The U.S. is "reasonably certain" that an ISIL fighter known as "Jihadi John" was killed in an American airstrike in Syria, the Pentagon said Friday, although his death has yet to be confirmed.
Pentagon spokesman Col. Steve Warren told reporters that it would take time to determine if the operation to kill British citizen Mohammed Emwazi had been successful. Emwazi, dubbed as "Jihadi John" in media, became infamous for appearing in ISIL propaganda videos that showed the murder of journalists and aid workers.
Warren said the strike was important because Emwazi was an "ISIL celebrity," and as such his death would be a "significant blow to their prestige."
His comments came after British Prime Minister David Cameron said it was not yet clear whether the ISIL fighter had been killed, but added that the decision to target the U.K. citizen was “the right thing to do.”
"We cannot yet be certain if the strike was successful," Cameron said in a statement delivered outside his Downing Street office. "This was an act of self-defense,” he added.
Emwazi, a computer programmer who grew up in London, was targeted in Raqqa, ISIL's de facto Syrian capital. He appeared in videos that showed the murders of U.S. journalists Steven Sotloff and James Foley, U.S. aid worker Abdul-Rahman Kassig, British aid workers David Haines and Alan Henning, Japanese journalist Kenji Goto and other hostages.
An unnamed U.S. official told The Associated Press a drone had targeted a vehicle believed to be carrying Emwazi. The operation had been in the works for days, according to an unnamed U.S. official cited by Reuters. Key details of the strike are unclear, including how the U.S. located Emwazi and how it planned the operation.
If his death were confirmed, it would be a symbolic victory for the U.S.-led campaign against ISIL and would come more than a year after President Barack Obama promised to fight on against ISIL after the deaths of American hostages.
In the videos, “Jihadi John” is dressed entirely in black, a balaclava covering all but his eyes and the bridge of his nose. A menacing symbol of ISIL brutality, he used the videos to threaten the West, admonish its Arab allies and taunt Obama and Cameron, who had promised to “hunt down” ISIL.
Emwazi was identified as the masked man nicknamed “Jihadi John” in February by government sources and radicalization experts.
He was described by a former hostage as a bloodthirsty psychopath who enjoyed threatening Western hostages. Spanish journalist Javier Espinosa, who had been held in Syria for more than six months after his abduction in September 2013, said Emwazi would explain precisely how the ISIL fighters would carry out a beheading.
Those being held by three British-sounding captors nicknamed them “the Beatles” with “Jihadi John” a reference to Beatles member John Lennon, Espinosa said in recalling his months as one of more than 20 hostages.
Al Jazeera and wire services