Jihadi John: The Making of a Terrorist by Robert Verkaik – review

British and American hostages held by Isis and their predecessors in Iraq were kept in near total darkness, fed very little food, subjected to repeated and brutal torture, mock executions and endless psychological torment before being beheaded on camera in the most sadistic and shocking fashion.

One of the men responsible for holding the hostages captive, administering the torture and finally the grotesque executions was a young Briton of Kuwaiti descent called Mohammed Emwazi, better known by his media moniker, Jihadi John. Emwazi grew up in west London, a refugee whose family were granted asylum in Britain.

As a teenager he was interested in pop music, drinking alcohol and going to clubs. He received a good enough education to attend Westminster University, where he gained a degree in computer science. So what turned him from a not untypical London youth into a psychopathic sadist and sickening killer?

This is the question that the journalist Robert Verkaik attempts to address in his new book Jihadi John: The Making of a Terrorist. Verkaik has a head start on every other journalist insofar as he actually met and spoke to Emwazi. Back in 2010, when he was working for the Independent, Verkaik interviewed Emwazi about complaints he had of harassment by the British intelligence services, in particular MI5.

Emwazi became the focus of the secret services because of the extensive jihadi company he kept in west London and because he had tried to join the Islamist terror group al-Shabaab in Somalia. His efforts were thwarted and he was turned back from Tanzania – he claimed that he and his two jihadi friends were looking to go on safari.

Thereafter he was kept under surveillance and apparently suffered two failed engagements after M15 informed his fiancees’ families of Emwazi’s jihadi sympathies.

As a result, Emwazi developed a pathological grievance towards the British state. As far as he was concerned, any attempt by the authorities to keep tabs on potential terrorists like himself was a gross infringement of his human rights. In this warped perspective, he was encouraged by the Islamist prisoner rights and advocacy group Cage, whose director Asim Qureshi famously called Emwazi an “extremely gentle, kind” and “beautiful young man”.

But of course there were plenty of Nazi concentration camp guards who were extremely gentle to fellow Nazis. It was Qureshi’s contention that what turned Emwazi from a paragon of humility into a taunting homicidal monster was his mistreatment by MI5.

Verkaik doesn’t exactly endorse this view, but nor does he entirely dismiss it. He does a fine job in putting together what is known about Emwazi – which is not a great deal – and weighing up the likelihood of his claims.

Verkaik seems torn between wanting to believe the narrative of a young idealistic man set on the wrong path by his bruising encounters with the intelligence services, and the large amount of at least circumstantial evidence that suggests he was a practised liar and devoted jihadist all along.

Certainly there’s nothing that happened to Emwazi that can even remotely justify or, indeed, explain his later actions. And if he really was placed under the kind of relentless scrutiny that he and Cage claimed, how was it that he was able to slip out of the country to Syria without anyone noticing that he’d gone?

Verkaik says this was a major embarrassment for the security services. But what were they to do? Place Emwazi under 24-hour guard? Make Britain a fortress from which no one can leave without a prolonged security check?

Towards the end of the book, Verkaik wonders if there was anything he could have done to prevent Emwazi from developing into Jihadi John. He also suggests that things may have gone differently had M15 taken a less aggressive stance.

He cites the example of a group of Somalis from Kentish Town in north London who were placed under intensive focus by the security services. After Verkaik brought media attention to their plight, the security services backed off. A good result – except several of the men involved went on to become active terrorists.

There is, of course, no satisfactory answer to the correct course of action. It’s one of those areas in which you hope to be least wrong. But one possibility, not explored in this highly readable book, is that those like Cage, to which Emwazi turned for advice, might have discouraged his self-dramatising grievances and explained that if he was going to be part of a jihadist network, then he could expect the attentions of the security services.

It may not have deterred him. He and many of his friends were determined to join up with the Salafist forces in Somalia or Syria, or anywhere that people are maimed, raped or killed for not sharing the same extreme beliefs as Emwazi.

How he came by those beliefs remains a mystery. But they urgently need to be challenged if we want to avoid producing more aggrieved young souls hellbent on emulating Jihadi John.

Jihadi John: The Making of a Terrorist is published by Oneworld (£9.99). Click here to buy it for £7.99

Source http://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/feb/15/jihadi-john-making-of-terrorist-robert-verkaik-isis


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