ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) is becoming less of a mystery since the group lost control of the major urban centers it long held. Mosul was lost in July and dead bodies, and talkative survivors are still being found in the city. A month later the smaller city of Tal Afar, between Mosul and the Syrian border, was taken while in Syria American backed Kurdish and Arab rebels have taken most of Raqqa, the ISIL capital. For Western, especially European, counter-terrorism agencies these victories and the continued intelligence gained from the wreckage and survivors provides a much more accurate picture of how many Western Moslems joined ISIL, how many are still alive and where they are now. Current estimates are that about 5,000 EU (European Union) born (or legally resident) Moslems went to the Middle East to join ISIL. About a third have died and about 15 percent have already returned. That leaves about half of these EU residents still out there. Many are apparently still loyal ISIL members but these European ISIL members are no longer as valuable to ISIL as they once were. That’s because much more is known about them. Not just names, but details of how they were recruited, how they got to Syria or Iraq and what they have done while they are there.
The Western intelligence agencies, especially the Americans, have long been collecting and sharing data on their citizens who are known or suspected of going to join ISIL. That body of information expanded considerably since early 2017 because many more European ISIL members were captured alive or their bodies were found and identified. As more ISIL leaders and headquarters were captured more electronic devices (laptops, smart phones) were captured. While some of the more experienced ISIL personnel know how to hide data on these devices, most ISIL members don’t and Western intelligence agencies have developed efficient tools (mainly software) for quickly translating and organizing captured data and then comparing to what is already available. This is not a new resource but one that has, since the late 1990s, grown in capability and the number of nations using it. This makes it possible for bits of information collected in different parts of the world over months or years to be constantly scanned for signs of where specific individuals are and what they are up to.
For example Iraqi security forces have already arrested over a thousand foreigners (mostly young women) found hiding in, or trying to flee, Mosul who either admit they are ISIL members or were trying to hide it. Many of these are young women from other Moslem countries or the West who had extensive contact with EU Moslems who joined ISIL. Some of the ISIL women were captured wearing explosive vests or near lots of weapons. These captives are highly prized by the intel collectors because once captured these young women often speak freely and at length about what they saw and did. The same often applies to male ISIL recruits from the West and, to a lesser extent, recruits from other Moslem nations. Currently Iraq is holding about 1,500 family (mainly wives and children) members of known ISIL members and the adults are a good source of intel because the wives don’t want to be prosecuted.
This personal testimony can be checked against other intelligence especially that collected recently from captured documents, especially electronic ones. While often forbidden, many lower ranking ISIL have smart phones as well. Not as many ISIL documents on those but lots of pictures and interesting texts and emails to each other and people back home.
The information indicates that most of the surviving ISIL EU members are not interested in coming home and, because most belong to families originally from Moslem nations, they can pass for locals in the Middle East if they don’t talk and dress like a local. The reluctance to return home is partly due to continued belief in ISIL goals but many are apparently fearful of being identified and prosecuted if they return. The news travels fast (usually via the Internet) about such prosecutions in Europe and there are suspicions that many of those who have returned and not prosecuted have become informers in return for leniency. These former ISIL members provide information, either first hand or second hand, about who is doing what and that gives intel agencies a nearly real-time picture of what their foreign ISIL recruits are up to. For the moment they are mainly trying to not get caught and reorganize to continue fighting. Unfortunately for ISIL they cannot do that in secret, or at least not as secretly as they once thought.
The intel agencies are particularly interested in where the ISIL money is. Hundreds of millions of dollars is believed to have been moved out of Iraq and Syria and dispersed into bank accounts and other hiding places. A lot of this cash has already been stolen or, less frequently, seized by a government. What remains can finance a lot more death and destruction and finding it is a priority.