By KIMIKO DE FREYTAS-TAMURA
LONDON — A 21-year-old hacker from Birmingham, England, who tapped into American military networks and was a central figure in the Islamic State militant group’s online recruitment campaign, has been killed in Syria by an American airstrike, according to three senior American officials.
The hacker, Junaid Hussain, was a leading member of the CyberCaliphate, an Islamic State unit that broke into the United States Central Military Command’s Twitter and YouTube accounts this year. He was considered to be the second-most prominent British member of the Islamic State, after Mohammed Emwazi, a fighter often referred to as “Jihadi John” because of his role in the videotaped killings of Western hostages.
The American officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss confidential intelligence reports, said Mr. Hussain had been killed Tuesday in an airstrike outside Raqqa, Syria.
Last week, the White House announced that another prominent Islamic State figure — Fadhil Ahmad al-Hayali, a deputy to the group’s leader — had been killed in an airstrike in northern Iraq.
The news of Mr. Hussain’s death comes as the Obama administration is debating the effectiveness of the American-led military coalition’s campaign against the Islamic State. The Defense Department’s inspector general is looking into whether military officials have skewed intelligence assessments to present a more optimistic picture.
Mr. Hussain’s unit has been credited with the Islamic State’s adept manipulation of social media to recruit fighters and spread propaganda, and his online activity was increasingly linked to plots carried out far from the battlefields in Syria and Iraq, experts said.
Mr. Hussain, who was believed to use the nom de guerre Abu Hussain al-Britani, offered encouragement on Twitter to the two gunmen who staged a shooting attack in Garland, Tex., in May, at a contest for caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad. After the shooting, Mr. Hussain wrote: “Allahu Akbar!!!!! 2 of our brothers just opened fire … ”
He also used social media to threaten to raise the black Islamic State flag over “10 Downing Street and the White House,” referring to the official residence of the British prime minister.
In June, Mr. Hussain was linked to an Islamic State plot to attack an Armed Forces Day parade in South London using a bomb rigged in a pressure cooker, similar to the one used in the Boston Marathon attacks in 2013. The plot was thwarted after Mr. Hussain unwittingly revealed details to an undercover reporter from The Sun, a British tabloid, who was posing as a potential recruit.
Mr. Hussain was prosecuted for hacking in Britain in 2012, and was convicted on charges that he illegally gained access to former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s address book the year before. He spent six months in prison. Afterward he was arrested again, on a charge of violent disorder, and while free on bail in 2013 he moved to Syria.
He was joined there by his wife, Sally Jones, 45, a former punk rock musician from southeastern England who met Mr. Hussain online.
Mr. Hussain took his hacking skills to the Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL. He helped instigate online attacks, posted information about American military forces and officers, and acted as a cheerleader for other fighters in the group, said Raffaello Pantucci of the Royal United Services Institute in London, a research organization specializing in defense and security.
Mr. Hussain’s activity “was an irritant that had developed a worrying edge, as he was linked increasingly to plots being instigated from the battlefield,” Mr. Pantucci said.
“Undoubtedly his online skills will be missed by the group,” he said, “but it is unlikely to dramatically change the pattern of dangerous plots emanating from the group, or the phenomenon of some young Westerners being drawn to fight alongside the group.”
British and American officials met several months ago and decided that Mr. Hussain and other prominent Britons in the Islamic State group should be hunted down and either killed or captured, one of the senior United States officials said. The two countries collaborated in tracking Mr. Hussain and in gathering evidence to use in prosecuting him if he were to be taken alive.
Asked about the reports of Mr. Hussain’s death, a spokeswoman for the British Home Office would say only that the British government was aware of them.
“We have consistently warned people against going to fight for ISIL in Syria or Iraq,” she said. “ISIL has declared itself an enemy of the U.K., and those who have chosen to fight with ISIL and subscribe to their barbaric ideology will continue be subject to coalition action to stop them killing indiscriminately, committing barbaric acts and planning terrorist acts.”
Eric Schmitt and Matthew Rosenberg contributed reporting from Washington.
Source: The New York Times