How ISIS Picks Its Suicide Bombers

They come from Russia, France—even New Jersey—to end their lives for an ‘Islamic State.’ But a defector reveals that Saddam’s old spies hold all the triggers.


Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

For all the attention paid to ISIS, relatively little is known about its inner workings. But a man claiming to be a member of the so-called Islamic State’s security services has stepped forward to provide that inside view. This series is based on days of interviews with this ISIS spy. Read part one here, part three here, and part four here.

Part Two: Spies Like ISIS

ISTANBUL — “Suicide bomber is a choice,” said the man we’ll call Abu Khaled, stubbing out a Marlboro Red and lighting a new one. “When you join ISIS, during the clerical classes, they ask: ‘Who will be a martyr?’ People raise their hands, and they go off to a separate group.”

The number of recruits is declining, the former ISIS intelligence officer and trainer had told me here, on the shores of the Bosporus. But, at least in those indoctrination classes, there’s no want of young men looking for a quick trip to Paradise. “They keep volunteering,” said Abu Khaled.

In the wide world outside al-Dawla al-Islamiya, the Islamic State, we have caught occasional glimpses of these incendiary young zealots. There was, for instance, Jake Bilardi, a disaffected Australian 18-year-old, who, judging by the blog he left while still in Melbourne, made a rather seamless transition from Chomskyism to takfirism, before detonating himself at a checkpoint in Iraq.

Abu Abdullah al-Australi, as he went to his death in Ramadi, was convinced that he was carrying out a noble act of self-sacrifice, turning kamikaze for the caliphate. For him, jihad began at home. “The turning point in my ideological development,” he’d written, coincided with the “beginning of my complete hatred and opposition to the entire system Australia and the majority of the world was based upon. It was also the moment I realised that violent global revolution was necessary to eliminate this system of governance and that I would likely be killed in this struggle.” He was right about that last part, if not quite about how his fellow revolutionaries determined his use-value.

For pragmatic reasons, ISIS has encouraged homogeneity within the ranks of its katibas, or military battalions, much as the republicans did with their international brigades during the Spanish Civil War. One of the best-trained and best-equipped katibas, or battalions, is named for Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born al Qaeda cleric who was killed by a U.S. drone strike in Yemen in 2011. “Everything is in English for this katiba,” Abu Khaled said. “And we have another one with a lot of Americans called Abu Mohammed al-Amiriki. It’s named for a guy from New Jersey. He got killed in Kobani. This katiba also has a lot of foreigners.”

Lately, however, ethnically or linguistically delimited katibas are being dissolved and reconstituted into mixed ones, owing to the unintended consequence of having too many people from one place, or with one language, assembled together. Al-Battar, one of the strongest battalions in the ISIS army, was made up of 750 Libyans. Its men, ISIS found, were more loyal to their emir than they were to the organization. So al-Battar was disbanded.

Not long after joining ISIS, Abu Khaled had intended to found a Francophone katiba of around 70 to 80 fighters who didn’t speak any Arabic. The men drew up a petition and signed it, and Abu Khaled took it to ISIS headquarters in Raqqa. The petition was denied. Why? “They told me, ‘We had a problem before with the Libyans. We don’t want the French in one katiba.’”

Russian speakers, too, are considered rogue troublemakers in al-Dawla. All fighters from the Caucasus or former Soviet republics tend to be referred to by the catch-all word “Chechens.” And while Abu Omar al-Shishani, an ethnic Chechen from Georgia, is one of the most recognized (and overhyped) battlefield commanders in ISIS, “Chechens” are running their own outfits with very little supervision or command-and-control from Raqqa. This has caused heightened vigilance among the Arab or regional jihadists. “I was in Raqqa once, and there was five or six Chechens. They were mad about something. So they came to see the emir of Raqqa. He was so afraid, he ordered ISIS to deploy snipers to the roofs of buildings. He thought the Chechens would attack. The snipers stayed there for two hours.”

ISIS’s heralded end of the artificial borders imposed by European imperial powers has led to the unintended consequence of jihadist imperialism. The ISIS leadership, after all, is mainly Iraqi, and if there is a political, as opposed to religious, objective underlying all its activity, it is the restoration of Sunni power in Baghdad. Indeed, the franchise in Mesopotamia can be considered more “nationalist” in orientation than the one in the Levant, where muhajireen drunk on the “end of Sykes-Picot” seem not to realize they’re being exploited by the former henchmen of Saddam Hussein.


Get The Beast In Your Inbox!

Daily Digest

Start and finish your day with the top stories from The Daily Beast.

Cheat Sheet

A speedy, smart summary of all the news you need to know (and nothing you don't).

By clicking “Subscribe,” you agree to have read the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy
Thank You!
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason.

Structured rather like the regional mukhabarat, or intelligence agencies, of the traditional Arab tyrants ISIS supposedly wants to extirpate, ISIS’s amniyat, or security services, consists of four separate agencies or branches, each with its own role.

There is Amn al-Dakhili, which is tantamount to ISIS’s interior ministry. It’s charged with maintaining security for each city.

Then there is Amn al-Askari, or ISIS military intelligence, its reconnaissance men and anatomists of enemy positions and fighting capabilities.

Amn al-Kharji is ISIS foreign intelligence, whose operatives are sent behind “enemy lines” to conduct espionage or plot and perpetrate terrorist operations. But “enemy lines” doesn’t just refer to countries and cities of the West; any areas in Syria controlled by the Free Syrian Army (FSA) or the Assad regime, and thus not technically within the boundaries of the caliphate, require foreign assets to penetrate.

This is crucial for how the organization “expands” in Syria and Iraq—by dispatching sleepers to recruit agents and informants, or gather information about rival groups, be they other militias or state armies. Abu Khaled emphasized repeatedly that tradecraft rather than martial puissance is what makes ISIS so formidable at seizing and keeping terrain.

Others agree. A few months ago, Der Spiegel’s Christoph Reuter published an exposé based on captured internal ISIS documents showing the careful compartmentalization of the amniyat.

“The agents were supposed to function as seismic signal waves,” Reuter wrote, “sent out to track down the tiniest cracks, as well as age-old faults within the deep layers of society—in short, any information that could be used to divide and subjugate the local population.” Who were the elite families? How did they make their money? Were any of their sons secretly gay? What could be used to blackmail them into submission or compliance?

The entire apparatus was honeycombed with semi-autonomous fiefs, often tasked with keeping track of what the others were up to. “A general intelligence department reported to the ‘security emir’ for a region who was in charge of deputy emirs for individual districts. A head of secret spy cells and an ‘intelligence service and information manager’ for the district reported to each of these deputy emirs. The spy cells at the local level reported to the district emir’s deputy. The goal was to have everyone keeping an eye on everyone else.”

This naturally puts one in mind of the KGB or Stasi—hardly a coincidence given that many of the top-ranking ISIS officials are former members of Saddam Hussein’s mukhabarat and therefore past pupils of Warsaw Pact security organs. In fact, the man who constructed the ISIS franchise in Syria, the now-deceased Haji Bakr, had once been a colonel in Saddam’s Air Defense Intelligence Service.

Abu Khaled told me that the ministry of fear Haji Bakr built has only thrived since.

“A week before I defected, I was sitting with the chief of Amn al-Kharji, Abu Abd Rahman al-Tunisi. They know the weak point of the FSA. Al-Tunisi told me: ‘We are going to train guys we know, recruiters, Syrians… Take them, train them, and send them back to where they came from. We’ll give them $200,000 to $300,000. And because they have money, the FSA will put them in top positions.’”

“This is how ISIS took over Syria,” said Abu Khaled. “It has plants in the villages and areas run by the FSA, and its people are in the FSA.”

In other words: Not all of America’s supposed allies in Syria are what they seem. Some of them, according to Abu Khaled, are being manipulated by people secretly working for ISIS instead.

Abu Khaled was made a member of Amn al-Dawla, or ISIS state security. This is its Shin Bet or FBI, responsible for running counterintelligence operations (weeding out foreign spies from the FSA, the Assad regime, or Western or regional services), intercepting communications internally (such as phone calls or unauthorized Internet connections), and maintaining the organization’s notorious detention program. The British-born Mohammed Emwazi, whom the media nicknamed “Jihadi John” after his recorded decapitations of Western hostages and who was very likely killed by a U.S. drone strike on Nov. 13, was also a member of Amn al-Dawla.

“When anyone from any of these four branches is at work,” Abu Khaled explained, “they are masked.” But sometimes ISIS’s fondness for media attention gets the better of it. Emwazi’s identity, Abu Khaled said, was only confirmed because an informant for a regional government obtained unedited footage of the Briton running around Raqqa without his mask and delivered it to London.

While the agents for each branch are typically Syrian, their chiefs are not. For some reason Abu Khaled can’t explain, the chiefs of the amniyeen tend to be Palestinians from Gaza.

Like any state bureaucracies, territoriality gives rise to factionalism and infighting. “We have the military and the amniyeen,” Abu Khaled said. “They don’t like each other. When I used to train the amniyeen, my friends from the military used to tell me, ‘So now you are working for the kufar?’” He smiled. The infidels.

Abu Khaled’s main role was in training the frontline local security for al-Bab. This took place in a camp about five kilometers north of the city and the daily protocol was intense. Reveille was at 5:30 in the morning. The jihadists would all gather for a one-hour workout. Abu Khaled got on site at 7 and gave lessons until noon. He taught battlefield tactics and operational awareness: how to secure a perimeter or launch a sortie.

The fighters were then allowed to rest for two hours before training commenced again. At 5:30 in the evening, they were relieved, but not to a camp barracks. “The guys would go back to the places where they slept because it wasn’t safe to stay over in the camp,” he said.


They stayed at the residence of Aleppo-born Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, the second-most powerful man in this terror army. He was once the confidant of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian founder of al Qaeda in Iraq, ISIS’s original incarnation.

Adnani, a senior member of ISIS’s Shura Council—its main decision-making body—is responsible for appointing the wali, or governor, for each of four wilayat, or provinces.

Adnani also names the chiefs of all four branches of the security services as well as the chief of staff for the ISIS military administration. He is very mercurial. “I don’t even think he consults with the khalifa [the caliph] for replacing people or firing people,” Abu Khaled said. (This seemed exaggerated: The Shura Council, headed by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, likely does authorize—or at least rubber-stamps—the selection and deselection of walis.) “Every visit, he puts people in jail, he fires people. Before I came to al-Bab, Adnani appointed a new wali from Iraq, a new chief of security from Iraq. Now in Syria we don’t have any Syrians as walis. Foreigners from Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Iraq—but not Syrians. Tunisia should really open its embassy in Raqqa, not Damascus. That’s where its people are.”

Adnani divides his time between Raqqa and al-Bab, where Abu Khaled claims to know all of his residences, including the one used by the soldiers that Abu Khaled trained. Adnani is largely inconspicuous, always traveling in “an old car” and with a security detail that tends not to advertise its presence.

The ISIS leaders, according to Abu Khaled, conduct regular tours of their caliphate virtually incognito as they check on whether the “state” is functioning as it should. And if they’re not, then heads will roll in both the literal and figurative sense.

Abu Khaled says he once shared a frontline position with Baghdadi himself. “One time, we were around Kweris airport,” he said, an isolated and—until recently—besieged regime outpost in ISIS country near Aleppo. “And al-Baghdadi came there. We didn’t know at the time, only after he left. Some people saw him but didn’t realize it was him. When Islamic State leaders travel, they don’t come with high-profile bodyguards. You don’t even know they’re there.”

Perhaps the foregoing story is true, or perhaps it’s part of a carefully tended personality cult, without which no absolutism can survive and self-perpetuate.

The tales about these secret visits are reminiscent of those told about Harun al-Rashid, the fifth Abbasid caliph of Baghdad when it was at its height in the eighth century. Although al-Rashid was real, his rendering by posterity was more informed by his recurring, fictionalized role in The Thousand and One Nights.

At times, Abu Khaled seemed an unwitting Scheherazade, trafficking more in third-hand rumors and gossip—caliphate cock-and-bull—than in what he’d witnessed himself. Yet even these stories were illuminating insofar as they demonstrate the care with which ISIS sells its own legend internally.

Another anecdote about Baghdadi, for instance, is almost surely a fabrication by clever political technologists for intentional dissemination through the jihadist grapevine.

Once, it is said, Baghdadi traveled to Minbij, the other main city ISIS controls in Aleppo, whereupon he got into a car accident. The man whose car he dinged was incensed and started shouting at the caliph, whose identity he didn’t know, right there on the street, in front of passersby.

“I’m going to take you to the court!” the man screamed at Baghdadi. “Let’s go,” Baghdadi answered him. And off the two went, to the Sharia court in Minbij. In front of a clerical magistrate who knew the defendant’s identity even if the plaintiff did not, Baghdadi admitted that the smashup was indeed his fault. The judge ordered the caliph to pay a fine.

Part I: An Appointment in IstanbulPart II: Spies Like ISISPart III: Ministries of FearPart IV: Escape From the Islamic State

“They hold themselves to account, like everybody else,” Abu Khaled told me. “This kind of thing, believe me, they are very good at.”

Abu Khaled credits this notion of “equality before the law” as one of the main pillars of ISIS’s populist political program. And he said he experienced it firsthand.

His personal computer, he said, was at one point confiscated by Amn al-Dawla so that it could be checked for any sign of disloyalty or treason. The machine was lost, a casualty of the jihadist bureaucracy. “So I had to take them to court. I swear to God, the judge, he picked up the phone: ‘OK, guys, you have 24 hours. I need his computer. Or you have to compensate him for the computer. Otherwise, I’m going to put you in the square and thrash you in front of everybody.’ You can be a nobody and still seek justice. This is one reason people who hate ISIS still respect them.”

But, of course, ISIS doesn’t just enforce its will through respect, he noted. When that appeal falls short, ISIS turns to a complementary method of controlling its population: fear. Then Abu Khaled told me about the cage.

Tomorrow: Ministries of Fear