- Mohamed Emwazi was shown in videos of journalists' beheadings
- If confirmed, death in U.S. strike would be symbolic victory
The U.S. said it’s “reasonably certain” that it killed the Islamic State extremist known as “Jihadi John” in an airstrike in Syria, eliminating a symbolic figure in the group’s reign of terror and compounding its battlefield losses.
The man, a British citizen called Mohamed Emwazi, became infamous internationally from his appearance in videos showing the beheadings of Americans held by the terrorist group. On Thursday, he was the intended target of a Hellfire missile fired from a U.S. drone that hit a car near Raqqah.
“We are reasonably certain that we have killed the target we intended to kill -- which is Jihadi John,” Army Colonel Steve Warren, spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition fighting Islamic State, told reporters in a video conference from Baghdad on Friday. He said an intelligence assessment was still being conducted to confirm the death of Emwazi as well as his driver.
If confirmed, Emwazi’s killing would be a coup for western allies in the fight against Islamic State, and particularly “foreign fighters” who travel to join the group and pose a potential threat on their return to their homelands.
British and U.S. forces worked together to track down and kill the “barbaric murderer,” British Prime Minister David Cameron told reporters in London.
Emwazi “didn’t have key operational or battlefield responsibility and wasn’t crucial to the big battles being fought over strategic locations,” said Shashank Joshi, senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London. “But it’s important to recognize that symbolism can be very important.”
While the operation is more likely to yield political capital in London and Washington than to change the dynamic on the ground, it comes after Islamic State suffered setbacks in Syria and in Iraq this week, even as it claimed its first attack against Hezbollah with suicide bombs in Beirut.
"You sort of have this confluence of events that show some progress in Iraq and in Syria,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters in Washington. He said President Barack Obama was informed of the strike aimed at Emwazi, but the operation didn’t require the president’s advance authorization.
Islamic State, also known as ISIS, ISIL or Da’esh in Arabic, established its extremist religious stronghold in the first half of 2014 after taking Raqqah and Sunni-dominated towns and cities in Iraq including Mosul.
In Syria, troops loyal to President Bashar al-Assad backed by Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah and Russian airstrikes broke a two-year siege on the Kweiris military base in Aleppo province imposed by Islamic State militants. Separately, Warren said the U.S. has escalated its strikes on oil facilities in Syria that help fund Islamic State operations.
In Iraq, Kurdish Peshmerga forces entered the center of the northern city of Sinjar on Friday, driving out militants who had been holding it for about a year.
“Today is a very bad day all round for IS’s momentum narrative,” Charlie Winter, senior researcher at the Quilliam Foundation in London, said via Twitter. “Emwazi’s death would be a big blow to IS morale, but would most likely have little bearing on IS operations. Whatever the case, the Emwazi strike points to very sophisticated U.S. intelligence means, which will worry anyone who’s anyone in IS.”
Emwazi, who was born in Kuwait and raised in London, was linked by the U.S. to the killings of hostages including American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff. He was shown in videos of the beheadings with his face fully covered except for his eyes, underscoring the group’s message to the world of unflinching brutality.
“We had been following this target for some time,” Warren, the military spokesman, said, and intelligence “gave us great confidence” that it was Jihadi John. “When the opportunity presented itself,” he said, “we took the shot.”
“Now we are using the same intelligence capabilities to verify that the individual we killed” was him, said Warren, who described Emwazi as “somewhat of an ISIL celebrity” and “kind of the face of the organization.”
One concern is that Emwazi’s death would turn him into a martyr, an “incredible rallying cry” for Islamic State, Lewis Herrington, a research fellow at the Institute of Advanced Study at Warwick University, told Sky Television.
Cameron said that while Emwazi’s death hadn’t yet been confirmed, the operation was “an act of self-defense” that showed the “long reach” of Britain and the U.S. in their fight against Islamic State.
The operation followed a U.K. drone strike in Syria in September to kill an Islamic State fighter of British nationality who was planning attacks on the U.K.
Reyaad Khan, from Cardiff, Wales, was killed on Aug. 21 by a Royal Air Force drone while traveling near Raqqah, while Ruhul Amin, from Aberdeen, Scotland, died in the same attack, also carried out in “self defense,” Cameron said at the time. Another Briton, Junaid Hussain, was killed in an attack by U.S. forces three days later.
It was Emwazi, though, who became the lightning rod for condemnation of Islamic State’s brutality and news of the latest strike against a British jihadist dominated radio and television on Friday morning.
Cameron said in a briefing outside his official residence at Downing Street that it was a strike at the heart of Islamic State and reminded the militants that “we have a long reach, we have unwavering determination and we never forget about our citizens.”
“Symbolism matters, but ISIS will be defeated not by removing individuals like Emwazi but by taking back territory and dismantling the narrative of the all-conquering caliphate,” said Joshi, the RUSI analyst. “This is a little pinprick in that overall effort.”