In­tel­li­gence haul fu­els next phase of U.S. fight against Is­lamic State

Richmond Times-Dispatch Weekend - - Nation&world - By Tri­bune News Ser­vice

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.

MAR­CUS YAM/LOS AN­GE­LES TIMES

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.

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