Mohamed Moumou, better-known as Abu Qaswara, was the Commander of the North for the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), one of the most powerful military positions in the group, when he was killed by American forces in Mosul on 5 October 2008.
According to an Islamic State’s biography of Moumou (reproduced below), he was born in Fez, Morocco, in 1965 (hence sometimes being called Abu Qaswara al-Maghribi), and moved to Belgium and then Sweden in 1980. At some point in the 1990s, Moumou obtained Swedish citizenship (hence also being known as Abu Qaswara al-Skani).
Moumou’s “extremist activities date back to the mid-1990’s, when he traveled to Afghanistan to participate in the al-Qaeda-run Khalden terrorist training camp,” according to U.S. Treasury sanctions levied against him on 7 December 2006. “Moumou was the uncontested leader of an extremist group centered around the Brandbergen Mosque in Stockholm, Sweden. Moumou’s leadership derives from connections to senior al-Qaeda leaders, some of whom he had met in Afghanistan and Pakistan in the late-1990s.”
Moumou was a sleeper agent for Groupe Islamique Combattant Marocain (Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group or GICM), al-Qaeda’s branch in that country, beginning allegedly in 1996, and might have been a co-founder of GICM. Moumou ran GICM’s magazine, Sada al-Maghrabi, for a time. This is a common pattern of the 1990s jihadist scene—the Groupe Islamique Armé (Armed Islamic Group or GIA) is a classic example—that waged war against the governments of their homelands while producing propaganda-recruitment material in Europe, where they could also raise funds, secure weapons, and organize logistics. Indeed, Moumou got his start as a jihadi propagandist-recruiter an editor for GIA’s gruesome newsletter, Al-Ansar, which began production in 1994—a full twenty years before Dabiq made its appearance, celebrating crimes others would conceal. Al-Ansar was distributed through Europe, with the Brandbergen Mosque serving as a notorious distribution node.
Moumou’s links to Najmaddin Faraj Ahmad, universally known as Mullah Krekar, are faint but detectable. Krekar was sanctioned in the same batch as Moumou by the United States. Krekar’s organization, Ansar al-Islam, had run a proto-state on Iraqi territory before 2003 that in many important ways foreshadowed IS and which for a time collaborated with IS. IS’s founder, Ahmad al-Khalayleh (Abu Musab al-Zarqawi), initially entered Iraq via Ansar-held territory in April 2002, before moving to Baghdad a month later. The efforts to merge IS and Ansar al-Islam ultimately failed, until August 2014 (and even now a Syrian wing of Ansar remains). By the time Krekar was sanctioned, Ansar was calling itself Ansar al-Sunna and the exiled cleric had lost control on the ground to Abu Abdullah al-Shafi’i, who was eventually arrested on 3 May 2010.
Arriving in Afghanistan in the late 1990s, where he attended terrorist training camps and collected several kunyas, among them Talha al-Maghribi and Abu Sara, Moumou went into Iran after 2001, when the Taliban regime had been overthrown and al-Qaeda driven from its sanctuaries in the wake of the 9/11 massacre. Moumou then moved back to Europe before, according to the Islamic State biography, making his first journey to Iraq in 2004.
Moumou was arrested in Brandbergen shortly after the 11 March 2004 bombing of the Madrid subway system by an al-Qaeda cell. The Säpo (Swedish internal security service) had to release Moumou for lack of evidence, and he then moved to Denmark for reasons that still remain unclear.
Moumou was then arrested by the Danish authorities in Ishoj, on an international arrest warrant issued at the behest of the Moroccan government, for his alleged role in twelve simultaneous suicide bombings that struck Casablanca on 16 May 2003. The atrocity in Morocco is believed to have been coordinated by al-Qaeda, specifically Saad Bin Ladin, son of Usama, who was in Iran—ostensibly under house arrest—at the time, and to have been ordered by al-Zarqawi. (Another Iran-based senior al-Qaeda official, Sayf al-Adel, also claimed by the Iranian government to be being held under house arrest, seems to have directed the bombings in Saudi Arabia on 12 May 2003.)
Moumou was released after a month in Denmark because the Moroccan charges were so poorly constructed, and deported to Sweden.
The sanctions against Moumou at the end of 2006 record that he had “served, at some time in the past, as … al-Zarqawi’s representative in Europe for issues related to chemical and biological weapons.” Assuming this is true—and the language is far from assertive in the designation—it can be assumed that it was in the 2002 to 2006 period that Moumou played this role.
With the Americans closing in—he was added in public to the terrorism list in December 2006, but okaying the start of that process with Stockholm occurred in the spring of 2006—Moumou left Sweden forever in May 2006, following the well-worn route of the IS foreign volunteer from Damascus International Airport to the Iraqi border with the assistance of Bashar al-Assad’s military-intelligence apparatus.
Moumou became the ISI’s military emir for all of northern Iraq—covering Ninawa, Saladin, and Kirkuk Provinces—in June 2007. Moumou was a ruthless commander, alleged to have killed foreign fighters who refused to carry out suicide- and other attacks against the Iraqi population and tried to return home. Moumou blew himself up after being mortally wounded when the Marines came for him in October 2008, a detail confirmed in the eulogy for Moumou (reproduced in full below) by ISI’s emir, Hamid al-Zawi (Abu Umar al-Baghdadi), who referred to Moumou as “one of the great figures of the State”.
At the time of Moumou’s demise, it was reported that he was ISI’s “number two”. This seems to be borne of the fact that Moumou was effectively the deputy to Abdul Munim al-Badawi (Abu Hamza al-Muhajir), ISI’s war minister, and thanks in part to an information operation by ISI’s captured media emir, Khalid al-Mashadani (Abu Zayd al-Mashadani), it was widely believed that al-Zawi was merely a figurehead—if he even existed—and al-Badawi really ran the show. As is now clear, that was wrong, but it does not alter the fact that Moumou was in the first tier of ISI’s leadership when he was killed, probably approximating to third-in-command.
When Moumou became the northern emir, it was during the Surge-and-Sahwa, and ISI was having its operational space shrunk—nearly eliminated—in former urban strongholds like Ramadi and Baquba. But the May 2008 operation to clear ISI from Mosul was indecisive. By the time Moumou was killed in late 2008, ISI was able to assert itself in significant sections of the city and attention was diverted as the political disagreements between Arab Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan flared-up. ISI made Mosul its unofficial capital in late 2004 after it was ejected from Falluja, and the city remained such ever since. The Arab-Kurd faultline, indeed, was one of the most useful factors to ISI in embedding itself in the Arab tribes around Mosul, which largely prevented the formation of an Awakening in Ninawa, the province of which Mosul is the capital. It was for this reasons among others that when U.S. generals argued for keeping troops in the cities, Mosul was specifically in mind.
Perhaps most important about Moumou was the data that was captured with him. A fascinating book based largely on the captured records of the IS movement by RAND, “Foundations of the Islamic State,” revealed that, alongside his military duties, Moumou was “one of ISI’s savviest operatives at financing and administration,” and explained the value of the haul of documents found with him this way:
[The] documents … provide considerable insight into ISI’s strategy of geographic organization, an important aspect of its objective to build an Islamic state in Iraq. The information in the documents is novel, since it lays bare the architecture ISI used to organize and govern across different types of geographic spaces. The documents describe how ISI defined a sector, the group’s smallest general administrative unit, what the typical components of a sector should be, and how sectors should be demarcated geographically, as well as the extent to which the group had managed to fill sector leadership and top bureaucratic positions. In short, the documents illustrate how ISI leaders wanted their administration to function across space, and the documents show where the group both succeeded and failed to establish and consolidate bureaucratic structures. …
Governorate-level ISI branches sent one-fifth of their revenues to the organization’s top-level leadership. In practice, it appears that these payments were sent to, and reallocated by, Abu Qaswarah, or that Abu Qaswarah at least had knowledge of these financial transfers. … Redistribution of funding appears to have gone to areas where ISI presence was the weakest and was under severe threat because of the Sunni Awakening and counterinsurgency tactics by coalition and Iraqi forces. … Mosul constituted 40 percent of incoming funds to ISI.
Moumou’s death hit ISI hard. “The decrease in ISI contracting revenue was notably steep in October and November 2008,” RAND writes. “Revenues from extorting contracted projects dropped from September to October by more than $280,000, a 43-percent decrease in the month of Abu Qaswarah’s death and a 68-percent decrease from September to November.” As ever, this spurred ISI to correction: “This appears to have provided the impetus for an organizational reform that deepened the group’s bureaucracy by separating revenue-collection activities from disbursements and management.” By August 2009, Moumou’s replacement had brought off a scheme to infiltrate the Iraqi government and siphon off administrative funds, which helped make up for the volatile levels of income from oil and the decline in revenue from protection-rackets on construction projects in Mosul. These extortion operations in Mosul provided the revenue to support the other provinces, underwriting ISI’s revival.
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A brief Islamic State biography for Mohamed Moumou is reproduced below with some minor editions for transliteration and syntax:
Al-Shaykh Abu Qaswara al-Maghribi, Muhammad Moumou, was also known as Abu Sara, the Commander of the North and one of the Islamic State’s great knights (the operational chief in al-Mosul). He was born in 1965 in Fez, Morocco and began his journey of jihad in Afghanistan, where he was known as Talha al-Maghribi. Everyone knew him as one who loved all those with the correct aqeeda (creed), even if they were miserly or cowardly, and hating those who had incorrect aqeeda, even if they were generous and courageous. He threw away his Swedish citizenship in the dustbin, its glittering crumbs something which many run after. He did not incline to his European wife, or his five children as beautiful as the full moon; rather he parted with them, though he loved them a lot. They had no news of him, and he had not seen his children for three years, until he moved them from Dar al-Kufr (The Abode of Unbelief) to a place in which he believed them to be closer to their Lord. Shaykh Abu Umar al-Baghdadi eulogized him in an official statement, “Eulogy For The Martyr”, released by al-Furqan Foundation.
He moved to Belgium then Sweden in 1980. The Moroccan government accused him of the 2003 Casablanca bombings, while the Spanish government accused him of the 2004 Madrid train bombings. He was arrested in Copenhagen, Denmark, and sent back to Sweden. In 2004, he made hijra (emigration) to Iraq, and before that he was in Iran, then he went back to Sweden, where he was responsible for AQI external networks, which focused on the importation of the mujahideen from abroad. In 2006 he returned to Iraq. He got his shahada (martyrdom) in October 2008, may Allah accept him in al-Firdaws al-A’la (The highest part of Paradise). Ameen.
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On 21 October 2008, al-Furqan released an audio message by the Islamic State of Iraq’s emir, Hamid al-Zawi (Abu Umar al-Baghdadi), which eulogized Mohamed Moumou (Abu Qaswara al-Maghribi). An English transcript of the speech was released and is reproduced below. Important sections have been highlighted in bold.
All praise be to God. We thank Him, we seek His guidance and forgiveness. We seek His refuge from the evils of our souls, and the evil results of our deeds. Whosoever God guides, there is none to lead him astray, and whosoever is led astray by God, there is none to guide him. I bear witness that there is none worthy of worship but God, alone, without partner, and Muhammad is His slave and Messenger. To proceed:
God Almighty has indeed said:
“And never think of those who have been killed in the cause of God as dead. Rather, they are alive with their Lord, receiving provision. They rejoice in what God has bestowed upon them of His Bounty, rejoicing for the sake of those who have not yet joined them, but are left behind. There will be no fear concerning them, nor shall they grieve” [Ali Imran: 170].
We offer our condolences and also congratulate the men of the Islamic State, especially the knights of the North, for the martyrdom of one of the great figures of the State, one of its great and zealous builders. This amazing knight, close and beloved friend, Abu Qaswara, dismounted the horses of might and mounted the horses of honour. Though parting with Abu Qaswara, the Commander of the North, was hard and painful, I was happy for him for he achieved what he was hoping and striving for: that he dies on this path, the path of jihad and the aqeeda (creed) of tawhid (monotheism), without retraction or falling short. I was happy that God chose and honoured him with martyrdom in the midst of his soldiers, where he said with the most truthful of words, the words spoken through actions: “Here I am, your commander, I fight and then I detonate my explosive belt, in defence of my religion, holding fast to my path, acting according to the advice of my leader. Whoever loves me, let him hold fast to his religion, carry the flag and come forth to the front, saying: ‘May the eyes of the cowards not see the feel the joy of sleep’.”
“O leader, one who entrusts in secret, a minister who does not earn sin, by God, we have never seen the likes of you, from what we have seen of all the creation.”
Abu Qaswara died as a martyr, this is how we reckon him and God is the Reckoner, after a long journey in the path of jihad, which began in the training camps of Afghanistan. Everyone knew Talha al-Maghribi as one who loved all those with the correct aqeeda, even if they were miserly or cowardly, and hating those who had incorrect aqeeda, even if they were generous and courageous. Abu Qaswara threw away his Swedish citizenship in the dustbin, its glittering crumbs something which many run after. He did not incline to his European wife, or his five children as beautiful as the full moon, rather he parted with them though he loved them much. They had no news of him, and he had not seen his children for three years, only until he moved them from dar al-kufr (the lands of disbelief) to a place in which he believed them to be closer to their Lord. He was always certain that God would protect them, repeating the Words of God Almighty:
“And as for the wall, it belonged to two orphan boys in the town, and there was under it a treasure belonging to them, and their father was a righteous man” [Al-Kahf: 82].
So it is aqeeda which he was concerned with, for which he fought and for which he died under its banner, the banner of “La ilaha illallah Muhammadur Rasulullah” (There is no God but God and Muhammad is His Messenger). Stay firm, O knights of the North. The men of the Islamic State are upon the same path as that upon which our beloved Abu Qaswara died. It is a shame for a knight to be tested by a beautiful wife or a child crying at his feet. God Almighty said:
“O you who believe, verily, among your wives and your children there are enemies for you, therefore beware of them” [Al-Taghabun: 14].
Abu Qaswara died leaving behind him brothers, men who know how to avenge his blood. He loved them and they loved him, he honoured them and they honoured him, far be it from them that they sit down after him or delay avenging his blood.
“Sleep, O slave delightfully, there was never a day in which you lied to your brothers, you were always sincere and caring for their religion, so enjoy the success, for your Paradise has come to you”.
So, whoever loves this martyr, and follows the same path, and is pained by his death, let him be truthful and kill one infidel, whether an apostate or one of the occupying forces, as a means to draw near to His Lord and avenging his blood and that of his brothers. I know that your friend loved spilling the blood of proxies and traitors, especially Hizb al-Shaytan (The Party of the Devil [The Iraqi Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamic Party]).
“O you who believe, fight those of the disbelievers who are close to you, and let them find harshness in you, and know that God is with those who are the pious” [At-Tawba: 123].
“And God has full power and control over His Affairs, but most of men know not” [Yusuf: 21].
Abu Umar al-Qurayshi al-Baghdadi