They were once considered “Lions of the Caliphate,” the vanguard of an unprecedented army of roughly 40,000 foreign fighters from around the world who were drawn to the black banner of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). When U.S.-backed Arab and Kurdish forces tightened the noose around ISIS’s self-proclaimed capital of Raqqa this past summer, many of those remaining foreigners tried to slip through the siege in makeshift convoys, often with families and other civilians in tow as “human shields.”
Some blended in with a stream of refugees fleeing southeast to dusty towns along the Euphrates River. A contingent of French-speaking jihadists were reportedly besieged in Deir al-Zour, and a hardcore group of British fighters made it to al-Mayadin. Some have made it as far as al-Bukamal on the Syria-Iraq border, where top ISIS leaders are thought to have sought refuge. Still other foreign fighters are reportedly stranded on the northern border in the city of Idlib, unable to bribe their way into Turkey. A number of Britons and at least one American tried to slip through Kurdish lines and were captured and transferred to coalition intelligence services
One member of the ISIS foreign fighter exodus was of particular interest to U.S. and British intelligence agencies. Since ISIS’s Phoenix-like rise from the ashes of the Syrian civil war in 2014, counterterrorism experts have been especially alarmed at the group’s social media savvy and ability to recruit and inspire Western jihadists online. In Britain alone, more than 800 mostly young men joined the group, and many others professed fealty. Not coincidentally, ISIS has claimed credit for a string of bloody jihadi attacks in Great Britain this year, including the March vehicle attack on the Westminster Bridge and stabbing outside of Parliament that killed four and injured more than 50 others; the suicide bombing in Manchester at an Ariana Grande concert that killed 22 people, many of them teenagers and children; and a van attack and stabbing rampage by three jihadis near the London Bridge in June that killed eight people and injured more than 40 others.
So when surveillance indicated that one member of the Raqqa foreign fighter exodus was a woman known as “the White Widow,” U.S. counterterrorism forces swung into action. Sally-Anne Jones was a middle-aged Briton and former punk rocker whose prowess in recruiting British fighters and attempts to inspire attacks on her homeland were local…