. “Maybe they have a line to him. Maybe they know who his cousins are who are going to Syria who can identify him. However, if you publicly tell everybody who he is, his real identity, then maybe he’ll go to ground and he’ll disappear.”