“He [Emwazi] was a symbol of ISIL and we just removed that,” said Skinner. “It will not change one thing about the reality on the ground in Iraq and Syria.”
But he added: “The fact that they can’t protect themselves in their capital says a lot.”
The U.S.-led international campaign against ISIL in Iraq and Syria has entailed more than 6,000 airstrikes against the group’s targets, part of an effort to stymie the group after a rapid rise and expansion in the summer of the 2014 across large parts of Syria and Iraq. But to date, U.S. military planners have conducted limited operations in the heart of Raqqa, partly out of fear that civilian causalities would mount in a city with more than 200,000 inhabitants.
Skinner suggested that Emwazi’s apparent killing was thus a result of the U.S. having “very, very good intelligence.”
Other analysts echoed Skinner’s assessment about the impact of Jihadi John’s death.
"He was not a senior military figure within ISIS so the military impact on the ground will be small, but the symbolic impact is of course significant,” Peter Neumann, who directs the International Center for the Study of Radicalization (ICSR) at King’s College, told Reuters, using an alternative acronym for ISIL. “It feeds into a wider narrative that ISIS in its core territory isn't really winning anymore."
Shiraz Maher, a senior research fellow at the ICSR, tweeted, “Waking up to the news that the U.S. has killed Mohammed Emwazi, better known as “jihadi john.” Implications? None beyond the symbolism.”
Symbolic though the airstrike might have been, it was nonetheless particularly acute. As news broke about Emwazi’s apparent death, far more consequential military efforts were made against ISIL’s operations in Sinjar in Iraq, where U.S. forces assisted Kurdish fighters in retaking the contested city on Friday.
Sinjar was the site of an ISIL onslaught in August 2014 that threatened the lives of thousands of Iraqi Yazidi minorities, leading to U.S. humanitarian airdrops and ultimately a ramped up U.S.-led international campaign against ISIL.
The U.S. war effort in the intervening period has largely prevented the group’s ability to expand territory in Syria and Iraq. But divergent priorities by members of the multi-nation coalition, and ISIL’s battlefield and monetary resilience, have left the conflict in stasis without a clear end in sight.
And a report released last month showed that the number of attacks around the world tied to ISIL or its affiliates had risen 42 percent in 2015, compared to a year prior, showing that the group’s great risk may lie more in helping to inspire or help coordinate global attacks than to expand and hold territory in the Middle East.
A spokesperson for Operation Inherent Resolve, the U.S.-led international campaign against ISIL, said on Twitter Friday that the death of Emwazi was nonetheless an important symbolic victory against ISIL propaganda. “#JihadiJohn was not a major tactical figure in #ISIL. He was a recruitment tool for the organization,” tweeted Army Col. Steve Warren.
But for more decisive blows against ISIL, most experts agree that fortunes on the ground in strategic battlefields and towns in Syria and Iraq will have to continue to work against the group.
“We’re not going to win the war against ISIL with symbolism,” said the Soufan Group’s Skinner.