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Captured Islamic State map files underscore technological capabilities and priorities for state building

16 May 2019 Jane's Editorial Staff

This is an extract from an article by Derek Henry Flood, a security correspondent writing for Jane's, which appears in Jane's Terrorism and Insurgency Centre. Subscribers can access the full article at janes.ihs.com.

Key points

  • Files retrieved from an Android phone seized by the Deir al-Zour Military Council from a dead Islamic State fighter revealed high-resolution offline maps produced by the Islamic State.
  • The Islamic State used the files alongside unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) reconnaissance to produce near real-time control maps.
  • Examination of Islamic State mapping efforts provides insight into the technological sophistication of its state-building efforts, including safe houses and hydrological assets.

As the Islamic State was being pushed deeper into the southern reaches of the Jazeera desert in Syria's Deir al-Zour governorate throughout November and December 2018, its most loyal, skilled cadres became further concentrated in a singular geographic space. This concentration made their intelligence assets more vulnerable as the Qiwaat Suriyya al-Dimoqratiyya (QSD), or Syrian Democratic Forces, backed by US-led coalition airstrikes, kept the militants under constant pressure on the battlefield. Following the capture of Hajin town on the eastern bank of the Euphrates river in Albu Kamal district on 14 December 2018, fighters from the QSD's ethnic-Arab Deir al-Zour Military Council, while searching the fatigues of slain Islamic State militants, found a still functioning Android phone containing a removable and intact memory card.

The SD card was loaded with high-resolution mapping intelligence files from a commercially available GPS app, AlpineQuest, which is intended for the navigation of remote terrain by offline users on Android devices. Examination of these mapping files and the way they were used by the Islamic State provides insights into the operational methods of the group. On 29 March 2019, a Deir al-Zour Military Council source via Whatsapp displayed to Jane's that the Islamic State had been using version 2.0.2 of AlpineQuest, which was released on 8 July 2016, indicating that the group was likely utilising the app from mid-2016 until the battle for control of Hajin in late 2018.

Islamic State mapping

The Islamic State used on-board, file-based maps to demarcate the expansion, and later contraction, of the territories it once held. With AlpineQuest, the Islamic State could ostensibly create its own custom maps on a computer and copy them via USB cable to an Android phone or tablet, then storing the maps on external memory cards in order to share them between devices while offline. Militants would then open the custom maps in the app and access a subfolder on a memory card that Islamic State technologists had created that contained the necessary on-board map files detailing the expanse of the group's territorial control, with facilities and military objectives marked as waypoints. This was all done with the relative ease of drag-and-drop functionality. The maps could later be edited and updated using a high-speed internet connection before being reinstalled on fighters' mobile devices via SD memory cards.

Tactical use

On 3 March 2019, a source from the Deir al-Zour Military Council explained to Jane's that these files were quite numerous and may have been developed by the Islamic State's Amniyat, its intelligence apparatus. The file-based maps may have been used at the time to locate positions of the Syrian Arab Army with its allied Shia Muslim militias as it fought to hold the whole of the governorate except for the government-held, eponymous capital. When the Islamic State maps were captured by the Deir al-Zour Military Council in December 2018, they proved immensely valuable as the council's fighters used them to mark their own positions while passing on targeting intelligence to US-led coalition aircraft for airstrikes in the towns between Hajin and Baghouz, including al-Shafa and al-Susa. For approximately three months leading up to the capture of Baghouz on 23 March, the offline map files were migrated onto Samsung tablets and used to pass coordinates to US Special Forces personnel as they co-ordinated targeted airstrikes on entrenched Islamic State positions while minimising risk of friendly fire incidents for the QSD fighters on the ground.

Significance

As the Islamic State maps were used against the group by the QSD, leading to confrontations with Islamic State militants gathered in locations they had considered to be safe ground before the al-Jazeera Storm campaign got under way,and where they had held a virtual monopoly on violence, local QSD fighters learned more about the group's national and ethno-sectarian composition, finances, and aims. A significant number of local commanders were deeply disenfranchised Sunnis from Tal Afar in Iraq's Ninawa governorate who had honed their military capabilities waging an insurgency against US forces in Ninawa after the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

This is an extract from an article from Jane's Terrorism and Insurgency Centre, subscribers can access the full article at janes.ihs.com.

Jane's Terrorism and Insurgency Centre is a structured, consistent and comprehensive database of open source events related to terrorism and counter terrorism that is updated on a daily basis. It also provides insight and more in-depth analysis on global topics to explain the context and driving forces behind global unrest.

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