LONDON — British Prime Minister David Cameron on Friday lauded a U.S. drone strike targeting “Jihadi John,” the masked Islamic State executioner who came to symbolize its brutality. But Cameron said there was no certainty that the British extremist was dead.
The Pentagon said that officials are still working to determine whether the Thursday attack killed the London-raised militant, Mohammed Emwazi.
Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook said experts were “assessing the results” of the strike around the Syrian city of Raqqa, which the Islamic State calls its capital.
In a statement at 10 Downing Street on Friday, Cameron said it was not certain that Emwazi had been killed in an operation that the prime minister described as “a combined effort” between U.S. and British forces.
“If this strike was successful, and we still await confirmation of that, it will be a strike at the heart of ISIL,” Cameron said, using an acronym for the Islamic State.
Cameron alternated between speaking about Emwazi in the past and the present tenses, describing him as a “barbaric murderer” who was the Islamic State’s “lead executioner.”
“This was an act of self defense. It was the right thing to do,” he said.
The BBC, citing a “senior military source,” reported Friday that there was a “high degree of certainty” Emwazi had been hit in the attack.
The Syrian activist group Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, which monitors events in Raqqa, reported that a drone strike targeted a car near the Islamic Court in downtown Raqqa shortly before midnight last night. The strike was among a dozen blasts heard during an intense wave of strikes, said the Twitter feed of the group, whose reports rely on a network of activists inside Raqqa.
If confirmed, Emwazi’s death would cap more than a year of Western efforts to hunt down a militant who became widely known in August 2014 when he appeared — masked and dressed from head to toe in black — in a video in which he killed American journalist James Foley.
Emwazi subsequently appeared in grisly videos showing the killing of foreign hostages — speaking to the camera in taunting tones, with a balaclava over his face, a knife in his hand and a holster under his left arm.
Emwazi is thought to have participated in the executions of Steven Sotloff, another American journalist; Abdul-Rahman Kassig, an American aid worker; David Haines and Alan Henning, both British aid workers; and Japanese journalist Kenji Goto.
But it is not clear that Emwazi had a meaningful role in Islamic State’s leadership structure. Analysts said the impact of his possible death could be limited.
“Implications? None beyond the symbolism,” said a Twitter message from Shiraz Maher, an expert on extremism at King’s College London.
Peter Neumann, director of King’s College’s International Center for the Study of Radicalization, said Emwazi is a “low-ranking officer” in charge of the facility where the Islamic State holds hostages. But symbolically, Neumann said, his death would show that Islamic State is suffering blows, which could undercut recruitment.
“It feeds into the narrative of ISIS, in its core territory, losing,” he said, using an alternate acronym for the group.
Neumann said it was likely that Islamic State would respond to the strike targeting Emwazi by “inciting people to attack in Britain and America. But we’ve had those before and nothing happened.”
Stuart Henning, the nephew of Alan Henning, tweeted Friday that he had “mixed feelings” about reports of Emwazi’s death, saying he “wanted the coward behind the mask to suffer the way Alan and his friends did but also glad it’s been destroyed.”
Bethany Haines, the daughter of David Haines, told British broadcaster ITV News that news of the strike against Emwazi had given her “an instant sense of relief, knowing he wouldn’t appear in any more horrific videos.”
But she also said his death, if true, will leave her with questions.
“As much as I wanted him dead, I also wanted answers as to why he did it. Why my dad? How did it make a difference?” she said.
Thursday’s strike was not expected to have a major impact on an ongoing debate in Britain over whether the country should broaden its air campaign against the Islamic State to Syria. At the moment, it’s limited to Iraq, and Cameron is not believed to have the support he needs in Parliament to expand it.
That’s because some within his own party oppose such a move, as has Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn.
Corbyn said Friday that the American drone strike appeared to have held Emwazi to account “for his callous and brutal crimes. However, it would have been far better for us all if he had been held to account in a court of law.”
The London-based advocacy group Cage, which drew fire for accusing British intelligence of having contributed to Emwazi’s radicalization when his identity was first revealed, said his apparent killing means “crucial questions around his joining ISIS, as well as the kidnapping and killing of hostages remain unanswered.”
Former Islamic State hostages have described Emwazi, one of a number of English-speaking captors dubbed “the Beatles” because of their British accents, as a vicious captor who waterboarded and beat hostages.
Officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive operation, said Thursday’s strike targeted a vehicle and may also have hit another member of the so-called “Beatles.”
The Washington Post identified Emwazi early this year, but the identities of the other British militants have not become public.
The Britons are also thought to have held Kayla Mueller, an American hostage whose death was confirmed in February. Militants alleged that she was killed in a Jordanian airstrike, but U.S. officials have suggested she was killed by the Islamic State.
For more than a year, Western officials have sought to determine the whereabouts of Emwazi, who is thought to have made his way to Syria around 2012 and later joined the Islamic State.
Now in his mid-20s, Emwazi was born in Kuwait but grew up in a London family and studied computer programming before becoming radicalized. Emwazi was described by those who knew him before his militant days as a polite, fashionable young man who adhered to his Islamic faith.
Friends say his path toward militancy appears to have begun after his graduation from the University of Westminster, when he and several friends planned a trip to Africa, ostensibly to go to Tanzania for a safari. He was detained by authorities after arriving there and deported to Amsterdam, where he claimed to have been questioned by MI5, Britain’s domestic security agency, and accused of having tried to travel to Somalia.
Somalia is home to another militant group, al-Shabab. Emwazi denied seeking to join al-Shabab.
Emwazi later moved to his native Kuwait, where he worked for a computer company, but he returned to Britain several times. In 2010, he was detained by British authorities and barred from leaving the United Kingdom. It is not known how or when he reached Syria.
Emwazi and the other so-called Beatles appeared to grow in stature and influence within the Islamic State over time. The group has used the detention and killing of foreign hostages, which has drawn intense attention in the West, as a tool for highlighting its power and goals.
Since it launched airstrikes over Iraq and Syria last year, the United States has killed a number of militants it has described as senior members of the Islamic State. But if Emwazi’s death is confirmed, he would be by far the best-known militant to have been slain. The group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, remains at large.
Goldman and Ryan reported from Washington. Julie Tate in Washington, Karla Adam in London and Liz Sly in Beirut contributed to this report.