March 2, 2015 5:58 AM EST

The Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) executioner Mohammed Emwazi, nicknamed Jihadi John, was a cold loner who didn’t talk much, according to an ISIS defector who spoke to the BBC.

Abu Ayman first met Emwazi in Syria about two years ago at a hillside refugee camp in Atmeh in northern Syria. British foreign fighters occupied nearby houses, posting photos on social media of their “five-star jihadi.” Ayman says Emwazi seemed strange from the beginning: “The British fighters were always hanging out together, but he wouldn’t join them.”

“He was cold. He didn’t talk much. He wouldn’t join us in prayer,” he said.

Ayman said ISIS has professional psychologists who “know who to choose from the fighters and how to make them famous.” He pointed out that ISIS offered new weapons, luxury guns, cars and promotions in exchange for following orders and said “there was nothing special about Jihadi John … anyone could have become like him.”

He added that some of his former ISIS comrades joined the group because of their admiration for Emwazi. “He’s a celebrity to attract our Muslim brothers in Europe. But some think he is showing off; they think he’s being used by ISIS.”

MORE: Inside ISIS, a TIME Special Report

Ayman’s description of Jihadi John is at odds with depictions of him from earlier stages in his life. His former high school principal, Jo Shuter, told the BBC that Emwazi was never suspected of being radicalized at school. She said that Emwazi had some issues with being bullied, which were dealt with, and that by the end of his time at high school he was “a hardworking, aspirational young man who went on to the university he wanted to go to.”

After university, Emwazi, a Kuwait-born U.K. citizen, worked as a salesman for a Kuwaiti IT company from 2009 to 2010. His former boss told The Guardian that Emwazi, then 21 years old, was “the best employee we ever had,” a calm, decent young man who was “very good with people.”

[BBC]

Write to Naina Bajekal at naina.bajekal@time.com.

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