It was previously known that terrorist organizations depend on some intelligence when planning for their terrorist operations. During the last five years, however, it has been observed that the terrorist organizations developed their methods to the extent of having their own intelligence bodies, similar to those possessed by countries. This was mainly related to “ISIS”, which was able to establish its own intelligence body known as “al-Amn” [Security] body. The Somali al-Shabaab movement also established its own intelligence body, which was known as “al-Amniyat” [Securities].
How do terrorist organizations establish intelligence bodies?
Some terrorist organizations were able to establish semi-intelligence bodies through one of the following two methods:
- Receiving support from a country: for instance, Iran trained some agents of al-Qaeda since the early 1990s. In 1993, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, in cooperation with the Lebanese Hizballah, trained some agents of al-Qaeda in the Beqaa Valley in South Lebanon on how to manufacture explosives and gave them courses on the fields of intelligence and security.
Likewise, the United States accuses Pakistan of being involved in supporting al-Qaeda organization, although Pakistan has helped the United States detain some al-Qaeda leadership elements of the second and third ranks. However, the United States accusations remain credible, due to the fact that some Qaeda-related media websites published some manuals on the principles of intelligence, obtained from the Pakistani intelligence agency.
- Containment of elements with intelligence experience: ISIS’s intelligence body was established by Haji Bakr, known as Abu Mohamed al-Khalafawi, who was a former colonel in the Iraqi intelligence bodies under the former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein. Bakr met with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, later the head of ISIS, in the prisons of the American occupation (2004-2008), and was assigned by ISIS to establish an intelligence body for the organization in 2012. Although Haji Bakr was killed in 2014, he managed to transfer most of his experience to the rest of ISIS members.
Main intelligence bodies of terrorist organizations:
The two main intelligence bodies established by terrorist organizations, on which information is available, are ISIS’s “Al-Amn” body, and al-Shabaab’s “al-Amniyat” body:
First, “al-Amn” [Security] body:
ISIS’s intelligence body is known as al-Amn body, referred to in the West as “Emni”. It was headed by Haji Bakr, then by Abu Mohamed al-Adnani, ISIS’s spokesman. The information available about al-Amn body reveals that it is responsible for several functions, mainly:
- Collection of information: ISIS used al-Amn body to collect field information to help the organization win its battles in Syria and Iraq, in addition to collecting detailed information about the cities ISIS wants to seize, where al-Amn sent its members to determine the ideological and political backgrounds of residents of those cities, to determine the elements they can cooperate with and those that can threaten them and so get rid of them. Al-Amn used also to collect and analyze information about the attacks on ISIS-controlled areas. It was also observed that ISIS managed to plant its members in all other opposing terrorist organizations to spy on and collect information about them.
- Publicity and psychological war: al-Amn body-focused mainly on publicity, producing films of the terrorist operations done by ISIS for the purpose of inspiring fear of ISIS, against its opponent forces, in addition to the justification of the terrorist operations against its opponent forces.
- Execution of terrorist operations abroad: the body concerned with secret work, specifically the execution of terrorist operations abroad, was divided into a number of sub-sections, such as the Secret Service in European Countries, the Secret Service in Asian Countries, and the Secret Service in Arab Countries. al-Amn body was granted wide powers to select the agents to be planted from different ISIS branches, whether newly joined members, seasoned fighters, or even from the special units.
ISIS actively sent its agents outside the areas under its control in Syria and Iraq, especially to Europe, selecting most of them from those who reside in European countries, where they lived naturally, undercover, among their families, so that their link to ISIS cannot be detected.
ISIS even used a former smuggler who joined the organization for re-smuggling those elements to the European Union countries through Turkey and Greece, while others managed to enter Europe within the wave of refugees. Sometimes, ISIS referred to those European agents as killed during its fighting operations so that the European security bodies would not trace them, then they show up participating in terrorist explosions in Europe.
ISIS also asked those European members to book for short vacations in resorts in southern Turkey and take many photos there, then come for short pieces of training with ISIS, to be sent again to join sleeper cells in Europe, so that they do not face suspicions by security services if they were interrogated.
Al-Amn members succeeded in executing many impactful operations, most notably Paris attacks on 13 November 2015, and the attack on Brussel’s airport and an underground station in Belgium on 22 March 2016. Investigations by European countries revealed that ISIS succeeded in sending hidden agents to Austria, Germany, Spain, Lebanon, Tunisia, Bangladesh, Indonesia, and Malaysia.
Second, al-Amniyat [Securities] body:
The Somali al-Shabaab movement maintained its own intelligence body known as “Amniyat”, with about 500-1000 members. Amniyat is divided into a number of sections: one for collection of intelligence, another for fighting external espionage, a section for explosions, a section for assassinations, etc. The main roles of Amniyat include the following:
- Collecting information: Amniyat agents seek to collect information about the site to be targeted by terrorist operations, whether inside or outside Somalia. Al-Shabaab mostly recruits agents in the areas under the control of the Somali government, as well as in targeted areas in East Africa, especially Kenya.
- Penetrating state organizations: Al-Shabaab depended in executing a number of its successful terrorist operations on penetrating the Somali governmental organizations and security services. In 2016, Mohamed Mao, head of security in Mogadishu airport, was convicted by a court for helping to smuggle a pomp put inside a laptop on board of a flight, which then exploded after 15 minutes of departure from Mogadishu airport. In 2014, Abdessalam Mohamed Hassan, a senior official within the National Intelligence and Security Agency, was convicted for providing al-Shabaab with photos and data of the agency’s employees. Similarly, al-Shabaab managed to collect intelligence through planting spies in some Somali diplomatic missions abroad.
- Liquidation and assassinations: Amniyat actively executes assassinations and attacks against government officials and senior political officials in Somalia. Al-Shabaab also employs the Amniyat body to trace and get rid of members who leave the organization, to keep the organization intact and to prevent dissents that could impact the movement.
How do countries address the intelligence activities of terrorist organizations?
Countries usually go for one of two strategies to deal with the security bodies of the terrorist organizations, either liquidation or getting rid of the organization, as follows:
- Liquidation of key agents: countries usually go for liquidating the leadership of a terrorist organization’s intelligence bodies, especially those assigned to execute terrorist operations abroad. In March 2015, the US army killed Adan Garar in Bardera. Garar was thought to be in charge of external operations in Amniyat, and the US believed that Garar was the mastermind of the attack on Westgate mall in Kenya. In September 2013, the US army killed another number of senior leaders inside Amniyat, most notably Sahal Isku Dhuuq (January 2014), Tahliil Abdishakur (December 2014), and Yusuf Dheeq (January 2015).
Similarly, the US army killed Abu Mohamed al-Adnani in August 2016 in an airstrike launched by a US drone in northern Syria. Al-Adnani was one of the most dangerous leaders in ISIS, being the architect of the external terrorist operations against the West.
- Getting rid of the organization: the US succeeded in getting rid of ISIS in its territories in Syria and Iraq, by pushing the organization out of the areas they used to control, cutting their main sources of finance. In addition, the US killed ISIS’s key leaders, weakening the organization and contributing to the detainment of many ISIS members, consequently facilitating the penetration of the organization and knowing its mechanisms of action, and its main members, then tracing and killing them.
At the end, it can be said that the success of terrorist organizations in establishing its own intelligence bodies depends in part on how powerful the countries in which they exist. Through powerful security services, a country can reduce the organization’s capacity to form such intelligence bodies, and can weaken its ability to recruit loyal agents inside the lands of the targeted country.
) Thomas Joscelyn, The Al Qaeda-Iran Connection, Foundation for Defense of Democracies, August 8, 2018, accessible at: https://bit.ly/2OmsCDI
) Greg Miller, Al-Qaeda’s terrorist tool kit now includes training manuals from Pakistani spy agency, The Washington Post, July 15, 2011, accessible at: https://wapo.st/2Ol5s0e
) Anne Speckhard and Ahmet S. Yayla, The ISIS Emni: Origins and Inner Workings of ISIS’s Intelligence Apparatus, Perspectives On Terrorism, Vol. 11, Issue 1, February 2017, (pp. 3 – 4), accessible at: https://bit.ly/2OmEjdt
) Michael Rubin, How does ISIS do intelligence? American Enterprise Institute, December 5, 2016, accessible at: https://bit.ly/2Saam1r
) Rukmini Callimachi, How a Secretive Branch of ISIS Built a Global Network of Killers, The New York Times, August 3, 2016, accessible at: https://nyti.ms/2GIOJ30
) Anne Speckhard and Ardian Shajkovci, ISIS Smuggler: Sleeper Cells and ‘Undead’ Suicide Bombers Have Infiltrated Europe, Daily Beast, February 5, 2019, accessible at: https://bit.ly/2OhZmOb
) Somalia’s frightening network of Islamist spies, BBC, May 27, 2019, accessible at: https://bbc.in/2UisSra
) PAUL D. WILLIAMS, After Westgate: opportunities and challenges in the war against Al-Shabaab, International Affairs, Vol. 90, Issue 4, 2014, p. 911.
 Harun Maruf, Somalia Assesses Al-Shabab Moles’ Infiltration of Government, Voice of America, August 15, 2019, accessible at: https://bit.ly/2RR6fIP
) Ken Menkhaus, Al-Shabab’s Capabilities Post-Westgate, CTC sentinel, February 2014, Vol 7, Issue 2, p. 6.