As the noose tightens around Islamic State, Bevan Hurley looks back at his two-year, on-again, off-again contact with Mark John Taylor, the man they call the “bumbling jihadi” and the only Kiwi known to have fought for the terrorist group.
Despite all of the derision he copped over the years, Mark John Taylor hated being mocked.
He couldn’t stand being referred to as the “bumbling jihadi”, and would complain about being mercilessly teased by Stuff commenters.
Taylor was a prolific social media user. After landing in Syria in mid-2014, he kept in regular contact with myself and a handful of journalists via Facebook, describing the day-to-day minutiae of living under Islamic State.
It’s a mark of the way social media has transformed our understanding of war zones – we now have a direct portal into the most dangerous places on the planet.
When his Facebook account got suspended, he started Tweeting, eventually giving away the coordinates of his fellow IS fighters.
Then when he got a new job he set up a slightly boastful Linkedin profile, as young professionals do.
He even set up a Googleplus account, but like most users he neglected to post anything much on it.
An Islamic State member parades in the streets of Raqqa, in June 2014.
FROM WAIOURU TO RAQQA
The former New Zealand Defence Force infantryman-turned ‘soldier for Allah’, came across as a rather naive oddball.
After leaving the New Zealand military in the early 2000s, Taylor quickly embraced the edgier extremes of Islam.
He first appeared on the radar of the security forces when he was arrested trying to cross into an Al Qaeda-controlled part of Pakistan in 2009.
Taylor returned home and swore it was all a misunderstanding. He was no terrorist. Then was one of 23 Australian-based residents on a security watchlist released by Wikileaks in 2011.
John Key said Taylor was subject to travel bans. “I know him and his name very well,” said Key.
Despite this, Taylor moved to Indonesia to teach English, and married. This week his Indonesian ex-wife said she had not heard from him in years. “I wish him all the best.”
In 2014, he moved on to Syria and moved to Islamic State-controlled territories.
During his first few months Taylor tells me in Facebook messages that he is committed to waging jihad and will die a martyr. He spouts against the NZ Security Intelligence Service (“What does NZSIS stand for? Nonsense Zionist Staff internet stalking”) and makes anti-semitic jokes about John Key’s parentage.
He seems nostalgic about his time in the New Zealand army, sending pictures of himself as a Kiwi serviceman in military fatigues.
He burns his New Zealand passport, poses for pictures with an AK47, and claims he was being treated very nicely indeed by his Islamic State handlers.
Then his Facebook account is suspended and he drops off the radar for a few months.
But Taylor isn’t done yet. On New Year’s Eve that year, he shoots to global notoriety as the “bumbling jihadi”.
Mark John Taylor’s Tweets gave away the locations of IS fighters in Syria. Photo: IBRABO
A trainspotter from an open source intelligence group called iBrado discovers Taylor has been broadcasting his location to the world after forgetting to turn off the geotagging function of his Twitter account.
From his @M_Taylor_Kiwi Twitter account, Taylor gives up the positions of Islamic State fighters to Western drones and airstrikes and unmasks some of his fellow fighters in a revealing profile picture.
October 3, 2014, there he is tweeting from Kafar Roma, Syria, 80km south of Aleppo: “I’m still in Syria. I still got access to the internet. Patrick Gower eat your heart out!”
Soon afterwards, the Syrian army launched a major offensive in the area, and Taylor’s “Kiwi Jihadi” Twitter account fell silent.
Then on December 3 from a house in Al Tabqah: “There’s no such thing as human rights under a NZ Suppression Act when your a true practising Muslim!”
IBrado’s Jeff Weyers said at the time Taylor’s just couldn’t resist social media.
“His statements and Twitter missteps have solidified his involvement with ISIS and will provide the evidence should he ever try to return to New Zealand.”
Months passed, until Taylor briefly reemerges to call for New Zealanders to wage jihad on Anzac Day 2015.
Then in January 2016, there he is on Linkedin. The professional networking site has trawled my sent emails for possible new contacts, and recommends that I connect with one Muhammad Daniel – aka Mark John Taylor.
Muhammad Daniel, aka Mark John Taylor’s, Linkedin profile.
No longer wielding an AK47, Taylor now describes himself as an “education management professional” living in Islamic State, and teaching English to young children “with a puppet”.
“There’s no danger here and a great place to bring up the family. Except Western Jet fighters that always drop bombs on Civilians!”
I email Taylor.
“We spoke a few months back when you travelled to Syria.
“I noticed you have set up a Linkedin profile and wanted to check that this is a verified account.”
Two weeks later, the answer came.
“The answer is NO.”
Could this really be him?
I email back: “Can you tell me a bit about how you’re getting on over there? Everyone here in New Zealand is keen to know more about your life over there.”
Taylor responds: “5 requests as follows:
“1. I only talk in person, not online.
“2. You need to get a letter of protection from the lslamic State officials. Example: The German Writer was able to come here.
“3. I require a fee of no less then 500,000USD about my story here
“4. All confidential information remains confidential or classified.
“5. I check the final editing and make the final decision on the story.”
The German writer Taylor refers to is Jurgen Todenhofer, one of the only Western journalists to travel to IS-controlled territories and survive.
Todenhofer couldn’t be reached for this story but has previously written extensively about his time with Islamic State, saying: “I know Isis fighters. Western bombs falling on Raqqa will fill them with joy”.
When I told Taylor we couldn’t comply with his demands, he upped the ante.
“You want a story I understand! The price is now $5,000,000USD,” he wrote on February 25.
Mark John Taylor emailed this picture with the words: “The Russians blow up the school in October last year. I’ve been unemployed mostly since! Here is one of main streets in Raqqah that got blown up by the Russians.”
On March 3, a flurry of emails.
Taylor: “You have to come here for that exclusive interview!”
Me: “Where is there? I’m coming over your way soon.” (I was heading to Israel).
“How is life there at the moment? Is it safe?”
“How’s the teaching going?”
Three days later he sends me a picture of a bombed-out street.
“The Russians blow up the school in October last year. I’ve been unemployed mostly since!
“Here is one of main streets in Raqqah that got blown up by the Russians, two month’s!”
A few months of silence followed. Had his wish for martyrdom been granted?
As it turned out, not yet.
Taylor was getting grief in the comments section of the Stuff story about his exploits teaching with puppets: and he wasn’t happy. Example: “Good ole New Zilind. Every other western country is dealing with the problem of their own hardcore extremists going over to IS, and we give them Frank Spencer”.
The tone of the email that arrived from Taylor’s email address on June 4 was more serious, the sentences complete.
“Hello Bevan Hurley,
“Interesting that people in your articles leaving in comments ‘ how I should be killed!’ or threatening to kill me if I ever return back to New Zealand (
“Isn’t that against the law of New Zealand !
“Remember if you make any more stories about me or your work coworkers from Fairfax.
“It won’t be 5 million dollars US, it’ll be 20 million dollars US I be wanting !
“Remove all the articles about me. That includes all other articles written by Stuff.co.nz in the past 7 years.
“And I forget this email, but if you don’t do it, I see you in a Court of Law in New Zealand with your Fairfax CEO and your lawyers INC!
“Since I already given Fairfax a warning, Four month’s ago.”
I apologise to him for the nasty comments. Stuff’s comments section has a new set of guidelines designed to keep the trolls away.
Taylor responds on June 6:
“Shame on you! By allowing xenophobia to happen against Muslims in New Zealand.
“Isn’t that against the Law too. It’s called Discrimination!”
Sensing that we’ve reached an impasse, I try a different tack.
July 18: “Where’s this interview you keep promising me? Surely it’s time now.”
He’s unmoved. “$5,000,000USD Where is it?”
July 19: “Tell me something about your life. How do I know it’s even you?”
“I like candy, I like ice cream, I like chocolate, I like $5000,000USD in my bank account: if you release another bungled story how you like!”
There he is. Maybe it really was still Taylor on the other end.
There was one final to-and-fro: “C’mon Muhammad, that’s not how this works. I’m never going to pay you $5m or even $5 for an interview.”
“Then leave the matter with my Lawyer Chris Braid!” (we couldn’t find any trace of a lawyer called Chris Braid. Auckland barrister Chris Baird said he had never heard of Taylor.)
And finally on July 23:
“You really want that free exclusive interview from me?
“It can only be done here in Syria.
“Best to seek advice from the German journalist Jurgen Tobenhoffer, who did come here in late 2014.
And with that, he broke off all contact.
Burning oil wells set on fire by fleeing Islamic State members in Al Qayyarah, Iraq. Many families have begun returning to their homes in recently liberated towns south of Mosul. Photo: GETTY IMAGES
DEAD OR ALIVE?
So many questions remained: had Taylor been punished by his Islamic State masters for his social media cockups? Or were they part of some sophisticated recruitment strategy? Or was he just, as most suspected, a messed-up guy prone to bouts of attention-seeking?
Paul Buchanan, of 36th Parallel Assessments, is in no doubt that Taylor was a naive stooge. If his time isn’t up already, the end is nigh.
“He might try to reach out to western intelligence agencies and try to secure safe passage. But I doubt that because he seems rather thick.”
Should we even care what Taylor’s fate is?
“I personally don’t care,” says Buchanan. “If you want to go fight in a hellhole and put yourself in the line of fire, knock yourself out.”
According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, there is one New Zealander registered on their SafeTravel site as being in Syria.
They couldn’t say if it’s Taylor.
The NZSIS (“We don’t comment on individuals or matters that may or may not be operational”) and new Prime Minister Bill English (“The Prime Minister does not comment on the status of individual New Zealanders travelling or living overseas”) were even less forthcoming.
There’s no doubt the net is closing on Islamic State.
A rejuvenated Iraqi army – many trained by New Zealand forces – are close to taking back Mosul, IS’s main stronghold in Iraq.
In Syria, another offensive is underway to retake the other major remaining IS bastion of Raqqa, Taylor’s one-time home.
A few hundred kilometres west, Syrian Government forces committed one final atrocity on the people of Aleppo this week. IS fighters find themselves in a pincer. The assault on Raqqa promises to be brutal, and escape routes are already being cut off.
Meanwhile, this week the Pentagon announced they’d killed three IS leaders in Raqqa, a surgical strike that presumably would have required precise intelligence to pull off.
On Friday, Taylor’s Googleplus account offers the standard response: “It looks like you’ve reached the end.”
The jihadi and me: Conversations with ‘bumbling’ Kiwi jihadi Mark John Taylor
Taylor is no idiot:
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