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Majalla Exclusive: A Defector from the Leadership of ISIS Provides an Inside View of its Command Structure and Regional Ties

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by Jassim Muhammad

Over the summer, Majalla has been in contact with a figure we will refer to as Abu Ayyub al-Iraqi, though this is not his real name. He has presented credible evidence that he was a senior commander of ISIS and, before 2003, a Brigadier General in the Iraqi military.

Abu Ayyub supplied documentation verifying his identity, as well as several recorded audio statements providing key identifying information. Majalla corroborated the details with sources personally familiar with him, including several ISIS members now in detention in Iraq and Germany. All confirmed that, until recently, he was one of ISIS’s most prominent military commanders. Abu Ayyub also demonstrated that he maintains an active presence on jihadist web platforms affiliated with ISIS.

Majalla independently verified the details in collaboration with a former Iraqi intelligence agent personally familiar with Abu Ayyub. The agent contacted him, verified his identity, and confirmed his standing within ISIS-affiliated web forums.

The following is a summary of Majalla’s findings:

Who is Brigadier General Abu Ayyub al-Iraqi?

Abu Ayyub was a Brigadier General in the Iraqi Army under Saddam Hussein’s regime. More recently, he joined ISIS, acting as a military adviser. He helped SIS establish military courses specializing in the manufacture of bombs and explosive belts, and taught courses on intelligence, security and covert activity. At the time, he was residing in Kurdistan and operating from there.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, ISIS’s Front Man

On June 29, 2014, ISIS announced the establishment of what it called an “Islamic caliphate,” naming Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi as “the Imam and Caliph for Muslims everywhere.” Standing from the pulpit of Mosul’s Great Mosque, he called on all Muslims to swear a bay’ah — an oath of allegiance — to him. But, according to Abu Ayyub, this swearing-in was theatrically, but not operationally, significant.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi

Abu Ayyub has provided Majalla with audio recordings and other evidence demonstrating that, while Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is an important doctrinal voice within ISIS, in operational terms he is more a secondary figure. Indeed, as he recounts, Baghdadi has not commanded any of ISIS’s battles. His main contribution to the front lines was to visit Anbar on two occasions as a preacher to boost the morale of fighters.

Abu Ayyub added that Baghdadi joined ISIS at the end of 2007. Prior to that, he had no military experience. At the time, he was known as a preacher who would give sermons in the mosques of Fallujah. He issued fatwas, or Islamic legal rulings, on behalf of ISIS from the pulpit, even though he was not then affiliated with the group. Up till then, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had worked with a local Anbari faction.

‘The Prince of Shadows’: Hajji Bakr

In June 2010, ISIS was at the nadir of its fortunes. Its nominal leader Abu Omar al-Baghdadi had been killed two months before, making him the third leader of the group to be killed in four years. It had lost most of its territory in Iraq, and was reduced to several hundred fighters on the fringes of the Iraqi desert.

Enter Hajji Bakr, whose real name was Samir al-Khlifawi — widely known as the “prince of shadows.” In Abu Ayyub words, “Hajji Bakr was a former Army colonel in the pre-2003 Iraqi regime. Afterwards he joined Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s group, Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad, which later evolved into Al-Qaeda in Iraq. He was very close to Zarqawi, and in time he grew to become one of ISIS’s most powerful and influential operatives, running the organization and acting as its de facto operational leader until he was killed in Syria in 2014.”

Hajji Bakr
Hajji Bakr

Hajji Bakr moved energetically to re-organize ISIS’s ranks. He aggressively recruited deputies with military and intelligence experience. According to Abu Ayyub, Hajji Bakr recruited several individuals who would later prove to be key players in the organisation:

Mazen Nuhairi, known as “Abu Safaa al-Rifai”. Born in the 1970s, he had been a Colonel in the Iraqi Army before the US invasion in 2003.

Abd ar-Rahman al-Qaduli, also known as “Abu Ali al-Anbari”, a former physics teacher and jihadist veteran of Afghanistan. He would go on to play a key role in the establishment of ISIS’s presence in Syria and foothold in Libya, before being killed by US special forces in eastern Syria in March 2016.

‘Adnan al-Bilawi, also known as “Abu Abd ar-Rahman al-Bilawi”. Al-Bilawi was imprisoned in Abu Ghraib until 2013, when he escaped in a massive, ISIS-orchestrated prison break. In the following months, he travelled between Iraq and Syria before being killed by Iraqi security forces in Mosul, just prior to ISIS’s capture of the city in June 2014.

Abu Ayyub also notes that most of ISIS’s current high command “was shaped inside prisons. Men such as Abu Abd ar-Rahman al-Bilawi, the military commander and mastermind of the Mosul operation; Abu Ali Anbari, a senior security official and religious leader; and Abu Muhannad al-Suwaydawi (nicknamed Abu Ayman Al-Iraqi), a major ISIS official in Syria. And many others besides them.”

The three were detained in Boca Prison in Basra in 2006, and most were released in 2007. Working under Hajji Bakr’s direction, they devised a plan for revitalizing the then-moribund ISIS.

First, they decided the organization needed a new public face. They were men with checkered pasts, veterans of Saddam’s army and the Ba’ath Party, neither of which commanded much respect at the time. But Sunni clerics are highly respected in Anbar, and installing a man with Al-Baghdadi’s profile in the fore would make it easier to win local support. As an added benefit, employing Al-Baghdadi as the face of the organization enabled them to avoid competing amongst themselves for the post.

After the three commanders came to an agreement amongst themselves, they decided to meet with Al-Baghdadi. When they first approached Al-Baghdadi with their proposed reorganization of ISIS, he rejected it. However, Hajji Bakr ultimately persuaded him to go along, informing Baghdadi that he would be the State’s leader in name, while Hajji Bakr would retain actual control.

‘Those Who Loosen and Bind’

Abu Ayyub claims that ISIS’s principal operational commander today is a man named Mazen Nuhairi, who goes by the nom de guerre “Abu Safa’al-Rifa’i.” A former colonel in Saddam’s army, he is hardly a cleric and not a Sunni. According to Abu Ayyub, he is the acting successor to Hajji Bakr.

Abu Ayyub’s most important claim is that ISIS is run on a day-to-day basis by a committee known internally as Ahl al-Hall wal-’Aqd, a classical Arabic term meaning “those who loosen and bind” and denoting powerful decision makers.
According to Abu Ayyub, it is they, and not Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who supervise ISIS’s overall hierarchy, including its specialized offices (known as diwans) and network of provinces (known as wilayat).

ISIS itself partially corroborated this arrangement in early July 2016, releasing a video documenting the existence of a so-called “Delegated Committee” which oversees the entire organization, including all its provincial offices and specialized bureaus.
Within the Delegated Committee, according to Abu Ayyub, seven commanders have stood out as particularly important in recent years: Hajji Bakr, Abu ‘Alaa al-Afri, Abu Muslim al-Turkmani, Ni’ma Abd Nayyef, Abu Abd ar-Rahman Al-Bilawi, Abu Muhannad al-Suwaydawi and Abu Ahmad al-’Alwani.

Since their appointment, all seven have been killed. They have been replaced by Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, Abu Muhammad al-Shamali, Saleh Haifa and Iyad al-Jumaili.

Abu Ayyub believes that “the Delegated Committee represents the Ahl al-Hall wa’l-Aqd. It is more important than al-Baghdadi himself. It supervises 14 bureaus, 35 provinces as well as six offices and agencies.”

Mazen Nuhairi: ISIS’s Operational Commander

Nuhairi, according to Abu Ayyub, was born in the 1970s. He joined the Iraqi military and rose to the rank of colonel. After the US-led invasion, he joined the insurgency and eventually became one of ISIS’s founding members. Today he goes by the nom de guerre of Abu Safaa al-Rifa’i, and has succeeded Hajji Bakr as ISIS’s effective operational commander.

He is one of the key architects of ISIS’s revival, recruited by Hajji Bakr in the dark days of 2010. A succession of high profile casualties has contributed to his rise. Hajji Bakr was killed by Syrian rebels in the Aleppo countryside in early 2014; Abu Abd ar-Rahman Al-Bilawi fell to an Iraqi special forces raid a week before ISIS took Mosul in June 2014. Mazen Nuhairi’s role grew still more important after the killing of Abu Muslim al-Turkmani and Abu Ali al-Anbari, who represented the second tier of ISIS leadership.

Nuhairi essentially modeled ISIS’s intelligence apparatus after the Baath regime in which he came of age, with the added responsibility of providing personal security to ISIS field commanders.

According to Abu Ayyub, Nuhairi works behind the scenes, minimizing exposure even to ISIS’s second tier commanders. The intelligence bureau for which he is primarily responsible has been linked to covert suicide operations carried out by ISIS cells abroad.

ISIS Compounds the Mistakes of Al-Qaeda

As ISIS sought to recover from its defeat in Iraq in 2007-10, it remained scarred by the “Sunni Awakenings” which had seen Iraqi tribesmen and former Sunni insurgents turn on the group. This led ISIS to become obsessed with the rise of other extremist factions and groups in Syria, seeing in them potential “Syrian Awakenings.”

For its part, the Assad regime had a vital interest in ISIS’s early success, in that it would inevitably come to blows with the Free Syrian Army and mainstream Syrian opposition factions.

Soon ISIS’s ire was trained on the Nusra Front. Founded by Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani, a Syrian veteran of ISIS, and initially funded by the group, it soon grew into Syria’s strongest jihadist faction. As Jawlani grew increasingly powerful, ISIS’s leadership proved unable to maintain control over him.

In his conversations with Majalla, General Abu Ayyub claimed that ISIS’s most senior military leaders plotted to assassinate Abu Mohammad al-Jawlani. Jawlani’s death would have been a boon to the Assad regime, which had suffered significant losses at the hands of the Nusra Front. At the same time it would have rid ISIS of a formidable adversary.

Al-Baghdadi Enters Syria

In early 2013, ISIS began to move against the Nusra Front. According to Abu Ayyub, “Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Col. Hajji Bakr and their operational team entered Syria in mid-March 2013. They took up residence along the Turkish border near the Klis area, traveling in mobile homes not far from a Syrian refugee camp. Al-Baghdadi and his team held intensive meetings with branch commanders of the Nusra Front and sought to impose his authority on them. He deceived these leaders, keeping in the dark his split with Jawlani and saying that ISIS had come to serve “the common good” with unanimous consent and the support of both Zawahiri and Jawlani. Al-Baghdadi also promised them that he would embrace Nusra Front commanders, religious officials, and advisers, with the general aim of restoring the [Nusra Front] branch to the [ISIS] root.”

In an effort to force Jawlani to fall into line, Al-Baghdadi formally announced the merger of the two groups on April 8, 2013 into the newly proclaimed ISIS of Iraq and Syria. Jawlani rejected the merger the following day, and a period of bitter infighting ensued.

Meetings with Iranian and Syrian intelligence officers

Abu Ayyub went on to say that “Hajji Bakr made constant visits throughout Syria and coordinated directly with the Syrian regime, through Syrian intelligence agents named Moaz Safouk and his cousin Ziad Safouk, both of whom were prior acquaintances of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Hajji Bakr and Al-Bilawi met with several intelligence officers including Hossein Al-Khedr (an official in Syrian intelligence) and Ali Faramani (an Iranian officer who took over the ISIS file within Iranian intelligence at the end of 2014). Nevertheless, the extent to which the Syrian regime proved helpful to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was limited. It was more economic than political or military. For by then the Syrian regime had begun to lose control on the ground, especially in the areas outside Damascus. Faramani was in contact with al-Baghdadi and provided him with information on the leaders of extremist organizations and factions in Syria, especially the commanders of the Nusra Front.”

Iran’s Ties to Sunni Jihadists: A Backgrounder

The ideological and sectarian divide separating Iran from the Sunni jihadists of Al-Qaeda and ISIS often casts doubt on claims of cooperation or collusion between them. However, since the 9/11 Commission Report, evidence has accumulated that Iran acted as a gateway for jihadists to and from Afghanistan and Iraq. Many reports have noted the presence of Al-Qaeda leaders and families in Iran, including the family of Usama bin Laden. Several top-tier commanders have also taken shelter in Iran, to such an extent that Iran has been described as a “reserve” of Al-Qaeda’s leaders.

Bin Laden’s personal letters disclosed a good deal about these ties. The relationship between Iran and Al-Qaeda, and later between Iran and ISIS, reflects the Islamic Republic’s focus on waging unconventional war by relying on militias, its intelligence cells, and a network of spies in targeted states, including the Gulf States, Europe, and the U.S.

Last June, Majalla published a number of documents taken from a vast collection of over one million documents retrieved from Usama Bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan during the May 2011 operation in which he was killed. Some of the material showed that, after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, some Al-Qaeda leaders and families fled to Iran, where they were kept under house arrest. Some of them, including Bin Laden’s family, were later released. Others remained in custody.

Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, who rose to Al-Qaeda’s second-in-command after Bin Laden’s death but before Al-Zawahiri was chosen as his successor, complains in those documents about Iranian behavior in negotiations.

A New York court summary judgment against Iran in December 2011 found that Iran provided important material support to Al-Qaeda both before and after the September 11 attacks. Skeptics often note that in 2001 Iran aided the international coalition in toppling the Taliban (which had been its enemy throughout the 1990s). However, according to the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force, by 2007 the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps had begun supplying arms to the Taliban in an effort to harry the Western military presence on its borders.

More recently, in early June 2016, a conservative Iranian website confirmed that former Taliban leader Akhtar Mansour had been residing in Iran for two months, during which time he signed an agreement to secure aid from Iranian officials after intensive talks — despite repeated Iranian Foreign Ministry’s denials that Mansour was even in the country.

Iran has a long history of forging relationships with extremist organizations and providing them with logistical support and a haven.

Iran possess an extensive network of spies engaged in activities ranging from espionage to technological piracy to terrorist bombings and assassinations. In an unclassified report, the Library of Congress detailed extensive support provided by the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence to extremist groups in Iraq. The report noted extensive “cooperation” between Iran and al-Qaeda “based on their shared opposition to U.S. hegemony in the region.” Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and the IRGC have participated in terrorist attacks from Argentina to Lebanon.

Clandestine Iranian-ISIS Meetings

The mutual hostility of Iran and ISIS to the US is well known. Less appreciated is their shared antagonism to mainstream Sunni factions opposed to Iranian proxies in Iraq and Syria.

According to Abu Ayyub, Iran has not simply tolerated the traffic of jihadists and arms across its borders; it actively abetted it. “ISIS has an interest in not attacking Iranian interests so that it can obtain explosives for use in its operations. Likewise, Iran’s interest is to keep America and the West preoccupied with the burdens of dealing with ISIS and Al-Qaeda in Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. So there are shared interests and informal agreements between the two parties.”

It was Hossein Salami, the deputy commander of the IRGC, who set the tone for Iranian policy towards ISIS. In Abu Ayyub’s telling, he acted primarily through a deputy known as Ali Faramani: “Hossein Salami was communicating with Iraqi and Syrian figures to clear the way for ISIS’s expansion. He was authorized to represent the Supreme Leader in foreign affairs. Ali Faramani carried his messages to senior [Syrian and Iraqi] officials in order to secure the release of prisoners affiliated with Al-Qaeda and the Ba’ath party.”

According to Abu Ayyub, Hossein Salami “has an intelligence officer’s mindset par excellence.”

Abu Ayyub alleges that his Syrian and Iranian interlocutors then “facilitated the escape of prisoners in Iraq, and the release of [jihadist] detainees in Bashar al-Assad’s prisons. All that took place on Iran’s orders. ISIS’s leadership didn’t believe that such things could simply be ordered, until a meeting was held between a Syrian intelligence officer named Khedr Al-Hossein, Ali Faramani, Safouk and Hajji Bakr in Syria. Ali Faramani detailed how Iran’s activities benefited ISIS, and claimed that he personally facilitated the prisoners’ release. That was when Iran’s indirect support for ISIS began.”

Abu Ayyub went on to say: “Communications between Iran and ISIS were carried out through Syria, and later through some Kurdish operatives. With the assault on Mosul, Iran played a major role in aiding ISIS, as Iraqi commanders ordered their troops to withdraw and leave behind their weapons and equipment for ISIS to capture.”

The Iran-ISIS Oil Trade

According to General Abu Ayyub, “ISIS sold Iraqi oil at a discounted price to Iran through Iraqi and Syrian middlemen at the height of the Iranian sanctions. This Iraqi and Syrian oil started to flow into Europe through Turkey, with some being transported in tankers through Bandar Abbas as if it was Iraqi oil. For Iran, the benefits were twofold: first, it managed to partially lift the blockade and benefit from Iraqi and Syrian oil supplies; second, it supported ISIS. All this proceeded along lines planned by Hossein Salami.”

Abu Ayyub confirmed that Salami received letters of thanks from ISIS’s operational leadership — though not al-Baghdadi — for his role in propping up ISIS.

“However,” the dissident general hastened to add, “the organization knew full well that Iran was planning [against them], but their interests, and dire necessity, required they accept the support.”

Iran continued to provide ISIS with weapons in exchange for oil. The most visible deals between both sides took place at the end of 2014. Most crucially for ISIS, it received TNT, C-4, and other munitions that Tehran managed to purchase from Western countries via Kurdish intermediaries.

Abu Ayyub claims that Iran trafficked arms in this roundabout manner to dispel suspicions: if the weapons were discovered, they could plausibly claim that they originated in the US and Europe.

Iran’s Deepening Hold

Two years later, Iran’s hold over Iraq is stronger than ever. Media reports and private testimony indicate that hundreds of Iranian advisers are participating in the fight against ISIS in Samarra, Diyala, Salah ad-Din, and Anbar, and that Iran is providing logistical support and training to several dozen predominantly Shi’ite militias. International wire reports have noted the presence of dozens of advisers from the Quds Force in the Iraqi battlefronts. They are providing arms and jointly directing military operations with Iraqi commanders.

The Iranian presence has grown so overt that Qassem Soleimani, the once secretive head of Iran’s vaunted Qods Force, now openly flaunts his role in directing Iranian offensives across both Iraq and Syria. He has appeared in dozens of photos and videos with Shi’ite militias near the front lines. These appearances have raised new questions about the extent of Iranian control of the Iraqi security sector, now exercised more openly than ever. These Iranian gains won tacit acceptance by prominent members of the international coalition against ISIS due to the threat posed by the organisation.

Faramani continued to meet with leaders of the organization in several European countries, while some secret meetings took place in Iraq in the areas of Suleiman Bek and Tuz Khurmatu. He conveyed Salami’s messages to ISIS commanders. Abu Ayyub was not privy to their contents.

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