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06.18.14

Someone Is Spilling ISIS’s Secrets on Twitter

The terror group may be on a rampage in Iraq. But ISIS is being threatened from inside, it seems. And no one is sure who’s behind the tweets disclosing the group’s intimate details.

A mysterious Twitter account is trying to stop ISIS’s rise to power by spilling the terror group’s secrets online. For more than six months a series of tweets have detailed the alleged covert alliances and conspiratorial machinations behind the ascension of The Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham, the Islamist group taking over large parts of Iraq. Taken together, the tweets form a slanted but valuable picture of ISIS and one of the only portraits of its leaders. Perhaps even more important, the account is still active, sending out tweets days ago about ISIS’s current strategy in Iraq and what it plans to do next.

Sitting over a keyboard somewhere, likely in a Syrian town now held by rebel forces, is @wikibaghdady, the leaker behind the anti-ISIS account. He may be a former ISIS member who defected to ISIS’s rivals in Syria, the al Qaeda-backed Al Nusra front, as some analysts have speculated. Or, “he” may actually be more than one person, with @wikibaghdady serving as the avatar for a group effort to undermine ISIS’s official story and knock it from its perch atop the jihadist movement. Whatever the case, @wikibaghdady has put ISIS in uncomfortable positions, revealing the true name of the group’s leader and a deeply controversial association.

The online gang fight goes back to Syria and the competition between jihadist groups there for turf, religious authority, and the spoils of war. So does the @wikibaghdady account; it too grew out of the fighting in Syria as a reaction to ISIS’s maximalist approach and the bloody in-fighting between Islamist factions there.

Brian Fishman, a fellow at The New America foundation and ISIS analyst who has been following the group for years, is cautious about @wikibaghdady’s claims but called the account, “at minimum a keen observer of events in Syria,” and “a key source of ideas that should be investigated through other means.” A similar assessment came from Hassan Hassan, an analyst at the Delma institute in Abu Dhabi and expert on radical groups in the region. “The account does seem to offer credible insider information about ISIS,” Hassan said, “but it is not wholly accurate…[and] should be taken with a pinch of salt.”

Despite the caveats, @wikibaghdady deserves closer examination—especially at a moment when ISIS’s next moves could lead to a wider conflagration and more carnage. And some of what @wikbaghdady tweeted months ago has already been borne out by facts on the ground. The leaker’s revelations about ISIS’s alliance with Saddam Hussein’s former party, the Baathists, were confirmed by the events of last week, for example. The rapid takeover of Iraqi cities was not a solo effort; the campaign relied on a cultivated network of partnerships between Sunni groups including, critically, ISIS’s pact with their ideological enemies, the Baathists—a repeated theme in @wikibaghdady’s tweets.

It’s a catchy name for a jihadi leaker—@wikibaghdady—an obvious nod to the de jure politics of radical transparency and an easy handle to remember for the account’s 36,100 followers. But whoever is behind the tweets isn’t motivated by an allegiance to truth, or the idea that it can be liberated and spoken to power. Like a mafisoso complaining that his fellow hitman failed to play by the rules, it’s not the murders that bother @wikibaghdady but the way they are carried out. The account’s criticisms focus on ISIS’s inner workings, the deceptions and cynical deals it used to engineer its rise. But along with the expose of internal politics, it also questions the purity of ISIS’s Islamist ideology and challenges the group’s religious authority.

Whoever @wikibaghdady is, two things about him are clear: He’s a fellow Islamist who has a beef with ISIS, and he’s someone close to the group, providing the kind of details that only come from intimacy. That doesn’t make him some kind of hero, but if snitches had to be saints, the NYPD would shut down tomorrow. Wikibaghdady isn’t outing secrets to curb ISIS’s wanton slaughter. He’s a fellow jihadi playing dirty politics against members of his own cohort.

@Wikibaghdady began on December 10, 2013 with a first tweet marked “urgent” that promised to “reveal the secrets of the organization of the State of Iraq and the Sham.” Building on the staged drama of the moment, the first tweet ended with “Coming soon.”

Most of @wikibaghdady’s secret history of ISIS is a straightforward chronicle of purported facts about the group, presented as a series of questions, posed and then answered by the account. But pulling back the curtain and exposing ISIS’s inner workings, @wikibaghdady claims that ISIS is an elaborate fraud, pretenders to the Caliphate.

Whoever wikibaghdady is, two things about him are clear: He’s a fellow Islamist whose beef with ISIS has nothing to do with group’s brutality; and he’s someone close to the group, providing the kind of details that only come from intimacy.

In the days and months after that first tweet, the account delivered a continuous stream of information about ISIS. First, the leaker outed the true identity of ISIS’s shadowy leader known, at that time, only by his assumed name of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The biographical details that followed fit with the available record and have been confirmed by subsequent reports on Baghdadi—that his real name is Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim Bou Badri bin Armoush, and he was born not in Baghdad but Samarra.

The names of the other leaders on Baghdadi’s ISIS council, the details of the organization’s structure, its financial schemes and plans for the future followed. In just under a thousand published tweets, the account has provided valuable if unreliable details on ISIS evolution.

A Twitter intrigue may seem trivial measured against mass graves in Iraq and the prospects of a regional civil war but it’s significant for two reasons. First, with so little known about ISIS and its leader Baghdadi, even accounts from self-interested parties can add valuable pieces to the puzzle.

Secondly, Twitter has become an important tool for the jihadist financing and recruitment efforts, as J.M. Berger, an expert in extremist groups and their online strategies, has noted. While Twitter has been a powerful platform for ISIS to spread its message to fanboys and potential recruits, the medium can also expose ISIS vulnerabilities and provide its enemies with a means to exploit them. Along with the eager celebrants that ISIS’s gruesome photostream attracts, Twitter has opened the group up to attacks and created a significant new front for inter-jihadi disputes. With ISIS working hard to hide its secrets and push propaganda as fact, leakers may turn out to be an increasingly important source of information about it and other extremist groups.

Perhaps the most significant charge @wikibaghdady made—and the one that now seems most prophetic, after the group took control of Mosul, Iraq’s second-biggest city—is that ISIS’s inner chamber of power, hidden by Baghdadi’s public front, is led by a former Baathist and colonel in Saddam’s army called Haji Bakr. According to @wikibaghdady, it was Bakr who engineered Baghdadi’s rise to power after ISIS’s former leader, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, was killed in 2010 by a joint U.S.-Iraqi operation in Tikrit.

That Baathist connection resurfaced last week after ISIS’ Iraq offensive and has proven to be a critical aspect of the group’s strategy and a cornerstone of its current ability to take and hold ground.

Last week, on June 13, the @wikibaghdadi account claimed a "Meeting between ISIS and Naqshbandi Army near al-Qayara area south of Mosul had taken place with representatives from Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri and Baghdadi.”

Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri is a mythic figure among many of Iraq’s Sunnis. A high-ranking commander in the Iraqi army before the American invasion, al-Douri became the leader of Iraq’s banned Baath party after Hussein was executed in 2007. He managed to evade capture by American and Iraqi forces and has been in hiding pretty much since then. Since his disappearance, sightings of al-Douri have been reported in Mosul but he has never resurfaced publicly. Now, al-Douri appears to have resurfaced leading the The Naqshbandi Army, the former Baathist officers who form a cornerstone of the Sunni coalition in Mosul that includes ISIS.

After al-Douri’s hiding out for years  in Mosul, cultivating the underground Sunni insurgent force, reports about al-Douri suddenly started popping up in the last week. Despite the rhetoric about the ISIS takeover of Iraq, it’s clear that the group’s rapid advance owed much to its alliance with other Sunni groups, including the Baathist Naqshbandis led by al-Douri.

But @wikibaghdady goes further than just positing the alliance between ISIS and Baathist forces. The account claims, as Hassan's translation below shows, that the two groups struck a deal which will place the Baathists in control of a new ruling coalition.

@Wikibaghdady’s claims are so significant because Islamists and Arab nationalists are, by and large, sworn enemies. For absolutists like ISIS and al Qaeda, corrupt Arab regimes and their sacrilegious leaders are supposed to be the first against the wall—along with religious apostates.

The Naqshbandi order, whose authority @wikibaghdady claims ISIS has ascented to, manages to be both Islamist and nationalist, as they are Baathists and adherents of Sufism, the minority Muslim denomination that ISIS and other fundamentalist groups consider heretical. Yet @wikibaghdady has claimed not only that ISIS is currently allied with The Naqshbandi, but that The Naqshbandi will be in charge once the fighting is over.

An alliance between ISIS and Iraqi Baathists can be explained away as matter of necessity, a tactical commitment that can be broken once the fighting is over. (In the past, nationalist and Islamist groups have cooperated; and some Baathists like Haji Bakr have later become Islamists.) But a governing coalition led publicly by a prominent Baathist like al-Douri would be much harder, if not impossible, for ISIS to square with its own espoused principles and justify to the global jihadi audience, whose support could tip the balance of power toward their rival Islamist groups.

Hassan, who has been studying the ISIS-Baathist alliance, said, “I believe there was an initial understanding between representatives of Douri and representatives of Baghdadi to share power in Sunni areas. But any such understanding soon collapsed, and we started to see ISIS trying to dominate the areas and reign supreme.” There is an unbridgeable gulf between the groups because “ISIS considers that Baathists follow an un-Islamic ideology,” Hassan said. And the natural conflicts between ISIS and the Baathists “are too deep for any such alliance to last.”

Fishman, the New America analyst, said “there is a lot of evidence that ISIS has cooperated with the Naqshabandi Army in Iraq, which implies some agreement between al-Baghdadi and al-Douri.” But, he added, “it is one thing to build a military alliance and another to have a shared vision for governance. I don't think this alliance will last as constructed. I don't think ISIS will subsume itself to the Naqshabandi's. There's plenty of evidence ISIS is declaring itself in areas it controls.”

In claiming that ISIS would bow to another group, @wikibaghdady appears to have overplayed the propaganda hand. But if recent history is a guide, that won’t stop him – or them – from dishing out new dirt on the Islamists who have captured their own nascent state and the attention of the world.