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Questions raised over authenticity of 'leaked' IS group documents

Screengrab FRANCE 24 | Document posted March 9, 2016, on Arabic website Zaman Alwas purportedly shows names of IS group members.

Documents purportedly from the Islamic State (IS) group and acquired by German and British media contain several inconsistencies that have raised doubts about the credibility of the files.


The documents – believed to be IS group recruitment questionnaires – contain the names, addresses, phone numbers and other information on 22,000 jihadis who have allegedly joined the militant group, according to initial reports from Munich’s Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper and German public broadcasters. But the news only began making waves in the English press when it was picked up on Wednesday by Britain’s Sky News, which said it had obtained similar documents from one of the group's "disillusioned" converts.

FRANCE 24’s expert on jihadist movements, Wassim Nasr, has seen some of the documents published in the Arabic website Zaman Alwasl, noting that many elements – including some references and logos – raise questions as to the authenticity of the files.

One of the documents bore an Arabic inscription in which the group calls itself, “The State of Islam in Iraq and al-Sham”. However, the same document also bears the group’s former official title, “The Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham”.

“Seeing those two names on the same document shows us it’s not authentic,” said Nasr, noting that the group would be consistent in the use of its own name.

The Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (al-Sham refers to the Levant region that includes present-day Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, the Palestinian Territories and parts of Turkey) was the group’s official name only between April 9, 2013 and June 29, 2014, when it changed its name simply to the “Islamic State” or the “caliphate”.

There were also questions over references to the IS group’s administrative units, with one of the group’s quasi-ministries referred to as the “Central Administration of the Borders”.

“This does not exist in the ranks of the Islamic State group,” Nasr said. “They have groups to control zones where there are frontiers, but they don’t have a central administration dedicated to that.”

Other questions were raised by the documents’ use of a circular stamp featuring the shahada, a Muslim prayer, in Arabic text in white against a black backdrop. The stamp’s image was taken from a screen grab of an old propaganda video released by the now-defunct Islamic State of Iraq – the predecessor to the Islamic State group and which rose from the ranks of the Iraqi branch of al Qaeda.

“The Islamic State group has official stamps that it uses on documents,” Nasr said, but this “was not an official stamp”.

The text below the shahada bears the cry, “The state of Islam will remain”, also known as the bakiya.

“It’s a cry – it’s not a stamp, and it’s used in these documents as a stamp,” Nasr explained. “This leads me to believe that these documents are not authentic.”

Fake documents for sale

The seeming inconsistencies in the trove of documents came as a German federal police spokesman said the documents were very likely to be genuine.

"The Federal Criminal Office has knowledge of this type of document of the so-called Islamic State," said police spokesman Markus Koths in a statement released Thursday. "We assume that there is a very high probability that they are genuine documents … We are therefore taking them into account as part of our law enforcement and security measures."

Germany’s interior ministry also said on Thursday that officials believe the list is authentic.

But other experts joined Nasr in advising caution.

"There would be big alarm bells for me, because when I've seen inconsistencies like that in the past they've been on really shoddily made forgeries," Charlie Winter, a researcher at Georgia State University, told AFP.

"With something as important as this, it's important to look at it with as suspicious, discerning and cynical an eye as possible," he added.

Fake IS group documents have been circulated and distributed to media outlets several times over the past few years. A December 2015 document that purportedly called on IS group fighters to abandon the Iraqi city of Fallujah was tweeted by Colonel Steve Warren, spokesman for the US-led campaign in Iraq, before it was revealed to be a fake.

“Many people on the border between Syria and Turkey are trying to sell almost anything with black flags, fake stamps of the Islamic State group and logos,” Nasr said. “Many journalists, including me, have confronted this reality.”

In an interview with the Washington Post in December 2015, British analyst Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi noted that, “The fakes that have been circulated are largely poor in quality. The forgers seem to be ignorant of Islamic State labeling, there are recurring motifs, and we see some clear attempts to take jabs at certain actors perceived to be backing the Islamic State.”

The IS group’s early ‘confused’ days

Nasr noted that even forged documents may contain some valid information, making the task of discerning whether they were fakes particularly difficult.

“We have a lot of information about jihadists, especially Western citizens, from the media and other open sources, which includes information about dates of birth, schools attended and places of origin," he said.

"This has to be taken into consideration" when analysing IS group documents for their authenticity.

Some experts, however, are cautioning against dismissing the documents as fake.

“There are discrepancies between other documents issued by the Islamic State,” said Richard Barret, vice president of the New York-based Soufan Group, in an interview with FRANCE 24.

“But in 2013-2014, the Islamic State was a little more confused, perhaps, when it was in its early days. Also, some details have been deleted by the people owning and publishing the documents. The originals do have details, which is now missing. So those things give rise to questions about their authenticity, but I do believe they’re genuine.”

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