WASHINGTON — The U.S. military and intelligence community is in the final stages of confirming that a U.S. drone strike this week killed Junaid Hussain, who is linked to the Garland, Texas, cartoon contest attack, CNN has learned.
“We have a high level of confidence he was killed,” one U.S. official told CNN Wednesday, referring to the British-born ISIS recruiter and hacker that the U.S. believes was heavily involved in inspiring attacks.
CNN has learned that Hussain was killed in Raqqa, the self-declared capital of ISIS. Raqqa, located in northern Syria, has been treated as a safe haven by ISIS, some U.S. officials pointed out, so reaching him in the city adds to the significance of the strike.
Several U.S. officials told CNN that the drone strike was specifically targeting Hussain traveling in a vehicle in Syria after the U.S. got intelligence on where he was and watched him to confirm his presence before striking. Subsequent assessments indicated that Hussain had stepped outside when he was hit by a missile from a U.S. drone.
The mission was conducted by the U.S. military because it has clear rules of engagement to attack ISIS, and there could be no implication the British government was involved in the killing of Hussain, a British citizen.
U.S. officials said there is a good deal of sensitivity about potential reaction in Muslim communities in the UK if a formal announcement is made, given that Hussain was a British citizen targeted by the U.S.
There is now a complex process underway, as there is with all strikes targeting specific ISIS members, to confirm the targeted individual was indeed killed.
This is the second strike against a senior ISIS operative in as many weeks. Last week a drone strike killed Haji Mutazz, the top ISIS deputy to Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, head of the organization. U.S. officials said that since the Mutazz killing, ISIS leadership appears to be arresting and killing a number of people it suspects may have disclosed intelligence about the group’s movements.
Hussain is described by U.S. officials as a high-value target in ISIS.
“This is a great intelligence success,” one U.S. official told CNN.
Hussain is alleged to have been involved in circulating a so-called hit list of addresses and photos of U.S. military personnel put out by a group calling itself the Islamic State Hacking Division.
Hussain also was linked to the attack in earlier this year on a cartoon drawing contest in Garland, Texas, where participants were asked to draw the Prophet Mohammed. Investigators believe Hussain played a role online in private messaging to radicalize and inspire one of the gunmen to launch an attack. The gunmen were shot dead by a Garland police traffic officer who was part of the on-site security contingent at the event.
Hussain’s death would remove the most prolific of all of ISIS’s English-language propagandists, according to CNN terrorism analyst Paul Cruickshank. In recent months, Hussain has incessantly called for attacks in the West over Twitter, as well as groomed potential terrorists in Western countries over encrypted online messaging apps, such as “Surespot,” Cruickshank said.