The Seeds of the Islamic State in Saddam’s Iraq

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on January 22, 2017

Mustafa Ramdan Darwish (Abu Muhammad al-Lubnani)

Mustafa Ramdan Darwish (Abu Muhammad al-Lubnani)

After the leaders of the Islamic State die—usually killed by their foes—short biographies tend to be circulated on internet forums that favour the group. One such obituary—with the above picture—was disseminated for Mustafa Ramadan Darwish (Abu Muhammad al-Lubnani), and is reproduced below with some editions to transliteration and some interesting sections highlighted in bold. Darwish was the first leader of the Islamic State’s military portfolio and the second overall deputy (between September 2004 and early 2005) to the movement’s founder, Ahmad al-Khalayleh (Abu Musab al-Zarqawi). One of the most interesting parts of Darwish’s profile is its addition of details on the jihadi networks linked to al-Qaeda and the first generation of the Islamic State that were operating in Iraq in the final years of Saddam Husayn’s rule, a topic touched on in other biographies of Islamic State leaders.


Shaykh Abu Muhammad al-Lubnani, [whose real name was] Mustafa Ramadan, was one of the founders of Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad.[1] He was from Majdal Anjar [in Bekaa, Lebanon] and had five children. His roots went back to Diyarbakir in Turkey,[2] while his mother was from Aleppo. He was always spoke quietly, politely, and with great precision. Once you see him, you feel like you have known him for a long time even though you have never met before.

He memorized al-Qur’an and practiced its meanings. Once he heard a fatwa saying jihad is an individual obligation, he went forth for the sake of Allah to the Land of Khurasan [Afghanistan] where he participated in the battles of Jalalabad with Arab Mujahideen [against the Soviet occupation]. Then, after discord among the Afghan factions began to surface, he returned back to his native country to lend his jihadi skills on-and-off to help rebuild his home country. By then he began to be harassed by the government so he left for Denmark, where he had let his beard grow, dressed like an Afghan mujahid and kept his wife’s niqab. There he established contacts with the mujahideen across Europe, and eventually joined a Turkmen chapter of Ansar al-Islam, a small Kurdish Sunni organization with roots in northern Iraq. After his return to his own country [Lebanon], he formed alongside his friend Abu Aysha al-Lubnani, who fought in Afghanistan and Chechnya, a jihadi group. Shortly after he was arrested for eight months for financing terrorism. After his release, he returned to establish another jihadi group in Majdal Anjar.

Following the invasion of Iraq in 2003, he travelled to Iraq with one of his brothers, Fadi Abu al-Dardaa, to explore if the situation in Iraq can be permitted to engage in a correct jihad without the flags of nationalism, patriotism or secularism. When they were there on the ground, they sowed the seeds of the jihad in Iraq alongside Shaykh Abu Raghd al-Jazrawi, by forming Rawa Camp—later the starting point of the jihad in Iraq—where he became the chief commander and Shaykh Abu Raghd the military commander of the camp.[3] Later, he returned to Lebanon to bring his eldest son, Muhammad (Abu Suhayl), and engage him in jihad for the sake of Allah, but shortly after his arrival to Iraq he got his martyrdom in a crusader airstrike upon al-Faruq camp in Rawa.

Two spies were discovered, who called in an airstrike on al-Faruq camp, which led to the martyrdom of his son, Muhammad, his friend, Abu al-Dardaa, and the commander of the camp, Abu Raghd.[4] After that he became known as “Abu al-Shaheed”. The first thing Shaykh al-Lubnani did was behead one of those spies, while the other one killed himself by taking deadly poison. His reputation spread throughout Iraq and preceded him to Shaykh Abu Musab al-Zarqawi as a fearless mujahid who organized many martyrdom operations. Within a year, he became a military commander of Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad and a close companion to Shaykh al-Zarqawi. His activities including the western area, al-Fallujah, Baghdad, and Mosul. With the commander of Baghdad, Manaf al-Rawi, he was behind the recruitment of the mujahideen, smuggling them into Iraq.[5] He was amongst the early people who Shaykh al-Adnani met when he arrived to Iraq.[6] Haifa Street in downtown Baghdad was a remarkable experience to witness his courage, his resolution-armband fortitude.[7]

He played a role in a number of major operations, including killing a convoy of CIA officers and U.S. troops in an ambush on al-Amiriya bridge on Baghdad Airport Road, and capturing three Americans and a British soldier in al-Mansour district of Baghdad. He attained his martyrdom in clashes with American forces in September 2004 during the Abu Ghraib battle, along with Shaykh Abu Anas al-Shami, a few months after his son’s martyrdom, may Allah accept him and grant him al-Firdus al-A’la [the highest level of paradise], Ameen.[8]



[1] Al-Zarqawi’s group was founded in Taliban Afghanistan in 1999-2000 as Jund al-Sham. After migrating to Iraq in 2002, al-Zarqawi’s group coagulated into Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad around September 2003 and announced itself publicly for the first time in January 2004. Once al-Zarqawi swore allegiance to al-Qaeda, the group became al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia (AQM) in October 2004. AQM combined with other jihadi groups in a political alliance called al-Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen in January 2006, which was broadened into the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) in October 2006, into which AQM formally dissolved itself a month later. ISI became the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in April 2013 after its expansion into Syria and became simply the Islamic State after declaring the areas it held in Iraq and Syria to be a caliphate in June 2014.

[2] Darwish is believed to have been of Kurdish descent.

[3] Rawa is a town in Anbar Province in western Iraq, one of the key gateways during the U.S. regency in Iraq through which the Islamic State received foreign fighters from Syria, where the Assad regime was helping to funnel them into Iraq. One of the facilitators in Rawa was known as Abu Dua and the U.S. believed they had killed him in October 2005. The U.S. was almost certainly mistaken about that: Abu Dua was very likely a man from Samarra named Ibrahim al-Badri, who would later become infamous under his kunya, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The Rawa camp has become something of a legend in Islamic State circles. Rawa Camp was set up in June 2003 and led by Abu Raghd, who went by Abu Raghd al-Utaybi, as well as Abu Raghd al-Jazrawi. Abu Raghd was a Saudi veteran of the jihad against the Red Army in Afghanistan, had trained at al-Faruq camp near Kandahar, and entered Iraq via Syria even before al-Zarqawi in the spring of 2002. This would suggest that the “ratlines” al-Zarqawi was known to be constructing in Syria in 2002, ahead of the invasion, also became operational, at least minimally, at that time. An audiotape posted on a jihadi website in April 2006 showed an ostensible jihadi commander, Abu Muhammad al-Salmani, described how the Faruq camp at Rawa had been modelled after its namesake in Afghanistan. “We first begun by gathering all the information we could … [and] read everything that has been written about the camp in Afghanistan,” al-Salmani said. “After the camp was set up, Muslims from everywhere started pouring in. … Afghan Arabs were the first to join the camp.” The training sessions lasted between thirty and forty-five days, al-Salmani said, adding that Rawa “became the starting point of jihad in Iraq,” a phrase identical to the one used in the Darwish obituary above. According to the Small Wars Journal, teachers at the Rawa camp included the most elite figures of the Islamic State movement: Darwish, Umar Hadid (Abu Khattab al-Falluji), Umar Yusef al-Juma (Abu Anas al-Shami), Abu Ibrahim al-Tunisi, Abu Tariq al-Yemini, and Abu Hammam al-Urduni.

[4] This strike occurred on 8 August 2003 and also killed up to eighty fighters.

[5] This suggests that Manaf al-Rawi—known as “the dictator” by the time he was orchestrating the bombings in Baghdad, of which he was emir, between August 2009 and January 2010—may have had a more important role that Darwish’s driver before he was arrested in 2004.

[6] Abu Muhammad al-Adnani is Taha Falaha, the Islamic State’s official spokesman as of August 2011 and by the time he was killed in August 2016 its governor of Syria, director of foreign terrorist attacks, and overall deputy, too. Falaha, a Syrian, had been recruited in 2002 in Aleppo by al-Zarqawi and was among the few foreigners in the very senior ranks of the Islamic State after 2006.

[7] Haifa Street was an extremely dangerous area of Baghdad—not only between the insurgency and the forces trying to protect the Iraqi government, but within the insurgency. Haifa was the location of the most dramatic moment in the recent documentary by Australian journalist Michael Ware, called Only the Dead, about his hunt for al-Zarqawi.

[8] If it is true that Darwish was killed alongside Abu Anas al-Shami (real name: Umar Yusef al-Juma), al-Zarqawi’s first deputy and his chief religious official, in September 2004, then it would rather re-write the known biography of Darwish. It has always been murky when Darwish was killed; reports varied between early and summer 2005, with the most reliable data point being a posting on an Islamist forum that said Darwish was dead by February 2005. It would be possible to say these were completely mistaken, and this biography certainly correct, were it not that Darwish succeeded al-Juma at al-Zarqawi’s right hand, which would require him to have outlived al-Juma.