One of the most prominent members of the Islamic State, British-born Junaid Hussain, believed to have been killed in a US air strike, had been encouraging and directing a series of plots against western targets, security sources have told the Guardian.
One of the sources said Hussain, 21, who also went by the name of Abu Hussain al-Britani, was much more than just a computer hacker and was a key figure inside the movement.
The source said that in terms of the threat posed he was high up the wanted list of Isis leaders. He is believed to have been involved in plots in the US and in the UK and elsewhere in Europe and his removal was significant.
Earlier this year, Isis was generally regarded by western intelligence as a problem primarily for the Middle East, with the main risk of mass attacks still likely to come from al-Qaida. But that assessment has changed, with Isis now seen as being the driving force behind a series of plots including one in Belgium in January in which Kalashnikovs, explosives and police uniforms were uncovered as part of an alleged imminent attack on police.
After the man known as “Jihadi John”, who beheaded captured westerners, Hussain is considered the most prominent UK citizen to have joined Isis.
The US had yet to officially announce Hussain’s death, which could not be independently verified, beyond saying that it had launched air strikes against Isis in recent days. A US defence source was quoted as saying they have a “high level of confidence” Hussain had been killed.
A British government spokesman said: “We are aware of reports that an Isil terrorist of British nationality is believed to have been killed in a coalition air strike in Syria.”
The strike is believed to be a US military operation, rather than a CIA drone attack.
Hussain had tweeted encouragement to the gunmen who attacked a Garland, Texas, “Draw Muhammad” event in May minutes after word spread of Elton Simpson and Nadir Soofi opened fire.
Some US officials suspected the tweets indicated a possible Isis role in a failed shooting for which the jihadist organisation claimed credit. Any such role remains unproven.
As part of Isis “Cyber Caliphate”, Hussain is also believed to have aided Isis inobtaining the passwords of the US Central Command’s Twitter and YouTube accounts in January and briefly using them to send pro-Isis messages.
In Britain, the 21-year-old Hussain had been part of the hacker group Team Poison, where, using the handle Trick, he gained access to the address book of former prime minister Tony Blair and published information from it. The hack earned him six months in jail in 2012.
That same year, Team Poison tied up the phone lines of an MI6 anti-terror hotline. “You’re being phone-bombed right now, mate,” a man identifying himself as Trick said in a recording uploaded to YouTube. The man can be heard laughing and asking hotline operators if they were mad.
In an interview with the Telegraph published on the day of his arrest in April 2012, he said: “Terrorism doesn’t exist. They create the terrorism and fabricate it to demonize a certain faith. We’ve shown them that it’s not only them that can listen in on people.” Hussain is believed to have fled for Syria the following year.
He was arrested again the following year, aged 19, on suspicion of violent disorder, and released on bail. He was formally released in November 2013 as there was not enough evidence to prosecute, a West Midlands police spokeswoman confirmed to the Guardian.
In June 2014 his home was searched by counter-terrorism officers as part of coordinated raids “in connection with an ongoing Syria investigation”, the police spokeswoman said.
The strike believed to have caused Hussain’s death was first reported by CNN on Wednesday.
Hussain, who was married to ex-punk rocker Sally Jones, is thought to have fled to Syria in 2013 while he was on bail in the UK.
The 45-year-old Muslim convert Jones, a former singer from Chatham, Kent, is thought to have fled Syria at the end of 2014, following an online romance with Hussain.
A West Midlands police spokeswoman told the Guardian: “We are unable to give any details and there is no formal confirmation of his death at this stage.”