Intelligence haul fuels next phase of U.S. fight against Islamic State
WASHINGTON — U.S. intelligence analysts have gained valuable insights into the Islamic State’s planning and personnel from a vast cache of digital data and other material recovered from bombed-out offices, abandoned laptops and the cellphones of dead fighters in recently liberated areas of Iraq and Syria.
In the most dramatic gain, U.S. officials over the past two months have added thousands of names of known or suspected Islamic State operatives to an international watch list used at airports and other border crossings. The Interpol database now contains about 19,000 names.
The intelligence haul — the largest since U.S. forces entered the war in mid2014 — threatens to overwhelm already stretched counterterrorism and law enforcement agencies in Europe, where the Islamic State has claimed responsibility for attacks in Paris, London and Stockholm this year.
With the extremist group’s army and selfdeclared caliphate fast shrinking, U.S. officials are concerned that foreignborn militants who once flocked to Iraq and Syria will try to escape before the U.S.-led coalition or other military forces can kill them.
In recent weeks, U.S.backed ground forces have sent an estimated 30 terabytes of data — equal to nearly two years of nonstop video footage — to the National Media Exploitation Center in Bethesda, Md., a little-known arm of the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency, according to officials who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the intelligence.
Analysts there are scrutinizing handwritten ledgers, computer spreadsheets, thumb drives, mobile phone memory cards and other materials for clues to terrorist cells or plots in Europe or elsewhere.
“The reason electronic exploitation is so critical is that enemy forces doesn’t fake those records,” an intelligence official said. “When you interrogate someone, they can hide facts, but logs of phone calls and video clips don’t lie.”
The material came from Mosul, the militants’ selfdeclared capital in Iraq, which was recaptured July 9 after an eight-month battle. Other intelligence was found in the Iraqi city of Tal Afar, which was retaken on Aug. 31, and from Raqqa, the group’s self-declared capital in Syria, where fighting is still underway.
U.S. officials said they have gleaned planning ideas and outlines of potential operations rather than ongoing terrorist plots. But they also have gathered details about the group’s leadership and the hierarchy of fighters under command.
The biggest windfall came from what officials said were meticulous Islamic State records about the foreign fighters who arrived after convoys of black-flagged militants first stormed out of northern Syria and into Iraq in 2014, capturing large parts of both countries and the world’s attention.
The records include their names, aliases, home countries and other personal information.
The data have been shared with a 19-nation task force in Jordan, codenamed Operation Gallant Phoenix, that tries to track foreign fighters in an effort to disrupt terrorist cells and networks.
With few U.S. troops on the ground, most of the intelligence is gathered by Iraqi security forces and U.S.-backed Syrian militias who have been trained to gather, bag and tag material to be analyzed back in the States.
A phone from the pocket of a dead fighter often includes phone numbers that can assist counterterrorism investigations far afield. Indeed, intelligence recovered from the battlefield since 2015 has led to arrests or broken up plots in at least 15 countries in Europe, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, Africa,
Latin America and Canada, officials said.
Iraqi bomb diffuser Wissam Daoud got assistance from a fellow soldier on March 20 as he prepared a device to detonate an unexploded munition in West Mosul.