THE British extremist responsible for the on-screen beheading of hostages has reportedly been identified, as MPs prepare to vote on whether the UK should join air strikes against Islamic State (IS).
FBI director James Comey is said to have confirmed that the identity of the killer - up to now only known by the nickname “Jihadi John” - has been uncovered.
However, he refused to give the individual’s name publicly.
The news came after the Cabinet unanimously backed UK bombings raids against IS in Iraq. Downing Street this evening released the wording of the motion that will be put before the Commons tomorrow, along with a summary of the legal justification for the intervention.
The motion text states that troops will not be deployed in “ground combat operations” against IS - also known as Isil (Islamic State of Iraq and Levant). It also makes clear that another vote will be called if the campaign is to be extended to Syria.
The legal summary argues that the action is permissible because Iraq has requested military help to protect its “people and territory”.
Earlier this week Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said UK and US intelligence services were “getting warm” in the hunt for the jihadi with a London accent, who has so far featured in videos showing the murder of American journalists James Foley, 40, and Steven Sotloff, 31, as well as British aid worker, David Haines, 44.
The man is said to lead a small group of British jihadis who became known by hostages as “The Beatles”.
Speaking at a briefing with US journalists, Mr Comey is reported to have said: “I believe that we have identified him, I’m not going to tell you who I believe it is.”
Asked if he would prioritise capturing the jihadist, he said: “We will do, and expend the effort that I think the American people would want us to and expect us to.”
The Home Office said it did not comment on security operations.
The Cabinet meeting this afternoon was briefed by the Chief of the Defence Staff, General Sir Nicholas Houghton, and representatives from the security agencies.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said there had been strong support for David Cameron’s position, after he warned at the UN yesterday that Britain must not fail to take on the “psychopathic” jihadis of IS because it is “frozen with fear” about repeating the mistakes of the Iraq War.
There was said to have been “unanimous” agreement after contributions from Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, Defence Secretary Michael Fallon and Attorney General Jeremy Wright among others.
If agreed by Parliament, the UK would expect to join US-led international air campaign within days. However, the bombing may not prove that intense as IS is understood to have limited numbers of fixed positions that can be attacked.
Mr Fallon has suggested that the campaign against IS could be a “long haul” of “two to three years”.
He told The House magazine: “(US Secretary of State) John Kerry has estimated two to three years, that looks like a long haul to me. But we have to face up to this. This kind of extremism has been spreading, taking root in democracies.”
The Cabinet is said to have noted the “clear and present danger” that IS poses to security in the UK.
However, the summary of the legal underpinning does not refer to that threat. Instead it points out that the Iraq government has given “express consent” for the “USA to lead international efforts to strike Isil sites and military strongholds” in the country.
“The Government is satisfied that the consent of Iraq in these terms provides a clear and unequivocal legal basis for the deployment of UK forces and military assets to take military action to strike Isil sites and military strongholds in Iraq,” the summary adds.
Mr Cameron has deliberately restricted Britain’s involvement to Iraq in part to secure the support of Labour, which has raised concerns about extending air raids into Syria without specific authorisation of the United Nations Security Council.
The Prime Minister is desperate to avoid a repeat of last year’s Commons vote on military action when Labour combined with Tory rebels combined to inflict a damaging defeat on the Government.
Unlike Iraq - where Britain is acting at the request of the government in Baghdad - there has been no such request from the Syrian regime of President Bashar al Assad, raising questions over the the legality of any military intervention.
But Tory backbencher Bob Stewart - a member of the Commons Defence Committee and a former British commander in Bosnia - said that IS had to be defeated in its birthplace in Syria.
He warned that the Government may even have to deploy British ground forces if the threat of terrorist attacks in the UK by IS was considered to be sufficiently dangerous.
“You have got to go to the eye of the octopus,” he said quoting the US civil rights activist Stokely Carmichael, “and the eye of the octopus isn’t necessarily in Iraq, it is in Syria”.
He told BBC Radio 4’s The World at One: “I am not one who will say that we will never ever put infantry on the ground. The truth is, as everyone knows, the only way to get rid of this menace is to beat on the ground, drive them out, annihilate them or capture them.
“We mustn’t rule out the option of using our armed forces if our country is threatened enough that we need to do so.”
Former defence minister Sir Gerald Howarth expressed concern that in limiting British action to Iraq, the UK was leaving the most difficult element of the operation to the US, which has already attacked IS targets in Syria.
“If you don’t attack their bases in Syria, then clearly you are not addressing it,” he told The World at One. “One will be left with the taste in the mouth that we are leaving it to the Americans to do the dirty end of the job.”
But other Conservatives urged caution.
John Baron, a leading Tory rebel in last year’s Commons vote, said that ministers needed to explain their strategy more clearly - including the role of the Iraqi army and other regional forces.
“Most accept that air strikes alone will not destroy or defeat IS, as we have already seen. So what is plan B regarding regional ground forces?” he said.