ISIS militants fleeing Syria leave behind a valuable trove of intelligence
By JIM MICHAELS | USA Today (Tribune News Service) | Published: January 12, 2018
Islamic State militants fleeing strongholds in Syria are leaving behind a trove of records detailing everything from the terror group’s finances to personnel documents on individual fighters.
“Their record keeping is phenomenal,” Maj. Gen. James Jarrard told USA Today in an interview from Baghdad.
The Islamic State, also called ISIS, kept meticulous records, including directives and orders marked with official stamps.
Over the past three years, the coalition and local forces have seized “hundreds of terabytes” of data from ISIS computers and storage devices in northern Syria, where U.S.-backed forces are operating, according to the coalition headquarters.
Each terabyte can hold more than 80 million pages of Microsoft Word documents.
“We did learn a lot about their organizational structure, how they communicated, how they facilitated personnel and finances,” Jarrard said.
“It is a very detail oriented book keeping organization (with) tremendous amount of details on every individual,” Jarrard said. The records include a “laundry list of individuals that have moved into Syria and Iraq,” he said.
The information has allowed the coalition to target the group’s top leaders. “The most valuable stuff that we look for immediately is the connections, the understanding of the organization’s construct so we can focus our targeting efforts,” Jarrard said.
The Pentagon said it has killed many of the group's most senior officials, though the top leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, remains at large.
Analysts also use the intelligence to paint a broader picture of how ISIS functioned.
At its peak, Islamic State earned about $50 million a month from oil revenues and had another $500 million it had looted from banks in areas it controlled. In 2014 it swept into Iraq from Syria, capturing large swaths of territory, including Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city.
At the time it appeared invincible, drawing fighters from around the world to its self-proclaimed caliphate in Syria and Iraq.
Today, Islamic State has lost 98 percent of the territory it once controlled, according to the coalition. Pockets of militants have fled to remote areas, including villages along the Euphrates River Valley, stretching between Iraq and Syria. Revenues have been depleted.
“They are struggling for cash in some areas,” Jarrard said. “They’re telling folks no when they request money and resources.”
Jarrard, who commands the Special Operations Joint Task Force in Iraq and Syria, said it will take at least a few more weeks to finish eliminating the caliphate.
“That doesn’t mean the war is over,” he said. “We will have to continue to maintain that pressure.”
Much of the intelligence data was captured when U.S.-backed forces pushed militants out of Raqqa, Islamic State’s global capital, in October. The organization was controlled from the city in northeast Syria.
The Syrian Democratic Forces, a U.S.-backed coalition of Arab and Kurdish fighters, generally turn over laptops and other potential intelligence to U.S. forces who are supporting the local troops with airstrikes and other assistance.
The United States has about 2,000 troops in Syria, including advisers and other personnel backing the local forces, according to the Pentagon.
The intelligence could provide the U.S. military and other agencies with evidence of how ISIS will attempt to survive once it is completely expelled from the territory it controls.
“It could give us template or model of how ISIS may try to resurge,” said Jennifer Cafarella, an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War.
The intelligence so far suggests that ISIS is focused on trying to stay alive and has not issued orders about shifting tactics or strategy.
Even if pockets do survive, reviving the terror group will not be easy. With the collapse of its caliphate the Islamic State has also lost the luster that attracted fighters to its ranks when it controlled major cities and was growing in size and influence.
“What made it global was the brand name and the resources that it provided,” Jarrard said. “The brand name is fairly diminished. The resources are not necessarily there.”
Still, terror groups like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State have been resilient and their ideology remains attractive to thousands of people.
Some analysts say the U.S. strategy of focusing on the Islamic State’s territory, or physical caliphate, has caused it to overlook the group’s ability to establish a shadowy network capable of pulling off terror attacks around the world.
“There is a tendency to focus on the visible manifestation of ISIS control,” said Jennifer Cafarella, an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War. “There has been less attention on who it is that is pulling off this global scale of operations.”