The Dangerous Lives of Undercover ISIS Informants
Meet the small group of Middle Eastern men willing to risk everything to help destroy the Islamic State.
ERBIL, Iraq — Everyone in Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, is aware of the warplanes that have killed the commanders of the Islamic State and decimated its weapon factories and training centers while flying tens of thousands of feet over the city, largely impervious to the threats beneath them. A far fewer number know about the undercover all-volunteer army of informants operating in Islamic State-held territory, who risk torture and death every day to relay intelligence to the Iraqi and coalition forces that operate those planes.
“There were people spying from Mosul both from the west and the eastern sides,” said Emad al-Rashidi, an advisor to Nineveh Gov. Nawfal Hammadi. “We made airstrikes after confirming the data through volunteers.”
“Usually, our guys in Mosul called after midnight for five seconds, before taking out their SIM card,” Rashidi said. Islamic State militants have banned phones that actively communicate with the outside world via cellular networks. Anyone caught using a SIM card is usually executed.
Rashidi said these civilians usually receive no compensation for their covert work and supported the fight because “they love their land.”
The informants typically provided their information to the Kurdish or Iraqi forces, who would then pass it to the anti-Islamic State coalition. A former lieutenant in the Iraqi Army and a captain in the Peshmerga focused on infantry intelligence who goes by the pseudonym Sorxan Rekani said he recruited and worked with seven informants and that Italian, German, and U.S. officers, operating on their information, would then use drones to conduct additional reconnaissance or strike the targets directly. Coalition spokesman Col. John Dorrian confirmed the international alliance receives its target lists from civilian informants, among other sources.
Foreign Policy spoke with Rekani and three civilian “agents” who provided information to him. Their collective intelligence led to the deaths of more than 100 Islamic State fighters, and the destruction of multiple weapons factories and training centers, Rekani and the informants said.
“The best way to get new information on the ground is to have someone near the target,” Rekani said. “Terror organizations are very good at changing their location, but when you have good attacks on important targets, they will lose control.”
The informants declined to be identified by name, fearing reprisals against their families by Islamic State sleeper cells. They provided only their agent numbers, by which they were known to the coalition. They are all currently in Iraq outside of Islamic State-held territory, where they live in homes that Rekani helped them find. Their former handler also tried to get them cash assistance but was unsuccessful; he said the coalition told him if informants were rewarded with money, they would start selling information to the highest bidder.
Rekani met Agent 45, a Kurdish informant, in 2008 when they both served in the Iraqi military. The agent reached out to Rekani in August 2014, saying he wanted to provide information. In an interview, Agent 45 said his motivation to help was simple: “There was one reason — we don’t like Daesh,” using an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State.
As a generator repairman, he had the opportunity to travel throughout the city, covertly learning about Islamic State checkpoints and gatherings. He also noted movements of Islamic State trucks and warned the coalition in advance of the movement of large convoys, making them easy targets for airstrikes.
Agent 45’s life as a spy was full of dread. While out and about, he often thought that someone was following him, especially when he was gathering information. At night, he would call Rekani while lying flat on his back on the roof of his house. He kept the calls very short and hid the phone behind a false wall in a closet in his home.
“My family still does not know what I was doing,” he said, even after they escaped during the Iraqi military’s push into eastern Mosul. “They did not need to know. It was better for them.”
Rekani referred to Agent 40, who worked as a taxi driver during the Islamic State occupation, as perhaps his “best source.” Beginning in 2015, he wrote detailed reports that helped the coalition destroy 14 major targets, including a meeting of Islamic State leaders, a militant court, and several car bomb assembly plants.
Rekani told Agent 40, an Arab from Mosul, to check out certain locations in advance. Agent 40 found others on his own. “For example, if I saw many nice cars in some position, I would park nearby, walk around, and see,” he said. “Sometimes I’d pick up some passengers who would tell me what was going on.” Occasionally he drove militants and overheard their conversations.
“I was afraid, of course, but I had to do something,” he said. “I had to help my people.”
By his count, the information he provided led to the deaths of 87 Islamic State members, including high-ranking officials. To confirm the strikes and sate his own curiosity, he took mobile phone video of almost every one of the strikes while his son drove the car. “I was very happy to see lots of Daesh killed,” he said.
This practice eventually caught up with him. Islamic State fighters conducted a surprise inspection of Agent 40’s house and found his wife using a forbidden phone. They waited for him to return and then promptly arrested him, beat him, and shoved him in a cell with seven other men. After they went through the phone and saw the videos he took, they sentenced him to execution.
As he sat there waiting to die, the building quaked, and one of the walls exploded into pieces from an airstrike on an adjacent building. Through the smoke, Agent 40 saw four Islamic State bodies sprawled on the ground. He and six fellow prisoners made their escape through the hole caused by the airstrike — he believes the eighth prisoner was killed.
The informant fled Mosul to Qayyarah, and then to Shirqat, where he was eventually reunited with his family. To this day, he doesn’t know whether the airstrike was accidental or a deliberate attempt to free him. Rekani said he does not know either.
Agent 44, also a taxi driver, was able to avoid such close calls in Mosul by hiding his SIM card inside the fruit he collected from his orange tree. His job meant that he spent a great deal of time around the mechanic shops of eastern Mosul. He seized the opportunity, gathering information on the hidden munitions plants in the area.
“I would go up to the mechanics’ area and ask about strange people working there and what my colleagues said. Then I would go to the factory site and confirm with my eyes,” the informant said. One of his neighbors worked inside one of the plants and passed him the information.
Agent 44 was most proud of discovering a swimming pool where close to 50 Islamic State fighters trained during the evenings. Thanks to his chats with a pool employee, he told the coalition exactly when and where to strike the target in order to erase dozens of fighters from the conflict.
All three agents said they did their best to prevent civilian casualties but could not claim with 100 percent certainty that their work didn’t cause innocent deaths. Rekani and Rashidi said drones would usually surveil targets provided by informants, to confirm that they were indeed Islamic State positions. The jihadi organization, however, has a long-standing practice of using human shields and recruiting workers from the local populace. It’s impossible to know how many nonmilitants would have been present at the time of a given airstrike.
When asked if they would do it again, all three agents said without hesitation that they would, despite the fact that they never got any payment or official acknowledgment for their role. Helping defeat the Islamic State was its own reward.
Still, Agent 40 was happy that the most absurd parts of the experience were over. He said he had found it ever more difficult to keep a straight face while attending mosque on Fridays, which the Islamic State mandated. When the militants called on God to defeat their enemies, Agent 40 made a different prayer.
“They told us to pray, ‘Please, God, destroy the Americans and the Peshmerga,’” he said. “I prayed: ‘Please, my God, don’t listen to them.’”
Photo by Osie Greenway