In March, a senior commander with DAESH was driving through northern Syria on orders to lead militants in the fighting there when a drone blasted his vehicle to oblivion. The killing of Abu Hayjaa al-Tunsi, a Tunisian militant, sparked a panicked hunt within the group's ranks for spies who could have tipped off the U.S-led coalition about his closely guarded movements. By the time it was over, the group would kill 38 of its own members on suspicion of acting as informants. They were among dozens of DAESH members killed by their own leadership in recent months in a vicious purge after a string of airstrikes killed prominent figures. Others have disappeared into prisons and still more have fled, fearing they could be next as the militant group turns on itself in the hunt for moles, according to Syrian opposition activists, several Iraqi intelligence officials and an informant for the Iraqi government who worked within DAESH ranks. The fear of informants has fueled paranoia among the militants' ranks. A mobile phone or internet connection can raise suspicions. As a warning to others, DAESH has displayed the bodies of some suspected spies in public, or used particularly gruesome methods, including reportedly dropping some into a vat of acid. DAESH "commanders don't dare come from Iraq to Syria because they are being liquidated" by airstrikes, said Bebars al-Talawy, an opposition activist in Syria who monitors the group.
Over the past months, American officials have said that the U.S. has killed a string of top commanders from the group, including its "minister of war" Omar al-Shishani, feared Iraqi militant Shaker Wuhayeb, also known as Abu Wahib, as well as a top finance official known by several names, including Haji Iman, Abu Alaa al-Afari or Abu Ali Al-Anbari. In the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, the biggest city held by DAESH across its "caliphate" stretching across Syria and Iraq, a succession of militants who held the post of "wali," or governor, in the province have died in airstrikes. As a result, those appointed to governor posts have asked not to be identified and they limit their movements, the Iraqi informant told The Associated Press. Iraqi intelligence officials allowed the AP to speak by phone with the informant, who spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing for his life. The purge comes at a time when DAESH has lost ground in both Syria and Iraq. An Iraqi government offensive recaptured the western city of Ramadi from DAESH earlier this year, and another mission is underway to retake the nearby city of Fallujah.
Rami Abdurrahman, who heads the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said some DAESH fighters began feeding information to the coalition about targets and movements of the group's officials because they needed money after the extremist group sharply reduced salaries in the wake of coalition and Russian airstrikes on DAESH-held oil facilities earlier this year. "They have executed dozens of fighters on charges of giving information to the coalition or putting (GPS) chips in order for the aircraft to strike at a specific area," said Abdurrahman.
The militants have responded with methods of their own for rooting out spies, said the informant. For example, they have fed false information to a suspect member about the movements of DAESH leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and if an airstrike follows on the alleged location, they know the suspect is a spy, he said. They stop fighters in the street and inspect their mobile phones, sometimes making the fighter call any unusual numbers in front of them to see who they are. After the killing of al-Anbari, seven or eight DAESH officials in Mosul were taken into custody and have since disappeared, their fates unknown, said the informant. "DAESH is now concentrating on how to find informers because they have lost commanders that are hard to replace," said a senior Iraqi intelligence official in Baghdad. "Now any DAESH commander has the right to kill a person whom they suspect is an informer for the coalition." Another Iraqi intelligence official said at least 10 DAESH militants and security officials in Mosul were killed by the group in April on suspicion of giving information to the coalition because of various strikes in the city. Mosul also saw one of the most brutal killings of suspected informants last month, when about a dozen fighters and civilians were drowned in a vat filled with acid, one senior Iraqi intelligence official said.
Non-DAESH members are also often caught up in the hunt for spies. In the Tabqa, near Raqqa, DAESH militants brought a civilian, Abdul-Hadi Issa, into the main square before dozens of onlookers and announced he was accused of spying. A masked militant then stabbed him in the heart and, with the knife still stuck in the man's chest, the fighter shot him in the head with a pistol. Issa's body was hanged in the square with a large piece of paper on his chest proclaiming the crime and the punishment. DAESH circulated photos of the killing on social media. According to al-Talawy, several other DAESH members were killed in the town of Sukhna near the central Syrian city of Palmyra on charges of giving information to the coalition about DAESH bases in the area as well as trying to locate places where al-Baghdadi might be.