ISIS AFTER AL-BAGHDADI
By Hasan abu Hineyyah
(A report posted on www.aljazeera.net late October thru mid-November 2019).
Translated by Barry Webb
The curtain has recently come down on the episode of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s leadership of “The Islamic State,” as of the night of 17 October 2019, and by means of a sudden American air raid in which fighter jets and drones played roles. During this raid the American special forces killed al-Baghdadi in the north Syrian province of Idlib.
And, this event has raised a whole basketful of questions concerning the future of the organization after al-Baghdadi as well as the significance of the timing of the assassination operation, learning the identity of the new leader, what are the strategies and methods of killing that the organization will resort to after losing its leader, and the extent of credibility the American President Donald Trump’s claim that the ISIS Caliphate had been 100% destroyed.
Any precise, informed reading of the nature of the future scenarios for “the Islamic State” organization after al-Baghdadi must be based on an understanding of the nature of the organization’s structure and ISIS’s ideological narrative in comparison with the other jihadi organizations.
When al-Baghdadi took over the leadership of “the Islamic State” in Iraq nearly nine years ago after Abi ‘Umar al-Baghdadi (1), and inherited an organization that was beset on all sides, fragmented, weak, fragile, shaky, and on the verge of collapsing. Yet, in no time at all the organization quickly rose up within four years to become a frightening fighting force controlling wide swaths of Iraq and Syria and also expanded into numerous other countries. The demands for stopping its expansion and putting an end to its territorial control led to the formation of an international alliance of more than 75 nations under the leadership of the United States.
In the midst of an environment in which a conspiracy mentality prevails, came the widespread conviction that America, let alone any other power, was not interested in killing al-Baghdadi and that it had employed him to achieve a political agenda and strategic goals (2). The conspiracy theory explains this success of the (recent) operation to kill al-Baghdadi by the fact that his employment role had come to an end.
However, the truth is that the killing of al-Baghdadi was not an easy mission because during the time his star was rising there was one operation after another to track him down to kill him by numerous local, regional, and international entities, and Washington set a huge financial reward of 25 million dollars for anyone who can provide information on al-Baghdadi’s whereabouts (3).
Al-Baghdadi escaped from a long series of attempts to kill him by air attacks and he was wounded at least once–according to intelligence reports–and his death was announced several times. The Iraqi government alleged that it had succeeded in killing him more than once. So, the recent, successful operation to kill him came as a crowning achievement to a long series of previous failed attempts.
While the killing of al-Baghdadi was announced several times by various parties, the most famous of those was the announcement by the Russian Ministry of Defense on 16 June 2017, with information inferring that al-Baghdadi was killed in one of the air raids by the Russian air force on the Syrian town of ar-Raqqa, which then became subject to doubt. Announcements about the killing of al-Baghdadi proliferated after the organization took control of the Iraqi city of Mosul in 2014, and the organization reached the zenith of its power in March of 2015.
Any precise, knowledgeable reading of the nature of the future scenarios of the “Islamic State” organization after al-Baghdadi must be based on understanding the nature of the organization’s structure and the ideological narrative of ISIS in comparison with other jihadi organizations, as well as knowing the entities affiliated with it.
The ISIS organization is considered to be the most advanced of the jihadi organizations in terms of the coherence between the organizational structure and the ideological firmness because it reached a peak of development in that regard which was previously unknown in the activities of global jihadi groups. Its structure and ideology were novel in a number of its specifics and strategies.
In spite of “the Islamic State’s” being kicked out of the regions and urban centers it had controlled in Iraq and Syria, and its recent losses of the pocket of space it had in the village of al-Baghouz in the Deir as-Zor province on the 23rd of March 2018 at the hands of the “Syrian Democratic Forces” supported by the international coalition led by Washington, the organization still possessed a fighting capability as well as a huge financial and media capability.
Facts from the field have revealed the organization’s quickness in adjusting to developments in the field and its tremendous dexterity in changing from a centralized path to a decentralized situation in a way that it was able to reorganize the organization’s structure on the military front as well as on the security, administrative, legal, and media fronts. With the termination of the organization’s political project as a “caliphate” state it returned to the status of an “organization,” and returned to depending upon its traditional fighting tactics by depending upon a pathway of a war of attrition and a war of nerves.
In this context the American President Donald Trump’s announcement of the elimination of ISIS after the killing of al-Baghdadi is nothing more than disgraceful ignorance, a bald-faced lie, and a justification for his decision to pull out from Syria. Prior to that, Trump had announced the defeat of ISIS 16 times, a view which no one on the planet shares. His claims elicited wide-scale responses.
French minister of Defense Florence Barley tweeted that “al-Baghdadi . . . was an early retirement for the terrorist, but not for the organization.” British Foreign minister Boris Johnson tweeted that “the killing of al-Baghdadi was an important moment in our fight against terrorism, but the battle against ISIS is not yet over.” As for French President Emanuel Macron, he affirmed that the killing of al-Baghdadi was a painful blow for ISIS but it represents nothing but a stage.
The widespread wave of criticism of Trump’s repetitive announcements on the defeat of ISIS are always met with condemnation, loathing, and perplexity. After the killing of
al-Baghdadi he bragged about the soundness of his view in an attempt to lighten the wave of criticisms, and to try to deflect attention from his domestic problems, because Trump’s sudden announcement to withdraw from Syria in December of 2018 created a condition of chaos and confusion and led to the resignation of former Secretary of Defense James Mattis in protest over that decision.
When Trump announced this month that he was going to withdraw the American Forces from northern Syria opening the door for the Turkish attack against the Kurds–Washington’s erstwhile allies–many people warned that Trump thereby weakened the spear point of the campaign aimed at defeating the Islamic State. According to the experts and analysts Trump gifted ISIS its biggest victory in more than four years and secured for it the horizon of its future.
Evaluations of the capabilities of the Islamic State organization and predicting the possibility of its return have proliferated recently. A new report issued last August 6th by the U.S. Defense Department (the Pentagon) points out that ISIS has reorganized its ranks and has reappeared in Syria taking advantage of the American (previous) withdrawal. The report affirmed that ISIS has also strengthened its armed capability in Iraq as well.
The American President Donald Trump’s announcement of the elimination of ISIS after the killing of al-Baghdadi is nothing more than shameful ignorance, a bald faced lie, and a justification for his withdrawal from Syria. Prior to that Trump had announced the defeat of ISIS 16 times, an evaluation not shared by a single person on this planet. His claims elicited widespread responses.
After the Pentagon’s report today, the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said, in a report he presented to the Security Council concerning the threat which ISIS represented, that “ISIS now owns 300 million dollars, even after the elimination of the “Caliphate” in Iraq and Syria, and that the decrease in the frequency of attacks that it launches is likely to be temporary.”
He expressed his confidence on ISIS’s capability to earmark that cash to support terrorist actions inside Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere via “unofficial” companies for transferring money. In this regard he affirmed that ISIS enjoyed financial self-sufficiency via a network of supporters and subsidiary groups in other areas of the Middle East and North Africa.
Military analysts and experts have affirmed that the elimination of the “Caliphate” does not mean that the danger from ISIS has ended. The announcement of the defeat of ISIS stems from conflating between the actual defeat of the political project of ISIS as a “Caliphate” state which imposed its sovereignty over a wide swath of geographic territory and established its rule over millions of residents, and the ability of ISIS as an organization to operate in a different manner. In that regard, the ISIS organization has not been defeated as an organization.
According a report by the institute for the study of war in Washington entitled “The return of ISIS once again, an evaluation of the coming uprising of ISIS” issued at the end of June 2019, the ISIS organization today is stronger that it was during the phase of the “Islamic State of Iraq” which was the offspring of “al-Qaeda in the land between the two rivers,” because when America withdrew from Iraq in 2011, the organization in Iraq had anywhere from 700 to 1,000 fighters, while the number of fighters it had in Iraq and Syria in August of 2018–according to the evaluations of the military intelligence agency–is 30,000 fighters.
The ISIS organization had been able to build a huge army (after 2011) which enabled it to regain Falujah, Mosul, and other cities in Iraq as well as control over most of east Syria in only three short years. So, the organization will recover much more quickly this time than it did the first time and it will achieve a level of much greater power in its new manifestation.
If al-Baghdadi had inherited a weak and fragile organization from his predecessor Abu ‘Umar al-Baghdadi (5), he is bequeathing to his successor an organization with a cohesive framework and that is spread out geographically, because prior to his death he appeared in a video clip on 29 April 2019 entitled “in the hospitality of the prince of the faithful” in which he presented the expected return of the organization after completing the task of the military, security, administrative, financial, legal, and media restructuring and setting the military planning to resume the “war of attrition.”
The organization presented a monthly report on the franchises of the organization of which there are twelve, and announced its official presence in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Khorasan (Afghanistan and Pakistan), the Caucasus, East Asia, and its activities in the Philippines, Somalia, and West Africa where it is most active in Nigeria.
In statements collected by the BBC it appears that in spite of the organization’s loss of much of the territory which it had wielded control over in Syria and Iraq by the end of 2017, it was responsible for 3,670 attacks in the world during 2018 (which is about 11 attacks per day). And, this, in addition to the 502 attacks in the first two months of 2019 while al-Baghouz was being besieged.
But in spite of that (the siege) the organization was still following its preferred strategy represented by suicide operations and a variety of complex subversive operations. However, since 31 May 2019 it has depended upon new tactics in the framework of the “war of attrition,” based on the principle which has been termed “temporarily bring down the cities as a way for the Mujahedeen to work.” The organization’s magazine
al-neba’ (the news) published a series of four parts to lay out the new strategy which called for the fighting elements of the organization to avoid direct clashes with the enemy.
The “Islamic State” was able to establish a huge army that enabled it to regain Falujah, Mosul, and other cities in Iraq, as well as to gain control over most of East Syria within only three years, and the organization will recover (this time) much faster than it did in its first revival and will achieve a level of power much more dangerous than it did in its second manifestation.
This series (in the above-mentioned magazine) also showed how the fighters are able –by means of a war of nerves–to weaken an enemy without incurring losses of its own. The series also said that among the targets of the kirr w-al-firr (4) attacks is to capture hostages, free prisoners, and gain control of the enemy’s money.
A comparison of the birth of the first “Islamic State” with its rebirth shows the organization’s ability to spring forth once again. The “Islamic State in Iraq” saw, by the beginning of the year 2009, a clear reversal after Washington came to rely on the strategy of General David Petreus by pouring forces into the fight, pushing back the organization’s holdings in Iraq, and reducing the organization’s numbers down to somewhere between 700 and 1,000 fighters in remote, isolated regions.
With the advent of 2010 the “Islamic State of Iraq” issued an evaluational review and appraisal of the situation and it defined its future view in Iraq to be tied to the approaching date for the withdrawal of the American forces. So, it issued a Strategic document entitled “The Strategic Plan for strengthening the political position of the Islamic State in Iraq.”
After the American forces vacated Iraq in (Dec.) 2011 the organization announced the beginning of the “Breaking Down Walls” operation in July of 2012. Then it announced the beginning of a new plan called “Harvesting the Soldiers” on 29 July 2013, which ended with its sovereignty over Mosul in June of 2014.
The military, financial, and media capabilities of ISIS point to the fact that whoever takes over the leadership of the organization from al-Baghdadi will be in a far superior position in comparison to the situation that al-Baghdadi had when he took over the leadership of the organization, because the organizational structure is completely clear and the organization will encounter no difficulty in choosing a new leader.
It appears that ‘Abd Allah Qirdaash (5) is the most lucky person in succeeding
al-Baghdadi. According to the information available about him, he is nicknamed “the destroyer.” He is also known as al-Turkmani (6)), but in spite of his “Turkmani” ethnicity the leadership within ISIS–among whom is Isma’il al-‘Aithaawi who is currently in prison in Iraq–have affirmed the “Quraishness” of Qirdash (7).
Al-‘Aithaawi, in a phone call with him after his apprehension–said it was most likely that Qirdaash would become the leader of the organization in the event of al-Baghdadi’s disappearance.
Qirdaash held the position of “Diwan Secretary for General Security” in Syria and Iraq which is one of the most powerful Diwanates (Bureau) in the organization. Moreover, he previously supervised the diwanate of “misdeeds,” which was within the service administrations which the organization set up during its control over the cities. He also served as the official responsible for ambushes and suicide operations within the organization.
In the event that Qirdaash fails to assume the leadership of the organization, for some reason, among which might be if he gets killed, according to sources within the organization then Hajji ‘Abd an-Nasr al-Iraqi would be the second candidate. The American State Department added him to their terrorists watch lists at the end of 2018. Al-Iraqi heads what is known as the “commissariat” committee which is responsible for the administration of the organization. Previous to that he held the position of military governor general of what was previously known as the state of ash-sham (Syria), and in this capacity he oversaw the leadership of the organization’s battle in ar-Raqqa.
The Islamic State organization after al-Baghdadi will have no trouble in appointing a new leader and the organization will rally around him and support him. Since its inception the organization has exhibited a superior ability to adjust to changes and new circumstances, and it will be able–within a short period of time after being tossed out of the regions it controlled–to restructure itself and operate as a decentralized organization, and its ideological magnetism is still very high.
The person who follows al-Baghadadi as the leader of ISIS will inherit an organization that is clearly superior to the organization that al-Baghdadi himself inherited during the era of “The Islamic State of Iraq” since the numbers provided in 2018 by the UN and the American intelligence agencies and Department of Defense are all in agreement that the number of ISIS fighters left in Iraq and Syria are between 20 and 30 thousand fighters.
According to the International Center for Strategic Studies this number does not include the organization’s fighters located in its other franchises. A map of the organization’s proliferation shows its expansion into numerous regions and countries since the organization enjoys a large presence in Afghanistan, and the organization still launches attacks in the Egyptian Sinai peninsula and maintains its operational ability in Yemen, South Asia, and Central Asia.
The African continent is an alternate venue for ISIS (in align with its insistence on diversifying its fronts and sanctuaries), especially the region of Saharan and Sub-Saharan Africa as well as Western and Eastern Africa. ISIS’s network, its conglomeration of harmonious groups, individual sleeper cells, and “lone wolves,” still represent a danger to America and Europe.
In sum, the Islamic State organization after al-Baghdadi will find no difficulty in appointing a new leader and the organization will rally around him and support him, because since its inception the organization has shown superior ability to adjust to circumstances and new situations, and was able–during a very short time after being evicted from regions it controlled–to restructure itself and to operate as a de-centralized organization, and its ideological magnetism is still very high. Its financial capability is good, and its ability to gather around itself fighters from local areas is growing.
In turn, the political, economic, and security situation in Iraq and Syria is still fragile and the official local forces lack the necessary competency and resources to pursue the ISIS elements in view of the organization’s switching tracks to follow a campaign of a war of attrition and the tactics of a war of nerves.
The weakened stability (in Iraq and Syria), the backsliding on reconstruction projects, as well as poor government and institutionalized corruption, the spread of despotism, and the prevalence of sectarianism, all constitute a fertile nursery sufficient for the return of ISIS. In a “squishy” region beset by foreign interventions and the clashes between regional and international forces the return of ISIS is only a matter of “when,” not “if.”
FOOTNOTES (explanitory notes by the translator not a part of the original text)
(1) The original manifestation of what was to become ISIS was “al-Qaeda in Iraq” which was headed by Abu Mus’ab az-Zarqawi, who was killed in a U.S. airstrike in June of 2006. It would have been then that Abi ‘Umar al-Baghdadi took over the leadership of the remnants of this group which fled to Turkey, re-united with remnants of Saddam Hussein’s regime and intelligence entities who had found safe haven there, and re-emerged as “The Islamic State of Iraq.”
(2) It is well-established that not only did ISIS incubate in Turkey with Turkish government and intelligence support to be used as a “tool” for bringing down the secular Arab states as a prelude to re-establishing the Ottoman empire caliphate, but that it did so with the approval of the Obama administration. That is the origin of those conspiracy theories.
(3) U.S. forces were able to use DNA information to verify that al-Baghdadi was the person they had killed because a brave Kurd, working for the intelligence arm of the Syrian Democratic Forces, who had penetrated the organization and had gotten close enough to al-Baghdadi to have obtained a blood sample and a pair of his dirty underwear. Another Kurd, working for Iraqi intelligence had also penetrated al-Baghdadi’s inner circle and had provided a detailed map of the exterior and interior of the safe house. According to an al-arabiyya TV report, the U.S. aircraft that had taken part in the raid took off from an airfield controlled by the Russians. This was just outside of Kobani which was previously controlled by the American-supported, and Kurd-dominated, Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). With Trump’s bowing to Erdogan’s command to clear out so he could ethnic cleanse the region of Kurds, the SDF alligned with the Assad government of Damascus and its Russian ally. So, as U.S. forces pulled out, the Russians moved in to provide security and oversee the SDF withdrawal prior to the arrival of Turkish troops which were due in thanks to an agreement that Putin had reached with Erdogan during a meeting in Soschi. It was this complicated series of events that forced military commanders to scramble after the Trump announcement and move-up the timetable of the raid. Fortunately, everything worked out fine, thanks to the skills and bravery of our troops and our (former) Kurdish allies.
(4) The literal meaning of kirr w-al-firr is “repeat and flee” and refers to “hit and run” tactics, and harkens back to the tactics of the pre-Islamic Arab raids of frontier area farms and towns mentioned in Roman sources, and as far back as Babylonian and Assyrian sources. In these raids the lightly armed and very mobile Arab raiders would stage surprise attacks against a defenseless farm or town for the purpose of collecting booty, then they would disappear into the desert where the heavily armed and organized forces of the relevant political power could not follow them without being subject to ambushes and a war of attrition that they could never win in the treacherous terrain of the desert.
(5) A media recording recently issued by ISIS identified the new leader of ISIS as Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi. This is an obvious “movement” name trying to tie this person back to Abraham (the supposed father of the Arabs, and the founder of the Abrahamic religion of which Islam is supposedly the only “pure” example, and to the Hashimite and Qurayshi tribes, supposed guardians of the Ka’aba in pre-Saudi times and going back to pre-Islamic times, and from which Muhammad supposedly descended. This person might be the ‘Abd Allah Qirdaash mentioned in this article, or some entirely unknown individual. It might even be an avatar, a entity that will exist only on the internet.
(6) His “Turkoman” ethnicity and his rise to prominence in the organization might be linked to the Turkish patronage of the organization.
(7) Even though history shows that the stories about a tribe of Quraysh from which Muhammad supposedly sprang, any person who pretends to the “Caliphate” must link themselves back to Muhammad’s fictional “tribe” in order to be accepted as a true “Caliph,” or successor to Muhammad.
Turkey has ordered its Muslim-Brotherhood ally, and al-jazeera-hosting Qatar to weed out writers who don’t support it’s invasion of Syria and extermination of Kurds. Therefore, hard-hitting articles like this one are likely to be fewer and further between.
This article mentioned Trump’s announcement of a withdrawal to be a gift to ISIS. This is because to the Jihadi mentality, any and all sign of weakness on the part of an enemy–even if they are actually acting from a position of strength–is considered a victory: The enemy simply did not have the moral strength to press its advantage (Qur’an 47:35). In other words, no matter how badly ISIS was battered physically, the simple truth is that Trump’s mere announcement of a withdrawal represents a huge victory for ISIS, and ISIS’s superiority over American and all other forces fighting against ISIS. This is a difficult concept for Westerners to understand, but failure to understand that basic Qur’an supported concept dooms us to eternal failures in the War against Terror.
Trump’s withdrawal announcements (even if not fulfilled) plays into the hands of Islamic prophecies as well. There is an hadeeth that claims that near the very end of time the “Romans” (prophetic stand-in for the West in general) will have crushed the believers, until only a small strand of them are left. But then Allah will intervene to drive them away and the believers shall regroup and destroy the infidels in the end.
This is why Trump’s flip-flopping on withdrawing or not withdrawing and/or “redeploying” to protect the oil, are resulting in a flood of new recruits to ISIS. Most Muslims, whether they want to admit it or not, see Trump’s behavior as a fulfillment of Islamic prophecy.
TURKEY’S ROLE IN HIDING AL-BAGHDADI
In my book named below, I document that Erdogan’s Turkey was responsible for cobbling together what was to become ISIS–with the approval of the Obama administration. And, throughout the war they helped funnel new fighters to ISIS, sold its stolen oil on the black market to help finance it, and when al-Baghdadi was wounded by an American airstrike, smuggled him into Turkey for medical treatment, then smuggled him into Libya so he could start up a new franchise there, then smuggled him back into Syria. So, it is only natural that it should be Turkey who arranged for his final hiding place when the world closed in on “the Islamic State.”
Al-Baghdadi was killed in a small village called Barisha, population 2,500. The safe house he was in was the home of one Abu Muhammad Salama. Salama is a leader of an al-Qaeda franchise called huraas ad-din (gaurdians of the religion). Huraas ad-din was part of another al-Qaeda franchise called tahreer ash-sham (the liberation of Syria) which is under the direction of Turkey.
The village of Barisha was located in Syria’s northern province of Idlib, which was controlled by the Turks, and Barisha itself was only a few miles from the Turkish border.
In other words, al-Baghdadi, a long-time client of Erdogan’s Turkey, was hiding out in the home of another Turkish terrorist client in a province controlled by the Turks, and only a few miles for the Turkish border . . . and we’re supposed to believe that the Turks had no idea that he was there? That Turkey is a loyal NATO ally?
One of al-Baghdadi’s wives and other family members sought safety in Turkey itself, but were arrested immediately after (not before) our announcement of al-Baghdadi’s death. This was an obvious face-saving move, a cover for their duplicitous behavior, a “false flag” operation to show the world that “hey, we too are fighting terrorism and the ISIS scourge.”
BOTTOM LINE: As long as there are terror-supporting Islamist states like Turkey, Qatar, Iran, and Pakistan (who sponsored and sheltered Usama bin Laden) there will be Islamic terrorism. And, as long as there is an unrepentant Islam there will be terror-supporting Islamist states. And, there will always be an unrepentant, unreformed Islam unless and until the civilized world, starting with the United States, develops enough courage to attack the true root cause of Islamic terrorism.
So, get ready for ISIS 3.0, bigger, stronger, and more dangerous than any of its predecessors.
Barry Webb had a 25-year career as an Arabist for the NSA and hold two MA degrees in related subject matter. He is the author of the book Confessions of an (ex) NSA Spy: Why America and its Allies are Losing the War on Terror. His website is: www.barrywebbauthor.com. He is currently a senior fellow at Americans for Intelligence Reform at www.intelreform.org.