Senior female ISIS agent unmasked and traced to Seattle
She’s one of the final people that would-be jihadis might speak to before crossing the border to join the Islamic State group in Syria. The woman that the world’s media claim is a Dutch or a British woman in the group’s de facto capital of Raqqa, with considerable online and offline influence.
Flick through the group’s new online “travel guidebook” and her contact details are listed, alongside 17 other agents and middlemen. Recruits are told to get in touch with these people when they make it to Turkey and want a contact in ISIS to help them cross the border.
This is the mysterious but influential woman until now known only as @_UmmWaqqas. Her real life is seemingly obscured from view, with her face completely covered in pictures posted online. As one of the most influential ISIS-linked women online, she describes to her 8,000 followers the religious duty for Muslims to join the Caliphate. She has been in personal contact with Brits and Americans on the eve of their departures, and she is close to fighters and jihadi brides in Syria.
@_UmmWaqqas is today revealed by Channel 4 News to have been set up and operated by Rawdah Abdisalaam, a twenty-something female believed to be from Seattle. She advocates mass emigration to Islamic State while seemingly enjoying the creature comforts of the American lifestyle, watching the Denver Broncos on a super-widescreen HDTV and tweeting pictures of double cheeseburgers.
Her Twitter account was recently accessed from Seattle, though friends say she has moved away, and her exact location remains unclear.
“I’m actually lost for words”, one school friend who wished to stay anonymous told Channel 4 News. “The Rawdah you are referring to is a childhood friend.” She said that the @_UmmWaqqas tweets, “sound a little to extreme to be honest … this is so weird.” Friends confirmed it is her account.
Those doing the radicalising deliberately hide who they are. But they are altering lives one by one, in the US, in Europe and in the Middle East. They are generating support for the Islamic State group with such success, leaving intelligence agencies and families scrambling to cope.
The Brookings Institute says that social media is used “to spread and legitimise IS’s ideology, activities, and objectives, and to recruit and acquire international support”.
The intelligence community says that the way ISIS uses social media and online presentations has also been a game changer for recruitment. And the FBI last week declared that the US has a terror recruiting problem, with 25 people detained this year, a surge compared to last year.
The @_UmmWaqqas Twitter account has been one of the more popular pro-Islamic State accounts, particularly among women, with 8,000 followers. Her account defends ISIS brutality; she justifies the burning to death of the Jordanian pilot Moaz al-Kasasbeh as “an eye for an eye”.
While Twitter has moved aggressively in recent months to shut down ISIS-linked accounts, Umm Waqqas shared multiple ISIS documents on emigration months before her account was finally suspended earlier this month.
Bring two flashlights. Expect to be robbed. And don’t take taxis that will rip you off.
This is advice offered within the ISIS travel guide linked to by Umm Waqqas; a practical guide to making ‘Hijrah’ (emigrating) to join the Islamic State group. She is herself referenced within its pages as a key ISIS contact – someone who can help you join the Islamic State group.
So it’s no surprise that she is regularly sent requests for help on Twitter from people eager to sign up. Not only does she share guides written by others, she also posts her personal advice on how to emigrate successfully; she states the importance of having someone to vouch for you, for instance.
She also uploaded screenshots of four pages of the official ISIS magazine, which explain the importance of Muslims joining the Caliphate, accompanied by the word “enjoy”.
The pages give advice to those considering emigrating to the Islamic State, on how to accomplish it and the spiritual justification for doing so. She says there are “swarms of families flocking to [Islamic State].”
It’s not possible to prove that Umm Waqqas has personally persuaded anyone to travel to Syria. But in a number of cases, she has been in personal contact, on the eve of their departure, with people who have been radicalised and left to join the Islamic State group.
Aqsa Mahmood, known as Umm Layth online, is a Glaswegian girl who left to join ISIS in 2013. She was in frequent contact with Umm Waqqas in the days before she travelled to Syria. Their public conversations indicate that the two remained in close contact after Aqsa arrived.
Umm Waqqas also seems to have been in discussion with @Al_Khansaa, aka Umm Ubaydiah, who has said she plans to burn her British passport. And she has also been in contact with a man thought to be Abu Rumaysa, the British citizen who jumped bail and escaped to Syria.
Beyond the public messages, she followed at least 42 people on Twitter who claim to be British. Some of these people seem to be on the verge of leaving for Syria, and they will see her daily tweets urging them that joining the Islamic State is one’s duty as a Muslim.
According to British officials, at least 600 people from the UK have travelled to support jihadist groups in Syria and Iraq. But now, it is the American authorities who are forced into being increasingly proactive to prevent U.S. children and young adults from joining Islamic State.
In Seattle, thousands of miles away from the battlefields of Syria, Rawdah is an American football fan supporting the Denver Broncos. She jokes with her friends when the team plays against Seattle Seahawks, such as during the Super Bowl in 2013.
She and her friends tweet about going to cafes and the gym, posting pictures of pizzas and cheeseburgers like any young American. She says that she studied journalism at university before switching her degree to become a teacher.
More recently, she has avoided posting information about her real life. These details are there, however, if you investigate the public history of her Twitter profile. And potential sources of radicalisation are also in her timeline for anyone to see. She is a fan of extremist lectures; watching them on YouTube in her bedroom, “is all i do pretty much” she tweets. Her laptop sits atop an Islamic State flag.
Gradually, Rawdah appears to tweet an increasing an increasing number of links to Islamic texts and stories supporting her views, with fewer tweets referring to her offline life. She has posted very few pictures online of her real life, none of which make clear a location. But Channel 4 News has matched seven of the pictures she posted to locations in and around Seattle – as she drives in the city, goes to Starbucks, and takes a walk by a lake with friends.
Her journey from an ordinary young American Muslim to a cheerleader for the Caliphate reflects a matter of small – but real – concern in Seattle. The city has long battled the forces that have drawn young people to other Islamic militant groups such as al-Shabab.
“From what I’ve seen and what I’ve heard from my friends it happens in steps when a person is feeling alienated,” says Hamda Yusuf, a student of Somali origin at the University Washington in Seattle. She runs a counter-radicalisation program with youngsters across Washington state.
“It could be perhaps that they have run into problems or issues with the law or they are not doing well in school and then find themselves in a hole of existence. They are pulling away from everybody that they know, from their friends, they are becoming more and more religious.”
“I think the appeal that happens to young women is that a lot of women are restricted in their lives and their social lives and they see radicalisation and going abroad to marry somebody or fight for a cause as becoming free from their families and so its a bit more of a freedom that they see in going abroad.”
There is no way to independently confirm exactly who has been operating the Twitter account throughout its three years of activity. But a close friend – who appears in a video filmed by Rawdah in 2013, referring to Syria at a shooting range – said that in order to get in contact with her it would be best to “hit her up on Twitter”. Another friend also confirmed the Twitter account belongs to her.
Multiple people may be operating the single account, but Umm Waqqas’s previous Twitter usernames for the same account (@Rawdah_Abdi and @Rodaa27), and identical images uploaded to multiple social networks in a short space of time, gave away Rawdah’s real name on a Facebook profile, also under the username “Rawdah.Abdi”.
Friends all expressed surprise when asked about her, but gave differing accounts of her current location. One says she may have moved to Medina in Saudi Arabia, others to Denver in Colorado. In a brief conversation with Umm Waqqas herself, the internet network address she was using to communicate with Channel 4 News was located in Seattle, indicating that whoever is currently operating the account was there as recently as March.
Rawdah has avoided attempts via Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter and through friends to address all of these allegations directly and to provide her side of the story. She even specifically told some friends to not talk to Channel 4 News.
But in a brief conversation with Channel 4 News via Twitter in March, she didn’t mention being Dutch, as she has regularly claimed on Twitter, but instead she said instead that she was from Finland. She also said that she was currently living within Islamic State territory, but was unable to evidence the fact. The media doesn’t care about Syria because “they get paid by the Jewish isrealis [sic] to keep their mouth shut about certain topics” she said.
When asked about being from Seattle, she didn’t deny it or address it at all. She just waited five minutes and said: “bye”.
On 17 April, the @_UmmWaqqas account was finally suspended by Twitter, but people continue to reach out to her. One tweeted recently: “I am a 15 year old girl from the UK, and I want to ask what advice can you give that will lead me to jannah [paradise].”