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Mohammed Emwazi and the debate over poverty’s link to terrorism

LONDON, FEB. 26: Journalists gather outside the home where Islamic State militant Mohammed Emwazi, popularly known as Jihadi John, is believed to have once lived. Emwazi, a Kuwaiti-born British man in his 20s, has been pictured in videos of the beheadings of a number of Western hostages. (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)
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Earlier this month, Marie Harf, a spokeswoman for the U.S. State Department, told MSNBC's Chris Matthews that the United States couldn't win the fight against the Islamic State by simply killing all the militants. Instead, she suggested, other factors had to be considered, including "a lack of opportunity for jobs."

Harf's comment was widely mocked (it prompted a hashtag, #JobsForISIS) but really Harf wasn't saying anything that the Obama administration, or, in fact, the Bush administration, had not said before: Poverty can lead people to join radical Islamist groups.

Now, revelations about the upbringing of the man dubbed Jihadi John have prompted people to return to Harf's comments. Mohammed Emwazi is a Kuwaiti-born British man who became notorious for his masked appearances in Islamic State beheading videos. And, as The Post's Souad Mekhennet and Adam Goldman revealed on Thursday, his upbringing was not marked by poverty, but instead was pretty well-to-do.

Emwazi's economic background was repeatedly pointed out online.

As someone who grew up not too far from Emwazi, let me give my own subjective opinion here: The idea that he was raised in affluent or even wealthy circumstances is a bit of a red herring. The house Emwazi was raised in seems fairly modest, and the neighborhood of Queens Park is socioeconomically mixed, with a large number of immigrants in the area. The Telegraph reports that his father had worked as a minicab driver -- a stable career that is not known for its high salary (London's "black cab" drivers are far better paid).

In addition, the idea that Emwazi was highly-educated strikes me as a little dubious. He attended a local state school, Quintin Kynaston Community Academy, which has a fairly good reputation. Then he studied computer science at the University of Westminster, ranked 95th in the country by the Guardian. Westminster is a fine university, but it's not Oxbridge, nor a rival to any of the other Russell Group universities known for attracting Britain's upper and middle classes. His degree is in a particularly employable field but was no automatic ticket to a life of luxury.

This sort of background is nowhere near poverty, of course, but the Emwazi family may have been numerically closer to it than they were to bin Laden family-style wealth. Emwazi's background seems, for lack of a better word, normal. Walk down any street in London and you'll pass people from both poorer and richer backgrounds. The Emwazi family's middle-class background is unexceptional, similar to millions of other families in London.

So what made Emwazi choose a different path? It's possible that despite his economic reality, he felt a poverty of opportunity. Another idea, put forward by friends of Emwazi who spoke to The Post and the rights group CAGE, is that Emwazi was radicalized only after coming under pressure from the British security services.

"We now have evidence that there are several young Britons whose lives were not only ruined by security agencies, but who became disenfranchised and turned to violence because of British counter-terrorism policies coupled with long standing grievances over Western foreign policy," Asim Qureshi, Research Director of CAGE, said in a statement.
That rationalization may strike some as glib, but, at the least, repeated arrests by the British intelligence services did little to deter Emwazi from a path to radicalism and do seem to have cost him employment back in Kuwait.

If anything, it's too early to tell. As Emwazi's background is investigated over the next few days, it's likely more information will come out that could point to his motivation: Things he might have said about Islam or international politics, details of his family background, or moments of violence in his life. Most likely, however, no smoking gun will be found. His decision to go from Mohammed Emwazi to "Jihadi John" was likely based on a complex tapestry of factors, only a fraction of which we'll ever really understand.

Do Emwazi's circumstances prove Harf and the U.S. government wrong? On their own, no. Emwazi is an individual and one who has already proven himself exceptional within the Islamic State's ranks. The Islamic State is now a vast number of people, each with their own background, experiences and beliefs that shaped their decision. It's the aggregate, rather than the experiences of one young man from Queens Park, that counts -- and no single factor will ever explain everything.