We get some rules to follow/That and this, these and those/No one knows
In the past week, three media organisations – Süddeutsche Zeitung, Sky and Zaman al Wasl have carried stories based on a cache of documents alleged to have originated with IS– as many as 20 000 according to Sky. The 20 000 documents contain perhaps as many as 1700 or so identities of foreign fighters who travelled to Syria in 2013 based on dates in the documents released by Zaman al Wasl.
Reactions from analysts have been mixed with some questioning their authenticity and others suggesting their potential usefulness to intelligence and enforcement agencies as well as researchers.
The sceptics point to issues around the form of the documents, primarily logos and terminology. The comments from the sceptics seem to be related to viewing the Zaman al Wasl documents. Journalists with access to the Sky and Süddeutsche Zeitung documents seem less sceptical based on data that they are verifying – primarily addresses and phone numbers, for example, this report on Belgians in the data.
The Zaman al Wasl documents – two sets (21 and 122) of biosheets do not contain these details suggesting that they have been edited and that the online sets may not be the originals. The logo and language issues could arise from this process or these documents are an assemblage from a number of sources.
Two methods appear to have been employed when looking at these documents, the first is to determine their ‘authenticity’ based on their form and structure – do these look like other documents etc. From this examination it can be inferred that the documents and their content are accurate and authentic. There are some limits to this assessment if the Zaman al Wasl documents are edits or re-transcriptions.
A second method is to examine the content and from the content make a determination about whether the documents are authentic. This determination can be partially made from the Zaman al Wasl documents but not entirely, as the phone numbers and other personal data that could identify the individual has been removed. This is not necessarily a bad thing as there are privacy issues around making this type of data available to the general public.This is the approach that enforcement agencies who have commented to the press seem to have taken.
Unfortunately, most of the commentary has made scant reference to the abundant material available on foreign fighter rosters already in the public domain. A quick review of the various conflicts in which jihadists have engaged in as foreign fighters would find material for Afghanistan (circa 1992-2001), Iraq (2003-10),and Syria (2011-onwards).
In Afghanistan, US forces recovered administrative forms used to compile lists of fighters. The information requirements of these forms resemble those currently being debated.
For Iraq, a Belgian trial refers to details from a foreign fighter list, and a French trial report mentions a list that contained the names and details of 258 persons.
“Son nom figurait sur une liste de 258 moudjahidines étrangers retrouvée dans une maison d’hôte en Irak. Un élément dénoncé par son avocat, Me Eric Plouvier, qui a déploré l’absence d’enquête sur place de la Direction de la surveillance du territoire (DST). “La source, c’est le renseignement américain. J’ai demandé des vérifications en Irak, ça m’a été refusé”, a-t-il dit.”
The same foreign fighter described filling in the form that was used to compile this list during this trial in France.
En juillet 2004, il franchit la frontière irako-syrienne avec deux autres Français. Munis de fusils d’assaut, trois moudjahidin irakiens les réceptionnent et les emmènent dans une maison d’hôtes. Le lendemain, direction Falloudja. Un chauffeur les conduits vers une nouvelle habitation, située en plein fief islamiste. « Une sorte de centre de tri pour moudjahidin », raconte Mohamed el-Ayouni. Selon une procédure bien réglée, le responsable de cette maison prend leur nom et demande le numéro de téléphone de la personne à prévenir « en cas de malheur ». Les combattants choisissent à ce moment-là leur nom de guerre. El-Ayouni opte pour Abou Walid. Les trois hommes sont emmenés dans un groupe de combat, dirigé par un Saoudien surnommé Abou Khattab. Mission : défendre l’un des quartiers de Falloudja.
The best known documentation is the Sinjar material captured by US forces in a targeted raid against the border emir in September 2007. The Sinjar documents were also a large cache with many duplicates and lists that finally resulted in 500+ unique entities being identified from the documents.
Since 2012, foreign fighter rosters or documents similar to the Sinjar ones have been recovered, likely in Mosul and made available to German journalists, another listing with references to foreign fighters was found by a French journalist in Syria. This all prior to the current document cache which is circulating.
Discussion of the authenticity or not of the current material needs to take into account prior document finds and the existing knowledge of the processes related to the collection of foreign fighter information by insurgencies.