But when one British human rights group considered the case of Jihadi John — the man now revealed to be Mohammed Emwazi — it saw something else: a victim of circumstance. Sure, Jihadi John was a monster, but how did he get that way?
CAGE, an activist organization based in London, tries to draw lines between extremism and what it calls the corrupt government policies that foster it.
“CAGE is an independent advocacy organisation working to empower communities impacted by the War on Terror,” reads a statement on the group’s Web site. “The organisation highlights and campaigns against state policies, striving for a world free from oppression and injustice. CAGE has been campaigning against the War on Terror for more than a decade. Its work has focused on working with survivors of abuse and mistreatment across the globe.”
As described in The Washington Post’s story about identifying Jihadi John, CAGE’s research director was one of those who had contact with Emwazi as the British national was repeatedly stymied by that country’s immigration and security services.
“There was an extremely strong resemblance,” Asim Qureshi said. “… This is making me feel fairly certain that this is the same person.”
But in a longer statement posted to CAGE’s Web site, Qureshi — who described Emwazi as a “extremely gentle, kind … beautiful young man” at a press conference — elaborated on the frustration that led him to embrace jihad. The statement appeared under the title “Jihadi John: ‘Radicalised’ By Britain.”
“Suffocating domestic policies aimed at turning a person into an informant but which prevent a person from fulfilling their basic life needs would have left a lasting impression on Emwazi,” Qureshi said. “He desperately wanted to use the system to change his situation, but the system ultimately rejected him.”
Qureshi’s statement challenges popular perceptions of Westerners who join the Islamic State. Those who flee democracies to fight under black banners are often called traitors and madmen. But are they actually victims?
CAGE highlights some of the United Kingdom’s crimes against Islam, linking to news reports critical of the nation’s attempts to fight terror. Europe was complicit in the CIA’s torture program, it says. The government unnecessarily questions the loyalty of Muslim citizens, it says. And security services try to recruit activists as spies.
This environment doesn’t combat extremism, the argument goes. It fosters extremism.
“The culture of abuse now runs so deep in the UK that there are virtually entire communities which, due to security services acting outside of the rule of law, no longer have access to due process,” CAGE’s statement reads. “Individuals are prevented from travelling, placed under house arrest and in the worst cases tortured, rendered or killed, seemingly on the whim of security agents.”
Indeed, the group lays blame for the Islamic State’s violence at Britain’s door, saying the country is at fault for participating in airstrikes in the Middle East.
“Meanwhile, the United Kingdom has also multiplied its military intervention in Muslim countries, only leading to more resentment and calls by fighting groups for retaliation,” CAGE said. “Groups such as [the Islamic State] did not express the will to strike British interests before the coalition’s bombing campaign in Syria and Iraq.”
But CAGE’s arguments aren’t limited to broad ideological arguments about the injustice of the war on terror. In a detailed history of Emwazi’s contacts with the group, CAGE outlines how he was driven to the machete.
“Mohammed Emwazi first came to CAGE in 2009 after being detained, interrogated and recruited by Mi5 on what was meant to be a safari holiday to Tanzania,” according to the group’s Web site. “Thereafter, the harassment continued and intensified which led to him losing two fiancée’s, his job and new life in Kuwait. The harassment and abuse he suffered, was all without criminal charges ever being brought against him, with the legal remedies available to him failing, he attempted to start a new life abroad in Kuwait only to be blocked by the UK security agencies continually.”
The result: a “descent into alienation.” In the case of Jihadi John — and in the case of thousands of other young men flocking to join the Islamic State — the West should not ask what is wrong with these misguided youth. The West should ask what is wrong with the West.
“This case should trigger thinking about British domestic and foreign policy,” Qureshi said. “… Why are the long-standing grievances over Western interventions in the Muslim world been ignored?”
It may not be activists such as CAGE asking such questions. Little more than 24 hours before Jihadi John was unmasked, British media reported a poll that found 27 percent of Muslim respondents had sympathy for those behind last month’s Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris that killed a dozen people.
Even identifying Emwazi may be part of a broader attack on British Muslims, one Muslim activist told Vice.
Emwazi “was affected by British foreign policy … he has been forced to act because of the British government,” Anjem Choudary said. “I think the naming of his identity is timed to synchronize with governmental policy. It is another attack to demonize the Muslim community.”