Asim Qureshi says he regrets saying Mohammed Emwazi was a 'beautiful young man' before he became IS killer
A director of the campaign group CAGE says he regrets calling notorious Islamic State (IS) killer Mohammad Emwazi a “beautiful young man”.
In a book review for Middle East Eye, Asim Qureshi, CAGE's research director, said the remark made in a news conference after Emwazi was identified in the media as so-called “Jihadi John” was inappropriate and insensitive to the families of Emwazi's victims.
“One year on from a difficult period my organisation and I encountered due to my inappropriate description of him once being a 'beautiful young man' – one that I am regretful of due to the impact this insensitivity had on all families who were victims of his murders – we now finally have a book that is able to provide some balance to a story that must be understood,” Qureshi writes.
The comments are the first that Qureshi has made about Emwazi since the news conference in February last year.
Qureshi was reviewing a new book, 'Jihadi John: The Making of a Terrorist' by Robert Verkaik, a journalist who had been introduced to Emwazi by CAGE years before he left for Syria when he was complaining of being harassed by British security services.
In the book, Verkaik writes that he had found Emwazi, who was born in Kuwait but grew up in London, to be a “polite and helpful” young man who “desperately wanted his story to be told as he felt that MI5 was destroying his life”.
“The Muhammad Emwazi I met in 2009 was indeed a polite and friendly young man as the author Robert Verkaik and man others attest to, but by the summer of 2014 he was executing innocent Muslims and non-Muslims in the name of the Islamic State and I could not recognise the man I had once known,” said Qureshi.
Emwazi killed a number of western hostages including American journalist James Foley and British aid worker Alan Henning in a succession of gruesome execution videos before he himself was killed in a US air strike in Raqqa, Syria, last November.
Emwazi's victims: (top L to bottom R): Japanese journalist Kenji Goto, US aid worker Peter Kassig, US reporter James Foley, Japanese national Haruna Yukawa, US journalist Steven Sotloff, British national Alan Henning and British aid worker David Haines (AFP)
CAGE was in contact with Emwazi between 2009 and 2012 after he had complained to them that he had been subjected to harassment and abuse by British intelligence agents who had also tried to recruit him as an informer.
The group asserts that Emwazi's encounters with the British security services may have contributed to his eventual decision in 2013 to travel to Syria.
Qureshi also made repeated calls in the news conference for Emwazi to be prosecuted for war crimes.
However, his remarks on Emwazi's character prompted London mayor Boris Johnson to describe CAGE as “apologists for terror” and British Prime Minister David Cameron later suggested that organisations that aligned with CAGE should be ashamed.
A report commissioned by CAGE to review its handling of the Emwazi affair found that it had failed to “clearly articulate its distance from Emwazi’s actions to prevent any portrayal of them as ‘apologists for terrorism’.”
It said the organisation had been overwhelmed by media interest but had failed to acknowledge the suffering of the families of Emwazi's victims and the role of IS and Syria in his “trajectory to violent killing” during the press conference.
“These two shortcomings, along with a clear distancing from Emwazi’s actions, and the ‘beautiful young man’ comment allowed the media to easily portray Cage as being on the side of Emwazi,” the report concluded.
In his review, Qureshi writes: "By presenting us with anecdotes from a range of interviewees, Verkaik helps to shed light on a more human and fragile younger Emwazi, an impressive feat considering the climate of fear surrounding any association with him. Consistently he is praised (including by Verkaik) for his politeness; and ultimately the reason for shock and upset by myself and all others who knew him, was because as one teacher said, it is just so far from what I knew of him.'”