US air strike targets 'Jihadi John' in Syria
A US strike on Syria that targeted British militant "Jihadi John" was "an act of self defence", Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron said Friday while acknowledging his death was "not yet certain".
Cameron said the operation against Mohammed Emwazi, who appears in a string of graphic videos showing the execution of Western hostages, was a combined British-US effort.
"We cannot yet be certain if the strike was successful," Cameron said in a statement delivered outside his Downing Street office.
If it was confirmed, it would be "a strike at the heart of Isil," he said, using an alternative term for the Islamic State militant (IS) group.
But analysts said the impact of his death would likely be symbolic rather than tactical for the jihadist group which controls swathes of Iraq and Syria and is known for perpetrating widespread atrocities.
The Pentagon said Thursday's air strike hit Raqa, the group's de facto capital in war-torn Syria.
"Emwazi, a British citizen, participated in the videos showing the murders of US journalists Steven Sotloff and James Foley, US aid worker Abdul-Rahman Kassig, British aid workers David Haines and Alan Henning, Japanese journalist Kenji Goto, and a number of other hostages," the Pentagon said.
CNN and the Washington Post, citing officials, said Emwazi was targeted by a drone. He was last seen in the video showing Goto's execution in January.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitoring group, said four people were killed in a strike in Raqa late on Thursday.
"The car was hit in the centre of town, near the municipality building," Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman said, quoting sources who said one of the victims was a "senior British member of the group".
- Executioner with an accent -
Emwazi, a London computer programmer, was born in Kuwait to a stateless family of Iraqi origin. His parents moved to Britain in 1993 after their hopes of obtaining Kuwaiti citizenship were quashed.
Dubbed "Jihadi John" by British and US media, he first appeared in a video in August 2014 showing the beheading of Foley, a 40-year-old American freelance journalist who was captured in Syria in November 2012.
Foley is seen kneeling on the ground, dressed in an orange outfit resembling those worn by prisoners held at the US naval base at Guantanamo Bay.
Emwazi is dressed entirely in black and wears a mask.
Foley's mother Diane told ABC News that if Emwazi's death were confirmed, it would be "small solace" to his family.
"This huge effort to go after this deranged man filled with hate when they can't make half that effort to save the hostages while these young Americans were still alive," Diane Foley told ABC.
Two weeks later, Foley's fellow US hostage Steven Sotloff was killed in the same manner, again on camera and by the same executioner with a British accent.
Sotloff's mother, Shirley, told NBC News that she had not been informed about Thursday's strike and even if it were confirmed, "it doesn't bring my son back".
"I don't think there will ever be closure," she added.
Bethany Haines, whose father was killed, told ITV News: "After seeing the news that 'Jihadi John' was killed I felt an instant sense of relief".
But she added: "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."
Writing on Twitter, Alan Henning's nephew, Stuart, said: "Mixed feelings today wanted the coward behind the mask to suffer the way Alan and his friends did but also glad it's been destroyed."
- 'A symbolic strike' -
Raffaello Pantucci, director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute, said if confirmed, Emwazi's death would make little strategic difference and could create a "martyr culture" around him.
"It's more a symbolic strike. Tactically it's not really going to change anything for the group," he told AFP.
But Charlie Winter, an academic who focuses on IS activities, said it could be a "big blow".
"Symbolically it's really important. Jihadi John... was someone who was a source of hubris, a sort of an aspirational figure for fighters in Islamic State," he said.
"He was a key figure of defiance in the face of the international coalition, so if in fact he has been killed, this is going to be a big blow."
"Jihadi John" was six years old when his family moved to London. He grew up in North Kensington, a leafy middle-class area where a network of Islamist extremists was uncovered in recent years.
As a child he reportedly was a fan of Manchester United football club and the band S Club 7 who went on to study information technology at the University of Westminster.
Court papers published by British media connected Emwazi to a network of extremists known as "The London Boys" that were originally trained by the Shebab, Al-Qaeda's East Africa affiliate.
© 2015 AFP