Everything We Knew About This ISIS Mastermind Was Wrong
He was one man, not two. He was mistakenly pronounced dead four times. But the fog surrounding ISIS’s No. 2 is finally beginning to part.
The Pentagon calls him Haji Imam. His other nicknames include Abu Ali al-Anbari, Abu Alaa al-Afri, Hajji Iman, or simply the Hajji, the Arabic word for “pilgrim” but one that is colloquially used to refer to a revered person or gray eminence. Iraqi and American security officials were so confused by his multiple noms de guerre that they identified him as two distinct high-level leaders of the so-called Islamic State; Wikipedia even has two biographies, and two photographs for the one jihadist whose obscurity was in direct proportion to his significance. For Abd al-Rahman Mustafa al-Shakhilar al-Qaduli—that’s his legal name—is known as a man of many talents. He’d have to be to attain the rank of second-most powerful figure in ISIS, next to the caliph himself.
The U.S. military announced that al-Qaduli—who oversaw ISIS’s intelligence operations—was killed in an airstrike in Deir Ezzor, in eastern Syria, on March 25. Although his death was proclaimed at least four times before by the Iraqi government and twice by the U.S.-led coalition, this time it might be real. Several ISIS supporters eulogized him on social media, and new details about his curriculum vitae and all-important role within the organization have been disclosed, possibly because operational security is no longer a priority.
That the No. 2 man in the world’s most dangerous terror organization may be dead matters almost as much as we’ve only been able to learn about him in death. Al-Qaduli’s biography has been cloaked in rumor, myth, and misinformation—or disinformation, given that much of what had been produced on his history came from disgruntled al Qaeda sources looking to ruin his reputation following the bin Ladenist’s split from ISIS in 2014.
Al-Qaduli had been mistakenly identified as a former officer with the ousted regime of Saddam Hussein, and an unusually high-ranking one for ISIS recruits: He was said to have been a major-general in the Iraqi army. Actually a physics teacher by training, al-Qaduli was a jihadist since the 1980s, first as an informal preacher and then as an activist-in-exile. Amid harassment by the former regime, he left Iraq for Afghanistan in the late 1990s and returned in 2000 to Sulaymaniyah, in northeastern Iraq, to join Ansar al-Islam, a jihadist organization operating in the Kurdish region. (Interestingly enough, al-Qaduli denigrated Michel Aflaq, the founder of the original Baath Party, as a “freemason,” a common accusation hurled by ISIS against those it perceives to be conspirators against the true Islam.)
In 2003, al-Anbari started a local and independent Islamist group in Tal Afar, known as Jihad Squads, to fight the occupying American forces. In 2004 he joined al Qaeda in Iraq, then under the leadership of the Jordanian jihadist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the founding father of ISIS. He found clerical authority in the group, becoming a Sharia judge and formal preacher, positions he held amid his many portfolios to until his supposed claimed death last month.
Even with this new biographical information, some details remain obscure. Was he a native of Tal Afar, the notorious gateway town from which many ISIS members hail? (If so, the al-Afri nom de guerre would make sense: the name simply means “from Tal Afar,” just as al-Anbari means “from Anbar province.”) Khaled al-Qaysi, a knowledgeable Iraqi journalist and a close observer of Islamist groups, insists that al-Qaduli was in fact born in Hadhr, in southern Ninewah province. He was from everywhere.
Whatever his true provenance, there is no denying al-Qaduli’s ideology. We obtained more than 20 hours worth of recordings of lectures he gave to his organization’s high clerics, focusing on Islamic creed and modern democratic norms. The main themes of ISIS’s propaganda narrative—the pathological hatred of Yazidis, the obsession with Sunnis deemed impious or illegitimate because of their willingness to partner with non-Muslims, work through democratic state institutions or (worst of all) turn militarily on takfiri extremists such as ISIS—are evident in al-Qaduli’s sermons to such an extent that his impact on shaping the ISIS worldview may have been greater than that of the “caliph,” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
In the recordings, he is also identified by yet another, hitherto unknown, nickname, al-Dar Islami, or a resident of the House of Islam. In each of his sermons, he breaks down his arguments against man-made constitutions and laws, parliaments, courts, and democratic norms like devolution of power and popular sovereignty in a coherent and unparalleled manner. He makes his views about minorities, and specifically Yazidis, clear. He considers them “infidels” and takes their participation in the Iraqi parliament (where there is exactly one Yazidi MP) as proof that true Sunni Muslims have no place in democratic legislatures.
Al-Qaduli denounces the Iraqi constitution because it doesn’t allow Muslims to demolish Yazidi places of worship: “Who is in power today of the parties that claim to belong to Islam [who] works in accordance with this constitution?” he said in one of his sermons. He detests Salim al-Jabouri, the Sunni speaker of the Iraqi parliament and a leading member of the Muslim Brotherhood-aligned Iraqi Islamic Party. “Did you know that he is working hard to bring back the Yazidis to their hometowns? Did you know that if he is able, and he won’t, God willing, he will bring back those people and he will pay for them to rebuild their places of worship? Those turban-wearing [clerics] will help him to do that,” he continues, referring to the Shia. “Why? Because the constitution upholds freedom of belief, religious rituals and the protection of places of worship.”
It’s hardly ISIS’s fault alone. But now, Jabouri’s position is in jeopardy.
Another leitmotif is al-Qaduli’s hatred of the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist organization that originated in Egypt and has branches across the world and largely seeks to transform Muslim societies through gradual and non-violent means. Its acceptance of democratic tools is deemed by ISIS as evidence of apostasy. Al-Qaduli dedicates much of his indoctrination on religious Sunni groups and individuals that engage in politics or associate with “tawaghit” (false deities, which he uses metaphorically to refer to man-made laws and institutions). A Muslim, to al-Qaduli, should avoid the “habitats of apostasy” even if that involves abandoning their financial rights by not filing a court case. A Muslim must not attend sermons in any mosque anywhere in the world if the imam does not adhere to the Islamic creed as al-Qaduli understands it. Muslims, in other words, have little hope if they do not travel to the House of Islam, the areas controlled by ISIS.
And while in its latest issue ISIS’s propaganda magazine Dabiq doesn’t mention al-Qaduli by any of his known noms de guerre or allude to his reported demise—by contrast, the three Belgian suicide bombers who struck Brussels on March 22, and another Belgian who resisted an earlier police raid, are fondly remembered as martyrs—it’s tempting to see this issue as a posthumous tribute to his obsessions. The cover story, after all, is on the “murtadd [apostate] Brotherhood,” which ISIS calls a “devastating cancer” that “has emerged, mutated, and spread” since its founding in 1928. These political Islamists are working not only with the “tawaghit” and “crusaders” throughout the Middle East but legitimized Shia Iran’s Islamic Revolution and endorse interfaith dialogue with Jews and Christians.
According to different sources, including al-Qaysi, al-Qaduli took a lead role in overseeing ISIS’s internal police state. In January 2014, around the time al-Baghdadi’s deputy in Syria, Hajji Bakr, was killed by Syrian rebels, al-Qaduli handled the intelligence services, or amniyat, in the country, and then in both Syria and Iraq after the killing of Abu Muhannad al-Sweidawi, a former Saddamist. Al-Sweidawi was a close friend and associate of Adnan Ismail Najm, known by his nom de guerre Abu Abd al-Rahman al-Bilawi, the mastermind behind the takeover of Mosul. In a sense, al-Qaduli was ISIS’s director of national intelligence.
The killing of al-Qaduli, Haji Bakr, al-Sweidawi, and al-Bilawi signals the loss of ISIS’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, the men who defined the group’s military, security, and ideological pillars like no other members had since the death of al-Zarqawi. Of this elite cadre which founded the so-called caliphate, only the caliph himself, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi—now recuperating from injuries to a leg and his back sustained from a U.S. airstrike that hadn’t even intended to target him—and Abu Mohammed al-Adnani—the ISIS “spokesman” who runs all over Syria and oversees foreign terrorist operations—have eluded the coalition.
Even still, the winnowing of the uppermost echelon of the organization doesn’t mean the imminent end of ISIS, or even the beginning of the end. For a decade, since the killing of its top leaders in 2006 (al-Zarqawi) and 2010 (Abu Omar al-Baghdadi and his war minister Abu Ayyub al-Masri), ISIS has adapted to changing wartime exigencies (the al-Anbar Awakening, the “surge,” the U.S. military withdrawal, the Syrian revolution) and regrouped. It went from being a foreigner-led insurgency to a cosmetically “Iraqized” one to a genuinely Iraqi-led caliphate enterprise.
With its renewed emphasis on attacking Western targets inside the West, ISIS has similarly undergone a quiet transformation during the past two years, which is really more of a bifurcation into two organizations. There is the battered but still formidable army of terror, but there is also a powerful and menacing new foreign operations arm composed of, and increasingly administered by, European nationals. As agents of a Jihadist Internationale, these sons and daughters of France, Belgium, Germany, Britain, and the Netherlands are doctrinally beholden to al-Baghdadi but they are nonetheless given a great deal of latitude and autonomy for planning and carrying out attacks abroad under the franchise banner of the black flag. They may well represent the next generation of ISIS’s leadership and stand to inherit the Shura Council once the graying beards of ex-Saddamists, veteran al-Qaeda jihadists, and former American detainees are gone.