The secret service of the Islamic state is structured like the ones of the countries it attacks, states Mediapart in its Révélations sur les services secrets de l’Etat islamique* research. In it, the French media portal analyzes the methods of counter-intelligence used by jihadists.
“We often view Islamic terrorists with a bit of condescension, as uneducated barbarians. A band of the barefoot guided from a cave was responsible for the carnage of September 11. A commando of wild beasts committed the massacre of November 13”, writes the author of the article Matthieu Suc. “But we should not forget that, from the beginning, terrorist organizations have been adopting the counter-intelligence methods of those who fight them. The attacks that are happening today are the bloodiest ones, they are the most macabre part of the fierce struggle between the Western and the Middle Eastern intelligence services, on the one hand, and the Islamic State, on the other”.
We must not, however, mythologize jihadists. They are not “James Bonds” of terror, Mediapart believes, since “some of their practices are rudimentary”. Nevertheless, “if Europe has been the target for almost three years, if France weeps about the 250 dead on its soil, it is not only because our services are poorly structured and have no comprehension of the scale of the jihadist phenomenon”.
Mediapart has researched about twenty judicial files, hundreds of transcripts of telephone tapping, hearings, reports of the police investigations, notes – declassified or not – of the secret services. “During our research, we have come across fifteen interlocutors (intelligence officers, magistrates, lawyers, researchers, ex-hostages, ex-jihadists). We then completed this work with the follow-up of hearings of the first trials of jihadists who had returned from Syria”, says the media portal.
The product of this eight-month survey shows the practices of the most structured terrorist secret service, that of the Islamic State. It unveils how the caliphate soldiers uncovered the attempts to infiltrate their ranks in Syria, how their illegal immigrants were playing strategic games with the law enforcement agencies in Europe, and how the Western intelligence practices are mirrored in their own practices. “Counter-intelligence methods used by the jihadists are inspired by those employed by the CIA, the FBI, the DGSI or the late KGB”, say the journalists.
How the French Secret Service Learned about the Amliyat
The Mediapart story begins with the arrest of a certain Abu Saif the Korean at the Charles-de-Gaulle airport in Paris.
“On 23 June 2015, the Air France 1591 flight from Istanbul completed its race on the tarmac of
the Roissy-Charles-de-Gaulle airport. For 20 minutes, three officers of the General Directorate of
Internal Security (ISD) were waiting at terminal 2E for Abu Saif the Korean. He was nothing more than just a jihadist”.
His real name was Nicolas Moreau. He was arrested leaving the plane. His baggage showed the contradictive nature of these lost children of France: an Adidas bag, a classic Marlboro jacket, a cartridge of L & M cigarettes cohabit with a keffieh and a kamis, the traditional Afghan outfit.
Three months before his arrest, a special senate commission published a report on the ways to fight jihadist networks. A typical portrait of a jihadist in this report could have been painted from Nicolas Moreau.
“Some French jihadists, often disorganized and believing they have no heritage, are particularly sensitive to the rhetoric [of the Islamic State] based on humiliation, in which they could find an echo of their personal situation. […] To those who are, above all, inspired by the will to see their recognized and appreciated usefulness – including among them unattached individuals – Daech promises membership in a community of combatants united by the complementarity of their roles”.
Adopted by a Nantes couple at an orphanage in Korea, Nicolas Moreau was trained as a sailor fisherman who then received his real education at a “street crime school” specializing in minor offences. Serving one of his jail sentences, he was converted by the Islamic State and became Abu Sayf the Korean. In this new capacity, he fought on the Iraqi front.
When handcuffing Abu Sayf, Brigadier Gregory D. was unaware that he was about to lay hands on the best concealed secret of the Islamic State… Sitting in front of Gregory D. during the interrogation, Nicolas Moreau released a bomb. He accidently mentioned the Amniyat, “the internal security service of the Islamic State”.
According to Moreau, it is an organization that consists of 1500 “trusted” men whose task is “to detect spies in Iraq and Syria” and also “to send people all over the world to commit violent actions, to kill or recruit young people, to bring back chemical products.” After giving the precise information about a member of the Amniyat who would prove to be Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the future coordinator of the November 13 killing, Nicolas Moreau said in his second statement: “I have information to prevent attacks in Belgium and France”.
The very content of his revelations raises doubts about the origin of their source. “How do you know so well the way the Amniyat functions”, asked the examining magistrate. While in custody, Nicolas Moreau explained that, for three months, he was responsible for managing a Moroccan specialty restaurant called “At Abu Sayf” (located next to the Raqqa court) that was frequented by many jihadists, including members of the Amniyat.
While the existence of the restaurant seemed to be confirmed, the police officers and magistrates remained skeptical: Moreau’s last known job within the terrorist organization was that of a Raqqa policeman. “It was a good experience since, in France, I was always pursued by the police … Now, the roles are reversed.” They suspected that he could be a member of the secret service sent to Europe to commit an attack, says Mediapart.
Eventually, the ISB composed a note condensing the “AMNI Information” (another name for the Amniyat). One month after Moreau’s revelations, the French counter-spies infiltrated the opposite camp. “Since the creation of the caliphate and, particularly, the start of the strikes of the international coalition, the Islamic State has established agencies to ensure its security and control of its territories. The AMNI is one of these structures”. […] Strengthening the AMNI seems to be the strategic priority for the Islamic State. According to the ISB, the agency has the abilities “to detent and execute hostages, to execute the sentences on the basis of the Shari’ah law and to detect infiltration attempts.”
Five months later, the Daily Beast online resource presented additional details on the organization by publishing the story of an Amniyat member who had revealed the information about the four branches of the terrorist secret service. According to his testimony, Amn Al-Dakhili is the Ministry of the Interior responsible for maintaining the law and order in every city. Among the other AMNI branches, there were Amn Al-Askari (military intelligence), Amn AlDawla, (the counter-intelligence service), and Amn Al-Kharji (the department of secret operations outside the caliphate). Speaking of the task distribution, the last two departments correspond to the classic internal / external separation of the security apparatus. See the examples: the US Secret Service (FBI / CIA), the English secret service (MI5 / MI6), the French secret service, French (DGSI / DGSE), or the Israeli secret service (Shin Bet / Mossad).
The Islamic Counter-Intelligence Doctrine
Since the deposition of Nicolas Moreau received the media coverage, much has become known. Many jihadists who return to France spoke about the disappointment they supposedly had had with the Amniyat, but their remarks always remained unclear as did the definite outlines of their organization. Some call it “the AMNI”, the others – “the Emnis”, a secret police of hooded people. Then there are those who confuse it with “al-Hisba”, the religious police in charge of the strict sharia law application on the streets of the caliphate. A woman married to three jihadists confirmed: “In Manbij, there was the Islamic police, the military and the Hisba. I could not differentiate”, writes Mediapart.
The ISB says in its analysis, “Like most administrations of the Islamic State, the AMNI is a decentralized organization.” It is decentralized and independent.
The Mediapart journalists quote the Spiegel journal that published the notes of Haji Bakr. In these notes, the former Iraqi colonel who served under Saddam Hussein and became “the brain of the Islamic State” sketches the architecture of the “Stasi of the Caliphate”, going as far as giving the lists of those who infiltrated the villages, decided who should be the monitor, appointed “the emir who monitored the other emirs”.
“In this, the Spiegel sees the evidence of how the old military traditions of the Iraqi dictatorship influence the Islamic State. This influence is a more political than a religious one. Some serious recent studies dispute this theory. Those who came to the ranks of the Islamic State from the Iraqi military tradition became Islamists a long time ago”, writes Mediapart.
The French journalists believe that “the Islamic terrorists do not need any help from Saddam Hussein’s Baathist officers. They had 40 years to create their own fundamentals of counter-intelligence. They have had good teachers: their counter-intelligence draws its source from the practices of the Western secret services”.
The pedagogy of terror
Then, Mediapart tells the story of the man who, it is believed, was the father of the terrorist secret service.
“The history of jihad as we know it starts in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, where Ali Mohamed, the father of the Jihadist counter-intelligence, made the first photocopies of the “borrowed” textbooks printed by the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School.
Born in 1952, Ali Mohamed was an Egyptian army major specializing in protecting diplomates and conducting special operations. He was also a secret supporter of Ayman alZawahiri who, at the time, had not yet become the leader of Al-Qaeda. When Ali Mohamed was hired as a counter-terrorism expert by the EgyptAir airline, Zawahiri put him in charge of infiltrating the US intelligence. Ali Mohamed offered his services to the CIA but it was a short-term cooperation. The double agent was exposed when he alerted the imam of the mosque in Hamburg, that the Americans had asked him to spy for them.
Though prohibited to enter the US, Ali Mohamed managed to fly to the country and to seduce a Californian woman who sat next to him during the flight. Six weeks later, they got married. In a year, the infiltrator succeeded in joining the US army having impressed the special forces representatives with his sport performances at Fort Bragg. He was even asked to make about forty presentations to the teams sent to the Middle East. Thus, he had access to all the necessary information.
In 1988, Ali informed his superiors that he intended to take a leave of absence and go “to kill the Russians” in Afghanistan. But in fact, he taught the techniques of the unconventional warfare acquired from the US special services to Osama bin Laden’s first volunteers. In the 1990s, he applied for the position of a translator with the FBI – this time unsuccessfully.
For 10 years, until his arrest in 1998, Ali Mohamed had been teaching the techniques of espionage and hijacking to the al-Qaeda members. The double agent relied on the textbooks stolen from Fort Bragg to illustrate his courses attended by Osama Ben Laden himself as well as by the representatives of all the levels of the terrorist organization. A former moudjahid who attended the Al-Farouk camp in Afghanistan said a few years later: “The basic training lasted for two months. The second, more sophisticated, course was dedicated to the urban guerrilla warfare. There were several blocks of the program – how to avoid being followed, how to follow someone, etc. In our daily lives at the camp, we all spied on each other. Talking to someone, we did not reveal our true identity, only our kounya. We had to lie about our nationality. For example, if you were French, you said you were Belgian. ”
A second Islamist trained in Afghanistan remembered that the “security courses for recruits at camp Al-Farouk were followed by evaluations at the end of each training: ” basic ”, ” medium ”, ‘expert’, quotes the Islamists Mediapart.
According to the media portal, in 1998, thanks to Ali Mohamed’s lessons, Al-Qaeda created its own counter-intelligence service. ” We now had the daily reports on the activities in each camp”, recollects Bin Laden’s bodyguard. “We also had to collect as much information as possible about all the members. […] Fifty brothers selected for their intelligence abilities were constantly on duty […]. Then they were placed in different parts of the camp to gather the information about what happened there. ”
And woe to those who were caught. “The security measures were drastic and the punishments were severe”, says an Islamist trained in Afghanistan. “Before we arrived at the camp, a man exposed as a spy had been executed”, remembers some former mujahedin interviewed by Mediapart. They had put him on a hill and then shot him with the RPG rocket launcher … ” The Islamists interviewed by Mediapart said Al-Qaeda demanded that its members all around the world regarded themselves as members of one family.
“In the mid-1990s, the Egyptian intelligence attracted two 13-year-old boys, the sons of two important people in the hierarchy of the terrorist organization. The agents then drugged and sodomized them taking photos of what happened. Under the threat of disclosure, the children were forced to place microphones in their own homes. Two bombs destined for Ayman al-Zawahiri were given to them but the attack failed and the children-spies were apprehended. To deal with this case, Zawahiri instituted a special Sharia court. Several terrorists opposed it saying that judging children goes against the laws of Islam. Zawahiri did not agree. Condemned for sodomy and treason, they were shot down. Their confessions and execution were videotaped and distributed among the combatants as a warning of what would happen to those who considered committing treason. The episode had a big aftereffect.
Henceforth, by referencing the life of the Prophet, Al-Qaeda would justify, in its manuals, the methods of espionage, counter-espionage and the elimination of spies including those of the Muslim faith.
Again, it was Ali Mohamed’s imprint. Not content with filling the Afghan libraries with the stolen books from Fort Bragg, he wrote a 180-page manual entitled “Military Studies in Jihad Against Tyrants” that contained various chapters on counterfeiting, security, and espionage”, writes Mediapart.
The journalists believe that this book has become the new bible of Islamic terrorism akin to such works as “The Revolt of Israel” by the Israeli Prime Minister Menahem Begin (himself a former terrorist) or the works of Clausewitz (Prussian military commander, military theoretician, author of “On War” (1932) that completely changed the military science) and Sun-Tzu (Chinese thinker, lived in the 6th century B.C., author of the famous “The Art of War” military doctrine).
“Over the years, the jihadi organizations have been refining their knowledge and learning from their experience”, notes Kevin Jackson, Research Director at the CAT institute. “Their know-hows are passed from group to group, from generation to generation. Thus, the Islamic State did nothing new, they borrowed the things created by Al-Qaeda. Even the word “Amniyat” means “security” in Arabic. What is innovative is the fact that such a structure is starting to play an increasingly preponderant role within a terrorist organization. ”
So, “the war against spies has become the most important battle for the Amniyat”.
The Terrorists are Afraid of the Drones
Mediapart said that, after the missile strikes such as the one on September 2014 in Raqqa and the one happened in 2015 that destroyed several high officials of the Islamic State, the leaders of the terrorist organizations fear becoming a victim of a drone attack more than anything. “These surgical strikes deprive them of a possibility to die with weapons in their hands which can compromise obtaining the status of a martyr. These bombs generate a real paranoia among them and instigate hunting for moles”, say the journalists of the French media portal.
They cite the words of a former Danish hostage Daniel Rye Ottosen who said at the debriefing: “They had been questioning me for a long time because they wanted me to admit that I was a spy who came for the sole purpose of inserting the “trackers” so that the city could be bombed. ”
They also quote an Islamist who, upon his arrival to Raqqa, was ordered to close the blinds in his home: “They explained to us that there were traitors who had placed electronic chips in the buildings to direct the missiles and, therefore, it was dangerous to look outside. They told us that a building with 70 recruits had been bombed before… ”
As a result, in the first half of 2015, the Islamic State had “considerably strengthened its Internal security”, says the DGSE. General Christophe Gomart, Director of Military Intelligence (DRM), described the streets of Raqqa as covered by the “fabric that prevented our satellites and aircrafts from seeing what was underneath”. He sees it as proof of a certain mastery of “the technique to dissimulate the image sensors”.
But, as Mediapart says, the members of the Jihadist secret services are the first to be subjected to strict control. “Cell phones are banned. When the Belgian Mohamed Abrini visited Abdelhamid Abaaoud in Syria while preparing the attack of November 13, he spent only one day with his childhood friend. “He was suspicious of everything”, said Abrini. “I came with a cell phone and he feared that he could be “droned”. The other soldiers of the Caliphate had the GPS antenna removed from their mobiles. “The satellite packages [had also] been prohibited in the houses of the members of the Islamic State “, said a telecommunications engineer who worked for the terrorist organization. From now on, “in Raqqa, jihadists must use the Internet cafes where everything is under control”, says the ISB.
The Danish jihadist Osama Krayem confirms the tightening of the security measures. According to him, “It is impossible to even approach the areas where senior officials are located” because “half of the people in Raqqa are transmitting one way or another “.
According to the DGSE note, the Islamic State focused its efforts on “its intelligence in order to maintain a better control of the members and to protect themselves from external infiltration attempts”. The primary goal of Amniyat is “to preserve the command of the caliphate and the Infrastructure, to prevent strikes by the international coalition and enemy infiltrations “, said the DGSE.
“Secret agents dressed in civilian clothes can be found in the most frequented places”, writes Mediapart. “The slightest suspicion leads to an arrest”.
Sometimes civilians help the AMNI. We have an Iraqi surgeon who handed over her own husband to the AMNI. “She denounced him to Daech saying he was against them and they cut off his head”, testified a witness quoted by Mediapart.
Or there is this Swiss called “Abou Mahdi al-Swissry” who showed two walkie-talkies brought with him from Europe failing to mention it anywhere to a brother who called the secret service immediately.
“Lotfi, the telecommunications engineer who worked for the terrorist organization, was tortured by a dozen of hooded men who took turns to strike him promising an imminent execution. Lofti had re-establish the GSM network at the time of the confrontation between the Islamic state and the Syrian army in Raqqa. “The Islamic State officials were worried that they had not been consulted on the matter and that the network would be used by the Bashar soldiers to call for reinforcements during fights. As a result, I was accused of being a French spy”, said Lofty. After spending eight months in the hands of the Amniyat, Lofti was set free. ” A trap”, he thought. “For them, it is a way to reveal my possible accomplices”, cites Mediapart.
Amniyat has its own prisons located in unusual places.
The French journalists write that, In Aleppo, the prison was placed in the basement of the ophthalmological hospital. In Tabqa, it was located in the underground of the large tower at the city entrance, the others – in a candy factory. In Raqqa, it is situated near the entrance of the football stadium. “It is sufficient to allocate the space for the military, Islamists, secret police, and the detainees”, writes Mediapart.. The prison consists of very different people. “There was everything. A doctor was accused of having too much money … There were people accused of taking drugs. And there were lots of people who did not know why they were there”, says one of the witnesses quoted by the French media portal.
“When the prisoners move inside the Raqqa stadium, they are blindfolded. Interrogations are conducted by hooded men. Questions to foreign detainees are connected to the reason for their presence on the territory of the Islamic State. And taking liberties with the truth is out of the question”, writes Mediapart, concluding, “The AMNI methods of uncovering moles are diabolical”.
* The article was published in French. We translated its most interesting parts into Russian and English for our readers.