U.S. military might already have the data to identify Islamic State leaders

October 15, 2015
An Islamic State militant holds a gun while standing behind what are said to be Ethiopian Christians in Wilayat Fazzan, in this still image from an undated video made available on a social media website

An Islamic State militant holds a gun while standing behind what are said to be Ethiopian Christians in Wilayat Fazzan in a still from an undated video, April 19, 2015. REUTERS/Social Media Website via Reuters TV

There’s a widely held theory across the Middle East that Islamic State’s command structure is dominated by Saddam Hussein’s former military officers. This is regularly cited as one possible reason for the group’s military success.  Some claim “ex-Baathist Saddam loyalists” now control Ramadi. One anonymous Baathist member said the group was key in capturing Nineveh province.

Paradoxically, this might suit Washington just fine because it would give the U.S. military a better sense of who the enemy is, what their weaknesses are and how to more accurately track them down. If Islamic State is a neo-Baathist organization run by Hussein’s former Sunni military officers, there should be a long paper trail. In fact, the United States might already have information tying many Islamic State militants to family, friends or hometowns.

Hussein’s military kept extensive personnel records on high-ranking officers, files that the U.S. military likely captured during the occupation of Iraq or over the past decade. If Islamic State commanders are former Iraqi military officers, Washington might have far more data on them than first assumed.

A hand is seen as Iraqi forensic teams recovered dead bodies from a mass grave in the presidential compound of the former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein in Tikrit

A hand of one of the dead bodies that Iraqi forensic teams recovered from a mass grave with as many as 1,700 soldiers massacred last summer by Islamic State forces in Tikrit, April 6, 2015. REUTERS/Stringer

The Baath Party also kept significant records because 10 percent of Iraqis were party members. Additional patterns might emerge when comparing lists of who was captured and held at U.S. military detention facilities during the occupation.

Many Iraqis probably also know who various Islamic State leaders are. During the occupation, the U.S. military repeatedly discovered that Iraqis on both sides of the terrorism dynamic were linked through blood, clan or marriage.

The connections are convoluted – akin to a “Billy and Whitey Bulger” scenario writ large. In that complicated family saga, William (Billy) Bulger served as president of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Senate even as his brother, Whitey, was a powerful organized-crime boss and an FBI informant. (Johnny Depp is now starring in a movie based on the tangled family relationships, Black Mass.)

Granted, no one wants to rat out his brother/cousin/lover/neighbor/close friend, especially to outsiders, unless placed under great pressure, which the United States could bring when occupying Iraq. Nonetheless, a great deal of information probably exists if intelligence analysts comb through the old files.

Terrorist leaders were, in the past, often related to Iraqi government and security force officials. For example, one high-ranking al Qaeda in Iraq chief, Khaled al-Mashhadani, was related to the then-speaker of the Iraqi Parliament, Mahmoud al-Mashhadani. The female suicide bomber who tried and failed to blow up hotels in Amman, Jordan, in 2005, was a member of the same tribal confederation as the founder of the Anbar Awakening, the anti-al Qaeda in Iraq organization.

Other troves of information might be hidden in basements and apartments across Iraq itself. A 2004 New Yorker article by George Packer, for example, described how certain people kept piles of Baath Party paperwork to protect themselves and to bear witness to its crimes following the invasion. It’s unclear what happened to that documentation.

By crunching available data, U.S. intelligence analysts might be able to construct top Islamic State chains of command. Overlay that immense dataset with current intelligence, and Washington might be able to know far more about the group. And technical advances since 2004 would also allow for quicker and more thorough data mining.

But is the United States actually combing through these vast datasets? That remains unclear. According to a 2006 Senate Intelligence Committee report, the United States recovered more than 120 million documents after the 2003 invasion, which the Defense Intelligence Agency examined. Only about 25 percent of the pages, however, were actually translated and summarized for intelligence analysts.

To be sure, this Islamic State connection with Hussein’s Baathist military remains largely theory. It also doesn’t explain why the organization has spread across Africa, the Middle East and South Asia. Nor does it explain the prominence of numerous Syrians and foreigners within its command structure.

The theory would also mean the average Islamic State leader is relatively old for an insurgent commander. Anyone who joined the Baathist Party during the 1990s would now be at least middle aged or older. To put this in perspective, the founder of al Qaeda in Iraq – the Islamic State fore-runner — Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, was 40 when he was killed in 2006. His successor, Abu Ayyub al-Masri, was in his late 30s when Iraqi forces caught up with him. The current chief, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is in his mid-40s.

But if the theory proves true — and these old men are using the simulacrum of a jihadist organization as a vehicle to catapult back into power — they could be setting themselves up for a massive bloodletting. The war between the crypto-secularists and the true believers will likely be gruesome and violent. Despite Islamic State’s rosy propaganda, there could be no stable end-state on the horizon.

Hussein might well be rolling in his grave — had Islamic State not destroyed it. But if Americans can find the documents and splice the data, Washington might obtain granular knowledge about who Islamic States leaders are, where they live, how to flip them or how to take them off the battlefield.

To be sure, this effort might result in a dry hole. That said, it’s certainly worth looking back in time to determine the future. It could also prove financially more efficient than current U.S. efforts.


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Let them come to power. Then you know what buildings to hit with rockets. This idea of chasing dirty toyotas and black pajamas around the desert forever…. is stupid. And fruitless. Let the target congeal.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

Well they have photos of them with Mr. McCain. All US has to do is send him there and just follow him on Facebook.

Posted by Macedonian | Report as abusive