Strike on 'Jihadi John' unfolded quickly, but hunt took months

Before you go, we thought you'd like these...
Before you go close icon
'Jihadi John' Targeted by U.S. Strikes

WASHINGTON, Nov 13 (Reuters) - The U.S.-British missile strike believed to have killed "Jihadi John" came together at lightning speed, but was months in preparation.

Shortly before midnight Thursday, two U.S. MQ-9 Reaper drones and one British MQ-9 cruised above Raqqa, the Syrian heart of the Islamic State's self-declared caliphate that stretches deep into Iraq, U.S. officials said.

EXPLORE MORE:Listen to #TheRewind for the week's top news and buzzy stories

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 August 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.

Images surrounding "Jihadi John:"

16 PHOTOS
Jihadi John (ISIS, ISIL, Islamic State)
See Gallery
Strike on 'Jihadi John' unfolded quickly, but hunt took months
This image made from militant video, which has been verified by SITE Intel Group and is consistent with other AP reporting, shows Mohammed Emwazi , known as "Jihadi John," holding a knife. A U.S. drone strike targeted a vehicle in Syria believed to be transporting the masked Islamic State militant known as "Jihadi John" on Thursday, Nov. 12, 2015 according to American officials. Whether the strike killed the British man who appears in several videos depicting the beheadings of Western hostages was not known, officials said. (SITE Intel Group via AP)
A screen grab from a video posted to YouTube by ISIS that claims to show journalist James Foley, who was abducted in 2012 while covering the Syria civil war, being beheaded. (Photo via YouTube)
BREAKING - Jihadi John revealed - the first picture of Mohammed Emwazi as an adult http://t.co/rxdU5ycD2D
This image made from militant video, which has been verified by SITE Intel Group and is consistent with other AP reporting, shows Mohammed Emwazi , known as "Jihadi John," holding a knife. A U.S. drone strike targeted a vehicle in Syria believed to be transporting the masked Islamic State militant known as "Jihadi John" on Thursday, Nov. 12, 2015 according to American officials. Whether the strike killed the British man who appears in several videos depicting the beheadings of Western hostages was not known, officials said. (SITE Intel Group via AP)
British Aid Worker David Haines (Photo via YouTube)
In this file still image from an undated video released by Islamic State militants on Tuesday, Aug. 19, 2014, purports to show journalist Steven Sotloff being held by the militant group. Islamic State militants called American journalist James Foley's gruesome videotaped beheading revenge for U.S. airstrikes against the group, and they still hold at least three other Americans hostage, including Sotloff. (AP Photo, File)
Screen shot from an Internet video released Friday that purports to show an ISIS militant beheading British aid worker Alan Henning, who had been taken hostage by the extremist group.
FILE - This still image from undated video released by Islamic State militants on Oct. 3, 2014, purports to show the militant known as Jihadi John. A U.S. drone strike targeted a vehicle in Syria believed to be transporting the masked Islamic State militant known as "Jihadi John" on Thursday, Nov. 12, 2015, according to American officials. Whether the strike killed the British man who appears in several videos depicting the beheadings of Western hostages was not known, officials said. (AP Photo/File)
ED NOTE: GRAPHIC CONTENT - This image made from a video released by Islamic State militants on Saturday, Jan. 31, 2015, purports to show a militant standing next to Japanese journalist Kenji Goto before his beheading by the militant group. Goto was captured in October 2014, after he traveled to Syria to try to win the release of Haruna Yukawa. (AP Photo)

Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant fighter threatens to behead Japanese hostages Journalist Kenji Goto Jogo, left, and military contractor Haruna Yukawa in a propaganda video released by the organization January 20, 2015.

(Photo: Alamy)

Kuwaiti lawyer Salem al-Hashash talks to reporters in his office in Kuwait City on Sunday, March 8, 2015. The former lawyer for the father of Mohammed Emwazi, unmasked as "Jihadi John" last month, said there is no evidence proving the masked Islamic State militant is his client's son. (AP Photo/Hussain al-Qatari)
LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 26: The home where the British Daesh (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) militant known as 'Jihadi John' is claimed to have once lived, is pictured on February 26, 2015 in London, England. Mohammed Emwazi has been pictured in videos showing the beheading of Western hostages. (Photo by Tolga Akmen/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
An arrangment of British daily newspapers photographed in London on February 27, 2015 shows the front-page headlines and stories regarding the identification of the masked Islamic State group militant dubbed 'Jihadi John'. The British headlines were dominated on Febryary 27 by the story of the identification of the Islamic State executioner. 'Jihadi John', the masked Islamic State group militant believed responsible for beheading of at least five Western hostages, has been named as Kuwaiti-born computing graduate Mohammed Emwazi from London. AFP PHOTO / DANIEL SORABJI (Photo credit should read DANIEL SORABJI/AFP/Getty Images)
EXCLUSIVE PICS: The Man Utd & S Club 7 fan who became I.S. executioner 'Jihadi John' unmasked http://t.co/BBES6nVowK http://t.co/5v9pjNHcqU
James Foley's mother says she 'forgives' Mohammed Emwazi http://t.co/dPHi1gvRK1 http://t.co/b1xtfU456u
of
SEE ALL
BACK TO SLIDE
SHOW CAPTION +
HIDE CAPTION

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 high-value target for U.S. and British intelligence agencies.

U.S. officials said the U.S. and British military operation to kill Emwazi had been in the works well before the drones finally unleashed Hellfire missiles on Thursday night.

U.S. and British agencies had tracked the Islamic State propagandist and alleged executioner formonths before delivering information on his movements and location to the U.S. military, officials said.

SEE MORE:Official: As many as 120 dead in string of Paris attacks

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 U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The subsequent U.S. 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 U.S. 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, U.S. 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 U.S. 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 mobile-phone 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 U.S. 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 U.S. air strike in Iraq.

MULTIPLE AIR STRIKES

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 p.m. and that there were at least 14 more air trikes around the city between 11:51 p.m. and midnight on Thursday.

Islamic State fighters cordoned off the area, it added.

Emwazi participated in videos showing the killings of U.S. journalists Foley and Steven Sotloff, U.S. 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 U.S. 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. (Additional reporting by Jonathan Landay. Editing by Jason Szep and Stuart Grudgings)

More from AOL.com:
US soccer says no to heading for kids (and it's about time)
Orangutan mother and baby rescued after being stoned by humans
Campbell Soup recalls 355,000 cans of SpaghettiOs

Read Full Story

Sign up for Breaking News by AOL to get the latest breaking news alerts and updates delivered straight to your inbox.

Subscribe to our other newsletters

Emails may offer personalized content or ads. Learn more. You may unsubscribe any time.

From Our Partners