Newly Released ISIS Files: Learning from the Islamic State's Long-Version Personnel Form.

Author:Milton, Daniel

In November 2007, Richard Oppel, Jr., a reporter for The New York Times, described a set of documents that had been recovered in a U.S. military raid in Sinjar, Iraq, as providing significant information regarding the individuals who were traveling into Iraq to fight against the Iraqi government and coalition forces. (1) Shortly thereafter, the Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) at West Point released the first detailed look at those documents, which provided in-depth analysis of the demographics and origins of al-Qa'ida in Iraq's (AQI) foreign fighter population. (2)

Although the level of detail about the number and composition of fighters was valuable information, the actual breadth of information contained in these forms was relatively limited. Indeed, the documents themselves contained slightly more than a dozen possible entries about each fighter, to include the incoming fighter's name, date of birth, previous occupation, and preferred duty. These forms told relatively little about how the organization viewed the opportunities and risks associated with these incoming fighters. Perhaps, however, this lack of information speaks somewhat to the reason for the group's struggles in appropriately managing the talent of its members. Later examinations of internal Islamic State in Iraq (ISI) documents revealed critiques about wasted opportunities to fully leverage foreign fighters. (3)

As ISI continued to evolve and learn the lessons of its previous mistakes, one of the areas it improved in was the amount of information it solicited from incoming fighters. When the CTC obtained over 4,000 Islamic State personnel records (the successor organization to AQI and ISI), one major difference between those records and the earlier Sinjar records was the amount of detail contained in the forms. (4) There were now 23 questions that included the same information sought by the Sinjar records, but probed further regarding each fighter's travel history, knowledge of sharia, education level, and even blood type. As noted in the CTC's report on those documents, the expanded form demonstrated organizational learning in an effort to vet and manage its incoming cadre of fighters. (5)

These first two examples of the Islamic State's efforts to manage its fighters conveyed a certain level of bureaucracy and structure that clearly signaled the group's desire to establish itself as a lasting organization and, ultimately, a state. That said, a fair critique of this perspective could be that these forms were simple efforts that did not go far beyond what one might expect of any organization. Such a criticism, however, ignores the organizational and security challenges that a terrorist group must overcome to implement such systems. (6) Beyond managing and tracking individuals, a terrorist organization must guard against potential internal security risks that threaten to destroy the group, from spies to dissatisfied members looking to change the direction of the organization. (a) By collecting a large amount of information regarding an individual's background, references, and interactions with the organization, these forms provide the group with a detailed look at who each individual was and, potentially, what risks they might pose.

Such a critique also assumes that the Islamic State did not collect more information beyond what was contained in these initial forms. Given all that is now known about the sprawling bureaucracy of the Islamic State, it seems likely that the group acquired more than what was contained in those forms. (7) This article examines a recently declassified collection of 27 personnel records for Islamic State fighters, both local and foreign. (b) These records were acquired by the U.S. Department of Defense in Syria in 2016. Although they are a few years old, the authors believe that they provide important insight into how the Islamic State thought about managing its fighters and indicate that the group has a much wider organizational scope than previously assumed. (c)

The Documents

The original documents appear to have as their base a standard template printed on letter-sized paper. (See Figure 1.) The upper right-hand corner contains a printed image of the Islamic State's flag, and other markings across the top of the page suggest that the document either covers or pertains to an office called "Personnel Affairs and Human Resources." The information in the forms is written in ink. It is not entirely clear whether each fighter himself filled out the forms or whether it was someone else on his behalf. Nor is it clear whether the handwritten information was later entered into a database, although previous caches of captured documents suggest this as a strong possibility.

One important caveat is that all 27 forms acquired by the CTC indicate that they are from the Islamic State's Aleppo province. There are at least two possible reasons for this. One is that Aleppo was the only province to develop their own detailed personnel tracking forms. The other is that these forms (or at the very least the collection of such detailed information) were standard across the Islamic State's provinces, but that this particular batch of material obtained by the Department of Defense only contained information from the Aleppo province. Based on previous examinations of internal Islamic State documents that have displayed the group's increasing bureaucratic sophistication, the authors believe the latter explanation is more likely. (8)

Although they share similarities with the foreign fighter intake forms discussed earlier, it is clear from the information they contain that these forms were not just filled out on one occasion. Instead, they seem to track an individual's timeline and progress within the organization. For example, these forms contain information about the training and equipment the individual received from the Islamic State. These training fields, combined with the provincial markings discussed above, indicate that these forms were functionally different from the previously released Islamic State documents, which served mainly as initial intake questionnaires to be used when individuals either entered Islamic State territory or joined the organization locally. (d) These 27 forms likely served as the basis for provincial-level personnel files that tracked, to a certain extent, an individual fighter's time in the organization. Some also included notations about unit transfers within the province or leave documents authorizing travel into or out of the Islamic State's territory.

While there are some minor variations among them, the fighter forms analyzed in this article have slightly over 100 fields that track information across a range of categories--from the fighter's early life to their realization of the necessity of jihad, and on to their current assignment within the Islamic State. The forms also include the usual demographic information related to age, marital status, previous and current place of residence, and educational achievements. It is important to note that each of the fields is filled out to varying degrees, such that some fields have nearly complete...

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