Junaid Hussain: How a Boy From Birmingham Became ISIS's Leading Hacker

U.S. officials said Wednesday that an American airstrike had killed Junaid Hussain, the purported leader of the Islamic State's (ISIS) cyber wing.

Officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity to CNN, said there was a "high level of confidence" that the 21-year-old British-born jihadist, who was reportedly third on the Pentagon's ISIS kill list, had been killed in a strike in Syria. Only ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and British-born ISIS executioner Jihadi John were higher priority targets than Hussain.

In January, the hacktivist group Anonymous, which have been waging a cyberwar with the jihadists, revealed the hacker's involvement with ISIS's "Cyber Caliphate" on social media. Wila Forever, a member of the rival hacker group Ghost Security, which cooperates with the U.S. government, confirmed to Newsweek that Hussain was the chief of ISIS's hacking operation.

But how did this young man from Britain's second biggest city, Birmingham, rise to become Abu Hussain al-Britani, one of the most wanted recruiters and hackers in the terror group?

While little is known about Hussain's character and demeanour, an alleged classmate of Hussain, who is believed to have studied at Wheelers Lane Technology College in Birmingham's King's Heath area, tweeted about the hacker to another social media user in June, writing: "Trust me, kid was a little tool then, his [sic] a pussy." The social media user also tweeted on Thursday: "I am ashamed that I knew such a vile human being."

Other classmates of Hussain declined to comment when approached by Newsweek, and a representative of Wheelers Lane Technology College was not immediately available for comment.

Two years ago, Hussain, the eldest son of a lunch lady, was a hacker who led a group known as Team Poison. As part of this organisation, Hussain posted the sensitive contact information of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair online, including his email address and National Insurance number, which resulted in a 2012 prison sentence of three months at an unknown youth detention facility. His barrister in the court case, Ben Cooper of London's Doughty Street Chambers, was not immediately available for comment.

Hussain also made a series of hoax calls to a counter-terror hotline in consecutive days, ensuring that its phone lines were constantly blocked. He received another three months in prison for the disruptive calls. Before his arrest, he had bragged on social media that he was "still waiting to be raided."

It was upon his release from prison that Hussain fled his family home in King's Heath to war-torn Syria, according to local newspaper The Birmingham Mail.

Last year, he warned in a tweet from Syria that "one day the flag of tawheed (oneness to Allah) will fly over 10 Downing Street and the White House." He also posted pictures of himself on Twitter, posing with an automatic weapon. His main Twitter account, @abuhussain102, has now been suspended by the social media networking site.

In Syria, Hussain married another British ISIS member, Sally Jones, a 40-year-old Muslim convert from Kent who joined the terror group in 2013. Both reportedly led ISIS's recruitment efforts from the de-facto capital of the group's caliphate, the Syrian city of Raqqa. But Jones' recently claimed on Twitter that the pair had moved to Mosul, an ISIS-controlled city in Iraq.

An ISIS-affiliated Twitter account also claimed that Jones refuted reports of Hussain's death. "Just spoke with Umm Hussain [Jones' nom de guerre] she's feeling so blessed that her husband is still alive. Haha the Kuffar [disbelievers] think they got him," the ISIS supporter tweeted.

How Hussain rose to prominence as a key recruiter within ISIS is unknown. But his retrieval of personal information from one of Britain's longest-serving prime ministers laid the foundations for him to become a cyber warrior for ISIS, maybe even its cyber chief, suspected of damaging the online presence of some key targets, particularly the U.S. government.

After marrying Jones, Hussain went on to become a prime suspect in both cyber and violent attacks carried out on U.S. targets. In January, Hussain was believed to be behind the hack of the U.S. Central Command's (CENTCOM) Twitter and YouTube accounts.

Then, in May, when two gunmen opened fire at a Prophet Mohammed cartoon competition in Garland, Texas, Hussain tweeted congratulations to his "Muslim brothers" minutes after the attack. He had been in contact with one of the gunmen before the shooting on Twitter.

Wila Forever, the anonymous Ghost Security member, told Newsweek of the group's confrontations with Hussain and his death threats against the rival hacker group.

"Ghost Security has been at war with Abu Hussain Britani [Hussain's nom de guerre] for months. He was responsible for using social media as an outlet to call out lone wolf attacks against individuals and government institutions," writes Wila in an email. "He was championed as a hero to the caliphate and many took his calls to action very seriously which is exactly why he was such a dangerous threat."

"There are multiple instances where we were directly confronted by Hussain," the hacktivist adds. "He constantly made threats against our lives and the lives of others through the use of threats and claims of sending lone wolves to hunt us down."

Yet some jihadism experts have questioned Hussain's importance within ISIS due to lack of evidence that he was anything more than a front for the group to attract foreign members.

"He has had a great many responsibilities attached to his name. But I think that there is a lot of mystery surrounding what role he actually played and whether he was a significant player at all," says Charlie Winter, senior researcher on jihadism at the U.K.-based anti-extremism think-tank Quilliam.

"He was certainly raised to a certain level of infamy by the fact that he was near the top of the list of U.S. military targets," he adds. "People want to give foreign fighters from their countries important roles within the Islamic State infrastructure. It sells to exaggerate."

The key turning point in Hussain's radicalisation and his role within ISIS are still unclear. But rival hackers say his reported demise will hurt the terror group and its online brand.

"Without Hussain their cyber caliphate will suffer greatly and their online reach will be reduced," says Ghost Security's Wila. "It is not only a victory for us but the United States of America and the rest of the free world."

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