My meeting with Mohammed Emwazi's friend as they sought a radical path
The first thing I noticed about Mohammed Ezzouek was his size: tiny, birdlike. The recoil from an AK-47 would knock him off his feet, I remember thinking. He was an unlikely fighter – something he repeatedly denied when questioned by the security services.
The second thing was his beard. Long, black and wispy, it had clearly taken months to grow and was central to his identity. The third was his trainers, Nike, almost box-fresh. This man is a walking contradiction, I thought. He spoke street slang while praising the prophet. He went to Somalia to live under a caliphate and here he was, talking to me in London, complaining about the difficulties getting a mobile phone contract. He refused to be photographed but, after coaxing, he started posing for the camera, albeit in an oblique way so that he could not be photographed head-on.
When "Jihadi John" was unmasked last week as Mohammed Emwazi, I recalled this interview from five years ago. It has been reported that Ezzouek and Emwazi were part of a small group of twenty-something men from north-west London who had come to the attention of the security services over the last decade, some as far back as 2006, their subsequent paths diverging wildly.
Of that group at least two are dead. Mohamed Sakr and Bilal el-Berjawi were killed in drone strikes in Somalia three years ago. Two others have been subject to control orders, one of whom, Ibrahim Magag, absconded on Boxing Day 2012 and has disappeared. One attended an al-Qaida terror training camp. Another was an associate of one of the four would-be bombers who sought to perpetrate an atrocity on the London underground on 21 July 2005.
Ezzouek told me he went to Somalia to receive an Islamic education. When the US started bombing Mogadishu in 2007, attacking the al-Qaida-linked militant group al-Shabaab, he and several others made for Kenya, where they were picked up by the security service and interrogated by British agents.
As with Emwazi, who was questioned by MI5 after being stopped from entering Tanzania in 2009 and warned "you're going to have a lot of trouble ... life will be harder for you", Ezzouek said he had been troubled by his encounter with the security service. He said one agent had warned him: "For you people, there's no such things as solicitors, lawyers; you're another breed."
But he also told me how he looked forward to the MI5 interviews, as he would be offered fruit and cold drinks. When he refused to admit he had gone to Somalia to fight for al-Shabaab, he and several others were flown to the city of Baidoa, then home to Somalia's transitional government, which was fighting the militant group. The threat that the security services would wash their hands of Ezzouek and his friends was never far away. Eventually, after one of them alerted his family to his whereabouts, Ezzouek and three others were returned to the UK.
Someone still in contact with him says Ezzouek is building a new life, a world away from the extremist path chosen by many others in his circle who appear to have bonded through their sense of dual nationality. The families of Ezzouek and a second man picked up with him in Kenya were originally from Morocco. A third man seized with them, Reza Afsharzadegan, moved to Britain from Iran as a young boy. Emwazi was born in Kuwait, but moved to the UK when he was six. Someone who knew him in Syria said that, when asked if he was British, he said "kind of". Sakr was a dual UK-Egyptian national; el-Berjawi was a Londoner whose family came from Lebanon. Another member of the group, Tariq al-Daour, who has served a prison sentence for inciting terrorism, was born in the United Arab Emirates.
The group's members appear to have existed in a liminal world where east met west and modernity clashed with medieval. Many played five-a-side football together, shared an interest in designer clothes and were at the same schools. But they were also captivated by a London-based Islamist cleric, Hani al-Sibai, who refers to himself as a sheikh and has been named by the US Treasury as a supporter of al-Qaida. Their world is exemplified in the Twitter feeds of Isis fighters who link to speeches by extremist clerics interspersed with rap videos and pictures of themselves posing with fearsome-looking automatic weapons.
In one revealing online video depicting the killing of a Syrian soldier, an Isis fighter attacks Muslims in Britain for failing to help the families of jihadis in the Middle East while name-checking mass-market western brands. "You know who you are, from the capital, the Midlands, up north, wherever you may be," he admonishes. "It's a disgrace that brothers know where these wives are, where these families are, and yet you are buying your nephew or your child a PlayStation 4 or taking them to Nando's."
This paradox is also present in phone footage capturing one of the killers of Lee Rigby. Michael Adebolajo, whose family moved from Nigeria to London in the 1980s, tells onlookers: "I apologise that women had to witness this today, but in our land our women have to see the same." He urges people to demand that the government "bring our troops back so you can all live in peace". Adebolajo is confused, unsure of his nationality. He, too, had been interrogated in Kenya after trying to get into Somalia and had been approached by MI5, which sought to turn him into an intelligence asset, and that apparently incensed him.
Some now seek to blame the security service for "radicalising" those it interrogated. The group Cage, which campaigns for the release of terrorist suspects held in Guantánamo Bay, says it was the incident in Tanzania that put Emwazi, whom it describes as an "extremely kind, gentle, beautiful young man", on his murderous path.
But Dr Irfan al-Alawi, of the Centre for Islamic Pluralism, is critical of this explanation. "Muslims are failing to address this issue," he warns. "Mosques are not tackling radicalisation."
He warns that there is a plethora of radical clerics making a name for themselves and earning considerable sums of money from foreign sponsors, promoting extremist views in Britain. For those confused about where they fit in, or how they can make a difference when the world is being rent apart, such preachers offer all the answers.
One of the last things Ezzouek told me was that he wanted to find a job; I think he said one working with children. I'd like to think he's achieved that dream. It would be proof that seemingly inevitable narratives don't always come true.