BAGHDAD – In both Syria and Iraq, ISIS cadres that have managed to escape have quietly melted into the landscape. Many have returned to their villages to live under the shelter of family members willing to hide them while others have escaped into the desert. In both cases, they quietly set up sleeper cells. They also clandestinely come out in the countryside to rule the night. As the third of Iraqi territory that was once under ISIS control has been wrested back into Iraqi hands – with ISIS losing its final strongholds in Syria – the dispersal of ISIS forces moving into an underground insurgency and terrorist force is creating a new kind of enemy that requires superior and equally crafty intelligence operations. In Iraq, that is where a seldom-heard-about unit, the Falcons Intelligence Cell, plays an important role. Between 2018 and 2019, International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism researchers had an opportunity to sit down in Baghdad and Doha to discuss undercover cases with Abu Ali al Basri, the head of the Falcons Intelligence Cell, with 5,000 law enforcement, intelligence officers and others in specialized intelligence capacities assigned to it, working together to run undercover operations to fight groups like ISIS.
The placement of Capt. Harith al-Sudani as a spy inside ISIS is perhaps Abu Ali al Basri and the Falcons Intelligence Cell’s most spectacular success story. To avoid allowing spies into their organization, ISIS routinely required that new members come with a recommendation from existing members. In addition, the ISIS emni, ISIS’ intelligence arm, undertook an investigation of new recruits and regularly investigated ISIS members as well, sometimes scrutinizing their movements and taking their phones to read their messages to ensure that no spies entered the group.
Abu Ali and the Falcons made an audacious and extremely dangerous move to infiltrate Capt. Harith as their undercover agent into ISIS. Capt. Harith gained an ISIS recommendation by the Falcons through behind-the-scenes bargaining and maneuvering with a captured ISIS leader, so that he could approach ISIS posing as a disillusioned Sunni Baghdad resident looking for work and to help ISIS build its Caliphate. ISIS accepted Capt. Harith based on his recommendation, and since he lived in Baghdad and could easily move in and out of the city, the ISIS leaders decided he could best serve from inside the fortified city. As in the case of many ISIS members interviewed by ICSVE researchers who lived in Baghdad, ISIS saw him as an invaluable asset, namely capable of crossing checkpoints and driving explosive vehicles into Baghdad to wreak havoc in crowded areas. However, little did ISIS leaders know that Harith’s real job was to thwart such missions – even though he would thwart 30 bombing missions and 18 suicide missions aimed at Iraq’s capital.
After establishing himself in the group, Harith was tasked by ISIS to pick up bomb-laden vehicles from ISIS territory and deliver them into Baghdad to be exploded in areas designed to cause maximum casualties. To equip him as a mole inside the terrorist group, Abu Ali’s Falcons cell outfitted Harith with the latest technology, rigging his phone so that Abu Ali and the Falcons cell could be aware of Harith’s whereabouts, and even activate his microphone and listen in at any time. Then they sent him in – first to drive himself to Mosul, or wherever his bomb-laden cars were to be picked up, and then with the fully rigged explosive vehicles back into Baghdad, with the possibility that they could mistakenly explode at any time due to the bumpy roads, the heat or the nature of the hazardous materials involved.
In all, Capt. Harith drove 17 missions for ISIS. One of his most harrowing was when ISIS decided to send a suicide bomber to ride along with him, with instructions to detonate himself as well on the streets of Baghdad. The bomber wore a suicide vest as Harith made the journey over bumpy roads, hoping nothing would set off his companion’s bomb vest, nor the explosive load inside the vehicle as they drove along. Abu Ali recalls listening in on the conversation between the two of them as the bomber expressed fears and Harith began to sing Islamic nasheeds (instrument-free songs with the chanting of Quranic verses and Islamic beliefs featured within) to calm his companion’s nerves.
The manner in which Abu Ali and the Falcons thwarted these explosions was to arrange to meet Captain Harith at the checkpoints through which he had to drive his explosive-laden vehicle. It was at these checkpoints that his Falcons cell operatives raced to quickly unburden Harith’s vehicle of its explosives, drawing them down to an amount that would make a big enough bang when the car was exploded in the designated attack area per Harith’s ISIS instructions, but not big enough of an explosion to kill anyone. Abu Ali also had the job of quickly clearing the area where the car was to be exploded and creating fake “casualties” of other Falcons cells’ operatives who pretended to be killed in the explosion and who could be photographed as bloodied “victims” and handed over for distribution to the Iraqi press spokesman.
Abu Ali also faced the difficult case of trying to convince the Iraqi government to allow him to claim the most casualties from Harith’s “missions,” so that Harith would never fall under question by ISIS. The Iraqi government officials argued that making it look like ISIS was able to explode vehicles inside Baghdad was troubling, and letting anyone think ISIS was winning was maybe not worth what Abu Ali’s men were learning and possibly preventing by having Harith be the man who drove their bomb-laden vehicles into Baghdad. It was a delicate balancing act between national security and public perceptions.
In the scary situation in which Capt. Harith had another passenger with him – a fully rigged-out bomber wearing a suicide vest – the process was more complicated. However, due to the tracking device in Harith’s phone, Abu Ali knew exactly where the pair were when they reached the checkpoint, so that the bomber and the explosives could be intercepted, with the bomber being eliminated but reported out as exploding himself and the car racing onward to its destinations. This was to be reported as an ISIS attack, once its explosive load had again been lessened to a safe amount to be detonated in a cleared area inside Baghdad proper.
Capt. Harith was described to us as an incredibly brave and courageous man, who refused to quit even as the dangers mounted. Abu Ali got tears in his eyes speaking about him, as Harith’s story does not end well. ISIS was also tracking Harith’s whereabouts, and each time he delayed at a checkpoint or drove off the road to lighten his explosive load, they could see he was not on the agreed-upon itinerary and began to suspect him. Likewise, given the casualties were not as large as ISIS thought they should be for the explosives involved, they wondered whether he was tampering with the load. In response, ISIS mounted a microphone inside Harith’s next car. Not suspecting that his conversations were being picked up by the hidden microphone, Harith proceeded on this trip as normally and called the Falcons when he was getting close to Baghdad to arrange where to unload the car, which led to him being picked up by ISIS talking to the Falcons when Harith mistakenly thought it was safe to do so.
Harith was arrested and taken into Syria upon his return. Later, ISIS released a video of his beheading.
It was not only Harith who was brave. When he was captured and killed, Harith’s brother insisted that he carry on in his place. Abu Ali’s tear-filled eyes lit up, however, as he reported that the Falcons got some resolution when in December 2018 they located the cell in Syria that carried out Harith’s beheading and managed to bomb them into what he hopes is eternal hellfire.
The stories that Abu Ali can now tell are many. For instance, when the Iraqi intelligence and U.S. forces had identified Ismael (not real name) as one of the main leaders in ISIS and learned that he frequently returned to Baghdad to visit his wife, they set about trying to figure out when that would be, so they could catch him. Ismael was wily, however, and despite surveillance on the house, he somehow managed to slip in and out of Baghdad undetected.
That was until Abu Ali and his group settled on a plan to send a fortune teller in for the job – a Falcons cell undercover female who went to visit Ismael’s wife, purportedly on a mission of love. The fortune teller knocked on Ismael’s door and engaged his wife in a discussion about how to keep your man in love by plying the trades of sorcery. “Give me just one hair from your husband’s head, and I can make you a love potion that will make him crazy in love with you,” the fortune teller promised. “Here’s my number, call me when you are ready for me to return for his hair. I promise you, this will work.”
Although ISIS in 2014 turned on fortune tellers and beheaded five of them in Mosul, the unsuspecting ISIS leader’s wife worried about the other women in his life in Mosul readily accepted her offer. She waited for her husband’s unannounced return and promptly called the fortune teller as soon as she was able to take a hair from her husband’s head. That seemingly innocuous call enabled Abu Ali’s team to swoop down and take the man himself, leading led to a series of related arrests and takedown of a series of ISIS high-level leaders.
Similarly, Abu Ali recalls a story where his forces learned that a suicide vehicle was on its way to Baghdad, the driver wearing a suicide vest and the car laden with explosives. To evade security, ISIS had routed the car to approach Baghdad from Basra, where there were no checkpoints to stop it. Abu Ali and his team snapped into action, and using helicopters moved a fully outfitted checkpoint to quickly position it along the highway between Basra and Baghdad, where they then waited, looking like business as usual, for the car to arrive. The only remaining problem was they had no idea when it would come or what car it would be. Bravely approaching each car, his men pretended to be doing routine checkpoint work, but in doing so were able to detect the bomb-suited driver and grab his hands, pinning them to the steering wheel before he could detonate either his vest or his car bomb. Another ISIS Baghdad explosion averted.
While we at ICSVE increasingly enjoy the security of being able to venture outside our hotel in Baghdad and take part in a vibrant night scene growing there in which Iraqis also now go out to restaurants lined along the river and elsewhere throughout the city, few residents, and even fewer internationals, probably realize it maybe be safer precisely because individuals like Abu Ali al Basri and his Falcons Intelligence Team have been on the job.