Middle East

Islamic State: 'Jihadi John''s background typical yet distinct

Jihadi John seen in Islamic State video Image copyright Reuters
Image caption The masked militant, nicknamed Jihadi John, is associated with several gruesome Islamic State videos

The background of "Jihadi John" - in an Arab family from west London - links him to a distinct cluster of British militants, writes Shiraz Maher, a senior fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King's College London.

The identity of Syria's best-known jihadist is finally out: Mohammed Emwazi, better known as "Jihadi John", has been revealed as a former West London resident.

He is middle class and well educated, which chimes with a lot of our research. Radicalisation is not principally driven by poverty or social deprivation.

Indeed, the overwhelming majority of British individuals who go to Syria are from high-achieving backgrounds.

The most interesting revelation about Emwazi is that he travelled to Syria in 2013 when the conflict looked very different to the way it does today.

At that time the majority of British fighters did not join Islamic State (IS). Instead, they joined lesser known groups which were more focused on fighting President Bashar al-Assad.

Around this time it is known that a group of fighters of Arab and North African origin travelled to Syria from West London. Many of them were connected to gangs and engaged in criminality.

This is a distinct cluster given that the majority of fighters from Britain are typically of South Asian ethnic origin.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Jihadists were already active in Syria in 2012 - but Islamic State had yet to achieve its current prominence

Over time, IS has absorbed a number of different groups and fighters who are keen to join its success.

It is likely that Emwazi travelled along a similar trajectory, as so many other European fighters have done. He has clearly actively sought to reduce his digital footprint on social media.

This is not that surprising. It is exactly what would be expected of someone who has been a major asset to IS. Emwazi is confident, eloquent and self-assured.

He is the ideal frontman to deliver the IS message in the dramatic videos for which it has become known.

Fighters in Syria often try to hide their identity by wearing masks and adopting pseudonyms.

The fact that Emwazi's identity has been revealed demonstrates that, despite the precautions taken by them, their names will eventually leak out. Emwazi is not the first foreign fighter to have been outed - and he will not be the last.

This will not affect how IS operates but it may well deliver a psychological blow because of the lengths they have gone to in order to shield him from the limelight.