Numerous top Islamic State (IS) leaders have been killed by drone strikes in recent months, leading to rampant paranoia within the group and prompting brutal purges of dozens of suspected informants, according to a report published on Sunday by the Associated Press.
The US-led military coalition has picked off several key figures in the group's leadership in Iraq and Syria, giving IS reason to believe that spies are feeding intelligence agencies information or planting GPS chips to help target drone strikes.
The news agency spoke with Kurdish military commanders, Syrian opposition activists, Iraqi intelligence officials, and an Iraqi informant who previously worked inside the militant group. The sources reportedly confirmed that the jihadi group is turning on itself in an attempt to root out moles.
After a senior IS official is killed by drone or airstrike, the group often responds by killing dozens of its own members suspected of being part of a wider conspiracy. Sherfan Darwish from the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces told the AP that IS has killed people just for having an internet connection in their homes.
"There is chaos," Darwish said. "Some members and commanders are trying to flee."
The group reportedly uses gruesome tactics to deter its members from becoming informants. The bodies of suspected spies are often displayed publicly, and some people are said to have been killed by being dropped into a vat of acid.
The Iraqi informant reportedly said that IS fighters often stop people on the street to examine their mobile phones, forcing them to call any numbers that appear unusual. The informant also said that IS has developed strategies to catch spies, including feeding misinformation about the movements of important IS officials to suspected infiltrators. If an airstrike hits the false location, it's seen as evidence of a leak.
'There is chaos. Some members and commanders are trying to flee.'
The AP noted that after a drone strike killed Abu Hayjaa al-Tunisi, a Tunisian IS military commander in northern Syria, the group rounded up 35 people and executed 15 on suspicion that they had tipped off the US-led coalition about his whereabouts.
In March, the militant group's "minister of war," Omar al-Shishani, was killed alongside 12 other IS fighters in a wave of drone and air strikes. Shake Wuhayeb, the IS "military emir" for Iraq's Anbar province was also killed recently, and unconfirmed reports said US forces used drones to monitor his movements for three days before killing him.
Abd al-Rahman Mustafa al-Qaduli, the top IS finance official, was reportedly killed in a US special operations raid. "We are systematically eliminating ISIL's cabinet," US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter said at the time, using an alternate acronym for the militant group.
Last September, US officials said the CIA and US Special Operation forces had launched a new targeted killing program to hunt down specific individuals in Syria, an effort that was separate from the broader US military offensive against IS. The program uses espionage and secretive drone strikes to kill "high-value targets." At the time the program was announced, the CIA was only flying drones over Syria, and targeted killings accounted for a tiny fraction of US-led strikes against IS.
The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights told the AP that some IS fighters started selling information to foreign intelligence agencies because their salaries were sharply reduced after airstrikes on the group's oil facilities.
Civilians also get caught up in the witch hunt. The AP reported that IS fighters near Raqqa brought a Abdul-Hadi Issa, a civilian, into the main square before an audience of dozens. A masked militant publicly accused him of spying, then executed him by stabbing him in the heart and shooting him in the head.
The US-led coalition has also launched a counter-propaganda strategy to capitalize on its recent successes and foment infighting. Last month, planes reportedly dropped leaflets over IS strongholds in Syria that included pictures of two officials recently killed in airstrikes.
"What do these Daesh commanders have in common?" the leaflet read. "They were killed at the hands of the coalition."
Watch the VICE News documentary The Islamic State: