Spy agencies deploy extra staff to analyze ‘treasure trove’ of ISIS computer data

Iraqi forces in MosulWestern military and intelligence agencies are deploying extra analysts to comb through unprecedented amounts of digital data collected from Iraqi regions that have recently been recaptured from the Islamic State. The information is contained in thousands of laptops, hard drives, flash drives and cell phones left behind by retreating Islamic State forces in and around the northern Iraqi city of Mosul.

In an article published this week, the United Kingdom’s Secretary of State for Defense, Sir Michael Fallon, said he had authorized a significant increase in numbers of military intelligence analysts deployed to the Middle East, in response to “a trove of data” captured from the Islamic State. He added that the amount of digital data was expected to increase even further “when Mosul falls”. The British intelligence analysts will join hundreds of American specialists —including analysts, linguists and computer technicians— who are stationed in neighboring Jordan and have for over a year been analyzing digital and printed data captured from the Islamic State. Much of that information is eventually disseminated to allied intelligence agencies.

The largest collection of digital data and documents captured from the Islamic State dates from last summer, when Kurdish Peshmerga forces seized nearly 1,000 electronic devices belonging to the militant group. The material was found in and around the city of Manbij, near Aleppo in northwestern Syria. By late August, the Kurds had collected 20 terabytes of computer data and more than 120,000 documents stored on 1,200 devices that once belonged to ISIS officials or operatives. According to Western officials, the data led to intelligence operations against the Islamic State in 15 countries in North and South America, Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Southeast Asia. In November of this year, Iraqi forces operating south of Mosul captured the digital archives of the Islamic State’s Agricultural and Animal Resources Authority. In addition to an extensive notary archive, the collection included information on the Islamic State’s commercial transactions with entities in neighboring countries, and was described by Iraqi government sources as “a real treasure”.

According to the British government, digital data and printed documents currently being gathered from Islamic State strongholds in and around Mosul are expected to provide critical intelligence on the group’s structure and chain of command. They are also likely to give insights on the existence of Islamic State cells abroad, and will most likely help international prosecutors build legal cases against Islamic State commanders in the near future.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 15 December 2016 | Permalink

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Joint British-American operation has decimated Islamic State’s cyber force

Computer hackingCoordinated efforts by Anglo-American military and intelligence agencies have resulted in the killing or capturing of nearly every senior commander of the Islamic State’s online force. The close-knit group of Islamic State hackers and online propagandists, which are informally known as “the Legion”, is responsible for hacking and online recruitment incidents that led to several lone-wolf attacks in the West. In one incident in March of 2015, the Legion claimed responsibility for the unauthorized release of personal details of over 1,300 American government employees, with orders to Islamic State volunteers to kill them. In other instances, Legion operatives reached out to impressionable young men and women in Western Europe and the United States and convinced them to move to Syria or conduct attacks at home.

According to The New York Times, which published an article last week about the current state of the Legion, in the early days of its emergence the group was viewed as a law enforcement problem. However, there were several successful and unsuccessful attacks by lone-wolf actors in the United States during the summer of 2015. According to The Times, the Federal Bureau of Investigation became overwhelmed and “was struggling to keep pace with the threat” posed by the Islamic State on the domestic front. It therefore pressed the US Department of Defense to help tackle the problem at its source. The DoD then teamed up with the British government, which was monitoring the Legion due to many of its members being British-born subjects. The two governments embarked on a “secretive campaign”, which has led to the capture of nearly 100 individuals associated with the Legion in less than two years. Another 12 members of the group, who had senior positions, have been killed in targeted drone strikes since the summer of 2015, says The Times.

The joint Anglo-American operation is allegedly responsible for the recent drop in terrorist activity instigated by the Islamic State in the West. It appears, says the paper, that the Islamic State is failing to replace the captured or killed members of the Legion with equally skilled operatives, which may point to the desperate state of the organization. But the Islamic State continues to operate a relatively sophisticated media arm, according to US government officials, and its media reach should not be underestimated, even as it is losing ground in Syria and Iraq.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 28 November 2016 | Permalink

Flow of foreign fighters to ISIS drops to near zero, intel assessments show

ISIS meetingThe transfer of foreign fighters into Iraq and Syria to join the Islamic State and other Sunni militant groups has been all but eliminated in countries across the world, according to intelligence assessments. In previous years, it has been estimated that nearly as many as 2,000 foreign recruits, both men and women, crossed into Syria each month, mainly from Turkey, with the intention of joining armed Sunni groups. By the end of 2015, it was believed that over 30,000 foreign nationals from close to 90 countries had entered Syria and Iraq to fight for one of the Sunni-inspired opposition groups taking part in the Syrian civil war. Most of these foreign recruits joined the Islamic State, which is also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

But current intelligence assessments produced by analysts in the US Intelligence Community suggest that the total inflow of foreign recruits has trickled down to a total of just 50 since the beginning of 2016. Many European countries, notably Belgium and Britain, have not seen any of their nationals leaving for Syria or Iraq this year, while fewer than 10 Americans have done so since January. According to The Washington Post, which last week published a report on the subject, this unprecedented trend is largely attributable to the shrinking territory —and presumably operational strength— of the Islamic State. Some experts note that, like al-Qaeda before it, the Islamic State is now seen as “failing entity” by Sunnis, prompting many aspiring jihadists to not wish to be associated with the group. It has also becoming more difficult for individuals to enter Syria, as Western governments and Turkey have grown progressively vigilant of young men and women seeking to travel to regional warzones. The Islamic State has also lost its control over regions that are adjacent to Turkey’s borders, which discourages Turkish and Syrian smugglers from attempting to transfer people across the notoriously porous border.

But even though the decline is sustainable, and marks “an important milestone” in multinational endeavors to combat the growth of the Islamic State, The Washington Post notes that it also raises critical questions about the future of Western security. Specifically, the paper wonders whether the terrorism threat from the Islamic State is easing, or if it is “morphing into a more dangerous new phase”, in which potential recruits are instructed to attack Western targets and former recruits disperse into conflict-prone areas across the world to spread the jihad there.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 12 September 2016 | Permalink

Monitoring continues as Libya’s chemical weapons are shipped to Germany

ISIS LibyaAs United States air strikes and special-forces operations continue in Libya, Libya’s Government of National Accord deputy prime minister, Mussa al-Koni, confirmed on Tuesday that their remaining chemical weapons left over from the Gaddafi era has been shipped to Germany for safekeeping. The process was supervised by the United Nations, based on UN Security Council Resolution 2298 (2016) adopted on July 22. The concern was the Islamic State getting their hands on the chemical stockpile that was stored in the central Jafa area, about 140 miles south of Sirte, where pro-government forces are currently fighting Islamic State militants.

Islamic State forces acquiring CBRN from Africa or producing it while in the region has been a continuous concern. Islamic State and other militant organizations are expanding throughout Africa’s 11.67 million mi². These groups can be very innovative and resourceful. As the Egyptian delegation highlighted in a UN Security Council debate on the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction last week, the Islamic State and other groups have already caused destruction in Iraq, and possibly also in Syria by using chemical weapons. The Egyptians and other African countries see a real possibility of these weapons spreading further in Libya and from there to the Horn of Africa or elsewhere on the continent. The final departure of Gaddafi’s stockpile is welcome news, but Islamist militants know how to acquire such weapons, are trying to produce them and know how to cross borders.

African intelligence and law enforcement agencies are alert to these and other new threats. Intelligence reports have indicated groups such as al-Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM) have made multiple attempts to manufacture poison, gas, biological and radioactive agents. Training camps, particularly in the Sahel area, specialized in biological and chemical weapons are known to exist. Many African nations have put their national interests aside to counter cross border Islamist or criminal threats. In late September 2010, Algeria set up a regional intelligence center in Algiers, bringing together the countries of the region to fight against militant groups, including CBRN trafficking. Similar centers around the continent exist like Kenya’s common intelligence centre in Nairobi used for joint training on investigation skills and on ways to protect borders. The center also is used to monitor and address threats posed by militant groups in Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and South Sudan. A more recent regional intelligence center, similar to Kenya’s, was established in Kampla, Uganda, which is supported by the African Union and seeks to prevent possible attacks by militant groups.

Another concern the Centers and domestic African intelligence agencies are investigating is the recruitment of African youth by Islamist groups.  “[The Islamic State] has attracted about 5,000 Africans to join them in Iraq and Syria. Some of them are from the East Africa Community and IGAD regions”, proclaimed the African Union Commissioner for Peace Security Smail Chergui in July 2015.

Author: Scott Firsing is an adjunct professor at the University of North Carolina Wilmington

Fake Syrian passports given to ISIS members found in Greek refugee camps

Syrian passportFake Syrian passports designed for use by members of the Islamic State trying to enter Europe have been found in refugee camps in Greece during an investigation by the law enforcement agency of the European Union (EU). Officials from Europol, the EU agency that coordinates intelligence operations against organized crime across EU-member-states, said that the fake travel documents were found during a fact-finding mission in Greek refugee camps. The mission was part of a larger investigation into the production and use of forged passports by the Islamic State, the Sunni militant group that is also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

According to the Italian newspaper La Stampa, which published the claim, Europol is investigating the production and distribution of fake passports by ISIS in its strongholds of Syria and Iraq, and among refugee networks in European countries like Belgium, Austria, Italy and Greece. Greece is the most widely used route into Europe by hundreds of thousands of refugees from Syria and the rest of the Middle East, who leave their countries in hopes of migrating to the prosperous countries of Western Europe. Nearly 60,000 of them have been trapped in Greece since April, when Macedonia shut down its borders, thus preventing migrants from heading north. These people have been living in refugee camps since that time, hoping for a chance to continue the journey northwards.

But in a leading article published last weekend, La Stampa claimed that ISIS is using the refugee crisis form Syria to infiltrate Europe with militants intent on launching attacks on soft targets. The militants are supplied with false identity papers, said La Stampa, primarily fake Syrian and Iraqi passports. They then use these passports to enter Greece. Their goal is to eventually travel north to countries such as Belgium, Germany, Austria or France, and claim asylum there. La Stampa quoted one unnamed Europol official as saying that fake passports “that were destined to supposed members of ISIS” had been identified in refugee camps in Greece. It has been confirmed that at least two of the perpetrators of last November’s attacks in Paris, France, which killed over 130 people, entered the EU using forged Syrian passports. The Italian daily also noted that the reliability of Turkey, from where the vast majority of Syrian refugees entered Europe in recent years, remains fragile after the failed July 15 coup, which has altered the balance of power in that country. As a result, the EU-Turkey migrant deal may collapse “at any moment”, said the paper.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 24 August 2016 | Permalink

Analysis of the Islamic State’s ‘wedding attack’ in Gaziantep, Turkey

Gaziantep, TurkeySaturday’s suicide bombing, which killed over 50 and injured dozens at a wedding in Gaziantep, Turkey, was without doubt the work of the Islamic State. It was yet another attempt by the militant Sunni group to discourage the Kurds from confronting it in battle, by pointing to the deadly consequences. It was also fueled by the desire for vengeance against a population that has consistently resisted the Islamic State’s ideology. Additionally, if confirmed, the use of a child as a suicide bomber by the Islamic State may form a pattern of operational activity that can lead to broader conclusions about the current state of the organization.

It has become increasingly clear in the past two years that the armed Kurdish groups in northern Syria and Iraq, as well as Kurdish peshmerga units based in Turkey, are some of the most formidable opponents of militant Jihadists on the ground. By bombing soft targets inside Turkey, the Islamic State is sending a message to the Kurds that armed opposition on the ground will carry a heavy cost at home. Contrary to initial impressions, there was nothing special about the particular wedding ceremony that was targeted on Saturday. Any wedding would have been suitable for the Islamic State’s purpose. In fact, the randomness of the attack increases its shock value by demonstrating to the local population that any activity can be attacked, even if it does not involve notables. Additionally, the specific choice of a wedding magnifies the brutality of the attack, by targeting a young couple on what is typically the happiest day of their lives. The high concentration of children among the casualties may indicate that the bomber was given specific operational instructions to attack younger participants. The clear warning here is that the disruption will leave nothing untouched –including something as ‘off-limits’ as a couple on their wedding day, or groups of children– if the Kurds continue to fight the Islamic State.

Moreover, the Islamic State is trying to widen the already deep division between the Turkish state and the Kurds, by exposing the inability of the government in Ankara to protect its Kurdish population from attacks. The Kurds already resent Turkey’s ‘soft policy’ on the Islamic State. They and the rest of the world can see that Ankara has typically viewed the government of Bashar al-Assad in Damascus as far more threatening than the continuing rise of Islamist fundamentalism. Since the failed July 15 coup, the Turkish state has begun to revise its soft stance on the Islamic State, but this comes too late to pacify the country’s infuriated Kurdish population. This latest attack will only intensify the deep anger felt by the Kurds against the Turkish state.

Initial reports indicate the possible use of a child or a teenager to carry out the Gaziantep bombing. These may or may not be accurate. They could easily be an attempt by the Kurds to further-incense international public opinion against the Islamic State. If the reports are accurate, they do not necessarily represent some sort of break from the traditional tactics of the Islamic State. According to the group’s war-fighting doctrine, there is no differentiation between men and children when it comes to what it sees as the defense of Sunni religious doctrine. Every Muslim, regardless of race, gender, or age, is required to engage in holy war. Indeed, the Islamic State has deployed children before, in warfare, executions and suicide bombings against both hard and soft targets. However, even though the use of a child to carry out the Gaziantep bombing is not in itself unique, or particularly important, it matters if it forms part of a broader pattern. If it is verified that ISIS is increasingly using children in suicide bombings, or in warfare, it may signify two things: first, that the organization is finding it difficult to recruit able-bodied men for missions. Second, that adult ISIS recruits are becoming scarcer, so the organization is trying to preserve them for decisive battles.

It may be, of course, that a child or younger teenager was selected in order to avoid security profiling by the Kurds. Still, the use of children in warfare or suicide missions can result in a large degree of unpredictability. Children may be relatively easy targets for recruiters, for the obvious reason that they are young and impressionable. Their reality can therefore be effectively altered by fantastical tales of the supernatural, which the Islamic State is very skilled at. However, children are not necessarily very dependable in war, or terrorism. They can be easily frightened, can change their mind at the last minute, and they do not stay calm under pressure. There are several recent examples of children or teenagers who were recruited for suicide operations but surrendered after changing their mind.

Ultimately, shocking massacres such as Saturday’s attack in Gaziantep cannot be prevented. They can only be limited through careful police and intelligence work. In the case of Turkey, however, this will be difficult. The country’s police, intelligence and military structures have been significantly weakened following the failed July 15 coup. Thousands of government officials, police officers, intelligence and military personnel have been fired, demoted or imprisoned. The state, which is becoming increasingly synonymous with the President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s AKP party, is too preoccupied with preserving its own stability to concentrate on combating the terrorist spillover from Syria.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 23 August 2016 | Permalink

US Congressional probe finds DoD intelligence on Islamic State was altered

ISISAn investigation by Republican lawmakers in the United States House of Representatives has reportedly found that military intelligence analysts were pressured into changing reports on the Islamic State by their superiors. The investigation follows allegations made a year ago by analysts at the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), the Pentagon’s primary human-intelligence agency. As many as 50 analysts claimed that their reports about the Islamic State were being deliberately tweaked by officials at the US Central Command (CENTCOM), the Pentagon body that directs and coordinates American military operations in Egypt, the Middle East and Central Asia. Some of the reports related to al-Qaeda activity in Iraq and Syria, but most were about the Islamic State, the militant Sunni organization that controls large swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria.

The allegations prompted two separate investigations, one by the Department of Defense and one by a task force consisting of Republican members of three committees in the US House of Representatives —namely the Committee on Armed Services, the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, and the Defense Subcommittee of the Committee on Appropriations. According to The Daily Beast, the committees have now concluded their five-month investigation and are preparing to release a 10-page report before the end of August. Citing three unnamed US officials, the website claims that the soon-to-be-released report will corroborate claims by DIA analysts that their intelligence reports were deliberately doctored in order to make American efforts against ISIS seem more successful than they have been.

According to the three officials, who are reportedly “familiar with the task force’s findings”, the 10-page document will not corroborate claims that the pressure on the intelligence analysts was exercised by senior sources inside the White House. But they told the website that the Congressional investigation could continue after the release of the report. The Daily Beast said it contacted CENTCOM for a comment on the story, but was told that the Pentagon body has yet to receive the task force report. Meanwhile, the Pentagon’s own investigation into the analysts’ allegations continues and expected to release its findings by the end of 2016.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 11 August 2016 | Permalink