June 5, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: Spying on the Islamic State

• The recent coalition airstrike against a ‘car bomb factory’ operated by the so-called Islamic State in Hawijah, Iraq suggests improving tactical intelligence against the terrorist group

• The U.S. Special Forces raid in Syria that killed Abu Sayyaf, a mid-level Islamic State official linked to oil and hostages, further demonstrates that the group is vulnerable to the full spectrum of intelligence gathering

• Social media activity by Islamic State members in Iraq and Syria also provides valuable intelligence

• Earlier this week, U.S. military officials announced an airstrike that destroyed a command center in Syria was based on a photograph posted on Twitter by an Islamic State member.


The so-called Islamic State is having a harder time keeping its secrets. While much of the recent news concerning the Islamic State has been bad, with its seizure of Ramadi in Iraq and Palmyra in Syria, there have been several notable accomplishments that suggest an improving intelligence picture against the group. Gaps certainly remain in the coalition’s intelligence picture of the Islamic State—missing the Ramadi offensive shows its serious limits—but in both Syria and Iraq the coalition appears to be gaining insight into different aspects of the group.

On June 3, a U.S. airstrike destroyed what officials described as the largest car bomb factory for the Islamic State in either Iraq or Syria. Given how devastating the group’s use of car bombs has been in recent months, destroying the factory in Hawijah, Iraq, is a significant accomplishment. The explosion, which was heard 34 miles away in Kirkuk, destroyed armored troop carriers and tanks—a serious dent in the group’s ability to deploy massive and heavily armored car bombs. Such a strike indicates that the coalition had developed an accurate and timely picture of the factory in the Islamic State-held town. Whether through imagery, pattern analysis, or human intelligence—or a combination of all three—the coalition was able to put together a target package with significant tactical success.

Earlier in May, U.S. officials provided details on a special forces raid in Syria that killed mid-level Islamic State official Abu Sayyaf, reported to be involved with the group’s oil and hostage activities. This was the first (or the first publicly announced) non-hostage rescue raid by U.S. forces into Syria—one that would only be authorized on the basis of accurate and timely intelligence. Along with capturing the wife of Abu Sayyaf, U.S. military personnel seized laptops and documents, all laden with valuable intelligence. Furthermore, the knowledge that U.S. officials had enough accurate information to launch a raid undoubtedly foments tension and suspicion within the group.

There are understandable concerns as to the momentum of the coalition’s overall goals against the Islamic State, but building a full-spectrum intelligence picture takes time, and human intelligence takes the longest to develop as it is by nature the riskiest. The Iraqi security forces have had some success locating several high-level Islamic State officials—though in the larger scheme of things these successes aren’t game changers and several reports from the Iraqi government of high-profile Islamic State deaths have turned out to be inaccurate.

The Islamic State has gained great notoriety for its use of social media, in terms of both propaganda and recruitment. Social media exposure, however, cuts both ways. Last fall the Islamic State put out an order to its members forbidding them to photograph attacks and locations. They also put out a handbook on how to scrub cellphone images of geo- and metadata information, trying to limit the risk of inadvertent discovery while still gaining from the propaganda. In Mosul, the Islamic State has consistently worked to shut down social media for the city's one million residents, and often arrests or beats people found using cellphones.

As with any large, porous organization, someone didn’t get the memo about geolocating and social media. This week, the U.S. military announced the destruction of a command and control building in Syria. According to U.S. officials, the target package originated with a photograph posted on Twitter of an Islamic State member in front of a building; other tweets also mentioned the same building. It was less than 24 hours from tweet to airstrike, demonstrating the power of social media in a way the Islamic State certainly didn’t intend.

The longer the Islamic State attempts to portray itself as a state, the more it exposes itself to the traditional intelligence gathering tools used against states. The group can’t bring its operations too far underground because it needs to be seen as a functioning caliphate. Its overt and large presence across two countries presents numerous vectors for intelligence gathering. The intelligence picture will continue to improve, though it remains to be seen what can be done with it to create lasting positive change.


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