Politics | Creating ‘Jihadi John’: Are the UK security services putting us in danger?

The apparent unmasking of 'Jihadi John' has dominated international headlines of the past 48 hours. Far less coverage, however, has been given to troubling revelations that Mohammed Emwazi and others had been subjected to sustained harassment by UK security services for years. This raises important and urgent questions about current anti-terror policies.

Editor's Desk, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Saturday, February 28, 2015 21:15 - 7 Comments

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(Mohammed Emwazi pictured in school. Source: The Sun/News Syndication)

(Mohammed Emwazi pictured in school. Source: The Sun/News Syndication)

Yesterday, thanks to a Washington Post scoop, ‘Jihadi John’ finally gave way to a real name: Mohammed Emwazi. On the same day, in a remarkably apt serendipity, the group Cage released a set of case files, running to nearly 10,000 words, which showed that Emwazi had been subjected to repeated harassment from the UK intelligence services for years before he had joined ISIS. This was a major revelation, going far beyond what the Post had uncovered. It showed that:

– Emwazi and two friends were stopped by border control officials in Tanzania in August 2009 and refused entry. Neither was allowed to fly straight home. Instead, they were held overnight in a police station in Dar-es-Salaam. All this appears to have taken place at the request of the British security services.

– In the police station, they were threatened with guns; a police officer tried to make them strip. They slept rough on the floor and were given neither food nor drink for 24 hours.

– The next day, they boarded a 10-hour flight back to Amsterdam after being told that the British government was responsible for their treatment, a story they initially did not believe.

– In Amsterdam, Emwazi was subject to extended interrogation about the pair’s travel plans in Tanzania by someone who introduced himself as ‘Nick’ from MI5. ‘He knew everything about me; where I lived, what I did, the people I hanged around with’ said Emwazi. Nick argued that Emwazi had been on his way to Somalia. Emwazi disagreed, asking Nick how he would have traversed the significant distance through Kenya to reach Somalia. Nick is said to have replied: ‘“Don’t try to play smart and lie on my face. Don’t try to fool me. YOU WANTED TO GO TO SOMALIA.’

– Nick’s parting words to Emwazi were that ‘he was going to keep in touch and call me regularly. He even said that he would try to visit me … He again said that he was going to keep a check on me and keep a close track of all my activities’. These were interpreted by Emwazi as a ‘threat.’

– The MI5 agent then attempted to turn Emwazi into an informant. He told Emwazi that ‘this was an opportunity for him – not a lot of people got to meet MI5.’ Emwazi refused. In response, the agent replied: ‘You’re going to have a lot of trouble…you’re going to be known…you’re going to be followed…life will be harder for you.’

– On returning to Dover from Amsterdam, Emwazi and his friends had their bags searched again. They were questioned again at length. This time, the intelligence officers informed him that they had spoken to his fiancée. We are told this had the effect of ‘scaring her and her family from him’ and cancelling the marriage.

– After another interrogation, Emwazi asked for the badge of the intelligence officer to discuss with his solicitor, but was refused. He was also informed that he had been extensively monitored and his phone conversations listened to. ‘How could I be treated like that?’ he told Cage. ‘I am a British citizen and my government was threatening me and throwing allegations at me.’

– Emwazi was then asked what he thought about 7/7, (it was ‘nothing else but extremism’ he replied), ‘what do you think of war in Afghanistan?’ (‘innocent people being killed in news daily’), 9/11 (‘whatever happened was not right and if it was in my hands to bring all those lives back, I would have’) and Jews (‘I told him that it was their religion and every one had a right to have his own belief.’)

– Emwazi discovered his family had also been questioned. To avoid further harassment, Emwazi left for Kuwait. His family were visited ‘a couple of times’ while he was away over the next 8 months by the security services.

– In late July 2010, trying to return to Kuwait after a short visit to London, Emwazi was interrogated at length at the airport. The interrogation took a violent turn at one point, he says, when an intelligence officer began ‘strangling’ his neck, leaving him ‘absolutely shocked and completely baffled.’ The next day he discovered his Kuwaiti visa had been refused as a result of British intervention.

– Prevented from leaving the country, Emwazi became increasingly desperate. He contacted Cage for advice and explained that ‘I had a job waiting for me and marriage to get started’ but now ‘feel like a prisoner, only not in a cage, in London’, ‘controlled by security service men, stopping me from living my new life in my birthplace, and my country, Kuwait.’ He tried to take his complaints further through official routes, scheduling a meeting with the IPCC. But he was told that ‘there was no evidence of his treatment, so that they could not pursue the matter except to lodge a complaint on the file of the police officer who had abused him.’ ‘Please make dua [prayer],’ he told Cage, ‘as my “life” is kind of on a “pause”…..marriage and full time work was waiting for my in my home country – A NEW LIFE!!!!’

In the wake of these revelations, a naive observer might have expected that national debate would be raging over the potential role of the security services in pushing individuals such as Enwazi towards violent extremism. Instead, the revelations were reported as further evidence that the security services must be given substantially more powers and funding.

Indeed, as far as mainstream media reporting goes, the only permitted criticism of the security services is that they had been too lenient with Emwazi, thus allowing him to ‘escape.’ The British terror laws ‘watchdog’, David Anderson, when interviewed on BBC Radio 4 this morning, suggested that we must be sympathetic to the security services as they are monitoring such a large number of people, but that we must also provide them with the power to reinstitute ‘control orders’ to place individuals under house arrest without trial.

That is: the day after a case file is publicly released showing an individual being repeatedly harassed, trying and failing to remedy his condition, and later joining ISIS, the official response is that the harassment was simply not severe enough.

Meanwhile, Cage faced a barrage of high-level abuse. To Boris Johnson, they were ‘apologists for terror’. To David Cameron, ‘reprehensible’. One expects more vicious action against them in the coming weeks for daring to suggest that the security services in fact played a role in Emwazi’s terrible trajectory.

Emwazi’s is not a unique case. In 2009, five Muslim community workers publicly accused MI5 of ‘waging a campaign of blackmail and harassment in an attempt to recruit them as informants’. These people were repeatedly called, held at borders, and threatened in typically crude fashion. One was told, for example, that ‘if you do not work for us we will tell any foreign country you try to travel to that you are a suspected terrorist.’

Another was told that ‘We’re going to make your travelling harder for you if you don’t co-operate.’ One was prevented from visiting his sick grandmother in Somalia. He was told travel restrictions would only be lifted if he worked for MI5. ‘I told him ‘This is blatant blackmail’; he said ‘No, it’s just proving your innocence. By co-operating with us we know you’re not guilty.’

While such harassment did not lead these particular individuals towards violence, we do know of other prominent cases where it might have. Michael Adebolajo, one of the killers of British soldier Lee Rigby, had complained of persistent interrogation and harassment by MI5. He also claimed to have been tortured and sexually assaulted by Kenyan troops, possibly working in conjunction with British security services. MI5 had also tried to pressure him into becoming an informant.

This kind of harassment is routine for many British Muslims and mirrors, to a telling extent, ‘counter-insurgency’ policies common under colonial rule. There is very little evidence, however, of it having any positive effects in reducing terrorism. In the event of a genuine plot, police and security services are far more likely to allow events to unfold and monitor them secretly, before arresting suspects at a moment where enough evidence had been gathered and co-conspirators identified.

In other words, people are directly harassed not when there is direct evidence of a plot, but when they are thought to be a potential asset for the security services. They are told they cannot travel. They are obtrusively monitored. Their families are followed. Their homes are searched. All of this has nothing at all to do with preventing imminent attacks. It has everything to do with trying to blackmail a network of Muslims into becoming informants. Again, the colonial parallels are striking.

There are two ways to read this scenario. The first is that the security services are genuinely trying to reduce the threat of terrorism, but that their tactics are so heavy-handed that they are actually pushing some people into desperate situations that may be a factor in their later acts of violence. The second is that the security services are not genuinely trying to reduce the threat of terrorism, but are deliberately pursuing tactics that they know will increase the threat of violence.

Naturally, this sounds implausible, but could simply mean that security service objectives have becoming so self-reinforcing — constructing a huge apparatus of surveillance, ensuring continued funding, recruiting sufficient staff — that they have actually taken precedence over the supposed overarching aim of reducing attacks on civilians in the UK or abroad. How else should we read not only this systemic harassment, in the context of a state of constant media hysteria, but also revelations that the British government was involved in sending its own citizens to Guantanamo’s dungeons (for Jack Straw, it was ‘the best way to meet our counterterrorism objectives’), not to mention the role of British security services in ‘outsourcing torture’ abroad of British nationals, as Ian Cobain has documented in detail?

There are parallels. During the ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland, a campaign of brutality on the part of British forces was implemented in an attempt to crush rebellion. But considerable evidence, revealed over the decades since, suggests that this approach made the situation far worse, creating wounds that have yet to heal and pushing tensions far beyond what they would otherwise have been. To prevent something similar happening here, we must demand a much greater level of accountability for the security services and the anti-terror police.

Ceasefire Bites

Ceasefire Bites is Ceasefire's news and opinion blog.

7 Comments

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Ciaran Goggins
Mar 1, 2015 0:55

Don’t be duped into thinking that MI5 are “the good guys”, just see what happened in Northern Ireland 1969-94.

Winski
Mar 1, 2015 2:46

no. John Boner and the American Taliban are making this very easy….

Daniel
Mar 2, 2015 14:27

This is an absolutely shocking article.
At what point do you treat Mohammed Emwazi as anything other than a victim – at what point, do you treat him as a human being with responsibilities, decisions, intelligence and ultimately, an ambition to kill innocent people in the most brutal way possible.
It’s very dangerous to lazily frame him as the ‘generic muslim victim’ rather than treating him as a human and actually looking at (and condemning) his decisions and actions. He’s an individual who allied himself with terrorist organisations and ultimately committed terrorist acts, but you’ve described him as a ‘creation’ – which is an easy way to avoid having to properly condemn his despicable actions.
This is a complicated story – and no doubt Mi5 could well have been very heavy handed in their approach – but these kind of lazy, naive narratives don’t help.

Patricia
Mar 2, 2015 22:41

An excellent article, which echoes many of my thoughts on this story. It is an extreme example of MI5 targeting young Muslim men in order to recruit them as informants, from which point onwards they are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. How many Mohammed Emwazis – or potential ones – are going through a similar nightmare at the hands of these faceless spooks? And how many might be driven down a similar path as a result. I have been involved in campaigns which have exposed the extent of the intelligence services’ involvement in rendition and torture. They may wear smart suits in place of black hoodies but they bear a great deal of responsibility for acts of barbarism.

Ron
Mar 3, 2015 0:00

Can’t ANYONE take responsibility for their own actions?
EVERYONE knowns right from wrong, even the “Bleeding Hearts” who blame the west for EVERYTHING.
I’ve had my share of official harassment in the past, but I did not/will not commit treason OR murder, then blame it on some-one else.
That appears to be the problem nowadays….
If you are perverted/sick/twisted/psychopathic, blame some-one else, and all the do-gooders will crawl out of the woodwork to defeat the justice system on your behalf.
While I’m not saying the Security services are perfect, they DO have a very difficult job and get little or no help from friends and families of these murdering scum.
TREASON still carries the Death Penalty, and should be enforced against ALL who have gone down that path

Slawek
Mar 4, 2015 18:08

amazing weekend in Krakow (Polish). See you
http://booking.com/3b0c3e865938824c

Great British Politics
Aug 24, 2015 13:29

I find thins kind of thing extremely offensive! Tens of thousands, perhaps millions, of people are unfair targets of police or secret service profiling and aggression across the west. The vast majority somehow manage not to chop anyone’s head off. When you refuse point blank to acknowledge that bad people behead people, rather than those normal people who suffer from police of secret service oversight, you’re saying anyone treated unfairly is a potential terrorist.

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