LONDON/WASHINGTON • Evidence was growing last night that "Jihadi John", a masked leader of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), had been killed in an air strike in northern Syria by the United States.
One US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the attack in the town of Raqqa probably killed Mohammed Emwazi, the symbol of ISIS brutality who earned his nickname after appearing in videos showing the beheadings of US and British hostages.
US Secretary of State John Kerry said yesterday that Washington was still assessing the strike but the operation showed that ISIS' "days are numbered".
British Prime Minister David Cameron said Emwazi was the focus of a US drone strike on a vehicle after British and US forces worked together to track down the "barbaric murderer". If the attack was successful, it would be a strike at the heart of ISIS, Mr Cameron said.
"We have a long reach, we have unwavering determination and we never forget about our citizens," he said in a televised statement. Emwazi's death would come more than a year after US President Barack Obama promised justice after the deaths of the US hostages.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a United Kingdom-based monitoring group, said four foreign militants had been killed on Thursday in Raqqa, the de facto capital of ISIS.
"A car carrying four foreign Islamic State leaders, including one British jihadi, was hit by US air strikes right after the governorate building in Raqqa city," Mr Rami Abdulrahman, director of the observatory, told Reuters.
"All the sources there are saying that the body of an important British jihadi is lying in the hospital of Raqqa. All the sources are saying it is of 'Jihadi John' but I cannot confirm it personally."
Dressed entirely in black, a balaclava covering all but his eyes and the bridge of his nose, Emwazi participated in 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 several others.
Ms 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."
Analysts said the impact of the extremist's death would likely be symbolic rather than tactical for ISIS.
Mr Raffaello Pantucci, director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute, said that, 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 Agence France-Presse.
But Mr Charlie Winter, an academic who focuses on ISIS 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.
Emwazi first appeared in a video in August last year showing the beheading of Mr Foley, a 40-year-old freelance journalist who had been missing since he was seized in Syria in November 2012.
The video sparked worldwide revulsion. In it, ISIS declares that Mr Foley was killed because President Obama ordered air strikes against the group in northern Iraq.
Mr Foley is seen kneeling on the ground, dressed in an orange outfit that resembles those worn by prisoners held at the US naval base at Guantanamo Bay.
Two weeks later, Mr Foley's fellow US hostage Steven Sotloff was killed in the same way.
Thursday's strike came just as the United States seeks to increase pressure on ISIS fighters, who have seized parts of Syria and Iraq.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS