STOPPED by two black cars on a dusty Syrian road, in March 2013, Federico Motka and his friend David Haines knew instantly they were being kidnapped by IS terrorists.
The terrified aid workers, who had been in Syria for just three days, were forced face down on the road and then bundled into the boot of one of the cars – but when their captors spoke they were surprised to hear a London accent.
The pair had fallen victim to the now infamous ‘Beatles’ – the hostages’ name for the British terrorist cell led by brutal Brit Mohammed Emwazi, later dubbed Jihadi John.
A new Channel 4 documentary, The Hunt For Jihadi John, follows the path of Emwazi from a sports-loving teenager, who loved Manchester United and S Club 7, to a violent extremist.
In the programme, which airs tonight, Federico recalls the chilling moment he heard them snarl an insult at British dad David – who was later beheaded in a sick propaganda video.
“The guys we nicknamed the Beatles had native British accents and they were the first people who conversed with us in the car,” says Federico, now 39.
“When they’d taken our passports the first thing they said was ‘David, welcome to Syria, you mutt.’ Then they asked David if I spoke any English.
‘Beaten, tortured and made to stand up all night’
Federico was on his first trip to Syria and charity worker David, who had been in the war torn country before, took the young Italian under his wing.
“When you first met David he was someone who inspired confidence,” he says. “He was a wonderful guy, We connected really quickly.”
On the day of the kidnap, the pair were driving back from meetings with a community group to their safe house, near Atma.
Federico was on the phone when they were overtaken by the two black cars.
“They blocked us and these masked fighters jumped out and surrounded the car,” he says.
“I dropped the phone with my boss still on the line and I managed to say we were being kidnapped. It all happened very quickly. I just have flash recollections.”
The pair were driven at high speed to a remote house, where they were initially separated and thrown into pitch black cells with nothing but a toilet, with hands cuffed behind their backs.
After a few weeks they were reunited and made to share the same cell. Their captors beat, tortured and starved the men and when they weren’t being attacked, they could hear the screams of other prisoners they had yet to meet.
Federico said the terrorists took their inspiration from torture methods allegedly used at Guantanamo Bay.
The prisoners were dressed in orange jumpsuits, similar to those at Guantanamo Bay, and were put into stress positions, deprived of sleep and made to stand up all night.
When they were finally brought together with their fellow captives – including James Foley and Nicolas Henin – they were made to fight each other for the entertainment of Emwazi and his friends.
Fellow captive Nicolas Henin told the show they came up with the joke names for their kidnappers as a “coping mechanism “ and revealed Emwazi – AKA John – was the leader of the gang, barking orders at the others.
‘George’ was the most violent and ‘Ringo’ was the ‘preacher’, who explained what was happening to them.
‘I spent more time sleeping next to David than any girl in my life’
David and Federico forged a strong bond during their time in captivity.
Federico says: “These people weren’t just friends, they were brothers. I think I spent more time sleeping next to David than any girl in my life.
“We were all close as a group but we all have one individual we would turn to and for me that was Dave. I hope I was of help to him but I was able to give what I could and everyone did the same.”
But in May 2014, Federico was suddenly released while David stayed behind.
Four months later, he was horrified to hear David had been executed by Emwazi in one of a series of sick propaganda videos posted online.
“I always believed that because we were taken together we would be negotiated for together,” said Federico. But when he was asked to film a ‘proof of life’ clip to send home, he realised their fates were going to be different.
“It was probably one of the most bittersweet emotions I’ve ever had.
“For some reason the day that I was picked up the Beatles were super aggressive. They gave me a beating and took it out on everyone else as well.
“Just before they put a blanket over my head they made me go back to the door and said, ‘Say goodbye to your friends.’”
From S Club fan to brutal extremist
Federico’s friendship with David is just one of the focuses in the new documentary, which tracks Jihadi John’s path from London choir boy to brutal killer.
Emwazi arrived in England aged six as a refugee, after his family fled from Kuwait.
He is described by teachers at his school in Maida Vale, North West London, as “not particularly noticeable” and “much more of a follower than a leader.”
But during his three years at Westminster University, he became radicalised and soon came onto the radar of the UK anti-terror squad S015.
During a trip to Tanzania, he and two friends were arrested by border police, acting on a tip off from the UK.
When they returned to the UK, MI5 attempted to recruit him as a spy, a move which backfired.
“They rammed home the idea that life could become uncomfortable for him unless he wanted to cooperate, then asked him to tell MI5 what his friends were up to,” says Robert Verkaik, author of Jihadi John: Making of a Terrorist.
“To Emwazi this was a red rag to a bull. It’s not something he’s prepared to do. It’s an ultimate betrayal of everything he had become.”
Security services then began to track his movements and listen in to his phone calls, even visiting his fiancee’s home to tell her family of his suspected terrorist links.
The engagement was immediately broken off.
Deprived of a new life over toothache
Increasingly worried about his extreme views and the attention of the security services, Emwazi’s family hatched a plan to send him to Kuwait to live with his grandmother.
“He took a job with the computer company where the boss though he was an excellent worker. He got a girlfriend, someone who he wanted to marry, and he was enjoying his new life,” says Robert.
However, chronic toothache meant he travelled back to the UK for dental help – and he was prevented from returning to girlfriend in Kuwait.
In his absence, the Kuwaiti security team visited his second fiancée and, again, the family called off the wedding.
The move further angered Emwazi, who began plotting to join the Caliphate in Syria.
“His whole life is, as far as he is concerned, being funnelled in one direction,” says Robert. “He can’t go to Kuwait, he’s finding it impossible to live in London, his attentions are now focus shifts to the extreme lifestyle, the full jihad.”
Robert Walton, Head of Counter Terrorism at SO15, admits that the way Emwazi was being treated could have prompted his decision to join IS in Syria, in 2012.
“What we’d hope to stop had come to pass,” he says. “In a sense we just held back the inevitable.
“Whether we contributed to his radicalisation and his clear anger and vitriol towards the British state by stopping his travel is an interesting question.”
Emwazi went on to behead seven innocent captives in footage posted online – including David, fellow Brit Alan Henning and US journalist James Foley – as well 22 Syrian airmen.
The programme reveals that Emwazi, who used superior computing skills to cover his tracks, was finally tracked down in Raqqa by a joint UK and US operation.
His weak spot, it turned out, was his desire for a family. After taking a wife and having children, he blew his cover.
“We didn’t have to track his movements,” says former Pentagon spokesman Colonel Steve Warren. “We just have to watch his family home and wait for him to show up.”
Emwazi, 27, was killed in a drone strike in November 2015 in Raqqa and his accomplices El Shafee Elsheikh and Alexanda Kotey – thought to be ‘George’ and ‘Ringo’ – were captured in 2018 and handed over to the US authorities.
The Hunt For Jihadi John airs tonight on Channel 4 at 9pm