As someone who has always enjoyed reading biographies of controversial political and international figures I came to this work hoping that my assumptions would be wrong. Before the the invasion of Iraq I read a number of biographies of Saddam Hussein and while some titles were mature studies of how such a vicious dictator seized and kept hold of power for so long, others were no more than tabloid hatchet jobs. Mohammed Emwazi, aka Jihadi John is such a controversial figure (for obvious reasons) that I worried that this would be little more than salacious gossip, a raking over of every horrific little detail for the titillation of the reader.
I’m happy to say that these concerns all proved unfounded. Don’t get me wrong, Robert Verkaik has written no apologia for Jihadi John. What he has done is place Mohammed Emwazi, who he had met and corresponded with while working for the Independent, within the wider milieu of disenfranchised Muslim youth. The author met Emwazi while working on articles about young Muslim men who felt that they were being harassed by MI5 and the Met’s anti-terrorism branch. He charts how Emwazi travelled from dabbling in drugs and gangs to falling in with a group of young men who were interested, to a greater or lesser degree, in the conflict in Somalia. The Security Service had, and almost certainly still has, a policy of aggressively cultivating sources in the Muslim community. MI5 will mix inducements with threats and should the target resist, the pressure is amplified. With Emwazi this led to him losing not one, but two marriage proposals, and being barred from entering Kuwait where he wished to start a new life.
The author is very even handed in his analysis of these events. While he understands where the Security Service is coming from, he also gives fair weight to the opinions of Asim Qureshi of Cage, who famously received vitriol from the red tops for describing Emwazi as a ‘beautiful person.’ In the end, having weighed up all the competing arguments, he can’t help but conclude that the approach of the security services and police is heavy handed and crudely lacking in finesse.
Once again it is important to note what this is not, for it would be unfair on the author should people be put off reading this work for fear that it is a sympathetic account of a man who brutally butchered his captives. Robert Verkaik makes no excuses for Mohammed Emwazi and his book is not an attempt to shift the blame either from him or his masters in the so-called Islamic State. But what he has produced is a thoughtful and sober analysis of how a seemingly normal young man became such a brutal killer, and how the UK government and law enforcement can better prevent the next Jihadi John from joining the terrorists’ ranks.
5 out of 5 stars