The Hunt for Jihadi John: what turned a London schoolboy into an Isis executioner?
Film-maker Richard Kerbaj follows the story of Mohammed Emwazi as part of a new Channel 4 documentary
When a group of masked Isis gunmen stormed Federico Motka’s car in northern Syria in March 2013, the Italian aid worker was on the phone to his boss, updating him about the state of refugee camps in the region. With him was British security adviser David Haines, a father-of-two from the East Riding of Yorkshire who grew up in Scotland and had been involved in humanitarian work since 1999.
While they were familiar with the unpredictability of conflict zones, including Syria, they had no idea that their captors were hellbent on abducting westerners for the purposes of propaganda. Nor were they aware at the time that the militants included four British men, whom the hostages would go on to nickname “the Beatles” because of their English accents.
Among them was Mohammed Emwazi, a former schoolboy from north-west London, who became known to his victims, and eventually the rest of the world, as Jihadi John.
Interviewing Motka for the Channel 4 and HBO documentary The Hunt for Jihadi John, I was struck by the close bond he and Haines formed during 14 months in captivity and how it helped them endure the brutality that they suffered. Ultimately, and very tragically, it would end in the execution of Haines.
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They were beaten and deprived of sleep by captors fixated on Guantanamo Bay, the US detention facility in Cuba where terrorists are held, and Abu Ghraib, the controversial prison in Iraq where human rights abuses were committed by American soldiers against local prisoners following the 2003 invasion of the country. “Things like stress positions, or not allowing us to sleep, or making us stand up all night,” says Motka, 35, of the torture that he and other hostages were subjected to.
“They took a lot of their inspiration from what they had heard about places like Abu Ghraib and what the coalition forces in other countries had done. Guantanamo was referenced all the time. By Emwazi, in particular.”
At the time, Emwazi was in his early 20s, seething with hatred for the West, and in particular the British police and security services who had repeatedly questioned him about his extremist links and activities before he slipped off their radar and fled the UK for the battlefields of Syria in 2012.
I was keen to interrogate Emwazi’s back story through the voices of British and American counterterrorism and intelligence officials to understand how a boy from London went on to become a poster boy for Isis and lead the organisation’s propaganda campaign against the West.
Richard Walton, the former head of counterterrorism at Scotland Yard, who investigated Emwazi, reveals for the first time that the security services tried to recruit the Islamist extremist as an informant before he joined Isis in Syria. He adds that the failed attempts of the authorities to prevent him joining the terrorist group may have “contributed to his further radicalisation”.
“We made approaches to him, we wanted to give him the opportunity to work for us and to desist from becoming a terrorist,” says Walton. “There’s always a risk when you make these approaches, and the chances of success are, in any event, fairly minimal… On the one hand we had absolutely understood the threat he posed, but ultimately we failed because he became what he wanted to be: potentially one of the worst terrorists of all time.
“Whether we contributed to his further radicalisation and his clear anger and vitriol against the British state by stopping him from travelling is an interesting question.”
Emwazi’s perceived sense of injustice and victimisation by the British state fuelled his brutality when he joined Isis under the mentorship of Abu Omar al-Shishani, a former Chechen warlord who became a senior commander in the terrorist group.
He quickly established a new identity as an executioner. It was a world apart from his time as a pupil at Quintin Kynaston, the secondary school he attended in north-west London, where he was teased for having bad breath and was described by his headteacher, Jo Shuter, as a “passenger in life” who was “more of a follower than a leader”. Far gone was the boy who migrated with his family from Kuwait to London at the age of six in 1993 and went on to become a fan of S Club 7 and Manchester United.
Fast-forward 20 years, and a couple of months after Motka and Haines’s capture, the pair were relocated by Emwazi to a makeshift prison in Raqqa, the de facto capital of Isis, located in the north of Syria.
Motka only became aware of the existence of other hostages in his vicinity because he could hear them screaming. “We knew there were another two captives in the same location: you could hear their screams, and they could hear ours. Eventually we met them: it was [US journalist] James Foley and [British reporter] John Cantlie.”
Emwazi pitted Motka and Haines against Foley and Cantlie during their first meeting and forced them to fight. “They had Dave and me in one corner and John and James in the other, and they wanted us to fight. We obviously weren’t going to fight each other, but you kind of couldn’t not as there was potential for punishment.
“But you have to understand we were like skeletons by then, and every one of us fainted from exhaustion, so we weren’t exactly hurting each other. They found it highly entertaining.”
The incident had the opposite effect that was intended by the terrorists: instead of creating division and conflict among the four prisoners, it turned them into close friends. Eventually they were part of a larger group of around 15 prisoners, who included British aid worker Alan Henning, American journalist Steven Sotloff and French reporter Nicolas Hénin.
Although crammed into a small cell, they managed to find ways to escape the reality they were in by telling stories, playing quiz games such as A Question of Sport, and even doing yoga. Motka helped create a chess board with pieces formed out of cheese cartons.
Motka was released after 14 months in captivity in May 2014 after the Italian government paid a ransom to his captors. Three months later, Foley was beheaded by Emwazi. The masked executioner would go on to kill Sotloff and Haines in September 2014, then Henning the following month.
It remains a painful outcome for Motka to talk about. “Dave and I believed that because we were taken together there was a good chance that we would be negotiated for together. And then the moment [came] that you realised that this was only for me. It was one of the most bittersweet emotions I think I’ve ever had.”
Richard Kerbaj is security correspondent at The Sunday Times
The Hunt for Jihadi John airs on Monday 20th May at 9pm on Channel 4