Exclusive: The Secret Global Data Cell Infiltrating Jihadists

We knew the name: Operation Gallant Phoenix. But now Le Monde has exclusive access to details of the U.S.-led, Jordan-based effort to use digital tools to track, capture and convict some of the most dangerous perpetrators of Islamist terror around the wor

Operation Gallant Phoenix: data cell vs. jihadist cells ...
Operation Gallant Phoenix: data cell vs. jihadist cells ...
Elise Vincent and Christophe Ayad

Hidden from view in the quiet heat of Jordan, a vast data war is being waged. Ground zero is an American military base in the heart of the Hashemite kingdom, where for the past five years, a silent tracking system has been developed based on meticulous archives. The goal of this painstaking project? Identifying and consolidating the traces of every kind of jihadist fighter to pursue them in any way possible — including in the courts.

This extraordinary project was long run by the Pentagon and kept completely under wraps. While it remains a confidential operation to this day, it's been mentioned briefly by official sources across the Atlantic and by a few intelligence unit insiders in European media. Yet the undertaking was never disclosed to the public in detail. Today, Le Monde can reveal the origins and the modus operandi of what is known under the code name "Operation Gallant Phoenix" (OGP).

A few years ago, this Big Brother-esque program would have been impossible to put into place. In counterterrorism, intelligence agencies have always favored bilateral, over-the-counter exchanges. Gallant Phoenix is the exact opposite: Since 2016, the countries that decided to join as partners in the project have been able to help themselves to whatever information they need or want. Inversely, they can also deposit any intel or evidence gleaned from their side.

Cell phones, cameras, computers, USB sticks.

The information held in the OGP is no ordinary data. It's what specialists call "proof of war." Essentially, this refers to any trace left on the web, social media or the field by jihadist groups, or anything found on their person when they are taken prisoner.

Initially focused on al-Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) soldiers in the Iraqi-Syrian zone, the Gallant Phoenix network now encompasses all of their affiliates, stretching across Afghanistan, Yemen, Libya and elsewhere in Africa, particularly in the Sahel-Saharan strip.

A wealth of information

The main contributors to this vast collection consist of the parties that have all found themselves militarily involved in the Iraqi-Syrian quagmire: The Iraqi army, the Kurdish forces and the numerous countries participating in the international coalition (the United States, United Kingdom, France, etc.).

Throughout their respective operations, they've all had occasion to collect devices, chips and documents. Special forces are especially well-versed in this exercise, as they have precise procedures in place for collecting this kind of evidence during targeted assassinations, producing photos and reports.

In the huge "data center" in Jordan — the exact location of which is kept secret and where the data collected now numbers in the millions — one can find anything and everything: cell phones, cameras, computers, USB sticks. Whether they used them to communicate or disseminate propaganda, al-Qaeda and ISIS fighters have left many such items behind, some in good condition, others intentionally damaged or partially destroyed so as not to be exploited.

Gallant Phoenix is also a huge database of identity documents, fingerprints and DNA — stored after they were found on explosive devices or corpses.

But the U.S. project was above all made possible by ISIS's administrative madness, by its political ambition — that of building a Sharia-governed proto-state — as much as by its "Soviet-like" will (to quote a security source) to control every move of its associates. Over the years, Gallant Phoenix has therefore managed to gather heaps of official handwritten documents, account books, enrolment sheets, payslips, hospitalization records, rent receipts or even proof of allowances payment.

Syrian Democratic Forces during an anti-terrorism operation in Raqqa, Syria — Photo: Morukc Umnaber/DPA/ZUMA

Back then, every time ISIS retreated, "document hunters' would rush to collect phones and computers belonging to jihadists to resell their content to the media. There is a high probability that these elements, which were collected in unclear circumstances and then ended up on USB sticks, have reached the OGP base in Jordan.

It was in this way that the U.S. television network NBC obtained, in 2016, thousands of documents from a man who was presented as a former jihadist. The documents were then authenticated as the recruitment records of more than 4,500 jihadists. These "Daesh Leaks," as they were called at the time, widely circulated and fueled several legal proceedings, especially in France.

Smoking guns

The Gallant Phoenix system has taken that same logic to a whole new level — with two goals. The first is intelligence: The idea is to monitor as closely as possible how foreign fighters are spreading since the fall of the "caliphate." This is a particularly sensitive issue for Europeans, who want to limit the risk of an attack on their territory.

But Gallant Phoenix has also developed another aspect, this one intended for legal proceedings. And this is its real specificity. All the armies of the world have always been careful to collect the belongings abandoned by their enemies. But, in other times, a majority of these elements would have remained in the hands of military intelligence. Gallant Phoenix, in contrast, regulated and systematized the collection methods. In short, it's the industrialization of war crimes evidence. "It is a need that has met a process," a French legal source explains.

The idea is to monitor as closely as possible how foreign fighters are spreading since the fall of the "caliphate."

Originally conceived by the Americans in 2013, the OGP project came to fruition in 2016. U.S. authorities then started to present it to other countries, and in 2017, France agreed to get on board. Like other countries, France saw in this project, beyond the security issue, the opportunity to consolidate its hundreds of legal cases involving jihadists who had traveled to the Iraqi-Syrian zone. So far, the lack of strong evidence of their departure had led judges to sentence many jihadists "blindly," solely based on the accused's own story or limited mobile evidence.

"It's simple, if we manage to bring evidence that someone stayed in this zone, the average sentence in France is 12-13 years. If we can prove there was a commitment to join in combat, the sentence can reach more than 20 years," says an expert. "We're starting to learn that the French fighters were butchers and that they were fanatic, especially the older ones. They will never be judged at the level of what they have done, but with these new elements coming from Gallant Phoenix, it's starting to get closer," says another source, someone who's familiar with the subject.

Tight protocol

Today, according to the information at our disposal, approximately 700 documents — evidence of war crimes — have been incorporated into French legal proceedings for terrorism. They are linked to some 500 jihadists, men and women. About 200 come from the "Daesh Leaks." But in cases still under investigation, more and more of these documents are provided by Gallant Phoenix.

Following a thwarted attack in Brest in January 2020, investigators were quickly able to track the ISIS recruitment record of one of the arrested men. The use of these new methods could rapidly increase. Full declassification of OGP data, with some exceptions, only dates back to 2018.

Still from an ISIS propaganda video — Source: Handout/Planet Pix/ZUMA

From the moment they're collected to their release, Gallant Phoenix data is subjected to a tight protocol, which is implemented by the U.S. military in cooperation with the FBI. All of this is to protect what lawyers call "evidence integrity," in other words to be able to trace the origin of the evidence (location, date etc.), its storage and exploitations conditions — to limit risks of litigation.

This is all the more important since the original version of the evidence can sometimes be physically sent and legally sealed — a challenge when it often comes down to hastily stuffing personal effects found on the corpse of a fighter in a plastic bag, in the middle of gunfire exchanges.

There is no way to verify where these documents come from, what hands they went through, who translated them.

"Some of this war evidence can also be used for exonerating purposes," a source at the National Antiterrorist Prosecutor's Office in Paris told Le Monde. "On their own, they are not enough to issue sentence," as exemplified by the way some ISIS-linked documents detailed with great precision which days combatants "had off" during battles, or proved that this or that jihadist was injured that day, or that they only played a very subordinate role.

"This data is treated as regular evidence," the source adds.

The Ulysses affair

In France, the first trial in which Gallant Phoenix intel was submitted took place last month before the Paris special assize court. Called the "Ulysses' affair, the complex dossier was centered around two separate attack plans that were foiled in November 2016, following a cyber infiltration operation in which the French counterterrorism DGSI agency, together with the Interministerial Technical Assistance Service (SIAT), managed to make their way into the ISIS headquarters in Raqqa, Syria.

This unprecedented operation led to the dismantling of two cells — one in Strasbourg, the other in Marseilles — as well as to the court referral of three men. Among them, 30-year-old Hicham El-Hanafi from Morocco, the main individual targeted by the OGP data.

"If these documents were everything we had, you wouldn't be here," the president of the court, David Hill, told Hicham El-Hanafi. And when the young Moroccan started raising his voice, insisting that there was no proof that his mother and his sisters had gone to the "caliphate" of ISIS, the magistrate replied: "What about the war evidence!" Asked by lawyers, during the hearing, about the reliability of said documents, the DGSI agent stated, "What the Americans give us is the truth."

"The problem is that what is presented to us as original evidence from ISIS files is shown as already translated Excel spreadsheets," says Fares Aidel, counsel for Hicham El-Hanafi. "I don't mean to sound conspiratorial, but there is no way to verify where these documents come from, what hands they went through, who translated them."

The United States began to reflect on the issue of war evidence during its involvement in Afghanistan, starting in 2001. The 9/11 attacks, planned in al-Qaeda camps in the Afghan mountains, triggered a first wave of judicial inquiry. But the American justice system very quickly stumbled over the lack of meaningful clues.

It was around that time, too, that the transfer of "enemy combatants' started, from Afghanistan or Pakistan to the U.S. military base of Guantanamo in Cuba. So too did their ensuing interrogation under torture — outside of any clear legal framework. Twenty years later, the trial of those behind the attacks has yet to take place. Scheduled for January, it was once again postponed.

Since 2003, the Americans have developed a laboratory specialized in the analysis of improvised explosive devices (IED). Spearheaded by the FBI, TEDAC (short for Terrorist Explosive Device Analytical Center) collects and compares papillary and genetic traces found on homemade bombs from over 50 countries. But this program is far from being on a comparable scale with Gallant Phoenix.

The OGP project, as useful as it is, also raises new questions. Granted, it contributes to making the battlefield — long considered a place devoid of any form of justice — a form of judicial "crime scene." But will the collected "evidence of war crimes' one day be used to bring justice to the local civilian populations? They're the ones, it's worth remembering, who suffered at the hands of jihadists in Syria and Iraq.

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Harder Time: How Egypt Cuts Prisoner Communication With Loved Ones

Letters from inmates provide a crucial link with the outside world, and yet the process of sending and receiving them in Egyptian prisons is both arduous and arbitrary as an extra means of control.

Relatives speak with defendants during a trial in a Cairo court.

Nada Arafat

CAIRO – Abdelrahman ElGendy says letters were a crucial lifeline for him during the time he spent locked up in five different prisons between 2013 and 2020. "Letters were not only important, they literally saved my life," he says. "I was only living because I was looking forward to them from one visit to the next, and I would read them over until the paper became worn and torn."

Last month, the family of imprisoned software engineer and activist Alaa Abd El Fattah — who had been held in remand detention for over two years until his referral to emergency trial last week — announced it would take legal steps to ensure that Abd El Fattah is able to send letters to them following a period when prison authorities refused to allow him any correspondence.

According to the family, besides prison visits once a month, Abd El Fattah's letters are the only way they can gain assurance of his condition, and when his letters are denied, that in itself is an indicator that his treatment in detention is worsening. The numerous legal requests and official complaints by the family have been met only with silence by authorities.

While letters provide a crucial link between prisoners and the outside world, the process of sending and receiving them in Egyptian prisons is an arduous one as a result of arbitrary restrictions put in place by authorities.

Mada Masr spoke with a number of former prisoners about their relationship to letters during their incarceration and the way prison administrators constrained their right to send and receive correspondence.

Two letters per month

The law regulating Egypt's prisons and the Interior Ministry's prison bylaws stipulate that prisoners have a right to send out two letters per month and that prison administrators may allow more than two at their discretion. Prisoners are also legally entitled to receive letters.

Those sentenced to hard labor — a type of sentence that in practice usually entitles prisoners to fewer visits — are allowed to send one letter a week, and prisoners in remand detention technically have the right to exchange letters with family and friends at any time. However, in all cases, prison bylaws grant prison authorities the right to monitor, censor and refuse any correspondence sent and received , a power the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights deems a "violation to the personal freedom of prisoners, as it intrudes on their privacy."

A form of punishment

Prison authorities often restrict prisoner letters as a form of punishment, a measure that came under the spotlight when correspondence from Abd El Fattah to his family was arbitrarily cut off for an extended period last month.

Mohamed Fathy, a lawyer, says that Abd El Fattah's family pursued all possible legal procedures to push for allowing the exchange of letters with him, the last of which was a report submitted by the family to the Maadi District Court. This was preceded by an official notice through a court bailiff to the head of the Prisons Authority and telegraphs to the interior minister, Prisons Authority director and the superintendent of Maximum Security Wing 2 of Tora Prison Complex. Abd El Fattah's mother, Laila Soueif, also sent official requests to the superintendent on a daily basis.

Outside the gates of Tora Prison

Aside from the legal procedures, Soueif spent over a week waiting at the gates of Tora Prison Complex in the hope of receiving a letter from her son, a circumstance that gained particular urgency after Abd El Fattah signaled he was contemplating suicide during a detention renewal session in September.

This marked the second time that Abd El Fattah's family has embarked on a legal campaign in order to be granted their right to exchange letters with him. As the coronavirus pandemic first gripped the world in early 2020, the family went through a similar struggle after authorities halted all prison visitations as part of its COVID-19 restrictions.

During this period, letters became the principal form of communication between prisoners and the outside world. The Interior Ministry halted all prison visits from March until it reinstated them again in August 2020, though they were restricted to once a month.

Gendy, who was released from prison in January 2020, one month before the outbreak of the coronavirus in Egypt was officially announced, says that even in ordinary circumstances, letters were of vital importance since only direct family members are allowed visitation rights.

He says he used to give his family around 10 letters during every visit, addressed both to family and friends. "I used to keep an open letter to write to my mother about everything that was happening because the visitation time did not allow me to tell her all the details," he says.

Arbitrary restrictions

Even though the right to correspondence for prisoners is enshrined in the law, in reality, the process is an arduous one for both prisoners and their families due to the conditions of Egyptian prisons and arbitrary restrictions put in place by authorities, according to the accounts of several former prisoners.

It typically begins when the prison warden announces the visitation schedule for the following day. Prisoners hurry to pen letters before lights out, though some continue to write in the darkness. A prisoner who has a scheduled visit then gathers all the letters from his cellmates and hands them over to his visiting family members, who in turn give them to the rest of the prisoners' families outside, either in person or via WhatsApp if the family lives in another governorate.

In parallel, the families of prisoners who share a cell often create a WhatApp group to inform each other about visitation times. "Some families in nearby governorates send physical letters inside with the families that have scheduled visits. But those who live in remote governorates and who cannot afford to travel to the prison simply write letters and send pictures of them to the WhatsApp group," says Amgad Samir*, who was imprisoned for two years in Tora Prison Complex and was the facilitator for letter exchanges in his cell.

Marked in red

According to Samir, families would print out the letters sent via WhatsApp to deliver them to the prisoners, but the prison administration would sometimes not allow the entry of printed letters, so some families would volunteer to rewrite them by hand. "The sister of one of the detainees in Alexandria would rewrite dozens of letters in one day and would ask the children of some of the families to help her," Samir says. "Some families would send their letters with more than one person to make sure that at least one version made it inside."

Any letter being sent or received from prison is required to first be reviewed by the National Security Agency (NSA) officer stationed in the prison, who usually delegates a subordinate officer to read the letters before allowing them through or to "mark them in red," at which point the officer reads the letters himself to approve or deny them, according to Samir. After this screening phase is over, explains Samir, the officer hands over the letters to the mail facilitator, a designated prisoner, who then hands them out in the cell. "I would look at the faces of those who had letters sent to them, it was as if they had just been released," Samir says.

Khaled Dawoud, a journalist and the former head of the Dostour Party who was released from prison in April after nearly one and a half years behind bars, says that prison authorities tightly restrict prison correspondence. "Everything in prison is cracked down upon: food, clothes and even letters," Dawoud says.

According to Dawoud, the NSA officer in Tora Liman Prison, another maximum security facility in the complex, would sometimes force prisoners to rewrite their letters after redacting sections describing things like prison conditions, for example, to avoid them making it into the press or being circulated on social media.

Disseminating information about prison conditions can even lead to further prosecution, as was the case with imprisoned attorney Mohamed Ramadan in December 2020, when he was rotated into another case by the State Security Prosecution after he was ordered released on charges of "sending letters from prison with the intention of destabilization."

Photo of three women speaking with imprisoned defendants at a Cairo court

Relatives speaking with defendants at a Cairo court

Stringer/APA Images/ZUMA

Fear of being forgotten

Banning letters is a form of punishment and pressure that authorities deploy arbitrarily against prisoners, according to lawyer former detainee Mahienour al-Massry, who has spent time in prisons. She tells Mada Masr that following the reinstatement of prison visitations in August 2020, after they had been halted amid the coronavirus outbreak, the National Security officer in Qanater Women's Prison told her she had to choose between visitations and letter correspondence, but that she couldn't have both. Massry refused the ultimatum, and after negotiating with the officer, was eventually granted "exceptional" approval for both under the condition that she only send two letters a month.

"Even though letter correspondence from prison is a legal right that is non-negotiable, there were always negotiations and struggles about sending and receiving them, about how many letters were allowed, and about their content," she says. "Prisoners inside for criminal offenses were in a different situation from political prisoners. The latter had a chance to talk and negotiate, whereas the former did not."

Massry recalls a situation when the NSA officer in Qanater took back some letters that she had initially been allowed to receive. "He said, 'I don't have a reason. This was an order from the National Security Agency. You could try next time, maybe they will go through.' They are moody like that," Masry says. The letters were returned to the family, who then delivered them to Mahienour in a subsequent visit without any objections from the officer. Another time, a letter was confiscated because it had the term "son of a bitch," which the officer deemed "foul language."

Looking for something to say

During an earlier stint in prison in 2016 in Damanhour, Massry did not receive any letters for a month. When she went to the officer to inquire after them, she found that he had a pile of letters addressed to her on his desk. She says the officer simply told her: "Sorry, I didn't have time to go through them all."

After the coronavirus outbreak in March 2020, letters to and from prison were banned for two months in Tora Prison Complex while visitations continued to be suspended until August. During this period the prison was overwhelmed with letters, as they were often the only form of communication with detainees. According to Dawoud, the National Security officer was unable to go through hundreds of letters a day, even with the help of another officer. After long negotiations, the officer finally approved the sending of letters to and from prison under the condition they did not exceed two passages.

Dawoud says that he used his letters to simply reassure his family with brief sentences. "Sometimes I couldn't find anything to say because on the one hand, I can't speak about prison conditions, otherwise the letter would be confiscated; and on the other hand I couldn't talk about personal issues," he says.

Despite that, the short letters were enough for Dawoud to check in on his father, who was battling cancer and eventually died. "One sentence was enough for me to know that he was okay. It was enough for me to be reassured," he says.

News about COVID-19

In certain cases, letters have taken on additional importance beyond allowing families and prisoners to check in on each other.

Samir says he was able to help out a foreign cellmate who was charged in a criminal case without the authorities ever informing his consulate or assigning him a lawyer. Samir was able to tell his wife about this prisoner in a letter, but he made sure to use coded language in order to evade surveillance.

Samir would also use coded language to pass on information about COVID-19 in prison that would otherwise be flagged and confiscated by the NSA officer. "We replaced the word 'corona' with 'mosquitoes.' I would write that someone had been bitten by mosquitoes yesterday, and my sister would understand what that meant," he says.

Using this simple code, Samir was able to communicate the prison's coronavirus situation to the outside world until the officer realized that someone was passing along information and pressured him to confess. "I had two choices: either lie and say that there was a mobile phone in the room, or tell him the truth. I told the truth," he says. As punishment, he was not permitted to exchange letters for a period before the officer finally allowed it again.

"The importance of letters does not just lie in their content," Gendy says. "They are also a testament that people outside still remember you, because the fear of being forgotten is every prisoner's worst nightmare."


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