Freed From ISIS, Yazidi Women Return in ‘Severe Shock’

Souhayla, a 16-year-old girl who escaped ISIS after three years of captivity, at her uncle’s home in Shariya Camp, Iraq.

SHARIYA CAMP, Iraq — The 16-year-old lies on her side on a mattress on the floor, unable to hold up her head. Her uncle props her up to drink water, but she can barely swallow. Her voice is so weak, he places his ear directly over her mouth to hear her.

The girl, Souhayla, walked out of the most destroyed section of Mosul this month, freed after three years of captivity and serial rape when her Islamic State captor was killed in an airstrike. Her uncle described her condition as “shock.” He had invited reporters to Souhayla’s bedside so they could document what the terror group’s system of sexual abuse had done to his niece.

“This is what they have done to our people,” said Khalid Taalo, her uncle.

Since the operation to take back Mosul began last year, approximately 180 women, girls and children from the Yazidi ethnic minority who were captured in 2014 by ISIS have been liberated, according to Iraq’s Bureau for the Rescue of Abductees.

Women rescued in the first two years after ISIS overran their ancestral homeland came home with infections, broken limbs and suicidal thoughts. But now, after three years of captivity, women like Souhayla and two others seen last week by reporters, are far more damaged, displaying extraordinary signs of psychological injury.

“Very tired,” “unconscious” and “in severe shock and psychological upset” were the descriptions used by Dr. Nagham Nawzat Hasan, a Yazidi gynecologist who has treated over 1,000 of the rape victims.

“We thought the first cases were difficult,” Dr. Hasan said. “But those after the liberation of Mosul, they are very difficult.”

The shock expresses itself in women and girls who sleep for days on end, seemingly unable to wake up, said Hussein Qaidi, the director of the abductee rescue bureau. “Ninety percent of the women coming out are like this,” he said, for at least part of the time after their return.

Both Souhayla and her family asked that she be identified as well as photographed, in an effort to shed light on their community’s suffering. Her uncle posted her image on Facebook immediately after her release with a description of what ISIS had done to her.

For over a year, Mr. Taalo said, he had known his niece’s location, as well as the name of the ISIS fighter holding her. He enlisted the help of a smuggler who at great risk photographed Souhayla through the window of the house where she was being held and sent the images to her family.

But it was too perilous to try a rescue.

Souhayla escaped on July 9, two days after an airstrike collapsed a wall in the building where she was being held, burying another Yazidi girl who had been held alongside her and killing the captor who had abused them, her uncle said.

At that point, she was strong enough to clamber through the rubble and make her way to the first Iraqi checkpoint.

When her family drove to pick her up, she ran to embrace them.

“I ran to her and she ran to me and we started crying and then we started laughing as well,” said Mr. Taalo, the brother of Souhayla’s father, who remains missing after ISIS took over their hometown. “We stayed like that holding each other, and we kept crying and laughing, until we fell to the ground.”

But within hours, she stopped speaking, he said.

By the time they reached the camp where her mother and extended family had found refuge after ISIS overran their village, Souhayla slipped into what appeared to be unconsciousness. The doctors who examined her have prescribed antibiotics for a urinary tract infection.

She also shows signs of malnutrition.

Neither explain her extreme symptoms, said her family and one of the doctors who examined her.

“I’m happy to be home,” she whispered with difficulty into her uncle’s ear, in response to a reporter’s question, “but I’m sick.”

ISIS had been ruling Mosul for two months in 2014 when the group’s leaders set their sights on Sinjar, a 60-mile-long, yellow massif to the north. Its foothills and mountain villages have long been the bedrock of life for the Yazidi, a tiny minority who account for less than 2 percent of Iraq’s population of 38 million.

The centuries-old religion of the Yazidi revolves around worship of a single God, who in turn created seven sacred angels. These beliefs led ISIS to label the Yazidi as polytheists, a perilous category in the terrorist group’s nomenclature. ISIS argued that the minority’s religious standing rendered them eligible for enslavement.

On Aug. 3, 2014, convoys of fighters sped up the escarpment, fanning out across the adjoining valleys. Among the first towns they passed on their way up the mountain was Til Qasab, with its low-slung concrete buildings surrounded by plains of blond grass.

That’s where Souhayla, then 13, lived.

A total of 6,470 Yazidis on the mountain were abducted, according to Iraqi officials, including Souhayla. Three years later, 3,410 remain in captivity or unaccounted for, Mr. Qaidi of the abductee rescue bureau said.

For the first two years of her captivity, Souhayla made her way through ISIS’ system of sexual slavery, raped by a total of seven men, she and her uncle said.

When the push for Mosul began, she was moved progressively deeper into the area hardest hit by the conflict, as security forces squeezed the terrorist group into a sliver of land near the Tigris River. The area was pummeled by artillery, airstrikes and car bombs, and strafed by helicopter-gunship fire.

As ISIS began losing its grip on the city, Souhayla’s captor cut her hair short, like a boy’s. She understood he was planning to try to slip past Iraqi security forces, disguised as a refugee, and take her with him, her uncle said.

Mr. Taalo now spends his days nursing his niece back to health. To sit up, she grasped one of the metal ribs holding up her family’s tent and pulled herself into a sitting position, as her uncle pushed from behind. But soon her strength was sapped, and she flopped back down.

He used a washcloth to dab her forehead, as she lay in his lap. Her mouth fell open and her eyes rolled back.

After her escape, almost two weeks passed before she was able to stand for more than a few minutes, her legs unsteady.

Officials say recent escapees are also showing an unusual degree of indoctrination.

Two Yazidi sisters, ages 20 and 26, arrived at the Hamam Ali 1 refugee camp, where they drew the attention of camp officials because they wore face-covering niqabs and refused to take them off, despite the fact that Yazidi women do not cover their faces.

They described ISIS fighters who raped them as their “husbands” and as “martyrs,” said Muntajab Ibraheem, a camp official and director of the Iraqi Salvation Humanitarian Organization.

In their arms were the three toddlers they had given birth to in captivity, the children of their rapists. But they refused to nurse them, said the smuggler sent by their family to fetch them.

He and camp officials filled out paperwork so that the children could be given to the state, he said.

A video recorded on the smuggler’s phone shows what happened when the sisters saw their family for the first time after their return. Their relatives rushed to embrace the gaunt women. They cried.

Their mother, distraught, stepped behind the tent, trying to steady herself.

A day after the video was taken, reporters went to see the women, and they could no longer stand. They lay on mattresses inside the plastic walls of their tent.

Despite the loud voices around them and the flow of visitors, despite their mother’s wail, they did not budge.

Cars pulled up outside, bringing relatives carrying pallets of orange soda. They left the tent, hands over their mouths, trying to hold back sobs.

Family members said that except for a few brief moments, the women have not awakened since then, over a week ago.

(The New York Times)

How ISIS Guides World’s Terror Plots by ‘Remote Control’

Hyderabad, India — When ISIS identified a promising young recruit willing to carry out an attack in one of India’s major tech hubs, the group made sure to arrange everything down to the bullets he needed to kill victims.

For 17 months, terrorist operatives guided the recruit, a young engineer named Mohammed Ibrahim Yazdani, through every step of what they planned to be ISIS’ first strike on Indian soil.

They vetted each new member of the cell as Yazdani recruited helpers. They taught him how to pledge allegiance to the terrorist group and securely send the statement.

And from Syria, investigators believe, the group’s virtual plotters organized for the delivery of weapons as well as the precursor chemicals used to make explosives, directing the Indian men to hidden pickup spots.

Until just moments before the arrest of the Indian cell, last June, ISIS’ cyberplanners kept in near-constant touch with the men, according to the interrogation records of three of the eight suspects.

As officials around the world have faced a confusing barrage of attacks dedicated to ISIS, cases like Yazdani’s offer troubling examples of what counterterrorism experts are calling enabled or remote-controlled attacks: violence conceived and guided by operatives in areas controlled by ISIS whose only connection to the would-be attacker is the internet.

In the most basic enabled attacks, ISIS handlers acted as confidants and coaches, coaxing recruits to embrace violence. In the Hyderabad plot, among the most involved found so far, the terrorist group reached deep into a country with strict gun laws to arrange for pistols and ammunition to be left in a bag swinging from the branches of a tree.

For the most part, the operatives who are conceiving and guiding such attacks are doing so from behind a wall of anonymity. When the Hyderabad plotters were arrested last summer, they could not so much as confirm the nationalities of their interlocutors in ISIS, let alone describe what they looked like. Because the recruits are instructed to use encrypted messaging applications, the guiding role played by the terrorist group often remains obscured.

As a result, remotely guided plots in Europe, Asia and the United States in recent years, including the attack on a community center in Garland, Tex., were initially labeled the work of “lone wolves,” with no operational ties to ISIS, and only later was direct communication with the group discovered.

While the trail of many of these plots led back to planners living in Syria, the very nature of the group’s method of remote plotting means there is little dependence on its maintaining a safe haven there or in Iraq. And visa restrictions and airport security mean little to attackers who strike where they live and no longer have to travel abroad for training.

Close examination of both successful and unsuccessful plots carried out in ISIS’ name over the past three years indicates that such enabled attacks are making up a growing share of the operations of the group.

“They are virtual coaches who are providing guidance and encouragement throughout the process — from radicalization to recruitment into a specific plot,” said Nathaniel Barr, a terrorism analyst at Valens Global, who along with Daveed Gartenstein-Ross of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington wrote one of the first articles discussing the virtual plotters.

“If you look at the communications between the attackers and the virtual plotters, you will see that there is a direct line of communication to the point where they are egging them on minutes, even seconds, before the individual carries out an attack.”

Detailing this kind of plot direction has become a critical focus of counterterrorism officials in the United States and Europe, as they try to track terror planners who pose a lasting threat and to unravel the criminal networks that the group uses as middlemen to facilitate attacks.

Yazdani’s case presents one of the most detailed accounts to date of how ISIS is exporting terrorism virtually. This style of attack has allowed the terrorist group’s reach to stretch into countries as disparate as France and Malaysia, Germany and Indonesia, Bangladesh and Australia. And plots have been discovered in multiple locations in the United States, including in Columbus, Ohio, the suburbs of Washington and upstate New York.

“I fear this is the future of ISIS,” said Bridget Moreng, an analyst whose research on the virtual plotters was recently published in Foreign Affairs.

Until roughly a year ago, ISIS recruiters aggressively pushed the message that going to Syria was a spiritual obligation.

The recruiters hid within an ocean of 2.3 billion live social media accounts, flooding the internet with romanticized videos of life inside the so-called caliphate, as well as brutal execution videos, using them as clickbait to lure potential recruits.

One of the ISIS’ most influential recruiters and virtual plotters was known by the nom de guerre Abu Issa al-Amriki, and his Twitter profile instructed newcomers to contact him via the encrypted messaging app Telegram. Among those who sought him out, asking for instructions on how to reach Syria, was Yazdani, who had convinced himself that it was his religious duty to move his family to the “caliphate.”

By 2015, Amriki was one of close to a dozen cyberplanners based in Syria or Iraq who were already actively recruiting volunteers abroad, according to a tally based on investigation records from North America, Europe and Asia.

Initially, they made little effort to hide, posting grandiose threats against the West on public social media feeds. They were sometimes discounted as mere cheerleaders for the terrorist group.

But by the late spring of 2015, they were considered enough of a threat that both American and British intelligence began tracking their movements, methodically targeting them with airstrikes and killing several since then.

New York Times

For Women Under ISIS, a Tyranny of Dress Code and Punishment


KHAZER CAMP, Iraq — By the time the jihadists had finished, not even a woman’s eyes were legal. Showing them was a punishable offense.

The dress code imposed on the women of Mosul started soon after ISIS overran the city more than two years ago. It was carried out gradually, until every part of the female body was erased, starting with the face, then the rest of the body — including the hands, which had to be covered with gloves, as well as the feet, which had to be hidden by socks. It ended with an announcement blared over loudspeakers, telling women to wear a film of black cloth over their eyes.

Halima Ali Beder, 39, said she had resentfully made each new addition to her wardrobe, starting with the niqab to cover her face, and the abaya, also known as a jilbab, a loosefitting gown. Yet she still ran afoul of ISIS’s increasingly harsh enforcement of its codes when she stepped into the lane outside her home, planning to pop over to her neighbor’s house.

“I put on everything — the niqab, the abaya, the gloves, the socks. All I forgot to do is cover my eyes,” said Ms. Beder, one of a dozen women from recently liberated neighborhoods of the city who recounted their experiences in interviews at the Khazer refugee camp, about 45 miles from Mosul in northern Iraq.

Ms. Beder had taken only a few steps when the morality police spotted her, and officers began shouting at her, castigating her. “They said: ‘Where is your husband? Does he accept that just anyone can see your face?’ I said: ‘But I wasn’t showing my face. Only my eyes!’”

More than two million people lived in Mosul when it fell to ISIS on June 10, 2014. It was a conservative city where most women already covered their hair with a scarf and their arms with long sleeves. But as in other places where the militants imposed their creed, the new rules took enforced modesty to such an extreme that it riled families in Mosul, who described how they quickly began to feel suffocated.

Three days after seizing the city, the militants began going door to door to distribute the “Bill of the City,” laying out how they planned to govern, according to a study by a researcher, Rasha Al Aqeedi, a native of Mosul and now a fellow at the Al Mesbar Studies and Research Center in Dubai.

“To the virtuous women,” the bill said, “in modesty and the wide, loose jilbab, stay in your homes and leave them only in cases of necessity.”

All over territory controlled by ISIS, billboards were going up showing a picture of a woman looking like a black silhouette, completely covered in concealing clothes. It laid out the new look in seven bullet points, including that a woman’s gown should be “thick and not reveal what is beneath” and should “not draw attention.”

For at least a month, obedience to the new rules was not enforced. Then at the end of July, thousands of niqab sets were distributed to shops. The first of numerous decrees was issued, ordering women to don the niqab as well as gloves. Around the same time, residents began seeing vehicles painted with the logo of ISIS’s morality police, Ms. Aqeedi said.

Opposite the university, they opened the police unit’s headquarters, known as the Diwan al-Hisba. Its enforcement officers fanned out across the city, carrying books of numbered citations.

When the police caught a woman straying from the dress code, they issued a notice in exchange for her husband’s ID card. He then had to appear at a hearing before a judge. Depending on the offense, he was forced to pay a fine, or else either he or his wife was sentenced to a whipping, recent escapees said.

When the Islamic police barged into the home of Ms. Beder, they demanded her husband’s ID. Then when he appeared before them, he was forced to pay a fine of 50,000 dinars — around $40, a sizable portion of the family’s monthly income.

Women say the minders multiplied each month, until residents had the impression that the morality police were omnipresent. Officers loitered near shops and beside market stalls. One woman, Zeena Mohamed, 27, described how she lifted her flap just enough to see the cream-colored dress she was considering buying. She couldn’t be sure of its hue through the black film, she said.

Straightaway she heard a man shouting, and looked up to see the officer, who expelled her from the shop.

Others described not being sure of the amount of money that shopkeepers handed back to them, afraid to lift up the veil to check. Tripping, even falling, became a regular occurrence, they said.

Throughout areas controlled by the terror group in Iraq, as well as in Syria and Libya, ISIS’s hisba became a bureaucracy of virtue, its offices filling up with binders of receipts for the various violations it had issued. It prosecuted a list of offenses, fining and flogging men for incorrect beard length, for failure to pray at the sanctioned time, for possession of cigarettes and alcohol and for a long list of other perceived moral failings.

On letterhead bearing the group’s black flag, ISIS released fatwas detailing each new restriction and outlining penalties, according to documents obtained by the researcher Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, who agreed to share several unpublished examples with The New York Times. One fatwa discussed the appropriate color women should wear, concluding that red was illegal. Another stresses the importance of covering the entire face “because it is the place of captivation and temptation.”

One woman was stopped because her sock had a hole in it, revealing the skin on her ankle. A middle-aged secretary recounted how the gloves made it hard for her to hold a pen, which kept slipping. When she tried taking off the glove of her writing hand, she was spotted and threatened.

Because the dress code applied to what women should wear in public, Wafa, a 39-year-old woman, did not bother putting on the attire when she went to bake flatbread in the earthen oven inside her family’s compound.

Though the compound is encircled by a wall, it was low enough for people to peer over, which is how the hisba saw her. Officers immediately came to demand her husband’s ID.

“I told them if you plan to start interfering even inside our homes, then you need to start bringing us propane, and groceries and the things we need, so that we don’t have to go out,” she said. “You’re making us live in the Stone Age.”

They let her go with a warning, but the next time, she was punished. Wafa, who asked that only her first name be used, said she had been at a picnic with her children. She lifted the khimar, the fabric over her face, just enough to bring her spoon to her mouth, when she noticed the black car with the green logo of the morality police, she said.

This time, they confiscated her husband’s ID and gave him a notice to appear. “Reason for detention,” says the receipt, numbered 4715. “Wife outside without khimar.”

They then drove Wafa to their office, where a long-bearded judge jotted down her punishment: 21 lashes.

“I tried to protest. To explain. How can I eat if I don’t lift up the khimar? But they didn’t listen,” she said. They delivered her to a room where a Syrian woman ordered her to kneel. In the woman’s hand was a cable that had metal spikes on the end.

“It’s indescribable the pain I felt,” Wafa said. “I was screaming, crying — begging — reciting prayers.”

Her back shredded, she spent two nights at a hospital and for weeks afterward she could sleep only on her stomach, she said.

It eventually became clear that the aim of the rules was to keep women cloistered inside their homes. “This was the entire purpose. The essence of their Islamic jurisprudence is to make women melt away. To make them invisible,” Ms. Aqeedi said. She gave the example of a woman she keeps in touch with who is still in Mosul and has not left her home for more than two years.

A small number tried to rebel. Ms. Mohamed said she was among them, routinely talking back to the morality police, an account confirmed by her mother and sisters.

Not long before their neighborhood was liberated, Zeena Mohamed and her sister Mona went to a store that sold women’s intimate wear. Among the customers were two wives of ISIS militants, “and they were buying the raciest lingerie in the entire shop,” Zeena said.

When the sisters left the shop, they passed the two ISIS husbands, loitering in the hallway outside the shop. One saw that Zeena had forgotten to pull down the flap over her eyes and began loudly admonishing her.

“Your wife is upstairs buying racy panties,” she recounted saying, “and you’re concerned about me showing my eyes?”

New York Times

Muhaysini Says he Talked to Zawahri, Poses No Threat to the West

Washington- American officials accuse him of being part of the “inner leadership circle” of Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, most widely known as the Nusra Front, and of raising as much as $5 million for the terrorist group while signing up thousands of fighters.

But Abdallah Muhammad al-Muhaysini insists that he could not be more surprised to learn that the United States Treasury Department had designated him as a terrorist and ordered his funds frozen.

“Today, Syrians are shocked to find that the United States has put on the terror list a person whom they consider to be a national symbol,” Mr. Muhaysini said in a Skype interview with The New York Times last week. “It’s a very bizarre thing,”

“Abdallah al-Muhaysini is an independent figure,” he added. “How can the American State Department describe Abdallah al-Muhaysini as belonging to Fath al-Sham?” he said, using a version of the Nusra Front’s new name.
Until now, Mr. Muhaysini, a 31-year-old who said he was calling from Syria, had not been the type to contact Western publications.

That he is doing so is most likely a reflection of how the Nusra Front is trying to buy itself some flexibility by publicly rebranding — even if no one in counterterrorism circles believes it is truly changing. Public relations efforts have become paramount in the contest within the jihadist world for recruits and resources, and in the effort to evade military reprisals from foreign powers.

In what analysts say is a calculated move to hide its ties to Al Qaeda, the Nusra Front recently rebranded itself as a local insurgency against the regime of Bashar al-Assad, declaring that it no longer intended to target the West and changing its name to Jabhat Fath al-Sham, or the Levant Conquest Front.

But experts and intelligence officials say the group is still an essential part of Al Qaeda, committed as ever to competing with ISIS for territory and support and leaving the fight against pro-Assad forces a lower priority.

Colin P. Clarke, an analyst at the RAND Corporation, argues that the Nusra Front is actually the biggest of Al Qaeda’s branches, with approximately 10,000 fighters. And he characterized the group’s public split from Al Qaeda as “simply a feint,” a way for the group to hunker down and rebuild as ISIS gets pounded by airstrikes.
“It has been used to give themselves a little bit of breathing room,” Mr. Clarke said.

Just as officials and analysts were not buying the Nusra Front’s attempt to rebrand, they will not be trusting Mr. Muhaysini’s protests that he is merely a religious scholar with no stake in the jihadist competition in Syria.

Experts on the Nusra Front agree with American and European officials in considering Mr. Muhaysini to be a senior leader in the group, with deep ties to Al Qaeda’s international network. And in his public communications up to now, Mr. Muhaysini himself has left little room between his positions and Al Qaeda’s, appearing in social media posts eulogizing dead Qaeda leaders and encouraging suicide bombers. His biography has even appeared in the Qaeda magazine Al Risalah.

In a Skype interview on Friday, from a room illuminated by a single fluorescent bulb, Mr. Muhaysini seemed relaxed, often breaking into a toothy grin as he insisted that he posed no threat to the West.

When asked, he acknowledged having contacted Ayman al-Zawahri, the global chief of Al Qaeda. “In 2014, yes, I talked to Ayman Zawahri because he is an old and generous sheikh and I asked him to speak about Daesh because he has a huge audience,” he said, using an acronym for ISIS. “I wanted him to talk about Daesh to prevent the youth from joining.”

He describes the images that have appeared of him with other well-known Qaeda leaders, and the comments he has made about them, as similar to photographs that might emerge from a summit meeting in which President Obama is seen sitting next to President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia. “It doesn’t mean that they share an ideology,” he said.

The New York Times

How a Secretive Branch of ISIS Built a Global Network of Killers

Harry Sarfo, a former ISIS fighter from Germany, inside the maximum-security prison in Bremen where he is serving a three-year sentence on terrorism charges.

BREMEN, Germany — Believing he was answering a holy call, Harry Sarfo left his home in the working-class city of Bremen last year and drove for four straight days to reach the territory controlled by the ISIS in Syria.

He barely had time to settle in before members of the ISIS secret service, wearing masks over their faces, came to inform him and his German friend that they no longer wanted Europeans to come to Syria. Where they were really needed was back home, to help carry out the group’s plan of waging terrorism across the globe.

“He was speaking openly about the situation, saying that they have loads of people living in European countries and waiting for commands to attack the European people,” Mr. Sarfo recounted on Monday, in an interview with The New York Times conducted in English inside the maximum-security prison near Bremen. “And that was before the Brussels attacks, before the Paris attacks.”

The masked man explained that, although the group was well set up in some European countries, it needed more attackers in Germany and Britain, in particular. “They said, ‘Would you mind to go back to Germany, because that’s what we need at the moment,’” Mr. Sarfo recalled. “And they always said they wanted to have something that is occurring in the same time: They want to have loads of attacks at the same time in England and Germany and France.”

The operatives belonged to an intelligence unit of the ISIS known in Arabic as the Emni, which has become a combination of an internal police force and an external operations branch, dedicated to exporting terror abroad, according to thousands of pages of French, Belgian, German and Austrian intelligence and interrogation documents obtained by The Times.

The ISIS attacks in Paris on Nov. 13 brought global attention to the group’s external terrorism network, which began sending fighters abroad two years ago. Now, Mr. Sarfo’s account, along with those of other captured recruits, has further pulled back the curtain on the group’s machinery for projecting violence beyond its borders.

What they describe is a multilevel secret service under the overall command of the ISIS’ most senior Syrian operative, spokesman and propaganda chief, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani. Below him is a tier of lieutenants empowered to plan attacks in different regions of the world, including a “secret service for European affairs,” a “secret service for Asian affairs” and a “secret service for Arab affairs,” according to Mr. Sarfo.

An External Operations Branch Within ISIS

At least 10 deadly attacks against Westerners have been directed or coordinated by a special unit of ISIS dedicated to exporting terror abroad. In addition, more than 30 people working for this group were arrested before they could carry out attacks.

Reinforcing the idea that the Emni is a core part of ISIS’ operations, the interviews and documents indicate that the unit has carte blanche to recruit and reroute operatives from all parts of the organization — from new arrivals to seasoned battlefield fighters, and from the group’s special forces and its elite commando units. Taken together, the interrogation records show that operatives are selected by nationality and grouped by language into small, discrete units whose members sometimes only meet one another on the eve of their departure abroad.

And through the coordinating role played by Mr. Adnani, terror planning has gone hand-in-hand with the group’s extensive propaganda operations — including, Mr. Sarfo claimed, monthly meetings in which Mr. Adnani chose which grisly videos to promote based on battlefield events.

Based on the accounts of operatives arrested so far, the Emni has become the crucial cog in the group’s terrorism machinery, and its trainees led the Paris attacks and built the suitcase bombs used in a Brussels airport terminal and subway station. Investigation records show that its foot soldiers have also been sent to Austria, Germany, Spain, Lebanon, Tunisia, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Malaysia.

With European officials stretched by a string of assaults by seemingly unconnected attackers who pledged allegiance to the ISIS, also known as ISIL, Mr. Sarfo suggested that there may be more of a link than the authorities yet know. He said he was told that undercover operatives in Europe used new converts as go-betweens, or “clean men,” who help link up people interested in carrying out attacks with operatives who can pass on instructions on everything from how to make a suicide vest to how to credit their violence to ISIS.

The group has sent “hundreds of operatives” back to the European Union, with “hundreds more in Turkey alone,” according to a senior United States intelligence official and a senior American defense official, both of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence.

Mr. Sarfo, who was recently moved out of solitary confinement at his German prison because he is no longer considered violent, agrees with that assessment. “Many of them have returned,” he said. “Hundreds, definitely.”

Vetting Recruits

The first port of call for new arrivals to ISIS is a network of dormitories in Syria, just across the border from Turkey. There, recruits are interviewed and inventoried.

Mr. Sarfo was fingerprinted, and a doctor came to draw a blood sample and perform a physical examination. A man with a laptop conducted an intake interview. “He was asking normal questions like: ‘What’s your name? What’s your second name? Who’s your mom? Where’s your mom originally from? What did you study? What degree do you have? What’s your ambition? What do you want to become?’” Mr. Sarfo said.

His background was also of interest. He was a regular at a radical mosque in Bremen that had already sent about 20 members to Syria, at least four of whom were killed in battle, according to Daniel Heinke, the German Interior Ministry’s counterterrorism coordinator for the area. And he had served a one-year prison sentence for breaking into a supermarket safe and stealing 23,000 euros. Even though the punishment for theft in areas under ISIS control is amputation, a criminal past can be a valued asset, Mr. Sarfo said, “especially if they know you have ties to organized crime and they know you can get fake IDs, or they know you have contact men in Europe who can smuggle you into the European Union.”

The bureaucratic nature of the intake procedure was recently confirmed by American officials after USB drives were recovered in the recently liberated Syrian city of Manbij, one of the hubs for processing foreign fighters.

Mr. Sarfo checked all the necessary boxes, and on the third day after his arrival, the members of the Emni came to ask for him. He wanted to fight in Syria and Iraq, but the masked operatives explained that they had a vexing problem.

“They told me that there aren’t many people in Germany who are willing to do the job,” Mr. Sarfo said soon after his arrest last year, according to the transcript of his interrogation by German officials, which runs more than 500 pages. “They said they had some in the beginning. But one after another, you could say, they chickened out, because they got scared — cold feet. Same in England.”

By contrast, the group had more than enough volunteers for France. “My friend asked them about France,” Mr. Sarfo said. “And they started laughing. But really serious laughing, with tears in their eyes. They said, ‘Don’t worry about France.’ ‘Mafi mushkilah’ — in Arabic, it means ‘no problem.’” That conversation took place in April 2015, seven months before the coordinated killings in Paris in November, the worst terrorist attack in Europe in over a decade.

While some details of Mr. Sarfo’s account cannot be verified, his statements track with what other recruits related in their interrogations. And both prison officials and the German intelligence agents who debriefed Mr. Sarfo after his arrest said they found him credible.

Since the rise of ISIS over two years ago, intelligence agencies have been collecting nuggets on the Emni. Originally, the unit was tasked with policing ISIS’ members, including conducting interrogations and ferreting out spies, according to interrogation records and analysts. But French members arrested in 2014 and 2015 explained that the Emni had taken on a new portfolio: projecting terror abroad.

“It’s the Emni that ensures the internal security inside Dawla” — the Arabic word for state — “and oversees external security by sending abroad people they recruited, or else sending individuals to carry out violent acts, like what happened in Tunisia inside the museum in Tunis, or else the aborted plot in Belgium,” said Nicolas Moreau, 32, a French citizen who was arrested last year after leaving ISIS in Syria, according to his statement to France’s domestic intelligence agency.

Mr. Moreau explained that he had run a restaurant in Raqqa, Syria, the de facto capital of the group’s territory, where he had served meals to key members of the Emni — including Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the on-the-ground commander of the Paris attacks, who was killed in a standoff with the police days later.

Other interrogations, as well as Mr. Sarfo’s account, have led investigators to conclude that the Emni also trained and dispatched the gunman who opened fire on a beach in Sousse, Tunisia, in June, and the man who prepared the Brussels airport bombs.

Records from French, Austrian and Belgian intelligence agencies show that at least 28 operatives recruited by the Emni succeeded in deploying to countries outside of the ISIS’ core territory, mounting both successful attacks and plots that were foiled. Officials say that dozens of other operatives have slipped through and formed sleeper cells.

In his own interactions with the Emni, Mr. Sarfo realized that they were preparing a global portfolio of terrorists and looking to fill holes in their international network, he said.

He described what he had been told about the group’s work to build an infrastructure in Bangladesh. There, a siege by a team of Islamic State gunmen left at least 20 hostages dead at a cafe last month, almost all of them foreigners.

Mr. Sarfo said that for Asian recruits, the group was looking specifically for militants who had emerged from Al Qaeda’s network in the region. “People especially from Bangladesh, Malaysia and Indonesia — they have people who used to work for Al Qaeda, and once they joined ISIS, they are asking them questions about their experiences and if they have contacts,” he said.

(The New York Times)