A man with a British accent seen in ISIS videos showing the beheadings of Western hostages was identified Thursday as Mohammed Emwazi, a Kuwaiti-born Londoner, the Reuters news agency reported, citing The Washington Post and the BBC.
The identity of the man, who’s become widely known as “Jihadi John,” was confirmed to the Post by one of Emwazi’s close friends, the newspaper reported.
A UK human rights group that had contact with Emwazi before he went to Syria also told the newspaper it believes him to be Jihadi John.
London’s Metropolitan Police declined to confirm the reported identity.
“We have previously asked media outlets not to speculate about the details of our investigation on the basis that life is at risk,” said Commander Richard Walton of the Metropolitan Police’s Counter Terrorism Command.
“We are not going to confirm the identity of anyone at this stage or give an update on the progress of this live counter terrorism investigation.”
A UK Foreign Office spokeswoman told CNN: “We will neither confirm nor deny the current reporting as to the identity of Jihadi John.”
Reports indicate a middle class upbringing
The reporting in the Washington Post and BBC, quoted by Reuters, suggests Emwazi was from a middle-class family and grew up in London. He reportedly left college with a degree in computer programming.
He is believed to have traveled to Syria in 2012, according to the Washington Post, and later to have joined ISIS there.
Sajjan Gohel, director of international security at the Asia Pacific Foundation, told CNN that it had been an open secret for some time that the U.S. and British intelligence communities knew Jihadi John’s identity.
By not revealing it for operational reasons, he said, they may have created another issue.
“The problem was that it created more speculation in the media. In some ways, the ‘nom de guerre’ of Jihadi John gave this individual a form of notorious celebrity,” he said.
The man’s reported background gives some clues, Gohel said. “We know that ISIS recruits a lot of Westerners who are skilled in new media, understanding of the internet, because they use that as their platform, as an oxygen of publicity.”
Familiar figure in videos
The masked, black-clad figure believed to be Jihadi John has become a familiar sight in ISIS’ gruesome beheading videos.
He appears to be the ISIS militant shown in a video last month demanding a $200 million ransom to spare the lives of two Japanese journalists. That man looks and sounds similar to one who has appeared in at least five previous hostage videos.
U.S. and British officials have previously said they believe they know who Jihadi John is, but they haven’t disclosed the information publicly.
That could be because Western intelligence agencies believe they have more to gain from keeping quiet, Aki Peritz, a former CIA officer, told CNN last month.
“They can put pressure on his family, put pressure on his friends,” he told CNN. “Maybe they have a line to him. Maybe they know who his cousins are who are going to Syria who can identify him. However, if you publicly tell everybody who he is, his real identity, then maybe he’ll go to ground and he’ll disappear.”