By Eric Schmitt
July 27, 2016
The United States is poring over a vast trove of new intelligence about Islamic State fighters who have flowed into Syria and Iraq and some who then returned to their home countries, information that American officials say could help fight militants on the battlefield and prevent potential plotters from slipping into Europe.
American-backed Syrian Kurdish and Arab militias have seized more than 10,000 documents and 4.5 terabytes of digital data in recent weeks while fighting insurgents in Manbij in northern Syria, near the Turkish border, a major hub for Islamic State fighters entering and leaving Syria, American officials said.
An initial American review of the material offers new clues about “foreign fighters, the networks, where they’re from,” according to Brett McGurk, President Obama’s special envoy for combating the Islamic State. Other officials said the information included the fighters’ identities, countries of origin, routes into Syria and the illicit networks that recruited and ferried them to the region. Those details are being shared with allies to help stanch the flow of militants.
“We want to make sure that all that information is disseminated in a coherent way among our coalition partners,” Mr. McGurk said last week, during a meeting of foreign and defence ministers in Washington, “so that we can track the networks from the core and all the way to wherever the dots might connect, whether that is in Europe or in North Africa or Southeast Asia.”
It is the largest single trove seized in the fight against the Islamic State since Delta Force commandos raided the home of a top Islamic State financier in eastern Syria in May 2015. That operation carried off laptops, cellphones and other materials that led to airstrikes against top terrorist leaders and opened a valuable window into how the group manages its finances, brokers’ hostages for ransom and delegates duties within its self-proclaimed caliphate.
The latest seizure comes as a failed coup in Turkey has cast new doubts on that country’s ability and willingness to deploy military and other security forces to seal its long border with Syria.
Many senior Turkish officers have been detained in a post-coup crackdown, leading American officials to worry that Turkish counterterrorism efforts will be weakened.
Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter, among others, has repeatedly criticized Turkey for not doing to enough to stem the flow of fighters across its frontier. That complaint had only recently started to fade as the Turkish authorities responded to attacks in their country linked to the Islamic State.
American intelligence agencies estimate that nearly 43,000 fighters from more than 120 countries — including 250 Americans among 7,400 Westerners — have gone or tried to go to Syria and Iraq since 2011.
While Turkey’s border tightening and other intelligence and law enforcement measures have by some estimates cut in half the monthly flow into Syria and Iraq, American analysts say as many as 500 to 1,000 fighters a month are still pouring in, with hundreds of others heeding the Islamic State’s call to go to affiliates in Libya or Afghanistan instead, or remain at home and carry out attacks from there.
Earlier this month, a top United Nations official said that nearly 30,000 of those foreign fighters remained in Syria and Iraq — far more than Western intelligence agencies had estimated. The official, Jean-Paul Laborde, a United Nations assistant secretary general and head of its counterterrorism committee, told reporters in Geneva that as the Islamic State loses territory in Iraq and Syria, “we are seeing them return, not only to Europe but to all of their countries of origin, like Tunisia, Morocco.”
American military and intelligence analysts are combing through the documents and electronic data recovered in Manbij, hoping to add to their growing knowledge of the rosters of Islamic State fighters and to help identify, locate and attack fighters in Syria and Iraq.
In a speech Wednesday at Fort Bragg, N.C., Mr. Carter described Manbij as “a key transit point for external plotters threatening our homelands. And there we’re already beginning to gain and exploit intelligence that’s helping us map their networks of foreign fighters.”
Another use of the documents is, as Mr. McGurk said, to alert foreign intelligence and counterterrorism services across Europe, the Mideast and North Africa, even as a spate of terrorist attacks in France and Germany — some apparently inspired by the Islamic State — have roiled Europe.
Any information from the Manbij trove would augment the activities of a sensitive intelligence-coordination centre at a military base in Jordan called Operation Gallant Phoenix.
At the base, military, counterterrorism and law enforcement agencies from several countries use publicly available software to sift through open-source information. The Pentagon-led effort has caused turf war tensions with the C.I.A. in Jordan, but supporters of the program have prevailed, sending names and other leads back to foreign capitals for investigation.
The latest trove of documents was collected in various locations in the region around Manbij, where Syrian Kurdish and Arab fighters, backed by American Special Operations commandos, have battled Islamic State fighters at a crucial junction between the Turkish border and Raqqa, the Islamic State’s de facto capital in Syria.
“The operation in Manbij is about shutting down the main corridor from Raqqa and then out, in which some of the attackers that launched the Paris attacks we know travelled through that route,” Mr. McGurk said, referring to the Islamic State’s assault on Paris in November. “By shutting that down, you make it harder for them to kind of plan the larger-scale, kind of more coordinated attacks.”
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, based in Britain, has reported that more than 100 civilians have died in airstrikes in and around Manbij since late May, when the American-backed militias started their offensive against Islamic State fighters there.
The documents recovered in Manbij recall an American commando raid in the summer of 2007 on a suspected Qaeda safe house in the Iraqi town of Sinjar, near the Syrian border. That assault yielded documents containing information about Syrian smuggling networks used to move foreign fighters into Iraq to fight for Al Qaeda. The most significant discovery was a collection of biographical sketches that listed hometowns, dates of birth, aliases and other details for more than 700 fighters brought into Iraq since August 2006. American officials later used the information to pressure the fighters’ home countries to crack down on the flow.
American officials express confidence that the latest cache will yield similar insights.
“We are learning more about Daesh at all levels from this,” said Col. Christopher Garver, a spokesman for the United States military in Iraq, using an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State.
“We’ve learned about how they organize their governance structures to ensure they can completely control all aspects of daily life, from religious practice, to education to tax collection and management of central services.”
“We have a better understanding of how Daesh facilitates foreign fighter movements into and out of Syria and Iraq, which gives us valuable insight into stopping the flow of foreign fighters into the region,” Colonel Garver said.