Kyle Orton, Syria and terrorism researcher
The so-called caliph of the Islamic State (ISIS), Ibrahim al-Badri (Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi), was killed in an American raid in Syria on 27 October, and the spokesman, Abu Hassan al-Muhajir, was killed the next day in an airstrike. ISIS acknowledged the losses and appointed new leaders on Halloween.
Abu Hamza al-Qurayshi introduced himself in a nearly-eight-minute audio statement as the new spokesman and named Abu Ibrahim al-Hashemi al-Qurayshi as Al-Baghdadi’s replacement. Little information was given about either man.
The U.S. government has said it knows “almost nothing” about the new caliph, Abu Ibrahim, leaving us no closer, for now, to knowing his identity. But some options present themselves.
Muhammad Saeed Abdurrahman al-Mawla
It was claimed by ISIS dissidents that Abdullah Qardash (a.k.a. Haji Abdullah al-Afri) had assumed control of ISIS after Al-Badri’s downfall. A fake statement attributed to ISIS in August 2019 said that Qardash had been appointed as “general caretaker” of the group, a position previously held by Wael al-Fayad (Abu Muhammad al-Furqan). Hassan Hassan, the co-author of one of the most in-depth studies of the group, ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror, believes this forgery was likely based on real moves within ISIS to line up Qardash as caliph-in-waiting.
Bolstering Hassan’s theory is the fact that the U.S. Treasury released a Rewards for Justice notice just after the fake statement, identifying Qardash or Haji Abdullah as Muhammad al-Mawla. Treasury described Al-Mawla as “a religious scholar” with ISIS since the time it was called Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia (AQM) between 2004 and 2006, who “steadily rose through the ranks to assume a senior leadership role”. Al-Mawla is “one of ISIS’s most senior ideologues,” Treasury went on, and in this role he “helped drive and justify the abduction, slaughter, and trafficking of the Yazidi religious minority in northwest Iraq and is believed to oversee some of the group’s global terrorist operations.” Crucially, Treasury notes: “He is a potential successor” to Al-Badri.
According to Al-Arabiya sources, Al-Mawla was born in 1976 in Tal Afar (hence “Al-Afri”), a town west of Mosul that was a hot-bed of extremism long before the fall of Saddam Hussein, producing some of the most important ISIS operatives. Indeed, it seems Al-Mawla was close to the most important known figure of the underground jihadi movement in 1990s Iraq, Abdurrahman al-Qaduli (Abu Ali al-Anbari), the caliph’s deputy until March 2016. Al-Qaduli was born in Mosul but spent most of his time in Tal Afar.
Some reports say Al-Mawla was an officer in Saddam’s security forces before joining the Islamic State movement almost immediately after the regime came down in 2003. That trajectory, of Islamized secret policemen and military personnel joining ISIS’s predecessor, was common enough, but the evidence Al-Mawla was among them is not yet strong.
Al-Mawla’s position at the head of the Delegated Committee, the ISIS executive body that as jihadi scholar Cole Bunzel notes “appears to exercise more day-to-day control over the group than Baghdadi himself”, would suggest he is well-placed to take the leadership. Leaks from within ISIS have hinted at Al-Mawla’s seniority and closeness to the caliph.
The main argument against Al-Mawla being “Abu Ibrahim” is that the new caliph needs to be, and is said to be, from the Prophet Muhammad’s (Arab) Quraysh tribe and Al-Mawla is generally believed to be an ethnic Turkoman. But ISIS disputes this, and they might even be telling the truth.
When Al-Badri became emir in 2010 his deputy was announced as one Abu Abdullah al-Hassani al-Qurayshi; he was mentioned only once more, and never declared dead. One explanation is that Al-Hassani is Al-Mawla, which could answer the Quraysh question, and jihadists do often take new kunyas when changing roles within ISIS. Time will tell.
SENIOR POLITICAL AND RELIGIOUS OFFICIALS
Abdullah al-Ani (born c. 1964) joined ISIS’s predecessor in 2004, and is a jihadi veteran known to, and respected by, Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. Yusuf al-Mashadani, born four years earlier, has been a religious scholar with ISIS since 2006. Both are Iraqis and Quraysh. Where they are and what they are doing is unknown. There has been no death notice for either man.
Abu Ubayda Abd al-Hakim al-Iraqi
Abd al-Hakim al-Iraqi is a very senior ISIS official who has sat on Majlis al-Shura (the Consultation Council) since at least 2011, and during the caliphate phase he dealt with the foreign wilayats (provinces).
Abd al-Hakim appeared in a video broadcast by the then-Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) in April 2011, presented as a “press conference”, in which he defended Al-Badri’s decision to delay his first major speech as necessary for security reasons as ISI laid the foundations for its insurgency against the Iraqi state. Abd al-Hakim also hit out at the jihadi critics of ISI who had mocked it as a “paper state” after the apparent defeat by the Surge-and-Sahwa of 2007-08. “Why are these people resenting the [‘State’] name?” Abd al-Hakim asked. ISI had “terrorized the alliance of the Crusaders, foiled their plans, and held its own in the face of the most powerful forces of evil”. Abd al-Hakim also reminded viewers that the Taliban retained its official name of the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” even after “retreat[ing] to the mountains under the pressure from the crusader alliance” and taking up “creative fighting”. Evidently stung by the broader criticism about ISI’s extremism, Abd al-Hakim took the chance to deny that his organisation had any involvement in the January 2011 bombing against the Coptic church in Alexandria in Egypt.
Of the few times Abd al-Hakim’s name has emerged in public since then, one was on a letter, dated 4 December 2014, trying to persuade the emir of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Abdelmalek Drukdel (Abu Musab al-Wadud), to switch sides and join ISIS, and another letter a year later showed Abd al-Hakim remonstrating with ISIS defectors in Yemen. Abd al-Hakim is also reported to have been the ISIS official responsible with appointing Sajit Debnath (Muhammad Saifullah Ozaki), a Japanese-Bengali, as emir of the ISIS branch in Bangladesh in June 2015.
While it might be less likely, it is possible that the successor has come from among ISIS’s military leadership.
Prominent in this regard is Abd al-Nasir. Listed as a Specially Designated Terrorist by the U.S. State Department, Abd al-Nasir’s real name is assessed by the United Nations, with low confidence, to be Taha al-Khuwayt, an Iraqi born between 1965 and 1969. If this is correct, then Abd al-Nasir was born in Tal Afar; his relationship to the Quraysh line is unclear.
The State Department notice issued in December 2018 said Abd al-Nasir had, “within the past five years, … served as an ISIS Military Amir in Syria as well as chair of the ISIS Delegated Committee”, the executive council that “exercises administrative control of the terrorist organization’s affairs. The Delegated Committee is responsible for planning and issuing orders related to ISIS’s military operations, tax collections, religious police, and commercial and security operations.” It was Abd al-Nasir’s stamp, as head of the Delegated Committee, on the May 2017 fatwa that vastly expanded the definition of heresy before it was revoked later in the year.
Abd al-Nasir is extreme even by ISIS’s standards, in short.
Moataz Numan Abd Nayef Najm al-Jaburi (Haji Tayseer)
Moataz al-Jaburi was added to the Rewards for Justice list at the same time as Al-Mawla, where he was described as a “legacy member” of ISIS, with the movement since it was known as AQM. Al-Jaburi “has overseen bomb-making for ISIS terrorist and insurgent activities”, the notice added.
Sami Jassim Muhammad al-Jaburi (Haji Hamid)
The third man in the Rewards for Justice notice listing Al-Mawla and Moataz al-Jaburi was Sami al-Jaburi. A competent administrator, when Sami was listed as a Specially Designated Terrorist by the U.S. Treasury in September 2015, it was explained that he had been the head of the shari’a council and the deputy governor of southern Mosul after the city had fallen to ISIS in June 2014, before rising to become the de facto “finance minister” in March 2015, handling the various criminal revenue streams for ISIS, from oil and gas to antiquities. Sami had been working closely with Fathi al-Tunisi (Abu Sayyaf al-Iraqi), the crucial ISIS middle manager, to increase revenue from the oil fields at the moment when Al-Tunisi was killed in the second U.S. raid into Syria in May 2015.
An intriguing possibility raised by some experts is ISIS appointing its first “foreign” (non-Iraqi) emir. Hisham al-Hashemi, a Baghdad-based analyst who has done a lot of work on ISIS’s leaders, suggests two candidates in this category: Abu Salah al-Jazrawi, a Saudi, or Abu Uthman al-Tunisi, a Tunisian. Abu Uthman’s name surfaced as a successor after a false report of Al-Baghdadi’s death last year.
Perhaps it is one of these men behind the “Abu Ibrahim” moniker. But it should be noted that in both previous leadership selection processes, the emir that emerged was an unknown man—a consensus candidate to rebuild in 2006; the groomed heir in 2010. And ISIS’s leadership structure has not been as opaque as it is now for many years.
UPDATE: On 17 March 2020, the State Department declared that Muhammad al-Mawla was “the new leader” of ISIS and added him to the list of Specially Designated Terrorists. On 21 April, Al-Mawla was added to the Rewards for Justice list, too.
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