Tracking the Online Life of a Female British ISIS Recruiter
Umm Muthanna al-Britannia left the UK for Syria in 2015 and quickly followed the established career path of western female recruits: recruiting and propagandising online.
Who is the woman in black brandishing an AK-47? She goes by the nom de guerre Umm Muthanna al-Britannia – Umm being an honorific Arabic word for mother, despite the fact it seems Umm Muthanna herself is childless.
I have been tracing her online footprint for almost a year, and it is fascinating for the light it casts on the strange and violent subculture of the approximately 600 women who have abandoned their lives and loved ones in the west for the so-called "Islamic State".
This subculture is a curious hybrid of puritanical Salafist Islam and western youth culture, a world of cat-love and "kuffar"-hate, of Oreos and "lols" and suicide belts and bloody beheadings. A world in which countercultural cool is defined by the most austere moral conservatism, where even devout hijab-ed women are castigated for their sexual "immodesty".
Umm Muthanna was born in France and raised in Britain. Until late 2014 she was a student at the University of London, taking a degree in English. Today, aged 21, she is in Raqqa, Syria, and a widow to a husband who recently died fighting for ISIS.
It appears that she left Britain last January, although the exact date is unclear. "Hey UK security," she tweeted in a tone of mocking contempt on the 14th of February, "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 (song) popular among ISIS supporters. On the 1st of March she posted two pictures of herself cloaked in a burqa and brandishing an AK-47. It was captioned: "Living the life of real freedom."
The same day she uploaded a photo of her new ride: "Never got my license in Britain, failed it many times haha but here I drive this...You jealous women of Saudi?"
Now and again she posts photos of late-night feasts. But in the last few months her tweets have taken on a darker tone and reflect the precariousness and drama of her life in one of the most dangerous places on the planet.
In August, via her @ShAnwarAwlaki5 Twitter account, she announced the death of her husband, Abu Abbas al-Lubnani, an ISIS fighter from Lebanon and ringleader of an online recruitment operation that led back to Britain and was exposed in 2014 by The Times. "My husband Abu Abbas Al Lubnani rahimahullah [mercy upon him] got shahadah [martyred] in #Hasakah," she wrote. In homage to him, she now tweets under the name "Wife of Shahīd", a reference to his status within ISIS circles as a martyr.
On the 17th of September, in the early evening, she tweeted about a bombing raid on Raqqa. Never before, she reported, had she seen such carnage and devastation: "I saw kids screaming. I saw men bleeding. I saw women running after to save their children. I saw the mujahidin standing firm and helping us."
The reference to "the mujahidin standing firm and helping us" may have been a propagandistic flourish, but according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Raqqa was indeed bombed on the 17th of September by Syrian warplanes, reportedly resulting in the deaths of 17 people and wounding many others.
All in all, it has been some year for Umm Muthanna, as she herself recognises: "Leaving behind everything in Britain... crossing into Dawlah [ISIS-controlled territory]...to being married to a mujahid [jihadist fighter]... to now wife of shahid [martyr] ALL under a year."
Umm Muthanna was in Raqqa a good month before the three East London schoolgirls Shamima Begum, Kadiza Sultana and Amira Abase had set off for the Islamic State stronghold. It is suspected that Begum, two days before departing with her two friends on the 17th of February, 2015, had communicated with the ISIS recruiter Aqsa Mahmood, a young Scottish woman who left for Syria in November of 2013.
My investigation shows that Umm Muthanna may also have been in contact with Mahmood prior to leaving for Syria. On Boxing Day in 2014 she communicated publicly on Twitter with Umm Waqqas, a notorious Seattle-based ISIS recruiter who was exposed by Channel 4 News last April. In a tweet addressed to Umm Muthanna, Umm Waqqas advised, "Try her kik [an encrypted mobile messaging app], I was talking to her just yesterday. She's been MIA to deal with some stuff, if not you can always try Umm Layth."
It isn't clear whom Umm Waqqas is referring to, but Umm Layth is a name used by Aqsa Mahmood.
Following an established career path for western female recruits to ISIS, Umm Muthanna has become a propagandist and recruiter, using her various Twitter accounts – most now deleted – to disseminate ISIS' message and to reach out to would-be recruits.
It seems she is good friends with ISIS recruiter Sally Jones (AKA Umm Hussain al-Britani), a British woman who left for Syria in 2013. Jones, whose husband Junaid Hussain was killed in a US air strike in Raqqa last August, is reportedly now on a British Special Forces "kill list".
"So glad I got to see you before my idda [period of mourning] started ukhti [sister]," she tweeted on the 14th of September, referring to Jones. "Just got off the phone with Umm Hussain Al Britaniyyah... Make du'a [prayers] for her pls," she said a week later, reconfirming her bond with the former punk rocker from Kent.
Like many western recruits to ISIS, or those who act in its name – including, notably, the San Bernardino shooter Tashfeen Malik – Umm Mathanna is an ardent follower of the American jihadist cleric Anwar Awlaki, and one of her recent Twitter accounts was devoted to disseminating his theological and political statements. Awlaki, a member of the Somalian al-Qaeda affiliate al-Shabaab, was killed in a drone strike in Yemen in 2011. This veneration even earned her a direct rebuke from the US State Department's Center for Strategic Counter-terrorism Communications (CSCC). In a tweet, posted on the 29th of October, 2014, she said, referring to Awlaki, "We will never forget you! America killed you but you are in highest ranks." The CSCC tweeted back: "Awlaki – another hypocrite held up as a model of piety – visited prostitutes at least seven times..."
And, like Awlaki, Umm Muthanna is a fervent supporter of jihadist terrorism in the west. Here she is sadistically applauding the attacks in Paris last November: "Wish I could have seen the hostages being slaughtered last night with my own eyes. Would have been just beautiful." In an earlier tweet she confided: "Every time a big event takes place I miss my husband even more, it's so sad reading news without him... don't get to rejoice like before."
"Burn Paris burn. Can't believe that is my birth place," she enthused in another tweet, adding "LOL HOW SCARED ARE THESE KUFFAR."
A recurring theme in her tweets is Muslim oppression, especially the daily horrors inflicted by the Assad regime in Syria. She has also expressed outrage at the dire state of affairs in Palestine. But by far the most common preoccupation in her online postings is piety, and her overriding ambition, as she stated in one tweet on the 13th of September, 2015 is religious martyrdom: "I came here to die. I will not leave till I get what I came here for: shahadah [martyrdom]."
Related to this is her deep preoccupation with sexual propriety and worldly corruption. Not content to protect her own modesty, she is scathingly critical of the "immodesty" of her fellow sisters: "The least you can do," she thundered on the 15th of September, "is not be fitnah [deviant] online and remove all photos of yourself (includes eyes showing in niqab)."
She is no less scathing of "ikhwan" ("brothers") who circulate photos of unveiled women. "I don't wish to @ you publicly to shame you nor do I wish to message you privately: do not retweet any woman with her avi [profile picture] up," she tweeted less than a week later. She is especially contemptuous of what she once called "the fashionista turban/fringe showing, camel hump hijabis", a derogatory reference to women in loosely-worn headscarves, with their camel-like "hump" of hair protruding beneath.
ISIS is the enemy of women everywhere, adhering to a strict interpretation of sharia law that justifies sexual enslavement and sexual apartheid. Why would a young woman from a relatively safe and progressive democratic country wish to join it, let alone risk her life in active support of it?
The conventional narrative of female recruitment to ISIS suggests that women or girls do not join willingly, still less for credible reasons, but are somehow coerced into joining by charismatic male ISIS recruiters. This is referred to as "grooming", a gendered term rarely used to describe the process by which men come to join or embrace ISIS or other jihadist groups.
Last March, for example, Hayley Richardson wrote in Newsweek that that "ISIL are using similar online grooming tactics to paedophiles to lure western girls to their cause". Sara Khan, the founder and co-director of the anti-extremism NGO Inspire, echoed this. The three East London schoolgirls who absconded to Syria, she wrote in The Independent, "weren't just radicalised by ISIL – they were groomed."
"Just like child abusers groom their victims online and persuade them to leave their homes and meet them," she asserted, "male jihadists contact women through social media and online chatrooms, and build trust with them over time."
It's impossible to know how Umm Muthanna was radicalised and who facilitated her escape to Syria. The ISIS recruiter Abu Abbas al-Lubnani, whom she married, may have played a role, although it's unclear how he was involved and who else helped her reach Raqqa. It's also unclear what role, if any, Aqsa Mahmood and Umm Waqqas may have played in assisting her, although it's likely they were both in contact with her. What is clear is that just by making it to Syria she has shown herself to be not only resourceful but also courageous, leaving her loved ones behind and venturing into the unknown. This is in no way a defence of her actions, but the idea that a "vulnerable" and naive innocent could have pulled off this feat is laughable.
It is equally laughable – as well as fundamentally sexist – to suppose that Umm Muthanna, unlike her male counterparts, didn't choose to join ISIS for her own reasons, but joined, unthinkingly, out of an emotional or romantic attachment to some male recruiter. Indeed, in tweet after tweet, what she resoundingly shows is the mind of someone intensely politically aware and engaged, and who thinks that ISIS, and the political system it has implemented, is infinitely superior to that of the secular democracies of the west. In other words, she isn't a victim; she is a defector.
She is also, like many western recruits to ISIS, a "born again" Muslim. "Alhamdulillah ["Praise be to God"] for Islam," she tweeted in November of 2014, "how lost and astray I was before I had this blessing in my life, and how everything makes sense..."
Indeed, in another tweet posted around the same time, she marked the exact day of her religious awakening, or rebirth: the 16th of November, 2012. "When did you start practising?" she was apparently asked on the 13th of November, 2014. "In 3 days, it will be 2 years exactly Alhamdulillah," she replied.
This may help explain the fervency of her ideological commitment. As someone new to the faith, she may have felt like she had to prove herself worthy of her new standing. She may, indeed, have felt like an outsider. Making "hijrah" [migration] to the Islamic State would have offered her irrefutable proof that she was now on the inside and living her faith with an intensity that would put her beyond the reproach of, in her mind, the truly righteous.
There is also the possibility that she may have seen her migration to Syria as a redemptive act for any excesses in her pre-conversion life in the west. Her apparent fixation with sexual modesty and her constant warnings against spiritual corruption are particularly notable in this respect, and may express a personal revulsion at having once succumbed to the blandishments of the world from which she has so violently defected.
"My sins terrify me," Umm Muthanna recently tweeted. Yet death doesn't seem to trouble her. On the 24th of June she made a reference to acquiring a suicide belt. One of her last tweets, posted last month, says, ominously: "Everyone around me is getting shahadah. Ya rabb ["Oh, Lord]! When will it be my turn? When will I unite with my husband."
As the coalition ramps up its bombing campaign against ISIS in its stronghold of Raqqa, Umm Muthanna may not have long to wait. The tragedy is that there are other young women all too willing to replace her, should her dark wish materialise.
More on VICE: