The British Punk Rocker Widow Who Wants to Run ISIS’s Hackers
A navel-baring British punk rocker turned Islamic State widow is now aiming for a leadership role in the terror group’s cadre of hackers and online recruiters, United States officials believe.
Should she succeed, Sally Ann Jones, 45, would become ISIS’s most public European national to openly threaten U.S. and U.K. networks. She also would likely become the most influential woman in the so-called Islamic State, widely known as ISIS, transforming her into a key operational figure.
“She appears to have picked up the flag of her late husband and is actively working to incite attacks and recruit new members,” a U.S. military official told The Daily Beast.
But other Western observers wonder whether Jones has the technical chops for such a role—and whether ISIS would allow a Western woman to rise so high in the organization.
Jones was once the U.K.’s most infamous defector to ISIS. Now she could be a major target of the kind of U.S.-led coalition airstrikes that killed her husband, 21-year-old Junaid Hussein, who led ISIS’s hacking campaign until his August death.
A U.S. military official said Jones, who now calls herself Sakinah Hussain or Umm Hussain al-Britani, recently caught the attention of Western officials after ISIS’s September 11 online threats against Americans.
ISIS—under Jones’s leadership, it is believed—announced a hashtag campaign on Twitter #AmericaUnderHacks campaign to “celebrate” the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. As part of that, the group released a kill list with 100 names of military, law enforcement, and other government personnel.
The names were derived from government websites. It was what a second U.S. military official called “lame.”
If Jones is indeed able to carve out an operational role for herself, it could speak to the future of Western women in ISIS. While a handful of Arab women—notably, Umm Sayyaf, the wife of the terror group’s onetime financier—have taken leadership roles in ISIS, female Westerners largely have not. Instead, they’ve ended up as brides for ISIS fighting men, said Mia Bloom, professor of communication at Georgia State University who specializes in the role of women in terror organizations.
“There are links to be made that suggest women are taking a more proactive role, given the role of [other prominent ISIS wives] in terms of soliciting and managing the marriage bureau and sex trade,” Bloom said. “But the fact is women don’t have a front-line, active, gun-toting role regardless of how many photos ISIS posts of armed, veiled women splayed on Toyota trucks.”
She added, “What’s more likely is after the appropriate mourning period, Jones, like other emigrant brides, will go back to the dorm so she can be redistributed to the fighters. Women lose the house. They lose all the original benefits they had.”
Hussain, her ISIS husband, was suspected to be behind some of ISIS’s highest-profile hacking attacks, including the release of personally identifying information of 1,300 U.S. government and military personnel earlier this year. He was also reportedly behind the hacking of U.S. Central Command’s social media feeds this summer.
Moreover, he was considered by U.S. officials to be a leader within ISIS, a strategist and a recruiter.
Hussain “was involved in recruiting [ISIS] sympathizers in the West to carry out lone wolf-style attacks,” U.S. CENTCOM spokesman Air Force Col. Patrick Ryder said when announcing Hussain’s death. “He had significant technical skills and expressed a strong desire to kill Americans.”
Before he joined ISIS, Hussain was charged in his native U.K. with releasing former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s address book and making crank calls to a counter-terrorism hotline. He was just 18 years old at the time and received a six-month jail term.
In 2013, he left for Syria. Jones, who met Hussain online, converted to Islam and followed Hussain, reportedly to the ISIS capital of Raqqa, Syria. She took her 10-year-old son with her, donning dark clothing that only exposed her eyes, according to photos posted online.
She quickly attracted a Twitter following of her own as she documented her movements with her husband and boasted of her place in the Islamic State. In 2014, she posted under her Twitter handle @UmmHussain102 until it was shut down. She would start new accounts and quickly pick up followers, even as her accounts were always shut down.
“Alhamdulillah me and my husband made it to the Islamic State after being stuck in Idlib [in northwestern Syria] for 7mths & are now living in the khilafah #isis,” she posted August of last year.
Later that month, she wrote: “My husband is away at training camp at the moment refreshing his ‘kaafir [infidel] killing skills’... Don’t cry though he’ll be back soon :)”
She bashed Jews, Christians, and the West, defending beheadings and vowing to do the same.
“You Christians all need beheading with a nice blunt knife and stuck on the railings at raqqa [Syria]..... Come here and I will do it for you.”
She urged followers to join, and according to two military officials, she is believed to have recruited women to be sex slaves for ISIS fighters. And she mocked the U.S.-led coalition effort.
“How many more body bags are American families willing to receive?” her husband tweeted last year, which she retweeted.
She has told potential Western recruits that she enjoys living under Sharia, a far departure from her life in Kent, where she was a sometimes unemployed, sometimes small-time punk band lead singer and mother. Indeed, she even quoted ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
“‘So take up arms, take up arms, O soldiers of the Islamic State! And fight, fight’—Amir Al Mumineen Abu Bakr al Bagdadi,” she wrote last year.
Last year, while living with ISIS, she reportedly became a grandmother to a little boy.
She never mentioned that herself, though.
But after Hussain’s death, she wrote: “I’m proud my husband was killed by the biggest enemy of Allah, may Allah be pleased with him, and I will never love anyone but him.”
U.S. military and intelligence officials are watching to see what she does next.
“Those closest to Junaid Hussain will be challenged in filling his shoes. Junaid’s notoriety, connections, and experience—despite his age—offered a skill set not easily found among extremists,” a U.S. intelligence official explained to The Daily Beast. “That said, [ISIS] continues to push out propaganda targeting a wide range of audiences, and there’s little doubt some members of the group will try to pick up where Junaid left of.”
So far, U.S. officials are not impressed. They believe that far from being a hacker, his widow is a figurehead who is being promoted as its future hacker because of her ties to the West. There is no evidence of technically proficient hacking on her part, the officials said. She has no training in code; indeed, she is not believed to have a high school degree.
And even the most sophisticated computer experts within ISIS have yet to pull off a major hack.
Rather, they have carried out fruitful Internet searches and bundled information. ISIS claimed in March, for example, to have hacked the U.S. military and obtained personal information of 100 service members. As it turned out, the group had simply searched the Defense Department’s many public websites, created to promote the department.
The most effective hack so far has been of CENTCOM’s Twitter accounts this summer.
Regardless, the group’s persistence, coupled with its aggressive social media campaign, contributed to its online allure. And since Hussain’s death, there has been a decline in ISIS hacking efforts, observers said.
But it also has been only a month since Hussain’s demise, making it too early to make a credible assessment of Jones or the ISIS hacking campaign.
“She is a fanatic but as far as we know she has no hacking skills,” said Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow at the Washington D.C.-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “It’s not clear what is going on beneath the surface.”