Unmasking Jihadi John


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Unmasking Jihadi John
"This is a film that spends much of its time on observation and analysis of the known facts, chronicling a piece of history rather than using it as a prompt to search for solutions." | Photo: HBO

On the 19th of August 2014, a Daesh fighter with a British accent murdered journalist James Foley in northwestern Syria. Former hostages said that they knew him as John because he was part of a group of four such men who they had dubbed The Beatles. Within days newspapers were calling him Jihadi John. A legend was born, with worldwide coverage inflating the ego of a man already dangerously sure of himself. Fifteen months later, after committing or orchestrating around 28 more killings, he would be dead. But how did he end up there in the first place?

Anthony Wonke's documentary, centred on the work of journalist Richard Kerbaj, attempts to piece together events from Mohammed Emwazi's arrival in London as a six-year-old Bidoon refugee to his death in a drone strike at the age of 27. Making extensive use of sources in the security services who have not spoken on the matter publicly before, it's well supplied with detail and tells parts of the story that most viewers will previously have been unaware of. Further commentary from some of the aid workers and journalists who were kept as hostages by Emwazi's gang ensures that there's no danger of anyone forgetting the gravity of his crimes.

Copy picture

The early part of the film is the weakest - it feels as if, despite having less available testimony, it's trying to live up to the rest of the film, and in doing so delivers some rather flimsy judgements. Emwazi wasn't unpopular but he wasn't really popular either. He didn't really fit in but he wasn't a misfit. He wasn't really sure of his direction in life - at that age, how many children are? In addition to this, there's little elucidation for the general audience regarding how it feels to be uprooted at such a tender age or or what it's like to be a black Muslim child in a predominantly white, often Islamophobic country. It's naive to propose, as the film does, that Emwazi's life was free from suffering - the real question is why he reacted in such an extreme way to suffering that others cope with day in and day out without so much as an angry remark.

Fortunately the film picks up as it goes on, with a fascinating look at the investigations to which Emwazi was subjected at a stage when he might not yet have been radicalised, raising the question of whether or not attempts to prevent terrorism actually contributed to his alienation and growing hostility towards the British state. The collapse of a planned marriage after security services told his fiancee's family that he might be involved with terrorism seems to have hit him particularly hard. Did somebody exploit those feelings? Was he groomed? Here less is known but the gap doesn't distort the narrative; instead we learn about Emwazi's drift into petty crime, with the implication that this put a disaffected young man in contact with people who could tell him what he wanted to know about opportunities in Syria.

This is a film that spends much of its time on observation and analysis of the known facts, chronicling a piece of history rather than using it as a prompt to search for solutions. This makes it feel rather dry in places but avoids any glamorisation of its subject. The testimony of those who shared cells with Emwazi's victims and were themselves beaten by him cannot help but have an emotional impact. The overall feeling one is left with is that this informationally dense, thoroughly researched work puts the focus back where it needs to be. It's a reminder that at the centre of the media-friendly legend was just another angry young man with nothing to contribute to the world but violence.

Reviewed on: 28 Jul 2019
Share this with others on...
Unmasking Jihadi John packshot
A documentary about the hunt for the notorious Daesh fighter.

Director: Anthony Wonke

Writer: Richard Kerbaj

Year: 2019

Runtime: 90 minutes

Country: UK


Search database:

If you like this, try:

Jim: The James Foley Story