LONDON (RNS) The Islamic State militant known as “Jihadi John,” who has been seen in videos of hostages’ beheadings, was identified Thursday (Feb. 26) by the BBC and The Washington Post.
Mohammed Emwazi, who is in his mid-20s, is believed to be a Kuwaiti-born British man from west London. The BBC said he was known to British security services, who chose not to disclose his name for operational reasons.
“Jihadi John” has appeared in videos showing the killings of U.S. journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, U.S. medic Abdul-Rahman Kassig and Britons David Haines and Alan Henning. The black-clad militant also appeared in a video last month with Japanese hostages Haruna Yukawa and Kenji Goto, who were later killed.
The militant was given the name John by hostages who nicknamed him and three other British militants after the Beatles.
British counterterrorism officials wouldn’t confirm the identity of “Jihadi John.”
“We have previously asked media outlets not to speculate about the details of our investigation on the basis that life is at risk,” Commander Richard Walton of Scotland Yard’s Counter Terrorism Command said in a statement.
“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.”
Emwazi, who comes from a well-to-do family, graduated from college with a degree in computer programming, The Washington Post reported. The University of Westminster in London said someone named 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,” the university said in a statement.
Emwazi is believed to have traveled to Syria around 2012 before joining the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS or ISIL, the Post reported.
Asim Qureshi, research director at the rights group CAGE, which works with Muslims in conflict with British intelligence services and was in contact with Emwazi before he left for Syria, told the paper that he believes Emwazi is “Jihadi John.”
“There was an extremely strong resemblance,” he said. “This is making me feel fairly certain that this is the same person.”
The Study of Radicalization and Political Violence at King’s College London, which closely tracks fighters in Syria, also said it believed the identification was correct, according to The Associated Press.
The Post said British counterterrorism officials detained Emwazi in 2010, took his fingerprints and searched his belongings.
Emwazi’s family declined a request for an interview, citing legal advice, the Post reported. The paper said Emwazi occasionally prayed at a mosque in Greenwich, southeast London.
Friends of Emwazi, speaking to the Post on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the investigation, said they believed that Emwazi became radicalized after a planned safari went awry in Tanzania following his graduation from the University of Westminster.
The paper said Emwazi and two friends — a German convert to Islam named Omar and another man called Abu Talib — were detained by police and held overnight when they landed in the Tanzanian capital of Dar es Salaam, in May 2009. They never made it on the safari and were deported, the paper said.
In September, FBI Director James Comey said U.S. officials believed they knew the identify of Jihadi John but did not release his name or nationality.
(Jane Onyanga-Omara writes for USA Today.)
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