February 5, 2016

TSG IntelBrief: The Islamic State’s Spy Problem

• On February 4, 2016, the Islamic State released images depicting the murders of two accused spies in the Sinai Peninsula, the latest in a recent string of publicized executions in its four strongholds

• On February 3, the group released images of two men being executed for espionage in Sirte, Libya

• With increased airstrikes against the group in Iraq and Syria—and likely soon in Libya—the Islamic State is terrified of spies providing crucial targeting details not available through technical means

• As strikes increase with better targeting, the Islamic State could begin to tear itself apart, a positive instance of collateral damage.


The so-called Islamic State has a spy problem. In recent weeks, the Islamic State has released images of its fighters executing suspected spies in Syria, Iraq, Egypt, and Libya. Though the executions are designed to terrify the local population, they also demonstrate that the group is shaken by that same population’s ability to provide accurate intelligence to the various militaries targeting it.

On February 4, 2016, the Islamic State wilayah in the Sinai released photographs of its fighters beheading two men accused of providing information to Egyptian intelligence services. The group has weathered increased military action by the Egyptian government over the last year, claiming responsibility for two January 28 bombings that killed four and wounded at least 12 in the Sinai. The Islamic State in the Sinai—and its previous iteration, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis—has long targeted police and military personnel, as well as individuals suspected of spying for the government, or even for Mossad. Since the November 2015 bombing that brought down a Russian passenger jet—an attack the Islamic State is believed to have carried out—the group is certainly the focus of increased intelligence and counterterrorism operations on the part of the Egyptian government. 

On February 3, the Islamic State’s wilayah in Sirte, Libya, released images of its fighters executing two alleged spies. The dramatic rise of the Islamic State in Libya—U.S. officials now estimate that the group’s fighters in the country number between 5,000 and 6,500—has the United States and other countries considering some form of military intervention. Any such intervention would require local intelligence about the Islamic State’s locations and capabilities. Ever since it took control of Sirte in May, the Islamic State has staged high-profile executions and posthumous crucifixions; with rumors of direct foreign military intervention in the works, it is probable there will be a noticeable rise in killings of accused spies.

In the last month in both Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State has circulated videos and photographs of the executions of people suspected of spying for foreign governments. In early February, the Islamic State broadcast the executions of two suspected spies in Homs, Syria; less than a month earlier, the group released images of two prior executions for the same charge. In early January, the group released a video, believed to have been filmed in Syria, of the shooting of five men said to be spies for the British government.

In addition to the physical damage, accurate airstrikes can deliver psychological damage as well, leaving the Islamic State scrambling to determine how the planes are finding their targets. Sowing mistrust, and stoking the fear of spies behind every corner, can be a relatively effective tactic against terrorist and insurgent groups; it will not cripple a group already as paranoid as the Islamic State, but it could throw it off kilter. However, it will be the local populations that pay the price for the increased paranoia. As the Islamic State comes under more pressure in Iraq and Syria, and perhaps Libya as well, it will likely increase its tempo of executions. Locals who provide intelligence about the Islamic State do so at obvious and enormous personal risk, and those merely suspected of providing information face an identical fate. 


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