Mohammed Emwazi was a grade school student in London with a promising future ahead of him in 1995. By 2014, he had become known as “Jihadi John,” a masked ISIS terrorist in Syria who internationalized his notoriety by broadcasting his beheadings of Western hostages on the internet.
From Oscar-nominated, BAFTA and Emmy-winning director Anthony Wonke (HBO’s The Battle for Marjah), and BAFTA-winning producer and investigative journalist Richard Kerbaj, Unmasking Jihadi John: Anatomy of a Terrorist examines what propelled Emwazi’s journey down a violent path despite US and British authorities being aware of his extremism. It also highlights the self-declared operational failures by counter-terrorism officials as Emwazi became ISIS’s chief executioner and propagandist.
Emwazi’s brutality is illustrated through harrowing, first-hand accounts from his surviving hostages, and the collaboration between the world’s leading intelligence agencies, including the CIA and Britain’s intelligence agents, who ultimately tracked him down and ended his life.
Unmasking Jihadi John: Anatomy of a Terrorist includes rare footage of Emwazi as a young boy in London and interviews with his schoolteachers who reveal that he lived a relatively comfortable and normal childhood. His behavior grew more disconcerting in his teenage years. Vulnerable, malleable, and influenced by members of local gangs, his increasingly extremist views landed him on a terrorism watchlist. After a series of run-ins with British intelligence agents who tried to recruit him as an informant, Emwazi fled for Syria and went on to join ISIS; the film uses original audio recordings of Emwazi himself complaining about his interactions with the British security services. It also illustrates accounts of actual events with recreation, archive footage and video filmed by the Islamic State.
He was quickly elevated through the terrorist group's ranks and generated international attention through his brutal behavior and canny use of social media. His stylized ransom messages and horrific beheading videos shocked the world when they were posted on YouTube and Twitter, and subsequently reported on by international media.
Featuring extraordinary first-hand accounts from surviving hostages Nicolas Henin and Federico Motka, as well as interviews with family members of executed hostages James Foley and David Haines, the film examines the torturous treatment of those held in captivity by Emwazi, the desperate attempts by their loved ones to have them released, and the heartbreaking and psychological turmoil they endured.
The documentary features interviews with CIA, Pentagon, and British intelligence officials who have never spoken publicly about the operation until now, including General David Petraeus (Head of US Central Command / CIA Director), Douglas H. Wise (CIA, Middle East Operations), and Colonel Steve Warren (Pentagon Spokesperson, Coalition Forces), who provide a detailed account of the hunt for Emwazi. They also reflect on the origins of ISIS, the rise to power of its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi out of the chaos of the Iraq war, and the lessons learned – as well as the questions that remain – from their interactions with Emwazi.
Unmasking Jihadi John: Anatomy of a Terrorist is a Nutopia production in association with HBO, Channel Four and Livedrop Media. It is directed by Anthony Wonke and written and produced by Richard Kerbaj. Executive producers for Nutopia: Jane Root, Lynne Kirby, Mike Lerner, Peter Lovering; director of photography, Kevin White; editor, Paul Monaghan. For HBO: executive producer, Nancy Abraham; senior producer, Sara Rodriguez.