THE ping on my phone came at 4am. Bleary-eyed, I reached out of bed for my mobile, wondering what kind of person would message at such an ungodly hour.
From the glow of the screen I could make out that someone with the Twitter handle “@UmmHussain101”, and with a profile picture of a veiled Muslim woman, had liked one of my tweets.
Then it came back to me. A day earlier, I had unmasked in an article in The Sunday Times another Briton who had travelled to Syria to join Isis. But this was no ordinary British Muslim who had gone overseas for jihad. Remarkably, it was a white mother of two from Kent who at one time was the singer and guitarist in an all-girl punk rock band.
Her name was Sally Jones — and she would haunt me for the next three years as she became the world’s most wanted female terrorist. Last week it emerged that the 48-year-old Isis recruiter had finally been killed in a Pentagon air strike.
After publishing my first expose about her in August 2014, I had sent a message to Jones on Twitter, more in hope than expectation. I suspected she had taken her 10-year-old son, Joe, nicknamed Jojo, to Syria with her. “Salaam, can u please follow me for DM [direct, or private, messaging],” I wrote before turning in for the night. “Need to ask u about jojo.”
Just after 4am, a second ping on my phone — and then another. It was Jones. Using her adopted Muslim “kunya”, or alias, Umm Hussain al-Britani, she had started following me on Twitter.
In a public reply to my tweet, she pejoratively responded: “That was his kuff [kuffar] name before he was Muslim and before we got here. His name is now Hamza Hussain al-Britani and he loves it.”
I was suddenly wide awake. Jones then switched to private messaging. “Hello,” she started off. A week earlier, the same woman had used Twitter to threaten to behead Christians with a “blunt knife”.
But in an online conversation lasting almost four hours, I saw a different person from the woman who would later urge Britons to bomb the Queen, and join her Birmingham-born computer hacker husband Junaid Hussain in publishing “kill lists” of RAF pilots.
To me, she seemed confused, irrational, lonely and, ultimately, a bit childlike and vulnerable. At times, she sounded like a bored housewife starved of attention: “I’m only tweeting cos my husband’s away for a month training.”
She was also full of contradictions: “I’m not allowed to talk to men. This is a shariah state.” Talking to a male journalist on Twitter in the middle of the night, however, appeared to be fine.
Jones blamed Britain and America’s invasion of Iraq for her conversion to Islamist extremism. “Becoming a Muslim changed my life,” she told me. “I can’t help but be militant when all they do is kill us for being Muslim :(”
Quoting patently false statistics, she added: “You know they killed 1,220,550 innocent Muslims in the illegal Iraq war … the US and UK government it’s that wot did it for me. It’s them that’s the terrorists, not us.”
Reverting to teen-speak, Jones said she married Hussain, 21, after she spent “24 hours” travelling to Syria from Britain in 2013. “Lol and we got married the very day I got here,” she recalled. “My little boy became a Muslim too that very day.”
As well as Jojo, Jones has an older son, Jonathan, from a previous relationship, who remained in the UK.
She had clearly been following the coverage about herself and other ISIS Britons in the media over the internet from Raqqa, and rejected any criticism of being a bad mother. “That hurts to be honest,” Jones told me. “My children keep me breathing; it makes me wanna cry … My heart is broken because I miss my older son so much.”
She also insisted that Hussain, who was killed in a US drone strike in 2015 after plotting attacks against the West, was “a good role model for my children”.
My own relationship with “Mrs Jones” continued for months. Each time I wrote about her latest threat or terror plot, she made a point of liking the tweet containing my story, in a somewhat perverse display of self-gratification or narcissism.
Sometimes when she was not pleased with her coverage in the UK, she would tag me into a tweet, including on one occasion when she vehemently denied that Jojo had appeared in an Isis killing video featuring young western recruits.
On the night she first spoke to me, our chat drew to an end more prosaically.
“My battery to my iPad is gonna run out in a minute,” she wrote. “I’m off to have breakfast now, I’ll be shutting this [Twitter account] later. Been nice talking to u.”
“Are you having a full English or cornflakes?” I joked, to try to keep her talking.
“No, I have Syrian cheese, bread, tomato paste and olive oil,” she replied.
Such a mundane response. But it seemed she knew even then her own fate if she tried to return to Britain: “I can’t ever go back, they will throw away the key.”
It now appears the fate of an innocent child, Jojo, who may have been killed in the Pentagon strike that ended his mother’s life, was also in her hands.
Just before going offline from Syria, she told me: “Hey, if you write anything, please be thoughtful of my son.”