How a Teenage Hacker Became the Target of a US Drone Strike
The story of Junaid Hussain, also known as the hacker TriCk, and as the ISIS terrorist Abu Hussain Al Britani.
In June of 2011, Junaid Hussain, at the time only 17 years old and known as TriCk, got his first big prize as a hacker.
Along with his group of hacktivists called Team Poison (or TeaMp0isoN), he hacked into the email account of a staffer of former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, and posted personal information of Blair, as well as other government employees online.
Years later, Hussain, now known as Abu Hussain Al Britani, joined ISIS as the group's most prominent hacker. His role within ISIS, which involved more than just cyberattacks, reportedly made him the third highest-ranked ISIS target on the Pentagon kill list.
In his new life in Syria, Hussain initially became known for allegedly hacking the Twitter account of CENTCOM, though it's been reported that somebody else was behind that attack and the hacking group known as Cyber Caliphate. Hussain, however, was likely the leader, and perhaps sole member, of another ISIS-linked hacking group known as Islamic State Hacking Division, or IS Hacking Division.
Hiding behind the name of the IS Hacking Division, Hussain posted the names and personal information of 100 US military members, claiming to have obtained it from hacking Pentagon servers, though he likely got most of them from just Googling around. More recently, he published the personal information of 1,400 American government workers, information likely culled from older breaches or open source information.
But Hussain wasn't just pretending to dox government employees, or breaking into Twitter accounts for propaganda purposes. He apparently developed a custom internet spy tool for ISIS, hacked into military members' Facebook accounts, and led the group's online recruitment drive, according to The Wall Street Journal.
He was also allegedly involved in recruiting bombers in Western countries, according to an undercover investigation by Sky News. Those details were also corroborated by a member of Team Poison, who told me Hussain once mentioned that at a certain point "he was in charge of foreign hostages."
Hussain was perhaps "the loudest voice and most influential" person among foreign ISIS fighters.
"He was extremely influential," Alex Kassirer, an analyst at Flashpoint, a firm that tracks jihadists, told Motherboard. Hussain was perhaps "the loudest voice and most influential" person among foreign ISIS fighters, according to Kassirer.
How he got to Syria is somewhat a mystery, but he apparently fled the UK in 2013, after being arrested and jailed for six months for the hack on Blair's aide, as well as intercepting a call between Scotland Yard investigators, which Team Poison posted online.
Before going to prison, Hussain's lawyer defined him as "a very shy, unassuming young man." (The lawyer, Ben Cooper, did not respond to repeated requests for comment over the last few months.)
Since then, Hussain occasionally kept in touch with former and current members of Team Poison, both via online chat and Skype, according to a member of the hacking group, who goes by the name of MLT.
MLT recalled in a chat that Hussain once sent his old hacking mates pictures of young kids with rifles, saying he was "training the future generation." In late 2014, during a chat on Skype, Hussain showed off his AK-47 on webcam, while covering his face with a balaclava.
I asked MLT how he felt about the death of Hussain.
"I don't know," he said in an online chat, before adding that given Hussain's actions, which likely involved hurting or even killing people, "he deserved it, for sure," and that "there was no saving him."
"He was way beyond the point where he could become disillusioned and desert [ISIS]," MTL said.
MLT explained that an old mentor of Hussain, another hacker known as Antipeace, recently reached out to Hussain "trying to make him see sense." But Hussain didn't want any of it, and "just told him to fuck off and threatened to behead him," MLT said. (Antipeace could not be reached for comment.)
"He was way beyond the point where he could become disillusioned and desert [ISIS] ... there was no saving him."
At the time, I asked Hussain via the chat app Kik, where he was regularly active, if he was the person behind the hacking group, showing him a screenshot of his conversation with MLT. But he denied it. Meanwhile, however, he scolded MLT for sharing their correspondence with me.
It's unclear exactly how a small-time teen hacker transformed into an ISIS member, but Hussain showed signs of disaffection soon after making a name for himself in hacking circles.
"He struck me as a young person looking for a meaningful cause to join," Sean Sullivan, a security researcher at F-Secure who followed Hussain and Team Poison at the time Hussain got arrested, told me in an email a few months ago.
Back then, Hussain and Team Poison occasionally used their efforts to support Palestine, defacing websites with pro-Palestine messages, and joining a hacktivist campaign called Operation Free Palestine. It's unclear what caused Hussain to break away from online protest and defacement to becoming an active member of ISIS, but Sullivan said it was unsurprising.
Hussain's joining ISIS seemed "a pretty sad case of a self-fulfilling disaster," Sullivan told me months ago. On Friday, Sullivan told me that his death was the "sadly inevitable conclusion to his story."
An alleged classmate of Hussain from his high school years tweeted that Hussain "was a little tool then, his [sic] a pussy," according to Newsweek. The former classmate added, "I am ashamed that I knew such a vile human being."
A neighbor of Hussain's family in Birmingham told the local paper that the hacker "was a teenager who went off the rails."
"He was radicalized by a computer."
"He wasn't radicalized by a mosque, or by [ISIS]," she reportedly added. "He was radicalized by a computer."
At this point, the US government hasn't shared any details on the drone strike that killed Hussain, nor how they tracked him down.
But given that he was very active on Twitter and Kik, perhaps his digital presence, which he used to threaten the "infidels" of the West and incite others to join ISIS, betrayed him in the end. (US forces, often with the help of the NSA, use internet and telephone metadata to track down and kill alleged terrorists.
"Even the ones who are extremely tech savvy and understand the nuances of OPSEC, they get kind of cocky, and they like to be loud, and they like to be heard." Kassirer told me. "At the end of the day that becomes their Achilles' heel."
Today, I messaged Hussain on Kik. The messaging app shows when the message has been sent, delivered or read, displaying the letters "S," "D," or "R."
Today, my message to Hussain remained on "S."