The Boy Who Dreamed of Being a Footballer

Published: 14th November 2015 08:48 AM  |   Last Updated: 14th November 2015 08:48 AM   |  A+A-

Jihadi John_AP

This still image from undated video released by Islamic State militants on Oct. 3, 2014, purports to show the militant known as Jihadi John. |AP

On a warm London day in August 2012, Mohammed Emwazi set off on his long and barbaric journey to becoming Britain's most notorious terrorist.

He walked out of his mother's 1980s terraced home in affluent Queen's Park and said he would be back soon. Within three days, family members realised he was lying and, concerned for his welfare, called police.

But Emwazi had already left Britain for the last time, and the boy who wanted to be a Manchester United star would soon be making altogether different headlines than those he may once have envisaged. He contacted his family within a month of leaving to say he was working for Red Crescent, the Islamic relief charity, at a refugee camp in Turkey. By early 2013, however, detectives had told his family he was in Syria. Despite this knowledge, Emwazi would keep in sporadic phone contact with his family, always insisting he was still in Turkey.

In reality, he was working his way up the chain of command with Islamic State of Iraq of the Levant (Isil) and starting a family. He got married in 2013 and had a son.

His last contact with his family was in early 2014, about six months before the release of a video in which he appeared to behead the American journalist James Foley, who had been captured by Isil two years earlier.

By that stage, police had questioned his parents and his younger brother Omar, but his identity had not been released. The masked man, then known only as Jihadi John, appeared in more videos, overseeing the beheadings of the American journalist Steven Sotloff, British aid workers David Haines and Alan Henning, the American aid worker Peter Kassig and Kenji Goto and Haruna Yukawa, from Japan.

When Jihadi John's identity was revealed by friends, in February, a complex picture of the man behind the mask began to emerge.

Emwazi was born in Kuwait and moved to London with his family in 1994, when he was six. He grew up in North Kensington, in the same mixed neighbourhood as several other Islamist extremists, including two of the men later jailed for the failed attempt to bomb London's transport network two weeks after the July 7 attacks in 2005.

In a school year book from 1996 Emwazi wrote: "What I want to be when I grow up is a footballer." His former head teacher at Quintin Kynaston Community Academy in St John's Wood recalled a "hard-working aspirational young man". She said he had been bullied, but insisted she was not aware of any radicalisation of pupils.

Emwazi was said to always cover his mouth at secondary school because other pupils teased him for having "bad breath".

He studied information technology at the University of Westminster, where he gained a 2:2 degree in Information Systems with Business Management. The turning point in his life appeared to come with a trip to Tanzania in 2009 after graduating. Here, Emwazi later told the campaign group Cage, he was accused by the British of planning to join al-Shabaab fighters in Somalia.

Cage published correspondence it had with Emwazi, in which he claimed the trip had been a holiday, but that following overnight detention at gunpoint in Dar es Salaam, the Tanzanian capital, he and his friends were sent back to Britain via Amsterdam. He claimed that British agents had asked him to become a spy and promised him "a lot of trouble" after he rejected them.

But custody records told a different story. One officer said Emwazi had not been allowed into Tanzania because he had "brought chaos to the airport" and "behaved like alcohol was involved".

Emwazi then flew to Kuwait to live with his fiancee's family, finding an IT job. He was described by a former boss as "the best employee we ever had".

He paid two visits to London in 2010 to see his parents, who were then living in a modest home on the edge of a housing estate in west London. Elisa Moraise, a neighbour, said he had become "strange and unfriendly". Emwazi later claimed to Cage that while trying to return to Kuwait in July 2010, the British authorities blocked him from travelling and put him on a terror watch list.

Court papers connected Emwazi to a network of extremists known as "The London Boys" who came together to play football but were said to have been trained in terror tactics by al-Shabaab.

One former hostage described Emwazi as having quickly become a leading figure with Isil. Javier Espinosa, a Spanish journalist who was released in March last year after being held for six months, described being subjected to a mock execution and accused Emwazi of submitting hostages to "psychological and physical torture" to seek "maximum drama".

Two British trainee medics who met Emwazi in 2013, when he visited injured friends in a Syrian hospital, later described him as "quiet, but a bit of an adrenalin junkie".

One of them said: "I spotted this guy walking in, dressed in full combat kit, with a pistol on a holster, magazine, shopping bag in one hand and talking on a phone in the other. He would bring drinks, sweets and ice cream."

In his last known video appearance, in August, Emwazi was filmed without a mask, apparently threatening to return to Britain to carry on his campaign of terror. "I will carry on cutting heads," he promised.

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