Coalition success seen in Islamic State’s cutoff of cellphone service in Mosul

Smoke rises from the Syrian city of Kobani, following an airstrike by the U.S.-led coalition, seen from a hilltop outside Suruc, on the Turkey-Syria border, Nov. 17, 2014.
Smoke rises from the Syrian city of Kobani, following an airstrike by the U.S.-led coalition, seen from a hilltop outside Suruc, on the Turkey-Syria border, Nov. 17, 2014. AP

A covert campaign of spying by residents and Iraqi intelligence agents hunting for top leaders of the Islamic State has forced the group to suspend cellphone service in areas it controls – a move Kurdish and Iraqi officials say will do little to stop the program but will further infuriate people living under the extremists’ rule.

Iraqi officials read as a sign of success the Islamic State’s announcement last week that it had suspended cellphone service indefinitely in Mosul, the city in northern Iraq it’s controlled since June, and parts of Anbar province for fear local residents were phoning in tips that were used by U.S. and Iraqi commanders to select airstrike targets.

The U.S. military hasn’t said which of its hundreds of airstrikes since August were aimed at suspected Islamic State leaders, limiting its descriptions to generalities – an Islamic State vehicle, a fighting position or a fighting unit. But Iraqi officials confirmed that an aggressive intelligence collection program is in place to help pinpoint Islamic State leaders and military positions.

“Certainly this is an important element,” said Kurdish Foreign Minister Falah Mustafa, who agreed to speak about the intelligence collection only in general. “It helps a great deal when you know the details of what your enemy is doing in terms of their strength, their presence, their weapons, their situation, their internal situation, their supply lines, so all that is very important.”

Saad Mann, the Iraqi Interior Ministry’s spokesman in Baghdad, confirmed by phone that Iraqi commanders are receiving a steady stream of information from sources inside Islamic State territory . In addition to phone calls to a hotline the Iraqi government set up to receive tips, more than 18,000 emails have arrived in the last year reporting Islamic State activity.

He called the information “very fruitful.” “Now you can see we catch many car bombs, including the suicide bomber, sometimes even inside the car before they can attack,” he said.

Jabar Yawar, the secretary general of the Kurdish military, known as the peshmerga, said that he expects little impact from the Islamic State’s termination of local cellphone service. “Even if they cut the local networks, we still have the international networks to communicate,” he said, referring to calls to phones outside Iraq.

One informant in Anbar province, who was contacted through an intermediary, said he’d been willing to take on the dangerous task of informing on the Islamic State’s activities because he was outraged by the group’s murder of his fellow tribesmen, though he also acknowledged he’d been paid for his information. The informant’s account of his involvement could not be independently confirmed, but his account of his activities was consistent with other reports. His name is being withheld for security reasons.

“I’m doing a heroic job, ending the existence of these people, who only know the language of slaughter, death and murder,” he said of the Islamic State. “So I’m doing something that the more than 2 million other people of Anbar are failing to do.”

The informant acknowledged that previously he’d been a smuggler and that that background was helpful in knowing key locations and routes. The cellphone networks were key not just for communicating with his Iraqi government contacts, but for staying in touch with a network of sources he uses to collect information.

Because parts of Anbar remain under government control, Islamic State efforts to eliminate the cellphone network have been less successful than in Mosul, which is firmly in the Islamic State’s grasp.

Where service has been cut, the informant said he sends people in to scout for information, while he remains in an area where cell service has been maintained to phone in the details.

He said his contacts often use the GPS systems on phones as a way to pinpoint a target. “We open GPS on the mobile phone and leave the phone behind and get out of the place fast,” he said.

At least two airstrikes by the coalition have resulted from his group’s activities, the informant claimed.

The blackout in Mosul has been harder to get around, though ultimately, it’s likely to be a positive in the long run for those opposing the Islamic State, according to one intelligence official of the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government. He spoke anonymously because he’s not authorized to speak to the news media.

“It’s harder if normal people can’t use their mobile phones to call us,” said the official. “But the campaign has succeeded in driving (the Islamic State) crazy with paranoia.”

“First, they start executing people publicly” over spying allegations, he said, “including their own members, and I promise you they’ve executed members of the group that were not spies for us.”

“Then,” he added, “by shutting down the network they show the people that they’re not a real government because they can’t even provide mobile phone service or the residents will call in airstrikes on them.”

When asked if he’d rather the network stay up so it can be used by sources and monitored by the government, or if the benefits of it being shut are worth it, the source demurred.

“I’m not going to help them,” he said. “But look at how angry the people of Mosul are without their mobile phones.”

One businessman contacted in the city via the Internet said that the reaction to the loss of cellphone service had infuriated a population already chafing at Islamic State rule.

“You know all our relationships are by mobile,” he said. “If you want to talk to your mother, to your business partner.”

The anger against the Islamic State is growing, he added. “Everyone blames them. All Daash thinks about is how to get more money and more guns, not the people, our lives,” he said, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State.

A McClatchy special correspondent who cannot be identified for safety reasons contributed to this report.