At the end of last week, the Rojava Information Center in Syria contacted me to assist them in identifying a woman they believed to be Tooba Gondal, a 25-year-old east Londoner who joined ISIS in early 2015. I'd spent over 18 months tracking her since she left the UK, and had in my possession an audio tape of her voice. On Monday the Center issued a statement via Twitter confirming that "Tooba Gondal – AKA 'the ISIS matchmaker' – is alive, in a North East Syria refugee camp", adding that "she wishes to be repatriated to the UK".
Of all the British "jihadi brides", Tooba – who went by the nom de guerre Umm Muthanna al-Britannia – was the most un-bride-like: she was a ghoulish, AK-47-brandishing bawler with a mouth like a Baghouz sewer. Within days of crossing the border into Syria she couldn't wait to taunt the British authorities about her defection. "Hey UK security," she tweeted on the 14th of February, 2015, "how do you feel that your citizen left your filthy country whilst listening to Salil as-Sawarim on the plane? Pathetic."
"Salil as-Sawarim" is a jihadi a cappella nasheed (hymn) popular among ISIS supporters.
Once inside the caliphate, Tooba married Abu Abbas al-Lubnani, an ISIS fighter from Lebanon and ringleader of an online recruitment operation that targeted women and girls in Britain, exposed in 2014 by The Times. He was killed in August of 2015. But love and marriage were not why Tooba went to Syria, and there was no way that someone as tough-minded as her would take a back-seat once she arrived in Raqqa, the Islamic State's former de facto capital.
Tooba was in fact a true believer in the ISIS cause, and from late-2014 to mid-2016 she would spend much of her time on social media proselytising and recruiting for it. Her Twitter output alone was ridiculous: rarely a day would pass when she wouldn't berate a "sister" for some impropriety. "The least you can do," she thundered in one tweet, "is not be fitnah [deviant] online and remove all photos of yourself (includes eyes showing in niqab)."
She particularly loathed what she called "camel hump hijabis", a derogatory reference to women in loosely-worn headscarves, with their "hump" of hair protruding beneath. In other tweets to the sisterhood she was warmer: "Sisters, if you're serious about Hijrah [migration to the Islamic State] yet stuck in Dar ul Kufr ["land of disbelief"] for whatever reason, know there is a way out for you. Contact me privately."
When ISIS started launching terrorist attacks on European cities, Tooba sadistically cheered on the killers. Within hours of the 2015 Paris attacks by an ISIS cell, she took to Twitter and exclaimed: "Wish I could have seen the hostages being slaughtered last night with my own eyes. Would have been just beautiful." "Burn Paris burn," she enthused in another tweet, adding "LOL HOW SCARED ARE THESE KUFFAR."
Despite berating other women about their immodesty, Tooba was desperate to reveal herself to her many thousands of Twitter followers. In one post she uploaded a photo of herself posing with an AK-47. If you look closely you can make out her blue Vans trainers, a clue to a not so distant past. In another she is holding the same weapon, with the words "Baqiyah" – which means "remaining" in Arabic, and was a slogan for ISIS – superimposed in red over her eyes. In both photos she is covered head-to-Vans in a black burqa and abaya. Even her fingers are covered. The photos are captioned: "Living the life of real freedom." This was peak-Tooba: utterly demented and always provocative.
When I was tracking her on social media I lost count of the number of Twitter accounts she had because she kept getting suspended, and after each suspension kept coming back, emboldened and even more outrageous in her comments. In March of 2016 she tweeted about the weapons training she had received: "Muhajirat muaskar [an all-female training camp] is the best thing so far for me :) loving it! Alhamdullilah ["Praise to God"]… firearm training is wajib [duty] in the land of Jihad."
Purity and piety were the dominant themes in much of what she posted. So, too, were death and martyrdom. In late 2015 she tweeted: "I came here to die. I will not leave till I get what I came here for: shahadah [martyrdom]."
Only, it turns out that martyrdom wasn't what Tooba wanted after all. Two months ago she made her escape from Baghouz – the junkyard that was ISIS's last remaining sliver of territory – but was captured before she could reach the Turkish border. What she wants, in fact, is to return, with her two young children, to "filthy" Britain. "I know the British public," she told the Rojava Information Center, "they are scared, they don't want to deal with us, but they must deal with us. But we can’t stay in this camp for the rest of our lives, they must deal with us. We are not a threat to their society, we just want a normal life again."
The British authorities and the wider British public will likely have other ideas about this. Unlike Shamima Begum, Tooba wasn’t a teenager when she left to join ISIS: She was a precocious and mouthy 22-year-old university student who had tried to justify on social media the beheading of the British aid worker Alan Henning in October of 2014, a good two months before she left for Syria. She knew exactly what she was doing and getting herself into. And for well over two years she was an aggressive propagandist and recruiter for one of the world’s most violent terrorist organisations. She will need to answer for this.