The Leadership Structure of the Islamic State

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on 6 August 2017

A year ago, I wrote a report documenting the biographies of Islamic State (IS) leaders and something of the structure of the organisation. Since then, the intricacies of the structure have been further revealed, even as it has somewhat crumbled in practice. The caliphate—the statelet built by IS—has been significantly degraded: the Iraqi “capital”, Mosul, has fallen, and operation to clear the Syrian “capital”, Raqqa, is underway. More significantly, upwards of 40% of those profiled have been killed, so it seemed an opportune moment for an update on who currently leads the world’s most infamous terrorist movement.


The senior IS leaders responsible for the rapid territorial expansion in 2014—men like Samir al-Khlifawi (Haji Bakr, Abu Bakr al-Iraqi), Adnan al-Suwaydawi (Abu Muhannad al-Suwaydawi, Haji Dawud), Adnan al-Bilawi (Abu Abdurrahman al-Bilawi), and Fadel al-Hiyali (Abu Muslim al-Turkmani, Haji Mutazz)—were killed in 2015.

Several of the foreigners who filled out capacity in specialised zones—“Jihadi John” or Mohammed Emwazi (Abu Muharib al-Muhajir) in the media and Junaid Hussain in cyber-espionage—were eliminated in late 2015.

Amr al-Absi (Abu al-Atheer), possibly the key Syrian in IS’s network to establish itself in that country, met his downfall on 3 March 2016. There was no notification of the death of Ahmad Abousamra (Abu Sulayman al-Shami) in January 2017, nor any indication of his true importance until IS told us in Rumiya. The killing of Turki al-Binali in late May 2017, by contrast, was a very public event. The death of al-Binali’s friend, Abu Bakr al-Qahtani, three months later was highly controversial: it remains unclear if the Saudi cleric was killed by a Coalition airstrike or executed by IS as part of the struggle with the Hazimis over the Delegated Committee.

The infamous “Chechen” with nine lives, Tarkhan Batirashvili (Abu Umar al-Shishani), finally ran out of luck in July 2016. The U.S. had taken to calling Batirashvili as IS’s “minister of war”. The “war minister” role has never been clarified—is it revived? What is its purpose? How does it differ from the Military Council? What is its line of authority? To some degree this recapitulates the argument over whether Batirashvili was a media figure or a military one; perhaps he held a hollow title. According to some accounts, Batirashvili was replaced as “war minister” by a Tajik, Gulmurod Khalimov (Abu Umar al-Tajiki), who was given an increasing public stature until his demise in April 2017.

There was also the false-alarm of thinking the founder’s mentor, Muhammad Ibrahim al-Saghir (Abu Abdullah al-Muhajir), had been killed.

Officials like Abu Harith al-Lami, relatively unknown but seemingly important, are no more. The second-level leaders have been significantly hit. The one with probably the most visible profile was Ali Aswad al-Jiburi (Abu Ayman al-Iraqi), a notoriously vicious commander who terrorised the Syrian opposition. Al-Jiburi was reassigned from his post in eastern Syria to Iraq, possibly for failing to prevent the killing of Fathi al-Tunisi (Abu Sayyaf al-Iraqi), the man who oversaw the antiquities trade and other criminal revenue-generating schemes in Syria. Al-Tunisi’s de facto counterpart on the Iraqi side of the border was finance minister Muwafaq al-Kharmush (Abu Saleh), whom the Coalition says it killed in November 2015. About a year before, the border provinces minister Rathwan al-Hamdani (Abu Jurnas) is believed to have been killed, as well as the coordinator between the provinces, Muhammad Hamid al-Dulaymi (Abu Hajer al-Sufi). Al-Kharmush, al-Hamdani, and al-Dulaymi all served in the fallen Iraqi Ba’th regime.

A number of field commanders like Shaker al-Fahdawi (Abu Wahib) and Abdulmuhsin al-Taresh (Abu Jandal al-Kuwaiti) have been liquidated, too.

There is then a raft of named and unnamed operatives buried under rubble whose true importance we will only know if IS chooses to disclose it to us.

IS has lost in this time three operatives—Abdurrahman al-Qaduli (Abu Ali al-Anbari) on 25 March 2016, Taha Falaha (Abu Muhammad al-Adnani) on 30 August 2016, and Wael al-Fayad (Abu Muhammad al-Furqan, Dr. Wael al-Rawi) on 7 September 2016—that should be regarded as its most valuable


Caliph: Ibrahim al-Badri (Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi) has led IS since 2010. (Full profile here)

Iyad al-Ubaydi (Abu Saleh Hayfa) (source)

Deputy and Head of the Military Council: Iyad al-Ubaydi, who uses a variety of kunyas: Fadel Hayfa, Abu Saleh al-Ubaydi, and Abu Saleh al-Hayfa. Al-Ubaydi is said to be in in his fifties and a former officer in Saddam Husayn’s military, though the picture (right) of al-Ubaydi speaking outside Mosul in early 2015 suggests this might be mistaken. After the regime fell, al-Ubaydi apparently joined Kataib Thawrat al-Ishreen (The 1920s Revolution Brigade) in May 2003. Al-Ubaydi was imprisoned by the Americans in Camp Bucca in 2006; when he was released is unclear. It was in prison that al-Ubaydi was converted to jihadism. Al-Ubaydi took over the amniyat or intelligence file after Adnan al-Suwaydawi was killed and later was promoted to run the military. There were rumours last month that al-Ubaydi had been killed, so far unsubstantiated. [UPDATE: There is good reason to think the rumour that Al-Ubaydi was killed in the final stages of the battle for Mosul was correct.]

Iyad al-Jumayli when arrested, mid-2000s (source)

Head of Amniyat: Iyad al-Jumayli (Abu Yahya al-Iraqi). A Falluja native and former member of Saddam’s army, now in his forties, al-Jumayli is a veteran of the IS movement, who spent time in Camp Bucca. Al-Jumayli was broken out of Abu Ghraib in July 2013, alongside al-Bilawi and Wissam al-Zubaydi (Abu Nabil al-Anbari or Abu al-Mughirah al-Qahtani), in an operation planned by al-Suwaydawi. The amniyat that al-Jumayli controls are the security units or secret police inside the areas IS holds. Al-Jumayli might thus be thought of as the interior minister. It was reported in April 2017 by Iraqi TV that al-Jumayli had been killed and it was reported again on 6 July that al-Jumayli had been killed in Mosul; there is no evidence he is dead yet. [UPDATE: these reports were seemingly belated: Al-Jumayli was killed alongside Batirashvili in July 2016 by a Coalition airstrike in Shirqat.] (Full profile here.)

Iyad al-Jumayli (Abu Yahya al-Iraqi) [Left] and Iyad al-Ubaydi (Abu Saleh al-Hayfa) [Right], in Syria (source)

(A relative of Iyad al-Jumayli’s, Bashar al-Jumayli, a.k.a. Abu Thabet, is also a member of IS and apparently also a former intelligence official in the Saddam regime. Bashar was once identified as the wali of al-Karma, an important IS stronghold near Falluja, and latterly as the wali of Baghdad. It has been claimed Abu Yasser al-Iraqi is the governor of northern Wilayat Baghdad. How or if Bashar interacts with Abu Yasser is unclear.)

Tirad al-Jarba 1

Tirad al-Jarba (source)

Syrian Governor: Tirad al-Jarba (Abu Muhammad al-Shimali): a Syrian veteran of the movement, al-Jarba was primarily responsible for handling the influx of foreign volunteers during the caliphate time. With the demise of so many senior officials, this administrative position has been expanded and al-Jarba now handles the whole Syria file. (Profile here)

Iraq Governor: Nima al-Jiburi (Abu Fatima al-Ansari or Abu Fatima al-Jiburi). Al-Jiburi was appointed after the demise of Fadel al-Hiyali. (Profile here)

Official Spokesman: Abu Hassan al-Muhajir, with the movement since 2004 (profile here)

Shura Council Head: Umar al-Sulayti (Abu Mundhir al-Muhajir). It was known that Abdullah Yusef had replaced Abu Arkan al-Ameri, and it seems that since then Yusef has been reassigned to lead the foreign operations body, leaving the Shari’a Council to be overseen by al-Sulayti (Abu Mundhir al-Muhajir). This is the first time a non-Iraqi has led the Shura Council—al-Sulayti being a Jordanian—and al-Sulayti is individually a controversial figure, known to have been at odds with Issam al-Barqawi (Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi) and Umar Othman (Abu Qatada al-Filistini) at one time, before becoming a prominent jihadi advocate in Jordan and getting close to al-Barqawi and al-Barqawi’s then-disciple, Ahmad al-Khalayleh (Abu Musab al-Zarqawi), the founder of IS. Al-Sulayti joined IS in October 2014. There were reports that al-Sulayti was killed in March 2017; it is unclear if this is true.

Media Emir: Khaldun al-Maslawi is said to have taken the reins of IS’s media file after Wael al-Fayad was destroyed. Al-Maslawi is responsible for IS’s oldest media institution, Al-Furqan, as well as the weekly newsletter, Al-Naba.

Hay’at al-Kharijia (The External Affairs Body): Abdullah Yusef al-Maslawi (Abu Bakr al-Khatouni). In 2010, the caliph gave an order for Yusef, then based in Damascus with al-Badri’s mentor, Muhammad Hardan, to be assassinated. The order was not carried out and Yusef was brought back into the ranks around the time his hometown, Mosul, was occupied by the jihadists. Yusef was the IS wali of Ninawa, responsible among other things for the cruel treatment of Christians in Mosul, and he remained in this post right through the final battle for the city.

Border Emir: Ali Musa al-Shawakh (Abu Luqman or Abu Ayyub), the former IS governor of Raqqa. Al-Shawakh was radicalised by a cleric close to Asad’s intelligence services and was released from regime prison at the outset of the uprising. Al-Shawakh replaced al-Jarba. In this post, al-Shawakh handles the muhajirun (foreign fighters). This post was once held by Badran Turki Hishan al-Mazidi (Abu Ghadiya), a man of such significance the U.S. launched a rare raid into Syria to kill him in October 2008. It is unclear what relation al-Shawakh has to the “foreign affairs minister” Abdullah al-Mashadani, or if al-Mashadani is still alive. French intelligence believes al-Shawakh had a role in the IS attacks in Paris in November 2015 and the March 2016 bombings in Brussels.

Hay’at al-Arkan (General Staff) Commander: Abu Umar al-Hadithi, the replacement for Waleed al-Alwani (Abu Ahmad al-Alwani), a rather elusive former member of the Ba’th regime, who was probably killed in late 2014 or early 2015. The exact nature of Hay’at al-Arkan is unclear, though it might be something like the revival of the Chief of Staff position, though unlike in earlier times this role cannot be Commander-in-Chief since that role is held by the Military Council leader.

Financial Emir: Faysal al-Zahrani (Abu Sarah al-Zahrani), a Saudi, was appointed after Sami al-Jiburi was killed in August 2016. Before that, the financial file had effectively been split between al-Zahrani’s close associate, Fathi al-Tunisi, and Muwaffaq al-Kharmush, both killed in 2015. The U.S. Treasury sanctioned al-Zahrani for his role in the oil and gas black market. Al-Zahrani joined Diwan al-Rikaz (The Natural Resources Department) in July 2014, according to Treasury, and by May 2015 was IS’s “oil and gas division official for” Wilayat al-Baraka (Hasaka Province). Al-Zahrani was responsible for sending tens of millions of dollars to IS, said Treasury. After al-Tunisi was killed, another IS official was handled the local car bombs (VBIED) file was eliminated, so al-Zahrani was appointed to supervise the entirety of the oil production plant in Rukayba, Hasaka Province, including the area that created VBIEDs.

Health Emir: Ali Bashir al-Na’ma (Abu Abd al-Bari), a well-educated cleric from Mosul. A former member of Hay’at al-Ulema al-Muslimeen (The Association of Muslim Scholars), a body that supported the jihadi “resistance”, al-Na’ama was arrested in 2006 by the Americans.

Judiciary and Courts Emir: Nizamuddin al-Rifai (Abu Mu’ath or Abu Moaz). Al-Rifai joined Jaysh al-Mujahideen after Saddam fell and gradually migrated into the more jihadi camp. Al-Rifai was at the University of Tikrit for a time, but left and went to work underground for IS as a proselytiser in Mosul. Al-Rifai came out into the open after IS occupied Mosul in 2014.

Office of Research and Studies: Ahmad ibn Yusuf Samreen (Abu Yaqub al-Maqdisi), a Jordanian, took over from Turki al-Binali to run the Office, according to an extensive study by Cole Bunzel, and has used the position to continue his predecessor’s fight against the “extremist” Hazimi faction of IS. Bunzel draws attention to an online biography, which says Samreen has “held several positions in the Islamic State”: a fighter in Wilayat al-Khayr (Deir Ezzor); a member of the Office, where he has written seventeen books and pamphlets; a judge in Wilayat al-Raqqa and then Wilayat al-Khayr; and finally emir of the Office. As Bunzel explains, in September 2017, when IS withdrew the fatwa from five months earlier that had vastly expanded the definition of heresy, it put out a six-part audio series to settle the issue, Silsila ilmiyya fi bayan masa’il manhajiyya (Knowledge Series Clarifying Matters of Methodology), and Samreen was almost certainly one of the authors. Bunzel continues, the other three lectures that were supposed to be in that series were leaked in July 2018 by al-Turath al-Ilmi Foundation, a media institution that has sided with the “Binalis” at the Office, against the formal Media Department and the Delegated Committee, where Samreen and his allies believe the Hazimis are ascendant. Days later, Samreen was arrested—after he released a fatwa forbidding working with any part of the caliphate except the military—and now faces charges equivalent to treason and the death penalty. [UPDATE: Mu’assasat al-Turath al-Ilmi announced the death of Samreen on 4 December 2018. While IS tried to leave the impression that a 28 November Coalition airstrike on an IS prison had killed Samreen, he had almost certainly been executed earlier by the Security Department, which had built up an extensive rap sheet against Samreen, including spying for the much-detested Issam al-Barqawi (Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi). That airstrike did kill four other clerical allies of Samreen’s—Abu Hafs al-Hamdani, Abu Musab al-Sahrawi, Abu Usama al-Ghareeb, and Abu Muhammad al-Masri—a potentially fatal blow to the “Binalist” trend.]

There are then a number of IS operatives that have senior roles, some clear, some not:

  • Abdullah al-Ani: a member of the Shura Council, a veteran of the jihadi movement—he is even respected by al-Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri—and joined IS in 2004. Al-Ani is part of the Quraysh tribe, and with his other qualifications is therefore a possible contender to replace the caliph should he be killed.
  • Yunis al-Mashadani: also a member of the Shura Council, also a veteran (from 2006), and also Quraysh.
  • Abu Abdullah al-Hassani: once referred to as the caliph’s deputy, Abu Abdullah is Quraysh and probably on the Shura Council. He has dropped out of sight nearly entirely since 2010.
  • Mazen al-Nuhairi (Abu Safa al-Rifai): Born in the 1970s, al-Nuhairi rose to be a colonel in Saddam’s army. He joined the jihadi section of the insurgency immediately after the regime came down. Long known as a very senior and critical security official, an associate of al-Khlifawi, al-Bilawi, and al-Qaduli, it appears al-Nuhairi’s stature has risen as these men have been killed. Whether this is formally embodied on the Security and Intelligence Committee, it is likely al-Nuhairi is one of al-Jumayli’s key deputies overseeing the security apparatus, though he works in the shadows, hidden even from much of IS’s leadership. Al-Nuhairi’s responsibilities include protecting IS’s senior officials and he has quite possibly been involved in the foreign terrorism. This is plausible, even if his role was indirect, since IS’s intelligence apparatus makes no neat distinctions between departments, nor internal and external operations.
  • Abdul Wahid Khutnayer Ahmad (Abu Luay): the general security minister or public security minister, within the Military Council, likely working under Amn al-Dakhili, the internal intelligence service. Khutnayer was a security official in the fallen Saddam regime.
  • Abdelilah Himich (Abu Sulayman al-Firansi): the Frenchman who heads Amn al-Kharji, the foreign espionage-cum-terrorist apparatus that has so threatened Europe and elsewhere.
  • Fares al-Naima (Abu Shema): a Military Council handling logistics, namely warehouses and supplies. There is no report of al-Naima’s death.
  • Abdullah al-Mashadani (Abu Qassem): born in 1968, a Military Council member and the foreign affairs minister, a former Saddamist military officer who oversees the safe-houses for foreign arrivals and directs the newcomers to the areas they are most needed. Al-Mashadani was sanctioned by the State Department as a Specially Designated Global Terrorists (SDGTs) in November 2016. There is no report of al-Mashadani’s death; assuming he is still alive, it is unclear how his responsibilities overlap with Abu Luqman’s.
  • Khairy al-Taey (Abu Kifah): once identified as the explosives minister, creating and directing the IED campaign, little has been heard of al-Taey in many years, but there is no report of his death.
  • Most of the clerics on the Shari’a Council—Abdurrahman al-Talabani, Abu Muhammad al-Ani, the Egyptian former colonel Hilmi Hashem, and the al-Qaeda veteran who switched sides Abu Muslim al-Masri—appear to still be around.
  • Bandar al-Shalaan: a former military officer in Saudi Arabia, al-Shalaan has been a senior official in the Media Council for some time. Al-Shalaan has focused on his native land and Bahrain with propaganda efforts, to recruit from those countries and to destabilise their governments. According to Hisham al-Hashimi, al-Shalaan has had a role with the hostages taken by IS. There is no report of al-Shalaan’s death.
  • Nasser al-Ghamdi: a Saudi media official in IS, involved with al-Furqan, IS’s oldest channel. There is no report of al-Ghamdi’s death.
  • Bashar al-Hamadani (Abu Mohamed): the prisons minister, in charge of recovering the jihadists if and when they are captured by opposing parties. Al-Hamadani worked closely with Khutnayer during the Saddam days on smuggling operations. There is no report of al-Hamadani’s death.
  • Ahmed al-Jazza (Abu Maysara): the governor of the Baghdad wilayat. There is no report of al-Jazza’s death.
  • Ahmed al-Juhayshi (Abu Fatima): the Euphrates wali, covering the south up to Baghdad. There is no report of al-Juhayshi’s death.
  • Shawkat al-Farhat (Abu Abd al-Kadr or Abu Ghada al-Urduni): a general management official and former assistant to IS’s founder. There is no report of al-Farhat’s death.

Post has been updated

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