Search for ‘Ji­hadi John’ took months

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The US-Bri­tish mis­sile strike be­lieved to have killed “Ji­hadi John” came to­gether at light­ning speed, but was months in prepa­ra­tion. Shortly be­fore mid­night Thurs­day, two US MQ-9 Reaper drones and one Bri­tish MQ-9 cruised above Raqqa, the Syr­ian heart of the Is­lamic State’s self­de­clared caliphate that stretches deep into Iraq, US of­fi­cials said. The air­craft’s con­trollers mon­i­tored two peo­ple who had en­tered a parked car.

One, they were con­vinced, was Mo­hammed Emwazi, the Bri­tish com­puter pro­gram­ming graduate who cat­a­pulted to in­famy in Aug 2014 when he pre­sented the be­head­ing of Amer­i­can jour­nal­ist James Fo­ley, the first of sev­eral grisly videos in which he presided over the de­cap­i­ta­tions of for­eign hostages. Bran­dish­ing a knife, dressed head to toe in black, and speak­ing with a Lon­don ac­cent, Emwazi be­came known as “Ji­hadi John”, the most po­tent sym­bol of the group’s bru­tal­ity and a high­value tar­get for US and Bri­tish in­tel­li­gence agen­cies.

US of­fi­cials said the US and Bri­tish mil­i­tary op­er­a­tion to kill Emwazi had been in the works well be­fore the drones fi­nally un­leashed Hell­fire mis­siles on Thurs­day night. US and Bri­tish agen­cies had tracked the Is­lamic State pro­pa­gan­dist and al­leged ex­e­cu­tioner for months be­fore de­liv­er­ing in­for­ma­tion on his move­ments and lo­ca­tion to the US mil­i­tary, of­fi­cials said.

In the days lead­ing up to the strike Emwazi had been mov­ing around Raqqa, vis­it­ing his wife’s res­i­dence and an Is­lamic State me­dia oper­a­tions cell, said one US of­fi­cial, speak­ing on con­di­tion of anonymity. The sub­se­quent US and Bri­tish op­er­a­tion un­folded quickly.

Two mis­siles de­stroyed the car tar­geted in the strike. The United States ex­pressed grow­ing op­ti­mism on Fri­day that Emwazi was dead but cau­tioned that a for­mal de­ter­mi­na­tion would take time. “We’re 100 per­cent sure the guy we hit is dead. We are rea­son­ably sure the dead guy is Ji­hadi John,” said one US of­fi­cial, speak­ing on con­di­tion of anonymity.

The strike il­lus­trates an ap­par­ent im­prove­ment in Western in­tel­li­gence-gath­er­ing over the past year or more in a rugged re­gion where re­li­able on-the-ground in­for­ma­tion is scarce and where the United States has strug­gled to in­fil­trate the ex­trem­ist group. Use of Amer­i­can spy satel­lites, eaves­drop­ping sen­sors and drones have been ex­panded over the past year, US of­fi­cials and a for­mer of­fi­cial said. Some mon­i­tor­ing re­sources were moved to Syria from Afghanistan.

Emwazi was prin­ci­pally tracked and tar­geted through sur­veil­lance tech­nol­ogy in­cluded both satel­lite and ground-based sen­sors rather than in­for­mants on the ground, said one US gov­ern­ment source fa­mil­iar with de­tails of Thurs­day’s op­er­a­tion. Bri­tain’s GCHQ in­tel­li­gence agency and Amer­ica’s Na­tional Se­cu­rity Agency have ex­ten­sive elec­tronic sur­veil­lance cov­er­age of the re­gion, in­clud­ing sys­tems for lo­cat­ing tar­gets through mo­bile­phone sig­nals, of­fi­cials say.

The at­tack on Emwazi fol­lows a se­ries of strikes by the United States and Bri­tain against other Bri­tish re­cruits to the Is­lamic State move­ment. In Au­gust, a man from Birm­ing­ham re­garded as one of Is­lamic State’s top com­puter ex­perts, Ju­naid Hus­sain, was killed in a US drone strike. Around the same time, two other Bri­tish re­cruits to Is­lamic State, Reyyad Khan and Ruhul Amin, were killed by drone strikes launched by Bri­tish forces, a Euro­pean gov­ern­ment source con­firmed. The White House said in Au­gust that the Is­lamic State’s sec­ond-in-com­mand was killed in a US air strike in Iraq.

An ac­tivist group called Raqqa is Be­ing Slaugh­tered Si­lently said Emwazi was killed close to what is known as the Clock Round­about, sev­eral blocks away from Is­lamic State’s main head­quar­ters and the Is­lamic Court build­ing. It said the lo­ca­tion was one where Is­lamic State car­ries out pub­lic ex­e­cu­tions. The ac­tivist group said on its Twit­ter feed that Emwazi was killed at 11:40 pm and that there were at least 14 more airstrikes around the city be­tween 11:51 pm and mid­night on Thurs­day. Is­lamic State fight­ers cor­doned off the area, it added.

Emwazi par­tic­i­pated in videos show­ing the killings of US jour­nal­ists Fo­ley and Steven Sot­loff, US aid worker Peter Kas­sig, Bri­tish aid work­ers David Haines and Alan Hen­ning, Ja­panese jour­nal­ist Kenji Goto, and other hostages. Kas­sig, from In­di­ana, was also known as Ab­dul-Rah­man, a name he took af­ter con­vert­ing to Is­lam in cap­tiv­ity.

Emwazi used the videos to threaten the West, ad­mon­ish its Arab al­lies and taunt US Pres­i­dent Barack Obama and Bri­tish Prime Min­is­ter David Cameron in front of hostages kneel­ing in or­ange jump suits. It was not im­me­di­ately clear which Bri­tish agen­cies led the hunt for Ji­hadi John, but in the past both Bri­tain’s do­mes­tic in­tel­li­gence ser­vice, known as MI-5, and its for­eign in­tel­li­gence ser­vice, known as MI-6 have been in­volved with the CIA in oper­a­tions against Al-Qaeda and its af­fil­i­ates.

Bri­tain said it had a cru­cial role in the op­er­a­tion. “We have been work­ing, with the United States, lit­er­ally around the clock to track him down. This was a com­bined ef­fort. And the con­tri­bu­tion of both our coun­tries was es­sen­tial,” Cameron said.

‘Ji­hadi John’

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