JUNE 8, 2015
A Raid on ISIS Yields a Trove of Intelligence
By ERIC SCHMITT
WASHINGTON -- American intelligence agencies have extracted valuable information about the Islamic State's leadership structure, financial operations and security measures by analyzing materials seized during a Delta Force commando raid last month that killed a leader of the terrorist group in eastern Syria, according to United States officials.
The information harvested from the laptops, cellphones and other materials recovered from the raid on May 16 has already helped the United States identify, locate and carry out an airstrike against another Islamic State leader in eastern Syria, on May 31. American officials expressed confidence that an influential lieutenant, Abu Hamid, was killed in the attack, but the Islamic State, which remains resilient, has not yet confirmed his death.
New insights yielded by the seized trove -- four to seven terabytes of data, according to one official -- include how the organization's shadowy leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, operates and tries to avoid being tracked by coalition forces.
Mr. Baghdadi meets periodically with regional emirs, or leaders, at his headquarters in Raqqa in eastern Syria. To ensure his safety, specially entrusted drivers pick up each of the emirs and demand that they hand over their cellphones and any other electronic devices to avoid inadvertently disclosing their location through tracking by American intelligence, the officials said.
Wives of the top Islamic State leaders, including Mr. Baghdadi's, play a more important role than previously known, passing information to one another, and then to their spouses, in an effort to avoid electronic intercepts.
"I'll just say from that raid we're learning quite a bit that we did not know before," a senior State Department official told reporters in a telephone briefing last week. "Every single day the picture becomes clearer of what this organization is, how sophisticated it is, how global it is and how networked it is."
But the allied effort to defeat the organization still faces daunting challenges. With thousands of Islamist militant fighters in Syria and Iraq seizing new territory faster than the international coalition arrayed against them can push them back, a meeting in Paris by coalition members last Tuesday seemed unlikely to reverse the momentum anytime soon.
The group of 24 ministers did not embrace any major changes and appeared set to continue on its present course, even though over the past few weeks Syria's government lost control of the strategically important city of Palmyra and the Iraqi government lost control of Ramadi, the capital of Anbar Province, to the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, ISIL or Daesh, its Arabic acronym.
And American counterterrorism officials acknowledge that questions remained about how effectively even this trove of materials can be exploited, given the nature of the Islamic State's secrecy and ability to adapt.
"Daesh remains extremely resilient, ruthless, and capable of taking the initiative," Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken said at the conference.
The raid on the multistory residence of Abu Sayyaf, described by American officials as the group's top financial officer, illustrates that American intelligence on Islamic State leaders is improving. At least one informant deep inside the group played a crucial role in helping track Abu Sayyaf, said a senior military official who was briefed on plans for the raid.
Abu Sayyaf's wife, Umm Sayyaf, who was captured in the operation, has also provided information to investigators, one senior American official said.
Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter said last month that the killing of Abu Sayyaf dealt a "significant blow" to the group. The militant leader was said to be involved in the Islamic State's kidnap-for-ransom activities and helped direct its oil, gas and financial operations that raised the funds necessary for the organization to operate.
Since the raid, senior administration officials and top military officers have dropped only broad hints about the value of the materials that were scooped up in the predawn operation, which was carried out after weeks of surveillance from satellite imagery, drone reconnaissance and electronic eavesdropping, American officials said.
"In the recent raid on Abu Sayyaf, we collected substantial information on Daesh financial operations," John R. Allen, the retired general who now serves as the diplomatic envoy coordinating the coalition against the Islamic State, told a conference in Qatar on Wednesday. "And we're gaining a much clearer understanding of Daesh's organization and business enterprise."
At the Pentagon on Friday, Lt. Gen. John Hesterman III, the top allied air commander, told reporters by phone from his headquarters in Qatar that "there is a whole bunch of targeting that is opening up here, as we gain and learn more about this enemy." He did not specifically refer to the raid.
Against this backdrop, five senior American officials provided additional details about the materials recovered from the house of Abu Sayyaf, a nom de guerre for a Tunisian militant whom American authorities have since identified as Fathi ben Awn ben Jildi Murad al-Tunisi. But these officials did so only on the condition of anonymity to discuss confidential intelligence assessments.
These officials described details they said would not necessarily provide any advantage to the Islamic State, and might even sow fear in their ranks that the United States and its allies were beginning to crack their shield of secrecy.
Over the past decade in Iraq and Afghanistan, the American military and intelligence agencies have developed vast expertise in analyzing materials seized in commando raids, sometimes quickly enough to generate new raids within a matter of hours.
"We've gotten very good at document exploitation," said Matthew Levitt, a former Treasury Department official who is director of the Stein Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "Once they grab a computer and comb the drives, this moves very quickly."
Within two weeks of the raid, American officials were able to use information gathered from the materials to attack Abu Hamid in the vicinity of Ash Shaddadi, near Hasakah in northeast Syria. American officials described him as the emir of Shariah and tribal affairs.
The materials also revealed new details about how the Islamic State has allocated revenue from oil production. About half goes to the group's general operating budget; the remainder is split roughly between maintaining the oil-field production facilities and for salaries to the workers, American officials said.
These workers, once thought possibly to be conscripted locals, are now believed to be salaried Islamic State employees, thus making them legitimate targets, officials said.
American counterterrorism analysts have learned new information about the Islamic State's hierarchy. One leader, Fadel al-Hayali, also known as Abu Mu'taz, who had been believed to be the head of the Islamic State's military council, appears to have played an even more important role than previously known.
Abu Mu'taz, a former lieutenant colonel in the Iraqi military intelligence agency of President Saddam Hussein, led the council of six to nine military commanders who directed the Islamic State's military strategy, according to Laith Alkhouri, a senior analyst at Flashpoint Global Partners, a security consulting firm that tracks militant websites.
The military council has a subgroup known as the Security Council, which is in charge of leading Islamic State assassinations, kidnappings, interrogations and other attacks, Mr. Alkhouri said. There were reports in November 2014 and again in February that Abu Mu'taz died in coalition airstrikes but the Islamic State never put out a confirmation, he said.
Although Abu Sayyaf himself was not well known, he was important as much for who and what he knew about the Islamic State's hierarchy and operations as for his actual job, American officials and independent analysts said.
"Considering Abu Sayyaf's role, he presumably would have been familiar, and in contact, with Abu Mu'taz, possibly as the point of contact to the central leadership," Mr. Alkhouri said. "Abu Sayyaf's role as financing man is important because he managed large amounts of money; funds that the central leadership would want to keep tabs on."