MOSUL, Iraq // The Iraqi intelligence agent knew something was wrong. An ISIL member working for him as an informant in the city of Mosul had called him on his mobile, but did not identify himself by his code name.
The informant then started talking to him about selling his car. The agent played along.
Days later, the informant called back and explained: the militants had seen the number on his phone and, always on the hunt for spies, demanded he call it. So he did and pretended he was talking to the person who sold him his car.
Iraqi intelligence has about 300 people working as informants inside Mosul, part of an enormous information-gathering operation on the sidelines of the battle to retake the city from ISIL. The informants have pinpointed militants’ positions and movements, warned of car bombs or hidden explosives, and helped fill a list of names of ISIL supporters.
The work is extremely dangerous.
ISIL militants in Mosul are known to kill at the slightest suspicion of espionage. People caught speaking on mobile phones have been shot by snipers or killed and hung from lamp posts. And when Iraqi forces recapture a neighbourhood, informants face getting caught up in residents’ revenge attacks against the extremists.
Iraqi intelligence officials say trust in the security forces among Mosul’s residents has been key to their efforts. However, reports of long, arbitrary detentions of men and boys suspected of ISIL links risks undermining that trust.
During the Mosul operation, intelligence agencies have built a database of about 18,000 suspected extremist fighters. Male residents of retaken parts of the city are checked against the list, leading to the arrest of 900 people so far, the officials said.
The informants have a variety of motives. Some do it for money, since some agents pay for information. Others do it out of hatred of ISIL.
One operative was an Iraqi ISIL member who was beaten because he was caught smoking – a crime under the extremists’ rule.
“That was the first spark,” said a Baghdad-based intelligence official in contact with the man. As time went on, the man grew disillusioned. So he started feeding information to intelligence officials.
Another is a 70-year-old who escaped the militants’ suspicions because of his age, the official said. But after the man’s neighbourhood was retaken by Iraqi forces, neighbours blew up his house in anger at ISIL, unaware he was secretly betraying the group.
After months of fighting, troops have taken Mosul’s eastern half and are about to move into the west. The intelligence gathering effort has been crucial there since Iraqi forces were under pressure for precision to avoid casualties among the hundreds of thousands of civilians still in the city.
On a recent day on the outskirts of Mosul, an Iraqi major involved in planning the western assault scrolled through messaging apps on his phone. The screen was filled with short texts, dropped pins and links to satellite maps. The messages read simply: “sniper position”, “mortar team”, and “Daesh base”.
The major and intelligence officials say the information is vetted and cross-checked. Still, the process has been plagued with problems.
A colonel in the intelligence services said dozens of trusted informants had turned out to be double agents. He recounted one case of one who provided information for weeks about fighters and headquarters behind ISIL lines. Last month, he sent in a tip about a roadside bomb.
The colonel vetted the tip and sent one of his men in Mosul to investigate. The soldier and the source were not heard from again.
“We think the source handed him over to Daesh,” he said.
Another intelligence official said he knew of some half dozen informants discovered and killed by ISIL and still more who stopped sending information, their fate unknown.
Key to success has been the concerted effort by security forces to keep the support of Mosul’s Sunnis, who have resented domination by the Shiite-led government in Baghdad. They long complained of discrimination and of abuses by security forces, something that helped fuel the rise of ISIL. During the Mosul offensive, troops have gone out of their way to help residents and prevent sectarian tensions.
On a recent operation in eastern Mosul, Lt Col Muhanad Al Timimi and his men were greeted warmly by residents of the Andalus neighbourhood. They went door to door asking about ISIL militants.
One resident, Muhammed Ghanim, led the soldiers to a house with a pile of mortars in the garden. “This was where they had their base,” he said.
Another, Amar Baroudi, gave the soldiers tea – and names of more than 20 Iraqis fighting for ISIL.
“These people were ignorant and very cruel to us,” he said of the militants. “Now I’m proud to help the security forces find them and punish them.”
* Associated Press