Profile: First Spokesman of the Islamic State Movement

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on 16 March 2018

The predecessor organization to the Islamic State (IS), the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI), used to run a “Prominent Martyrs” or “Distinguished Martyrs” series: essentially obituaries for important members of the IS movement. In the forty-sixth edition, on 18 August 2010, ISI profiled Abu Maysara al-Iraqi, the first official spokesman and the deputy of the Media Department until he was killed in 2006. A translation of Abu Maysara’s biography was issued by Ansar al-Mujahideen forum and is reproduced below with some minor editions for transliteration and some interesting points highlighted in bold.

Abu Maysara’s real name is unknown and very few pictures of him exist. Abu Maysara was, according to his Distinguished Martyrs’ profile, born into a Shi’a family the northern Baghdad district of al-Kadhamiya, home to one of Shi’ism’s holiest sites, the tomb of the seventh and ninth (of the twelve) Imams, Musa al-Kadhim and his grandson, Muhammad ibn Ali al-Jawad. Abu Maysara was converted to Sunnism and fell under the sway of two Islamist teachers, Subhi al-Badri,[1] a relative of IS’s “caliph” Ibrahim al-Badri (Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi), whom Subhi also instructed in the Qur’an and Hadith, and Muharib al-Jiburi,[2] who would succeed Abu Maysara as spokesman.

Abu Maysara had begun getting involved in jihadi activity before the Saddam regime came down, a scene that had been expanding and many of whose members, like Abdurrahman al-Qaduli (Abu Ali al-Anbari) and Umar Hadid (Abu Khattab al-Falluji), later became important IS members. Abu Maysara was arrested, and released shortly before the invasion—possibly in the October 2002 amnesty, which turned loose criminals and Islamist extremists, making a post-Saddam order that bit more difficult to achieve.

Abu Maysara, 24-years-old at the time, was among the less-than-two-dozen core operatives,[3] who came together around Ahmad al-Khalayleh, better-known as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi,[4] in the earliest days of the insurgency, when the IS movement was a small, foreign-dominated group, Jamaat al-Tawhid wal-Jihad (JTJ, The Group of Monotheism and Holy War). Al-Zarqawi gave his first media statement in January 2004, calling for all Muslims to join in the war against the Americans in Iraq, and in April 2004 was the official announcement of JTJ, which had been formed around September 2003, retrospectively taking “credit” for a number of massive terrorist atrocities in Baghdad. In October 2004, al-Zarqawi gave allegiance to Usama bin Ladin and JTJ became AQI.

Abu Maysara was married and was then killed “after he was struck by shrapnel from a hand grenade thrown at him”, according to the Distinguished Martyrs’ biography. Abu Maysara’s death was not announced by AQI or al-Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen (MSM). Abu Maysara was still issuing statements for AQI into the middle of January 2006, and made the announcement for MSM.

Abu Maysara seems to have been killed the week before al-Zarqawi was killed on 7 June 2006.

The online exploits of IS after it declared itself the caliphate-restored in June 2014 would become subject of a great deal of the coverage of the group, but al-Zarqawi had adopted the internet early as a weapon in his insurgent campaign, and it was Abu Maysara who was tasked in early 2004 with disseminating JTJ’s messages.

Most of Abu Maysara’s messages went through the password-protected, strictly-controlled message boards that were then the venue of choice for the Islamic State’s predecessor. Just as in latter years, the media described these virtual operations in glowing terms, describing the IS websites as being “as slick as those of Fortune 500 corporations”. Abu Maysara first came to attention in January 2004 on the Muntada al-Ansar chat room, which in May 2004 hosted the beheading video of American contractor Nicholas Berg, and was later spotted on other forums like Islah.

One especially important collaborator in the IS movement’s early cyber jihad was Younis Tsouli, a British man of Moroccan extraction working from the United Kingdom under the username “irhabi007” (irhabi means “terrorist” and “007” was a reference to James Bond). Tsouli, from his home in Ealing, West London, joined two of Abu Maysara’s forums in early 2004, Muntada al-Ansar al-Islami (Islam Supporters Forum) and al-Ekhlas (Sincerity), and was soon a key node in the IS movement’s information warfare. Tsouli helped IS overcome the problem of distributing videos—as did the then-new program, YouSendIt.[5]

Tsouli’s propaganda work was simultaneously recruitment work, so always had an offline impact. When Tsloui began uploading instructions for the creation of suicide vests and sending videos containing reconnaissance for acts of domestic terrorism to Americans like Ehsanul Sadequee, his effects moved further still into the temporal world. Tsouli was arrested on 21 October 2005, after a similar IS cell was uncovered in Bosnia a few days before, led by Mirsad Bektasevic. Bektasevic’s “laptop identified Tsouli in his buddy list, and his mobile phone records showed that he had recently called Tsouli”. Tsouli and two co-defendants—Waseem Mughal and Tariq al-Daour—were convicted for inciting murder abroad in July 2007.[6] The Tsouli case broke new ground. It “show[ed] us … the extent to which [jihadists] could conduct operational planning on the internet”, said the British police. “It was the first virtual conspiracy to murder that we had seen.”

It is likely that Abu Maysara’s downfall came from his role in IS’s online activity. Craig Whiteside, who wrote an excellent paper on the centrality of IS’s media department, directed my attention to Sean Naylor’s 2015 book, Relentless Strike: The Secret History of Joint Special Operations Command.

Naylor describes (pp. 258-9) the Delta Force within JSOC recruiting a small number of Iraqis to form the core of a post-Saddam intelligence system. This Iraqi unit was called “the Mohawks”. Naylor notes how the Mohawks helped the Americans transfer the torrent of information they had coming in into actionable intelligence, and the immense difficulties of being a Mohawk at this time. The Americans were fighting to put down a raging insurgency that was able to call on assets within the government, from party leaders in Baghdad who did “politics by day and terrorism by night”, as former Iraqi president Jalal Talabani once put it, to agents at all levels of the bureaucracy. These informants got several Mohawks killed, Naylor reports (p. 259).

In additional to conventional intelligence and kinetic operations, Naylor explains, there was a cyber division to their work (pp 259-62):

The Mohawks also targeted insurgents using internet cafés in operations run by Delta and two even more shadowy units. All followed roughly the same template: Mohawks would enter the Internet café without arousing suspicion and upload software onto the computers. Sometimes the software was of the keystroke recognition type, at other times it would covertly activate a webcam if the computer had one, allowing the task force to positively identify a target.

The insurgents often thought they were exercising good communications security by sharing one account with a single password and writing messages to each other that they saved as drafts rather than sending them as email. But the keystroke tracking software meant JSOC personnel in the United States were reading every word. The task force would wait until the target established a pattern, then act. “When you’re ready to deal with him, when that password is [typed] it would trigger a ‘Shitbag 1 is at café 6 at computer 4, go get him’ [order],” said a source familiar with the missions.

Locally recruited Iraqi agents—or sometimes low-vis U.S. operators—would track the insurgent far enough away from the Internet café to minimize the chances of other enemies figuring out how the Americans had located their target. … As with most task force missions, the operators usually snatched the wanted individual without a fight. … Delta ran “hundreds” of missions like this, he said. But Delta wasn’t the only unit using these tactics. They were pioneered by a Delta offshoot called the Computer Network Operations Squadron, which was the brainchild of two technologically gifted Delta soldiers in the unit’s Technical Surveillance Element called Scott and Keith who by the late 1990s were experimenting with what would later be called cyber operations. …

In the first years after the September 11 attacks, the “program” became a stand-alone unit. It started as a small yet effective troop, but by 2007 had grown into the Computer Network Operations Squadron—headquartered in Arlington, Virginia, with a troop at Fort Meade and another at the CIA’s Langley headquarters—and reporting straight to the JSOC commander. …

For some of the most dangerous—and kinetic—cyber operations in Iraq, the squadron provided information to the Interagency Support Activity, a short-lived unit created in early 2006 after an Afghanistan proof-of-concept the previous year. It consisted of: Mohawks; CIA Ground Branch paramilitary personnel and contractors; Delta, Team 6, and Orange operators; plus a few Canadian and British operators. Although notionally a combined JSOC-CIA force, the unit reported to the [Central Intelligence] Agency’s Baghdad station chief. “This was how the pesky networks were broken in Iraq,” said a source familiar with the Activity’s missions. “The ones we couldn’t get with SIGINT and we couldn’t get with HUMINT, basically the really disciplined ones.” One Activity team targeted the leaders of Sunni insurgent rings managing the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq from Syria. The other went after the heads of Shi’ite networks run by Iranian intelligence.

The Activity teams lived in a collection of safe houses separated from each other and from other Coalition forces. When on a mission, the six or so Americans on each team dressed as Iraqis. Fair-toned personnel wore skindarkening makeup. Their Internet café missions followed the same pattern as Delta’s, with one crucial difference: the Activity teams, which did not have the layers of backup and enablers that habitually supported JSOC’s strike elements, always planned to kill their targets. “I do not know of one who was captured,” said the source familiar with the missions, which were even more secret than Delta’s. “Under forty-five people in the country knew this was going on,” the source said. …

The CIA disbanded the teams in September 2006, partly because the general level of violence in Iraq was increasing and the Activity was taking casualties, partly because JSOC was eviscerating the Sunni networks to such an extent that targeting Internet cafés was no longer yielding results, but also because the United States decided it had better uses for the teams’ talented Iraqi sources.

Abu Maysara was almost certainly one of those struck down by this JSOC operation targeting the Internet cafes in Baghdad.

The U.S. made “vigorous effort was made to suppress [Aby Maysara’s] connection to the rest of the world. These efforts were largely fruitless”, Whiteside writes. Abu Maysara “was always one step ahead … In a little over a year’s time, U.S. officials went from laughing at Saddam’s information minister ‘Baghdad Bob’ to being bested by a millennial Iraqi with part-time internet access in a café.” The argument can be made that in death, Abu Maysara was “an early casualty of cyber ‘warfare’”, Whiteside concludes.

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Biographies of the Distinguished Martyrs, From the 46th Issue: Abu Maysara al-Iraqi

In the Name of Allah, the Most Merciful, the Compassionate.

A laughing, smiling gallant lion, one who loved learning and his family …

One who was known for his call to monotheism, his disassociation from and denunciation of the people of polytheism, his exposure of contrived authority, in covering of their deviation and response to them …

He, may Allah have mercy on him, was born in the city of al-Kazamiya in Karkh Baghdad, of a family descended from the house of al-Sa’di which had embraced the creed and program of Rafidism [bigoted term for Shi’ism]. His family later moved to another district of Baghdad near one of the mosques of Ahl al-Sunna [“the people of orthodoxy”, i.e. Sunnis]. It did not take long for our brother to enroll in lessons to memorize the Qur’an, and to grow in obedience to Allah in the shadow of the mosques and under the wing of the people and students of learning.

He learned tawhid [monotheism], labored for it and taught it to his family. Allah opened their hearts to tawhid just as He had opened his heart. At a young age, he joined in the class of the authoritative Shaykh Subhi al-Badri. He learned from him the first chain of Hadith, al-Nawawi’s Forty (Hadith), al-Manzuma al-Bayquniyah, a science of the summary of Hadith, Nuzha al-Nazr Sharh Nukhba al-Fikr, Imam al-Bukhari’s al-Sahih al-Jami, and other books.

Our friend continued to seek knowledge from its people, he learned from them al-Zubaydi’s al-Tajreed al-Sareeh and al-Tarmidhi’s al-Shama’il al-Muhammadiyah and attended lessons explaining the Hadith of Imam al-Bukhari and Awn al-Ma’bud Sharh Sanan Abu Daud and won the general prize for those narratives.

He read about fiqh and principles of law, mostly from the books al-Muhalli and al-Ahkam fi Usul al-Ahkam by Imam Abu Muhammad ibn Hazem and was greatly influenced by his school of thought. He studied grammar, rhetoric, logic and debate. He attended lessons by sheikhs and other students and drank from their knowledge, including the Mujahid Shaykh Muharib Abu Abdullah al-Jiburi, may Allah have mercy on him and make paradise his abode.

His quest for knowledge and his series of classes did not prevent him from work, da’wa [proselytism], and patience in the face of injury. Early on he joined groups of monotheists in Baghdad before leaving them to work in the field of preaching for pure tawhid and disassociation from the polytheists and to work on the project of creating a jihadist group.

He did that, and he and a group of his companions formed a learned nucleus as the first step towards building a jihadist group. He continued in that effort for some months before Allah fated that he fall into the grip of the intelligences services of the Ba’ath tyrant Saddam. He was not released by them until shortly before the Crusader invasion of Iraq. He, may Allah have mercy on him, left prison more aware and experienced in the issues of group work and more cautious so as not to be captured again. “The Believer does not allow himself to be stung twice from the same hole” [the Prophet said, according to a Hadith related by Al-Bukhari]. Whoever believes in Allah, believes in him.

Baghdad fell at the hands of the new Crusader invaders, and America approached with her horses and men raising her gods of democracy and forcing people to worship them. Arab and foreign traitors responded positively to this, while the people of Islam rebelled to defend the deen [creed or religion]. Abu Maysara al-Iraqi was among the first to answer the call.

Abu Maysara made the rounds among his friends, he was serious and strived and Allah benefitted from him. In just a few days, he had joined the first vanguard of Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad. He was, may Allah have mercy on him, close to Shaykh Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, may Allah have mercy on him, and was beloved among those who knew him.

After the declaration of the Jama’at, he was appointed deputy official for the media department, and official spokesman for the group on the internet and in jihadist forums; may Allah glorify their men, and so that he had gathered around him the first generation of those positioned at the portal of the international information network.

In these days, our friend reached the age of 24 and began to think about forming a Muslim household. He therefore chose for himself an honorable sister from the best of women of whom it was said she was of the granddaughters of al-Khansa. He asked for guidance and took counsel and arrived at what he wanted. He asked for her hand and contracted a marriage with her. Nothing remained but the wedding night, for Abu Maysara wanted a matter and Allah wanted what was best for him.

Our friend remained on his path, begging the pardon of his Lord and pledging with three of his friends “Abu Sufyan al-Zaydi, Abu Abdul Aziz, and another brother I forgot” to never be captured and to fight until martyrdom. All were true to what they had vowed, we regard them as such and Allah is their judge. Our friend fulfilled his vow after the Crusaders surrounded the house in which he was present with his friend Abu Abdul Aziz. They fought with the enemies of Allah and caused them great harm. Nevertheless they had a date with martyrdom. Abu Abdul Aziz departed first, then our friend the eminent lion Abu Maysara al-Iraqi after he was struck by shrapnel from a hand grenade thrown at him by the enemies of Allah.

One of the brothers told me that when he was in the Crusader prisons, they showed him a picture of Abu Maysara al-Iraqi slain. The brother said: “By Allah, I never saw a face like his, the light of martyrdom was apparent on it. Allah increased my steadfastness and tied my heart. He was struck in the head and the blood was flowing down his face, but it was as if he was sleeping, and Allah fixed the sight of him in hearts.”

By Allah, Abu Maysara, Allah preferred you to us, and chose you from among us. We testify that you labored according to what you learned and you fulfilled your vow. May Allah have capacious mercy on you and house you in the mansions of Paradise, and gather us with you in the Gardens of Tranquility, brothers meeting joy

Longing for you has made the tears flow;

love for you makes our ribs tighten around us

Penned by: Abu Abdul Malik

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[1] Subhi bin Jassim bin Humayd al-Badri al-Samarrai was a relative—and instructor, for Qur’an and Hadith studies—of Ibrahim al-Badri (Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi), the Samarra native who is currently IS’s leader, and one of the foundational figures of Iraqi Salafism.

Subhi was, according to a profile by Matthew Barber, a fierce anti-Shi’i polemicist. Among other things, Subhi tried to prove the existence of Abdullah ibn Saba, Barber notes. Saba is a semi-mythical figure, believed by some to be one of the founders of Shi’ism, whose use to sectarian polemicists is his supposed Jewish ancestry. After the Ba’th Party seized power in Iraq in 1968, Subhi had to tone down his public broadsides against the Shi’a, Barber explains, but Subhi continued in private and among his congregants. Having worked as a policeman, Subhi retired in 1977 and in the 1980s went to Saudi Arabia, where he taught and lectured among the Wahhabi establishment. Barber records that Abdulaziz bin Baz, the Saudi Grand Mufti between 1993 and his death in 1999, once referred to Subhi as among the “remnants of the people of hadith in Iraq”.

Returning to Iraq in the late 1980s, Barber goes on, Subhi was appointed to a mosque in Baghdad, and took a teaching post at the Saddam University for Islamic Studies when it opened in 1989. This university was one of Saddam Husayn’s prize possessions as he Islamized the regime, and the future caliph, Ibrahim, is said to have earned a PhD in Islamic Sciences at the university. Ironically, Barber documents, because Subhi avoided confrontation with the Ba’thist regime after this, he actually lost popularity during a period when Islamists had much greater freedom from the Saddam government and Subhi left Iraq shortly after the fall of Saddam in 2003. Still, Subhi was among those who helped lay the ideological groundwork and connect the individuals who formed the networks for the insurgency in the aftermath of the regime.

Subhi died in Beirut on 25 June 2013.

[2] Muharib al-Jiburi, who had a doctorate from Saddam University, was Abu Maysara’s teacher during the Saddam years, a part of the same non-governmental Salafi milieu, which also included Ibrahim al-Badri. Muharib, operating under his own name (unusually), would later succeed Abu Maysara as the official spokesman.

IS’s founder, Ahmad al-Khalayleh (Abu Musab al-Zarqawi), had formed al-Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen (MSM) or the Mujahideen Shura Council (MSC) on 15 January 2006, combining together al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), as the IS movement was then-known, and five other insurgent groups, all of them Iraqi and most emerging out of the Salafi Trend that had been growing in power in the late Saddam years. Abu Maysara had simply changed the banner on his department from AQI to MSM. After Abu Maysara—and al-Zarqawi—had been killed, MSM was expanded to include various tribal groups on 12 October 2006, becoming Hilf al-Mutayyabin (Alliance of the Scented Ones), and three days later this formation was rebranded ISI—with Muharib making the announcement.

Muharib was not originally in AQI: he had led a group called al-Saraya al-Ghuraba (The Strangers’ Brigade), and, as mentioned, had been part of the very Iraqi and mostly tribes-based Salafi underground that ISI needed to win over. Like many of the groups that joined MSM and ISI, however, it seems Muharib’s had longstanding connections to AQI: Muharib had been in Syria until September 2006 working on the “ratlines” that, with the complicity of Bashar al-Asad’s regime, brought the foreign fighters and suicide bombers to IS’s predecessor organizations.

On 10 November 2006, al-Zarqawi’s successor, Abdul Munim al-Badawi (Abu Hamza al-Muhajir), swore allegiance to ISI’s leader, Hamid al-Zawi (Abu Umar al-Baghdadi). Al-Badawi became al-Zawi’s deputy and the War Minister of the new “State”, formally dissolving al-Qaeda’s presence in Iraq.

Muharib was killed near Taji on 1 May 2007 in Operation RAT TRAP. After Muharib, al-Zawi did most of the strategic messaging for the IS movement, which did not appoint another official spokesman until after al-Zawi was killed, giving the job to Taha Falaha (Abu Muhammad al-Adnani) in 2011.

[3] The eighteen (p. 259) or so senior officials around Ahmad al-Khalayleh (Abu Musab al-Zarqawi) at the dawn of IS in Iraq were:

  1. Abd al-Munim al-Badawi (Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, Egyptian)
  2. Umar Yusef al-Juma (Abu Anas al-Shami, Jordanian)
  3. Nidal Muhammad Arabiyat (Jordanian)
  4. Mustafa Ramadan Darwish (Abu Muhammad al-Lubnani, Lebanese)
  5. Awras Abu Umar al-Kurdi
  6. Thamir Mubarak Atrous al-Rishawi (former Iraqi military officer)
  7. Abdullah al-Jibouri (Abu Azzam, Iraqi)
  8. Umar Hadid (Abu Khattab, Iraqi);
  9. Muhammad Jassim al-Issawi (Abu al-Hareth, Iraqi)
  10. Abu Nasser al-Libi
  11. Abu Usama al-Tunisi
  12. Abu Jaafar al-Maqdisi (a Palestinian from Ayn al-Hilweh camp, al-Zarqawi’s bodyguard, killed with him)
  13. Abu Maysara al-Iraqi (Iraqi, first JTJ/AQM official spokesman)
  14. Muharib al-Jibouri (Abu Abdullah al-Jibouri, Iraqi, first ISI spokesman)
  15. Ibn al-Jarrah al-Shami (Syrian)
  16. Abu al-Hassan al-Filistini (shari’a official)
  17. Maysara al-Gharib (Abu al-Basha’ir, Syrian, religious guide for al-Zarqawi and media official)
  18. Abu Ubayda al-Maghribi

[4] Al-Zarqawi founded IS in Afghanistan in 1999.

[5] Among the videos Tsouli helped disseminate for IS were: a film produced by al-Zarqawi’s group, All Is for Allah’s Religion (June 2005); the on-camera murders of three Americans: Nicholas Berg and Jack Hensley in Iraq and Paul Marshall Johnson, Jr., in Saudi Arabia; and the slaughter of British hostage Kenneth Bigley. Tsouli also helped disseminate non-motion-picture materials, such as al-Qaeda’s Internet magazine Voice of Jihad (Sawt al Jihad).

[6] Younis Tsouli, then-23-years-old, was put on trial in May 2007 with Waseem Mughal, 24, and Tariq al-Daour, 21. Mughal is a biochemistry graduate from Leicester University, who ran the Islamic society’s website while studying there. Al-Daour, a British citizen since May 2004, was planning to study law at the time of his arrest.

Tsouli and Mughal stood trial in Chatham, Kent, while al-Daour, an Emirati by origin living in Bayswater, near Westminster in the Chelsea and Kensington borough, stood at Woolwich Crown Court. The trio were convicted on 4 July 2007 after changing their pleas to “guilty” for “inciting another person to commit an act of terrorism wholly or partly outside the UK which would, if committed in England and Wales, constitute murder”, and a series of financial crimes, including defrauding banks and various credit card scams. Al-Daour was also found in possession of instructions for making explosives and toxins.

All three were sentenced on 5 July 2007, at Woolwich Crown Court: Tsouli to ten years in prison; Waleed to 7.5 years; and al-Daour to 6.5 years for terrorism- and fraud-related crimes. In December 2007, a court of appeals increased the sentences of the three men: Tsouli to sixteen years; Mughal to twelve years; and al-Daour to ten years. Al-Daour was also given a further two-year sentence for a fraud charge.