News analysis

ISIS being cracked open from within

Leaking of files highlights dilemma faced by terror groups: The bigger they get, the more vulnerable they become

Intelligence officials from many nations continue to work flat out, poring over the details of personnel files containing the names, addresses and family contacts of 22,000 jihadist fighters, a treasure trove of documents which belonged to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) terrorist group.  

For never before has there been a leak on such a scale from an active terrorist organisation; what security services around the world have obtained is an unprecedented amount of information.

More importantly, the episode illustrates the dilemma faced by all terrorist movements: The bigger and better organised they get, the more vulnerable they become.

Many of the revealed ISIS personnel files are fairly old, dating back to 2013. And doubts have been raised about the authenticity of the documents, with some analysts pointing to alleged discrepancies, such as the fact that the ISIS logo appears slightly different on the covers of some documents, or that the language used in some papers is not usual.

But such criticism doesn't take account of the fact that when ISIS compiled the documents, it had just been founded and was fighting to hold on to territory. Flags flown by ISIS fighters during that period also displayed slightly different varieties of the organisation's logo, mainly because they were hand-drawn, so the alleged design discrepancies on the covers of many of the leaked files are easily explainable.

Iraqi troops pulling down the ISIS flag near Ramadi this week. Slight discrepancies in the logo in some of the terror group's leaked personnel files point to the documents being genuine. PHOTO: REUTERS

Indeed, if the files are a hoax, the one element a forger would have been meticulous in getting right is the design of the ISIS logo, so the fact that this is sometimes inconsistent actually serves as an indication that the documents are genuine.

Besides, Germany's intelligence agency has already confirmed the authenticity of documents referring to its own citizens.

Nor is the argument that the documents are fairly old that crucial, for the leaked files still offer operationally significant information.

Intelligence agencies worldwide are now able to cross-reference their own databases against the leaked files.

They will also obtain confirmation of the war-fighting nicknames that terrorists are using, a crucial element in understanding and interpreting intercepts of ISIS communications, all of which use code nicknames.

Information gaps will also be filled about who is dead and who may still be alive among the fighters. And valuable material could be gleaned about the precise dates that terrorists enrolled to fight with ISIS, and their points of entry into Iraq and Syria.

All this will be fed into computers operating sophisticated relational software packages capable of identifying patterns of recruitment and behaviour and personal relationships not apparent to human eyes.

There are other advantages that are less talked about but equally significant. Western intelligence services will get information about volunteers from other countries, especially those from North Africa - the kind of data which until now was unavailable.

And security services will also get valuable confirmation of how some of their own agents planted within ISIS have fared, especially whether they were believed to be genuine volunteers from the start.

Furthermore, since ISIS has no way of knowing just how much of its information has leaked out, it will have to reassess all its operations. It cannot be sure that the agents it sent to perpetrate murder in Europe or elsewhere in the Middle East will ever make it. And it will have to reinvent its communications networks.

The psychological blow to ISIS is also considerable. The iron rule of any organisation which tries to attract volunteers is the vow that it will do everything possible to safeguard them, and that if they are called upon to die, this won't be "in vain". But that promise is now gone: ISIS proved incapable of protecting its fighters.

It has also been made to appear stupid. One of ISIS' main sources of attraction for vulnerable youngsters was that it was seen as "cool", an organisation capable of harnessing the latest technology. Yet that has now gone: There is nothing less cool than being hacked and losing one's most secret databases. Recruitment could, therefore, be badly affected.

The entire affair serves to highlight one fundamental problem that all terrorist organisations ultimately have. As long as they are small and nimble, they are difficult to fight, but the moment they grow and become established, with bureaucracies that collect and store data, they are easily penetrated.

ISIS compiled its personnel files because it always pretended to be a state, the so-called caliphate, and wanted all the trappings of a state, including ministries and "recruitment offices".

It is now paying the price for this pretence: It is being cracked open and potentially dismantled from within.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 12, 2016, with the headline 'ISIS being cracked open from within News analysis'. Print Edition | Subscribe