Radicalization Through Ideology, Not Interrogation

By Tea Ivanovic

BOLOGNA — United Kingdom intelligence agencies’ anti-terrorism strategies have been criticized for being aware of Mohammed Emwazi, a Kuwait-born British man publicly known as “Jihadi John,” but not preventing him from joining the Islamic State. This has spurred a worldwide debate, with British advocacy group CAGE blaming the U.K. intelligence agency MI5 for contributing to the radicalization of Emwazi, with former shadow home secretary David Davis saying MI5 had made Emwazi “carry out evil deeds.” Downing Street called these suggestions were “completely reprehensible,” while London mayor Boris Johnson described CAGE’s comments as “an apology for terror.” While exact details on Emwazi are still unclear, we should be asking the following question: is the procedural questioning of U.K. intelligence units responsible for radicalizing terrorists like Emwazi?

I say no. There has been no evidence of Emwazi’s maltreatment by British intelligence units during interrogation. At the airport, MI5 was trying to identify Emwazi as a terrorist fighter, which he denied and was subsequently released from further interrogation. However, Emwazi has a history of aggression, receiving anger management therapy in his first year of secondary school after getting into fights, a former teacher has said. While anger in formative years is not a prerequisite for later aggression, it also cannot be argued that the mere procedural interrogation by intelligence units is to be blamed for terrorism.

Emwazi came to the attention of the security services in 2009-2010 as MI5 and other agencies monitored suspected extremists they had linked to investigations into foreign fighters joining al-Shabab in Somalia. At this time, he was refused entry at Dar es Salaam, supposedly to travel to Tanzania with two friends for a safari, and was put on a flight to Amsterdam where he was questioned by intelligence units. Later, Emwazi traveled to Kuwait and subsequently returned to the U.K. for a short stay but was told he could not return to Kuwait as his visa was denied. In 2013, Emwazi changed his name to Mohammed al-Ayan and attempted to travel to Kuwait but was stopped and questioned. Three days later, he headed abroad, and police reported him as missing. From this information, we can draw a few conclusions. Intelligence units have not forced Emwazi to “carry out evil deeds,” in the words of former shadow home secretary David Davis, but they had not questioned him enough to stop him from carrying them out.

Emwazi appeared in an Islamic State video last August, when he killed U.S. journalist James Foley. According to his former school teacher in St. Johns Wood, North London, he showed signs of aggression even in secondary school. She had reportedly said, “we’d find that he’d get very angry and worked up and it would take him a long time to calm himself down, so we did a lot of work as a school to help him with his anger and to control his emotions.” It appears to be the case that it is not airport questioning by intelligence units, but rather the psycho-mental state and ideological beliefs that persuaded this Islamic State fighter to commit gruesome acts.

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