Will Dramatic Intelligence Breach Really Help the Fight Against ISIS?

A dissatisfied ISIS recruit gave Sky News a memory stick with the names of 22,000 jihadists in Syria and Iraq. But did the Islamic State decide itself to make public the names of its fighters?

Islamic State fighters in Syria.
AP

Has the Islamic State intelligence network been breached? Or did the organization, also called ISIS, decide itself to make public the names of its fighters? That is the question preoccupying global intelligence services after Sky News revealed last week that a dissatisfied ISIS recruit, Abu Hamed, had given it a memory stick with lists of names of 22,000 ISIS jihadists in Syria and Iraq.

In parallel, the Syrian opposition website Zaman Alwasl published information including various identifying details of 1,700 ISIS candidates, collected from application forms the would-be volunteers were required to fill out.

Although they date back to 2013, these lists – which German intel sources believe are authentic, and whose publication is being called a coup – constitute what may be the most important intelligence discovery the West has achieved to date in this realm.

Among other things, the information includes the names of the candidates’ families, the individual's home address, skills and educational background. The registration forms show that ISIS has a regulated, orderly recruitment process. The applicants have to declare whether their primary purpose in enlisting would be to fight, commit suicide or engage in religious activity. They are required to disclose their blood type, years of schooling, country of origin and assets at home, as well as to provide references.

The information culled is reminiscent to a great degree of that in the database established by Osama bin Laden when he was recruiting volunteers to fight the Soviet occupation in Afghanistan, an effort that later gave rise to Al-Qaida cells around the world.

Similarly, ISIS’ lists show that its volunteers hail from dozens of countries: Most, about 72 percent, are Arabs – of whom 27 percent come from Saudi Arabia and 21 percent from Tunisia, followed by Morocco and Egypt. Turks are the biggest non-Arab contingent in the militant jihadist organization.

One has to wonder if the release of these lists is a deliberate ploy by ISIS. Since the information was revealed, international intelligence and police services have been kept busy following the activists’ family members. Perhaps ISIS hoped the publication would prevent thousands of fighters from deserting and going home. Now those individuals can’t go AWOL: Their anonymity has disappeared and they are wanted people.

Another possibility is that ISIS, which is embroiled in financial difficulties, may be trying to clarify to its fighters that they have no other choice: Their identities are known and they must remain loyal.

But those assessments are probably false. The simple, correct explanation is likely that the information was stolen. An organization trying to expand its ranks of volunteers wouldn’t publish a possible staff list, deterring new volunteers and thereby shooting itself in the foot.

Whatever the reason behind the revelation, the information reflects an orderly bureaucratic structure, tight supervision and monitoring by the organization of its people, and a functional division of labor. That picture is a far cry from assessments that ISIS relies on a gangs of random volunteers, brought together in Syria and Iraq by the yearning to smite the infidel.

The candidacy forms show that candidates need references or sponsorship by spiritual leaders whom ISIS trusts. We can conclude that the group makes preparations to recruit members well before a direct military confrontation begins.

The questions about education and professional skills attest that ISIS aspires to sustain and strengthen national institutions. In addition, the question about assets remaining at home was designed to test the volunteer’s motivation: Is he joining the organization because of economic pressures, or because of ideology? The questionnaire is formulated carefully and has cross-questions designed to detect lies; it’s entirely possible that the organization tapped psychologists when drafting the forms.

Now the issue is whether these lists will help ISIS' enemies in their fight against the organization. Some of the names surely aren’t relevant anymore and even if one could lay hands on the fighters' and/or their relatives, they might not have information of value. Moreover, in contrast to the struggle against smaller terror groups, waging war on an organization of ISIS’ dimensions can’t be done in a pinpoint fashion – which is why assassinating its leaders doesn’t achieve much: There are enough alternatives within its ranks to replace them. Targeted assassination as an operational method has not proved itself either against Al-Qaida, Hamas or Hezbollah.

A more efficient method might involve drying up ISIS' logistical infrastructure, blocking its money flow and waging a ground war against concentrated forces of the organization.

The elements in Syria that could help fight ISIS are the Syrian army, the rebel militias and Hezbollah. There’s only one snag: how to forge collaboration between these three, which have each other by the throat.