What Captured ISIS Jihadists Tell Us About the Group

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on 2 December 2018

An Islamic State poster near al-Sukhna in the eastern Homs desert, Syria, August 2017 (source)

Over the past week, two members of the Islamic State (IS) have been arrested—a rarity in itself during the Coalition campaign against the group—and both in different ways give a glimpse of archetypes that have made up the organisation, from its inception to its expansion into Syria.


Usama al-Awaid was captured in eastern Syria by the Coalition partner force, the “Syrian Democratic Forces” (SDF), on 22 November.[1] Al-Awaid’s capture was made public two days later by the Centre of Coordination and Military Operations (CCMO), an outlet tied into the SDF, and thus broader Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), propaganda apparatus. Al-Awaid was picked up in the village of Al-Tayyana, less than ten miles south of Mayadeen in Deir Ezzor province.

CCMO claimed that al-Awaid was given up by his sister and captured while “hiding in a tunnel under a house with the intent of blowing himself up”. Al-Awaid was “in possession of 20 mobile phones, 80 gold ingots, and large sums of money”, the CCMO said.

Usama al-Awaid after capture by SDF (source)

Al-Awaid is 35-years-old, is from Al-Tayyana, and holds a bachelor’s degree in law, according to the CCMO biography, and he had four brothers. Two brothers are now dead, CCMO said, killed fighting in the ranks of IS; one was caught by the SDF/PKK in September; and another is based in the areas of Deir Ezzor held by Bashar al-Asad’s regime and his Iranian patrons. CCMO claims that al-Awaid was an officer in the Asad regime, defected to the Free Syrian Army (FSA), then joined al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch Jabhat al-Nusra, and finally IS. Al-Nusra previously arrested al-Awaid, CCMO says, when tribesmen turned him over for laying mines on IS’s behalf.

Al-Awaid was an IS security official in Deir Ezzor, then became IS’s “interior minister”, and latterly a member of the executive Shura Council, CCMO says, adding the claim that al-Awaid hosted Taha Falaha (Abu Muhammad al-Adnani), the powerful late spokesman of IS, when he visited Deir Ezzor at some point before he was killed in the summer of 2016.

The stature that the SDF has given to al-Awaid seems dubious and they have a record of inflating their successes. The claim in the SDF’s most recent statement that al-Awaid was “a security official” for IS, who “took an active part in planning and implementing more than 40 terrorist operations”, sounded exaggerated. The reference to al-Awaid being “one of the most dangerous terrorists” in IS seemed obviously overstated.

Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), which has become somewhat unreliable of late as its network inside Syria has attenuated, disputed the SDF’s claims, saying al-Awaid was “a former local security official” and possibly a sleeper agent in eastern Rif Deir Ezzor, but in no sense a senior member of IS.

A separate account was given to me by Omar Abu Layla, the CEO of Deir Ezzor 24, which has a stellar record of reportage in the province. The idea circulated by the SDF that al-Awaid is the “deputy” to IS’s leader, Ibrahim al-Badri (Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi), is “incorrect”, as Abu Layla so mildly puts it. (It is in fact blatantly untrue.) But, says Abu Layla, al-Awaid has held a number of positions in IS, including being one of the “founders of Amn al-Dakhili”, the Internal Security branch of IS’s intelligence structure, and an emir of Public Security.

Al-Awaid “was one of the planners and executors of attacks in the eastern countryside [of Deir Ezzor]”, says Abu Layla, “running [sleeper] cells in the area”. Abu Layla adds that al-Awaid maintained “contact with the organisation’s security [forces]”, probably referring to the security detachments (al-mafariz al-amniya) that carry out guerrilla attacks and assassinations, and the IS emirs in the Badiya, the deserts of south-eastern Syria.

Abu Layla confirms the outline given of al-Awaid’s transition from regime soldier to IS jihadist and his family background. The one discrepancy is that Abu Layla says al-Awaid had gone into retirement when the SDF arrested him.

Taking it all together, it seems al-Awaid was a mid-level amni or security official in IS, involved in the underground networks conducting the terror-insurgency in eastern Syria.

The defection of Asad regime soldiers, who joined the mainstream rebellion and then gradually moved into more extreme groups—often in search of resources to carry on the revolution, rather than out of sincere belief, at least initially—is a well-worn path. If it is true that al-Awaid had quit the group and was trying to return to home life when he was arrested, he is perhaps akin to Saddam al-Jamal, another Deiri, who joined IS out of sheer opportunism and was finally captured in March of this year. If he was preparing for a suicide attack, this seems less likely to be true.

Jamal al-Mashadani during confession video in Iraq (source)


The Iraqi government released a video on 30 November of a confession by Jamal al-Mashadani (Abu Hamza al-Kurdi), an IS operative Baghdad recently arrested soon after he arrived back in his native country, having been in Turkey for around a year.

Al-Mashadani’s profile is indicative of another crucial trend in IS: its absorption of the Islamized cadres of Saddam Husayn’s military and intelligence apparatus. Al-Mashadani was born in Tarmiya, a town one-hour north of Baghdad, technically in the Saladin province. Having graduated from Iraq’s College of National Security in 1992, al-Mashadani then joined Saddam’s military intelligence service (Al-Istikhbarat).

Involved in the Iraqi insurgency from the early days, al-Mashadani was arrested in 2006 and released in mid-2011, joining IS two years later. It is unclear if he was radicalised in the Americans’ disastrously mismanaged prison system in Iraq, though many others were. As IS rampaged across Iraq in mid-2014, al-Mashadani met with the caliph to receive instructions for his area as the terror group’s wali (governor) of “Wilayat Shamal Baghdad” (Northern Baghdad Province).

Later, al-Mashadani would be IS’s governor of Kirkuk, adopting his kunya at this point. Perhaps the most high-profile incident al-Mashadani was responsible for in this role was the video from Hawija in February 2015, where nearly two-dozen Kurdish Peshmerga were paraded in cages and threatened with immolation, less than two weeks after Jordanian pilot Muaz al-Kasasbeh had been shown murdered in such a manner. The fate of the Peshmerga in this video is not exactly clear, though it can be assumed they are dead.

Al-Mashadani was also involved in the chemical weapons program, specifically the March 2016 sulphur mustard and chlorine attack on Taza, just over ten miles South of Kirkuk city.

Al-Mashadani says he moved into Syria in late 2015 to oversee a secret unit in the area around Palmyra, the ancient heritage site that has twice been occupied by IS, May 2015 to March 2016 and December 2016 to March 2017.

As the caliphate was reduced to shreds in late 2017, a considerable number of jihadists fled, or were allowed to leave by the SDF, to Turkey. Al-Mashadani was among this outward flow. Al-Mashadani was arrested soon after he landed in Baghdad from Urfa.  He was surprised that he was detected so quickly since he had not spoken to anyone from Baghdad. It seems likely that the Turkish government alerted the Iraqis. It seems Ankara is getting a handle on the jihadist networks displaced into its territory.  Al-Jamal’s capture, for instance, was made possible by the Turks having secretly captured a very senior IS official, Ismail al-Ithawi (Abu Zayd al-Iraqi), and his use by the U.S. and the Iraqis in a sting operation.

Since al-Mashadani was arrested at his son’s home, it appears he tried to melt back into the civilian population. Doubtless he will claim, as al-Ithawi has, and many others before, that he had finished with the cause. More likely, al-Mashadani was one of those sleeper agents that even IS has sometimes worried might be taking “sleeper” too literally.


In its write-up, The New York Times noted: “While not a senior leader, Mr. Mashadani held important midlevel managerial positions within the Islamic State. More important, he is among the trained cadre of military and intelligence professionals that the group … was able to recruit from the ranks of Mr. Hussein’s dissolved police state” [emphasis added].

The role of middle managers in making jihadist organisations work is significant, but it has been understood for some time, and the captured documents show how true this has been for IS. It’s much less of a live issue. The role of former Ba’thists in IS, however, which al-Mashadani exemplifies almost perfectly, is much more interesting—and controversial.

Few doubt that former military and intelligence officials from the Saddam regime helped plan the 2014 blitzkrieg and design the police statelet that resulted. We know their names: Adnan al-Suwaydawi (Haji Dawud), Adnan al-Bilawi (Abu Abdulrahman al-Bilawi), Samir al-Khlifawi (Haji Bakr), etc. There is also little doubt that IS made it an “early priori[ty after 2003] to recruit people with military experience”, as Craig Whiteside has written, and continued this in the years since. Al-Mashadani is a case-in-point.

Bringing people with a skillset like al-Mashadani’s into the organisation has clear advantages. As Hassan Hassan, a senior fellow at The Tahrir Institute, told the Times: al-Mashadani was “one of the real professionals and brains who built ISIS, the faces not usually recognized in discussions about the group”. And this is where the debate begins.

By the timing of al-Mashadani joining IS, it could be argued that he would never have become radicalised except for the invasion of Iraq, or perhaps even that he did not become radicalised and joined IS as part of a conspiracy with other Ba’thi officers to use IS as a vehicle to get back to power.

There has been an immense, oddly bitter debate about the responsibility of the fallen regime in Iraq for IS. At one pole are those who insist IS emerged as a consequence of the invasion, coming in from the outside to take advantage of the security vacuum caused by the Americans dismantling the Iraqi state, and feeding on the post-2010 political environment, with the Syrian war next door and Iranian-backed Shi’i sectarians in government marginalising Iraqi Sunnis. Any involvement of military men is chance, according to this view, given that Saddam had such a large army. This view at least agrees that IS’s leadership is composed of jihadists. The other pole argues that IS is simply the Ba’this’ “Party of the Return” wrapped in a black shahada.[2]

I have long argued that the truth is between these two. With Ba’thism a thoroughly dead ideology, even to the regime by the mid-1990s, the security forces became increasingly Islamized in the last decade or so of Saddam’s rule, partly by commission (with the “Faith Campaign” and the effort to create legitimacy through an official religious trend) and partly by omission (as the regime neglected to restrain a burgeoning independent Salafi Trend).

These changes in Saddam’s last years meant that by the time the regime came down, a lot of its most capable members had evolved to the point that they made a conscious, ideological decision to put their skills to work for the IS movement when it was a small organisation led by a foreigner, Ahmad al-Khalayleh, the infamous Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, in an insurgency dominated by much richer and stronger Ba’thi-Islamist forces that they could have joined if their only concern was to get back into power. For Zarqawi, access to these two strands, the security figures from the elite of the Ba’th regime and a robust underground jihadi movement, which had already begun to fuse, was a potent mix.

This bringing together of politico-religious doctrine from veteran jihadi-Salafists and the military skills of the ex-Saddamists in the crucial early days can be seen in a number of ways. One example is Rawa camp, set up in Anbar while Saddam was still in power: led in its instruction and ethos by Abu Raghd, a Saudi jihadi, the recruitment and guerrilla training was handled Ghassan al-Rawi (Abu Ubayda), a former member of Saddam’s army. Another example is Nidal Arabiyat, a legacy jihadist from Jordan, who made many of the roadside bombs in the early days, while Thamir Mubarak al-Rishawi, a former officer, used his tactical know-how and networks to handle the logistics of planting them.

Abdurrahman al-Qaduli (picture from biography written by his son)

An even more interesting case is Abdurrahman al-Qaduli (Abu Ali al-Anbari), one of the longest-serving officials at the top of IS’s hierarchy, the deputy both to Zarqawi and the current caliph. Al-Qaduli’s biography in IS’s Al-Naba newsletter made clear how deep and extensive the jihadists had infiltrated into Iraqi society in the 1990s, particularly around Tal Afar.

Al-Qaduli pulled in Fadel al-Hiyali (Abu Mutaz al-Qurayshi), a senior security official, to train up one of the earliest and most durable of the jihadi cells in Iraq. These Ninawa extremists eventually connected up with the jihadists who had captured territory in Kurdistan, a zone that had served as a refuge for the most radical militants like Umar Hadid (Abu Khattab al-Falluji) and eventually al-Qaduli himself. All of this took place long before the invasion—one might even say partly because an invasion had not taken place in 1991, leaving the country under the dual horrors of dictatorship and sanctions.

Something like IS was in the advanced stages of incubation when Saddam fell. This fact was given additional emphasis this week by Hassan’s discovery of a biography of al-Qaduli written by his son, “based on 16 years of working closely with his father, a diary that Anbari kept, and first-hand accounts of Anbari from fellow ISIS members.” It reveals that al-Qaduli had a military background, as well as serious religious education, “a rare combination”, and sets out in tremendous detail just how far along the jihadist project was when Zarqawi arrived—as IS for the first time admits—in Saddam’s Iraq, a year before the invasion, meeting al-Qaduli in Baghdad in May 2002. Indeed, Zarqawi seems to have absorbed the innovative doctrines on sectarianism, the apostasy of the Muslim Brotherhood, and other matters from the Iraqi jihadi trend developed under al-Qaduli’s guidance, rather than bringing them to Iraq from the outside.[3]

*              *              *              *              *


[1] For reasons unclear, the SDF initially reported last week that his full name was Usama Awaid al-Ibrahim, and then in a widely-reported statement on Saturday named him Usama Awaid al-Saleh. There is then the usual matter of transliteration that has meant a pick-and-mix of spellings, depending on source, and al-Awaid apparently also used the kunya Abu Zayd.

[2] The notion of Ba’thists at the helm of IS is not sustainable under examination. One small example: when Zarqawi’s successor, Hamid al-Zawi (Abu Umar al-Baghdadi), first declared “the State” back in 2006, he “call[ed] first upon the groups of former Iraqi Army officials” to join IS—but only if they could pass a religious test that showed that “any belief in the Ba’th Party” had been eliminated. This was at a moment when IS was struggling somewhat and could have used extra hands, but it still insisted on ideological screening.

[3] UPDATE: A counterpoint to this was written by Cole Bunzel at Jihadica. With regards to overstating Zarqawi’s role in founding IS’s ideology, notably the sectarianism, Bunzel writes: “I am not convinced of these conclusions, primarily because the basis presented for them—a 96-page biography of Anbari written by his now-deceased son and published in July by Islamic State dissidents—does not bear them out. This biography is an important source for the history of the Islamic State … It details the hugely important role played by Anbari as a jihadi actor since the early 2000s, and particularly following his release from prison in 2012 … Yet the document says little about Zarqawi, and nothing about Anbari’s influence on him.”

Moreover, argues, Bunzel, “In February 2004, when Zarqawi wrote his famous missive to Osama bin Laden outlining a strategy for attacking the Shi’a in Iraq, it would appear from the document that he had met Anbari once, in Baghdad in 2002. … When they did forge a partnership, Zarqawi was the senior partner.”

Bunzel notes that Anbari was imprisoned for six months in 2005, according to the biography (p. 52: released in October 2005, it seems), and then went to Waziristan in February 2006 to meet al-Qaeda’s leaders. By that time, Anbari was already head of al-Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen (MSM)—the consortium of jihadist groups, among which IS forerunner al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia was primus inter pares—and formally Zarqawi’s boss. MSM became the Islamic State in October 2006, by which time Anbari had been in prison for six months and Zarqawi had been dead for four months.

Bunzel agrees that Iraqi jihadists were key in shaping IS, naming Abu Hamza al-Baghdadi, one of the “lesser-known” figures who had headed the IS movement’s Shari’a Council, replacing Abu Abdurrahman al-Iraqi, who had taken over from Umar Yusef al-Juma (Abu Anas al-Shami), the first religious chief of IS and Zarqawi’s first deputy, killed in September 2004.

But it is significant, says Bunzel, that “the biography points to a shared ideological link between [Anbari and Zarqawi]. Anbari’s ideological formation was complete only after 9/11, when he read the works of Abu Basir al-Tartusi, Sayyid Imam al-Sharif, and Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi. The last of these was Zarqawi’s teacher and longtime prison companion. It would appear, then, that Zarqawi and Anbari were influenced by the same strain of Jihadi Salafi thought … But Zarqawi was influenced by it first … [and] it is a stretch to infer, from the evidence at hand, that Anbari’s role was the more foundational.”

Indeed, says Bunzel, “It is worth recalling here just how celebrated Zarqawi is in the Islamic State, both as a religious thinker and as a dynamic leader. Far from being the semi-literate thug he is sometimes made out to be, Zarqawi spoke impeccable classical Arabic as evidenced by the dozens of hours of recorded speeches and lectures he left behind—nearly 700 pages in transcription.”

Finally, Bunzel notes: “[T]he biography does not challenge the view that it was Zarqawi who introduced the extreme violence that would become the Islamic State’s hallmark. By all accounts, Zarqawi’s influence in this regard was the Egyptian scholar Abu Abdallah al-Muhajir, with whom he affiliated in Afghanistan.” Abu Abdullah’s real name is Muhammad al-Saghir, and he is usually credited with persuading Zarqawi of the legitimacy of suicide-attacks.

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