“Tribal spies in Syria help U.S. win drone war against Islamic State” – TTG

DELIL SOULEIMAN / AFPA member of the Sheitaat tribe poses for a picture in the village of Baghouz, eastern Syria, on January 27, 2019.

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.


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20 Responses to “Tribal spies in Syria help U.S. win drone war against Islamic State” – TTG

  1. james ticehurst.. says:

    Interesting for Other areas on Interest..There are some unverified News Reports Circulating That V Putin is Developing A Closer Relationship with The Saudis..
    Increased activity In Armenia..Irans In Play..Gulf Oils in Play..

    Oh..And Drones..Many Reports all Over The Net That Many Black Light Absorbing Wedge Shaped UFOs..Observed Flying Over Kyiv By Thier National Observatory..
    and That Zelinsky was in a Minor Car Wreck..Tinker Tinker..

    • TTG says:

      james ticehurst,

      The Saudis are buying a lot of Russian oil to run their own power plants. Don’t know if they’re getting the discount.

    • Polish Janitor says:

      I feel the same too. Many events now happening out of the blue. I can feel there’s something about to happen, I think most likely in the context of the Ukraine war.
      Regarding the Armenia-Az. there have been similar short-lived skirmishes especially during the late summer and early fall, apparently The Azeri life-President Elham Aliev enjoys launching these skirmishes to rally domestic support as long as the borders don’t change and Iran is not provoked. Turkey supports it too. Russia is both busy and doesn’t have time to give it attention. The Arabs and Russians have always maintained cordial relationship especially post-9/11 and there’s some anti-terror cooperation angle to it too which suits both side.

      • kodlu says:

        The Armenian side keeps signing agreements they don’t keep, e.g., the Zangezur corridor, and having lost the previous battlefield engagement, so Azerbaijan is pressing their advantage. After all, Armenia/Artashk still occupies part of internationally recognised Azeri territory.

        What is more interesting is that Pashinyan was ready to compromise and settle things, but he is under pressure from all quarters. US and France are unhappy about being shut out as co-chairs of the ridiculous Minsk process which achieved a big fat zero during 30 years of Armenian occupation of Azeri territory. There is enough blame to go around but with the Armenian diaspora so strong in US and France, the knee-jerk reaction of all US congressmen, for example, is to support Armenia come what may.

        Yes, Putin is busy elsewhere, and Azerbaijan is pushing its advantage but everything is on a knife edge, in a number of flashpoints around the world. The problem is, I don’t trust the current crop of leaders, from Erdogan all the way to Biden via Putin and Truss and Soltz and Macron to navigate through this mess.

        • cobo says:

          Perhaps the fact that the current crop of leaders cannot be trusted is the clue that all this needs to go down. They will be caught in the maelstrom of their own making. The art of military leadership will deliver the future. And what might that mean…

  2. jim ticehurst.. says:

    Why buy Russian Oil..Saudi Land..Oh.Hedging your Bets…Helping Finance Putins
    Needs ..and Pay His Debts…The Gulf Appears to Be Everyones End Game..East and West..

    Very Good Report…Armenia and Azerbaijan……. War In The Wall Street Journal..
    .Sept 13,2o22..By Jared Malsin..
    Header.”.Clashes Test Russias Support” Long Story Good Data..

  3. Leith says:

    I can understand the revenge of the al-Shaitaat. Back in 2014 ISIS massacred 900 of them. Beheading and crucifixion for the tribesmen, shelling killed the women and children. Some bodies were left where they died for a year or two as a warning to others to accept ISIS rule. The survivors spent three years under the ISIS boot before being liberated by the SDF in 2017/2018.

    But they live mainly on the other side of Syria in the eastern reaches of Deir ez-Zor province. That is a long way from Jindires near where al-Agal was killed by a CentCom drone strike. Several other ISIS leaders were also killed in Afrin or al-Bab in Syria’s NW. So a Shaitaat source may have tipped off their movements also? If so they perhaps have a source inside or close to the highest levels of ISIS. Why out the potential source now? Let’s hope he or she came in from the cold.

    That area was formerly known by the Kurds as Afrin Canton. So I had suspected (wrongly if this article is true) that the HUMINT that pinpointed Agal and the others was from an undercover Kurdish YPG operative.

    • TTG says:


      HUMINT operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and now Syria underwent a major transformation after 9/11. DoD ran military source operations (MSO) in theater under authorities never higher than USD(I). We ran a lot more sources and subsources often for shorter periods of time. With this system in place, losing a source, even a valuable source, would seldom collapse the collection effort.

      This came out just as I left DIA.


  4. powderfinger1 says:

    I guess ISIS forgot that payback is a MF.

  5. Polish Janitor says:

    My first reaction to this piece was, why not use the Kurdish SDF who are more experienced and better-trained and better-integrated in terms of its long-standing cooperation with the Coalition forces? Moreover, isn’t Deir-ez-Zor largely administrated by the Kurdish SDF? Wouldn’t it create some sort of ‘friction’ between the Shaitat tribe and the Kurds there?

    I’m skeptical of the exclusively HUMINT nature of this partnership. I think this tribe is also directly engaged in fighting IS in the area (or fighting as mercs for the Coalition forces).

    • Pat Lang says:

      Clan HUMINNT assets have to be used in contexts where they are not out of place. If you want the assets to talk to the targets rather than just reconnoiter, this id always true.

    • Leith says:

      PJ –

      The al-Shaitaat tribe is part of the SDF. A Kurdish YPG general is the military commander, but the SDF is an alliance. It includes many Arab tribes, Assyrians, Armenians, and even some smaller ethnic groups.

      • Polish Janitor says:

        I am aware of the ethnic pluralism of the DSF, however I did not know that there was an alliance between a large Arab tribe and the Kurds in Deir-ez-Zor. Thank you for the clarification.

        • Leith says:

          PJ –

          That alliance is undoubtedly just those of the al-Shaitaat tribe on the north side of the Euphrates. Any tribal members south of the river would be controlled by the Syrian government. Which brings up interesting questions about tribal loyalties.

    • TTG says:

      Polish Janitor,

      All those reasons you list for using Kurdish SDF are the reasons you would want to use some other group as HUMINT sources. The gold ring of HUMINT operations is someone deep within the enemy’s intel service or military command structure. Those sources will not be among close and well known allies.

      I’m sure the Shaitaat do not limit their involvement to HUMINT. They will gladly kill a jihadi bastard when presented with the opportunity. I’m sure that there are Shaitaat fathers and even mothers who would gleefully slow roast a jihadi out of vengeance.

      • Polish Janitor says:

        I understand the situation now. Nonetheless, my instinct was to go to the SDF to do what they’re good at, i.e. the local anti-IS ops and since I based my assumption that it must be more than just HUMINT that these tribesmen are involved in cooperation with the Coalition forces (due to the bloody history of the IS butchering of the tribe members in the past) then it would be a no-brainer to delegate the SDF to carry the HUMINT (and more) out.

  6. Serge says:

    These strikes are not happening in the ” desolate areas where neither the US-led coalition nor the Syrian army, with support from Russia and Iranian-backed militias, exert full control.”, though. From my understanding the US has not conducted drone or airstrikes in this area(west of the Euphrates) in years. The strikes are happening in the SDF controlled areas where there are sleeper cells. The groups active in the Syrian desert west of the Euphrates are not sleeper cells.

  7. gordon reed says:

    Wouldn’t the the Syrian army the Russians and the Iranians be able to wipe out ISIS quickly? It seems like we are in Syria for regime change purposes and at the behest of the Israelis.

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