Running the Islamic State Part 2: Leadership

The self-styled Islamic State managed to sweep through large territories in Iraq and Syria and establish control over vast areas with estimated population up to 8 million people. In order to assert control over such large territories IS has to have a superior organizational structure that in many ways resembles state’s political systems. The highest level of self-proclaimed Caliphate is al-Imara (Caliph nad his closest advisors). One step lower on the ladder there is cabinet-like structure with ministries. IS also strives to create centralized top-down organization consisting of „provinces“ (wilaayat) and their „sectors“ (qata‘t) which are supposed to function as „little Caliphates“.  We bring you insight into top leadership of the so-called Islamic State. This article is the second part of the series „Running the Islamic State“ which aims to offer an in-depth analysis into IS’s financing, organizational structure, and governance.

A. Introduction

IS boasts with superior organizational structure which ensures that governance and military operations are executed within its strategic framework (see Scheme of IS leadership below). Hierarchical organization strengthens IS’s ability to govern in controlled territories, control finances, propaganda, enforcing their radical Salafist Islamist ideology. Four levels of organizational structure will be analyzed: 1. leadership (al-Imara); 2. cabinet level (Councils); 3. provincial level (wilaayat); 4. sectors (qata‘t). Leadership (al-Imara) consists of the Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his two deputies (one for Syrian and one for Iraqi provinces) accompanied by a group of advisers (Shura Council) who are usually also top „officials“ on the Cabinet level, in so-called Councils. Councils function like „ministries“; they deal with media strategy, military operations, administration etc. (In depth analysis of the organizational structure from Council level down to sectoral level will be brought to you in the next part of our series).

ISIS scheme
Scheme: Leadership of the Islamic State – al-Imara (click to enlarge)

[caption: position, nom de guerre, (real name), description] (source: author).

B. Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, an Unlikely Leader?

Caliph Ibrahim aka Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (source: Wikimedia )

On the top of the pyramid, there is self-proclaimed Caliph Ibrahim, known as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. He came to power in 2010 after the death of a former leader Abu Omar al-Baghdadi. According to defector from the group known on Twitter as @wikibaghdady, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s coming to power was indeed a surprise since he most probably was not even among senior figures. This „coup“ was staged with support of the ex-Ba’athist elements in the organization, mainly ex-Colonel of the Iraqi Revolutionary Guard, known as Haji Bakr (died in combat in Syria in February 2014). Though information are scarce from this period, the subsequent development showed that ex-Ba’athist elements earned even more prominent position than before. After all, key figures in the highest leadership are mostly Iraqi, ex-Saddam figures, such as deputy for Iraq (Abu Muslim al-Turkmani, ex-Istikhbarat – Saddam’s military intelligence, and officer of the Special Forces of Republican Guard, killed by coalition airstrike in Mosul in November) and Syria (Abu Ali al-Anbari, ex-major general of Saddam’s army). Al-Baghdadi’s organization increasingly co-opt Arab and foreign jihadists mostly to religious positions in order to gain more legitimacy (they have usually more presitigous religious education), key posts still seem dominated by Iraqi nationals, often with Ba’athist past.

Only is little known about al-Baghdadi’s life. He is Iraqi national, born in Samarra in 1971. He comes from a poor family and studied at the Islamic University in Baghdad.  After graduation he moved to Fallujah and started to work as an assistant to local preachers, or maybe as imam. That is where his acqaintance with IS’s precedessor, al-Zarqawi’s group widely known as al-Qaeda in Iraq, began. Al-Baghdadi served merely as a low-rank „live letter box“ for the organization, however he spent the years 2004-06 in US detention facility of Camp Bucca, where he served his time along with Ba’athist and radical Islamist. After his release there is no information about his occupation within the organization, but he must have somehow climbed the ladder higher. Most probably he had very close ties to Ba’athist figures within the organization since they staged his election as a new leader in 2010, and up to this date occupied the most prominent executive positions in leadership. One of the inmates who spent time with al-Baghdadi in Camp Bucca said that „none of us knew he would ever end up as leader.” And further described him: “I got a feeling from him that he was hiding something inside, a darkness that he did not want to show other people. (…) He was remote, far from us all.”

IS wages multi-language propaganda campaign to create better biogprahy for their leader (most of it are lies). They derive his origin from al-Qurayshi tribe (the Prophet’s tribe – this lineage is condition to become Caliph). According to the narrative he holds Ph. D. in Islamic studies from Baghdad University, was professor on Tikrit University, has vast combat experience and is a founder of several groups fighting the US. Soufan Group report comments this narrative as „inherently unlikely“. „Not only Abu Bakr have no military background or experience, he is also intensely careful about his security (…).“

We may ask how such an outsider became a man in charge of such organization, where he is indeed no puppet in the hands of other top level cadres. Barret comments this „black swan“ by comparing him to legendary Taliban leader Mullah Omar „(…) who was a village Mullah, who rode to prominence on a wave of disgust at the antics of local warlords and adopted the cloak (quite literally) of religion as a way to bring about a new Afghanistan.“

C. Alliance with Ba‘athists

Indeed, it was al-Baghdadi and his skillful allies from Saddam times with their know-how and networks who transformed the organization into more a capable body, especially regarding security, intelligence, and military operations. This unlikely alliance between secular pragmatic Ba’athists and radical Islamists was according to various sources widely forged during the US occupation of Iraq when many of the members of IS organizational precedessors spent time in prisons (such as Camp Bucca) along with ex-Ba’athists.

It is possible that al-Baghdadi most probably met in Camp Bucca key ex-Ba’athist figures within the IS, such as his deputy Abu Muslim al-Turkmani (killed in November/December 2014), member of the Military Council Abu Ayman al-Iraqi, Haji Bakr who staged al-Baghdadi‘s takeover in organization in 2010, or member of Military Council killed in Anbar in June 2014 Abu Abdulrahman al-Bilawi.

Ba’athist ideology simply did not succeed in attracting many followers among Sunnis anymore. Therefore, alliance with the radical Islamists with sounding ideology seemed as a good strategic move, ensuring key positions within Sunni insurgency. Thus, their „ideological zeal“ for radical Islamist vision of Caliphate may be in many cases just a pragmatic cloak-changing. Nevertheless, we should not undestimate radical Islam as an ideological tool with a  potential of gaining legitimacy, or attracting recruits by giving their struggle a label of religious legitimacy. (After all, as the conflict goes on, the growing generation of IS cadres will be very likely much more radical than previous generation due to continuos religious indoctrination.) Ba’athist experience and know-how is vast and they occupy key security and military positions which gives the organization considerable superiority.

D. Al-Baghdadi’s Deputies

Al-Baghdadi’s deputies for Iraq and Syria can be considered as Caliph’s right hands. At the same time they serve as members of the key Shura Council and as heads of specific councils. Their position is rather “technical” and exploits vast know-how they acquired during service as high-level security officials for Saddam’s regime. It shall be pointed out that many of the senior leadership figures were killed in recent months and new generation of top level officials remains anonymous. However, it is still useful to overview killed officials to understand the nature of the leadership structure.

1. Abu Muslim al-Turkmani (Fadl Ahmad Abdullah al-Hiyali)

The deputy for Iraq and at the same time chief of the Provincial Council and member of the Shura Council was Iraqi national going by nom de guerre Abu Muslim al-Turkmani (real name Fadl Ahmad Abdullah al-Hiyali). Al-Turkmani (as his nom de guerre suggests) is Sunni Turkmen from area of Tal Afar in Nineweh province, which is inhabited by 75 % of Sunni Turkmen and 25 % of Shiites. He served as a lieutenant colonel in Saddam’s military intelligence (Istikhbarat), as well as colonel in Special Forces of Republican Guards up to 2003 invasion when he was decommissioned. Subsequently, he joined the Sunni insurgency against the US occupation and spent time in Camp Bucca detention facility. There, he most probably became more acquainted with radical Islamists. Al-Turkmani was probably part of the Ba’athist bloc who staged al-Baghdadi’s coup in 2010. He was killed by a coalition airstrike in early November or December 2014 somewhere in Mosul along with two other senior leaders. It was indeed the most senior figure killed after ex-Ba’athists Haji Bakr in January 2014 (member of Shura council, and “mastermind” of al-Baghdadi’s coming to power), and Abu Abdulrahman al-Bilawi (chief of the Military Council) in June 2014. US officials commented his importance: “though not the No. 2 of ISIS as commonly reported, was a very high-ranking and significant figure in the group, particularly in Iraq.”

2. Abu Ali al-Anbari (real name unknown)

The deputy for Syrian provinces and also member of the Shura Council and reportedly chief of Security and Intelligence Council is Abu Ali al-Anbari (his real name is unknown). He reportedly comes from Mosul. Al-Anbari has also history of military service under Saddam’s regime – he held a high rank of major general, however it is not known within which branch of security forces. Some reports say that he served within one of the intelligence services. Al-Anbari also worked for Ansar al-Islam during the US occupation, headed by al-Zarqawi. Wall Street Journal reported that he allegedly does not have such extensive knowledge of Sharia laws and radical Islamist ideology. This information fits into the pattern that many ex-Ba’athists joined Islamists rather for pragmatic reasons to keep their power and positions.

How Islamic State Envisions its Boundaries (source: Zero Hedge)

E. Shura Council

The Shura (Consultative) Council serves as a group of key advisors to al-Baghdadi. It executes policies, deal with the most important affairs of the state. It is a traditional part of the organization structure of the IS predecessors inherited from al-Zarqawi’s times. They are the most senior and most important figures within IS leadership. According to Soufan Group report it has between nine to eleven members, of which seven are known and acknowledged as members by most of the reliable sources. Majority of the members are Iraqi nationals and many of them were previously associated with Saddam’s regime. “The Shura Council is responsible for conveying directives from Abu Bakr down the chain and for ensuring that they are carried out. It decided on laws and their implementation and so may have and overlapping function with the Sharia Council, which decides on religious issues”

1. Abu Muslim al-Turkmani (Fadl Ahmad Abdullah al-Hiyali)

See previous chapter.

2. Abu Ali al-Anbari (real name unknown)

See previous chapter.

3. Abu Arkan al-Amiri (real name unknown)

Abu Arkan al-Amiri is believed to be the head of the Shura Council. So far there is no further reliable information about his past and affiliations. However, considering importance of his position, he may very well be “the man no. 2” within the Islamic State.

4. Omar al-Shishani (TarkhanTayumurazovich Batirasvhili)

Omar al-Shishani is an ethnic Chechen of Georgian origin. Born in 1986, he is one of the youngest prominent members of the IS. Al-Shishani, son of a Christian father and a Muslim mother, served as a sergeant in Georgian military intelligence and took part in 2008 war. Later he was discharged for medical reasons (he suffered from tuberculosis) and allegedly was not able to get into the army again, or secure a policeman job. Moreover, his mother at that time died of cancer. After spending 16 months in Georgian prison after being charged for possessing illegal weapons in 2010, he said“I promised God that if I come out of prison alive, I’ll go fight jihad for the sake of God.” All those unfortunate events probably fueled his hatred and influenced his decision to take up arms in Syria.

He indeed does not fit into a typical archetype of senior IS figure – he is rather young, he is nor Iraqi, nor at least Arab, or nor does he have years of fighting experience among the ranks of IS predecessors. Al-Shishani proved himself to be a very skillful military commander who was in charge of foreign fighter’s battalions (mainly consisting of people from Caucasus). In the half of 2013 he pledged allegiance to al-Baghdadi and became one of the most prominent military commanders, who is also in charge of the Military Council after the death of ex-Ba’athist al-Bilawi in summer 2014. Only half of al-Shishani’s 1650-men battalion joined IS, the other half of them defected and refused bay’ah to al-Baghdadi.

Previously, he was one of the most visible IS senior figures appearing in numbers of videos and photos, presented almost as a legendary warrior. In the recent months, there are no appearances of him that can confirm that he is still alive.

5. Abu Ayman al-Iraqi (Adnan Latif Hamid al-Sweidawi – nickname from Saddam’s times)

Abu Ayman al-Iraqi, allegedly born in 1965 in Iraq, is another senior figure with Ba’athist past. Al-Iraqi is ex-colonel of the Saddam’s Air Force Intelligence. Currently, he is said to occupy the position of the chief of Military Council. In 2007-2010 he was detained in US Camp Bucca, but then released. Subsequently, he allegedly fled to Syria and took part in the upcoming civil war. One source suggests that al-Iraqi was a key person who recruited vast numbers of foreign fighters in 2011-2012 in Syria on behalf of al-Baghdadi’s organization. He is said to be leading military operations in Idlib, Aleppo, and mountains in Lattakia.

6. Abu al-Athir Amr al-Absi (real name unknown)

Abu Amr al-Absi is a Syrian born in Saudi Arabia, who spent time in Assad’s prison in 2007-2011. Besides having a seat in the Shura Council, he is a chief of the Media Council, and as well is said to be the governor of Aleppo wilaayat. He was in charge of various rebel groups during Syrian civil war and proved himself a skillful commander who as well flocked many foreign fighters including those from the West. After death of his brother Firat in 2012 while fighting other rebel factions, al-Absi joined the IS. Al-Absi has allegedly a deep grudge towards groups he blames for death of his brother (Ahrar al-Sham and Farouq Brigades). “Al-Absi reached out to Baghdadi in Iraq, seeking to create with him a unified global entity. Not many people know that Baghdadi’s first branch in Syria was Absi’s group.”

7. Abu Muhammad al-Adnani (Taha Subhi Falaha)

Al-Adnani is one of the prominent members of the Shura Council. He is also an official spokesman for the IS. In the beginning of 2013 he was for some time a chief of IS operations in Syria. Al-Adnani is Syrian national, born in 1977 in Idlib. He was among the first wave of foreign fighters coming to battle with US occupation forces in Iraq. Al-Adnani is another contemporary senior commander who spent years 2005-2010 in US detention facility Camp Bucca along with other Islamists and Ba’athists. After his release he traveled back to Syria and took part in Syrian civil war.

F. Sharia Council

The Sharia Council is “one of the most vital entities within the Islamic State, given its theological nature.” Soufan Group sums up role of the Sharia Council: “With help from the Sharia Commissions, headed by Abu Mohammed al-Aani, it is responsible for ensuring party discipline, providing rules and deciding penalties for their infringement, supervising the sharia police and courts and overseeing ideological outreach (dawa), both in areas under the State’s control and beyond. The imposition and enforcement of religious observance in behavior and appearance is both a symbol and instrument of Islamic State power.” Importance of the Sharia Council illustrates the fact that in theory it has power to impeach the Caliph.

The Sharia Council and its activities and institutions on the lower level of organizational structure belong to the second stream of leadership. This stream is not dominated by Ba’athists or even Iraqi nationals but employs number of prominent foreign clerics to boost IS’s religious legitimacy: “(…) The Islamic State has sought endorsement from religious scholars elsewhere and is reported to have recruited a Saudi officer, Bandar bin Sha’alan, to enlist respected preachers on its behalf. This effort led to The Islamic State appointing three principal sharia leaders: Omar al-Qahtani, a Saudi national (…); Turki al-Benali, (…), who is based in Bahrain having been expelled from the United Arab Emirates for his salafist/takfiri preaching; and thirdly Osman al-Nazeh al-Asiri, a Saudi national (…).”

G. Ba’athists versus „True Islamists“ in Leadership

While observing personal composition of the highest level of the IS leadership (and this pattern is also translated into the Council level) we see two „streams“. The first stream consists mostly of ex-Ba’athists, whose „religious zeal“ can be seriously doubted, since they pragmatically merely changed the cloak after flirting with IS precedessors. They saw it as an opportunity to maintain and stregthen their power after adopting more sounding ideology than „obsolete“ Ba’athism. Ex-Ba’athists occupy prominent positions that exploit their expertise and are indeed the most important for making the IS running and being able to sustain in military field, organizing covert operations, concealing their communications etc. (namely Abu Muslim al-Turkmani, Abu Ali al-Anbari, Abu Ayman al-Iraqi, and of course their networks).

The second stream takes care mainly of spreading ideology, giving IS’s governance and operations religious legitimacy, media operations etc. The second stream is mostly dominated by the people who have long history of fighting for radical Islamist cause (often foreign fighters), radical clerics, and are most of the probably has much more „religious zeal“ than the first stream (Abu al-Athir al-Absi, or Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, members of the Sharia Council such as Omar al-Qahtani, Turki al-Benali, and Osman al-Nazeh al-Asiri). Shura Council is also an example of the „second stream“. Introduced division is by no means absolute and general rule, but a clear pattern is indeed present.

Ba’athists earned their key position due to two factors. Firstly, they have the expertise, sufficient training in covert operations; they have vast networks and contacts (after all most of them were officers in Saddam’s intelligence services or in special forces). They were boost to weakened organization before and mostly after 2010. It is in my opinion no coincidence that success of the seriously weakened organization came after 2010 when al-Baghdadi came to power and ex-Ba’athists earned more prominent positon among IS precedessor (of course there were also other important factors such as US pullout, or al-Maliki’s sectarian politics).

The process of Ba’athists getting closer to Islamists (as was ilustrated on Camp Bucca example) gradually ended up with them pragmatically adopting the Islamist ideology and more importantnly staging a coup within the organization in 2010. Al-Baghdadi was elected as a commander of the organization with help of the Ba’athists like Haji Bakr. Considering that it is highly likely that his Ba’athis allies will continue to have considerable power within the organization. One may also suspect that „Caliph Ibrahim’s“ dependency on Ba’athists‘ support and expertise   is too high or even that he was a mere puppet in their hands (at least in the beginning).

Indeed, it is probably no coincidence that security operations and airstrikes seem to target key IS’s senior leaders from the first, “technical”, often ex-Ba’athist, stream. The second stream is also crucial for success of IS’s strategy. But without ensuring military and intelligence capabilities, internal counter-intelligence capacities and proper organization required for such covert organization to function properly; it would not be possible to spread IS’s vision. Baghdad-based analysts Hisham al-Hashimi pointedly summed up the situation: „I describe Baghdadi as a shepherd, and his deputies are the dogs who herd the sheep [the Islamic State’s members], (…) The strength of the shepherd comes from his dogs.“

IS has resilient leadership structure which does not stand and fall with death of one or several people. Among top leadership, there are experienced individuals with vast past of service on high positions within Saddam’s security apparatus, and/or have years of experience of waging war agains the US occupation in Iraq or in other jihadi theatres.

Author:  Tomáš Kaválek, doctoral candidate, the Department of Politology, Faculty of Social Studies, Masaryk University Brno. He is currently visiting research assistant at the Marmara University Research Center for International Relations (MURCIR) in Istanbul and also intern at the International Crisis Group’s Office in Istanbul.


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