'Jihadi John' death at centre of dispute

Mohammed Emwazi Image copyright Unknown

Mohammed Emwazi, the British jihadist who featured in beheading videos by so-called Islamic State and became known as "Jihadi John", is dead, according to, amongst others, Barack Obama and IS's own publication.

On the other hand, maybe he isn't dead, according to the University of Westminster in London, where he was a student, and the Information Commissioner's Office.

This question is at the heart of a freedom of information (FOI) dispute between the university and the BBC. The Information Commissioner has now backed the university.

After this was reported, the commissioner's office issued further justification for its stance, arguing that there is no definite proof that the Mohammed Emwazi who attended the university is the same one identified as "Jihadi John".

This stems from an FOI request made in February by my BBC colleague Chris Vallance, a Radio 4 reporter, who asked the university for all the electronic records it had about Emwazi.

He wanted to see whether they would shed light on his past character, any contact with the authorities, and how and why he became radicalised.

'Deeply inflammatory'

It has been widely reported that Emwazi studied computer science at Westminster from 2006 to 2009. Part of his academic file had already been leaked and published in the media.

The university sent Chris copies of some emails from their vice-chancellor's office referring to the discovery that "Jihadi John" had been one of their students, and the resulting "intensive global media interest" and "deeply inflammatory external environment".

But they refused to disclose his personal records on the grounds that he could still be alive, despite the fact that the US military said it had killed Emwazi in a drone strike in the Syrian city of Raqqa in November 2015.

Emwazi featured prominently in several gruesome recordings of beheadings of captured Western hostages. He was not a significant military commander within the IS group, but his role in the propaganda videos made him an important symbolic target.

In December, President Obama named Emwazi as one of a number of leaders of the IS group or operatives that the US had been "taking out" and "removed".

Obituary

The American assertion has been backed by UK-based Syrian human rights activists who said they were in contact with sources in Raqqa.

And in January 2016, the IS group itself apparently confirmed his death, publishing an obituary of Emwazi in their online magazine, Dabiq.

However, all this evidence was considered insufficient by the university management, who maintained: "To date, no authoritative confirmation or evidence has been given to the university, or made public, that the student known to the University of Westminster as Mohammed Emwazi is now dead.

"Without any firm evidence or authoritative official confirmation that Mohammed Emwazi is definitely deceased, the university maintains that the information requested remains bound by data protection restrictions."

Under the Data Protection Act, personal information can be disclosed only where this would be processing it "fairly", but the law applies to "living individuals" only.

The Information Commissioner's official guidance stresses that it cannot be used to limit the publication of information about the deceased.

'Distress and upset'

Following an appeal by the BBC, the university's stance has now been backed by the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO). It has issued a decision stating that "the commissioner agrees with the university's approach".

The ICO initially refused to clarify the reasons for its ruling, but later released additional material which it had kept secret in a confidential annex to its published decision.

This states: "There is no way of the university knowing for absolute definite that the Mohammed Emwazi it may hold records for is the same Mohammed Emwazi named in the request and the same person responsible for the crimes reported."

The suggestion that they are the same person has been generally accepted and widely reported in the media by the BBC and others.

An ICO spokesperson said: "The FOI Act is designed to promote transparency and openness, but is also balanced to avoid the inappropriate release of personal information. Anyone who is not happy with a decision can appeal to the information rights tribunal."

A University of Westminster spokesperson said: "We are complying with our legal obligations and the ICO decision confirms that this is the correct approach."

The university responded to the revelation last year that "Jihadi John" had been a former student by commissioning an independent report that examined how it tackled Islamic extremism within the student population.

The university has since instituted a new policy on external speakers, and created a programme of extended pastoral care and enhanced staff training.

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