How Jihadi John journalist used law degree and barrister training to kick-start his career

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By Katie King on

University of Westminster grad credits LLB and bar course with putting him on road to success


It’s that time of year again.

Christmas is over, coursework deadlines have passed and summer exams are simply that bit too far away to get yourself stressed out about — so now is the perfect time for a ‘what am I going to do with my life?’ crisis.

It seems everyone around you is punting for a training contract, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that a law degree isn’t just a one-way ticket to the City. Employers love LLBs, and there’s a whole host of careers out there for grads that just aren’t interested in becoming lawyers.

Take Robert Verkaik (pictured above with his new book).

The eminent journalist has made a name for himself in recent years as a terrorism specialist. The only Western journalist to have had direct access to infamous extremist Jihadi John, Verkaik has recently written a successful book about what he terms “the most pressing problem facing the Western world” — the struggle against radical ideology.

With an undeniably impressive career behind him, wannabe writers up and down the country will be dying to know what Verkaik’s secret is. And, when Legal Cheek caught up with him this week, we found out that he owes a lot to his 1980s law degree — which is from the same polytechnic university that Jihadi John attended, by the way.

Sitting down over coffee and cake in a Holborn cafe, Verkaik told Legal Cheek that he dived straight into journalism after graduating from the University of Westminster in 1986, taking up a position at a local newspaper.

He explained:

I knew from the beginning that I didn’t want to be a lawyer, but I knew that having a law degree would be useful. It’s seen as an impressive qualification to have, and it helped me secure interviews.

A combination of enjoying court reporting and seeing his friends lead exciting lives at the bar prompted Verkaik to enroll on the Bar Vocational Course (BVC) — now the Bar Professional Training Course — in 1993. The course was, he said, definitely “an eye opener”.

Facing rejections from London set after London set, Verkaik went further afield and was offered a “Mickey Mouse pupillage” at a tiny Birmingham chambers.

But, funding his way through the BVC by writing, his love of journalism never died — and his love of advocacy did. Verkaik didn’t think he’d make a very good barrister: he “wasn’t academically brilliant”, and the “whole culture of the profession” turned him off. He didn’t want to go to Birmingham, so declining the pupillage offer and sticking with journalism just felt like “the right decision”.

And it was — Verkaik has managed to graft an extremely interesting and varied career over the decades, and it’s his legal qualifications which propelled that.

After working freelance for the Law Society Gazette, The Times, and The Independent for a few years, Verkaik — whose son is currently studying the Graduate Diploma in Law at the University of Law — became the legal affairs correspondent for The Independent in 1999. With a law degree and the BVC under his belt, Verkaik found himself tagging along to important meetings to help his editor out with legal questions. He told us:

When people find out that you have a legal qualification, you’re put on a professional pedestal.

One major advantage to having a law background was having the skills, and the confidence, to invoke the Freedom of Information Act — a long, intimidating statute that others may have shied away from. Using his legal knowledge, he managed to get his hands on boxes of documents from Buckingham Palace about the royal palace’s finances.

By the mid 2000s, Verkaik was keen to get into bigger, meatier stories, and found himself in luck when he joined the Mail on Sunday as its security editor and law editor.

It was then, as he was moving from The Independent, that Verkaik first met Jihadi John — or Mohammed Emwazi as he was then known. Reaching out to the respected journalist for his help, Emwazi told Verkaik that he was being unfairly targeted by the security services, and that he just wanted to go back to Kuwait to be with his family.

Verkaik recalls that Emwazi, on meeting, was “a pleasant young man”, and the journalist finds it difficult to believe what he came to be. “I just didn’t recognise him when I saw the videos,” Verkaik told us.

The Westminster law grad has since published a book — ‘Jihadi John: The Making of a Terrorist’ — about his personal experience of meeting the now deceased extremist. He told us that he felt he had to write a book, not an article, about this because it was simply “too important” not to. This is not just the story of one man, but the story of a generation of radical Muslims.

Penning his book helped Verkaik think about what can be done to combat this radicalisation, but there’s simply no one size fits all solution. He said:

I’ve discovered that it’s very complex, and that every British man or woman that goes to Syria has his or her own story to tell. It’s not straightforward and there are all sorts of radicalising factors: poverty, exclusion, the influence of radical clerics, mental disability, to name but a few.

The one thing these people do all share, Verkaik explained, is a sense of Islamic injustice: that Muslims are dying because of Western foreign policy. And really it all starts from there.

Writing a book proved to be a very positive experience for Verkaik. The sense of freedom and control, the chance to explore deeper, to speak to people at length, to write in measured terms — these all provided a welcome break from tabloid journalism.

Without his Uni of Westminster law degree, who knows whether Verkaik would ever have taken the plunge and written a book. What is clear, however, is how much it’s helped him along the way. He concludes:

Without a doubt my legal qualifications have helped my career. It put my journalism career of a firm footing, and gave me the confidence I needed. If you can master writing about the law, then you can write about anything.

‘Jihadi John: The Making of a Terrorist’, by Robert Verkaik, is available here.