The War Nerd: Why did Mohammed Emwazi become Jihadi John?

By Gary Brecher , written on February 27, 2015

From The War Desk

Everybody knows by now that Jihadi John, that masked man with the bowie knife and the London accent, is actually Mohammed Emwazi, a rich boy from Maida Vale, one of the poshest neighborhoods in one of the most expensive cities in the world.

Why, oh why, would a rich boy from a nice home go on to make snuff movies? That’s the whine you hear from the press. As always, first thing to do is question the question; why wouldn’t he? He’s famous, isn’t he? The hero of his own movie, “and the papers want to know whose shirts he wears,” as the feller said. It’s a classic male fantasy, and gore is a classic feature of those fantasies. What astonishes me is that so few middle- and upper-class Muslim kids are succumbing to it.

True, Mr. Emwazi is unlikely to spend his thirtieth birthday aboveground, but that idea probably doesn’t register with him. It usually doesn’t, with young males who catch Protagonism. And Emwazi has a bad case. According to Islamic State defectors, he gets the full velvet rope treatment, second only to the self-crowned caliph, Al Baghdadi, on IS’s A List, which features pretty much the same stuff you get on the Western A-List: Blacked-out SUVs, an endless supply of concubines, and a camera crew following your every move.

In other words—and it’s laughable, mang, that I even have to say this—in other words, Emwazi isn’t a victim. There are lots of victims in his rise to stardom, Kurds and Shia and Yazidii, but this vain fool isn’t a victim.

And yet the first attempt to spin the story on Jihadi John’s identity came from a ridiculous British Muslim self-pity group calling itself CAGE, which handed out a weepy, silly version of his bio. According to CAGE, Emwazi was forced into sawing people’s heads off because of harassment from the British cops. You really have to hear some of this maudlin shit to believe it, like these samples from the CAGE press conference featuring Asim Qureshi, as live-reported in The Telegraph:

Qureshi just caught his voice and sounded like he was crying when he called Emwazi "a beautiful young man."

15.26 At a press conference in London, Qureshi says he has known Emwazi since summer 2009 and that the terrorist nicknamed Jihadi John, who is wanted for beheading several British and American hostages, was "extremely kind, extremely gentle...most humble young person I ever knew".

 "I wish things could have turned out differently for him." And what made things go so wrong for Emwazi? Harassment by the security services, which even cost him money on those pesky nonrefundable tickets:

As a result of Mohammed’s refusal to work for the MI5, they have caused him to lose much money on tickets for flights, two potential marriages, a good job (and given the current economic conditions he hadn’t been able to find a new one), and since August 2010 he was unable to return to his country of birth. Furthermore, he and his family had been greatly distressed by the unnecessary harassment and intimidation they suffered from British intelligence agents.

Considering that Emwazi’s last known UK address was a three-bedroom flat in Maida Vale, it’s hard to imagine that a few flights to East Africa bankrupted the family. And why were these flights unsuccessful? Well, CAGE’s story doesn’t mention it, but Mohammed had a big crush on Al Shabaab, the Somali jihadi group. His Salafist friends from Ladbrook Grove had trained with Al Shabaab in Somali, and it was when Emwazi tried to go there to do the same that he got grabbed by Tanzanian security at Dar es Salaam airport, in May 2009, and sent home. After that, the “unnecessary harassment” started…for no reason at all, except that he was doing everything but wearing a big balloon tied to his neck saying “Future Islamic State Executioner.”

So the victim-narrative is comically wrong, and Emwazi’s choice (as it were) isn’t as unusual as the media are playing it. But there’s still a reasonable question: Why this guy, out of all the Muslim rich boys in Greater London? There are a lot of young men in that group, after all, and only a few of them have joined Islamic State. Why Mohammed Emwazi?

This gets us down to the accursed business of profiling. Like I’ve said before, it’s very hard to make anything like a “foreign-fighter” profile, because the variations, country to country and even city to city, are huge. There are contingents like the guys from Derna in Libya who are classic poor, tough, rebel kids, and then there are the Saudis, who tend to be pampered rich kids raised on Wahaabi bigotry.

There are bored Belgians, sick of living in a world where everything is permitted and eager for some macho authoritarianism, and Tunisian men who’ve never had a decent job and are happy to make some money carrying a gun and scaring the rich, snotty, cosmopolitan, bikini-wearing, beachfront French-speaking elite back in Tunis.

There are, believe it or not, ex-cops from North Carolina with an interest in bodybuilding, and rich kids from Egypt, also with an interest in bodybuilding; there are Australian pimps and thugs, and a lot of ordinary young men, quasi-jocks, the middle of the curve. Almost the only common feature of all these profiles is that they hark back to a day when men ruled and women obeyed; beyond that, it’s impossible to get much of a fix on the whole miscellany of dreams and grudges pouring into Syria.

If we narrow it down to UK volunteers going to Islamic State, you get a more manageable sample, but not one that helps understand Jihadi John much. Most UK volunteers are from Pakistani or Bangladeshi families, rather than Kuwaiti like Emwazi.

Kuwait is a strange place, and it’s given its share of jihadis to the cause. I had the unique experience of being fired, half an hour after starting work, by a room full of Kuwaiti Army officers, one American “revert” (convert to Islam), and a screaming Mauritian midget, because I allegedly showed a pro-Hindu bias in a column I wrote on Kashmir long ago. So yes, I’m familiar with the somewhat tender sensibilities of Kuwaitis. (Though to my total non-surprise, it was my fellow American who snitched on me, photocopied an old War Nerd column and started the inquisition. Americans are the world’s leading snitches, in my rather considerable experience.)

Kuwait is in an odd little eddy of the tide sweeping the Gulf principalities. Kuwait is basically one of the Gulf countries, the little countries that make up the UAE, though of course Kuwait is independent and not part of the UAE. It’s still a small coastal enclave that got swamped with oil and money in the early 20th century, and it’s gone through the same wrenching shifts all the Gulf (Khaleej) countries have.

Each of these little places has adapted, or tried to, in its own way. Dubai is the obvious example of a place that’s grabbed the changes with both hands. Quick way to summarize that: You can buy booze in Dubai. Legally. In Abu Dhabi too, more or less. In Sharjah, no.

And in Kuwait, no.

And that’s a recent change, only enacted in 1982. Because Kuwait has pulled in the opposite direction, back from the huge changes, unlike Dubai. A Kuwaiti who took us to the airport stopped in traffic, looking at the hijabs and dishdashes shuffling across the zebra crossing, and said out of nowhere, “Kuwait used to be very western.”

What dragged Kuwait back from the brink of Western-ness was democracy. The proverbial will of the people. Of course, “people” in Kuwait means only the real Kuwaitis, the citizens, who are only a third of the population. The rest of us were foreign labor, replaceable work units, housed in high-rise slums, gritting their teeth, being harassed by crooked Kuwaiti police, taking buses while the real Kuwaitis roar by in this year’s SUVs.

For the real Kuwaitis, life is sweet, or ought to be. But not Hollywood macho, which is why Kuwait is full of bodybuilding gyms, giant glass boxes you have to approach very carefully, because the gravel outside those gyms is scattered with hypodermic needles that have been tossed away by the steroid cases pumping away inside. They inject right in the open, like they’re proud of it. Viagra and steroids are the drugs of choice there.

You might say, like they do in the Gender Studies biz, that there’s a crisis of masculinity in the Gulf. For some, not all. If you like what’s on offer over the border in Bahrain, and it’s all on offer there, there’s no crisis at all; like that cliché says, “Crisis means opportunity in Chinese,” and in some dialects of Arabic as well. Some Kuwaiti men are living very large, drawing salaries as colonels in the Kuwaiti Army while running fashion-knockoff factories in Guangzhou, zipping over to Bahrain for wet weekends and to Germany (they love Germany) for more family-oriented fun.

Adapting to this new dazzle is a lot harder for people who come to the Gulf from a harsher, more authoritarian country like Yemen. And one of the few things we know about Emwazi’s family is that it’s originally Yemeni. Jihadi John himself chose to accentuate the Yemeni background in his nom de guerre, calling himself “Abu Muharib al-Yemeni” rather than the “al-Britani” favored by most British IS fighters.

Does that mean something bad happened to him in Britain? In a sense, yeah, but if you’re doing the reflexive move of imagining he got beat up by skinheads, just drop it. Maida Vale is not skinhead territory, and the University of Westminster, his last known UK school, is home turf for Islamist preachers, not the UKIP.

The bad thing that happened to this very ordinary young man was too many jumps for his very ordinary brain to handle. Yemen to Kuwait is a huge jump for any family to make, but Yemen to Kuwait to West London is too many quantam leaps for a weak mind to make.

It starts with Yemen. Emwazi’s background as a rich young man from the Arab Peninsula but from a hardscrabble Yemeni family bears an obvious resemblance to the background of another guy who kicked up some dust in the jihad biz a while back, a tall drink of water named Osama. The bin Ladens were Yemeni too, nouveau-riche Yemeni who came to Saudi and got rich bidding on government contracts.

And if you’ll remember, a few months ago, when we were living in Kuwait, I wrote about a weird murder where a woman in full hijab and niqab butchered an American woman in the women’s toilet at an Abu Dhabi mall.

She turned out to be a rich lady “of Yemeni origin, who had traveled back and forth to Yemen ‘multiple times.’”

So what’s going on with the Yemen link? Yemen is poor, tough, desperate, “unspoiled” in the very worst sense of the word. It’s the Old Testament, where girls are given away at an early age and clan hatred is law—which is why it would do America’s Christians a world o’ good to spend some time there, especially as a village girl. Atheism would be rampant the very moment they stepped outside the security zone in Oklahoma City.

So to go from the hills of Yemen, where men rule completely, to Kuwait, where women stroll around the malls in various stages of undress, from full pious black swathe to short shorts (and they do), windowshopping $250,000 watches, often without a male guardian in sight—that’s a stretch, for a Yemeni family.

So that’s one huge culture-jump already, but a bigger one was coming. Emwazi’s family left Kuwait when he was only six years old, so any memories of Kuwait would have been held by his elders, passed on to him. His most vivid memories would have been life in a rich Muslim-Arab family that “kept to itself” in the posh neighborhoods of West London. He was “quiet,” he “loved his football,” and didn’t stand out much in any way.

You see that so often in these jihadi profiles, “he loved his football.” It’s so banal that you tend to ignore it, but it actually means a lot. It’s an attempt to find a common denominator, some shared ground that can allow you to be a grudge-holding pious Yemeni loyal son and a West London rich boy at the same time, something you can discuss with people who don’t share your particular—very, very particular—view of what is halal and what is haram.

Often it works. We underestimate the corrosive power of TV culture.

Football is on TV all the time, even in Riyadh. You have to go very far into jihadi circles to meet people who accept Islamic State’s view that football is solidly in the “haram” category.

Only if you’ve got a massive grudge, of the sort a Yemeni/Kuwaiti/British kid with enough money to brood on it can generate, do you go that far. It takes money, leisure, humorlessness, and an overdose of culture-jumps. Jihadi John, or Mohammed Emwazi, or Abu Muharib al-Yemeni, or whatever he’s calling himself these days, was one of the weak ones, too weak to handle all those quantum leaps. He’s not a victim, he’s not a hero, he’s just an ordinary dumb young man who translated his family history into a religious grudge—a common move—and rode it to cheap stardom making snuff videos, with a cheap dime-novel death coming up any day now.

What is really remarkable, really worthy of celebration, is that there are so few of them. No human group of this size has ever had to handle culture-jumps as wrenching as the ones that kids from this kind of background handle now, all over the world, every day. The people we should be celebrating are the tens of millions of them who are bumping along in their weird, unprecedented 21st century lives, making it up as they go along, riding the wave.

[Illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]