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ISIS' Intelligence Service Refuses to Die

Why the Emni Isn't Going Away

By Vera Mironova, Ekaterina Sergatskova, and Karam

In the darkness of a Mosul safe house in which ten Iraqi

soldiers slept, bluish light still emanated from the mobile
devices of two intelligence officers busy locating suicide cars,
IEDs, and Islamic State (ISIS) bases, and tracking down the
names of ISIS members. Providing that information were
civilians deep in ISIS territory. On the other side of the battle,
the same process was happening in reverse. And those
operations were, in many ways, far more sophisticated. Even
now that the terrorist organization is disintegrating, its
intelligence bureau still presents a major challenge.
For many of the civilians providing information about ISIS to
Iraqi authorities, doing so was their way of fighting back
against a miserable situation. “So many people in Mosul
wanted to cooperate with us because they wanted revenge
[against] ISIS for killing their family members,” one Iraqi
Army intelligence officer told us. For others, the job was
purely for material benefit—the payouts whose size depended
on the information provided.
Collecting information was easy enough. One female
informant in Mosul did so by flirting with ISIS militants. To
keep from attracting attention, she would walk around with
her young nieces and nephews since she had no children of
her own. Another woman worked as a hairdresser and spied
on ISIS leaders through their wives, who often visited her
The hard part of the job was sharing whatever information
they gathered. The territories that ISIS controlled were
surrounded by Iraqi and allied forces, so it was impossible to
pass information in person. There were still Internet cafés in
the Islamic State, but in Mosul at least, according to locals,
there were “no employees who were not Emni [ISIS Internal
Security] informants and no customers who were not ISIS
members.” ISIS was also suspicious of sophisticated electronic
devices. The very day ISIS took Mosul, it reportedly arrested a
civilian on spying charges for wearing a sports watch with
Although some informants had satellite phones, the most
straightforward way to transmit information was through a
simple cell phone. But ISIS forbade those, which meant that
informants had to get creative about hiding them. The female
spy hid hers in her bra; others put them in treetops, in
different jars in the kitchen, and in the furniture. One person
told us that he buried his phone in the garden, only digging it
out once a week to send information.
From there, things only got more challenging: it wasn’t easy to
find good cell coverage in Mosul, so informants had to send
text messages from elevated places such as the top floors of
buildings or neighborhoods on hills. Of course, ISIS members
knew that as well, so they searched anyone who went to those
areas a little too often. If they found a phone with pertinent
messages, that meant execution for the owner. An empty cell
phone was even more suspicious. It meant torture.
Despite the dangers involved, informants continued their
work and played a crucial role in preparations for the war
against ISIS and during major operations, such as the one in
As informants risked their lives to get information about ISIS
to the Iraqi forces, information was also flowing in the
opposite direction: from ISIS sympathizers outside of the
group’s territory to ISIS command-and-control. Their
information-gathering techniques were relatively
sophisticated because they drew not only on the experience of
Iraqis who worked for the Saddam Hussein regime’s
intelligence services, but also on that of foreign fighters from
different countries.
In preparation for taking control of major Iraqi
towns, ISIS would start collecting information by penetrating
different government institutions there. Locals knew as much,
but were afraid to report anything. Although ISIS focused on
security institutions, they were also conducting economic
espionage. Before taking Mosul, they placed people in Mosul
Museum, which they eventually looted. According to museum
director Raya Unus, before ISIS took control of the town, the
museum got a suspicious new laborer who was likely
collecting information on where the most expensive artifacts
were stored.
After ISIS took control of major territory, they turned to
collecting intelligence on Iraqi-controlled areas. Local taxi
drivers were particularly useful in this regard, especially when
it was still possible to travel freely between ISIS-controlled
territory and the rest of Iraq. Many of the drivers were later
arrested. Moreover, in 2015, managers at several Baghdad
hotels were arrested for cooperating with ISIS. And in 2016, a
schoolteacher in Kurdistan was arrested for not only
providing information to ISIS, but also for buying them phone
credits so they could receive the information.
At the same time, ISIS would spy on civilians in its own
territory. For example, the group employed children to listen
to conversations on the streets, in the market, and even in
traffic. The adults would frequent other public places. “I used
to go to the barbershops in town and listen while waiting in
line,” said one member of ISIS intelligence. “I went to the
mosques after prayers and listened to what people were
talking about while I pretended to be reading the Koran.”
At some point, ISIS appears to have penetrated enemy forces.
Some members of Kurdish intelligence suspected that some
members of the Peshmerga were sympathetic to ISIS and
were passing information to the group. According to Halgurd
Hikmat, spokesperson of KRG’s Ministry of Peshmerga, “by
now we did not find ISIS members in Peshmerga, but I am not
saying it is impossible.” In Syria, ISIS had spies in other non-
state-armed groups. As recently as two months ago, a foreign
fighter who belonged to Hayat Tahrir al Sham (formerly al
Nusra) was identified as an ISIS informant.
In turn, ISIS developed a sophisticated counterintelligence
operation that focused on catching individuals spying from
within. The perceived need for such an operation was
understandable. When Iraqi forces started taking back
territory, many low- and mid-level local ISIS members started
considering cooperating with the Iraqi government to save
their lives. With time, ISIS also became more concerned about
being penetrated by foreign intelligence agencies. Not only did
coalition airstrikes target ISIS leaders with precision, foreign
leaders openly talked about infiltrating ISIS. As Chechen
leader Ramzan Kadyrov remarked, “even before ISIS became
known as ISIS, we had our agents there.”
In charge of rooting out traitors was ISIS’ internal security
force, Emni, which drew in some of ISIS’ most experienced
and dedicated members and had the strictest vetting process.
For example, it was normal for fighters in Syria to change
groups multiple times, but Emni only took people who had
never fought for any group besides ISIS. In addition to rank-
and-file Emni members, ISIS employed an army of
informants who worked under cover and could receive $5,000
for each spy caught. Not only was the pay high (an average
salary for an ISIS fighter was between $100 and $250 per
month), but being an informant was also a good way to jump-
start a career. One nearly illiterate individual started as an
informant in his village outside of Mosul and was later able to
get a job in an ISIS court of appeals in Mosul. Some civilians
worked as Emni informants because it helped their
businesses. In theory, anyone could have started a business
under ISIS, but in practice, an individual would need to be
trusted by the organization. And this trust could be gained by
providing ISIS with information.
Because ISIS was so afraid of being penetrated at the
organizational level, it constantly used undercover informants
to monitor its own members. For foreign fighters, such
surveillance usually started even before a fighter came to
Syria. First, ISIS informants among group supporters in
foreign communities checked potential fighters. Then, they
were constantly monitored after arriving in Turkey. For
example, a prospective fighter from Kazakhstan filmed
himself crossing into Syria from Turkey. A smuggler noticed
it, and he was immediately arrested by Emni, imprisoned, and
later executed—all before he actually even joined the group.
ISIS suspected that he was filming the crossing to send his
coordinates to a foreign government. Inside ISIS, “everyone
was in a constant state of fear of being spied on,” remembered
one ex-foreign fighter. According to him, it was impossible to
discuss anything, even with co-ethnic friends in their unit,
because Emni informants recorded conversations.
When suspected spies were arrested, ISIS sent them to an
internal security prison. There, they were often housed in
individual cells without ventilation. Even prison guards were
not allowed to talk to them. According to fellow prisoners,
suspected spies were tortured so badly that they were not able
to walk (their legs were too swollen) or eat (they could not
move their hands to grab food). Any females were housed in
special women’s prisons and interrogated by female Emni
The majority of suspected spies were executed, but sometime
locals would be acquitted and let free. According to one ex-
ISIS foreign fighter (and later ISIS prisoner), an alleged spy
who did not have any serious evidence against him could
bribe Emni to expedite the process, and some locals could use
connections to get them out. One civilian was imprisoned on
spying charges but later freed. He said, “I got out only because
one of my relatives had a high position in the organization. He
helped me, but later regretted doing so because it cost him
promotion.” For foreigners accused of spying, the situation
was more serious. An ISIS member who was imprisoned with
people who were later executed as FSB spies said that "one of
them, half Kazakh, half Kabardin, was a long term friend of a
senior Russian-speaking Emni member also from Kabardiano
Balkaria. But even that did not help."
Executions of local prisoners usually took place in public as a
warning. Foreign fighters were often made to confess their
guilt on video before execution. These videos were then
distributed for international consumption. It was a common
knowledge in prison that after confession, one would be
executed, so many foreigners refused to do so, trying to gain
To be sure, all of this was controversial even inside ISIS, and
some fighters refused to cooperate with Emni on ethical
grounds. The force apparently tried at times to recruit senior
leaders’ bodyguards, but many refused to spy on the people
they were supposed to protect. Some regular fighters were
more vocal in their opposition, and there were cases of attacks
on Emni informants. For example, one Tunisian foreign
fighter suspected that his taxi driver was a member of Emni
because, despite wearing civilian clothes, he had a pistol and a
hand grenade in the car. The fighter stabbed him with a knife.
Indeed, there were hundreds of people in prison for attacking
members of Emni.
With time, such confrontations escalated and some ISIS units
even attacked Emni prisons. For example, in 2015, when
Emni arrested a 16-year-old girl from Kazakhstan, her father,
who was in an ISIS assault unit, took around ten fighters with
heavy weapons to the prison to demand the release of his
daughter. Emni prison guards, afraid for their lives, let her go.
Later, all those who participated in the attack were either
arrested or disappeared.
Although such sophisticated internal surveillance protected
the group, it also increased distrust in the organization and its
leadership, which led to internal conflicts and ISIS’ eventual
In Iraq, the war of weapons is over, but the war of information
is not. First of all, many of the most experienced and
dedicated Emni members were able to escape when ISIS fell.
Compared to ISIS fighters, they enjoyed relative freedom of
movement, so when the Iraqi operation in Mosul started,
many agents moved to liberated territories, from which they
updated ISIS on the movement of Iraqi forces. Even now,
their presence is no secret to local civilians. At first, males in
liberated areas even refused to shave their beards, still afraid
that ISIS Emni who stayed behind would take note of people
who violated ISIS grooming policies. According to one senior
Emni member currently in hiding, there are around 1,500
ISIS members stationed in Mosul and ready to take up
It is unclear, however, whether ISIS will be able to penetrate
local law enforcement institutions once again. Iraq’s Tribal
Mobilization Force (TMF), which is made up mostly of local
Sunni groups, replaced its non-local Shia counterparts (the
PMUs) and is in charge of security in many areas. Although
TMF officers are more trusted by locals than the PMUs, some
civilians (and other armed groups) worry that the TMF is
already infiltrated by ISIS. And those concerns might be valid.
During pre-deployment training last year, the TMF identified
and arrested an ISIS mole. According to Faisal Jabar, a leader
of one of the TMF groups stationed in West Mosul, “Those
dangers are very real, but we are doing our best to reduce
them. For example, in order to join our group, a person needs
to not have been under ISIS in Mosul, have recommendations
from community, and we check his name with security
institutions both in Kurdistan and Baghdad.” But not all
groups are as meticulous, especially where qualified
candidates are hard to find.
Solving the ISIS intelligence problem requires Iraqi forces to
win the trust of the local population and increase intelligence
cooperation between different armed groups and countries. It
will make is easier to catch an ISIS informant if armed groups
stationed in the same city share intelligence. And this is not
only a problem in Iraq. Emni foreigners (and in particular, its
leadership) were among the most likely to escape Iraq and
Syria and head elsewhere—including to Europe. Some still
work for Emni and, as a result, can simply pick up ISIS
activities in a new place.