By Mark Hosenball
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A British hacker who U.S. and European officials said became a top cyber expert for Islamic State in Syria has been killed in a U.S. drone strike, a U.S. source familiar with the matter said on Wednesday.
It was the second reported killing of a senior Islamic State figure in the last eight days. Islamic State's second-in-command was killed in a U.S. air strike near Mosul, Iraq, on Aug. 18.
The source indicated that the U.S. Defense Department was likely involved in the drone strike that killed British hacker Junaid Hussain, a former resident of Birmingham, England.
A report on the website CSO Online said the drone strike took place on Tuesday near the Syrian city of Raqqa.
U.S. and European government sources told Reuters earlier this year that they believed Hussain was the leader of CyberCaliphate, a hacking group which in January attacked a Twitter account belonging to the Pentagon, though the sources said they did not know if he was personally involved.
Hussain moved to Syria sometime in the last two years. He was 21 years old, the Birmingham Mail newspaper reported.
Cyber security experts have said they believe that Hussain and other hackers working for Islamic State lack the skills needed to launch serious attacks such as ones that could shut down computer networks or damage critical infrastructure.
"He wasn't a serious threat. He was most likely a nuisance hacker," said Adam Meyers, vice president of intelligence with cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike. "It was his involvement in recruitment, communications and other ancillary support that would have made him a target."
In 2012 he was jailed for six months for stealing former British Prime Minister Tony Blair's address book from an account maintained by a Blair adviser.
Hussain pleaded guilty to putting details of the address book online and making hoax calls to a counterterrorism hotline.
U.S. government sources said that in his role as Islamic State's cyber chief, Hussain recently had become a subject of considerable interest to U.S. security and defense agencies.
However, the sources denied a recent British news report that said he was No. 3 on a U.S. list of drone targets, saying other operational Islamic State commanders were regarded by U.S. authorities as far more dangerous than Hussain.
(Reporting by Mark Hosenball; Additional reporting by Jim Finkle in Boston; Editing by Eric Beech)