The video of a masked jihadist threatening to behead the American reporter James Foley shocked the world within minutes of emerging on social media. With few clues to identify the ISIS killer making demands on the US government, British intelligence analysts focused on his London accent, the veins on his knife-wielding left hand, and his posture — and “within hours” identified him as Mohammed Emwazi.
The voice in the video was disguised. But police and security services had been investigating Emwazi for three years before he slipped off their radar in 2012 and fled the UK for Syria. When sound analysts got to work, they made a match on the video, which was released on August 19, 2014.
The veins, when compared with those on the hands in an archive of photographs, and voice recordings of phone taps held by the British intelligence agency MI5 and London police headquarters, Scotland Yard, confirmed it.
“We had a race to find out who he was — his size, his hands, but, above all, his voice, made identifying him quite easy,” said Robert Hannigan, a former director of GCHQ, the British signals intelligence agency. Killing him would take much longer.
Hannigan is among a cast of British and American former military, counter-terrorism and intelligence officials who tell the inside story of the operation against Emwazi in The Hunt for Jihadi John, a Channel 4 and HBO documentary to be aired next week.
To officials at GCHQ, MI5 and the British armed forces, Emwazi was not deemed a “significant military target” when he killed Foley. He was merely one of several hundred jihadists who had fled the UK for Syria and Iraq to join Isis.
Yet the propaganda coup Emwazi generated for ISIS, which had declared its so-called “caliphate” that summer, turned the then 26-year-old from northwest London into a global poster boy for terrorism who became known as Jihadi John.
It would later emerge the nickname was given to him by his western hostages because he was a member of a four-man British ISIS cell they called “the Beatles”. Emwazi’s hatred for the West was underpinned by a feeling of perceived injustice over how Scotland Yard and MI5 had investigated him.
The security services had been interested in his connection to the British terrorists Bill al-Berjawi and Mohamed Sakr, who fought alongside al-Qaeda-linked militants in Somalia before they were killed by US air strikes in 2012.
Before fleeing the UK that year, Emwazi had been questioned several times by intelligence officers and police, who had also tried to recruit him as an informant, according to Richard Walton, former head of Scotland’s Yard counter-terrorism command, SO15.
“We made approaches to him; we wanted to give him the opportunity to work for us and to desist from becoming a terrorist,” he said. “There’s always a risk when you make these approaches and the chances of success are in any event, fairly minimal.”
Within a month of the Foley footage, Jihadi John posted two more videos on social media in which he beheaded the American journalist Steven Sotloff and the British aid worker David Haines. The videos provoked public outrage and gave the impression that Britain and America were powerless against terrorism. “With each video there was a sense of: this is getting slightly out of control,” said Walton. “How is it that we are losing the power dynamic here?”
Emwazi exploited the immediacy of social media to issue direct threats to then US president Barack Obama and British prime minister David Cameron. The brutal and uncompromising authority he seemed to project from behind the mask contrasted with the shy pupil he once was at Quintin Kynaston, the secondary school he had attended a decade earlier in north London and, where he was teased about having bad breath.
General Sir Richard Barrons, who was the head of the British Joint Forces Command during the search for Jihadi John, said the propaganda pushed out by Isis from its headquarters in Raqqa, northern Syria, also threatened relations among “our fellow citizens of different faiths”.
“This is just one man doing brutal things in another part of the world [but] the effect on politics and society is profound,” he is heard to say in the documentary. Given the enormous media profile Emwazi generated for himself over a very short time, the politicisation of the mission to track him down was inevitable.
Six months after releasing his Foley video, Jihadi John was identified by the press as Emwazi in February 2015. Public disclosure of his identity added to the pressure on Cameron, who was already desperate to reclaim the narrative in the fight against ISIS in the interest of protecting national security and other citizens who were being held hostage. “The prime minister made it very clear that we had a responsibility to these British citizens,” said Hannigan. “He took it as a high priority and instructed us to take it as a high priority.”
Prioritising the hit against Emwazi was well received on the other side of the Atlantic, especially at the CIA, where analysts were tracking the movements — or “pattern of life” in the jargon — of key targets on a kill list, including Emwazi. Douglas Wise, who helped oversee the CIA’s Middle East operations, said the hunt for the Briton was “personal”.
“He was of us, so he knew us”
“If you look at Emwazi as an adversary, he certainly wasn’t a glorious battlefield commander,” he said. “He wasn’t high in the hierarchy, such as it was, but he was a powerful and credible adversary nonetheless. Why? He was from us. He was of us. And so he knew us instinctively.”
As a westerner, then, Emwazi knew how to hurt the West. “This hunt for Jihadi John was personal and his nationality [as British] mattered not one whit. For us, this was as personal as if he’d been an American citizen. What we needed to do was ‘Find, fix and finish’ Emwazi.”
General David Petraeus, who was the CIA director in the wake of the Syrian crisis, described Emwazi as a “very important target” because of his propaganda value to Isis. “And ultimately, of course, as they say in the manhunt business, [he] ended up on the ‘X’.” Emwazi knew he was one of the world’s most wanted men. The Westminster University computer science graduate was very capable at counter-surveillance, said Hannigan.
He rarely communicated online to avoid leaving digital fingerprints and he tried to surround himself with civilians and children to make a drone strike without civilian casualties close to impossible. “He used a whole series of commercially available products to obscure his identity, including very strong encryption and virtual private networks,” said Hannigan of Emwazi’s online communication.
“Any one of those products would have been very difficult for an agency to tackle. What he was doing was layering them on top of each other.” Emwazi also made sure that each time he used a computer to send and receive messages, he “wiped it” to safeguard it from bugs. “Any agency’s ambition if they can find the machine that a terrorist is using is to put something on to it that stays there and can communicate back what a person is doing,” said Hannigan.
“What Emwazi was able to do was to ensure that every time that he switched off his machine that it was wiped of anything and everything. And that made it extremely difficult and very, very time-consuming to do anything really with his communications.”
Colonel Steve Warren, the Pentagon spokesman at the time, said Emwazi was also aware that if he “surrounded himself with civilians, with non-combatants, that we would be very reticent to try and strike at him”.
Wise, of the CIA, likened the mission to track Emwazi to searching for a “needle in a haystack full of needles”. “If he had any hope for survival he had to blend in to the citizens of Raqqa,” he said. “He had to look from a distance just like them.”
US intelligence agencies and their British allies found it difficult to recruit spies on the ground in Raqqa. Isis was known to have killed many people it had accused of spying for the West, creating cautionary tales out of their murders.
However, it was “human intelligence” that agencies such as GCHQ and the CIA rely on to identify the movements and social circles of terrorists and pinpoint where they are in preparation for an air strike or to be targeted by a drone.
Unlike the allied operations against the Taliban in Afghanistan, where western intelligence agencies were able to exploit telecommunication networks to identify the locations of terrorists, in Raqqa most people used wi-fi, making it much harder to identify targets. “For us at GCHQ this was a largely desk screen-based campaign,” said Hannigan.
“If you looked at a picture of Raqqa you would see these little VSat terminals — these little satellite dishes all over the roofs. And they were connecting direct to the internet and that is the way that people were communicating. They were not using telephone company GSM [Global System for Mobile communication] networks because they didn’t trust them.”
Compounding such operational challenges were “false alarms” the agencies received about the whereabouts of Emwazi. Sometimes “aerial assets”, or drones, were redeployed to take out other terrorist targets who were identified and confirmed.
“They all slip up eventually”
Emwazi had one key vulnerability — his overwhelming desire to stay connected to his wife and child, who are believed to have been in Iraq at the time. “He had his ISIS-issued wife that he had when he was in Syria,” said Warren, who was based at a military centre in Iraq. “He was very careful about his actions. But you know what? They all slip up eventually. Every one of these guys, including the most famous one, Osama bin Laden, they all make a mistake. And when they do — we kill them.”
On the evening of November 12, 2015, Pentagon officials received intelligence about Emwazi’s movements and the military dispatched a drone to follow his car from several miles away. After 45 minutes of driving around, Emwazi emerged from the vehicle. “Because of the conditions — it was night — we were using infra-red,” said Warren, who was at the operation centre watching a live feed from a drone that was positioned to strike Emwazi.
“You can’t see his face but we could sort of see how he moved, the cut of his jib, so to speak. The angle of his beard, these things we could see. Eventually we were convinced that this is Jihadi John. And so the floor commander at the time orders” ‘Take the shot’.”
Within 15 seconds a missile obliterated Emwazi. Despite the lives he took while playing chief hostage killer for Isis, the military and intelligence community considered his death only a symbolic victory against his terrorist organisation. It was not one that would have a significant effect on Islamist extremism.
“I don’t rejoice in anyone’s death but it was certainly a good thing that he was no longer able to do the really brutal and disgusting things that we’d seen on video,” said Hannigan. “I was well aware that there was plenty of other people who would step into his shoes. It would have been strange to see this as a massive breakthrough … the [ISIS] threat went on.”