The U.S. is now looking at the possibility that wives of ISIS figures may play a greater role in operations and communications than previously thought because the terror group believes U.S. intelligence pays less attention to them.
Last month, an Army Delta Force raid in eastern Syria killed Abu Sayyaf, a senior ISIS leader involved in finance and other operations, and also led to the capture of his wife. The raid yielded significant intelligence that U.S. officials said adds to their understanding of ISIS’s structure and communications.
Several officials cautioned, however, that all of the intelligence gathered and information gained from the interrogation of the captured wife must be vetted and confirmed.
As CNN has previously reported, a U.S. official said the raid netted terabytes worth of data in external hard drives and hard copy, a higher volume than had originally been anticipated. The U.S. is reviewing it all to determine if it leads to anything that can be acted upon.
A second official said one U.S. airstrike in eastern Syria just a few days ago that killed a local ISIS emir was conducted on the basis of information gained from the raid.
The raid also provided details on ISIS’s oil business. The official confirmed to CNN that the U.S. now believes about half of ISIS oil revenues are allocated for their military and battlefield operations, as first reported in The New York Times.
The rest is used to pay oil workers and support production facilities that are routinely targeted by coalition airstrikes. The official said the U.S. cannot be certain whether some of the ISIS oil workers are really part of the organization or are intimidated into working for it.
Abu Sayyaf was a key senior ISIS operative in the organization’s oil business and kept significant records about those operations.
The first official said that computers, hard drives, cellphones and other material seized have confirmed that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who heads ISIS, had been in direct contact with Abu Sayyaf in the past, but the official could not say how the contact or communication occurred.
CNN has learned that over the last several months, the U.S. has had intelligence indicating possible locations for Baghdadi. Because the intelligence was either too late, too vague and incomplete, or unverifiable, the U.S. has not been able to launch airstrikes or special operations raids with the mission of targeting Baghdadi, a senior U.S. official told CNN.
The problem has been the lack of real-time intelligence either from operatives on the ground, from overhead aircraft or from satellites that can verify information to the point a raid can be planned.
Baghdadi, the U.S. believes, now stays in populated areas, knowing that the U.S. will not strike when there is a risk of civilian casualties. The official noted that the ISIS leader is extremely cautious about any possibility his movements can be traced by use of cellphone or electronic monitoring by the U.S.
“He is very smart; he knows we are watching,” the official said.
The U.S. still strongly believes Baghdadi is alive, if for no other reason than there was a recent recording of his voice and there is no intelligence indicating he has been injured or died.
Previously, a U.S. official confirmed to CNN that several buildings in Raqqa, Syria, have been identified as potential sites where senior ISIS operatives may have been at various points in time, but the buildings cannot be struck by coalition warplanes because of the ongoing presence of civilians in the immediate vicinity. It is not known if ISIS has ordered civilians into the area in order to keep the area from being struck. Officials have not said if they believe the ISIS leader has ever been at those sites.
Much of the initial intelligence about Abu Sayyaf and his wife came to the U.S. from a woman from the region who escaped from the Sayyafs’ last year and told U.S. forces in Iraq what she knew about them.
As CNN has also reported, the U.S. then began monitoring the Sayyafs’ home in eastern Syria in March using satellites and electronic eavesdropping to establish a visual and electronic “pattern of life” for the couple before moving with the raid in May.