A lack of reliable human intelligence networks in Syria has resulted in conflicting reports on the fate of Damascus cement plant workers kidnapped by ISIS, an American intelligence source said.
The well-placed source, who specializes in Western Asia, is not authorized to speak to the press, and met with AMI Newswire secretly and on the condition of anonymity.
The kidnappings came to public light early last week, when Arabic news outlets reported that ISIS had captured 300 workers at the Al Badia cement factory outside Dmier, near Damascus.
By Thursday, a number of Western news outlets, including CNN, picked up on the reports, citing a Syrian government source who was quoted in the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency.
On Friday, multiple outlets reported that ISIS had massacred 175 of the workers. Some agencies, including Reuters, quickly took down their reports. Others, such as Daily Caller, let the story stand. By Saturday, other news outlets, including the Agence France-Presse, reported that four Druze workers were murdered, 170 others would be freed, and that an unspecified number escaped.
The confusion is not confined to media outlets, the American intelligence source told AMI.
"ISIS raided a cement plant and captured some workers," the source said. "That much is correct. Beyond that, we are still trying to figure out what happened."
Thanks to "a dearth of human assets" -- i.e., spies on the ground -- "we are limited," the source said.
The gutting of human intelligence capacity is an old story, but no less pressing now than it was when, according to former CIA chief George Tenet, only a handful of sources provided the information that initially helped propel the United States to war in Iraq.
In terms of the Syrian cement workers, the dearth of HUMINT equals to obfuscation, the in-telligence source said.
"We are left with culling from a mishmash that includes surveillance, open source, and a small number of contacts in the field," the intelligence source said.
"What it all boils down to is, we still are trying to figure out what happened."
ISIS has not said publicly why it kidnapped the cement workers.
The plant, which began production in 2011, appears online to adhere to Western-style standards.
In statements on its website, the plant claims to use imported European supplies, supports equal opportunity, and does not discriminate on the basis of "race, ethnicity, gender, religion, national origin, age or disability."
Syrian government officials did not respond to requests for information on the kidnapped workers.
A man who answered the phone at Al Badia Cement said that its CEO, Khaled Al Sawaf, was not available to comment.