The Islamic State: Between Al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on September 22, 2015

Abu Musab az-Zarqawi

Abu Musab az-Zarqawi

In August 2015’s Perspectives on Terrorism, Truls Tønnessen writes about the evolution of the leadership of what is now the Islamic State (I.S.) from its origins in al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) under the heading, “Heirs of Zarqawi or Saddam?” Tonnessen makes the obvious point that AQI’s leadership was largely comprised of foreign Salafi-jihadists with al-Qaeda histories, while I.S. is led by Iraqis, most of them former (Saddam) regime elements (FREs). But Tonnessen’s argument that I.S.’s leaders had not been AQI members is mistaken (they had), which erodes his arguments that AQI’s influence diminished over time as I.S. formed from various mergers, and that this diminution of influence came about because I.S.’s post-2010 leadership purged the veteran AQI elements within I.S. (I.S.’s leaders are veteran AQI elements.) The main difference between AQI’s leaders and I.S.’s is that AQI’s leaders had background connections to al-Qaeda Central (AQC) networks, and I.S.’s largely do not. While Tonnessen sees Jabhat an-Nusra as linked to these shifting dynamics, this argument does not stack up. Ultimately, Tonnessen’s contention that I.S.’s leaders are more heirs of Saddam than Zarqawi fails in the terms Tonnessen presents it.


Abu Musab az-Zarqawi’s at-Tawhid wal-Jihad (TWJ) terrorist group was renamed AQI in October 2004 when Zarqawi declared allegiance (baya) to Osama bin Laden. The Iraqization of AQI began in 2006.

In January 2006, AQI formed an umbrella organization, the Mujahideen Shura Council (MSC). There was little doubt that MSC was an AQI front, an attempt to gain Iraqi cover since AQI’s brutality was provoking a backlash among Iraqi Sunnis, and one of the main complaints was that AQI’s harsh policies were being imposed by foreigners. Zarqawi was killed in June 2006. In October 2006, the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) was announced, and in November 2006, AQI’s new leader, Abu Ayyub al-Masri (Abu Hamza al-Muhajir), speaking for MSC, swore baya to ISI’s leader, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi.

Al-Masri’s baya to Abu Omar is now the crux moment in the ongoing “war of the narratives” between I.S. and al-Qaeda. In public, this baya formally abolished both AQI and MSC, now subsumed within ISI, and al-Masri became ostensibly subordinate to Abu Omar. Al-Qaeda’s then-deputy (now leader) Ayman az-Zawahiri referred publicly ISI as an entity apart from al-Qaeda in 2007. But, according to William McCants, ISI’s leaders “pledged private oaths of allegiance to Osama bin Laden,” while maintaining a public “fiction” that ISI was independent of al-Qaeda. This public break with AQC—foreign leaders in Pakistan—was part of the effort to Iraqize, and thereby legitimize, AQI’s public image. The I.S. narrative says that this public posture was in fact the real one, and with ISI’s founding they separated from al-Qaeda.

In real terms Abu Omar and al-Masri ran ISI jointly. When ISI announced a “Cabinet” in April 2007, AQI members filled most of the important positions. Al-Masri was ISI’s “war minister” to and then “prime minister” until he was killed in 2010, and Abu Zahra al-Issawi was ISI’s “information minister”. Abu Omar himself, whose very existence was long-questioned and whose identity remains somewhat murky, is thought to have been an AQI member.

There were some non-AQI people in important places in ISI’s Cabinet. Tonnessen mentions Muharib Abdallah al-Jabouri, the former leader of Saraya al-Ghuraba, who was ISI’s official spokesperson, and Abd ar-Rahman al-Falahi, Saraya al-Jihad’s leader, who was ISI’s “prime minister” from 2007 to 2009.

The heart of Tønnessen’s argument is:

[T]he influence of AQI [within ISI] diminished over time as several of the founding fathers of AQI were killed and replaced with new leaders who had not been members of AQI. This process appears to have been partly a consequence of an internal struggle for power between the remnants of AQI and the new leaders that gradually managed to sideline the old AQI-generation [after 2010]. It could also be argued that the establishment of IS’s Syrian branch, Jabhat al-Nusra, was partly an effect of this internal power struggle, one that formalized the split between the two different factions. Most of the networks associated with AQI and its founder [Abu Musab az-Zarqawi] seem to have joined or supported Jabhat al-Nusra, not IS.

That the largely-foreign original leadership of AQI was gradually eliminated and replaced with Iraqi FREs between 2006 and 2013 is undeniable. But Tonnessen’s argument that there was a discreet AQI entity that was gradually sidelined and even assassinated within ISI as it became I.S., and that I.S.’s leaders came from outside AQI but within ISI (“Very few of the leaders who came in after 2010 seem to have been members of AQI”; ISI’s post-2010 “leaders … had not been members of AQI”), does not meet the test of evidence: most of I.S.’s current leaders—notably the “caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his two senior military leaders, Abu Ali al-Anbari and the possibly-late Fadel al-Hiyali (a.k.a. Haji Mutazz or Abu Muslim al-Turkmani)—were members of AQI. The difference between AQI and I.S. is that I.S. is led by the Iraqi AQI veterans.

Furthermore, the elimination of the foreign leadership of ISI was not an internal plot; it was a consequence of the actions of ISI’s enemies. Especially after the surge began in 2007, with the appeal of the failing jihad in Iraq waning, meaning there were less foreign volunteers to replace the fallen, and the pressure on ISI, it left only the most operationally skilled alive, meaning the FREs. But the FREs were there all along.

Tonnessen is on much firmer footing when he argues:

[W]hile the top leaders of AQI and ISI until 2010 were Afghan Arab veterans who had met and knew the leadership of al-Qaida, very few of the leaders after 2010 had.

This seems to be the key difference between AQI’s leaders and I.S.’s leaders: While AQI and I.S. share a common heritage in AQI, I.S.’s leaders don’t have AQC background.

Abu Ayyub al-Masri was a stalwart of Egyptian Islamic Jihad and an intimate of its leader, Zawahiri, back to the early 1980s. EIJ would be formally incorporated into al-Qaeda, with which it had long been associated, when Zawahiri gave baya to Bin Laden in 2001. Abu Ayyub was in Taliban Afghanistan from 1999, and joined Zarqawi in Saddam’s Baghdad in 2002. Abu Omar al-Baghdadi joined the anti-Soviet jihad in the late 1980s.

The AQC background of AQI’s leaders, which I.S.’s leaders don’t have, takes the form either of having been in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation or the Taliban’s rule, or of having joined Zarqawi before the Iraq invasion, when he was based in Saddam’s Iraq and did his tour of the Levant in mid-2002, gaining the allegiance of, and creating, networks that would bring foreign Salafi-jihadists into Iraq to fight the Americans and constitutional government.

I.S.’s current leaders do not tend to have these AQC connections in their background but instead to be largely Iraqis tied into the interlinked local networks of military-intelligence officers of the fallen Saddam regime, which had been heavily Islamized before the end, and the non-governmental Iraqi Salafist Trend. It’s not an ideological question, since I.S.’s leaders were among AQI’s founders; it’s just about who they know and their experiences.

ISI’s post-2010 leaders included Samir al-Khlifawi (pseudonym: Haji Bakr), Fadel al-Hiyali, Abu Ali al-Anbari, and Adnan as-Suwaydawi (Abu Muhannad as-Suwaydawi[1]), all Iraqis, none of whom had been to Soviet-occupied or Taliban Afghanistan. Even Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi himself, and his “war minister,” Numan az-Zaydi (a.k.a. An-Nasser Lideen Allah Abu Sulayman), were supposedly unknown to AQC.

There are exceptions to this rule. Abu Muhammad al-Adnani was recruited by Zarqawi in al-Adnani’s native Syria in mid-2002, and al-Adnani was promoted to being I.S.’s official spokesman after 2010. Abdullah Alani is an al-Qaeda veteran, well-known and respected by Zawahiri, who joined AQI in 2004 and is now a possible successor to the “caliph”. Then there is Abu Ala al-Afri (a.k.a. Abd ar-Rahman al-Qaduli), an Iraqi but not an FRE, who went to Taliban Afghanistan in 1998, returning to Iraq in 2004, pledging allegiance to Zarqawi, and being entrusted not only as AQI’s emir in Mosul but the link with AQC in Pakistan. This would also explain why al-Afri was reportedly Bin Laden’s preferred successor to Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, a preference allegedly thwarted by al-Khlifawi.

(Incidentally, al-Afri is a strong piece of evidence against the notion of an anti-AQI purge. Tonnessen writes that “it would appear that [al-Afri] belonged to a pro-AQI and a pro-al-Qaida faction within ISI that was sidelined after Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi became leader of ISI.” This is flatly wrong: al-Afri was—and perhaps is if the reports of his demise in May 2015 have been exaggerated—in the running to succeed Abu Bakr as “caliph”.)

Tonnessen sees this dynamic as connected to Jabhat an-Nusra:

Most of the networks associated with AQI and its founder Zarqawi seem to have joined or supported Jabhat al-Nusra, not IS. … It would appear that the establishment of Jabhat al-Nusra in 2011 to some extent formalized and exacerbated the split between the old AQI-generation within ISI and the new generation dominating ISI from 2010. In contrast to IS, several of the founding fathers of Jabhat al-Nusra seems to have been AQI veterans and former companions of Zarqawi.

Having established that AQI’s veterans remain even now at the helm of I.S. and that there was no anti-AQI purge within ISI after 2010, it cannot be true that “the establishment of IS’s Syrian branch, Jabhat al-Nusra, was partly an effect of this internal power struggle, one that formalized the split between the two different factions.” AQI veterans lead both I.S. and Nusra.

But is there a difference in the AQC connections between Nusra and I.S.’s leaderships?

Tonnessen points to three examples. Abu Muhammad al-Golani, a Syrian and Nusra’s leader, was recruited by Zarqawi in 2002. Iyad at-Tubasi (a.k.a. Abu Julaybib), a Jordanian from Zarqawi’s hometown of Zarqa, who was actually related to Zarqawi, married to a sister, joined Zarqawi in Taliban Afghanistan before 9/11, then joined Zarqawi in Baghdad before the invasion, and at-Tubasi was the commander of Nusra’s forces in southern Syria when he was killed in December 2012. And Abu Anas as-Sahaba, a Jordanian also from Zarqawi’s hometown, who was in charge of providing services to Salafi-jihadists arriving in Syria to prepare to attack the New Iraq no later than 2003. As-Sahaba was at-Tubasi’s successor in southern Syria.

The notable exception is the Iraqi Maysar al-Jabouri (a.k.a. Abu Mariyah al-Qahtani), a very senior ISI member and AQI veteran, who was for a time al-Golani’s deputy. Al-Jabouri’s background is not deeply tied to al-Qaeda; al-Jabouri was a member of the Fedayeen Saddam, the dictator’s Praetorian Guard, right down to the last day of the regime. (Again, this says nothing about al-Jabouri’s ideology: the Fedayeen had become strongly influenced by Salafism and mutated into something like a religious police. Many ex-Fedayeen now form an important part of I.S.’s mid-level structure. It’s simply a question of contacts.)

Al-Golani, at-Tubasi, as-Sahaba, and al-Jabouri were all part of the ISI advanced party sent into Syria, probably in coordination with AQC, in the summer of 2011 to link up with the Salafi-jihadists Assad released and form Nusra from the old Assad-overseen ISI networks on Syrian soil.

Tonnessen rests his argument for the distinction between I.S. and Nusra’s leadership Nusra’s leaders being drawn from the “old AQI-generation,” and I.S.’s not being, which is mistaken. But there does superficially seem to be some distinction on the grounds of connections to AQC’s networks and Zarqawi’s post-2002 Levantine networks. The notion, however, that Nusra represented part of an ISI purge of AQC-connected elements is without evidence. To the extent that Nusra has removed foreign, AQC-connected elements of ISI’s leadership it is happenstance: ISI sent in the Syrians and others who had experience working on the Syria side of the border.


An interesting sub-argument Tonnessen makes is:

[O]ne similarity between AQI and IS is that former officers [of Saddam’s military-intelligence] had prominent roles within both organizations. However, an important difference seems to be that while the former officers of AQI left or were dismissed from the Iraqi army prior to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the former officers of IS seems to have remained in their positions until the old Iraqi army was dissolved following the invasion.

The basic argument here is that AQI’s FREs were from the underground “pure” Salafist Trend, which was in ostensible (and sometimes real) opposition to Saddam Hussein, while I.S.’s FREs are of the Ba’athist-Salafist type—those formed when Saddam effectively created his own religious movement with the Faith Campaign in the 1990s.

In evidence for this argument, Tonnessen points to Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, who was, it seems, dismissed from Saddam’s police force in the mid-1980s after he joined the Salafist Trend, and went to fight the Red Army in Afghanistan in 1987, returning to Iraq in 1991. In addition, there was:

Abu Talha al-Mawsuli, … AQI’s emir of Mosul and of northern Iraq, [who] had become influenced by Salafism in 1997-98 while serving as a part of Hussein’s Special Republican Guard. Abu Maysara al-Iraqi[2], who served as spokesman both for TWJ and AQI, was a former officer who had established a clandestine group during the rule of Saddam Hussein. Umar Hadid, who in 2004 would become crucial for facilitating AQI’s presence in Fallujah, had belonged to a violent Salafi group active in Fallujah during the 1990s.

Tonnessen buttresses this case by adding that “few, if any, of the current IS leadership belonged to the Iraqi Salafi community or were particularly religious.” Tonnessen lists: Samir al-Khlifawi (Haji Bakr), Abu Ali al-Anbari, Fadel al-Hiyali, Muhammad an-Nada al-Jabouri, Adnan as-Suwaydawi, and Abu Faysal az-Zayidi.

[Correction] But this neat narrative doesn’t work. It is flatly wrong in the case of al-Anbari, who turns out to be none other than Abdurrahman al-Qaduli. Al-Qaduli took up Salafi-jihadism in the 1980s and his radicalism led him to clashes with the Saddamist security forces until he departed for Taliban Afghanistan in the late 1990s. In the case of the former officers—al-Khlifawi, al-Hiyali, and as-Suwaydawi—all were in important positions in TWJ before it became AQI in October 2004, which suggests very strongly that they had become Islamists of some kind before the regime fell.

TWJ was a small, foreign-dominated organization, overseen by the prince of the takfiris himself: Zarqawi. In short, these men did not join TWJ because it seemed like the best route back to power but out of ideological sympathy, meaning they were indeed “particularly religious”. As a recent report noted, “Most of the army and intelligence officers serving with IS are those who showed clear signs of religious militancy during [the] Saddam days. The Faith Campaign … encouraged them.”

To state this another way: TWJ would never have accepted ideological Ba’athists in its senior posts, and al-Khlifawi was a strategic leader by 2004 at the latest and was head of the ISI military council.

This also takes care of Tonnessen’s contention that AQI’s FREs were dismissed by Saddam for over-zealousness and I.S.’s FREs remained to the end: all of these men—al-Khlifawi, al-Anbari, al-Hiyali, as-Suwaydawi—remained at their posts until April 2003 as far as we know, and all of them joined AQI. While these men might well be considered Ba’athist-Salafists, many “pure” Salafists remained in place to the end, too, having had their differences with the Saddam regime minimized by the Faith Campaign.

(A slightly speculative example would be Kamel Sachet, who was a “pure” Salafist. Sachet was in many ways eventually disgusted by the regime as an institution, but he stayed at his post, believing strongly in the Islamic strictures of loyalty to the ruler, and would have stayed to the end if Saddam didn’t have him murdered.)


Oddly, having begun by arguing that after the 2010 decapitation ISI’s leaders were “replaced with new leaders who not had been members of AQI,” Tonnessen concludes that “IS is more of an extension of the Iraqi faction within AQI”. The latter is the truth.

Tonnessen raises two more points worthy of attention in closing.

Thus far, with the slight exception of Abu Omar a-Shishani, I.S. has kept non-Iraqis away from important military levers of power, and instead used them in the media and shari’a departments. But, says Tonnessen, I.S. has a new cadre of foreign fighters and with the international campaign against I.S., some leaders will be lost and this could provide an opening for some of the foreigners within I.S. to take senior positions.

Tonnessen names Tariq bin al-Tahar bin al-Falih al-Awni al-Harzi, the Tunisian “emir of the suicide bombers,” who is dead; Turki al-Bin’ali, the Bahraini who seems to be more scholar than warrior; and Badr a-Shaalan, a Saudi, who does seem positioned to take an important role in I.S. if leadership losses are suffered. Whether the penetration of foreigners into I.S.’s senior ranks gets very far is open to doubt, however.

Finally, Tonnessen makes the interesting point that “local leadership does not necessarily result in a local strategy”:

Although the leadership of IS has been dominated by Iraqis without prior experience from other conflict areas, and while several of the top leaders of Jabhat al-Nusra belong to the old networks associated with al-Qaida …, it is IS which has taken the more transnational and expansive approach.

In this telling there is an irony that while al-Qaeda is ostensibly committed against the “far enemy” and I.S. against the “near enemy,” Nusra is waging a “Syrian jihad,” at least for now, while I.S. is on “global jihad,” at least in its propaganda. The near/far enemy dichotomy has moved on since 2001, however. Al-Qaeda/Nusra’s Syrian focus and integration with the rebellion is designed to create a shield for its global jihadi agenda by legitimizing al-Qaeda’s presence in Syria—and al-Qaeda does want a presence in Syria, i.e. to control territory, from which to strike at the West. I.S.’s immediate focus is securing ad-Dawla (the State) but its global message is very helpful in bringing in foreign volunteers toward that end.

That said, Tonnessen is correct that the main way the tactical differences between Nusra and I.S. play out is that Nusra is hell-bent on toppling Assad, while I.S. is focussed mostly on consolidating in the liberated areas, which has meant eliminating the other anti-Assad forces. The convergence of interests between I.S. and Assad in trying to destroy the nationalist rebels is part of what leads to the tacit cooperation between the regime and the takfiris.

Tonnessen asks in his title whether I.S.’s leaders are the heirs of Zarqawi or Saddam, and makes an argument that they are the heirs of Saddam. But in Tonnessen’s telling this reduces the jihadi credentials of I.S.’s leaders; Tonnessen fails to reckon with the deep changes of the last fifteen years of the Saddam regime that created a Salafi-infused regime and mass-movement. I.S.’s leaders trace their lineage to both the fallen Iraqi regime, from which many of them acquired both military skills and their introduction to Salafism, and Zarqawi’s terrorist organization, which itself included elements connected to al-Qaeda and the Saddam dictatorship. Saddam’s legacy has also given I.S. a popular base because it left Sunnis with practical reasons to cling to any force promising protection from the Shi’a majority and a Sunni restoration. I.S. is a hybrid, both globally and locally focussed, millenarian and revanchist, drawing its strength from the intellectual capital honed in the military-intelligence services of the fallen Saddam regime and from three decades of Salafi-jihad.




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[1] Correction: Adnan as-Suwaydawi was often misidentified as Abu Ayman al-Iraqi, who is in fact a different, much younger man.

[2] Correction: It has been pointed out to me be by Craig Whiteside that Abu Maysara al-Iraqi was not a member of Saddam’s security apparatus at any point. Then-ISI released an obituary in 2010 noting that  Abu Maysara was 24-years-old when the regime came down and was indeed a stern Salafist—signified by the use of key words/concepts in like dawa, tawheed, and  al-wala wal-bara (loyalty to Muslims and disassociation from disbelievers) to describe Abu Maysara’s activities during the Saddam years. Abu Maysara had been arrested by the Saddam regime and released shortly before the invasion, presumably in the October 2002 “amnesty” that freed everyone but the liberal dissidents. Abu Maysara signed up with TWJ quickly and became “deputy official for the media department and official spokesman for the group on the internet and in jihadist forums”. Abu Maysara remained spokesman for AQI and initially for the Mujahideen Shura Council, before disappearing—evidently killed some time in early 2006.