One of the last pictures of Peter Kassig alive, taken somewhere along the Syrian border between late 2012 and autumn 2013. Picture: AFP/KASSIG FAMILY
One of the last pictures of Peter Kassig alive, taken somewhere along the Syrian border between late 2012 and autumn 2013. Picture: AFP/KASSIG FAMILY

Beirut — The US-led coalition against the Islamic State (IS) group says it has killed a senior jihadist involved in the executions of an American aid worker and other western hostages.

Abu al-Umarayn was accused of involvement in the November 2014 beheading of Peter Kassig, a former US ranger who was doing volunteer humanitarian work when captured in 2013.

“He was killed and more information will be available after a full assessment,” Sean Ryan, spokesperson for the US-led coalition, said in a statement issued on Monday after the Sunday strikes.

“Al-Umarayn had given indications of posing an imminent threat to coalition forces and he was involved in the killing of American citizen and former US army ranger, Peter Kassig,” he said.

Ryan said the jihadist had also been involved in the execution of several other prisoners.

It is the first time the coalition, which has been hunting down IS fighters in Iraq and Syria since 2014, has announced the killing of a jihadist leader linked to Kassig’s death.

At the time of the execution, IS released a video showing Kassig’s severed head but did not publish footage of the decapitation, as it had done for other hostages.

Syria’s official Sana news agency on Sunday accused the US-led coalition of firing on Syrian army positions in remote eastern regions. “The American coalition forces launched several missiles against some positions of our forces in the Ghorab mountains south of Sukhna,” it said. Quoting a military source, it said the bombardment had caused only material damage.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said coalition forces fired “more than 14 missiles” at a Syrian army convoy as it was passing through the desert. “The group was lost in the middle of the desert around 35km from the Al-Tanf base,” observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman said.

The US often uses this base to launch its strikes against IS jihadists.

Ryan denied that any strikes targeted the Syrian army. “False, the strikes were as the report stated and directed at Isis,” he said, using another acronym for the jihadist organisation.

Kassig founded a humanitarian organisation in 2012 that trained about 150 civilians to provide medical aid to people in Syria. His group also gave food, cooking supplies, clothing and medicine to the needy. He took the name Abdul Rahman after converting to Islam.

His execution was part of a gruesome series of western hostage beheadings that IS filmed and published to shock the world as it attempted to expand across the region.

Before Kassig’s decapitation, which IS announced on November 16, 2014, four other hostages were executed by IS:

• British aid worker Alan Henning (video released on October 3, 2014)

• British aid worker David Haines (video released on September 13, 2014)

• US journalist Steven Sotloff (video released on September 2, 2014)

• US journalist James Foley (video released on August 19, 2014).

Another hostage held at the time and whose execution was threatened was British journalist John Cantlie. He later appeared in videos in which he uttered IS propaganda. More than six years after his kidnapping, his fate remains unclear.

The leader of the cell that was responsible for the executions and became known as “The Beatles” was believed to be Mohammed Emwazi, a British jihadist nicknamed “Jihadi John”, who was killed in a drone strike in 2015.

After expanding to control a self-styled “caliphate” straddling Syria and Iraq that was larger than Britain, IS suffered a string of military setbacks. It has virtually no fixed positions left in Iraq and is now defending a few pockets in desert areas of Syria, including the region where Sunday’s strikes were carried out.

The other position is the jihadists’ main active front in the Hajin area of Deir Ezzor province, where coalition-backed Kurdish-led fighters have been struggling to flush out a group of jihadists making a fierce last stand. The coalition has estimated 2,000 jihadists remain inside that pocket.

The international alliance, as well as the Syrian government and its Russian backers, have repeatedly vowed to carry on the fight until achieving a full victory over IS.

But analysts have warned that fully eradicating the jihadists from those desert hideouts, where the state has a very limited footprint, could prove almost impossible.