ERBIL, Kurdistan Region (Kurdistan 24) – US intelligence analysts have been evaluating material and data recovered from retaken cities and towns over the past two months suggesting the Islamic State (IS) are regrouping in an area between Iraq and Syria.
According to the Los Angeles Times, analysts in the US have gained valuable insights into the militant group’s planning and personnel thanks to a “vast cache of digital data and other material recovered from bombed-out offices, abandoned laptops, and the cell phones of dead fighters.”
The intel was discovered in recently liberated areas of Iraq and Syria such as Mosul, Tal Afar, and Raqqa.
In addition to thousands of names of known or suspected extremists being added to an international watch list, officials believe the intelligence indicates the militant group is concentrating forces and redirecting their operations base to the Middle Euphrates River Valley.
While roughly 15,000 fighters remain, the newly-gained information suggests 8,000 militants and their families have moved to the valley, which stretches from Deir al-Zor in eastern Syria down to Rawa in Iraq’s western Anbar Province.
Among them are believed to be the group’s leaders, including Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi who might be hiding in the area, a hotbed for IS military commanders, weapons production experts, and external attacks plotters.
The intelligence haul is reportedly the largest since the US-led coalition joined the fight against IS in mid-2014 and holds information regarding thousands of fighters, whether they stayed behind in the so-called caliphate or traveled abroad to carry out attacks in Western countries.
The militant group’s territory has shrunk 60 percent since it emerged in 2014 and took over large swaths of land in Iraq and Syria.
The lingering fighters, foreign-born or local, are surrounded by multiple anti-IS forces targeting their remaining strongholds.
Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, whose tour as top commander of US troops in Iraq and Syria has ended, predicted the militants would make their “last stand” in the valley.
The valley is also where a Syrian IS convoy remains trapped following coalition airstrikes preventing the militants from moving further into east Syria, at the border with Iraq.
With their territory shrinking, the fall of Mosul in Iraq and the siege on Raqqa in Syria, officials are concerned foreign-born militants will try to escape the battlefield, something the Donald Trump administration has indicated they would “not allow.”
The 30-something terabytes of IS data collected will be used by counterterrorism and law enforcement agencies in Europe to bolster security at airports and border crossings, with the Interpol database of extremists now containing 19,000 names.
Authorities in Germany also believe IS holds some 18,002 blank Syrian passports, stolen from Syrian government sites, which could be filled out with any individual’s details, according to German newspaper Bild am Sonntag.
The stolen passports are genuine identity papers that have not yet been filled out, making them a valuable tool for IS cells hoping to travel to Europe to carry out or support terrorist plots.
US officials have also gathered details into the group’s leadership and the hierarchy of fighters under their command.
The information could be critical in bringing to justice members of the militant group, especially foreign fighters who traveled to northern Syria and Iraq in 2014.
Editing by Karzan Sulaivany