German and British news outlets have attained what appears to be a biographical list of thousands of ISIS fighters. And while analysts Wassim Nasr and Charlie Winter have noted that the list-form has some oddities that are incongruent with other ISIS documents, that does not prove the document’s inauthenticity. The main point here is that the listed information does belong to known ISIS fighters. This veracity in names and cell-phone numbers explains why European intelligence services have quickly moved to exploit the document for its value. And they are right to do so.
First, the list will support counter-terrorism operations in Europe. As I’ve explained, ISIS poses a formidable threat to the West. Benefiting from former Iraqi military officers, encrypted communication platforms, document forgers, and thousands of European-passport holders, ISIS has the means and intent to carry out further Paris-style attacks. The U.K. is especially concerned about the risk of a significant near-term atrocity. By providing referring/endorsing individuals for each ISIS recruit, recruits’ assumed names and character traits, and home-nation contact information, this list enables intelligence services to cross-reference their existing knowledge. In short, to fill in their intelligence gaps. Most obviously, intelligence services will trawl through the list to find any individuals who have returned to Europe undetected. But names of endorsing individuals will also be especially valuable in identifying jihadist networks in Europe.
European intelligence services have a limited number of surveillance officers and many suspects.
While much of this information is known by Western governments, some is not. And by building a clearer picture of ISIS support networks in the West, intelligence services will be better able to re-prioritize their investigative resources. That’s important because at present, European intelligence services are overstretched by their operational taskings. Put simply, they have a limited number of surveillance officers and many suspects. The key is thus to prioritize resources on the greatest threat. ISIS’s inclusion of phone numbers on the list also illustrates why data trails are so valuable: Intelligence services know that they do not know everyone they should know until the day after the next attack. Minimizing this vulnerability is best served by the maximized understanding of a terrorist network’s structure.
Second, it’s not only in the domestic counter-terrorism field that this list is useful: It will also help build our understanding of ISIS activities around the world. In its fetish for lists, we see ISIS’s bureaucratic counterpoint to its focus on indoctrinating a global Caliphate. The basic point here is that ISIS is very serious about its agenda. It is not, as President Obama presumes, some peripheral psychosis-club that can be patiently challenged into irrelevance.
Finally, the list also offers value in fighting ISIS on the battlefield. By referencing list information on recruits with where they ended up being deployed, we will gain insight into ISIS’s strategic priorities, i.e., are the best recruits being sent to defend a key highway, or a key city, or a key oil depot, or a key leader, etc.? In the same way, we will learn where the least-valuable fighters are sent (something that may provide a good counter-propaganda narrative against ISIS’s claims to offer glory). In either case, this list will be especially useful where we already know where and when a listed ISIS fighter is killed in Iraq, Syria, or elsewhere: It will allow us to track his previous movements.
Ultimately, the next week will determine the utility of this list. We need to know who the seller was, and what incentives he had in providing it. But based on what we know so far, we can be optimistic that the list will help our counter-terrorism professionals better prevent ISIS attacks and more efficiently annihilate ISIS forces.