WASHINGTON — The Pentagon is sending dozens of additional intelligence analysts to Iraq to pore over a trove of information that is expected to be recovered in the offensive to recapture Mosul from the Islamic State, data that could offer new clues about possible terrorist attacks in Europe.
The analysts will have several immediate priorities: Share with the Iraqi military any information crucial to the unfolding fight in Mosul; pass along insights useful to American officials planning an attack on Raqqa, the Islamic State’s de facto capital in eastern Syria; hunt for clues about the location of the group’s shadowy leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi; and search for any information about terrorist cells in Europe and any attacks they may be plotting.
Maj. Gen. Gary J. Volesky, the commander of American ground forces in Iraq, has called Mosul the Islamic State’s Iraqi “crown jewel.” Noting that the militants had been entrenched there for more than two years, he added on Wednesday, “Clearly, there’s going to be intelligence that will be able to be exploited.”
European intelligence and counterterrorism officials said they were eagerly awaiting data gleaned from computer hard drives, cellphones, recruiting files and other sources after Iraqi forces advance into the city in coming weeks. These officials fear an influx of foreign fighters fleeing the campaigns against Mosul and Raqqa.
Information recovered from two earlier military operations against the Islamic State — one in eastern Syria in May 2015 and another from more recent combat in Manbij, Syria — gave American and allied officials trenchant insights into the Islamic State’s leadership structure and its financing and recruiting. Forces have also recovered detailed records of many of the 40,000 fighters from more than 120 countries who have poured into Syria and Iraq to fight for the group, also known as ISIS, ISIL or Daesh.
“If we get a phone off of a dead ISIL fighter in Manbij and it has a number of telephone numbers into a particular capital or city around the world, we share that information with the coalition members so that they can conduct their own investigation,” Brett H. McGurk, President Obama’s envoy to the coalition fighting the Islamic State, said this month. “This is now really starting to work at light speed, although we want to speed it up.”
It is unclear if Islamic State leaders in Mosul will try to destroy any of their electronic or paper records before Iraqi forces and their American advisers can seize them. The Islamic State maintains prodigious and meticulous records, and it is not known if the leaders would take such a drastic step.
Data is flowing out of Iraq and Syria as information-sharing within and between European governments has steadily improved since the deadly terrorism strikes in Paris and Brussels in the past year, European counterterrorism and law enforcement officials say. “A lot has changed since the attacks in Paris,” said Johan De Becker, the police chief of the western districts of Brussels, which include Molenbeek and others that were the home of the Paris and Brussels attackers. “We have made a lot of improvements on the level of national and international signaling concerning the foreign terrorist fighters.”
American officials acknowledge that they face a daunting task in gathering, analyzing and disseminating to Iraqi and Western intelligence services a collection of information from Mosul that is expected to dwarf the 20 terabytes of data retrieved so far in Manbij. One terabyte is equal to the contents of a million books.
The Pentagon’s Joint Staff and the Defense Intelligence Agency have been providing intelligence support to the Iraqis for the past two years, American officials said, but there has not yet been a fight to match the size and scope of the battle to retake Mosul, where half of the city’s previous population of two million still resides.
The American-led coalition must be able to offer intelligence support in the Mosul operation to more partner forces — including the Iraqi Army, counterterrorism service and police, as well as Kurdish pesh merga fighters — than in any previous operations to retake other cities.
As a result, in the military’s most recent deployment of more than 600 additional troops, dozens of military and civilian intelligence analysts were dispatched to several locations around Iraq. Most were in place just before the Mosul offensive began, but some are still trickling in.
“Whenever you liberate a city the size of Mosul, you can expect to get a tremendous amount of information,” said Col. John L. Dorrian, the chief American military spokesman in Baghdad. “Certainly, if we have a window of opportunity that presents itself rather quickly, we do have adequate forces in theater to go ahead and act upon that.”
The intelligence surge would most likely “give us a lot of insight into Daesh networks not just in Iraq and Syria, but it also gives insight into how they export terror around the world, some of the people they work with, how they finance themselves,” Colonel Dorrian said.
That is important because even as the Islamic State loses its physical caliphate, or religious state, in Iraq and Syria, the group can still inflict deadly assaults, senior American counterterrorism officials say. “It’s our judgment that ISIL’s capacity and ability today to carry out attacks in Syria and Iraq and abroad has not thus far been significantly diminished,” Nicholas J. Rasmussen, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, told Congress last month. “The tempo of ISIL-linked terrorist attacks and terrorist activity in Europe and other places around the globe is a reminder of that global reach.”
“This external operations capability has been building and entrenching over the past two years,” he warned, “and we don’t think that battlefield or territorial losses alone will be sufficient to completely degrade the group’s terrorism capabilities.”