If authentic, the disclosure of files containing the personal data of around 22,000 Islamic State members, including some Americans and other westerners, could turn the coalition fight against the extremist group on its head.
Britain’s Sky News reported it had obtained the data on the border with Turkey and Syria--files that provide the real names of the terror network’s fighters, where they were from, telephone numbers, and the names of those who sponsored and recruited the militants.
German officials are trying to verify the authenticity of the files, which the news agency Sky said were passed on to them on a memory stick stolen from the chief of ISIS internal security police by a former militant who had grown disillusioned with the extremist organization.
The data could prove illuminating on two fronts.
First, it might give the U.S. and it allies a better handle on the size of ISIS forces. Defense and intelligence officials have maintained that the group’s end strength, at least in Iraq and Syria, hovers around 30,000 fighters, even though those same officials claim that the U.S-led military campaign has eliminated thousands of extremists on the ground.
A CIA assessment in late 2014 put the number of ISIS fighters at around 31,500.
The head-scratching claims and figures could be easier to understand if the information gleaned from the files better defines the breadth and scope of the Islamic State’s global reach and gives a clearer picture of the number of jihadists that have rallied to the group’s infamous black flags.
The cache also could help in the Obama administration’s efforts to minimize the threat of so-called “lone wolves.”
Several White House officials and many senior members of Congress have long warned about radical extremist organizations and their potential to carry out or inspire attacks on the U.S. homeland, similar to the mass shooting that occurred in San Bernardino, California, last year.
The files could provide a critical starting point in figuring how ISIS goes about trying to recruit, be it through face-to-face contact, online chat rooms, or other means.
Authorities could use the data to sort out previously unidentified figures in the ISIS command structure or merge the files with existing pieces of intelligence to work their way up to the terror group’s upper echelons.
Either tactic would be a crucial blow to the jihadist group. Just the fact that such information has fallen into the hands of Western officials could prompt the organization to roll up some of its recruitment efforts or allow them to simply wither on the vine.
Of course, the highly-secretive nature surrounding such potential intelligence is a goldmine, and it might be months or years before anyone learns if the files helped lead to reversals in ISIS recruiting efforts.