In the ninetieth edition of its newsletter, al-Naba, released on 20 July 2017, the Islamic State (IS) published an obituary for one of its most senior operatives, Ali Aswad al-Jiburi, much better known as Abu Ayman al-Iraqi, who had been serving as the caliph’s “security advisor” when he was killed on 18 May 2016.
A Mistaken Identity
For some time, the kunya “Abu Ayman” was misapplied, as Romain Caillet recently explained, to another IS leader, Adnan al-Suwaydawi. Al-Suwaydawi, known also as Abu Muhannad al-Suwaydawi and Haji Dawud, served as the head of IS’s amniyat (internal security units) and the head of its Military Council between the death of Adnan al-Bilawi (Abu Abdurrahman al-Bilawi) in June 2014 and his own death in May 2015. Al-Suwaydawi, an intelligence officer during Saddam Husayn’s time in power, was among those former regime elements (FRE) that migrated into IS in the early years of the Iraqi insurgency, making him about twenty years older than Ali al-Aswad. This discrepancy became much clearer with IS’s release of pictures and videos of al-Aswad.
One of the early indications that we were dealing with two different people was the assassination of Kamal Hamami (Abu Basir al-Ladqani), a Free Syrian Army (FSA) leader, in Latakia in July 2013, three months after IS openly declared its hitherto-covert presence in Syria and six months before the Syrian opposition went to war with IS. Abu Ayman orchestrated that hit. Near-simultaneously, Abu Ayman was supposed to have led the breakout at Abu Ghraib. In fact, it was al-Suwaydawi who led the Abu Ghraib operation, while al-Aswad was terrorizing the Syrian coast, building a reputation that would follow him as one of the most barbaric IS commanders.
Ali al-Aswad is from Mosul and completed his studies in English literature at the university in the city. Al-Aswad was involved in the Iraqi jihad from its early stages and was imprisoned, it seems between September 2007 and 2010. Al-Aswad spent time in Camp Bucca, among other places. It has been reported that al-Aswad spent time in prison with Ahmad al-Shara (Abu Muhammad al-Jolani), the leader of Jabhat al-Nusra—now Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS)—which began as IS’s secret Syrian wing. By the timeline of al-Shara’s known time in jail, this is plausible.
Upon release from prison, al-Aswad worked in IS’s security services around Mosul, exhausting the Iraqi state with assassinations of its officials, raids against its soldiers and policeman, and suicide bombings. Al-Aswad was sent into Syria early on to take advantage of the Syrian uprising as part of al-Nusra. Al-Aswad was based in Aleppo, where al-Nusra had its major infrastructure at this stage. This was the area into which the muhajirun (foreign fighters) were flowing as they crossed into northern Syria from Antioch.
Interestingly, al-Naba credits Ahrar al-Sham with having “shown it was Islamic”—i.e. jihadi-salafist—at that time, and says Ahrar presented its disputes in terms of legitimate policy disagreements to be mediated with al-Nusra/IS via the shari’a. (God soon revealed the truth of Ahrar’s deviance, says al-Naba.)
Al-Naba claims that in Aleppo al-Shara had surrounded himself with a Syrian leadership cadre “in a clear attempt … to create conditions for treason”, and isolated the non-Syrians in al-Nusra’s leadership by sending them to the most savage fronts or appointing them to remote governorships. Such was the scheme behind al-Aswad’s appointment as governor of the sahel (coastal region).
Tension between al-Nusra and its parent branch built through 2012. The caliph’s deputy, Samir al-Khlifawi (Haji Bakr), had been running a parallel infrastructure centred on Amr al-Absi (Abu al-Atheer) and Tarkhan Batirashvili (Abu Umar al-Shishani) in the Aleppo area, and entered Syria personally in December 2012 to lobby, cajole, and threaten other al-Nusra commanders into secretly breaking with al-Shara. By the time IS tried to publicly bring al-Nusra to heel in April 2013, announcing the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) as a merger under Ibrahim al-Badri’s (Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi) leadership, the groundwork for the schism was already well-advanced. The whole Aleppo apparatus of al-Nusra went over to ISIS—and was then evicted by the rebellion, leaving al-Nusra rebuilding from scratch, which is why it was so weak in Aleppo city right down to the end last December. Many al-Nusra field commanders, plus most of the muhajirun, also defected to ISIS.
Al-Badri had crossed into Syria in March 2013, a month before the ISIS announcement. In July 2013, according to Daniele Raineri, who has done much of the work to unravel the confusion over “Abu Ayman”, the caliph reached probably his westernmost point in Syria when he met al-Aswad in Jibal al-Akrad (The Kurdish Mountain), near the village of Salma in Latakia Province. IS, led by al-Aswad, joined al-Nusra and Ahrar in a gruesome offensive into the Alawi heartlands, beginning 4 August 2013. By the time the offensive—which had been partly bankrolled by Kuwait-based salafi donors—was halted and reversed by Bashar al-Asad’s regime a fortnight later, on 18 August, at least 190 civilians had been killed, including an Alawi cleric, Badr Ghazal, who was murdered on video by al-Nusra.
In late 2013, a number of initiatives were undertaken by al-Qaeda and other jihadists to try to reconcile IS and al-Nusra. One interlocutor was Shaykh Jalal Bayirli, whom IS assassinated on 10 November 2013, on al-Aswad’s orders, according to Raineri. The rebels asked for al-Aswad to be turned over to them for punishment, and for IS to leave Latakia, a week later. IS refused. Al-Aswad remained a particular sore point as hostility between IS and the FSA-branded rebels increased through November and December 2013.
Two days after IS tortured to death a popular Ahrar commander, Hussein al-Sulayman (Abu Rayyan), on New Year’s Day 2014, things boiled over and the rebellion launched a full-scale offensive against IS, driving it from positions in seven provinces, cornering IS briefly in Raqqa, and forcing its total withdrawal from Latakia and Idlib on 14 March 2014, which remain, sleeper cells aside, free of IS to this day.
Al-Aswad was moved into eastern Syria after IS’s expulsion from Latakia to lead Wilayat al-Khayr (Deir Ezzor), replacing Abu Umar al-Rafdani, and ruling alongside Ali al-Khayri. In this role, al-Aswad was involved in a failed assault on al-Bukamal, probably in April 2014, and al-Aswad then concentrated on fighting the rebel forces in the western parts of the province. IS, unable to make much headway in terms of building a social base in Deir Ezzor, was able to conquer the province in July 2014, shortly after the caliphate was proclaimed, using the war booty captured in Mosul. Al-Aswad defeated al-Nusra’s then-strongest branch, led by Maysar al-Jiburi (Abu Mariya al-Qahtani), a relative of his, and led IS’s campaign to destroy the final remnants of the Syrian opposition in eastern Syria. Al-Naba also reveals al-Aswad’s leading role in the unmerciful slaughter of seven-hundred Shaytat tribesmen who rebelled against IS’s takeover in Deir Ezzor.
After several months as wali (governor) of Deir Ezzor, al-Aswad was stripped of his rank and moved to serve north of Baghdad. The potential reasons for this appear to be two, according to Wassim Nasr. One potential reason is that al-Aswad was demoted for failing to prevent the American raid into Deir Ezzor in May 2015 that killed Fathi al-Tunisi (Abu Sayyaf al-Iraqi), an important middle manager who handled the “Antiquities Division” of the Diwan of Natural Resources. The other possibility, Nasr tells me, is that al-Aswad was moved to ease tensions between IS and the local population after al-Aswad took such a prominent part in the suppression of the Shaytat, thereby preventing the U.S. mobilizing this popular resentment to instigate an internal uprising against IS.
Al-Aswad rose back up, becoming the military emir and eventually the wali north of Baghdad. He went to Amiriya, thirty miles south of Falluja, after IS was defeated around the capital. Al-Aswad was injured by shrapnel from a mortar shell while with his men on the front line in Wilayat al-Falluja, and was transferred to Mosul. After months of recovery, al-Aswad “returned to the battlefields of jihad” as the amni in charge of the Intelligence Diwan in Mosul, before being struck down by a Coalition war plane, “ending his jihad journey in the city where it began”.
Al-Aswad’s demise became public on 15 June 2016, though his official obituary only appeared thirteen months later. This is not so surprising: IS showed footage in April of Umar Hadid, who was killed thirteen years ago, and “likely has footage from inside the Bataclan concert hall, the church near Rouen where the priest was slaughtered, [and] more footage from Camp Speicher”.
IS says that even after al-Aswad’s death, areas he had administered like the sahel and Badiya remained hospitable because of his work to frighten the factions and eliminate key opponents. Al-Aswad had, in the manner ascribed to al-Khlifawi, infiltrated the rebel groups resisting IS, says al-Naba, obtaining information about them and then moving at the right time to neutralize them, preventing an effective uprising against IS, whether internally or assisted from outside by governments like that of Turkey, which has been able to mobilize rebel groups as effective instruments against IS.
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Adnan al-Suwaydawi (Abu Muhannad al-Suwaydawi):
Ali al-Aswad (Abu Ayman al-Iraqi):