LONDON — A cache of leaked documents containing the names of recruits into the Islamic State group includes references to several of the men who carried out the November attacks in Paris, a German broadcaster reported Friday. Security officials and counterterrorism analysts said the cache could provide valuable clues into how the group lures followers and how vast its global recruiting networks are.
German broadcaster WDR says that it, along with the daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung and fellow broadcaster NDR, have obtained some 22,000 IS documents. On Friday, WDR reported that the files document the entry into IS territory in 2013 and 2014 of Paris attackers Samy Amimour, Foued Mohamed-Aggad and Ismael Omar Mostefai. In addition, the broadcaster said the files contain an apparent reference to Abdelhamid Abaaoud, who has been identified as the architect of the Nov. 13 attacks in Paris, in which 130 people were killed.
The IS files that surfaced in various outlets this week contain names of potential fighters, personal references, telephone numbers and other detailed information. The leak, which contains names of people from more than 50 countries, also stands to heighten suspicion among followers. Similar leaks within other terror affiliates have created fissures in Pakistan and elsewhere in the past.
Some of the documents included names of women, but neither their nationalities nor their roles were immediately known, according to Shiraz Maher, a senior research fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalization at Kings College in London.
Maher has seen a bulk of the files. He said while it would be unusual for women to be recruited as fighters, women may have been listed as personal references.
"One of the key things about these documents is that they contain names of people who have vouched for the recruits," Maher said. "By cross-checking these names against the information we have already, we'll be likely to piece together a detailed picture of IS networks and how they relate to one another. And a lot of the information we've seen on the documents correspondents to what we have on our databases which leads us to believe the documents are authentic."
In the documents, Amimour, Mohamed-Aggad and Mostefai said only that they wanted to fight for IS when they arrived, though it was possible to tick an option on the form to be a suicide attacker, WDR reported.
It said that Abaaoud apparently acted under a pseudonym, Abu Omar Al-Beliki, to vouch for the entry of another French Islamist. An initial analysis of the documents found no entry form for Abaaoud, WDR added.
The documents also showed that at least 14 men from France crossed the Turkish-Syrian border on Dec. 18, 2013 with the same smuggler and were vouched for by a single extremist of Moroccan origin, it said. Mohamed-Aggad was one member of that group.
Germany's federal criminal police said Thursday they are in possession of the IS files.
Britain's Sky News also reported it had obtained 22,000 files and Zaman al-Wasl English, a Syrian news site critical of extremist fighters and the government, also obtained the documents from a source in the border area, said its editor, Mohamed Hamdan. However, the site had only 1,736 names and Hamdan couldn't explain the discrepancy.
Hamdan said the database of names was handed over in December by a Syrian who is now in Turkey but the site held off publishing immediately — at the time, they simply ran a short story noting the existence of the documents. "We did not want to rush. There are those who want a scoop. But for us, we have a moral objective, because if we publish the names, there are consequences for their loved ones. Zaman al-Wasl refuses to deal with intelligence services."
Europol, meanwhile, was sharing material on it database with member countries though it wasn't clear how many had access to the leaked documents.
"Europol is in contact with the British and German authorities regarding the veracity and wider availability of the information," said Robert Wainwright, director of the European police organization. "If the provenance and accuracy of the information is confirmed it undoubtedly represents a significant intelligence gain for Western authorities and should be exploited fully."
Europol runs the European Counter Terrorism Centre and routinely assigns officers to help investigate terror attacks.
Sky said the files, obtained at the border between Turkey and Syria, were passed to them on a memory stick stolen from the head of the Islamic State group's internal security police by a former fighter who had grown disillusioned with the group.
Germany's Sueddeutsche Zeitung reported it also had obtained the files on the Turkey-Syria border, where it said IS files and videos were widely available from anti-IS Kurdish fighters and members of IS itself. The documents appear to have been collected near the end of 2013, Sky News reported. At that time, IS was "at a pretty early stage of its state-building capacity," said Dalia Ghanem-Yazbeck, a research analyst at the Carnegie Middle East Center.
The documents highlight the bureaucratic work of the highly secretive extremist group that has spread fear through its brutal killings and deadly attacks in its self-declared caliphate of Syria and Iraq, as well as in places like France, Turkey, Lebanon, Yemen and Libya.
As of last month, the U.S. estimates IS had 19,000 to 25,000 fighters in Iraq and Syria, down from an estimated 20,000 to 31,500 fighters.
Lori Hinnant contributed to this report from Paris. Moulson reported from Berlin.