Did 'Jihadi John' erase his digital footprint before turning to terror?

Feb 28, 2015

26-year-old terrorist Mohammed Emwazi has a distinct lack of online profile - did he cover his tracks before becoming an ISIS militant?

The 26-year-old IS terrorist known as 'Jihadi John' has been unmasked this week as Mohammed Emwazi.

A multi-million-pound manhunt is now underway, involving British police, counter-terror spooks from MI5 and MI6 as well as US agents from the FBI and CIA.

But what’s unusual for a British man in his mid-twenties is that he has next to no digital footprint.

So far we only have one photo of Emwazi as an adult before he re-emerged as ‘Jihadi John’ - taken from his records from when he studied computer programming at Westminster University.

Prior to that we’d only seen a photo of him was an eight-year-old at St Magdalene’s Church in set London.

So how come there’s so little about his life before terrorism online? And is it particularly unusual?

We spoke to some experts to find out.

He would have planned ahead

“Most extremists or criminals aren't as thoughtful as Jihadi John,” says Michael Fertik, CEO of Reputation.com.

“He just deleted his Facebook page and his Instagram page This is not a shocking dearth of information. It's consistent with a decision taken some time ago to shut down social media accounts.

"But for our appetite for more information about this 'baby Hitler' we would not be so amazed by the amount of information that is currently online."

He points out that we know where he lived and that he was a student - which is often the same amount of information available after people delete their main social media accounts.

"It's not a Jedi-level job," says Fertik.

Jihadi John unmasked
Jihadi John unmasked

Or avoided posting altogether

“The best way to cover your tracks online is to not do anything online,” says Frank Ahearn, author of How to Disappear.

He says that often extremely religious or fundamental people avoid social media.

"If you’re travelling a lot, you'd be aware not to put any information online to avoid suspicion. If you put extreme content online, it can get picked up by intelligence agencies," he adds. Particularly with a an Arabic name in a post-9/11 world.

And posting misinformation online

Instead of deleting accounts, it can be better to simply start spinning out misinformation. Changing facts on your profiles, such as the city you live in. “Deviate your information to create confusion” says Ahearn.

Despite this, it's very hard to leave no digital footprint

"It's not impossible to hide your identity, but it's very difficult," says Stuart Hyde QPM, a faculty member of the Global Institute of Cyber, Intelligence & Security (GICIS).

He describes using different email addresses, using throwaway phones and being careful about who you speak to.

You can operate "under the radar" but you have to emerge sometimes.

"But it's hard to be completely anonymous and yet still be engaged in a socially-networked world," he adds.

We'll start to see a whole lot more information emerge now

"We'll probably start to see an accumulation of photographs from his earlier life, taken by others from school or his estate," says Fertik.

We're already hearing about his sister's disturbing film project and the fact that he was a caring friend who gave Haribo to his classmates.

We also now know that intelligence agencies have secretly been probing his background for months, monitoring phone calls and social media communication by Emwazi's family and friends - and they may start to release information strategically.

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