By Deborah Haynes – The Times (UK) –
Detailed information on Islamic State plots to attack Europe has been extracted from a trove of intelligence material seized from the extremist group in Syria, a British general has disclosed.
The latest information includes targets in several European countries, including France. A plot to strike at Britain, however, has not yet been identified among the many documents and terabytes of digital data.
Major-General Rupert Jones, the deputy commander of US-led operations against the militants, said the haul had been retrieved in July by Western-backed Kurdish and Arab militias from the former Isis haven of Manbij, in the Aleppo governorate of northern Syria.
The information gleaned from the haul is being shared along with other data with Britain and other coalition intelligence agencies to ensure that it is acted upon as quickly as possible.
A special exploitation hub has been set up at a US air base in Kuwait to study the vast Isis files. One suspected plot has already been foiled after four friends, arrested in France late last week, were accused of planning to launch an attack in the country as early as this week. The target was not named but security was tightened at the headquarters of the French criminal investigations police in Paris.
General Jones told The Times and several other British newspapers that an even bigger haul of data about Isis was expected to be uncovered in the extremists’ stronghold of Mosul, in northern Iraq, which he predicted would fall by the spring. “There is a huge amount of intelligence, documentation, electronic material that has been exploited . . . that points directly to plots against all sorts of nations around the world,” he said.
His comments came as America, in what could be a related move, issued a travel alert last week for all US citizens visiting Europe over Christmas. American tourists were warned to be prepared for the possibility of an Isis attack. Potential targets included holiday festivals and outdoor markets, the State Department said. It claimed that the warning was based on “credible information”.
Britain and the rest of Europe are already on a heightened state of alert after a spate of attacks inspired by Isis and al-Qaeda in France, Belgium and Germany over the past two years. More than 270 people have been killed and many more injured in the atrocities. Britain’s terrorist threat level is “severe”, meaning that an attack is highly likely.
General Jones said that Manbij, along with Mosul and the Syrian city of Raqqa, had been an important hub for external operations by the militant group. The files contained the names of Isis financiers, propagandists and overseas supporters.
Analysis of the data is helping the coalition forces to develop a greater understanding of the group’s network and how it can best be defeated. This is helping British and other coalition special forces to take out Isis figures.
“A lot of what we are doing is striking leaders that you have never heard of,” General Jones said. They are “the lifeblood of any military organisation who have got to be taken down one at a time . . . You just ruthlessly go after those leaders, slowly wear them down,” he said. One of the top prizes, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the head of Isis, appeared to be feeling the heat. General Jones said that his audio message at the start of the month urging his followers to fight indicated that he was under stress. “If you . . . read the transcript it is a commander under pressure.”
Baghdadi has lost more than half the Iraqi territory his forces had captured since the summer of 2014 and more than a quarter of the Syrian land they once held.
The flow of foreign fighters joining the extremist group, which at its peak included about 850 Britons, had dried up to a trickle, he said. About 400 Britons are thought to be left. The rest have either been killed or have returned to Britain.
Asked whether more intelligence on Isis plots to attack Europe would be uncovered in Mosul, the general said: “I am absolutely certain that an extraordinary amount of intelligence will come out of Mosul.”
Plots against Britain had not yet emerged but he was in no doubt that Isis, also known by its Arabic acronym Daesh, remained a threat. He said: “If we want to keep Britain safe, if we want to keep Europe safe, then we need to come and deal with Daesh.”
General’s fears for the future
Britain’s top general in the war against Islamic State disputes a claim by Donald Trump that the US-led coalition is failing to hit the group hard enough in Iraq and Syria. Major-General Rupert Jones also defended the policy of supporting moderate Syrian rebels in the fight against Isis — which the incoming president has indicated that he will scrap.
General Jones said that an “extraordinary amount of progress” had been made by western-backed Iraqi and Syrian forces. “Go and ask your Daesh commander whether he is being hit hard enough.” Senior American officers are understood to be apprehensive about what the future holds under Mr Trump. One possible policy change that is causing alarm is the suggestion that Mr Trump may side with Russia, a key ally of President Assad, against Isis.