Fadel Ahmad Abdullah al-Hiyali, the overall deputy to the “caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who heads the Military Council of the Islamic State (ISIS) and is the direct commander of ISIS’s forces in Iraq, was killed in a drone strike in Mosul on August 18, according to a U.S. spokesman for the National Security Council yesterday. Al-Hiyali, who also goes by the pseudonyms Abu Muslim al-Turkmani, Abu Mutaz al-Qurayshi, and Haji Mutaz, was reported to have been travelling in a car with a media operative named Abu Abdullah when he was killed.
The reports from the end of last year, based on statements from senior American officials, that al-Hiyali had been killed between Dec. 3 and Dec. 9, 2014, were clearly wrong, as were the reports based on sources from the Iraqi government that said al-Hiyali had been killed in February 2015. Intelligence recovered by the U.S. raid into eastern Syria against ISIS’s “oil minister” Fathi at-Tunisi (Abu Sayyaf) on May 16 showed that al-Hiyali is “even more important” to ISIS than previously understood, and at that time very much alive.
The raid also revealed that one of at-Tunisi’s personal captives was the American aid worker, Kayla Mueller, who was kidnapped in August 2013 and announced killed by ISIS on February 6, 2015. ISIS claimed Mueller had been hit by a Jordanian airstrike. While held by at-Tunisi, Mueller had “belonged” to al-Baghdadi, who repeatedly raped her. This was later confirmed by at-Tunisi’s wife, Umm Sayyaf, who used to fetch Mueller for al-Baghdadi, and two teenage Yazidi slave girls held with Mueller, to whom she had been something of a carer, including foregoing escaping with them lest she endanger their effort.
One of the Yazidis, Amshe, who was seventeen-years-old at the time, was raped by al-Hiyali, who told her:
There was competition among the “caliphate’s” senior commanders for Kayla. They wanted her for her pale skin and because she was an American. It seems she was a trophy for them. Haji Mutazz had tried to get Kayla for himself. Amshe said he told her Baghdadi was always going to kill Kayla when he had finished with her.
Al-Hiyali had “laughed” at the reports of Mueller’s death. “Her stupid government,” al-Hiyali said, according to Amshe. “We killed her because she is an American. If Obama wanted to he could tell Bashar to stop bombing us. Ten of our women and children die every day. This is our revenge. … If any Western government refuses to put pressure on Bashar, we will kill their citizens too.”
A cynic might wonder about the timing of this death announcement, so soon after the U.S. uncovered al-Hiyali’s true worth. ISIS is well-known to disseminate false reports that its members have been killed and injured. Being already dead is pretty good operational security (OPSEC), after all; it means nobody is looking to try to kill you again. So this latest report, even with White House confirmation, should be taken with a degree of scepticism.
Dead or alive, al-Hiyali is a very good demonstration of the fact that ISIS’s military prowess—especially in intelligence, planning, and logistics—is being provided in significant measure by the former (Saddam Hussein) regime elements (FREs). Al-Hiyali began in Istikhbarat (military intelligence) but by the end of the Saddam regime was, as I pointed out back in April, “right at the core of Saddam’s military-intelligence apparatus in Special Forces,” personally close to Saddam and his long-time deputy, Izzat Ibrahim ad-Douri, a key organizer of the post-Saddam insurgency and somebody without whom ISIS could not have risen to its present stature. While occupying a senior position in Saddam’s security system, al-Hiyali had simultaneously been recruited by the very active and extensive underground jihadi networks in Iraq.
The Military Council is believed to be the most important institution in ISIS, and its head has been, since 2011, an FRE. Its first leader was Samir al-Khlifawi (Haji Bakr), a former colonel in an elite air defence unit of Saddam’s intelligence, who was killed in January 2014 after he masterminded ISIS’s expansion into Syria, notably by using ISIS’s Dawa (Missionary) Offices as fronts for intelligence, to penetrate communities and recruit so that ISIS had already conquered an area before it openly moved in. Al-Khlifawi was succeeded by Adnan Ismail Najem al-Bilawi (Abu Abdulrahman al-Bilawi), a former captain in Saddam’s army. Al-Bilawi planned ISIS’s invasion of Iraq from Syria in June 2014, but was killed just days before its execution. Al-Bilawi’s successor is contested.
By some accounts, al-Bilawi was succeeded by Adnan as-Suwaydawi, a former intelligence colonel in the same unit of Saddam’s army as al-Khlifawi, who is variously referred to as Abu Muhannad as-Suwaydawi and Haji Dawud. [Correction: Al-Suwaydawi was long misidentified as Abu Ayman al-Iraqi.] By others, al-Hiyali took over the Military Council in June 2014, directly after al-Bilawi was killed, rather than in May 2015 after as-Suwaydawi was killed. By this latter account, as-Suwaydawi was head of the Security and Intelligence Council, a sub-component of the Military Council controlling the amniyat, the security units that police the caliphate’s soldiers’ loyalty and behaviour.
What this helps demonstrate is that the rise of the FREs within ISIS was not a post-2010 phenomenon, as some have argued, and is not some kind of “Ba’athist coup”. It is true that ISIS was virtually decapitated in 2010, leaving the leadership in the hands of those most skilled at OPSEC and counterintelligence—inevitably the FREs. But that merely helped complete a process of Iraqization and the FREs’ dominance of ISIS’s leadership that was already underway. Thanks to Saddam’s Faith Campaign, the FREs had been fanatics long before Saddam’s fall, and the most important of them had been within ISIS since 2003-04. Al-Khlifawi, al-Bilawi, as-Suwaydawi, and al-Hiyali are all known to have been important members of ISIS before the October 2004 baya to al-Qaeda.
The man whose stature would be most raised by al-Hiyali’s demise is Abu Ali al-Anbari. Al-Hiyali is/was the governor of Iraq, and al-Anbari is the governor of Syria and one of the few men believed to know the location of the “caliph” at all times. Al-Anbari was long believed to have been a senior intelligence officer in the Saddam regime, but he was in fact a long-time Salafi-jihadist associated with al-Qaeda and a preacher called Abd al-Rahman al-Qaduli. There is significant overlap in the biographies of al-Anbari/al-Qaduli and al-Hiyali. Both are ethnic Turkoman (another of al-Qaduli’s many noms de guerre is Ali Qurdash al-Turkmani), and while al-Qaduli is originally from Mosul, unlike al-Hiyali who is from Tal Afar, al-Qaduli spent most of his time in Tal Afar, where al-Qaduli recruited al-Hiyali. This duo, al-Qaduli and al-Hiyali, religious radicals by the late 1990s, quickly joined Abu Musab az-Zarqawi after 2003, and by all appearances rose through the ranks together over the next ten years.
The Turkoman link is interesting. That community in north-western Iraq, especially those from Tal Afar, have been particularly important in ISIS’s financial leadership (one of al-Qaduli’s many roles was “finance minister“). This goes back to cross-border networks set up under Douri’s direction in the 1990s to evade the sanctions. Those networks are now under ISIS’s auspices, not coincidentally in ISIS’s heartland—the Ninawa province in Iraq and the contiguous territories of southern Hasaka and ultimately Raqqa in Syria.
Al-Hiyali helps demonstrate that ISIS is best thought of in many ways as the afterlife of Saddam Hussein’s regime—”Saddam’s ghost,” as Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan put it. This matters because, as I explained recently,
The FREs … highlight the hybrid nature of ISIS—its fusion of elements of Ba’athism with Salafism—and also how difficult ISIS will be defeat. The FREs are the products of a military-intelligence service trained by the KGB. They have brought to ISIS unique military and counterintelligence skills, directly in battle and in propaganda. Their skills are aiding ISIS’s military effort, bringing in fanatical foreigners to use as shock troops, and helping ISIS restructure the identities of local populations who have joined ISIS only out of necessity or convenience (as a means to restore order or against Iran’s proxies, for example).
Since most of the FREs are now dead, they also highlight the fact that ISIS has a mature bureaucracy capable of retaining intellectual capital and putting it to use in long-term planning.
Going forward, the most important aspect of al-Hiyali’s elimination might well be this:
One U.S. official told CNN the strike was based on “actionable intelligence,” meaning the Pentagon knew Mutazz was in a particular area at a particular time. That type of information suggests the United States has some ability to target and strike some of the most senior officials in ISIS.
Assuming this is correct and is not some form of psychological operation, it suggests that perhaps—at long last—the U.S. has some worthwhile human intelligence sources in the war against ISIS.
UPDATE: On August 27, it was reported by CNN that the U.S. government had a “high level of confidence” that amid the airstrikes over the preceding three days, a specifically targeted drone strike in Raqqa City had killed Junaid Hussain, the British ISIS recruiter who is inter alia connected with the Garland attack in May. This in itself would suggest, so close on the heels of al-Hiyali’s ostensible demise, that the U.S. had a high-level source within ISIS, but CNN underlines it by adding: “ISIS leadership appears to be arresting and killing a number of people it suspects may have disclosed intelligence about the group’s movements.”
UPDATE 2: The Islamic State released its eleventh issue of Dabiq on Sept. 9, 2015: conspicuous by its absence was an obituary for al-Hiyali. This does not decide one way or the other whether al-Hiyali is dead. If a spy gave away al-Hiyali and al-Hiyali is dead, it seems likely ISIS would only admit this once they had caught and executed the spy. If al-Hiyali is not dead—and this is an ISIS information operation—one might wonder why ISIS wouldn’t therefore run an obituary to further the pretence. One possible answer is that publishing al-Hiyali’s life-story, if he is alive, is not good operational security. ISIS could, of course, lie, but when that was eventually revealed it might be difficult to explain to the faithful that not everything read in Dabiq is real.
UPDATE 3: ISIS confirmed that al-Hiyali was dead on Oct. 13, 2015.
UPDATE 4: On Jan. 3, 2016, ISIS put out a new video that got most attention for featuring a new British executioner, replacing Mohammed Emwazi (“Jihadi John”), who was killed on Nov. 12. Some speculated that the new killer was Siddhartha Dhar (a.k.a. Abu Rumaysah al-Britani). The video included the murder of five “British spies,” who were accused of, among other things, helping the Coalition kill “Abu Muslim al-Turkmani,” i.e. al-Hiyali.
Post has been corrected and updated as new information became available.