WASHINGTON – The U.S. is exploiting an enormous amount of digital information about the Islamic State obtained by Syrian rebels fighting for control of the city of Manbij, a spokesman for the American-led military coalition said Wednesday.
Speaking by phone from Baghdad, Col. Christopher Garver told reporters at the Pentagon that it's unclear how this trove of intelligence might affect the direction of the war, but he suggested it has been of considerable value.
"We think this is a big deal," he said.
Garver also revealed that the U.S. for the first time has placed its military advisers at lower-level Iraqi army headquarters, an important decision because it places the advisers closer to the front lines.
The authority for that was approved by President Barack Obama in April. Prior to Obama's go-ahead, the U.S. military was not permitted to place advisers at echelons lower than division headquarters, which are farther from the front lines.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter, speaking to soldiers of the 18th Airborne Corps at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, referred to the intelligence trove while describing progress in Manbij. He said that city is one of the last junctions connecting the Islamic State's self-declared capital of Raqqa, Syria, to the outside world, and called it "a key transit point" for extremists plotting international attacks.
"And there, we're already beginning to gain and exploit intelligence that's helping us map their network of foreign fighters," Carter said.
Garver said the intelligence has not yielded links to any of those involved in recent violent attacks in the West.
"It's a lot of material. It's going to take a lot to go through, then start connecting the dots," he said.
The intelligence is on laptop computers and portable data storage devices such as thumb drives, Garver said, adding that it amounts to more than four terabytes of digital information. He said it sheds new light on how the Islamic State has used Manbij as a "strategic hub" for welcoming, training, indoctrinating and dispatching foreign fighters.
Garver said a small group of U.S. combat engineers on July 20 was attached to an Iraqi army battalion to provide advice on how to secure a temporary bridge the Iraqis had installed over the Tigris River. This is aimed at connecting a newly recaptured air base near Qayara with an Iraqi-controlled base on the east side of the river.
Garver said this will "greatly improve maneuverability and shorten lines of communication for the (Iraqi security forces) as they prepare for the eventual assault to liberate Mosul."
In his remarks at Fort Bragg, Carter described in broad terms the U.S.-led coalition's strategy for recapturing Mosul in northern Iraq. He said the Iraqi security forces will push from the south, along the Tigris River, and the Iraqi Kurdish militia, known as the Peshmerga, will push from the north.
He was speaking to members of the 18th Airborne Corps because they are scheduled to deploy to Baghdad shortly to serve as the higher headquarters for the coalition, under Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, who will take over as the top U.S. commander there for Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland.