Can harassment lead a person to barbarity? Emwazi to Jihadi John via MI5

Activist Abdul-Rahman Ali explains the damaging effects of counter-intelligence and harassment in light of the Mohammed Emwazi case. 

Advocacy group CAGE have been criticised from pillar to post for making the logical link between the MI5’s harassment of Mohammed Emwazi and his path to barbarity.

But can harassment of the kind suffered by Emwazi really lead to someone who is seemingly normal, become the infamous ISIS executioner Jihadi John?

Counter Intelligence

‘Counterintelligence’ is the assessment and countering of threats posed by enemy subversion, espionage, and sabotage. Counterintelligence operations include covert surveillance (spying on the enemy), sabotage (disruption of the enemy’s activities), and disinformation (efforts to deceive the enemy and – when it serves the objectives of the counterintelligence program – the public).

A set of tactics used in counterintelligence operations involves the covert surveillance and harassment of a targeted individual. The goal of such operations – in the parlance of counterintelligence personnel – is to “subvert” or “neutralise” an individual deemed by a government agency (or corporation) to be an enemy. In engaging in such practices, security services often function in the manner of criminal gangs because although they conduct their operations under the colour of law, many of their activities have neither moral nor legal legitimacy.


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Counter surveillance by the use of stalking and harassing a target methods were used extensively by communist East Germany’s Stasi (state police) as a means of maintaining political control over its citizens. The Stasi referred to the tactics as “Zersetzung” (German for “decomposition” or “corrosion” – a reference to the intended psychological, social, and financial effects upon the victim).

Such covert tactics are quietly used by intelligence agencies to suppress dissent, silence whistle-blowers, and get revenge against persons who have angered someone with connections to the public and private agencies involved.

Illegal counterintelligence operations have been perpetrated against Americans for many years. The most well documented example of such operations was the FBI’s infamous Cointelpro (Counter-Intelligence Programs) under the direction of J. Edgar Hoover. Those operations ran from 1956 until 1971 when they were exposed by political activists who broke into an FBI office and obtained secret documents which they handed over to the press. Cointelpro’s official goal was to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralise” individuals and groups deemed to be subversive.


Covert counter surveillance methods include warrantless electronic surveillance, slander, blacklisting, and a variety of psychological operations. A victim is systematically isolated and harassed in a manner intended to cause sustained emotional torment while creating the least-possible amount of evidence of stalking that would be visible to others. The process is sometimes referred to as “no-touch torture.” Methods are specifically chosen for their lack of easily-captured objective evidence. The cumulative effects of relentless exposure to such tactics can amount to psychological torture for the victim.

zill 3A whole set of psychological operations are perpetrated against targeted individuals.

These methods include such things as threats, slander, vandalism, abusive phone calls, computer hacking, and tormenting the victim with noise. The person will virtually have no privacy.

According to some, the overall process is sometimes called “slow kill”. According to former CIA psychologist James Keehner, covert techniques included:

“It was planned destructiveness. First, you’d check to see if you could destroy a man’s marriage. If you could, then that would be enough to put a lot of stress on that individual, to break him down. Then you might start a rumour campaign against him. Harass him constantly”.

In his book, Stopping a Stalker, retired police captain Robert L. Snow describes the psychological aftermath of harassing an individual. He says:

“With stalking victims, however, the crime wasn’t over with, but continued on and on. Victims of stalking say the experience is like a prolonged rape, a never-ending and terrifying loss of control over one’s life. Stalking is one of the most psychologically crippling things that can happen to a person. Being stalked takes away a person’s freedom, a person’s security, and often a person’s will to live.”

It is clear therefore that the conditions placed upon an individual, may have an impact on their actions and this must therefore be understood. Even in cases of violence in schools for example, media attention to the role of bullying is small relative to its importance. A 2011 survey of high school students in America found that teenagers who are the victims of bullying are up to 31 times more likely to bring weapons to school.

Julianne McKinney, Director, Electronic Surveillance Project Association of National Security Alumni stated that the objective of covert techniques where a person is placed under severe surveillance, as appears to have been the case of Emwazi, is to “force the individual to commit an act of violence, whether suicide or murder, under conditions which can be plausibly denied by the government.”

Example Cases of the impact of harassment

A Los Angeles Times article published in September 1979 under the headline “FBI Admits Spreading Lies About Jean Seberg” was the lead story on the paper’s front page. Seberg – a successful film actress and a political activist – had died the month before in Paris from an apparent suicide. As the Los Angeles Times reported, Seberg had been the target of a systematic campaign by the FBI to slander her for her support of the Black civil rights movement. She had also apparently been blacklisted and terrorised by the FBI using tactics associated with counterintelligence operations intended to neutralise political dissidents, such as “black bag jobs,” illegal wiretapping, and overt stalking. Emotional distress from the FBI’s operations against Ms. Seberg – while she was pregnant – apparently caused her to give birth prematurely (her baby died), and ultimately led her to commit suicide.

Similarly, the Guardian ran an article on January 9, 2001 entitled, ‘Suicide of Black Worker Caused by Bullying’. It stated that: “Mr. Lee left a suicide note addressed to his mother, Unnell, which said: ‘Tell them it was nice playing with me and they won.'” This man’s father wrote an open letter to 1,500 postal workers in Birmingham seeking more evidence about the harassment. “But instead of help, he received threats”.

An exception to the lack of good reporting on this subject was published by the Huffington Post in August 2011. Anthropologist Janice Harper dared to ask the most important question about a mass shooting which had occurred a year earlier in Manchester, Connecticut. Omar Thornton, a delivery truck driver, fatally shot eight of his co-workers and then killed himself. Harper asked:

“Was Thornton bullied in the workplace, mobbed by management and co-workers to the point of mass murder? Given the savagery of his final acts, does it really matter if he was harassed, discriminated against, bullied or mobbed? It does if it can prevent future acts of workplace vengeance. Last year, when Lt. Governor M. Jodi Rell asked, “In the wake of this tragedy, we are all left asking the same questions: How could someone do this? Why did they do this?” his question was treated almost as if it were rhetorical. Any serious effort to answer it was blasted away with a flippant hate-filled remark as if trying to understand what drives workers to kill somehow excuses the killing and trivialises the trauma the survivors will forever suffer.”

As Harper noted, the shooter, Omar Thornton, reportedly did not have a history of violence or mental illness. Any intelligent person should be curious about why an otherwise non-violent individual would suddenly lash-out at others with lethal force.

So what happen to Emwazi?

Taking the aforementioned case studies into consideration, what role did ‘counterintelligence’ have in the radicalisation of Emwazi? Clearly, there are some stark similarities that need to be looked into further detail.

Emwazi’s teacher described him as:

It’s incomprehensible to me that a young person who appeared to have such a positive route into adult life could become the monster that he appears to have become today. And I keep asking myself over and over again why? How did this happen? What could possibly have changed in his life to have taken him down this path?” Further, his former boss in Kuwait has described Emwazi as “The best employee we ever had”.

zill 2So what happened? We know that Emwazi told a journalist in 2010 that harassment by British security services had made him fear he was a “dead man walking“.

He wrote: “Sometimes I feel like a dead man walking, not fearing they (MI5) may kill me. Rather, fearing that one day, I’ll take as many pills as I can so that I will sleep forever! I just want to get away from these people!

We also know from his emails to CAGE that after he was questioned by counter-terrorism officers while attempting to fly from Heathrow to his native Kuwait in 2010, Emwazi claimed the security services were “stopping him from living his new life” abroad, where he had secured a job and was getting married.

In one message, he wrote: “I feel like a prisoner, only not in a cage, (but) in London. A person imprisoned and controlled by security service men.

Emwazi was clearly a vulnerable person. As it was stated by James Keehner above, one of the tactics used as part of the harassment by security agencies is to break off a person’s marriage – we see in Emwazi’s case, that this was a tactic they implemented as they managed to cancel his engagement for marriage on two occasions. And just as Julianne McKinney stated above, the objective of this type of covert harassment is to force the individual to commit an act of violence, whether suicide or murder.

Mohammed Emwazi aka Jihadi John
Mohammed Emwazi aka Jihadi John

Why is it that when reporting on the cause of Mr Lee’s suicide (see above), or the reason why Mr Thornton (see above) committed an act of mass murder, it can be acceptable to question what drove them to their respective acts, but when it comes to the case of Emwazi, CAGE are not allowed to ask legitimate questions without being branded as “apologists for terror”? CAGE are merely seeking answers to questions we should all be concerned about, not because anyone is seeking to condone such gruesome deplorable acts, but in order to ensure that it does not happen again.

CAGE’s courageous stance reminds us all that in a free society, no one should be above reproach. A former CIA division chief Melvin Goodman echoed CAGE’s concerns when he was quoted in a June 2008 article by Jeremy Scahill in ‘The Nation’ on the vast private contractor element of the intelligence-security community:

“My major concern is the lack of accountability, the lack of responsibility. The entire industry is essentially out of control. It’s outrageous.”

Unless we move away from this childish attempt in diverting the topic away from the security services by smearing CAGE, then we really risk sleepwalking into a surveillance state which is will be menacing to basic political liberties for all, as stated by Glenn Greenwald.

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