ISIS Prepped Baghdadi Escape Years Before Dreams For A Caliphate Evaporated; Maybe The U.S. Intelligence Community Should Consider Establishing A Leading-Edge, Deep Penetration Center Of Excellence, Designed To Try New, Novel Means/Methods To Collect Against Low-Tech, Hard-To-Penetrate Adversarial Entities.
Alison Tahmizian Meuse, a Beirut correspondent for the Asia Times, posted a March 28, 2019 article in the publication about how the ISIS leader and his inner circle, prepared hiding places for him — in the event their dreams for an Islamic caliphate went down to defeat. She wrote that “long before the fall of his physical empire, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was hunkered down with his top command and most loyal fighters, most likely in the ‘impenetrable’ Syrian desert region of Badia.”
“Certainly he is still alive, he did not participate in any battle, and was not close to any battlefield,” said Hisham al-Hashemi, a Baghdad-based terrorism expert. “The ISIS security detail that guards Baghdadi, knows that keeping the caliph alive, is more important than maintaining the caliphate,” Mr. Hashemi told the Asia Times.
“While the 47-year-old is said to be suffering from diabetes, he is not suffering from any major wounds,” according to Mr. Hashemi, “who cites the confession of an individual, who saw Baghdadi near the Syrian town of Marashidah on the east bank of the Euphrates River in August, 2018,” Ms. Meuse wrote. Marashidah was the second-to-last Syrian town to fall from ISIS control, seized by U.S.-backed Kurdish forces in January.
By the time that the last piece of physical territory ISIS held in Baghouz, Syria was overrun by U.S.-backed forces late last month, “al-Baghdadi was long gone, his refuge, years in the making,” Ms. Meuse wrote.
Where Is Baghdadi?
“Baghdadi’s current location can whittled down to three places, two of them in the vast Syrian desert,” Mr. Hashemi claims. Mr. Hashemi singles out the vast Badia region outside the Palmyra, then the adjacent desert closer to Homs. A third. lesser possibility is that the caliph has fled to friendly territory in his native Iraq –specifically the town of Rawa — which juts out into the Euphrates River, and which was the last to fall to government forces in November 2017,” Ms. Meuse wrote.
“A Syrian source, with a network of informants across the country told the Asia Times that “all information points to al_Baghdadi taking refuge in the al-Badia area.” “Four years ago, the organization took precautionary measures, and prepared the area east of Palmyra,” he said on the condition of anonymity. “This is a mountainous, high elevation with extreme temperatures. They were getting the area ready from 2014, building caves in the mountains.”
“In 2015, they brought a lot of weapons [to the Badia] which they’d gotten from Mosul,” the source said. “And, they secured the route from Baghouz. All the high commanders took weapons and money to this area — because its impossible to conquer — you can’t seize it with warplanes, and you can’t seize it with the army. There aren’t even roads, and no inhabitants, just bedouins; but, no approaches anywhere near the mountains,” the Syrian source said,
Sofia Amara, an investigative journalist, who’s book, “Baghdadi: Caliph Of Terror,” which was published late in 2018, in French, and who has traveled from Camp Bucca in Iraq (where Baghdadi was once imprisoned by the American military), to the refuge of his ex-wife in Lebanon, also believes [Baghdadi, & ISIS] leadership is in Badia,” Ms. Meuse wrote. “What we know from multiple sources — the Intelligence services in Iraq, experts in Baghdad, and also confirmed by Kurdish sources — is that the cabinet of ISIS was able to escape, and is apparently in the Badia of Homs province,” she told Asia Times.
“While this region is technically within the territory controlled by the Syrian military, and its allies Russia and Hezbollah, it is nearly impenetrable,” Ms. Meuse wrote. “The Badia is extremely difficult to control because it is a desert. The militants just dig tunnels, make their hideout, and put a piece of material on top. From the above, it seems it is just a desert but, they are underneath, and it is very hard to find them,” in 90K square kilometers, Ms. Amara said.
In the aftermath of the Edward Snowden/NSA leaks, al-Qaeda and the Islamic State both changed, and enhanced their clandestine communications tactics and techniques, as Baghdadi began to rely almost exclusively on a coterie of couriers, “known as the Post of the Emirate, most often drawn from the women in his family,” Mr. Hashemi told the Asia Times. “These women deliver messages orally, or in handwritten form, in a code even they aren’t privy to. They do not carry anything electronic on their person,” Hashemi said — meaning that they essentially “go dark,” in intelligence collection parlance.
al-Qaeda, and Osama bin Laden of course made extensive use of couriers; but, ISIS “is the first jihadist group in which we see women playing such a large role,” Ms. Amara said. “That was not the case under al-Qaeda and bin Laden,” she noted.
Baghdadi, The Adversary Adapting Their Escape & Evasion, Communication Tactics, Techniques & Procedures (TTPs)
Well, at least there is some comfort in knowing that Baghdadi essentially has to live the life of a hermit, or termite, always looking over his shoulder, paranoid, and forever on the run. But, there is little doubt that the Snowden leaks hurt U.S. and Allied intelligence collection against this militant Islamic group, and others. Our lack of critical human intelligence (HUMINT) can be blamed in large part, on a clever adversary who has learned from their past mistakes, hindering our ability to deeply penetrate their inner sanctum.
Getting a reliable, and highly successful, well-placed human spy ensconced deep within the adversary’s lair has always been one of the most difficult intelligence collection challenges since time immemorial. Napoleon Bonaparte once said that “one well placed spy was worth two battalions.” Now, one well-placed spy could be worth an entire city. To be fair, these groups are typically close-knit, very suspicious of new-comers, and vet new members through family and tribal connections — thus making a successful HUMINT penetration challenging to say the least.
Our success in the targeted killing of the ISIS leadership no doubt sowed a heavy dose of mistrust and paranoia within the group’s ranks; and, ultimately forced those remaining to change and adapt their TTPs with respect to how they communicate, plan operations, and travel — both locally and abroad. The adversary gets a vote; and, it is to be expected that ISIS would adapt, change, and enhance its operational security (OPSEC) — especially as the targeted killing campaign eliminated their top leadership. But, leaks by Edward Snowden, which revealed sensitive and highly lucrative NSA sources and methods, seemed to instill ISIS with a renewed sense of OPSEC, resulting in their use of enhanced encryption software, and other techniques to avoid our attempts to surveil them.
As Sam Schechner and Benoit Faucon had a September 11, 2016 article in the Wall Street Journal, “the extremists group’s communications, once commonly conducted on phones and social media accounts easily tracked by authorities [and intelligence agencies], have evolved into a mix of encrypted chat-app messages over What‘sApp and Telegram, face-to-face meetings, written notes, stretches of silence, and misdirection.” The use of couriers, and disposable cell phones also remain a staple of their tradecraft.
At the end of the day, intelligence collection against a low-tech adversary, who learns our sources and methods from leaks such as Edward Snowden’s, and adapts their TTPas in clever and unexpected ways, makes them a ‘hard target’ for a reason.
Maybe the U.S. Intelligence Community needs to consider establishing a leading-edge, deep penetration center of excellence, designed to try new means and methods to collect against low-tech, off-the-grid, and hard to penetrate — adversarial entities. V/R, RCP, www.fortunascorner.com