There is now, with various caveats, a general agreement that the Islamic State (IS) is on the upswing—in Iraq, particularly, but also in the Badiya, the desert regions of eastern Syria, and more recently in the south of Syria around Deraa. Still, there have been some recent notable gains against the terrorist group.
Operation INHERENT RESOLVE (OIR) announced yesterday that on 17 May, U.S. troops, partnered with the so-called “Syrian Democratic Forces” (SDF), killed Ahmad Isa Ismail al-Zawi (Abu Ali al-Baghdadi) and Ahmad Abd Muhammad Hasan al-Jughayfi (Abu Ammar) in a raid in Deir Ezzor. Al-Zawi had been the wali (governor) of the North Baghdad “province”, according to OIR, and as such “was responsible for disseminating terrorist guidance from senior ISIS leadership to operatives in North Baghdad”. Al-Jughayfi “was a senior ISIS logistics and supplies official responsible for directing the acquisition and transport of weapons, IED materials, and personnel across Iraq and Syria”, said OIR.
An airstrike, believed to be by the U.S.-led Coalition, between Efrin and Darat Izza on 21 May is said to have killed Abu al-Taybani, who was IS’s military leader in Hama and is known for taking part in the “execution” of captured jihadists from the Al-Qaeda derived Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the former Jabhat al-Nusra. Al-Taybani and the IS jihadist killed alongside him were allegedly travelling disguised as rebels, specifically from Ahrar al-Sham.
And on 4 May, the SDF announced it had, with the help of the Coalition, captured an IS operative named Anwar Farhan in Deir Ezzor, and this led to the financial chief of IS for the Raqqa-Deir Ezzor zone; he was rounded up in Al-Zir.
ABD AL-NASR AL-QARDASH
There was a false alarm in evening on Wednesday, 20 May, that IS’s “caliph” had been arrested in Iraq. IS’s new leader—after the killing of the old one, Ibrahim al-Badri (Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi)—was announced in October, named only by his kunya, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashemi al-Qurayshi, and has since ostensibly been confirmed by U.S. intelligence to be the Tal Afar native Muhammad al-Mawla. Though the rumour of Abu Ibrahim’s arrest spread quickly on social media—and was still circulating the following morning—there was ample reason to doubt it from the outset, beginning with the fact that the only sources were from the Iraqi intelligence services via Sky News Arabia, an entirely separate entity from the British channel, run by the United Arab Emirates, which has not acquired the reputation of an outlet that can be relied upon as the final word about a contested story.
Baghdad’s credibility for this kind of thing is dismal enough, as those who have followed the recent anti-IS campaign know, but it extends back much further. One example: In March 2007, the Iraqi government announced three times it had arrested IS’s then-emir, Abu Umar al-Baghdadi. Needless to say, Baghdad was wrong all three times. Interestingly, despite these false-positives, the very existence of Abu Umar continued to be a subject of ambiguity in U.S. and Iraqi messaging right down to the end, when Abu Umar was found in April 2010, very much material in the form of Hamid al-Zawi, and killed, along with his deputy, Abdul Munim al-Badawi (Abu Hamza al-Muhajir). Whether this case was Iraq’s new Prime Minister, Mustafa al-Kadhemi, the former head of the Iraqi National Intelligence Service, trying for some favourable coverage as he embarks on a nearly impossible job, it is unclear.
At all events, within the hour it was clear that it was not Abu Ibrahim in custody, but another senior IS official, and then the remainder of the initial story fell apart: the IS captive, Abd al-Nasr al-Qardash, had not been arrested that day—or indeed at all, in a conventional sense—and he had never been in the running to replace Al-Badri as “caliph”. Abd al-Nasr had turned himself over to the “SDF” around the time of IS’s last stand in Baghuz, i.e. more than fourteen months ago (and six-plus months before Al-Badri’s demise), and he had been handed over to the Iraqi government a fortnight before this announcement.
WHAT WAS KNOWN OF ABD AL-NASR
When the United States added Abd al-Nasr to the State Department’s Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT) list in November 2018—referring to him as “Abd al-Nasir”—it described him as having “held several leadership positions in [IS] … Within the past five years, Al-Nasir has served as an ISIS Military Amir in Syria as well as chair of the ISIS Delegated Committee, the council that reports to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and exercises administrative control of the terrorist organization’s affairs. The Delegated Committee is responsible for planning and issuing orders related to ISIS’s military operations, tax collections, religious police, and commercial and security operations.”
All the more notable, then, that the U.S. did not list a real name for Abd al-Nasr. A United Nations sanctions notification for Abd al-Nasr, issued the day before the SDGT notice, assessed with “low” confidence that his real name is Taha al-Khuwayt, and he was born in Tal Afar between 1965 and 1969.
Abd al-Nasr’s kunya had been in the public domain since at least May 2017 when, as head of the Delegated Committee, IS’s “highest executive body”, he put his stamp on the fatwa that vastly expanded the permissible circumstances for the use of takfir (excommunication). The document, signed by Abu Zayd al-Iraqi (real name: Ismail al-Ithawi) became a massive controversy within IS, between the “extremist” Hazimi (al-Hazimiyya) faction and the “Binalists”, named for the Bahraini jihadi cleric, Turki al-Binali, who headed the Office of Research and Studies.
After Al-Binali was killed later in May 2017, there was a wave of leaks from within IS, as Cole Bunzel documented at Jihadica. For obvious reasons, much of what happened remains shrouded in mystery and such accounts as we do have open to doubt, but it seems reasonable enough to conclude that some kind of power struggle played out as the “caliphate” approached its territorial end, even if the scale was somewhat less than the ex-IS members and Binalist advocates suggest.
Abd al-Nasr had, by the account of an IS defector Bunzel quotes, picked up control of the Delegated Committee after Taha Falaha (Abu Muhammad al-Adnani) and Wael al-Fayad (Abu Muhammad al-Furqan) had been killed in the autumn of 2016, and set about creating an Office for Methodological Inquiry to interrogate the doctrinal purity of IS’s members so that any “moderates” could be purged. The creation of this inquisitional structure was the backdrop to the issuing of the infamous fatwa.
Abd al-Nasr was dismissed from the post at the head of the Delegated Committee in September 2017, almost exactly a year after he took the post, when the caliph emerged from hiding to put an end to the turmoil within the organisation. The current leader of the Committee is believed to be Sami al-Jiburi (Haji Hamid).
Little has been heard of Abd al-Nasr in the intervening period. In March 2019, the British government listed Abd al-Nasr on its financial sanctions list, reporting his real name as Taha al-Khuwayt without qualification and describing him as IS’s “military leader” in Syria and “chair” of the Delegated Committee, and Abd al-Nasr’s name was floated by some in October 2019 as a possible successor to Al-Badri—in neither case, it seems, was there an awareness that the “SDF” already held Abd al-Nasr.
Al-Arabiya and Al-Hadath gained access to Abd al-Nasr and have published purported details that would fill in the gaps in this story. Abd al-Nasr gives his real name as Taha Abd al-Raheem Abdallah Bakr al-Ghassani and says he was born in Mosul in 1967.
Having achieved a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering, he was arrested in 2005 in his home district of Mushayrafa in Mosul by the U.S. for terrorist activity. Mixing with two members of the IS movement (Abu Abdallah Dhuluiya and Abd Abdallah al-Alwani) and a member of the Kurdish Al-Qaeda formation Ansar al-Islam (Abu Sara) in Abu Ghraib prison, by the time he was released, in 2007, Abd al-Nasr was a member of the then-Islamic State in Iraq and took up an administrative post around Tal Afar, west of Mosul, working under Mohamed Moumou (Abu Qaswara al-Maghribi). Later in 2007, Abd al-Nasr was arrested again and then re-released in 2009.
In 2010, according to Abd al-Nasr, he was assigned to working in the North Baghdad province, and in late 2011 attended a meeting in the company of Fadel al-Hiyali (Abu Muslim al-Turkmani or Abu Mutaz al-Qurayshi) to meet Al-Badri, Falaha, and Adnan al-Bilawi (Abu Abdurrahman al-Bilawi) to discuss the seizing of territory and creating an Islamic state, financed by “taxing” (extorting) the population and looting state resources under their control; Abd al-Nasr says he was opposed to the idea. For this, he says, Al-Hiyali had him removed as deputy of the Northern Baghdad province, and Abd al-Nasr was shunted into industrial work, creating weapons like silenced pistols. In this role he worked closely with “Haji Fathi”, presumably meaning Fathi al-Tunisi (Abu Sayyaf al-Iraqi), as well as Moataz Numan al-Jaburi (Haji Tayseer) and Abu Sa’d al-Iraqi, a Tunisian and engineer, who is described as a graduate from Germany.
At the end of 2012, Abd al-Nasr says he moved—by the leave of Al-Hiyali—to Syria to continue weapons factory work, and was soon joined by Haji Fathi. After a time near Al-Bukamal, Abd al-Nasr went to the Aleppo area to meet Ahmad al-Shara (Abu Muhammad al-Jolani), the leader of Jabhat al-Nusra, IS’s front-group in Syria. Abd al-Nasr says that around this time he met Abu Hassan al-Muhajir, IS’s spokesman from 2016 until he was killed days after the caliph last year.
Just before IS tried to bring Al-Shara to heel and he struck out on his own in April 2013—triggering a process that ended in IS’s expulsion from Al-Qaeda—Abd al-Nasr says he was summoned to a meeting with Al-Badri in Al-Bab by “Abu Bakr al-Iraqi”, the caliph’s deputy Samir al-Khlifawi, better known as Haji Bakr. Al-Khlifawi who had been working to secretly pull away much of Al-Nusra’s leadership so it would defect en masse from Al-Shara’s group once IS announced its presence in Syria. Also at the meeting with Abd al-Nasr and Al-Khlifawi were: Abdurrahman al-Qaduli (Abu Ali al-Anbari), Al-Bilawi, Abu Imad Al-Jazrawi (one of the IS advanced party who set up Al-Nusra with Al-Shara), Abu Hassan al-Muhajir, and Taha Falaha. Almost the entirety of Al-Nusra’s infrastructure in Aleppo, led by Amr al-Absi (Abu al-Atheer), defected to IS, as Abd al-Nasr notes, as did large chunks of Al-Nusra led by the “Chechen” Tarkhan Batirashvili (Abu Umar al-Shishani) and (the probably late) Ali Musa al-Shawakh (Abu Ayyub or Abu Luqman), who became IS’s wali of Raqqa.
Abd al-Nasr says IS’s leadership were surprised when Al-Qaeda’s leader Ayman al-Zawahiri sided with Al-Shara in June 2013, and Al-Badri met with Al-Qaduli, Falaha, Al-Fayad, Al-Hiyali, and Al-Khlifawi to compose his response, which was signed-off on “legally” by Al-Qaduli. In late 2013, Abd al-Nasr says he was appointed emir for the east to supervise the governors of Raqqa (Al-Shawakh), Hasaka (Abu Usama al-Iraqi), and Deir Ezzor (Amer al-Rafdan). Abd al-Nasr admits to overseeing IS in Deir Ezzor when it fought with the thuggish Saddam al-Jamal, but unsurprisingly he claims that he did not have oversight—he had allegedly been replace by Batirashvili—when IS savagely murdered 700 Shaytat tribesmen in Deir Ezzor in the summer of 2014.
By Abd al-Nasr’s account, he was moved back to industrial work in March 2014 and in April 2014 replaced Abu Usama al-Iraqi as wali of Hasaka. In this role he worked alongside Batirashvili and Iyad al-Jumayli (Abu Yahya al-Iraq) in attacks on the “SDF”. Abd al-Nasr says he went to a meeting with Al-Badri in Raqqa city before the caliphate declaration at the end of June 2014 and was asked his opinion on it; he says he did not oppose it. In August 2014, Abd al-Nasr was appointed deputy emir to the “Supervisory Committee” (al-Lajna al-Mushrafa) in Syria, which was headed by Abu Yasr al-Iraqi. The equivalent in Iraq was headed by Al-Hiyali and his deputy was the current caliph, Al-Mawla, according to Abd al-Nasr. Al-Jumayli managed the Kobani battle in late 2014 and early 2015, and Abd al-Nasr was involved.
In April 2015, Abd al-Nasr says he was told by Al-Fayad to attend a meeting with the caliph in the town of Mayadeen in eastern Syria; Falaha was also at this meeting. The Supervisory Committee became the Delegated Committee and Falaha was appointed to lead it, with Abd al-Nasr as his deputy, a demotion for the Kobani failure, by his account. Falaha and Al-Shawakh managed the military and security files, says Abd al-Nasr, and one Abu Muhammad Hudud managed borders and negotiations (over prisoners, etc.). After Al-Hiyali was killed, Abd al-Nasr was moved back to Iraq to work under Al-Jumayli, and only flipped back to Syria after Falaha was killed in August 2016. After some brief wrangling, Abd al-Nasr was then made head of a unified Delegated Committee, he says. Abd al-Nasr gives some very detailed answers on why various things went wrong, but remains vague on the last two years or so of his time with IS.
Abd al-Nasr appeared on television this week in an interview from captivity. Abd al-Nasr says that he, Al-Fayad, and “Abu Ayyub al-Raqqawi”—almost certainly referring to Ali al-Shawakh—sat with IS’s leaders after the loss of Kobani and other areas in 2014-15 to try to talk them into changing tactics but found “fanatics” had “infiltrated” IS’s ranks and would not listen. Abd al-Nasr contrasts the stubbornness of Al-Badri with his less resolute successor, Al-Mawla.
All of this—especially Abd al-Nasr’s claim to oppose the “fanatics”, his account of the suppression of the Shaytat tribe, and the apparent weakness of the current “caliph”—has to be treated with the greatest scepticism: apart from the possible coercion by the Iraqi state and the obvious interest in distancing himself from the most atrocious conduct, many senior IS operatives in custody remain loyal to the organisation and use these opportunities to continue the group’s information operations—something that is all the easier when they tell their captors what they want to hear.