King of Clubs

04.17.15 8:20 PM ET

He Served Saddam. He Served ISIS. Now Al Douri May Be Dead.

Only DNA will determine for sure that this former Ba’athist leader who allied with the jihadists finally is out of the picture. If so, what will his followers do?

He’s been on the loose since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and despite a $10 million bounty for his capture always managed to stay one step ahead of his pursuers, but now Iraqi officials are fairly confident that the King of Clubs can finally be crossed off the U.S. “kill or capture” list. According to them Izzat Ibrahim al Douri, for decades one of Saddam Hussein’s key advisers and the leader of a powerful militia allied with the so-called Islamic State, is now dead.

His death was claimed today by the governor of Salahuddin province, Raed al Jubouri, who told al Arabiya TV that al Douri was killed in fighting near the town of Hamreen in the Sunni Muslim heartland of northern Iraq. The station broadcast a photo of a dead man who looked like al Douri, pallid and freckled, whose face has been likened to The Red Skull in Captain America comics.

The former Iraqi general and Saddam deputy, one of whose daughters was briefly married to the Iraqi tyrant’s son Uday, has been reported killed many times before. To be certain he is dead, his body is being transported to Baghdad for DNA testing, say the Iraqi authorities.

Al Jubouri claimed al Douri was killed during an Iraqi army operation near the Aalas oil fields. Other local politicians urged caution, saying some intelligence officials who have been tracking the onetime Saddam crony for years have told them they don’t believe the photograph being broadcast is of al Douri. But Khaled Jassam, a member of the Salahuddin provincial council, told news agencies he was 70 percent sure al Douri.

If confirmed, al Douri’s death would not only close the chapter on one of the longest manhunts of the Iraq war—he ranked sixth in the deck of cards U.S. forces passed out with pictures of the Butcher of Baghdad’s top cronies—it also could upset the web of complex alliances between the jihadist militants of ISIS and local anti-Shia militias in northern Iraq.

Last summer al Douri made common cause between ISIS and his militia, the Army of the Men of the Naqshbandi Order, Jaysh Rijāl aṭ-Ṭarīqa an-Naqshabandiya (JTRN), which numbers in its ranks local Sunni tribesmen and members of Saddam’s old Ba’ath Party. Opposed to the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad, his fighters helped the jihadists to mount their lightning insurgency across western and northern Iraq, vanquishing the U.S.-equipped and trained Iraqi army. They then backed the announcement of a caliphate straddling large parts of Syria and Iraq.

In July, al Douri himself issued an audio recording praising “the heroes and knights of al Qaeda and the Islamic State.” One of his roles for Saddam was as a point man for developing relations with radical Islamic groups—ties that could be used when and if needed.

But tensions have been mounting in recent weeks among the disparate groups of the jihadi-led Sunni Muslim insurgency. Recent jihadi abductions of Iraqi Christians prompted disapproval among some of the Islamic State’s Ba’athist allies, some of whom are Christians themselves, adding to internal frictions within the alliance. U.S. and Iraqi officials have held out hopes that as ISIS starts experiencing military setbacks inherent ideological differences within the alliances would start surfacing with groups like the Naqshbandi Army being coaxed to break with the jihadists.

Many of the Naqshbandi Army are Sufi Muslims—the name of the militia comes from a mystical Sufi order—a strain of Islam seen as heretical by the jihadists.

“For sure this [al Douri’s death] will have an impact… There will be a break among them,” predicted al Jubouri. “This is a major victory for those involved in the operation.”

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, an American counter-terrorism analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, agrees that al Douri’s death, if confirmed, might be “potentially significant.” It could present “serious dangers” to the Naqshbandi Army, he says.

“Al-Douri had been building the organization since the Saddam era based on Sufi networks within Saddam’s military,” said Gartenstein-Ross. “One thing we do know is that these groups tend to be based on very personal leadership structures. If that is the internal structure the group has, one mainly centered on al Douri, his death could result in significant challenges for the organization and perhaps result in its fragmentation.”

But he cautions: as a highly clandestine organization, it is hard to understand the nature of the Naqshbandi Army clearly. “We have seen variations within the organization depending on geographical area in Iraq on how members relate to the Islamic State. We don’t know if the variations are due to local leaders having different views or whether it was due to centralized decision-making in which the army decided to operate in different ways in different locales. If there is good survivability built into the organization—in other words if there is a clear succession and the command structures remain intact—it has a good chance of weathering his death.”