Mohammed Emwazi, the Isis recruit from Britain now notorious as the
savage executioner “Jihadi John”, gave up an earlier plan to join
al-Shabaab in Somalia when a succession of friends were killed amid
accusations of deceit and betrayal within the organisation.
Londoner turned from his first choice for jihad because he feared for
his own life too if he joined the group that controls a swathe of
Somalia and has brought carnage across East Africa.
extraordinary account of how he diverted from his preferred battleground
in the Horn of Africa to become the masked murderer of Isis hostages
came from a man who met him soon after his arrival in northern Syria,
having apparently hoodwinked British security agencies to make his
“He told me that if he had gone to Somalia he himself
could well have been killed,” Ayman, who worked for Isis but denies ever
being a member, told The Independent.
“It was strange – we were in the middle of a war and he wanted
to talk about another war. Mohammed was obsessed with al-Shabaab, he
was angry about what had happened in Africa: some of his friends have
been killed, some sent to prison and he thought they had been betrayed.”
foreign casualties in Somalia included Bilal al-Berjawi and Mohamed
Sakr, members of a close-knit circle to which Emwazi belonged while
growing up in north-west London.
The three men knew Habib Ghani, the
partner of Samantha Lewthwaite, the so-called “White Widow” of one of
the 7/7 London bombers, along with Omar Hammami, an American jihadist.
Emwazi was also an associate of Ali Adorus, now in prison in Ethiopia,
whose family still lives in north London.
The men’s deaths were
accompanied by claims in Islamist circles of vicious internal strife
within al-Shabaab, with enemies being eliminated in collusion with
Western intelligence services.
The so-called “London Boys” raised
funds and disseminated propaganda for al-Shabaab; six of them underwent
military training in Somalia as early as 2006. One of them was involved
with a cell which attempted to carry out bombings in London in 2005,
two weeks before the suicide bombing by Lewthwaite’s husband, Germaine
Emwazi had repeatedly claimed he was being hounded by
MI5, which he said was trying to recruit him, after a thwarted attempt
to reach Somalia alongside Adorus, a former security guard, five years
ago. He had become convinced that al-Shabaab had been infiltrated by
Western intelligence agencies.
“He told me that he tried to warn
some of them, but it was too late,” recalled Ayman, a 29-year-old Syrian
who asked that only his first name be used. “His view was that if they
[the intelligence agencies] could not prevent people from going to
Somalia, they had them killed there instead. He was full of suspicion
about spies. It was his ambition to go to help al-Shabaab, but he
couldn’t, so he was frustrated.”
Sitting at a cafe in a town
across the Turkish border, Ayman described his encounter with Emwazi at
Manbij in northern Syria. They met in spring last year just after Isis
had taken over the town from Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaeda affiliate, in
the first stages of a vicious struggle between the two hardline groups –
both of which were fighting the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad.
a slim man with restless eyes, insisted that he just carried out “some
office jobs” in Manbij while al-Nusra and Isis took control and was
never a member of either group. He fled to Turkey, he said, as soon as
he could after ensuring that his family got to safety. “We had to work,
otherwise Nusra and Daesh (Isis) would accuse us of being sympathetic to
Ayman could not explain why Emwazi should choose to
confide in him. “We knew some people in common. The first time I saw him
he was with some foreigners – Chechens, Tunisians, Yemenis – hanging
around. I thought he was a Yemeni. It was only after speaking to him
that I realised he was from England. I never knew his family name, some
called him al-Brittani like the other British here.
“He wasn’t a
commander, no one famous, and I only remember the conversation because
it was an important time in our war, with Daesh (Isis) fighting Nusra.
But this man, he wanted to talk about Somalia: it was big on his mind
and he was following news from there when he could.”
“Mohammed was not seen much in public in Raqaa [Isis ‘capital’ in
Syria]. We heard that he was really trusted by the Daesh leadership, and
he was becoming haughty.” He said he did not know Emwazi was to be
involved in beheading captives. “It was a shock to us all,” he said.
known killing spree began in August 2014 with the decapitation of
American photojournalist James Foley. This was followed by videos of
similar murders of Steven Sotloff, another American journalist; Peter
Kassig, a US soldier who had become an aid worker; and David Haines and
Alan Henning, British aid workers. Two Japanese hostages, Haruna Yukawa
and Kenji Goto, were also killed, as was a group of Syrian soldiers.
testimony gave a brief glimpse of Emwazi’s focus on Somalia even after
he had joined Isis. A former hostage told The Washington Post newspaper
that the man known as “Jihadi John” was obsessed by al-Shabaab and
forced captives to watch videos of fighting in Somalia.
Adorus and a German Muslim convert called Marcel Schrödl were sent back
to Europe after landing at Dar es Salaam in 2009. Emwazi claimed that an
MI5 officer attempted to recruit him at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport on
his way back.
Former “London Boys” Berjawi and Sakr were
similarly stopped and deported from Kenya on their way to Somalia at
around the same time as Emwazi’s travels. They managed to get through in
a second attempt later that year. Both were subsequently killed in US
In an attempt to counter claims of a “set-up” over
these and other deaths, al-Shabaab produced a captured “informant” who
confessed to supplying a foreign intelligence service with the
information leading to the air strikes.
Pakistani-born partner Ghani and the American Hammami were shot dead in a
village 200 miles from Mogadishu in 2013. The killings were supposedly
carried out on the orders of Ahmed Abdi Godane, who had become the head
of al-Shabaab in an internal coup.
Ayman said very little was
known about Emwazi inside Syria. “He just appears in these videos,
before that he was a no-one. Perhaps the British should be sorry they
did not let him go to Somalia, he would probably be dead by now like his
friends,” he reflected with a smile.