ISIS: An Introduction and Guide to the Islamic State (2016)

Leaders of ISIS

There have only been four leaders of ISIS in the entire history of the organization. Two of the four are relatively obscure in terms of what is known of them, but two are well known with a relatively significant documented history. It is the first leader and founder and the current leader (as of the time of writing this book) who will get the majority of space in this chapter. These two characters are bookends for the group—one was a thug and a bully and the other is a scholar. They both were transformed to some degree by a prison experience from which they emerged as charismatic leaders focused on violent promotion of their faith.

Most importantly, we actually know very little of any of these four men. No extensive interviews were conducted with the three who are now deceased and none of them wrote anything like an autobiography to inform readers of their thoughts and what they perceived to be their transformative moments. Thus everything that comes after in this book and in other books is, at best, speculation drawn from interviews of people who claim association with these four men. As Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is still alive (as of the time of writing), it is uncertain what he may do with respect to writing or interviews later on.

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi

Born October 20, 1966, in Zarqa, Jordan, as Ahmad Fadeel al-Nazal al-Khalayleh. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is a nom de guerre (war name) and has the literal meaning of the father of Musab from Zarqa. Musab means trouble, challenge, difficulty, or problem in Arabic. In this case, his name is both literal and figurative as he does have a son named Musab, but this name is also intended to communicate that he is the father of his enemies’ troubles, difficulties, challenges, or problems. This is a poetic war name as so many of them are.

He grew up in a poor family and was known as a local thug and petty criminal. He was a high school dropout in addition to reportedly having drinking problems. In the late 1980s, he traveled to Afghanistan to fight as part of the mujahedeen in driving out the Soviet Union from the country. He arrived as the Soviets were leaving the country so he never fought, but during his time there he reportedly met with Osama bin Laden. He returned to Jordan where he helped start a militant group called jund al-sham (جند الشام) (translation: soldiers of al-Sham). For his involvement with this group, he was arrested and imprisoned from 1992 until 1999.

Prison was for al-Zarqawi a period of refinement for his religious beliefs as well as his role as a leader and organizer. One of his prison mates was Abu Muhamed al-Maqdisi, considered to be one of the most influential salafi-jihadi thinkers in recent times. Many writers consider the association of al-Maqdisi and al-Zarqawi in the Jordanian prison a watershed in al-Zarqawi’s thinking. Though more is written on al-Maqdisi later in this book, it is important to note that he was the first to declare the Saudi ruling family as kafr or apostate.

It is customary in Islam for leaders to periodically forgive prisoners their sentences and their debts as a way to demonstrate both generosity and mercy. Al-Zarqawi was freed from prison as part of one of these amnesties. He fled Jordan shortly after his release and he traveled to Pakistan and ultimately Afghanistan. He was wanted by the Jordanians for trying to revive jund al-sham. Then the Pakistanis revoked his visa. He made it to Afghanistan where he met with al-Qaeda leaders. He received money from Osama bin Laden to start a training camp near Herat, Afghanistan, in the western part of the country. It was in this camp that he began to recruit and train his followers and to develop the intelligence and operations network that he later expanded in Iraq.

The group that was created and developed in this training camp was called jama’at al-tawhid wa al-jihad (جماعة التوحيد والجهاد) (Organization of Monotheism and Jihad). During the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, al-Zarqawi was injured either from a collapsed building or in a firefight, and he fled to Iran where he received medical treatment. His movements were fluid in this period; he was reported to have traveled to Iran as stated previously, but then by 2002 he was in Iraq and also in Syria. Jordan requested extradition from Iran, Iraq, and Syria. There are reports that al-Zarqawi or members of his group were responsible for the murder of Laurence Foley, a U.S. Agency for International Development employee who was then working and living in Amman, Jordan, on October 28, 2002. Al-Zarqawi’s presence in Iraq was used in a U.S. government address to the United Nations in 2003 as one of the reasons for U.S. action in Iraq.

By the time U.S. forces invaded Iraq, al-Zarqawi was operating from northwestern Iran and northeastern Iraq. His organization was instrumental in early attacks on the U.S.-led coalition. As will be discussed in a later chapter, the groups created by al-Zarqawi developed over time across a spectrum of activities from assassinations to kidnappings to bombings. The group never developed the organs and administration of a state under al-Zarqawi. There are some who say that al-Zarqawi never really developed as a leader or a manager beyond the street thug that he began as. Regardless of whether or not such a statement is true he did lead an effective insurgency against the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq, and he did plague his home country of Jordan with spectacular attacks that gained significant press. By the time of his death, he was considered the number one single enemy leader of the coalition in Iraq.

Violence was a hallmark of al-Zarqawi’s concept of jihad. This is not the violence of combat, but spectacular, staged violence. He directed suicide bombings in Jordan that targeted multiple hotels frequented by westerners in a single night. The biggest group of casualties came from a wedding celebration; all of the victims in that case were Jordanian. The most noteworthy events orchestrated by al-Zarqawi were the staged beheadings in which he had the victims in orange jumpsuits reminiscent of the U.S-held prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and Abu Ghraib, Iraq. The executioners and the soon to be executed often both made statements and then the executioner, sometimes al-Zarqawi himself, sawed off the head of the victim. These videos were posted to the Internet and they gained almost instantaneous notoriety.

Beyond the somewhat typical violence of suicide bombings, al-Zarqawi saw his violence as having a purpose in bringing about the creation of the caliphate. The violence united the Sunnis as they defended themselves from Shia and coalition attacks. It forced his people and cobelievers to band together in resistance, thus creating the nucleus for the eventual establishment of a state.

In this style of thinking, he led and directed attacks against Shia shrines, mosques, and neighborhoods. The most famous of these was the al-Askari mosque in Samarra, Iraq, which was and is considered one of the most holy Shrines for the Shia faith. The shrine was attacked on February 22, 2006. This event is one of the most significant single events leading to the Iraqi civil war that ensued.

Whether al-Zarqawi was the terrorist mastermind behind attacks from Iraq to Morocco and Turkey to Jordan or whether his importance was exaggerated as some purport is something beside the point. He was a galvanizing figure, and he is considered to be the initiator as well as the spiritual and physical father of the Islamic State and ISIS that grew from his organization. His actions and possibly the rumor of them transformed the nature of jihadism in the Middle East to one that uses extreme elements of violence to promote the larger and more important message.

Abu Ayyub al-Masri

Unlike al-Zarqawi or al-Baghdadi, the details on Abu Ayyub al-Masri are vague. He is said to have been born in 1968 in Egypt as denoted by his location name: al-Masri (note: in Arabic the word for Egypt is Mesr). He was born Yusif al-Dardiri or Abdul-Monim al-Badawi. It is unclear of the exact nature of his leadership position though some have him assuming leadership of what was then referred to by Americans as al-Qaeda in Iraq upon the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. He has been known by a variety of other aliases, but this book will simply use Abu Ayyub al-Masri for simplicity.

Like Ayman al-Zawahiri, he was a Muslim Brotherhood member in Egypt as a young man, and he reportedly worked with al-Zawahiri in the organization he started called Egyptian Islamic Jihad. He went to Afghanistan in 1999 and received training in one of the training camps operated by Osama bin Laden where he learned explosives skills. Similar to al-Zarqawi, he fled from Afghanistan following the U.S. invasion and made his way to Iraq where he became a leader of the insurgent fight. He played a role in the 2004 fighting against the U.S. forces in Fallujah. For many of the opposition leaders, the battles in the spring and then later in the fall of 2004 served as a crucible and an identity-building experience. Almost all of the leaders of what would become the Islamic State of Iraq earned their reputations in Fallujah in 2004.

At some point, he was stated to be the leader of the Mujahedeen Shura Council—the same organization that Abu Abdullah al-Rashid al-Baghdadi was claimed to lead.

Abu Abdullah al-Rashid al-Baghdadi

Abu Abdullah al-Rashid al-Baghdadi is the name by which this book will refer to him though he had numerous other aliases and it is believed that his real name was Hamid Dawud Mohamed Khalil al-Zawi. Based on his nom de guerre, he is believed to be Iraqi and it is expected that he was a former member of the Iraqi military. With the death of al-Zarqawi, Abu Abdullah became the de facto leader of the primary opposition group to the U.S.-led coalition.

Very little is known of this man. Even the name given as his birth name has no concrete source. He was reported to have been captured by the Iraqi police in 2007, but that proved to be false. What is known is that he was killed on April 18, 2010, by a U.S. missile strike. His death was confirmed both by coalition forensics and by al-Qaeda in Iraq itself. He was killed in the same strike as Abu Ayyub al-Masri.

Regardless of the specifics, both of these men served in positions where they directed activities from 2006 until 2010. They were the bridges between the thug al-Zarqawi and the scholar al-Baghdadi.

Abu Bakr al-Quraishi al-Baghdadi

Ibrahim Awad Ibrahim al-Badri al-Samarrai was born on June 28, 1971, in the city of Samara, north of Baghdad, Iraq. Growing up he was a quiet, pious person who loved soccer. He took to religious scholarship and worked hard on his studies that included graduate studies and eventually a doctorate in Islamic scholarship. His thesis and dissertation both centered on interpreting medieval period Islamic jurisprudence (religious interpretations of law as derived from the Quran, statements of the Prophet Mohamed, and the rulings of other scholars and judges). The stories of his life—early, middle, and recent—are all something of a mystery. There are conflicting reports of nearly every fact already presented in this paragraph. The version stated here is generally considered accurate. It is also the version that fits the narrative ISIS wants followers and others to know and believe—that al-Baghdadi is a religious man who is both a warrior and a scholar of the Quran.

The nom de guerre of Islamic jihadists will include the tribal designation of al-Qurayshi whenever it is possible. This is significant because the Prophet Mohamed is reported to have stated that in the final days the leader of the community of believers would be from his own tribe—the Quraysh. Many reports do indicate that al-Baghdadi is actually from the Quraysh tribe, thus making him a feasible fulfillment of the prophetic tradition. (See entry on Quraysh later in this book.)

The general story of the life of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is that he became a Salafist in 2000 while he was an imam, or religious scholar leader, of the Haji Zeidan mosque in the poor neighborhood of Tobji, Baghdad. He finished his master’s degree in 2004 after the U.S. invasion of Iraq. It is unclear whether he participated in the actual opposition to the U.S.-led coalition or he was just a bystander. Different stories exist. By 2015, he had two wives and six children. It is unclear where his family currently is.

U.S. military records indicate he was arrested in 2004 outside of Fallujah, Iraq, and detained in Camp Bucca in the Iraqi desert close to the border with Kuwait. The records show him as a civilian. Thus he was not considered a threat or a prisoner resulting from fighting. Instead he was believed to be one of many rounded up and imprisoned based on association and accusations. These suppositions led to his early release. While he was in Camp Bucca, he was given responsibilities by the Americans and allowed to organize meetings and religious instruction. It is believed that he used this opportunity to develop his network of connections—people who would be loyal to him following his release. The Americans saw him as a calming influence on a camp that was full of malcontents who participated in numerous riots. Anyone who could keep things calm was given leeway. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was that kind of person. He was released after 10 months of incarceration though there are conflicting reports that have him serving in Camp Bucca for years.

Following his release, he continued his studies and became more and more a part of the insurgency opposing the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq. He went to Syria in 2006 to study and to become a senior administrator for the Islamic State of Iraq in Syria. His success in working in Syria got him an appointment to the Mujahedeen Shura Council where he was influential in coordinating events and managing personalities.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was announced as the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq on May 16, 2010. He has remained the leader of this organization that grew to become the Islamic State or ISIS. He moved what remained of the leadership into Syria, utilizing the relationships he developed earlier to create a space in the authority vacuum that Arab Spring Eastern Syria had become.

His religious-historical knowledge proved crucial in selecting cities and sites for emphasis for ISIS. ISIS took Raqqa, Syria, in part because it could, but there was also a historical appropriateness to the selection of this particular city. Raqqa was an ancient early capital of the Abbasid Caliphate (796-809 CE). Taking control of Raqqa helped emphasize the narrative developed by ISIS—that it is the manifestation of a modern caliphate. The operational movements of ISIS are discussed in other chapters.

On June 29, 2014, ISIS designated itself the Islamic State and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was designated as Caliph Ibrahim. On July 5, 2014, a video was released showing the new caliph in the Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul, Iraq, giving the Friday sermon. He personally called on all Muslims to come to the caliphate and to follow him as the rightful successor of the Prophet Mohamed. As with all the details associated with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, there are disputing accounts regarding this sermon with some saying this was not really him, he cannot really be a caliph, etc.

For the remainder of this book, we will use the name of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi rather than Caliph Ibrahim.

In summary, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is someone quite different from Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. He is religiously driven. Unlike al-Zarqawi who chose a nom de guerre that emphasized his violent approach to forwarding his message, al-Bagdadi selected a name that reminds Muslims of his connection with the first caliph—Abu Bakr—from the seventh century. He is a scholar. He is an Iraqi. He is also something of a question. It is uncertain whether he is truly the leader of ISIS or a figurehead. Almost every fact known or stated about him is in question. He has taken the violent religious narrative laid down by his predecessors and made it more real. He is someone who seems to fit prophetic statements regarding the leadership of Muslims in the end times, and his organization has succeeded in a way that other jihadi groups have not by creating some semblance of a state.

As the events associated with ISIS are unfolding, it is important to note that this man is quite possibly the most important enigmatic leader in the last millennia of human history.