Islamic State: The intelligence battle

Recent statements from Islamic State leadership suggests that Iraqi intelligence and counter-terrorism officers have managed to infiltrate the organization and caused major losses as a result, writes Abel Bari Atwan.

This is a significant development because such breakthroughs might weaken the structure of the group, cause rifts among the leaders and lead to assassinations of its senior personnel.

It is obvious that Islamic State would be the target of multiple intelligence efforts because of the unanticipated and rapid progress it has made in a few short months. All efforts are being made to halt it with and around the clock US-led airstrikes, and the fact that it is fighting on multiple fronts simultaneously may have diverted some of the focus away from all-important security matters within the organization.

We don’t know the extent of the damage caused by the Iraqi intelligence penetration as the State declines to provide further details, but we believe that the decision not to accept any Iraqi volunteers among their ranks is telling (although agents could also be hiding among the ranks of foreign Jihadists).

Al-Qaeda Central had several intelligence breakthroughs and several spies were detected and executed as AQ head of security Nasser al-Bahri relates in his memoir, ‘Guarding bin Laden: My Life in al-Qaeda.’

The most spectacular intelligence event in AQ history was when Jordanian intelligence recruited a successful doctor, Humam Khalil Mohammed Abu Mellal al-Balawi, to infiltrate AQ and assassinate Sheikh Osama bin Laden and his Deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri. The CIA also recruited Balawi but secretly he was being trained by AQ and the Taliban and, having arrived at the CIA’s Afghan HQ in Khost, he blew himself up and killed seven leading CIA personnel, including the head of the bin Laden unit who had just arrived from Langley, Virginia.

IS leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi
IS leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi

One of the field commanders of Al-Qaeda has informed us that attempts to penetrate the organization never ceased, and mostly by the Jordanian and Arab intelligence who sent spies under the guise volunteer jihadists to join its ranks. The same person said that Sheikh Osama bin Laden and his associates were able to uncover them by asking them to undertake a suicide mission at which point their fear would unmask them; they would then be interrogated, the true nature of their mission ascertained, and then executed.

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Palestinian organizations, too, have been subject to several major intelligence breakthroughs; Israeli spies even succeeded in infiltrating Yasser Arafat’s personal security detail. When Arafat heard about it, he wanted the guilty party imprisoned, not executed, but the late Salah Khalaf (Abu Iyad) insisted on his execution, and ordered the assassination team to take him to the sports city in Beirut.

Islamic Jihad also suffered an Israeli penetration, a sleeper agent was in the close company of its leader Fathi Shaqaqi and did nothing for four years until Shaqaqi traveled to Malta, where Mossad deemed it possible to execute him. The spy gave information about how he would be traveling to Malta from Tripoli where he had visited Muammar Gaddafi.

Two Mossad agents from the Mossad “Bayonet unit” gunned him down from the back of motor bikes on 26 October 1995, producing disarray within his organization since there was no likely successor.

Western and regional intelligence will be focusing all their efforts on penetrating Islamic State in order to understand how the organization is functioning and also to assassinate key leaders, perhaps even the Caliph himself, when the time is right.

Islamic State itself has a formidable intelligence apparatus, headed up by men from the spy agencies in Iraq and Syria who defected to the group. These men have trained volunteers and have in place many sophisticated operations with “listeners” everywhere and all the apparatus of the former Sadddam regime and that of President Assad; both infamous for their ruthless efficiency and violence.

The battle is now not only being fought on the ground but in terms of security and intelligence. Whose spies will perform the best? We have yet to see.

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