The Faltering Islamic State in Iraq
After the declaration of the Islamic State in Iraq, founded by al-Qaeda leader Abu Hamza al-Muhajir in January of this year, several Islamic resistance groups based in the western part of Iraq expressed their support for the new state. The announcement of the establishment of the ISI was made with great fanfare — being made public via an online video that appeared on Sout Al Khilifa (“Voice of the Caliphate”), and posted on the Caliphate Voice Channel blog. The announcement, complete with video, was made by a masked announcer: “In a long awaited step, for which sacrifices were granted and martyrs bloods were shed to achieve its path, the Mujahideen Shura Council in Iraq has announced the establishment of the Islamic State of Iraq, the state of Islam that will rule the law of Allah ‘Shaiaah’ on people and lands, that will protect the center of Islam and acts as a shield for the Sunni people in the land of Iraq.”
While the new state quickly gained support from other groups in areas dominated by resistance forces, the ISI started to fall apart within weeks of the “Voice of the Caliphate” announcement. Clashes erupted between ISI militias and other Islamic groups (including some of those that had initially pledged their support), and squabbles broke out between ISI kingpins and the the leadership cadre of several resistance groups. The leadership disagreements revolved around ISI plans to mount attacks on Shias, even at the expense of protecting Sunni populations in Anbar, Gaditha, and Fallujah. Nor were resistance leaders satisfied with the ISI’s open support for al-Qaeda tactics that would amount to a purge of Sunni activists who did not meet al-Qaeda’s political standards. Finally, immediately after the formation of the ISI, al-Qaeda militia leaders began a program of forcibly extracting payments from Sunni families and imposing a conscription quota of young men in ISI areas.
Well-informed sources told one of our contacts in Mosul — where the Islamic State in Iraq first emerged as a political force — that the ISI had lost the support of a number of important resistance groups, including Jaish al-Islami and Mejles Shura al-Mujahadeen. Our contact in Mosul told us that the loss of these two groups, while not fatal, “had caused divisions in the resistance in the Mosul region.” Additionally, we have been told, groups were influenced by the work of the “Al Anbar Wake Up Group” — a movement led by Mahmoud Abu Risha, a Dulaimi tribal leader who is said to have close ties to the Americans. The ISI was forced to flee the Mosul area and have taken refuge in the Himren Mountains, between Kirkuk and Diyala. The group — now a loose al-Qaeda run federation — consists of Ansar al-Sunna, Jund al-Sahaba, and some brigades of al-Jihad wel-Sunna. While weakened, the ISI has successfully mounted operations in Baghdad and the Triangle of Death. “The ISI, or what’s left of it, is mad as hell,” one American military officer confirmed to us. “The split in Mosul back in January leaves them with something to prove.”
That the remnants of the ISI remain strong and are able to mount successful operations throughout the Baghdad region is due to their experienced and dedicated leadership. The Emir of the state, Omar al-Baghdadi — who some American officials claim was killed on May 1 — is known as an effective strategist. Baghdadi, high on America’s list for capture or assassination, is a former Iraqi officer who left Saddam’s military in 1999 for Afghanistan and returned in 2002 through the border with Kurdistan. Our sources in Anbar Province report that Baghdadi had, for many years, close ties with the Saudi intelligence services. In addition to Baghdadi, Abu Abdulrahman al-Falahi and Abu Hamza al-Muhajer form the core leadership — the former as prime minister and the latter as minister of war. Al-Muhajer is the only non-Iraqi in the ISI.
Other ISI leaders have close ties to Iraq’s Baathist and tribal networks, including Abu Osman al-Temimi (the Minister of Sharia Affairs) and Abu Bakir al-Jubori, the Minister of Public Relations. Despite their strong ties to al-Qaeda, ISI has been able to bring together a cross-section of former Baathist leaders and soldiers — whose traditional hatred of the bin Laden network has apparently been eclipsed by their disgust with the Americans. Among these is Abu Abdul Jabbaral Janabi, a former Iraqi army colonel whose real name is Mohammed al-Janaci, who was said to be a rising star in the Republican Guards prior to the American invasion. Janabi was given the security portfolio by Baghdadi, and is responsible for planning and carrying out ISI attacks in the Baghdad region. The cabinet is rounded out by Abu Mohammed al-Mashhadani (Minister of Information), Abu Abdul Qader al-Esawi (Minister of Martyrs), Abu Ahmed al-Janabi (Minister of Oil), Abu Abdullah al-Zubaidi (Minister of Health) and Mustafa al-Araji (Minister of Agriculture). While Americans take credit for chasing the ISI out of Anbar, and some American officials have bragged about “kicking ass” on ISI — the group’s fracturing has actually done more harm to its stature than any American military action (see Pat Dollard’s report).
The ISI story is now typical of attempts to weld Sunni resistance groups together into coherent political organizations. “There are typically divisions inside the leadership over what tactics to follow,” one Iraqi resistance leader told us, “and usually that split is over whether to spend resources in defending Sunnis from the Americans and Shias, or whether to focus on killing the occupying forces.” Another leader — a defector from ISI who remains in the resistance in the Mosul area — told us that ISI has been weakened, but that “its ability to kill is still very strong.” So why have the Americans and the Iraqi government still failed to pacify Anbar and other resistance strongholds? Our Mosul sources shrugs and laughs: “If you think the Sunnis are divided, you need to spend a few days in Baghdad. The Americans and their clients don’t know what they’re doing. Their infighting makes ours look minor.”