There is an excellent piece in yesterday’s New York Times about a clandestine intelligence organization within IS responsible for orchestrating most of the recent terror attacks worldwide. Rather than summarize the piece myself, I copied the intro put out by the author, Rukmini Callimachi, on her twitter account. I took the liberty of editing some of the twitterese shortcuts and putting it in a format that many of us old coots find easier to read.
Good morning all, today I am publishing a piece that was weeks in the making and involved days of 3 am bedtimes. It's the story of a secretive body inside ISIS known as the Emni, which is responsible for identifying recruits for suicide attacks overseas. The story is based on over 100,000 pages of French, Belgian, German and Austrian investigative documents post-Nov 13 attacks. But the real scoop is that we got a sit-down jailhouse interview with German ISIS operative Harry Sarfo, who was recruited by the Emni. Please take the time to see the amazing video by colleagues @andrewglazer @benjaminlaffin and Derek Reich.
Among the key takeaways: ISIS is recruiting from all over Europe. Last year, they were focusing on Germany/England because network weak. As of April 2015, ISIS felt so confident of its network in France that members of Emni began laughing hysterically when discussing it. By contrast in Germany, they had tried to send operatives but all at that point had chickened out / gotten cold feet.
I have been tracking this secretive group inside ISIS ever since the Paris attacks, when we learned that commander Abaaoud was from Emni.
First credit where credit is due: Months before me, @michaeldweiss interviewed an ISIS defector who named Emni. Michael's piece was the first indication of role of body. The ”Aha" moment for me was when French interrogation records named Emni as the group behind 11/13. What we learned from jailhouse interview of Sarfo, a German recruited by Emni is that body is building global portfolio of terrorists.
Sarfo explained that head of Emni is Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, the spokesman of ISIS. He called him "The Big Man" behind attacks in Europe. Adnani's role is confirmed by interrogation records of ISIS operatives dispatched from Syria to carry out attacks. Earliest date from 2014. Among ISIS members who spoke of Adnani's role is Faiz Bouchrane, French citizen who said he was "ordered in person" by Adnani to attack. Further details come from Nicolas Moreau, an ISIS member who ran a restaurant in Raqqa and explained how Emni recruited Europeans to attack.
Outlines of the group which we glimpse through interrogation docs is fully fleshed out by Sarfo who details how Emni has different departments. There is a department "for European affairs," "for Asian affairs," and for "Arab affairs." They recruit citizens of each region to go back. Sarfo and French intelligence documents say it was Emni who trained the gunman who opened fire on the beach in Sousse, Tunisia and Bardo Museum. Sarfo says for key countries where they wish to export terror they appoint a national in Syria. There is an "emir" for Bangladesh/Indonesia. Recall how many of recent directed attacks were carried out by European jihadists with long record of petty crime? Abaaoud/Abdeslam etc? This is no accident says Sarfo. He says they look for people who have a criminal network they can tap into. In Asia, they look for ex-AQ. So the idea that they specifically tapped ex-JMB members in Bangladesh should be no surprise. That's on purpose.
Among the big revelations that Sarfo shared is system of "clean men" used by ISIS to incite terror in the West without leaving trace to IS. The idea is that ISIS has "hundreds" of operatives that have gone to ground in Europe and beyond. They radicalize new converts to Islam. The new converts are "clean" / not in database of European intelligence. These "clean men," says Sarfo are used to link with attackers. Attackers are radicalized virtually via people in Syria but the final handoff including help getting arms etc are done via "clean men.” Sarfo believes it is these "clean men" who were used to pick up pledge videos from Wurzburg, Ansbach and Normandy attackers. What his testimony suggests is that authorities should take special care when examining contacts of gunmen pledging allegiance to IS. The fact that they cannot find a direct link to ISIS may well be by design, says Sarfo.
In a comment I made after the Nice, France terror attack, I surmised that there was a very competent IS case officer who spotted, assessed, recruited, trained and tasked that angry Tunisian petty thief to drive a truck through the Bastille Day crowd. I suppose this very competent case officer was/is part of Abu Muhammad al-Adnani’s shadowy Emni organization. Clearly they have mastered all the skills of non-technical tradecraft, including courier networks, as well as the newer skills of social media. Those “old school” spy skills will not be easily countered by our employment of SIGINT and the “collect it all” mentality of building and maintaining massive databases. At great expense, I might add.
According to her NYT bio, Ms. Callimachi has done some impressive and extensive work covering Islamic extremism. I’ll definitely be reading more of her work. Her most recent NYT piece, "How a Secretive Branch of ISIS Built a Global Network of Killers," along with the film about her interview with Harry Sarfo, can be found here.
Here’s a link to the Michael Weiss piece on “Confessions of an ISIS Spy” that Ms. Callimachi referred to in her twitter intro.