British media lit up over the weekend with news of a 45-year-old welfare mother from Kent, England, who has moved to Raqqa to join the Islamic State (IS) and is using social media to recruit others back home.
The Sunday Times used an alias of a 17-year-old girl to engage the woman, Sally Jones, on Twitter and Kik under the guise of a potential recruit in order to find out more about her, according to Al Arabiya News. Both news outlets ran photos of Jones with a blonde, teased hair-do wearing a miniskirt and playing electric guitar, from the early 1990s, next to photos of her in a black hijab.
Jones is one of more than 2,500 Westerners who have been recruited to leave their homes and join the Islamic State this year as foreign fighters, according to a report from the Soufan Group this summer. Teenagers from Denver received intense media attention earlier this fall when they attempted to head to Syria to join IS, and many young Europeans have also been profiled as having been enticed to travel to Syria to join. The recruiting efforts have largely been focused on social media outreach, including platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Whatsapp, and Kik.
"There's been lot of activity on social media the past few years regarding recruitment, whether it's single women to become wives of fighters, and also there's been a push to have families come," Steve Stalinsky, executive director of the Middle East Media Research Institute, told VICE News.
"They're trying to make it sound good. It's not just European women, they're trying to build a state of followers, so if men are coming to fight they're not going to stay there without the women. It's about creating a home, a country, having children, having schools," he said.
According to the Sunday Times, Jones once lived on welfare in public housing in Chatham, England, and was in a punk rock band in the 90s. She has since moved to Raqqa to become part of the caliphate and now goes by the name Sakinah Hussain, according to the newspaper.
The Times reported that Jones tweets under the name Umm Hussain al-Britani, though she may have replaced that account with an altered name after it was deleted. She has reportedly tweeted in the past that Christians should be beheaded with a "blunt knife" and that she would volunteer to do it.
Jones did not immediately respond to VICE News' request for comment via Twitter.
According to the paper, Jones reportedly met and fell in love with Junaid Hussain, a 20-year-old fellow Briton, who left the country to become a fighter for IS in July 2013. At the end of that year, Jones took her 10-year-old son and traveled to Syria to be with Hussain and married him upon arrival, according to the report.
"I had been travelling for 24 hours… lol and we got married the very day I got here," she told the newspaper. "My little boy became a Muslim too that very day," she said. "His name is now Hamza Hussain al-Britani and he loves it here."
An older son, age 18, remained in England to be with his girlfriend.
"I didn't leave my kids; my eldest is 18 and I took my little one," she said. "My children keep me breathing."
The newspaper reported that before she left the country, Jones had lived with her sons in a council estate, worked as a perfume saleswoman and a make-up artist for L'Oreal cosmetics, and had been interested in witchcraft and "alternative lifestyles." She converted to Islam around May 2013.
According to al Arabiya, Jones told the alias she was trying to recruit that she should come to the Islamic State to be a wife and that she would be taken care of.
"Women dont have careers sis under sharia law . . . We are wives we are expected to look after our men," she reportedly said. "They look after u. U will never want for money again u live a good life here. U need to get married to get a house im just being honest with u but there are loads of men."
The Islamic State has successfully been using social media to recruit European women to come join their cause, and then in turn using those women to contact their friends and acquaintances back home for recruiting purposes.
"They have been on Facebook and also chatting with these warriors in Syria who would portray to them a very glamorous picture of life: you could come here, marry a warrior, give birth to jihadis who would then fight for the cause of Islam and your life will have meaning, you won't lead the frivolous superficial life that you are conducting in the West," Haleh Esfandiari, director of the Middle East program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, told VICE News.
Esfandiara said at the time about 40 or 50 women from the UK had so far traveled to Iraq and Syria to participate.
Stalinsky said often, when people convert to a cause like this, "they are looking for their niche," and can go "from one extreme to the other."
American social media companies are playing a key role in the recruitment, he said.
"Without them, the recruitment would not be what it is," Stalinsky said. "They're relying on that. Since the beheading of journalists over the summer, some of the social media companies have been shutting down the known accounts being used for recruitment, but a lot of them are coming right back up, and are sharing new accounts right when that happens."
Follow Colleen Curry on Twitter: @CurryColleen