Intelligence is usually a plodding business. Not that it is not exciting – quite the contrary! – but that it takes time to gather information, process it, analyse it, figure out what gaps remain, and then go out and get more. Rarely do you paint a complete picture, regardless of how good and diverse your sources are. Nevertheless, intelligence does work and we in Canada and elsewhere are safer because of what our security intelligence and law enforcement agencies do for us.
If intelligence is a long game, what do you do then when you get a humongous dump of information all in one fell swoop? I am referring, of course, to the memory stick smuggled out of the Islamic State by a purportedly disgruntled member and given to a news agency in the UK. The data apparently contain the names of 22,000 IS recruits along with other information such as their family (perhaps so IS can notify next of kin in case of death), blood type (very practical given all the injuries and deaths) and previous jihadi experience (not, I imagine, something found on a regular resume). The list appears to be dated late 2013 and early 2014, so it is a little old, but will nevertheless prove to be invaluable to intelligence services.
Spies will likely use list for three primary reasons, among others. They will be able to confirm that individuals they suspected of being abroad are indeed with the terrorist group. They will find the names of individuals they were not aware of which will give them a better sense of how many citizens have left to join IS, and will be able to use that info to see if others in those individuals’ social networks are also of interest. And they will be able to use the data to populate watch lists which will help in the off chance a jihadi is stupid enough to return to his home using the same name.
A similar treasure trove was discovered by US special forces in the raid on Usama bin Laden’s compound back in 2011. The pile of information has kept analysts and operatives busy for years and also provided insight into the trials and tribulations of Al Qaeda.
What I find interesting as well about the list is the sheer banality of it. Names, addresses, personal information – the kind of stuff you would find in any worker’s personal file. Al Qaeda did the same thing. This goes to show that any group of a large enough size has to have administrative files: IS has clearly reached that stage. The type of information strikes me as almost mundane. I wonder if the prospective jihadis had to check whether they wanted a dental plan?
And yet we should not conclude that IS – or AQ or any other Islamist extremist organisation for that matter – is somehow less dangerous just because they have an HR department. I suppose it strikes some as funny – prospective suicide bombers providing social insurance numbers for instance – but it does not take away from the fact that IS is s seriously brutal and dangerous group bent on killing a lot of people. Sure, it is hilarious that IS is not handing out free Snickers bars anymore, but we dismiss them at our peril.
At the same time, we should not overestimate their strength and the breadth of their “Caliphate”. They do not pose an existential threat to anyone and will be decimated sooner rather than later. They are not supermen, regardless of the elegies they post to dead comrades and the upbeat messages to new recruits. They are just humans, ones that happen to subscribe to a violent and hateful ideology.
We need to keep a level head as we continue to identify terrorists and neutralise them. And we need to bolster our intervention and alternative narrative efforts as we try to stop people becoming terrorists. I am ok with having the odd laugh or two at the expense of extremists, but let us not allow our derision get in the way of our task.