Perhaps last week’s two foiled attacks (an as-yet-unclaimed plot in Notre Dame, France, and a claimed assault in Mombasa, Kenya) demonstrate the evolution of Islamic State’s use of women and girls more clearly than anything we’ve seen recently.
Early signs that Isis' roles for females were evolving began at least as far back as February 2016, when aid workers inside the Caliphate claimed that leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had appointed Nada al-Qahtani, a female Saudi national, to head up a new all female-battalion in northeastern Syria. This was separate from the all female al-Khansaa brigade, which provides basic civilian monitoring and policing of women, and men posing as women.
Though roles for women inside the Caliphate are usually restricted to sedentary lifestyles, female adherents outside the Isis-controlled territory have been offered more diverse roles, such as recruitment, fundraising and transport mules. In some areas, such as Nigeria, Libya, and now Kenya, Isis has even given women battlefield roles, such as suicide bombers.
Now a British woman, Sally Jones, is making headlines as Isis's latest celebrity jihadist. The media thrives on stories about everyday Joes (and Joannes) who've converted to a life of jihad, and Jones is a headline writer's dream. Reported to be a former punk rocker from Middle England, reports suggest she is now in complete charge of training all-European female units for attacks on the West.
Many have even described Jones as a new white widow, the heiress to Samantha Lewthwaite, one of the world's most wanted female terrorists who was credited with being everything from a high-level advisor to al-Shabaab leader Ahmed Abdi Godane to running her own elite all-female suicide squads. Lewthwaite has sparked countless headlines and the media has been quick to pounce on Jones's story as well.
Yet the claims about Jones and her role within Isis seem far-fetched, given what is known about her past.
Jones was well-known for her predatory sexual behaviour among the young hacker crowd who operated on social media in the early 2010s. The media articles that describe her as a dissatisfied mother of two who "fell into" a relationship with Junaid Hussain are generous at best.
Having once gone by the alias Pussy Galore (pu55yga110r3), taken from the James Bond character in the novel Goldfinger, Jones is reported to be both a nymphomaniac and egomaniac among the dark Twitter circles - where Infosec, criminal elements/groups, informants, and trolls mingle.
For years, Jones preyed on young men within this group, who fit the stereotype of the sexually repressed, looking for new conquests. Posing as many different personas, she lied to many to feed her ego with new young male prizes.
Though Jones mingled in this crowd of talented hackers, she was not respected. She had no computer expertise of her own, her boasts about "cybering dudes" doing little to enhance her standing. In fact she quickly became the equivalent of the Twitter town joke.
My organisation, TRAC terrorism, monitors extremist activity online and we have had many sources from the dark Twitter congregation who report that Jones’ only competence in life was her ability to manipulate adolescent males. Over and over again TRAC sources report that the only people she was able to hoodwink were the newer, younger, members who were attracted to her physically (having usually been enticed by photo-shopped images).
A list of the monikers used by Jones online (TRAC)
Thus, when Junaid Hussain, who then went by the alias tr1ck, scored big by leading an operation with a group named “TeaMp0sioN” in a major hack of the Israeli banking system leaking over 26,000 Israeli credit card details in early 2012, Sally Jones saw her new mark. As a young hacker with "street cred", Hussain fitted all Jones' needs; he would feed her ego and solidify her position in the Twitter underworld. After Hussain left for the Caliphate, he waited for Jones to marry him in Idlib, northern Syria in December 2013.
Just 13 months after Hussain's death, it is being reported that Jones has risen to become a trainer and commander. Is it possible that, in those 13 months, a person with no previous experience of physical covert operations, bomb making or suicide missions could have mastered skills? Perhaps. But the idea that someone could develop the skills required by the commander, and lead trainer, of a secret army of female jihadists seems unlikely.
Another question arises: Why would Jones, who was not known for her exceptional intelligence and was unable to manipulate a single man over the age of 20, be given this supreme task by Isis based on the prestige of her husband’s work? Jones hadn't exactly been a figure of credibility or achievement before she moved to the Caliphate. Isis love a good story (as we've seen with their frequent videos) but this seems far-fetched even for them.
Some of the sources being used for stories on Jones are flimsy at best. For example, The Telegraph reports that Jones hinted at her new role as trainer of Isis’s European female recruits by bragging in social media correspondence, and her role had been confirmed by a recent Syrian defector from Isis. Yet Jones has been known to falsify claims about herself in the past, and the defector was (and remains) unnamed and unverified.
Just as the lore of Samantha Lewthwaite grew and grew with each new rumour about her possible role within al Shabaab, perhaps too Sally Jones’s role has grown with time and endless speculation. Can it be possible that Jones has duped Isis into believing that she is capable of such a task? TRAC sources in the dark Twitter world have certainly been speculating how one of such little talent and extreme socially deviant tendencies would be able to survive in the Caliphate.
Veryan Khan is the Editorial Director and Associate Publisher for TRAC: Terrorism Research & Analysis Consortium (TRAC), one of the world's largest electronic compendiums for data and analysis of terrorist groups, activities, trends and up to date developments. For complete information see www.trackingterrorism.org and follow the group on Twitter @TRACterrorism