On August 19, 2014, a masked man with a London accent appeared on a video, boasting that he was a soldier for ISIS, and proceeded to behead American journalist James Foley. Security services almost immediately identified the murderer as Mohammed Emwazi, a Kuwait-born British man of 26. His captives, noticing the British accents with which he and three other captors spoke, referred to the four as John, Paul, George, and Ringo. Emwazi’s media nickname became “Jihadi John.”
Built around interviews with MI5 and CIA officials, leading soldiers such as General David Richards of the U.K. and General David Petraeus of the U.S., and survivors of Syrian hostage camps from the era, director Anthony Wonke’s penetrating HBO documentary Unmasking Jihadi John: Anatomy of a Terrorist makes unfortunate, distracting use of cheesy dramatic reenactments in telling this awful story. But it also raises important questions about Emwazi’s journey to terrorism. The documentary is tinged with a sense of regret that the spooks could have done more to give Emwazi an exit ramp from evil.
As a boy, Emwazi immigrated to England at age six, his family winning asylum because they had been, in Kuwait, members of a persecuted minority, the Bedoon. Emwazi attended a Church of England school in London and seemed well-adjusted. As an adolescent, he began to disengage, to seem “slightly strange” in the words of one of his teachers. Footage of his youth shows him constantly covering his mouth; apparently the other boys liked to tease him about his breath. As a teen, he took up drinking and marijuana, but in college he started adopting Islamic dress and habits. Such faith “gives structure where there was none,” says one observer interviewed in the doc.
Online jihadist recruitment tools began to catch Emwazi’s eye, and he went to Somalia and Tanzania for indoctrination in Islamism. In the latter country he was locked up, beaten, and questioned. On the way back to London, he was stopped again in Amsterdam and again in Dover. British spies tried to steer him to be a double agent and threatened to make life difficult for him if he didn’t cooperate. “Whether we contributed to his further radicalization . . . by stopping him from travel is an interesting question,” notes Commander Richard Walton, Scotland Yard head of counterterrorism.
Security agents may well have acted in a counterproductive way. An engagement to a girl in London ended when the agencies contacted the bride-to-be’s family and told them about Emwazi’s activities. Emwazi’s own family hoped to steer him away from extremism by sending him to Kuwait, where he got engaged again. But again, agents from the intelligence services contacted the bride-to-be’s family and scared them off. A happily married Emwazi might have been less dangerous, and his fury only grew as he found it increasingly challenging to live in either the U.K. or Kuwait. He was drawn to ISIS in Syria, where he eventually started a family, apparently with a bride ISIS provided him.
In Syria, Emwazi starred in several gruesome 2014 execution videos involving beheadings that stunned the world with their viciousness. “They were very, very skillful propaganda. They recreated the medieval barbarity of the seventh century with these great bladed weapons,” says Lord David Anderson, an independent reviewer of terrorism legislation. The most breathtaking point reached by ISIS was perhaps when its terrorists burned a Jordanian pilot alive in 2015, given that execution by fire is strictly forbidden to Muslims.
Emwazi was a trained IT expert, and was clever about hiding his tracks when he engaged in online activities, frustrating the experts on his tail. All the same, he couldn’t hide forever. His days were numbered when he started posting those horrific videos. “For us this was as personal as if he’d have been an American,” says Douglas H. Wise, a leader for Middle East operations for the CIA. “What we needed to do was find, fix, and finish Emwazi.”
“As they say in the manhunt business,” Emwazi “ended up on the X” is how Petraeus puts it. The mission to exterminate Emwazi became an American priority, and the story of that manhunt is dramatically and satisfyingly retold as the climax of Unmasking Jihadi John. The military watched him for some time from above as he traveled to a marketplace, unaware he was in the X. The executioner got what he denied his victims: an instantaneous death. “He didn’t have to feel the cut of the steel,” says Wise.
“We’re going to have to live with a level of extreme Islamist violence for some time to come,” says an expert in the film. But the price of ISIS’s actions has become ever clearer, and today the group is clinging to life. “Paul,” “George,” and “Ringo” have all been captured. May anyone thinking of emulating Jihadi John consider his fate as seen in this gripping film.