Jihadi John Is Dead. Meet Washington’s Other Islamic State Targets.
The feared Islamic State executioner is dead. But the war goes on.
The Pentagon all but confirmed Friday that Islamic State executioner Mohammed Emwazi, better known as “Jihadi John,” was killed Nov. 12 in a U.S. drone strike in Raqqa, Syria.
Emwazi, 27, made his mark in August 2014 when the Islamic State released its first gruesome videos showing the execution of Westerners. That video showed the British-accented, Kuwaiti-born killer beheading American journalist James Foley; executions of fellow journalists Steven Sotloff and Kenji Goto, along with the killings of aid workers Peter Kassig and Alan Henning, among others, soon followed, not all of which involved Emwazi. Together, the videos offered a shot in the arm to Islamic State recruiting efforts and gradually vaulted Emwazi to the top of the list of targets for the U.S.-led coalition fighting the extremists in Iraq and Syria.
It’s unlikely Emwazi’s death will bring much, if any, closure to the families of his victims around the world. “This development doesn’t change anything for us; it’s too little, too late. Our son is never coming back,” Art and Shirley Sotloff, the parents of Steven Sotloff, said in a statement. “More importantly, today, we remember Steven’s remarkable life, his contributions, and those of …. everyone else who has suffered at the hands of [the Islamic State].”
Nor does it mean the U.S.-led hunt for the extremist group’s top leaders will end anytime soon, especially with the list of the most sought after Islamic State operatives — not necessarily all military targets — expanding.
Back in September, the State Department named five groups and 10 individuals, and adjusted the designations of two other groups, as “specially designated global terrorists” — essentially, the worst of the worst jihadis. That classification opens them up to sanctions and penalties. At the same time, the Treasury Department designated 15 Islamic State terrorism “facilitators,” bringing the full list of new terrorism designations to 35.
One of militants now in American crosshairs is Boubaker Hakim, who, in an Islamic State video, took credit for the assassinations of a pair of Tunisian politicians in 2013. Hakim also reportedly has ties with Ansar al-Sharia and has worked with its associates in operations targeting Western diplomats in Africa.
There’s also Frenchman Peter Cherif. In 2004, he was captured near Fallujah, while fighting with al Qaeda in Iraq, the predecessor of the Islamic State. In March 2007, he escaped from prison and fled to Syria. But he was again captured and extradited to France. Then, in July of 2011 on the last day of his trial, he managed to escape once more, this time heading for Yemen, where he reportedly joined al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Other reports suggest that he may now be fighting in Syria.
Another French name on the U.S. list: Maxime Hauchard, who went to Syria to join the Islamic State in August 2013. Officials identified her as one of the extremist fighters in a November 2014 execution video of a group of Syrian soldiers, which also featured the severed head of an American hostage.
Washington is also charging a female Islamic State member named Sally Jones, a British civilian who traveled to Syria to join the Islamic State with her husband, a hacker. In Syria, they worked together to target U.S. military personnel by creating an online list of targets to help aspiring lone-wolf attackers. In August, she offered tips on how to make homemade bombs.
Speaking from Baghdad on Friday, U.S. Army Col. Steve Warren said that the United States is “reasonably certain” it killed Emwazi in the strike. “We know for a fact that the weapons system hit its intended target,” Warren said, adding that the Hellfire missile wiped out those who were nearby. “We’ve killed on average one senior [Islamic State] leader every two days since May,” so the strike was “routine” for the U.S. military, Warren said. U.S. officials have yet to positively identify the body as Emwazi’s.
British Prime Minister David Cameron, meanwhile, has been more circumspect. “We cannot yet be certain if the strike was successful. But let me be clear. I have always said that we would do whatever was necessary, whatever it took, to track down Emwazi and stop him taking the lives of others,” Cameron said in London on Friday. He said British and American forces had been working “literally around the clock to track [Emwazi] down.”
Photo credit: Daniel Sorabji/AFP