WE know Al-Shabaab as a Somali militant group jostling to control Somalia, and sometimes exporting terror to the rest of East Africa, but it seems their sphere of influence is much wider: The group is reportedly the inspiration to the infamous “Jihadi John”, the masked Islamic state fighter with a British accent who has shown in Islamic State videos online been beheading several hostages.
The masked man has been identified as Mohammed Emwazi, a Kuwait-born Briton from a middle class family who grew up in West London and graduated with a degree in computer programming.
According to a report in the Washington Post, Emwazi “occasionally prayed at a mosque in Greenwich”, and lived a relatively nondescript life.
Detained in Tanzania
That was until a planned safari to Tanzania in May 2009 following his graduation from the University of Westminster. Once they landed in Dar es Salaam, Emwazi, along with two friends, were detained by police, questioned, and soon deported back to Europe.
Emwazi claimed an officer from the British domestic security agency, M15, accused the trio of planning to travel to Somalia through Kenya and join Al-Shabaab, but he denied the accusation and said M15 representatives had tried to recruit him.
In any case, it seems Emwazi was “obsessed” by the Somali terrorists; a former Islamic State hostage claimed that he “made his captives watch videos about Al-Shabaab”.
A 2010 story in the Independent points to other detentions and interrogations by M15 agents of British Muslims while on holiday in East Africa; the security service had been accused of “harassing and intimidating” Britons who travelled to Somalia and returned home.
The story said “Muhammad ibn Muazzam” – believed to be Mohammed Emwazi –was detained along with two friends and held for “days” in inhumane detention on the orders of MI5, and “threatened with beatings by gun-toting members of Tanzania’s security forces.”
Another Briton, Abu Omar, 19, said that in April 2009 his safari holiday to Kenya was interrupted when the house in which he was staying was raided by local security officers.
Quoted in the story, Omar claimed he was held and questioned for four days, also on the basis of intelligence supplied by MI5.
Emwazi was in the crosshairs of British security agents after that, prevented from travelling to Kuwait to tie the knot with a woman there and start a new job, which “incensed” him, and he was again blocked from taking up a job in Saudi Arabia.
Dead friends in Somalia
It is unclear when he reached Syria and how, but he has apparently pulled off a deadly re-invention of himself as the notorious masked beheader.
But Somalia, apart from being the place of his inspiration, has been the place of the deaths of a number of individuals linked to “Jihadi John”.
Among his associates at that time was Bilal el-Berjawi, a Londoner of Lebanese origin who was killed by a drone strike in Somalia three years ago, says this report from the Guardian.
Emwazi and Berjawi were reportedly members of a loose-knit group of young Muslims from the North Kensington area of west London, who attended the same mosques and played five-a-side football together.
Another member of the group, Mohamed Sakr, was killed in a drone strike in Somalia a few weeks after Berjawi. Although born in the UK, he was a dual UK-Egyptian national; the UK government had stripped him of his British citizenship shortly before he was killed.