Islamic State Profiles the Godfather of its Media Department

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on 8 May 2021

Wael al-Ta’i (Abu Muhammad al-Furqan), Al-Naba 285, p. 3

The 285th edition of Al-Naba, the weekly newsletter of the Islamic State (IS), released on 6 May, had a biography of Abu Muhammad al-Furqan, one of the most important IS leaders, the head of its Central Media Department and its operational ruler when he was killed in September 2016.

BACKGROUND

When the U.S.-led Coalition announced that it had killed Abu Muhammad on 7 September 2016, it gave his true name as Wael al-Fayad. Right up to that point, Abu Muhammad’s name had been obscure, and there was good reason to believe this obscurity was “a testament to his seniority and importance within IS”. IS has in effect previously confirmed this.

IS acknowledged Abu Muhammad’s death a month after it happened and a month after that the then-caliph Ibrahim al-Badri (Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi) mentioned Abu Muhammad’s departure in a speech; no details were given in either case. That changed in April 2017 when IS’s English-language propaganda magazine, Rumiya (the successor to Dabiq), profiled Ahmad Abousamra (Abu Sulayman al-Shami), the most senior American there has been within IS. Abousamra, Rumiya explained, had been talent-spotted and recruited by Abu Muhammad into the Central Media Department (Diwan al-Ilam al-Markazi), mentioning that Abu Muhammad, the hands-on “chief editor” of Dabiq, was the “general caretaker”, i.e. the day-to-day leader, of IS at the time of his death. Al-Naba reinforces this.

There had been enough evidence to believe Abu Muhammad was the same man as Dr. Wael or Wael al-Rawi. Al-Naba discloses that Abu Muhammad was one and the same with “Ahmad al-Ta’i”, the media emir in “the State’s” first cabinet back in 2009, and “Abu Ubayda Abd al-Hakim”, who made some online media appearances in 2011 and signed a series of letters after the caliphate declaration. Another kunya to add to the list is Abu Sajjad, and Abu Muhammad’s real name is revealed to be Wael al-Ta’i.

Al-Ta’i was in charge of the foreign terrorism campaign in 2015-16, according to Al-Naba. It will be of interest to quite a number of people to learn that Al-Ta’i was the mover behind the “Clanging of the Swords” video series. And there are fascinating details about the senior personnel in IS: who did what, with whom, and when.

A key broader takeaway from the Naba profile, which has been spelled out in previous profiles of figures like Abdurrahman al-Qaduli (Abu Ali al-Anbari), with whom Al-Ta’i was close, it is revealed, is how very well-developed was the jihadist scene in Iraq under Saddam Husayn, a fact that has been something of a theme of this blog.

AL-NABA PROFILE

The Naba profile is flagged as part of “The Story of a Martyr” (Qisat Shaheed) series and headline, which is “part one” (of presumably two, as happened with Al-Qaduli), refers to Al-Ta’i as the “commander of the media battle” and guardian of the creed (aqeeda). That Al-Ta’i’s biography replaced the main editorial on page 3 this week, a most unusual occurrence, gives an indication of the importance IS attaches to the man.

The war of “doctrine and ideas” (al-aqayid wal-afkar) is no less important than the wars fought by armies that result in direct bloodshed, Al-Naba begins. “Indeed, there is no exaggeration in saying that the war of ideas is the foundation that underlies most wars of iron and fire.” It is for this reason, Al-Naba goes on, that the “idolaters [or polytheists] (al-mushrikun) devote so large a part of their financial, material, and human resources to this war, to strengthen their ranks, mobilise their supporters, change the doctrines of Muslims, sow weakness and impotence in their souls, and push them to surrender” and accept subordination to the enemies of “the religion and the creed” (al-mila wal-deen).

Against these enemies, there are defenders of the faith, the jihadists who have set to work with raids on the hearts and minds of the disbelievers, says Al-Naba, and on the frontlines of this war of ideas there are people whom even the enemy had to grudgingly accept are skilled at what they do. One such was “the mujahid shaykh Abu Muhammad al-Furqan … He is Dr. Wael al-Ta’i, one of the first generation of mujahideen in Iraq, and a student of the Tawheed School in Baghdad, which was established by Shaykh Faez … who paid the price for that, murdered for the sake of God at the hands of the perished Ba’thi taghut, Saddam Husayn. [Al-Ta’i] was one of the founders of Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia at that time, and one of the distinguished leaders of the Islamic State of Iraq” in the late 2000s, before becoming one of the key actors in laying the groundwork for the expansion of the Islamic State into Syria and the restoration of the caliphate in the early 2010s.[1]

Early Life

Al-Ta’i grew up as an orphan, according to Al-Naba, but this did not prevent him excelling over his peers when he studied medicine at Baghdad University, and this scientific course did not prevent him seeking out shar’i knowledge and preaching “monotheism” (tawheed), distributing doctrinal materials from “the imams of the religion”, particularly, and interestingly, “the ulema of the Najdi da’wa”, that is the Wahhabi clerics of Saudi Arabia. During this period, Al-Ta’i was networking with other strict monotheists (al-muwahideen) in Baghdad and its surrounding areas.

Al-Ta’i had “barely finished” his degree in medicine, where he “specialised in paediatrics”, and had only been working in that field for a “few years” when the Anglo-American invasion felled the Ba’thi despotism and the jihadists launched their campaign to be the successor regime.[2]

At the time the regime came down, Al-Ta’i was with the people who formed Ansar al-Sunna, created from those who left Ansar al-Islam and travelled from Kurdistan to Arab Iraq: it was these people, forged in the last decade of Saddam’s regime, who “were the founding nucleus of this fighting group and the actual engine” of the Iraqi jihad that would spring and spread out from it.[3]

Enter Zarqawi

The “slaughtering emir” Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian born Ahmad al-Khalayleh, had come into Iraq [in early 2002] and “showed people the correctness of his method (manhaj)”. Zarqawi had connected up with the jihadi underground in Iraq and chose “the honourable ones” (al-afadel) from Ansar al-Sunna to pledge an “oath of allegiance” (bay’a) to him as part of the effort to unite the ranks and eliminate divisions in the jihadi insurgency.

Al-Ta’i was among this contingent of Ansar al-Sunna that AQM annexed, and the man at the head of this faction was “Shaykh Abu Ali al-Anbari”, an Iraqi jihadist whose real name is Abdurrahman al-Qaduli, who is—along with Al-Ta’i himself and Taha Falaha (Abu Muhammad al-Adnani)—among the handful of personally most impactful figures in the history of IS. When Al-Ta’i joined Zarqawi, he did so “accompanying his brother and his emir, Shaykh Khaled al-Mashadani (Abu Shahad) …, who was [made] the emir of the Media Department”.[4] As AQM grew and the war widened, the duties became too onerous for Al-Mashadani alone, so he “entrusted [Al-Ta’i] to manage the media file on his behalf”, as Al-Mashadani’s deputy.

This arrangement came to an end when “Shaykh Al-Mashadani was arrested [in July 2007], then [Al-Ta’i] became the emir of the Media [Department] in the organization and he was working at the time with the kunya ‘Abu Sajjad’,” Al-Naba says.[5] Al-Naba goes on to explain that the transition was not that smooth or direct, since Al-Ta’i had already been in prison for fifteen months by the time Al-Mashadani was captured.

During this period [2003 and early 2004], says Al-Naba, Al-Ta’i met frequently with Zarqawi and they strategised about messaging aimed both at Muslims, designed to increase their support for the jihad in Iraq and induce them to emigrate to fight in it if possible, and “Crusaders”, to weaken their resolve against the jihadists and to make them believe the war was unwinnable in Iraq, thus pushing them to withdraw and leave IS to victory.

It was “after the second Battle of Fallujah” in December 2004 that Zarqawi “began preparing to hold land, achieve tamkeen, establish shari’a, and religion, and declare the Islamic state”, all of which had to be proceeded by a media campaign to reassure Muslims and provoke the mushrikun.[6]

Death of the Founder and Prison

Al-Ta’i was on his way to a meeting with Zarqawi to film some scenes for a media release, and was travelling “with a number of his brothers, emirs of the organisation, Shaykh Abu Ali al-Anbari, Shaykh Abu Muhammad al-Iraqi, and Shaykh Abu al-Mutaz al-Qurayshi”.[7] But, says Al-Naba, as God would have it, the Americans found the guesthouse where these men awaited Zarqawi. In the ensuing gunfight, many were killed. Al-Ta’i “and his companions” were arrested; they were “almost unarmed”, Al-Naba explains, since they had come to the meeting on a route that required going through “Crusader” checkpoints.

Assuming the arrested “companions” also include Al-Qaduli, it means Al-Ta’i was arrested in April 2006.[8] This assumption is buttressed by the fact that Al-Naba says Al-Ta’i was in prison when Zarqawi was killed in June 2006.

Al-Naba says Al-Ta’i was in prison “for years”, kept moving between facilities, which was a common practice—and a stupid one. From Al-Naba’s account of Al-Ta’i’s prison sojourn, it is clear that he continued to proselytise for jihadism at every opportunity and to keep the IS prisoners in line, applying the various pressures available to stop them wandering in ideology or allegiance.

There are two most interesting details about Al-Ta’i’s time in the American prison system in Iraq given by Al-Naba.

First, “his knowledge of the English language obliged him to work as a translator” for the other jihadi prisoners, which meant frequent contact with the infidel guards, though Al-Naba is swift to reassure readers that Al-Ta’i was the very model of al-wala wal-bara (association with the believers and disavowal of the disbelievers), continually “showing hostility to them … and getting in their faces in defence of his brothers”.

Second, Naba presents a picture in which “Kharijites” and “extremists” (al-ghulu, lit. “exaggerators”, people who take things too far) were released from one part of the prison into the part where Al-Ta’i was, and Al-Ta’i waged ideological war with these people—but quietly. Al-Ta’i did not want to make it an open confrontation lest he give credibility and attention to these “fanatics”, says Al-Naba. One way Al-Ta’i handled this was through a series of lectures on the correct religious beliefs, and this corpus was written down by his supporters—on juice wrappers, or whatever else was to hand—and distributed. Al-Naba mentions that this was during the time of the Awakening (Sahwa).

What makes this noteworthy is that in IS’s recent internal ideological struggle, Al-Ta’i has been presented as being on the side of the “extremists”, alongside people like Muhammad Khadr Musa Ramadan (Abu Bakr al-Gharib), in a faction known as the Hazimi current (al-tayyar al-Hazimi), who battled the more “moderate” jihadi scholars led by Turki al-Binali and then Yusuf ibn Ahmad Samreen (Abu Yaqub al-Maqdisi), who held on to the Office of Research and Studies. The exact scale and nature of the struggle over the Hazimis is hidden from us, but this account in Al-Naba is clearly an effort to cast Al-Ta’i as on “the middle way between the extremism of the Khawarij and the neglect of the Murji’a”, as was once said.

Release and Rebuilding

When Al-Ta’i was released from prison is not specified, but piecing together the details it appears to be early 2009. Within “days” he had reconnected with IS and set to work rebuilding the media department, which had been hit by “successive blows”, the killing of its staff and destruction of its offices, during what was a generally difficult moment as the Surge and Sahwa ground down IS. (IS’s then-emir, Hamid al-Zawi (Abu Umar al-Baghdadi), reportedly said in early 2008 that his fighters could not find a place to stand for even fifteen minutes before they were arrested.)

Al-Naba then drops one of its major revelations: “the Commander of the Faithful (Emir al-Mu’mineen) Abu Umar al-Baghdadi … appointed [Al-Ta’i] head of the Ministry of Information in the Islamic State of Iraq, and he appeared in the second ministerial formation of the State under the name ‘Professor Ahmad al-Ta’i’.”

IS has released a “distinguished martyrs” profile for Abu Zahra al-Issawi, who handled the media department between Al-Mashadani’s arrest and “Ahmad al-Ta’i” being appointed. The assumption had been that “Ahmad al-Ta’i” had been killed, probably in early 2011, and the first speech by Taha Falaha as the official spokesman of the IS movement[9] in August 2011 marked his takeover of the media department, though even on this schema it was known that this tenure was brief, and that a triumvirate—including  Amr al-Absi (Abu al-Atheer), and Bandar al-Shaalan, with Dr. Wael as primus inter pares—had soon taken over running the media department. What seems more likely now is that Dr. Wael/Al-Ta’i simply held the media file the entire time, from 2009 to 2016.

Al-Ta’i is described by Al-Naba as hyper-cautious about operational security, keeping away from being in front of the camera for the media products he produced, and this is not surprising. Naba does not put it together quite this way, but Al-Ta’i was well-placed to understand how monumentally important the Media Department is for IS—and how dangerous it could be to its leaders. Al-Ta’i had lived through the Media Department being the gateway to the demise of Zarqawi.[10]

“In this difficult period [c. 2009-11], [Al-Ta’i’s] duty was to rebuild the media apparatus of the Islamic State, and to strengthen its position, at the time embodied by Al-Furqan Foundation”, Al-Naba says. (Al-Ta’i obviously took his kunya from this main media enterprise of IS’s.) IS had to repair the connections to its own periphery, to the “wilaya offices”, says Al-Naba, “secure communication again with the branches of Al-Qaeda in the world in order to respond to their attacks on the Islamic State and its methodology, and to clarify the issues in this regard. Shaykh Abu Ali al-Anbari undertook this task with him”.

IS announced its State in 2006 and formally dissolved its Al-Qaeda affiliation at that point, but it has always been quite clear that things were rather more complicated and ambiguous—until Al-Qaeda publicly expelled IS from its ranks in 2014. It was also known that Al-Qaduli was one of the main personal links, at least before his arrest, travelling to Pakistan on IS’s behalf to treat with Al-Qaeda’s central leadership.[11] It is worth noting, then, that Al-Naba confirms these IS’s connections to Al-Qaeda remained in place during this phase, even if it couches them as a defensive measure.

The Media Department was teetering anyway and was brought to the brink of collapse by one particular raid on a “secret headquarters” of Al-Furqan Foundation by the Iraqi security forces and Americans. Had it not been for the actions of two “heroes”—Abu Faysal al-Iraq and Nasr al-Jazrawi—in “inflicting a massacre” on their enemies, this might have been the end of IS’s media apparatus, says Al-Naba. As it was, enough was salvaged that Al-Ta’i could pull the surviving pieces of IS’s media infrastructure up to Mosul to begin again.

American Withdrawal from Iraq and the “Arab Spring”

Under the subheading, “The Mujahideen Spring” (Rabee al-Mujahideen), Al-Naba says: “During that period when the entry of muhajireen (lit. ‘emigrants’; foreign fighters) decreased, and it was difficult to obtain trained media personnel, [Al-Ta’i] found that the work needed to be established anew, and he began by himself, so he began to read about the arts of design, montage, and production, and learn from the Internet what helps in that … [Then Al-Ta’i] started working on producing a series of publications for Al-Furqan Foundation … and they became the focus of people’s attention, in the East and West of the earth. There was the ‘Anbar Spring’ and ‘Salil al-Sawarim’ (Clanging of the Swords), with its first three episodes”. Here, then, is another mystery solved, because Al-Naba is not lying about the attention “Clanging of the Swords” received, nor how shrouded in mystery its author has been. By Al-Naba’s account, Al-Ta’i’s authorship of these grisly videos, which had a serious impact in terrifying and demoralising the Iraqi security forces in the run-up to the fall of Mosul in June 2014, was a “secret … hidden even from the brothers closest to the Shaykh”. Al-Ta’i would seek the media team’s advice on the “Clanging” series before publication, but he fostered the illusion that “a group of brothers has accomplished it”, a deception, yes, but from pure motives, says Al-Naba.

This was a busy time-period, Al-Naba notes, with the “withdrawal of the American Crusader forces from Iraq, humiliated and defeated”, and the igniting of protests across the Arab world, with reverberations inside Iraq, which “the media called ‘the Arab Spring’.” There was, says Al-Naba, “misguided marketing” that these protests showed a path that was “better than the mujahideen methodology for the sake of God”. In fact, says Al-Naba, these events showed that the overthrow of the tyrannies could only come about through jihad. The “greatest benefit” of the peaceful protests was “the chaos accompanying them” that consumed the attentional and security resources of the Arab governments, allowing the jihadists to direct decisive blows at the state. The release of the “Anbar Spring” video in January 2012 was “a clear message in this regard, to confirm that there would be no retreat from the methodology of jihad, and that the true spring of Muslims is by establishing [the rule of] their religion”.

The escalation in Iraq symbolised by the “Anbar Spring” video—and IS’s attempt to co-opt the Sunni protest movement in Iraq—was mirrored near-simultaneously in Syria, where IS had dispatched operatives to “establish the foundations of the jihad project” against Bashar al-Asad, says Al-Naba, and was gifted with advantages by the circumstances. The “demonstrations had not stopped for months and were turning to armed action [under the] intensity of [the Asad regime’s] brutality”. As the calls for reform in Syria morphed into an armed revolution, IS stood ready—cloaked as Jabhat al-Nusra (as Al-Naba does not mention)—to offer themselves as a means to that end. And in Iraq the IS jihadists escalated against the security forces and the Sahwa militias, Al-Naba notes, weakening the Iraqi state’s grip, then had its forces sweep “in from the deserts to take control of cities”. In this way was the foundation laid down for the restoration of the caliphate and “the greatest and final Crusade … against the Islamic State”.

Al-Ta’i, after moving into Syria to assume new duties for IS, had a “great role in these major events … and this is what will be revealed … in the instalment to come from this fragrant biography”, Al-Naba concludes.

*                  *                  *                  *                  *

The second part of Al-Ta’i’s biography appeared in the 287th edition of Al-Naba, released on 20 May 2021. This second part was printed on pages ten and eleven, since Al-Naba 287’s main editorial was given over to commentary on the flare-up of violence in Gaza.

*                  *                  *                  *                  *

Expanding into Syria and the Split with Al-Qaeda

Just as Al-Ta’i was putting the finishing touches to “Clanging of the Swords, Part Three”—thus, we can date it as around January 2013—he was sent into Syria at short notice, though he only expected to be there a few days when he said goodbye to his family in Iraq. Al-Ta’i crossed into Syria in the company of Adnan al-Bilawi (Abu Abdurrahman al-Bilawi), says Al-Naba. This was a moment when “events in Syria were considerably accelerating and had taken a complicated turn with the discovery of the latest threads of conspiracy” by Al-Qaeda’s emir Ayman al-Zawahiri and Ahmad al-Shara (Abu Muhammad al-Jolani), the man deputised by IS to run its deniable Syrian wing, Jabhat al-Nusra.

The caliph sought to head them off at the pass by “announcing Jabhat al-Nusra’s subordination to the Islamic State of Iraq”, Al-Naba explains. It was IS plotting this move to regain control of its wayward subsidiary that led to Al-Ta’i’s trip to Syria “to join the rest of the members of the Islamic State’s Shura Council, which was meeting almost constantly to discuss the matter of declaring the presence of Islamic State detachments in Syria and the abolition of the name ‘Jabhat al-Nusra’ under the cover of which they had worked for more than a year”.

The caliph’s eventual speech [in April 2013] “was the beginning of a new phase in the life of the Islamic State, as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria was declared, and the mujahideen were called on to renew their pledge of allegiance to the Commander of the Faithful”.[12] It was at this point, says Al-Naba, that “the media battle began to take a new dimension”, drawing on what God had granted His slaves by way of bounty from the expansion into Syria.

Embedding in Syria and the “New Media Policy”

It was with the publication of “Clanging of the Swords, Part Four” [in May 2014], which Al-Naba concedes was delayed, that the Islamic State displayed its “new media policy”, no longer limited to Iraq and military operations, it displayed the jihadist program as it tried to spread its ideology in Syria and draw in foreign fighters.

“The first months in the life of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria were full of effort and events”, says Al-Naba, “and while the two shaykhs, Abu Ali al-Anbari and Abu al-Mutaz al-Qurayshi, roved around Syria, mostly on a successful missionary tour” that ensured IS’s nominal legions in Syria stuck with IS(IS), rather than defecting to Al-Nusra, Al-Ta’i “was busy establishing a new structure for the media of the Islamic State on Syrian soil, having left behind his former brothers in Iraq, and begun the search for [new] media cadres”, including in the training camps and on the frontlines.

Al-Naba stresses, however, that Al-Ta’i did not wait to find his new media team before beginning the work: “rather, he began again by himself, undeterred by [the other duties he had] being a member of the Islamic State’s Shura Council and the Delegated Committee … He went out himself carrying his camera to take pictures, then returned [home] to cut the films, and produced” the new versions of the videos that were growing and improving as the Media Department was simultaneously expanding and there were “more brothers … [to] carry some of the load”. Interestingly, IS used this narrative point of the media emir being worked to exhaustion with Al-Ta’i’s predecessor, Abu Zahra.

IS began to produce more and more various content from more media platforms: Al-Naba mentions specifically “Windows on the Land of Epic Battles” [a fifty-part video series from Al-Itisam Media], “Messages from the Land of Epic Battles” [a nearly-two-dozen-part series produced by Al-Furqan Media], and “Pictures from the Land of Epic Battles” [a briefer series, also from Al-Itisam]. There was the continuous repetition of the phrase, “a book guides and a sword gives victory”, explaining how ideology led to jihad, and the constant repetition, too, of Zarqawi’s remark, “The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify—by God’s permission—until it burns the crusader armies in Dabiq”, which reaffirmed that the jihad in Syria was a continuation of what had begun in Iraq and would continue—was desired to continue—until there was an epic confrontation with the “Crusaders” on Syrian territory.

Al-Ta’i took as his mission, says Al-Naba, “clarifying the reality of the Islamic State” to ensure it was not misunderstood as one jihadist group among many and that its intentions were not just to spite and avenge enemies for their crimes against Muslims. Rather, Al-Ta’i wanted it understood that IS’s operations across Syria and Iraq constituted “the real nucleus” of a restored caliphate. Part of this involved refuting Muslim critics, particularly the clerics, and encouraging the migration of foreigners to join IS’s ranks “to create the conditions for achieving tamkeen and establishing [rule by] the religion”.

Al-Ta’i “laboured night and day with his responsibilities as emir of the Media Department”, says Al-Naba, and this did not dent his work as a member of the Shura Council and on the Delegated Committee “overseeing the components of the Islamic State and its Syrian provinces [along] with Shaykh Abu Ali al-Anbari, Shaykh Abu Bakr al-Iraqi [a.k.a. Haji Bakr], and Shaykh Abu Muhammad al-Adnani”.

Reiterating the theme of how hard Al-Ta’i worked and his devotion to the jihad over and above all earthly concerns, Al-Naba says Al-Ta’i did not see his family for nearly fourteen months between the time he left them in Mosul in early 2013 “until the borders between Iraq and Syria were broken” in June 2014, about two weeks before the caliphate declaration. (This would also seem to date Al-Ta’i’s transfer into Syria more exactly: late February 2013.) Even after contact was restored with his family in the summer of 2014, Al-Ta’i would disappear again for months at a time, leaving his family with no knowledge of where he was, according to Al-Naba.

Confronting the Syrian Rebellion

“The Awakening erupted in west Aleppo”, says Al-Naba, referring to the January 2014 offensive operations by the Syrian rebels against IS. As this uprising spread, Al-Ta’i “took the initiative to withdraw all the brothers working with him and their families outside these areas” Once they were safe, Al-Ta’i “returned to the areas besieged by the Awakening, sneaking through their checkpoints, to meet Shaykh Abu Muhammad al-Adnani … in the Huraytan area, so the media war with the Awakening could begin”. It started with a speech from Al-Adnani/Falaha, “exposing the Awakening of apostasy and their actions, and threatening them with severe punishment for their treachery if they did not stop”, and this was “followed by a speech from the Commander of the Faithful”, that offered forgiveness if there was repentance and implored the Syrian opposition to desist from participation in “the American plan”.

“When the mujahideen found that the knives of treachery abounded”, says Al-Naba, IS’s leadership took a decision to pull back entirely from Idlib, the coast, and west Aleppo, and to consolidate in east Aleppo, Raqqa, and Hasaka. It was this decision that began “the first stage of true tamkeen” (jihadi governance), Al-Naba says, and a conspiracy that it had been hoped would break the back of the Islamic State turned out to be a “divine gift”. Another blessing-in-disguise bounty from the Syrian “Awakening”, by Al-Naba’s reckoning, is that it forced Al-Qaeda to show its hand and side with the “apostates” to fight the Islamic State.

“At this important stage”, Al-Ta’i “was leading a campaign no less important than the military campaigns that were led by Abu Umar al-Shishani [Tarkhan Batirashvili], Abu Yahya al-Iraqi [Iyad al-Jumayli], Abu al-Atheer al-Shami [Amr al-Absi], and Abu Ayman al-Iraqi [Ali Aswad al-Jiburi] … against the Awakening strongholds in the wilayats of Al-Khayr [Deir Ezzor], Aleppo, and the Badiya. It was the media campaign that, by the grace of God, succeeded in shattering the great informational attack by the apostate Awakening against the Islamic State [that was designed] to challenge its creed and methodology, tarnish its reputation [by associating it] with the defilement of the Kharijites, and alienate Muslims who might give allegiance to it, migrating to it, and do jihad under its banner”. In this media war, the clerics of the idolatrous regimes (ulema al-tawaghit) and their students and a rash of websites and other outlets were mobilised against IS, says Al-Naba, but the group prevailed and exposed their lies. The implication is that Al-Ta’i was key to this but Naba says: “the Islamic State’s media was able to defeat them all thanks to God alone”.

The Benefits of Statehood

Al-Ta’i realised that the control of territory was a blessing from God, Al-Naba says, a chance to initiate a massive da’wa (missionary) campaign, and he “frequently urged his soldiers in media offices to exploit all the capabilities in their hands to spread monotheism among people, through printed books and pamphlets, hanging paintings and murals, distributing recordings and publications”. The “jahiliyya” radio broadcasts were banned and the stations taken over with IS media content. The local media offices in the wilayats were coordinated more closely with the centre, and the number of foreign (non-Arabic) languages expanded. “Within this framework, the project of magazines in foreign languages ​​was born, the top one of which is the blessed Dabiq magazine, whose knight was Shaykh Abu Sulayman al-Shami”, whose real name is Ahmad Abousamra, the most senior American there has ever been within IS.

Al-Ta’i “had at this time [in the spring of 2014] assumed the post of emir of the Media Department, in addition to his membership of the Shura Council and the Delegated Committee for the Commander of the Faithful, in the framework of the new administrative system for the Islamic State. The mainstay of his media policy at that stage was to expose the apostasy of the Awakening, to expose the delusion of Al Qaeda, to show the reality of the Islamic State in light of tamkeen, and to invite Muslims to migrate to the Islamic State, in addition to the old goal of introducing terror into the hearts of the mushrikeen”.

“At a time when the soldiers of the Islamic State in Syria were continuing to cleanse areas of the Awakening, Shaykh Abu Abdurrahman al-Bilawi … and his brothers in Iraq were making the preparations for the great conquests by storming the cities”, Al-Naba says, and Al-Bilawi lent on Al-Ta’i to hasten the production of the fourth part of “Clanging of the Swords”. Al-Naba makes a claim for this video having emboldened the jihadists, and demoralised and instilled fear in the “Rafida and the Awakening” (the Iraqi security forces and the remnants of the anti-IS Sunni militias), and this is surely true. This video appeared in May 2014 and soon afterwards “God allowed the mujahideen to conquer most regions of Iraq and break the border between Syria and Iraq, beginning a new page in the glory of the Islamic State, which is the declaration of the return of the caliphate … and the installation of a caliph for the Muslims, the mujahid-shaykh, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi”.

After the Caliphate Declaration

“After the declaration of the caliphate, the burdens became greater and the duties greater” because—and here is a major revelation of part two of Al-Naba’s biography—Al-Ta’i was, in addition to head of the Media Diwan, “deputised by the Commander of the Faithful [to deal with issues] regarding the affairs of the regions outside the wilayats of Syria and Iraq … communicating with the mujahideen emirs in the east and west of the earth and taking oaths of allegiance to the Commander of the Faithful, supervising the establishment and administration of these [foreign] wilayats … issuing orders and advice to [the leaders], and directing their work under the name of Abu Ubayda Abd al-Hakim”. The captured letters from “Abu Ubayda” filled in an important part of the story about how IS tried to peel away Al-Qaeda affiliates in 2014-15, particularly in Africa—to draw in “factions and organisations claiming fealty to Islam”, as Al-Naba puts it. That project largely failed, but at least we now know who “Abu Ubayda” was.

Al-Ta’i continued the general work of trying to entice Muslims to join IS and to wage the media war against the West, “and at the same time he took over management of the security detachments operating in the idolatrous countries from Shaykh al-Adnani, who became the emir for the administration of the Syrian wilayats after the killing of Abu al-Harith al-Ansari”. This is an important revelation: it had long been clear that the line between propaganda to foreign audiences, recruitment of their citizens, and directing them to domestic terrorism was non-existent for IS, and it was known that Falaha had been at the centre of this nexus at some stage. For the same reasons, it makes a lot of sense that Al-Ta’i would take over and be in overall charge of the foreign terrorism campaign, that he would “follow up promise with implementation”, as Al-Naba has it.

“The soldiers of the caliphate were dispatched to the capitals of Crusader Europe and the cities of secular Turkey and to the Awakening areas”, says Al-Naba, after which carnage began: “the Crusaders’ bodies were torn apart, the heads of apostates were picked, and the hearts of the mushrikeen terrified, while the hearts of the believers were healed”.

Under Al-Ta’i’s guidance, the volume of media output—and its quality and variance—was such as to impress friend and foe alike, says Al-Naba. There was not a day that went by without exclusive content for Al-Bayan radio, plus “hundreds of pictures and news reports” and—obviously not daily—the “millions of pamphlets” propagating the Islamic State’s doctrine to the captive audience that was the population living under its rule.

Expanding IS’s horizons, Al-Ta’i had the magazines drawn up in a total of nine languages in the end. First, Al-Ta’i tried different magazines for different languages—Dabiq in English, Dar al-Islam in French, Constantinople in Turkish, and Al-Manba in Russian—and then Al-Ta’i “decided to consolidate all the projects into one”, what became Rumiya, which was one magazine in multiple languages (English, French, Turkish, Russian, German, Turkestani, Bosnian, Indonesian, and Pashtun), rather than the other way around.

Getting slightly meta, Al-Naba adds: “The weekly Al-Naba newspaper also appeared, tens of thousands of copies of which were printed and distributed free of charge in the various wilayats of the Islamic State, as well as being published electronically on the Internet”.

These and “many other blessed media activities and projects … still bear fruit after the killing of the Shaykh”, Al-Naba concludes.

Downfall

In closing, Al-Naba stresses again that Al-Ta’i worked morning to night, personally overseeing the media teams, resolving issues that came in from media offices in the provinces, and attending meetings continuously to sort out the problems of the Islamic State. The only breaks Al-Tai seems to have taken were for prayers.

The death of Falaha hit Al-Ta’i hard, according to Al-Naba: “in addition to the brotherhood of religion, there was the bond of working together for years. Between the two shaykhs, there was a special affection and love”. They had shared burdens in life, and Al-Ta’i would take over the burden after Falaha had gone, taking on “a load that would weigh down a mountain”.

Rest only came to Al-Ta’i when God decreed that he should be “killed in a Crusader airstrike that targeted him in the city of Raqqa”.[13] Al-Ta’i’s “blood was shed for the sake of God Almighty, as he wished”.

*                  *                  *                  *                  *

NOTES

[1] The exact words used for “Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia” in the text are: “Qaedat al-Jihad fi Bilad al-Rafidayn” or “The Base of Holy War in the Land Between the Two Rivers”. Since “Mesopotamia” means “land between the two rivers”, and the Islamic State movement in this period is better known as AQM—or Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI)—in this period, I went with brevity and familiarity.

[2] From these details, one can hazard a guess at Al-Ta’i’s age: he would have been in his early twenties in 2003, thus born probably in the early 1980s, best guess is 1981 or 1982, making him thirty-five or so when he was killed. The significance of this is that Al-Ta’i would, by this calculation, have reached the age of reason as the Iraqi state turned sharply towards Islam for its legitimacy, then reached adulthood when the Islamization of the Saddam regime was very far advanced, and would have been operating in a specific environment, namely the student scene in Baghdad, where institutions like the Saddam University for Islamic Studies were dominant in terms of prestige and influence, creating an incentive structure for those who wanted to get on in life to join one or other of the Islamist currents.

[3] Along with the prominent jihadists in the IS movement derived from Ansar al-Sunna mentioned in Al-Naba 285—Al-Qaduli, Al-Ta’i, and Al-Mashadani—one can add: Muhammad Shakar (Abu Talha al-Ansari or Abu Talha al-Mawsuli). Shakar, a former Republican Guard and one among those in Saddam’s security apparatus who turned to Salafism in the late 1990s, was the overall deputy of IS under Zarqawi when he was arrested in June 2005. When Shakar had been appointed is not exactly clear, but the previous deputy, Mustafa Darwish (Abu Muhammad al-Lubnani), had been killed around February 2005, and Darwish had taken over from Umar al-Juma (Abu Anas al-Shami), the first deputy, who was killed in September 2004. One of the men arrested as the Coalition worked up the chain to Shakar was Umar Baziyani, another Ansar al-Sunna alumnus, and an important IS leader in his own right. Baziyani’s brother, Fadil Hussain Ahmed al-Kurdi (Abu Ubaydah al-Kurdi or Abu Ridah), had been part of the connective tissue with Al-Qaeda Centre. At a certain point, these “exceptions”—the Iraqi jihadists from pre-existing groups that rise to the top of Zarqawi’s organisation—begin looking like the rule. When you add in all the “repentant officers”—Samir al-Khlifawi (Haji Bakr), Adnan al-Bilawi (Abu Abdulrahman al-Bilawi), Adnan al-Suwaydawi (Abu Muhannad al-Suwaydawi or Haji Dawud), and others—that did so much for IS during its 2011-15 expansion phase, it points, again, to the origins of IS in a militant Islamic milieu that was taking shape in Iraq during the last decade of Saddam’s rule.

[4] Al-Mashadani also used the kunyas “Abu Zayd al-Mashadani” and “Abu Muhammad al-Mashadani”.

[5] Al-Mashadani had served as an intermediary for AQM/ISI with Al-Qaeda Central (AQC), simultaneous with his role as media emir. As powerful as Al-Mashadani had been within the IS movement on the outside, his greatest service to it was probably once he was behind the wire, in the prison system, where he carried out an information operation that blinded the Americans to the fact they already had Al-Qaduli in custody. By concealing how important Al-Qaduli was, and what he had been responsible for, it meant Al-Qaduli was paid no special attention and was set free as part of the routine catch and release in 2012—just in time to play a decisive role in knitting together the networks to create the caliphate in Syria.

[6] “Tamkeen” literally means “empowerment”; it refers to the holding and administration of territory, to jihadi governance.

[7] Abu Mutaz’s real name is Fadel al-Hiyali, a former officer in Saddam’s intelligence services; he was converted to jihadism in the 1990s by Abu Ali/Al-Qaduli. Abu Mutaz/Al-Hiyali also used the kunya Abu Muslim al-Turkmani. It is not clear who “Abu Muhammad al-Iraqi” was; that kunya was used by Fathi al-Tunisi (who also went by Abu Sayyaf), but nothing is known of Al-Tunisi’s activities in this period and Al-Tunisi has no known role in the Media Department.

[8] The best account of this raid, which was drawn to my attention by Craig Whiteside, is in Mark Urban’s 2010 book, Task Force Black (pp. 139-44), which focuses on the role of the British Special Air Service (SAS) in the Iraq war. The SAS were involved in the 16 April 2006 raid, codenamed Operation LARCHWOOD 4, in Yusufiya, which netted—as it turns out—Al-Ta’i, Al-Qaduli, and others. The target of LARCHWOOD 4 was one “Abu Atiya”, described by Urban as “typical of the mid-level al-Qaeda leadership being targeted by JSOC at the time. Abu Atiya was classified as the ‘Admin Emir’ of the AQI cell in Abu Ghraib. He was credited with running the local group’s media efforts, such as posting videos of its attacks on Coalition soldiers on the internet.” After a brief but intense battle, involving some of the jihadist detonating suicide vests rather than surrendering, “Five men, as well as several women and children, had survived. … [T]he SAS quickly established that one of these survivors was Abu Atiya. An older man also appeared to be an insurgent. They were cuffed and made ready for the helicopter.” The “older man” is very likely a reference to Al-Qaduli, and Al-Ta’i—assuming he is not the same person as “Abu Atiya”—was, we can now be reasonably sure, one of the other three men arrested that night.

[9] The first IS spokesman, from 2003 to 2006, was Abu Maysara al-Iraqi. An interim spokesman, Abu Ammar al-Dulaymi, served for a few months, before Muharib al-Jiburi took over. Muharib was killed in May 2007, and the proto-caliph himself, Hamid al-Zawi, then became the de facto spokesman until he was killed in April 2010. The position was formally vacant for sixteen months, until Falaha’s overt appointment in August 2011, albeit he had been the voice of IS videos since January 2010. Falaha was killed in August 2016 and replaced in December 2016 by Abu Hassan al-Muhajir. The current spokesman, Abu Hamza al-Qurayshi, was appointed in October 2019, within days of Abu Hassan being killed.

These spokesmen always worked closely with the Media Department, under Al-Mashadani, Abu Zahra, and Al-Ta’i.

[10] Al-Ta’i had not only seen the Media Department be the thread enemies had followed all the way to the emir, but he had witnessed—and would ultimately experience—the more immediate danger the senior officials of IS’s Media Department were in, as the interface of the group with the outside world. When Falaha and Al-Ta’i were destroyed within a week of each other in 2016—with Al-Ta’i’s deputy, the man responsible for propaganda within the caliphate, Abu Harith al-Lami, killed just a day before Al-Ta’i—this was a replay of the 2007 killing of Muharib that was closely followed by the roundup of Al-Mashadani.

[11] In an extensive biography of Al-Qaduli written by his son (page 57) and swiftly leaked in 2018, it is made plain what could have been guessed at: when Al-Qaduli went to meet with AQC—specifically Muhammad Hassan al-Qayad (Abu Yahya al-Libi) and Muhammad Abu al-Yazid (Saeed al-Masri), having earlier met with both men and Jamal al-Misrati (Atiyatallah al-Libi or Atiyya) in Pakistan—he travelled across Iran to get to Waziristan. From a series of letters written in late 2007, recovered from Usama bin Laden’s compound, to say nothing of the fact Al-Qaeda’s military leadership was (and remains) in Iran, it is clear that Al-Qaeda self-consciously used Iran as its main pipeline to feed its branches in the Arab world under, in effect, a non-aggression pact that at times Bin Laden and his lieutenants had to reminds IS to stick to. Still, the biography of Al-Qaduli and these letters were not intended for public consumption. The only public confirmation of these details came from IS’s side, but it did so in the context of a public dispute with AQC and cast the entire Iran relationship as an imposition upon IS by AQC. (IS’s most intimate relationship with a state intelligence service is the Asad regime in Syria, which has been admitted to from both sides.)

[12] The acronym “ISIS” is the overwhelmingly popular way to refer to the Islamic State, even now, but that name only formally applied to the group for fourteen months, between April 2013 and June 2014, when the caliphate was declared. Even during that period the name—al-Dawla al-Islamiyya fi al-Iraq wal-Sham—caused problems in translation and transliteration over “Sham”, because it properly means an area larger than Syria, so was sometimes given as “Levant”, hence the “ISIL” acronym.

[13] The passage goes on to read: “on the first day of Dhu al-Hijjah in the year 1436”, which is a mistake since that would translate to 15 September 2015. Al-Ta’i was killed on 7 September 2016 (5 Dhu al-Hijjah 1437).

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