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Tuesday 14 May 2019

The Hunt for Jihadi John: Interview with the producer Richard Kerbaj

You’ve made a film about the terrorist known as Jihadi John [real name Mohammed Emwazi]. Explain a bit about the programme. 

The wider picture is that this is about the formation and collapse of Isis, and the impact that the ISIS ideology had on the recruitment of young men and women who left heir countries, particularly in the West, to go out and fight on the front lines in Syria and Iraq. They were given numerous promises about the caliphate, what it represented, and the religious underpinnings that it had. That’s the base outline if the story. But I wanted to tell the story through a particular character, and of course Jihadi John became such an enormous, symbolic character for Isis. Not because of the military value that he had, but because of the propaganda war that he helped wage. He became a very beneficial propaganda tool for them.

I think the very first video of him beheading the US journalist Jim Foley became such a great hit for them. It created such an enormous wave and generated so many headlines. It was an experiment that worked. So they replicated that on a number of occasions, with the beheadings of several other journalists and aid workers, and that helped them drive the propaganda machine. I’d made a couple of films before this. My Son the Jihadi was my first film, and again, I told the story of the radicalisation of young men through a single perspective, the perspective of a mother who’s longing for the return of her son who converted to Islam and went on to become a terrorist. The second film I made was about the hunt for Litvinenko’s killers. I always try to tell the story from a single perspective, and I think we’ve done that here by using the Jihadi John story. It’s not just about him, it’s telling the wider story about the threat of Islamist extremism and Islamist terrorism. It in no way glamourises him. In every element of his story there is analysis from experts or people who knew him, including his teachers, including his hostages. It’s the story of a kid who went from being fairly ordinary, on the fringes – in one case he was described as ‘a passenger in life’ – to becoming this symbolic figure for the world’s most brutal terrorist organisation. It’s about the transformation that took place, (a) because of his inclination but (b) because of the radicalising influences he encountered. And also because of some of the admitted failures within the systems of the security services. 

Looking at his back story, do you think it’s a fairly typical story of jihadi recruits? Is there a typical back story, or a type? 

It’s typical in the sense that what ISIS managed to do by creating this so-called caliphate was that they were able to draw thousands of people over to it. So typical in that sense that yes, they were fighting a war which initially started off for different purposes. Initially they were fighting the Assad regime. That was their initial purpose, which then expanded and they went on to fight the West. So from that perspective yes, he was typical – many young men and women were going at around the time that Jihadi John went out there, around 2013. At that time there were many people going out to fight, but also people going out there for humanitarian reasons. So it was a difficult thing for the security services and the police to determine who was going out for what reason. In some cases, they were able to stop people. In others, they weren’t. But what’s not typical about him is the transition he made from being a fairly ordinary and low-level radical – and there are many of them – to becoming such a poster boy for the brutal organisation that is ISIS. That’s not typical. There was only one of him. So in that sense, he was extraordinary. And what made him extraordinary was the power of the propaganda campaign he was able to launch. He was given the resources to do this by ISIS, as were some others. But with him, he had the most number of hits on social media.

Why did they alight on him? Obviously it was partly because he was British, but was it because he was eloquent or brutal or what? 

I don’t think eloquence is his thing, he wasn’t necessarily eloquent. But he was willing to be brutal. He brandished his credentials early on. He was loyal and he was brutal. And he was there at a time when they had taken about 300 people hostage, and he was carrying out acts of brutality. So he definitely demonstrated that he was able to be brutal, but also demonstrated that he was able to assemble these videos. And that’s why they decided he was quite effective. But I think, in a way, it was an experiment. Before his video came out, the most iconic video that had been released by ISIS featured three men from Cardiff. It was almost the world premiere of the caliphate, telling everyone to come and join. That went around the world and generated a lot of interest. But it was the sheer brutality of the first jihadi john video that was so shocking. You could hear the voice of this British man, and there was something familiar about it. And also, it was the way he conducted his terrorist act, and the person that he was conducting it on. He was one of us, a journalist. That caught the attention of news outlets. 

I presume you’ve seen these videos in full. Is that a difficult thing to do? 

Totally. We went through hundreds and hundreds of hours of brutal imagery. The problem with that imagery is that over time, it all ends up looking the same, it’s just brutal. It’s there to dehumanise the victims. There’s only so much that you can do for the sake of taste and measure, in terms of how you reflect them in a film like this. It’s quite harrowing, going through that footage.

In some senses, is being a Jihadi just an extreme form of being in a gang? 

That’s something that has been expressed by some people. There are many similarities between gangsters and Jihadis, but I think the one thing that really drives jihadis is ideology. Ideology is much more radicalising than, say, the need for profile, or the need for financial growth. The way gangs operate, it’s all about street cred, whereas for a Jihadi it’s all ideologically driven, to the point of blindness. To go out there and carry out brutal acts because they believe in their warped interpretation of their religion. They believe they’re doing it for the right reasons, in the name of god. 

You’ve attracted the most extraordinary roll call of talking heads for the documentary. That must have taken some doing… 

Yeah. I’ve been covering national security now for about fourteen years now, having started in Australia, before I moved to the Sunday times. So naturally my contact list is fairly wide. But the difference between a print newspaper and a film is that in a newspaper you might get a soundbite or you might get a quote on or off the record, for a film, you’re hoping to get people to actually sit down in front of a camera. So that took some doing. I started working on this film in June 2017, and I had a number of people who were committed to it, and as we continued filming, more and more people came on board. And they really were the people who had skin in the game. These are people who were involved in the hunt of Jihadi John, and what was fascinating about their revelations was that they were so honest – even when it came to them taking a look at their own performance. And they were so self-critical, whether it was from a military perspective, about Britain’s unwillingness or failure to properly fund the right part of the militant movement there, or whether it was about the missed opportunities by the police and security services to allow the likes of Jihadi John to be able to get to Syria. That raises its own questions, because if you look at the way the counter-terrorism police were operating, they had, in some cases, up to 50 people leaving a month. To track each one of them down is a very difficult thing. So they had a lot on their plate. But even by their own admission they made some errors, and I think that’s going to be quite revealing. 

One of the subjects then film touches on is whether the actions of the security forces may have alienated and further radicalised Emwazi. Do you believe that to be the case? 

By Richard Walton’s own admission, and he was the then head of counter terrorism at Scotland Yard, he says it’s a fine line between trying to recruit someone and pushing them over the edge. If you don’t successfully recruit them, then what you do is contribute to their world view and the conspiracy theories they have about western security Services. I think, in Emwazi’s case, certainly he knew he was being approached by the security services, and he opposed it. Would he have become a terrorist had he not been approached? Everything in his pattern of behaviour suggests that he would have become a terrorist, because the reason he came on to the security services’ radar to begin with was because he was raising funds for jihadists in Somalia, and then subsequently he was arrested when he went out to fight in Somalia. He pretended he was going out to check out animals on a safari. So he had every intention of becoming a terrorist because of the people he mixed with. 

Did you try and get any of his family to talk? 

Yes, we did try. We had no success, they didn’t want to discuss it. 

Among those who you do talk to are some of the hostages who were held by ISIS. How do you think they are coping in the aftermath of what happened to them? 

I think what you see of them in the film is very much unfiltered. It had an enormous emotional impact on them, and that’s affected them to this day. They were beaten, tortured, forced to beat each other up, starved in some cases, made to feel almost like animals. That had a massive impact on them. So I suppose from a PTSD perspective, it must be quite debilitating for them. However, what’s really fascinating is how they’ve managed to turn it around, in a way. They’ve decided to tell their story. It’s gives you an insight into the brutal nature of those who had taken them hostage.

What’s your motivation for telling this story as a film. Rather than sticking with the print medium? 

My entry into documentary film making comes from my studies many years ago. I studied script-writing and film back in Australia. It’s a fairly familiar world, even though I didn’t go into documentary-making until later on. The one thing that films present that newspapers don’t is that you’ve got time to tell a big story. A big story of this nature requires numerous things like cultivating the right relationships and building the right amount of trust. And there are certain things you can express visually on the screen that you could never express in writing. There are certain facial expressions or reactions that you just need to be able to see. There are moments like that in the film with the hostages, and there’s a moment like that with Diane Foley [who’s son James was a journalist who was killed by Emwazi]. There’s a moment when she’s lost for words, and it’s about three seconds, and that kind of tells you everything about what she’s feeling in that moment. So, from that perspective, that’s why film-making is very appealing. 

The Hunt for Jihadi John, Monday 20th May at 9pm on Channel 4

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