The ninja-clad Islamic State militant who appeared in Internet videos in which dozens of hostages were murdered — among them journalist Steven Sotloff of Pinecrest — has probably been killed by a U.S. drone strike, Pentagon officials said Friday.
“We are reasonably certain that we killed the target that we intended to kill, which is Jihadi John,” U.S. Army Col. Steven Warren told reporters, referring to the widely used nickname of Mohammed Emwazi, the Kuwaiti-born son of a London taxi driver who has been identified as the video assassin.
“This guy was a human animal, and killing him is probably making the world a little bit better place.”
Wearing black head-to-toe and speaking perfect British-inflected English from behind his mask as he spouted threats that were anything but hollow, Jihadi John started showing up in the terrorist insurgency’s videos about 15 months ago. In some, he merely narrated images of corpses, but in others he could be seen decapitating victims.
In all, he was seen in videos depicting the murders of at least three American captives, two Japanese, two Englishmen and 21 Syrian soldiers.
One of them was the 31-year-old freelance reporter Steven Sotloff, kidnapped in Syria in 2013 and killed in a video released on Sept. 2, 2014. “This development doesn’t change anything for us; it’s too little too late,” Art and Shirley Sotloff, his parents, said in a statement. “Our son is never coming back.”
Shirley Sotloff, in an interview with the Miami Herald, elaborated, “Right now there is nothing to add other than, so what? So this guy is dead? But my son is. I don’t have Steven and that’s the big thing of it. They spent millions to go after this guy and they could have done that for us.”
U.S. officials said the drone attack that targeted Jihadi John was launched Thursday against a car near Raqqa, Syria, just a few blocks from the headquarters of the Islamic State. Two Hellfire missiles blew the car to pieces, apparently killing Jihadi John and three other as-yet-unidentified men, although officials cautioned that it might be months before the deaths can be completely confirmed.
This guy was a human animal, and killing him is probably making the world a little bit better place.
U.S. Army Col. Steven Warren
Reactions from friends and families of the murdered hostages were mostly bleak, ranging from mournful observations that nothing would bring back their loved ones to expressions of regret that Jihadi John would never stand trial for his crimes.
“There’s just sadness,” said Louise Woodward-Styles, a friend of British aid worker David Haines, beheaded in a Jidhadi John video released in October 2014. “It reminds you of the loss of Alan and just hoping it’s closure for the family. But also I hope it reminds people that the issue of Syria is still ongoing, and not to forget the reasons why Alan was there.” Added Haines’ 18-year-old daughter Bethany: “As much as I wanted [Jihadi John] dead, I also wanted answers as to why he did it.”
The mother of American journalist James Foley, murdered two weeks before Sotloff, told ABC that the idea of vengeance left her cold and would have anguished her son. “Jim would have been devastated with the whole thing,” Diane Foley said. “Jim was a peacemaker. … It’s just so sad that our precious resources have been concentrated to seek revenge, if you will, or kill this man when if a bit of them had been utilized to save our young Americans, that’s what our country should be doing.”
Steven Sotloff’s younger sister Lauren, though, said her only regret about Jihadi John’s death was that it was too quick and too painless.
“Not the way I would have wanted him to die,” she wrote on Facebook. “He should of had his head cut off also and been left to suffer. But at least he is dead. … Wish they would have killed him while my brother was still alive.”
Wish they would have killed him while my brother was still alive.
Steven Sotloff’s younger sister Lauren
Jihadi John’s nickname was bestowed by his captives. Some hostages who were released after ransom payments said he was one of four especially brutal Islamic State guards who spoke with British accents. The hostages called them the Beatles and gave each one a name of a member of the group, not at all affectionately: “Whenever the Beatles showed up, there was some kind of physical beating or torture,” a source close to the hostages told NBC last year.
Jihadi John’s real identity was revealed earlier this year by the Washington Post, citing interviews with friends and associates who recognized his voice. As Mohammed Emwazi, he lived in a middle-class London neighborhood and had a degree in computer programming from the University of Westminster.
The Emwazi family moved to Great Britain from Kuwait when Jihadi John was 8, and most friends told reporters they remember him as an ordinary kid who liked soccer and The Simpsons. Many believe that he was radicalized after he was detained, held overnight and deported the next day when he visited the African country Tanzania in 2009 for a safari. He was picked up and questioned again, this time by British counterterrorism authorities, when he tried to fly to Kuwait.
“I feel like a prisoner, only not in a cage, in London. A person imprisoned & controlled by security service men, stopping me from living my new life in my birthplace & country, Kuwait,” Jihadi John emailed a friend after his 2010 encounter, the Washington Post reported.
British intelligence and law enforcement officials have refused to comment on their contact with Jihadi John or even confirm that it occurred. But some intelligence analysts think that, far from treating him unfairly, British counterintelligence officials were too easy on him — that he was already a jihadist-in-waiting whose travels were for terrorist training rather than big-game hunting.
Whatever the case then, British Prime Minister David Cameron made it clear Friday that his government in recent days wanted Jihadi John dead.
“We have been working, with the United States, literally around the clock to track him down,” Cameron said. “This was a combined effort, and the contribution of both our countries was essential. Emwazi is a barbaric murderer.... Britain and our allies will not rest until we have defeated this evil terrorist death cult and the poisonous ideology on which it feeds."