Monday, November 10, 2014

Spies in the Land

It's been a rough week for key members of the terrorist networks in Syria and Iraq.

Last Wednesday, a U.S. airstrike successfully targeted David Drugeon, the French defector who had emerged as one of the leading bomb makers for Khorasan Group, a collection of Al Qaida veterans who are now fighting in Syria.  More from the Long War Journal:

Video surfaced on Facebook late Nov. 5 alleging to show the aftermath of a United States airstrike in Idlib. A number of recent airstrikes, as we now know, were targeting the Khorasan Group, a collection of al Qaeda veterans embedded within the Al Nusrah Front.

US Central Command announced that "US military forces conducted airstrikes last night against five Khorasan Group targets in the vicinity of Sarmada, Syria, using bomber, fighter and remotely piloted aircraft" in a press release yesterday.

"We are still assessing the outcome of the attack, but have initial indications that it resulted in the intended effects by striking terrorists and destroying or severely damaging several Khorasan Group vehicles and buildings assessed to be meeting and staging areas, IED-making facilities and training facilities," the release continued.

Fox News reported that David Drugeon, a French defector to al Qaeda and a master bomb maker, was targeted in the airstrikes. 

"The drone struck a vehicle traveling in Syria's Idlib province that was believed to be carrying Drugeon. The driver of the vehicle is thought to have lost a leg and was expected to die, according to sources with knowledge of the operation. A second person thought to be Drugeon was killed, according to well-placed military sources," Fox News reported.

Drugeon was considered a particularly high-value target due to his advanced skills with explosives.  Intelligence officials claim he had perfected a technique for dipping clothing into explosive material, allowing wearers to pass undetected through airport security checkpoints and other screening measures. 

As the Long War Journal notes, the attack on Drugeon's car was carried out with remarkable precision.  Video from the scene shows the vehicle engulfed in flames, while a building just a few feet away appears untouched.  According to a CENTCOM spokesman, USAF B-1s, F-16s and drones participated in the attack; both the "Bone" and the Viper are capable of dropping the 250-lb Small Diameter Bomb (SDB), which is designed to minimize collateral damage.  A large number of Predator and Reaper UAVs can employ Hellfire missiles, which can also be utilized in urban environments.  So far, the Pentagon hasn't disclosed the weapon used to kill Drugeon.  

Two days later, American airpower targeted a 10-vehicle ISIS convoy in Mosul--carrying an even more important target.  The leader of the terror caliphate, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was among those riding in the convoy, and reportedly wounded in the attack.  A Twitter account belonging to an ISIS spokesman wished al-Baghdadi a "speedy recovery" from his wounds, although that account was difficult to verify.

According to various press accounts and claims by Iraqi officials, the ISIS leader was either seriously wounded in the attack, or not traveling in the convoy.  U.S. officials believe that one of al-Baghdadi's senior aides--who normally travels with him--was killed in the airstrike, increasing the odds that the ISIS kingpin may have been riding in one of the targeted vehicles.
The convoy target reflected poor operational security on the part of ISIS leadership, and suggested they weren't particularly concerned about limited American airstrikes, or intelligence collection capabilities.  That thinking will probably change, especially if rumors about al-Baghdadi prove true.  

Convoys of ISIS fighters, usually riding in Toyota pick-up trucks, have been a standard part of the group's operating procedures for many years.  And while that image may be frightening to local villagers or poorly-prepared Iraqi soldiers, they present a both a signature and a target from 20,000 feet.  If al-Baghdadi survives, his future movements will become much more discrete, as will his communications.  
In reality, the Friday air strike in Mosul was more than the product of air supremacy and persistent surveillance by various drone aircraft.  Tracking down--and taking down--terrorist leaders is often the product of months of careful intelligence collection and analysis, used to identify cells, larger networks and the individuals who lead them.  
Shane Harris of The Daily Beast has a new book coming out that details how such techniques were successfully used by the National Security Agency (and its military partners) during the Iraqi surge six years ago.  Here's a brief excerpt that explains the overall concept:

The Iraqi cell phone network was a potential intelligence gold mine. Cell phone contracts were among the first business deals struck in Iraq after Saddam Hussein was driven from power. Wireless was cheaper than wired communications, and cell phones were proliferating. The NSA had access to foreign telecommunications networks through agreements struck with the United States—based carriers that operated them. These companies were paid handsomely—each receiving tens of millions of dollars annually, according to one former company executive—to give the spy agencies privileged access to their networks and the data coursing through them. 

After Bush gave his order, daily strikes in Iraq were being carried about by a hybrid military and intelligence unit that brought together soldiers and spies. Their center of operations was a concrete hangar at the Balad Air Base, north of Baghdad, which had once housed Iraqi fighter jets. Most of the planes here now were unmanned drones. Their pilots worked alongside NSA hackers, FBI cyber forensics investigators, and special operations forces—the military’s elite commando squads. They all broke off into clusters, working with a seamless, almost organic precision. The hackers stole information from the enemy’s electronic devices and passed it to the analysts, who drew up target lists for the troops. As they went off on raids, the drone pilots watched overhead, giving eye-in-the-sky warning to the troops on the ground, thanks to sophisticated cameras and other sensors developed by the CIA. Sometimes the drone pilots themselves made the kill with a missile shot.

When an attack was finished, the troops gathered more intelligence from the site or from the fighters they captured—cell phones, laptop computers, thumb drives, address books, scraps of paper called “pocket litter” that might contain nothing more than a name, a phone number, or a physical or e-mail address. The troops brought the information back to the base and gave it to the analysts, who fed it into their databases and used data-mining software to look for connections to other fighters either in custody or at large. They paid close attention to how the fighters were getting money for their operations, including sources outside Iraq—in Syria, Iran, and Saudi Arabia.

As Mr. Harris details, there was another, important element to this operation: offensive cyber ops.  With detailed knowledge of how the terrorists communicated, NSA hackers sometimes sent fake messages to particular Al Qaida operatives, instructing them to meet at a certain location, or plant a bomb at a particular point.  In many cases, the terrorists complied and were captured by U.S. troops, or on other occasions, dispatched by a Hellfire missile.  U.S. cyber warriors also planted malware in the computers and servers used by enemy fighters, gaining detailed information on everything from operational plans, to expense accounts for individual operatives.   

The enterprise illuminated scores of terrorist networks and led directly to their elimination.  And, there is little doubt the same techniques are being used against ISIS.  The fight is more difficult this time around.  Al-Baghdadi has reportedly "absorbed" the lessons of the surge and is determined not to repeat the mistakes made back in 2007 and 2008.  But his near-elimination last Friday suggests he still has some lessons to learn, and that ISIS has underestimated its foes.   

From the terrorists' perspective, the good news is that the U.S. doesn't have a massive ground presence to instantly exploit information developed by the spooks.  The bad news is our collection and analytical capabilities have improved since the days of the surge and we can still pinpoint the bad guys amid all the electronic clutter.  Al-Baghdadi will probably adopt a lower profile in the future; that increases the difficulty of targeting him, but it also degrades his ability to run the ISIS empire.  Put another way: that convoy ride in Mosul was probably his last, figuratively if not literally.  

Along with electronic surveillance, ISIS is also facing a threat from eyes on the ground.  Human intelligence (HUMINT) has never been our strong suit, but we are quite adept at paying money for information.  The Kurds have a decent intel network in northern Iraq, and it's probably being used to spread the intel equivalent of "walking around money," with the promise of a much larger payday for anyone who can lead us to al-Baghdadi and his senior aides.  As he recovers from his wounds, the ISIS leader must be wondering if he was exposed by his cell phone, his computer or even someone inside his organization.     

Late Monday, a Pentagon spokesman said the convoy raid did not target senior-level terrorists, but rather, was aimed at operational commanders.  That suggests we somehow got lucky (assuming al-Baghdadi was present), or the statement was aimed at concealing our ability to identify terror networks and their leaders. 

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