Joint US-Iraqi intelligence operation used cell phone app to trap senior ISIS figures

Abu Bakr al-BaghdadiAn joint operation conducted by American and Iraqi intelligence officers employed a popular messaging app on the phone of a captured Islamic State commander to apprehend four very senior figures in the organization, according to reports. The Reuters news agency said on Thursday that the ambitious intelligence operation began in February, when Turkish authorities captured a close aide to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Iraqi-born leader of the group known as Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). According to Hisham al-Hashimi, security advisor to the government of Iraq, the ISIS aide was Ismail al-Eithawi, also known by his alias, Abu Zaid al-Iraqi. Iraqi officials claim that al-Eithawi was appointed by al-Baghdadi to handle the secret transfer of ISIS funds to bank accounts around the world.

It appears that al-Eithawi had managed to escape to Turkey when the United States-led coalition shattered ISIS’ self-proclaimed caliphate. But he was captured by Turkish counterterrorism forces and handed over to Iraqi authorities. Baghdad then shared the contents of al-Eithawi’s cell phone with US intelligence officers. The latter were able to help their Iraqi counterparts utilize the popular messaging app WhatsApp, a version of which was installed on al-Eithawi’s cell phone. According to al-Hashimi, the Iraqis and Americans made it seem like al-Eithawi was calling an emergency face-to-face meeting between senior ISIS commanders in the area. But when these Syria-based commanders crossed into Iraq to meet in secret, they were captured by Iraqi and American forces.

According to al-Hashimi, those captured include a Syrian and two Iraqi ISIS field commanders. More importantly, they include Saddam Jamal, a notorious ISIS fighter who rose through the ranks to become the organization’s governor of the Euphrates’ region, located on Syria’s east. Al-Hashimi told reporters on Thursday that Jamal and al-Eithawi were the most senior ISIS figures to have ever been captured alive by US-led coalition forces. The Iraqi government advisor also said that al-Eithawi’s captors were able to uncover a treasure trove of covert bank accounts belonging to ISIS, as well as several pages of secret communication codes used by the militant group.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 11 May 2018 | Permalink

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Britain launched first-ever military-style cyber campaign against ISIS, says spy chief

Jeremy FlemingFor the first time in its history, the United Kingdom has launched its first-ever military-style cyber campaign against an adversary, according to the director of the country’s primary cyber security agency. The target of the campaign was the Islamic State, the militant Sunni Muslim group that is also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The existence of the all-out cyber war was announced last week by Jeremy Fleming, the newly appointed director of the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), Britain’s signals intelligence organization. Fleming, a former Security Service (MI5) officer, was speaking at the CYBERUK2018 conference, held in the northern English city of Manchester. It was his first public speech as director of GCHQ.

Fleming told his Manchester audience that the cyber operation that targeted ISIS was a “major offensive campaign” that seriously hampered the group’s ability to launch and coordinate both physical and online attacks against its enemies. The campaign also prevented ISIS from using its “normal channels” online to spread its message, effectively suppressing the group’s propaganda efforts, said Fleming. The new GCHQ director noted that large parts of the cyber operation against ISIS were “too sensitive to talk about”. But he added that the methods used to combat the Sunni Muslim group’s online operations were so aggressive that they “even destroyed equipment and networks” used by ISIS members. He did not specify what he meant by “destroyed equipment”, but his comment brought to mind the so-called Stuxnet virus, which was discovered by researchers in 2010. The virus appeared to have been designed by what experts described as “a well-resourced nation-state”, with the aim of sabotage sensitive hardware components found in centrifuges used by the Iranian government in its nuclear program.

During his Manchester speech, Fleming claimed that the British cyber war against ISIS was conducted in compliance with existing international legal frameworks. He added, however, that the “international doctrine governing the use [of cyber weapons] is still evolving”. The GCHQ director admitted that Britain’s cyber capabilities “are very powerful”, but argued that “we only use them in line with domestic and international law, when our tests of necessity and proportionality have been satisfied, and with all the usual oversight in place”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 20 April 2018 | Permalink | Research credit: K.B.

Dozens of successor groups forming in wake of ISIS defeat, experts warn

Hamrin Mountains IraqThe collapse of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria is giving rise to a host of successor groups, which are quickly regrouping, recruiting members and launching increasingly sophisticated attacks against government forces, according to experts. A military victory in the war against ISIS was officially declared by the Iraqi government in December of last year. In recent weeks, United States President Donald Trump has repeated his government’s claim that American forces are “knocking the hell out of ISIS”. The Sunni militant group, which rose to prominence in 2014 after conquering much of Syria and northwestern Iraq, is clearly on the retreat, having lost every major urban center that it used to control. However, the collapse of the organization has led to the emergence of numerous insurgent groups that are quickly forming in Iraq and Syria.

Many of these highly agile groups are operating in the sparsely inhabited and remote southern district of Iraq’s Kurdish region, which includes the Hamrin Mountains. Others are found in Iraq’s arid regions west of the Euphrates. All are engaged in recruitment, propaganda and —increasingly— attacks against government forces and rival Shiite militias. Writing on Sunday, BuzzFeed’s Turkey-based Middle East correspondent Borzou Daragahi profiled one such group, the so-called White Flags. The group was formed in late 2017 through the union of two ISIS commanders, Khaled al-Moradi, an Iraqi Turkman, and Hiwa Chor, a former member of Ansar al-Islam, a predominantly Kurdish jihadist group that was active in northern Iraq after 2003. Daragahi notes that the White Flags have managed to carry out strikes in Baghdad and Kirkuk, and have repeatedly ambushed Iraqi government forces and members of Shiite militias. Senior White Flag members have been involved with ISIS for years and have “a wide range of experience [and] a high level of training”, says Daragahi. They are one of several post-ISIS armed groups that are recruiting members from Iraq’s disaffected Sunni Arab minority, while promising to protect them from the ire of the almost exclusively Shiite Iraqi government.

In a separate but related development, two analysts with Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters —the country’s primary communications interception agency— have warned that ISIS remains a “significant threat” to the West. The two analysts spoke on Britain’s Sky News television, using only their first names, Ben and Sunny. They recognized that ISIS has lost much of its territory in recent months, but cautioned that it continues to be “a very advanced adversary”, primarily due to its technological dexterity. Operational planners of ISIS have “pushed the bar and raised the bar” in terms of the “technology they have used and the ways in which they have used it”, said one of the analysts, adding that British intelligence agencies have to keep adapting their techniques to remain “one step ahead” of ISIS operatives. IntelNews regulars will recall that last year this blog advised Western counter-terrorism officials to “actively and immediately prepare” for attacks by ISIS militants using chemical weapons.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 3 April 2018 | Permalink

Analysis: Egyptian Islamist group is emerging as ISIS’ most powerful branch

Wilayat SinaiThrough a series of meticulously planned terrorist strikes and assassinations, Wilayat Sinai has emerged as the strongest international arm of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), according to some experts. Known officially as ISIS – Sinai Province, Wilayat Sinai claimed responsibility for the October 2015 downing of Metrojet Flight 9268. All 224 passengers and crew, most of them Russians, died when the plane blew up in midair over Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. The incident marked the worst aviation disaster in Russian history. The same group, Wilayat Sinai, was behind last month’s attack on the Al Rawda Sufi mosque in bir al-Abed, Egypt. The massacre resulted in the deaths of 311 people, making it the worst terrorist attack in the history of modern Egypt.

According to leading Israeli defense and security expert Amos Harel, Wilayat Sinai’s most recent strike demonstrates that, aside from operational expertise, the group also possesses formidable intelligence collection capabilities. In an article published on Tuesday in the Israeli daily Ha’aretz, Harel focuses on the group’s assassination attempt against Egyptian Defense Minister Sedki Sobhy and Interior Minister Magdy Abdel-Ghaffar. The attack took place on December 19 at the Al-Arish military airport in north Sinai. Wilayat Sinai guerrillas fired an antitank missile at a parked Egyptian Air Force helicopter, which had just transported the two ministers to the area. Footage of the attack, released last week by ISIS, shows the helicopter exploding after being hit by the missile. Three people died in the attack, a security guard, a helicopter pilot, and a senior aide to Defense Minister Sobhy. Although neither minister was harmed in the attack, that is not the point, says Harel, and points to the fact that the officials’ trip to northern Sinai was part of a surprise visit, which had not been announced in advance. It seems, therefore, says Harel, “that Wilayat Sinai obtained intelligence information that exposed the minister[s] to attack”.

Interestingly, the group’s membership is not large. American and other Western intelligence sources estimate that its armed nucleus consists of no more than a thousand fighters. However, Wilayat Sinai members have access to advanced weaponry, which is routinely smuggled into Egypt from Libya and the Sudan. It is thus the weaponry, coupled with advanced organization and intelligence capabilities, that makes Wilayat Sinai so dangerous, says Harel. In the past three years, the militant group has killed in excess of 1,500 people in Egypt. But as its attacks become increasingly surgical and sophisticated, Egypt may be forced to respond with increasing firepower, which could further-destabilize the volatile Sinai region. Meanwhile, Israeli security forces are preparing for the possibility of cross-border raids by Wilayat Sinai, warns Harel. The Egyptian-Israeli border region could become the next front in the war against ISIS.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 27 December 2017 | Permalink

Defector claims US agreed to let thousands of Islamic State fighters leave Raqqa

Islamic State convoy in SyriaA senior former commander of one of Syria’s largest Kurdish rebel groups, who recently defected to Turkey, has accused the United States of agreeing to let thousands of heavily armed Islamic State fighters escape from Raqqa in exchange for conquering the city without a fight. The Syrian city served as the de facto capital of the Islamic State from early 2014 until October of this year, when it was captured by a coalition of forces supported by the United States and other Western powers. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a predominantly Kurdish militia, was among the groups that captured Raqqa. One of its spokesmen, Talal Silo, told Western media correspondents back in October that the Western-backed coalition had allowed fewer than 300 hardline fighters of the Islamic State to leave the war-ravaged city during the final stages of the battle.

But several news agencies reported at the time that a large convoy of vehicles was seen leaving Raqqa, composed of dozens of trucks, buses and over a hundred cars. The BBC reported on November 13 that the convoy was 4 miles long and was seen heading toward Deir ez-Sor, an Islamic State stronghold located two hours’ drive southeast of Raqqa. Coalition partners, including the United States, Germany, the United Kingdom and France, denied that such a convoy existed. But the BBC’s claims have now been corroborated by Silo, the same SDF spokesman who last October rejected them as fictional. In October, Silo, who is a Syrian Turkoman, defected to Turkey and is now living in Ankara under heavy security protection. He told the Reuters news agency in a recent  interview that the BBC’s claims were correct, and that the number of Islamic State militants who were allowed to leave Raqqa with their weapons were in their thousands, not 300 as the SDF had originally claimed.

According to Silo, a secret agreement was reached between the Western-backed coalition and the Islamic State for the evacuation of “about 4,000 people” from Raqqa. Of those fewer than 500 were unarmed civilians, said Silo. He added that the convoy went to Deir ez-Sor, which at the time was still under the control of Islamic State. The SDF defector also told Reuters that the deal struck with the Islamic State was kept secret from media correspondents. The latter were told that they were not allowed to approach Raqqa due to heavy fighting, when the real goal was to prevent them from witnessing the peaceful departure of the Islamic State convoys. According to Silo, the deal was approved by all members of the Western-backed coalition, including the United States.

On Thursday, the SDF denied that Silo’s allegations were true and claimed that he was being pressured to make them by Turkey. The Turkish government accuses the SDF of being a Syrian branch of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), with which it is at war. American military officials also denied Silo’s claims, calling them “false and contrived”. The officials said that the US “does not make deals with terrorists”.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 08 December 2017 | Permalink

Israeli armed raid in Syria reportedly led to US banning laptops on some flights

Ibrahim al-AsiriA temporary ban issued by United States authorities on laptop computers onboard some commercial flights earlier this year came from a tip by Israeli intelligence, according to a new report. The report was published last week in the American magazine Vanity Fair. It claimed that Israeli commandos carried out a dangerous night-time operation deep inside Syria, in order to acquire physical proof that the Islamic State had  built bombs that were not detectable by X-ray screening systems at airports. But some Israeli intelligence officials became infuriated with Donald Trump after the US President allegedly gave Russia background information about the commando operation, according to the article.

The order to temporarily ban electronic devices larger than cellphones was issued by the US government on March 20, 2017. It applied to direct flights to the US departing from a dozen international airports in the Middle East. In June, the New York Times alleged that the ban was aimed at stopping Islamic State operatives from bringing onboard airplanes bombs disguised as laptop batteries. The paper also said that the information about these bombs had been acquired by Israeli government hackers who had penetrated Islamic State computer systems. But now a new report by Vanity Fair claims that Tel Aviv tipped off the Americans following a commando raid deep inside Syrian territory, which acquired physical evidence of the bombs. The magazine alleges that the raid was carried out by the Sayeret Matkal, an elite unit of the Israel Defense Forces, under the supervision of the Mossad, Israel’s external spy agency. Its target was a highly secretive cell of explosives experts, who were led Ibrahim al-Asiri, a Saudi militant who built bombs for the Yemen-based Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. The Mossad shared some of the intelligence from that raid with the Central Intelligence Agency, which in turn told President Trump. That led to the decision to ban laptops from selected flights, until X-ray machines at airports were modified to detect the new type of bomb.

The Vanity Fair article repeats earlier claims that President Trump shared intelligence given to him by the Israelis with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Russian Ambassador to the United States Sergei Kislyak, when he met them in May of this year. According to Israeli sources, Mr. Trump did not tell the Russian officials that Israel was behind the operation. But he allegedly identified the city in Syria where the raid took place, and in doing so placed the life of an Israeli human asset at risk, according to some. The Israeli government will not comment on these allegations. Additionally, Vanity Fair said that one “former Mossad officer with knowledge of the operation and its aftermath” would not say whether the asset in question had been safely exfiltrated from Syria or even whether he or she was still alive.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 27 November 2017 | Permalink

Despite retreat, ISIS still earns $50 million a year from oil, says expert

Oil field in SyriaDespite its ongoing territorial retreat, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria is earning over $4 million a month from its involvement in the oil trade, according to a leading expert in the finances of the group. In the past, a sizeable portion of the Islamic State’s income came from oil revenues, as the group controlled several major oilfields in northern Iraq and eastern Syria. But the loss of its territory in the past year has delivered a sharp blow to the Islamic State’s finances. The group has lost virtually every oilfield that it used to control in northern Iraq, while two weeks ago it conceded Syria’s most lucrative oilfield, the Omar oilfield, which it controlled since July of 2013. In early October, the United States-led coalition estimated that the Islamic State’s oil revenues had fallen to approximately $4 million a month, down 90 percent from the group’s financial peak of $40 million a month in 2015.

But a leading expert in the Islamic State’s finances has warned that the group’s oil revenues remain formidable and should not be dismissed as insignificant. Dr. Patrick Johnston, a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation, told The Cipher Brief last week that the Sunni militant group will continue to profit from the oil trade in the foreseeable future. Johnston said that Islamic State coffers will most likely receive nearly $50 million this year from oil profits alone, an amount that remains formidable for any militant group. Much of that will come from extortion, said the RAND Corporation scientist, as groups of Islamic State fighters force commercial enterprises —including oil installations— in eastern Syria to pay them for “protection”. Additionally, the group continues to tax energy consumption in the areas that it controls, while also taxing fuel trucks that transit through areas under its control. As the militant group’s expenses shrink due to its loss of territory, and as its financial obligations decrease, its oil-derived revenue will be more than sufficient to sustain its operations, according to Johnston.

Essentially, as the Islamic State continues to transform from a state-like structure into an insurgency, its financial model is morphing accordingly, says Johnston. It follows that the US-led coalition must alter its approach into disrupting the group’s financial operations. So far, says the RAND scientist, the Counter-ISIS Finance Group (CIFG), which coordinates efforts to counter the militant group’s finances between coalition partners, has been relatively successful. A parallel effort by the US military, known as Operation TIDAL WAVE II, has managed to limit the Islamic State’s oil-related activities. But the coalition should be careful while restoring the oil industry in areas previously held by the Islamic State. Otherwise, “without rigorous monitoring and evaluation, reconstruction assistance could end up inadvertently resuscitating [the Islamic State] rather than contributing to its demise in Iraq and Syria”, warns Johnston.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 08 November 2017 | Permalink