Intelligence: Lessons Unlearned And Exploited


December 27, 2016: The fondness of electronic record keeping by Islamic terrorist leaders since 2001 was quickly exploited by the West, especially the United States. As early as 2004 in Iraq the Americans trained their troops to carefully search Islamic terrorist hideouts, especially those used by leaders, for electronic data. Laptops, desktops and increasingly smartphones were found to contain a wealth of data on membership and operation of Islamic terrorist groups. The U.S. intel analysts also noted details like significant changes in the origins and types of recruits attracted to al Qaeda and, after 2013, ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant). The United States has begun releasing details of some of these trends.

For example, in Iraq some 58 percent of recruits between 2004 and 2008 were willing to kill themselves to win, usually as a suicide bomber. In contrast between 2013 and 2015 only 11 percent of ISIL recruits were eager to get killed for the cause, about half as suicide bombers and half as “suicide fighters” who preferred to fight to the death. Thus 89 percent of ISIL recruits (whose average age was 31) did not join with the intention of dying quickly for the cause. In contrast al Qaeda recruits in Iraq were much younger (average age 21). Another difference was the reduced prominence of recruits from Saudi Arabia. In Iraq through 2008 some 40 percent were Saudi while five years later for ISIL this was only 19 percent and fewer of them were coming from Saudi Arabia itself. Nearly half the Saudi ISIL recruits lived outside Saudi Arabia when they decided to go join ISIL. This accounts for the larger number of more experienced fighters ISIL was able to deploy and the ISIL desire to conquer territory and populate it with loyal fighters and their families. In short ISIL learned from the errors of al Qaeda made earlier in Iraq and issued a more populist recruiting message.

The current offensive against ISIL in Iraq has yielded so many electronic records that the U.S. military has been openly seeking to recruit a lot more analysts who can read Arabic and assist in translating this data for analysis. Part of this super-abundance of captured data comes from was the fact that ISIL attracted more people and controlled more territory than al Qaeda. ISIL also collected more information on recruits.

These trends may have something to do with the fact that al Qaeda began in the 1980s as an organization that used technology and modern business methods to create and operate a more efficient Islamic terrorist organization. Another factor was that the U.S. has Kurdish allies in Syria and some American Special Forces there to help with air support and intelligence collection. The U.S. also learned to concentrate raids by special operations troops on data rich targets, like key leaders in the ISIL bureaucracy.

There was another trend at work here. Many ISIL leaders began as a part of a disobedient al Qaeda faction back in 2004. Americans who served during the 2004-8 campaign to destroy ISILs predecessor the ISI (Islamic State of Iraq) could see what was going on here. ISI was one of many Sunni Islamic terrorist groups operating in Iraq back then. Like the others by 2010 ISI was nearly destroyed due to U.S. efforts, especially getting many Sunni tribes to turn against the Islamic terrorist groups. ISIL is led by many ISI veterans and they are making a lot of the same mistakes that doomed them a decade ago. One failing is the desire to keep lots of records. Many ISI and ISIL leaders were Saddam era bureaucrats and they knew that careful and extensive record keeping made it easier to run a large organization. This helped the remnants of ISI to survive until U.S. forces left in 2011. As expected the Iraqi government failed to follow U.S. advice to take good care of the Sunni tribes, if only to keep the tribes from again supporting the Islamic terrorist groups. Instead the Shia led government turned against the Sunni population and stopped providing government jobs and regular pay for many of the Sunni tribal militias. Naturally many Sunni Arabs went back to supporting terror groups, especially very violent ones like ISI. After 2011, as the Iraqi Shia were turning on the Sunni Arab minority, there was a rebellion against a minority Shia government in Syria, led by the Sunni Arab majority there. The Sunni tribes of western Iraq were linked by culture and sometimes family links with the Sunni tribes of eastern Syria. The rebellion in Syria got ISI thinking about forming a new Islamic Sunni state out of eastern Syria, western Iraq, Baghdad (historically the seat of Sunni power in the area, despite it now being half Shia) and Mosul. Actually this plan also included Lebanon (the “Levant”) and all of Iraq, but this was kept quiet initially. This decision had ISI spending a lot more time and effort recruiting in western Iraq after 2011. Many ISIL leaders had done the math and realized that there was enough wealth and corrupt businessmen in the region to make it work. But only if the victims weren’t equally efficient in organizing counter moves. This included rapidly analyzing captured ISIL data and using that to take down ISIL faster than ISI.




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