Profile of an Islamic State Media Emir: Abu Zahra al-Issawi

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on 12 November 2017

The forty-fifth edition of the Islamic State’s “Distinguished Martyrs” series, published by al-Furqan Media in Rajab 1431 (June/July 2010), profiled Abu Zahra al-Issawi, the media emir or information minister of the organization between some point after July 2007, when Khalid al-Mashadani (Abu Zayd al-Mashadani) was arrested, and some point before September 2009, when Ahmad al-Ta’i was announced as holding the position. [UPDATE: Al-Ta’i turned out to be Abu Muhammad al-Furqan, and his real name was Wael al-Ta’i.]

Abu Zahra was “one of the closest advisors” to the Islamic State’s founder, Ahmad al-Khalayleh, the infamous Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and was an intimate of Umar al-Juma (Abu Anas al-Shami) and Mustafa Darwish (Abu Muhammad al-Lubnani), legendary figures of the IS movement, al-Zarqawi’s first and second deputies, respectively. Abu Zahra was arrested by the U.S.-led Coalition. Abu Zahra was among the select few who knew where al-Zarqawi was located, and he was offered a great deal of money to turn in al-Zarqawi. Abu Zahra refused the offer, but it would be, as Craig Whiteside has documented, al-Zarqawi’s closeness to his media department that undid him in June 2006.[1] Abu Zahra was released and became the media emir, working extremely hard: when he was seen he was “tired” and “cold from exhaustion”. This is at the nadir of IS’s fortunes, when it has been driven into the wilderness by the American “surge” and the tribal “Awakening”. The goal during Abu Zahra’s time was primarily proof-of-life, but the production level—about 1,000 products per year, as opposed to the nearly 1,000 per month IS was producing at its height over the last few years—was still extremely taxing. Abu Zahra was killed by Blackwater; the contractors tried to capture Abu Zahra, and he refused to be taken alive.

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In the name of Allah, the Merciful, the Compassionate,

The advisor and minister, Abu Zahra al-Issawi, gallant in action, audacious and noble, a pure and anonymous poet.

He was born in al-Falluja, he learned the truth and committed himself to it at an early age. He and a group of his friends, including the hero Abu al-Harith al-Issawi[2] and the leader Abu Azzam al-Iraqi,[3] joined Abu Musab [al-Zarqawi], may Allah have mercy on the all, swearing allegiance to him and adhering to his program. These proud and high-minded souls came together for one purpose: to build the state of Islam in which its people are glorified and the flag of monotheism is raised.

Allah destined for our friend great characteristics for which he was very fortunate in that they mirrored his name. He was a strong and noble soul, forward in tackling great issues, and rising above trivialities. He was clever and wise, and possessed of clear vision. As soon as he met the Shaykh Emir Abu Musab, he became one of his closest advisors. One incident with the Shaykh Emir, may Allah have mercy on him, that Abu Zahra was proud of and could not forget occurred in a council of righteousness when the brethren of jihad gathered and discussed their affairs. Our friend was sitting next to Shaykh Abu Musab. The Shaykh removed his ring and put it on Abu Zahra as a gift. He was always so proud of that and would say, “On that day, all the brothers present felt jealous of me.”

The house of Abu Zahra was open to the mujahideen, and especially the first muhajireen like Shaykh Abu Anas al-Shami,[4] Shaykh Abu Muhammad al-Lubnani,[5] and others from the first crop. He was one of those who laid the first bricks in building the group which opened the great door of goodness for the people of Islam. Their achievement is due to Allah, may Allah reward them. We beseech Allah to compensate them abundantly and reward them well on behalf of the umma [Islamic community or Islamic nation].

Our dear one continued to conduct jihad fi sabeel Allah [holy war in the path of God] until Allah fated that he be captured. The Crusaders knew his standing with the Shaykh Emir and that he certainly knew the place he was located. They offered him the enormous reward for whoever revealed the location of the Shaykh. It was a reward for which people of this world would fight each other were it one-tenth of the amount. It was twenty-five million dollars. He patiently bore this affliction; enduring at their hands all kinds of torture, and being moved among their prisons until he was finally settled in the prison fortress of “Susa” in [the Sulaymaniya district of Kurdistan in] northern Iraq.

There, the spirit of Abu Zahra, may Allah have mercy on him, refused to accept or yield to the fact of imprisonment, so he plotted his escape from that place which the Crusaders had surrounded with all kinds of fortifications. He succeeded in that in a way that humiliated and infuriated the worshippers of the Cross, and was subsequently placed at the top of the most-wanted list for the Crusader army and the apostate government.

In 1428 Hijri [2007], he was appointed by al-Emir al-Mumineen [the Commander of the Faithful], Abu Umar al-Baghdadi, as the Minister of Information for the Islamic State of Iraq. He was qualified for this position by his qualities, which combined the judicious writer, the wise poet, and the audacious and indefatigable man of action. It was known after his appointment to this position that he was never without a gun at his side. Allah ordained that I met him a number of times in a particular home and I would see him tired and anxious from the weight of this trust he was given and to which he devoted his time and his thought, especially during the critical time through which the Islamic State was passing [after it was driven from control of urban areas by the Surge-and-Sahwa] and which coincided with the ferocious campaign to strike the media [apparatus] of the Islamic State, which was depriving the American administration of sleep and hampering its army in Iraq.

Abu Zahra would be restless until he would go out, even though he was wanted by both name and picture. He was at the time separated from his family and children, risking himself by going out so much and roaming the neighbourhoods of Baghdad and elsewhere to see the brothers, direct their affairs, and lift their spirits. I always heard him repeat, “O Allah, I complain to you about my weakness, my lack of wits and my lowliness before the people.” Because of his activities he became the most-wanted by the Crusaders and their filthy security companies.

Despite all that, these circumstances did not deprive him of his nobility or gallantry. One day I informed him about the case of a needy widow of a mujahid. He became angry and said, “As long as my nose can breathe the air, I will not leave her in need of anything.” He took responsibility for her after that, may Allah have copious mercy upon him.

As for his love for his brothers, he was like a tender father. He loved them and would ask after their situation and joke around with them. He was good company, easy-going, and modest to his brothers and loved ones. If you ask me about his prayers, by Allah I have not seen his like, when he would stand between the hands of his Lord. You would then see him submissive, shaking, and weeping. We praise him, yet Allah provides sufficient reward.

As for his zeal in action, do not even ask about it. He would leave in the morning and return at night worn out by hardship. Despite many coverings, he would be cold from exhaustion. His desire was to raise the flag of tawhid [monotheism] and his hope was that Allah would be pleased with him. He would say, “I do not want anything except that Almighty Allah be pleased with me.”

Often he would recall the first companions of his experience, saying, “I am no good because I am still alive. They have achieved martyrdom.” He stayed like this until the mercenary Blackwater laid an ambush for him to capture him. He was heroic and daring, and preferred death to humiliation, and refused to undermine the Muslims. So it came, the turn of the revolver that was never parted from him. He was killed at their hands, may Almighty Allah have mercy on him and reward him abundantly.

The body of our friend was buried in a grave of the rafidites [Shi’is, i.e. the Iraqi government]. His family was bent upon moving him after their recognized his corpse. He remained just as he was; nothing had befallen him even after more than a year. His face was smiling; his lips were moving as they did in his life, his body was warm and his wounds still bleeding.

May mercy, comfort, and peace be upon you, from the Generous and the Peace-giver in the Paradise of the Immortals. If tears should be shed, it is for such great men that they must be shed. …

Penned by Abu Abdul Malik

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[1] The IS movement learned its lesson from al-Zarqawi’s downfall, and al-Mashadani would bring off an impressive information operation to shield Abdurrahman al-Qaduli (Abu Ali al-Anbari), the man who probably would have succeeded al-Zarqawi had he not already been in an American prison. Al-Qaduli was later crucial in the formation of the Syrian half of the caliphate and was the caliph’s deputy by the time he was killed in 2016.

[2] Abu al-Harith al-Issawi, whose real name is Muhammad Jassim al-Issawi, was among (p. 259) the eighteen or so most senior associates of the Islamic State’s founder, Ahmad al-Khalayleh (Abu Musab al-Zarqawi), on the eve of the invasion of Iraq.

Al-Issawi seems to have been a native of Anbar province, quite possibly Falluja, where he fought alongside Umar Hadid in 2004. (Confusingly, Hadid was associated with a man called Muhammad al-Issawi when he was attacking liquor stores and brothels in his home town during the Saddam years. The al-Issawi that Hadid collaborated with in the 1990s, who was killed around 1997 when Hadid went into internal exile, appears to have also been referred to as Muhammad al-Shishani because he fought with the jihadists in Chechnya during the first separatist war against the Russian government from 1994 and 1996.) In a January 2005 speech, al-Zarqawi mentioned al-Issawi by name as one of the jihadi leaders in Falluja. The other names mentioned by al-Zarqawi were Hadid, Abdallah al-Juwari (Abu Azzam al-Iraqi), and Abu Nasir al-Libi (Abu al-Azaim), a Libyan who arrived in Iraq before Saddam fell and was trained by IS to become an expert bomb-maker. Abu al-Harith was also close to Abdurrahman al-Qaduli (Abu Ali al-Anbari), the caliph’s deputy when he was killed in 2016 and one of the IS movement’s key leaders since inception.

While it is not certain that it is the same person, an “Abu al-Harith al-Ansari” went on to become a popular jihadist writer in the 2005-10 period. The case for this not being the same Abu al-Harith was given by an IS defector, WikiBaghdady, who claims that Abu al-Harith was imprisoned by the Americans in 2005, and only broken out in 2010—whereupon he was murdered by the new IS leader, Ibrahim al-Badri (Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi), who had then-recently replaced Hamid al-Zawi (Abu Umar al-Baghdadi). This version of the circumstances might be dubious, but the timing is perhaps more accurate: an “Abu al-Harith al-Ansari” was killed in battle in Iraq in December 2010.

[3] Abu Azzam al-Iraqi’s real name is Abdallah al-Jawari, and he was killed by the U.S. Marines in a raid in Baghdad on 25 September 2005. Al-Jawari, serving as the emir of Baghdad and also playing an important role in the IS movement’s financial operations, was the second-most-wanted IS jihadist when he was killed. Al-Jawari had taken his leadership role in the Iraqi capital in the spring of 2005. Before that al-Jawari been an important emir in Anbar for most of 2004, and “led the largest group of al-Qaeda in Iraq fighters” during Operation DAWN (originally called Operation PHANTOM FURY), the November-December 2004 U.S. offensive that dismantled IS’s first governmental experiment in the city of Falluja.

[4] Abu Anas al-Shami’s real name is Umar Yusef al-Juma, a Kuwaiti-born jihadist who had grown up in Jordan, a protégé of Issam al-Barqawi (Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi). Al-Juma was the first chief shar’i of the IS movement and al-Zarqawi’s first overall deputy. Al-Juma fought in the first battle of Falluja, cementing his legend as a scholar-warrior. Al-Juma was killed on 17 September 2004, and replaced as al-Zarqawi’s deputy by Mustafa Darwish (Abu Muhammad al-Lubnani).

[5] Abu Muhammad al-Lubnani’s real name was Mustafa Ramadan Darwish. A Lebanese Kurd who had grown up in Denmark, Darwish fought against the Red Army in Afghanistan and then spent time cultivating jihadi connections in Europe. Darwish travelled to Iraq shortly before the fall of Saddam Husayn in 2003 and helped run the first IS camp in the country at Rawa, which was overseen by Abu Raghd al-Jazrawi. Darwish was the first military emir of the IS movement, very close to al-Zarqawi, and engaged in efforts to develop military technology, including chemical weapons. Darwish became al-Zarqawi’s overall deputy after Umar al-Juma (Abu Anas al-Shami) was killed in September 2004. Darwish was killed less than six months later, and replaced by Muhammad Shakar (Abu Talha).

4 thoughts on “Profile of an Islamic State Media Emir: Abu Zahra al-Issawi

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