Every victory in the war against terrorism brings with it a trove of intelligence. Almost 15 years ago, when Israeli forces moved in on Yasir Arafat’s Mukataa compound, they emerged with documentary evidence of the Palestinian chairman’s continued deep complicity in terror. No amount of diplomatic obfuscation designed to maintain the fiction that Arafat was abiding by his commitments could nullify Arafat’s signature on memos authorizing attacks or paying for operations.
The 2007 capture of a laptop in Iraq that included a database of foreign fighters and suicide bombers put to rest any debate about the complicity of Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria in attacks on both American forces and Iraqi civilians.
In 2011, Seal Team Six succeeded not only in killing Osama Bin Laden but also recovering millions of pages of documents, only a smattering of which the Obama administration has released.
As Iraqi, Iraqi Kurdish, Syrian opposition, and Turkish-backed forces continue their advance against the Islamic State, what might be learned from Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh) documents left behind? Certainly, regional intelligence services will scramble to learn about or, in some cases, cover up information detailing the Islamic State’s networks, agents, and collaborators.
The Islamic State’s intelligence operations are based in al-Bab, near the besieged Syrian town of Aleppo, according to a lengthy study by Anne Speckhard and Ahmet Yayla, respectively the director and deputy director at the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism at George Mason University, best known for their recent book, ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate.
The race to capture al-Bab is on. The Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces are seeking to seize the town, but the Turkish army wants to take it for themselves. Often, this Turkish-Kurdish competition is explained within the context of whether the Syrian Kurds will establish a Kurdish Corridor along Turkey’s long Syrian border, or whether the Turkish military will be able to prevent them. If al-Bab holds the Islamic State intelligence mother lode, then it matters who takes the town.
If Turkey seizes al-Bab, much of the intelligence—especially that which might implicate elements in the Turkish government as cooperating with the Islamic State—might be lost. If the Kurds take the town, they will seek to embarrass the Turks, but accessing documents might mean furthering relations between U.S. intelligence and a group the Turks consider to be terrorists.
During his campaign, President-elect Donald Trump repeatedly criticized the Obama administration’s handling of the fight against the Islamic State. Some of his criticism was valid, but any campaign to defeat the Islamic State must be multifaceted. The question for Trump and his new national security team is whether they have a strategy to seize and exploit the Islamic State’s intelligence center before any other group can access it. As the quip goes, possession is nine-tenths of the law. In this case, however, lives of both American servicemen and those vulnerable to future Islamic State attacks will be at stake.