LONDON — Secretary of State John Kerry and Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain said on Friday that they did not yet know the outcome of an airstrike the American military launched on Thursday to kill Mohammed Emwazi, the Islamic State’s most notorious executioner.
The two officials spoke, in separate briefings in Tunis and London, the morning after the Pentagon confirmed that the airstrike, near the Islamic State stronghold of Raqqa, Syria, had targeted Mr. Emwazi, a 27-year-old British citizen who became known as Jihadi John.On Friday, a senior official with the United States military said it had used a Reaper drone armed with Hellfire missiles to attack a car in which Mr. Emwazi and another militant were thought to be traveling.
“We think we got him,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss operational details, adding that it could take a few days to get solid confirmation.
Calling the Islamic State an “evil terrorist death cult,” Mr. Cameron defended the decision to target Mr. Emwazi, who was born in Kuwait and is a naturalized British citizen, as “an act of self-defense” and “the right thing to do.
“We have been working, with the United States, literally around the clock to track him down,” Mr. Cameron said. “This was a combined effort, and the contribution of both our countries was essential. Emwazi is a barbaric murderer.”
Using an alternative acronym for the Islamic State, which is also known as ISIS, Mr. Cameron added, “He was ISIL’s lead executioner, and let us never forget that he killed many, many Muslims, too.”
At a news conference in Tunis, Mr. Kerry confirmed that the outcome of the airstrike was not yet known but said that it should serve as a warning.
“We are still assessing the results of this strike, but the terrorists associated with Daesh need to know this: Your days are numbered, and you will be defeated,” Mr. Kerry said, using an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State. “There is no future, no path forward for Daesh, which does not lead ultimately to its elimination, to its destruction.”
Civil liberties advocates have criticized any official British attempt to kill Mr. Emwazi as possibly unlawful, in a debate that paralleled the criticism over the Obama administration’s decision to target and kill Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born cleric and a United States citizen, in Yemen in 2011.
Mr. Emwazi, who was first known only as an unidentified, masked man with a British accent, first came to prominence in August 2014, when the Islamic State released a video in which the journalist James Foley was shown reading a statement criticizing President Obama and the American military operation against the Islamic State in Iraq. His captor then beheaded him off camera and then threatened to behead another journalist, Steven J. Sotloff, if his demands were not met.
Two weeks later, the Islamic State released a video showing the masked man beheading Mr. Sotloff.
The Washington Post revealed Mr. Emwazi’s identity in February, reporting that he grew up in a well-off family that moved to Britain when he was a child, and that he had studied computer science at the University of Westminster. The revelation touched off intense examination of the causes of radicalization among Muslim immigrants in Europe.
Mr. Emwazi was part of a group of network of friends, called the “North London Boys” by some intelligence analysts, who prayed at the same mosque and became captivated by an Egyptian-born cleric, Hani al-Sibai. Mr. Sibai is thought to have close links to the Tunisian branch of Ansar al-Shariah, a Salafist group that has been linked to a deadly attack in June on tourists in Tunisia.
The leader of this network was Bilal al-Berjawi, who was stripped of his British citizenship in 2011 after he went to Somalia to join the Islamist group known as the Shabab, and was killed by an American drone strike the next year. That same year, Mohamed Sakr, another friend, was also killed by a drone strike in Somalia.
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