While Islamic State is a shadow of the group that ruled over a third of Syria and Iraq in a Caliphate declared in 2014, hundreds of fighters are still camped in desolate areas where neither the US-led coalition nor the Syrian army, with support from Russia and Iranian-backed militias, exert full control. The Arab tribesmen in Syria seeking vengeance are now part of a growing network of tribal spies playing a significant role in the U.S. military’s campaign to further degrade the group, three Western intelligence sources and six tribal sources said. “These networks of informants are working with the Americans who are planting them everywhere,” said Yasser al Kassab, a tribal chief from the town of Gharanij in the Deir al-Zor area. “Informants from the same tribe are tipping off about their own cousins in Islamic State,” he said.
Asked about the role of tribal informants in Syria, a U.S. military official said that in the operation against Agal, the targeting was almost entirely based on human intelligence. “This is something that required a deep network in the region,” said the official, who declined to be named as he was not authorised to speak publicly about the matter.
The Western intelligence officer who confirmed the account of Agal’s assassination, and the lengthy period of tracking by tribesmen before the strike, has been briefed on tribal support for counter-insurgency activities by the US-led coalition. The US military, which has about 900 troops in northeastern Syria, said Agal was one of the group’s top five leaders and had been responsible for developing Islamic State networks outside Iraq and Syria. US Central Command said at the time that the strike against Agal followed extensive planning.
With many of Islamic State’s foreign commanders killed or detained, Syrians have become increasingly significant in its leadership, making the militants more vulnerable to penetration by fellow Syrians keen to settle scores, Western and regional intelligence sources and three senior tribal figures said. While four sources familiar with the intelligence gathering operation say money is sometimes paid for information, many informants are driven by revenge for the atrocities committed by the group at the peak of its power.
Some informants were being recruited by tribal intermediaries who were already part of the network. Others were contributing directly via a phone line set up by the coalition to receive tips, Sheitaat tribal chief Kassab said. The U.S. military officer confirmed that informants were paid but did not elaborate.
The US-financed tribal networks have penetrated Islamic State sleeper cells and compiled data on new recruits, who include fellow tribesmen in some cases, five tribal sources said. The three Western intelligence officers and a regional security official corroborated their accounts.
Many of the spies come from the Sheitaat tribe, an offshoot of Syria’s biggest tribe, the Akaidat, who fought with U.S.-backed forces to drive Islamic State from swathes of northeast Syria, taking the city of Raqqa after a long battle in 2017. “They want revenge so they resort to cooperating with their relatives to leak information and give locations of leaders of IS. They use the tribal links,” said Samer al Ahmad, an expert on jihadist groups who comes from the region.
One of the Western intelligence officers said human intelligence – as opposed to information gathered from devices such as mobile phones – was now crucial because the militants increasingly avoid means of communication prone to surveillance. “Most of the new operatives do not use mobile or gadgets that were behind the major past hits of foreign jihadists,” said the officer, who is familiar with some of the covert effort.
Such human intelligence has been “critical” in the drive to kill and detain top militants in Syria since the start of the year and played a key role in Agal’s case, the U.S. military official said. “A lot of times, human intelligence is going to complement your other forms of intelligence, information you pick up from there or from voice signals and you can supplement it. In that case it really led the collection,” the official said.
Comment: Yes, we’re still in Syria. This account about the preeminence of HUMINT in our continuing war against the jihadis has all the hallmarks of a DIA operation. If I was in charge, I wouldn’t have those 900 troops still in northeast Syria. But I would still have a few dozen Green Berets and this DIA HUMINT effort in the fight. No more. No less.
As a DIA desk officer, I briefed such a proposal for this kind of lash up to USSOCOM in a certain African country long before 9/11. If you read Colonel Lang’s memoirs, you’d know this is not a new idea. Seems we’re always reinventing the wheel.