'Jihadi John' Airstrike Is Major Morale Blow for ISIS: Experts

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By Alexander Smith

LONDON — The U.S. airstrike targeting "Jihadi John" shows the U.S. has sophisticated intelligence on ISIS and will serve as a blow to the extremists' morale, experts told NBC News.

The fighter, whose real name is Mohammed Emwazi, became one of ISIS' most notorious figures after appearing in numerous propaganda videos showing the killing of Westerners. He was dubbed "Jihadi John" by hostages because he was one of four British terrorists whom their prisoners dubbed "The Beatles."

He was targeted by a U.S. airstrike in the Syrian city of Raqqa on Thursday night — although it was not immediately clear if he was killed in the attack.

According to London-based counter-terrorism analyst Charlie Winter, Emwazi's death would damage the morale of ISIS fighters and sympathizers alike.

The masked knifeman "was a very important figure in terms of propaganda value for the group," Winter told NBC News. "He was a key symbol of ISIS menace for many months."

Because Emwazi sought to keep his whereabouts secret, the airstrike "points to a really sophisticated level of human intelligence from the U.S. and the coalition," Winter added.

This would "worry anyone who's anyone" in ISIS, he said.

Jeremy Bash, former chief of staff at the Department of Defense and the CIA, went as far to say that "this is the biggest blow to ISIS in the year and a half we've been undertaking operations against them."

He told NBC's TODAY that as "the face" and "the chief propagandist" of ISIS, Emwazi's potential killing represented "a very significant takedown."

Bash added that the strike was the result of "painstaking operations" by the U.S. and its allies, and the hit showed their "intelligence is pristine."

Michael Stephens, a research fellow at the London-based Royal United Services Institute think tank, said that that Emwazi being killed would not hold much operational significance — "he's one man among thousands of fighters" — but added that the strike was a clear display that the U.S. and its allies "are able to get these people that we want and do what's necessary to take them out."

He said the airstrike and wider military strategy were designed to squeeze the terror organization.

"ISIS know we're on their tail," Stephens said, adding that the propaganda victory of Emwazi's death would "make them feel like the walls are closing in."

Stephens also compared the "cathartic" effect of eliminating an infamous figurehead like Emwazi to the operation by U.S. forces to kill Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan in 2011.

If the strike proved the U.S. had the capability to carry out a targeted assassination in Raqqa, that would make the ISIS hierarchy worry about "who to trust, when to trust them," Stephens added.

Simon Palombi, a security consultant at London's Chatham House think tank, agreed that the strike would cause operational difficulties for more senior members of the Sunni extremist group.

"They will have to be more careful about where they are showing their faces in public," he said, although he added that it was "more of a nuisance to the organization rather than a meaningful long-term strategy."

Palombi said Emwazi's death would represent a "good propaganda victory for the U.S. and the U.K." but cautioned about making too much of its significance.

"They will likely find someone else to replace him," he said. "The blow to morale will likely be short-lived."