Cell­phones, data help U.S. tar­get Is­lamic State lead­ers

Of­fi­cials: Re­cent info as­sists on de­tec­tion of plots

Baltimore Sun - - NATION & WORLD - By W.J. Hen­ni­gan

BAGH­DAD — U.S. mil­i­tary of­fi­cers watched grainy video feeds at a small op­er­a­tions cen­ter in Bagh­dad on Tues­day as Preda­tor drones tracked and killed three re­puted Is­lamic State lead­ers in the of­fen­sive on Mo­sul.

The tar­geted air strikes were due in large part to in­tel­li­gence ex­tracted from cell­phones, com­puter hard drives, mem­ory cards and hand-writ­ten ledgers re­cov­ered from bat­tle­fields and towns taken from Is­lamic State fight­ers.

Re­cently cap­tured in­tel­li­gence also has proved use­ful in pro­vid­ing clues to de­tect­ing po­ten­tial ter­ror­ist plots, track­ing for­eign fight­ers and iden­ti­fy­ing Is­lamic State sup­port­ers around the globe, U.S. of­fi­cials said.

The largest data trove was re­cov­ered when U.S.-backed Syr­ian rebel forces re­cap­tured Man­bij, an Is­lamic State strong­hold in north­ern Syria, in mid-Au­gust. In­tel­li­gence agen­cies re­cov­ered more than 120,000 doc­u­ments, nearly 1,200 de­vices and more than 20 ter­abytes of dig­i­tal in­for­ma­tion, of­fi­cials said.

Brett McGurk, the spe­cial pres­i­den­tial en­voy for the coali­tion fight­ing Is­lamic State, said the Man­bij data trove has been es­pe­cially in­valu­able.

In par­tic­u­lar, the in­tel­li­gence from Man­bij and from other sources has led to ar­rests or bro­ken up plots in 15 coun­tries in Europe, the Mid­dle East, South­east Asia, Africa, Latin Amer­ica and in Canada, McGurk told a news con­fer­ence on Oct. 7.

“If we get a phone off of a dead ISIL fighter in Man­bij and it has a num­ber of tele­phone num­bers into a par­tic­u­lar cap­i­tal or city around the world, we share that in­for­ma­tion with the coali­tion mem­bers so that they can con­duct their own in­ves­ti­ga­tion,” McGurk said, us­ing an acro­nym for Is­lamic State.

In­tel­li­gence spe­cial­ists are still comb­ing through the data, but it has led to new de­tails on how fight­ers are or­ga­nized within the group’s hi­er­ar­chy. That has helped mil­i­tary plan­ners pre­pare the ground as­sault on Mo­sul that be­gan last week.

The Pen­tagon re­cently sent about 100 ad­di­tional spe­cial op­er­a­tions an­a­lysts, lin­guists and tech­ni­cians to ex­ploit in­for­ma­tion taken from towns around Mo­sul as Iraqi and Kur­dish ground forces ad­vance through con­cen­tric belts of booby traps, snipers and sui­cide bombers.

The goal is to “make sure we take ad­van­tage of the cap­tured en­emy ma­te­rial that is com­ing off of places like Man­bij and will come out of Mo­sul,” said Gen. Joseph Vo­tel, com­man­der of U.S. forces in the Mid­dle East, who was in Bagh­dad on Tues­day with McGurk.

The in­tel­li­gence has al- lowed U.S. com­man­ders to “un­der­stand what (Is­lamic State is) do­ing, what it might mean for for­eign fight­ers that have been through there, what it might mean for fu­ture plans,” he said. “It’s a les­son we learned the hard way the last time we were in Iraq.”

U.S. forces were slow to break into mil­i­tants’ com­mu­ni­ca­tions and elec­tronic de­vices dur­ing the 2003 in­va­sion of Iraq, when Vo­tel com­manded the 75th Ranger Reg­i­ment. He in­di­cated they may have missed op­por­tu­ni­ties to find clues about the fierce Sunni in­sur­gency that ul­ti­mately give rise to Is­lamic State.

Now U.S. spe­cial op­er­a­tions com­man­ders may for­bid launch­ing an airstrike at houses or com­pounds for fear of de­stroy­ing a use­ful cache of Is­lamic State in­for­ma­tion and elec­tron­ics.

“The ex­per­tise and se­nior leader cadre sets the pace of sus­tain­ing” the Is­lamic State or­ga­ni­za­tion, a U.S. de­fense of­fi­cial said, speak­ing on con­di­tion of anonymity to dis­cuss in­ter­nal as­sess­ments. “They fash­ion them­selves as a pseudo-gov­ern­men­tal struc­ture where you have fi­nanciers and min­is­ters and all th­ese other com­po­nents. You need to take that all away from them.”

Tar­get­ing by Joint Spe­cial Op­er­a­tions Com­mand has killed 39 Is­lamic State lead­ers in and around Mo­sul since July 1, U.S. of­fi­cials said.

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