Kyle Orton, Syria and terrorism analyst
Mustafa al-Khadhemi, the Iraqi Prime Minister, announced on the morning of 11 October that the Iraqi National Intelligence Service (INIS) had arrested Sami Jassim al-Jaburi (Haji Hamid), the effective finance emir of the Islamic State (ISIS), in “a complex external operation”.
Capture of Jassim
Little about the operation to capture Jassim has been formally confirmed by Baghdad, including where it took place and when Jassim was handed to the Iraqi government. Still, there is reporting indicating that Jassim was apprehended in northern Syria, in the areas Turkey is responsible for, and then transferred from Turkey to Iraq a few days before Al-Kadhemi’s announcement.
This would not be unusual: Turkish intelligence has played a key role in bringing in other senior ISIS officials, who have found the somewhat chaotic areas administered by Turkey’s Syrian proxies a conducive environment to hide in. This was true of the caliph himself, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, killed in October 2019 in a U.S. raid in Idlib, a province divided between Turkish-dependent groups and the Al-Qaeda-derived Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), with which Turkey has a much more complicated relationship.
Profile of a Veteran Jihadist
Publicly available information on Jassim is minimal. What is clear is that Jassim is a senior official in ISIS and that he has long played a key role in the financial mechanisms of the group.
A “senior official” told The Washington Post that Jassim was known to have joined ISIS early, pledging allegiance to its founder, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, in 2003, at a time when ISIS was still known Jamaat al-Tawhid wal-Jihad (later Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia), and that Jassim had met the then-leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in 2012, eighteen months after he took over control of the group. Since then, Jassim has “held positions in the Islamic State’s judiciary, finance and industry ministries”, according to this official.
In 2014, Jassim was overseeing the illicit trade networks in oil and antiquities south of Mosul, the hub for ISIS’s revenue-generating streams after the set-back of the Surge and Sahwa in 2007-09. When ISIS expanded into eastern Syria in the summer of 2014 and declared its “caliphate”, Jassim’s administrative role seems to have expanded with it and by the spring of 2015 he was the de facto “finance minister”.
One of Jassim’s most important appointees was Fathi al-Tunisi (Abu Sayyaf al-Iraqi), a crucial middle manager of the oil fields and other illicit revenue streams in eastern Syria. Al-Tunisi was killed in May 2015 in one of the U.S.’s first ground raids into Syria. Jassim himself was wrongly claimed to have been killed by Iraqi Kurdish forces in August 2016.
Jassim was sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist in September 2015, with the notification identifying him as a “legacy member” of ISIS and at that time “a senior leader … instrumental in managing finances for ISIS’s terrorist operations … the equivalent of ISIS’s finance minister”.
In December 2017, the Iraqi government declared victory over ISIS. Even before that, there had been some inner turmoil for the group when it came to control of its institutions, above all the Delegated Committee, the executive body, though the re-appearance of the caliph seems to have largely stabilised the situation. In March 2019, the final piece of ISIS’s caliphate, the town of Baghuz, fell.
In the summer of 2019, the U.S. Rewards for Justice program increased the bounty to $5 million for information leading to the capture or killing of three senior ISIS officials. One of them was Jassim. The other two were Mutaz Numan al-Jaburi (Haji Tayseer), who was killed in May 2020, and Amir Muhammad al-Mawla (Abdullah Qardash or Haji Abdullah al-Afri), the current ISIS leader after Abu Bakr’s death. The bounty on Al-Mawla was subsequently doubled.
In May 2020, with the arrest of Abd al-Nasr al-Qardash, whose real name might or might not be Taha al-Khuwayt, it was reported that Jassim was leading the Delegated Committee. It might have been expected that if Jassim was still holding such a senior position, the Iraqi government would have made more of it in its public messaging; it is also possible than Iraqi intelligence and police are still working through interrogations and any captured data, and will make an updated statement at some future point.
In terms of ISIS’s capacity, what does Jassim’s capture mean? Not much, is the likely answer. ISIS has a very well-developed bureaucracy, and even the removal of its most capable leaders has had limited effect.
ISIS’s operations in the “foreign” wilayats (provinces) have continued to escalate, notably in West Africa, where the June 2020 elimination of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) emir Abd al-Malek Drukdel (Abu Musab Abd al-Wadud) contributed to ISIS’s momentum in the region, and, as was predictable, the NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan and the takeover by Pakistan’s jihadists has given ISIS much more space to operate after a period of strategic restraint, perhaps soon to include Kashmir.
At the “Centre”, in Iraq and Syria, ISIS is down but not out. In Syria, ISIS has been systematically underreporting its activity as it builds up a base of operations and secures its strategic depth for Iraq. In Iraq itself, ISIS continues its insurgency but at a reasonably low level, clearly lying low while the U.S. military, with its surveillance and other capacities remains in place.
There was an instructive episode in mid-September near Azim in the north of Iraq, where ISIS was able to capture multiple security points and was only cleared by close-air support from America. If the U.S. was to withdraw again from Iraq, there is little reason to doubt the jihadists would surge—if not as immediately as Afghanistan this year, conceivably within the three years it took in Iraq after 2011.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.