The Caliph’s First Deputy

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on January 28, 2017

numan-al-zaydi

When Ibrahim al-Badri (Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi) became the leader of the then-Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) in May 2010, his deputy was man named Numan al-Zaydi, who went under various pseudonyms: Abu Ibrahim al-Ansari, Abu Sulayman al-Nasser, and Al-Nasser Lideen Allah Abu Sulayman. Al-Zaydi was killed in February 2011.

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Al-Zaydi is believed to be a Moroccan, possibly with Syrian citizenship.[1] By the accounts of some defectors, al-Zaydi was in Iraq before the 2003 invasion and was waiting for the Americans at one of the many terrorist training camps the Saddam regime ran for foreign fighters. Other accounts say al-Zaydi joined the Zarqawi’ists after al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) became the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) in October 2006.[2]

Al-Zaydi had served as the wali (governor) of al-Anbar,[3] though again, whether for AQI or just ISI is not exactly clear. Al-Zaydi was imprisoned for a time in Camp Bucca.[4]

Following the demise of ISI’s first emir, Hamid al-Zawi (Abu Umar al-Baghdadi), and his deputy and the first war minister of “the State,” Abdul Munim al-Badawi (Abu Hamza al-Muhajir) in April 2010, Ibrahim al-Badri (Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi) became the emir of ISI and al-Zaydi was his “war minister” and deputy. In July 2010, Usama bin Ladin referred to al-Zaydi as al-Badri’s “deputy” in a letter to his Libyan chief of staff, Jamal al-Misrati (Atiyya)—and also conceded to not knowing very much about either man, requesting that al-Misrati seek information, including from the Qaeda-linked Ansar al-Islam.[5] And when Hazem Abdulrazzak al-Zawi, a cousin of Hamid’s and the interior/security minister of ISI, was arrested in November 2010 he, too, gave al-Zaydi’s rank as that of deputy, and identified both al-Zaydi and al-Badri by their real names.[6]

In May 2010, after his appointment as ISI’s war minister, al-Zaydi gave one of the few public statements he has ever made, threatening the Iraqi security forces and Shi’a civilians.[7]

According to defectors, the “war minister” was always a foreigner because it meant that they had no socio-cultural barriers to imposing the strictest interpretation of Islamic law; al-Badawi was an Egyptian. The idea seems to be that the foreigners’ lack of a connection to the people and the land would lessen theirresistance to ordering cruelty in the pursuit of their goals.[8] This was seen later when ISI—now called the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)—expanded into Syria, marshalling the foreign fighters into units commanded by battle-hardened Chechens and Uzbeks, hiding the Iraqi hand and preventing any local sympathy acting as a brake on the imposition of their proto-state.[9]

The Iraqi government claimed to have killed al-Zaydi on 25 February 2011.[10] Less than a week later, ISI denied that al-Zaydi had been killed.[11] But on 7 August 2011, during the speech that inaugurated Taha Falaha (Abu Muhammad al-Adnani) as the Islamic State movement’s official spokesman, al-Zaydi—mentioned by both his kunya Abu Ibrahim al-Ansari, and his real name, Numan Salman al-Zaydi—was declared to be among the “martyrs”.[12]

Life After Death

Despite this, as late as November 2014, al-Zaydi was still being identified as ISIS’s war minister[13] and there was speculation,[14] when it was rumoured at that time that al-Badri had been injured or killed, that al-Zaydi would be in the running either to head the Military Council or even to be “caliph”.

The post of war minister was abolished after al-Zaydi’s death and the then-chief of staff, Samir al-Khlifawi (Haji Bakr) was appointed as al-Badri’s deputy and the head of the newly-created Military Council, which among other things brought in “the repentant military commanders” from the fallen regime of Saddam Husayn to help fortify the State.[15]

These officers include Fadel al-Hiyali (Abu Muslim al-Turkmani, Abu Mutaz al-Qurayshi, Haji Mutaz), Adnan al-Suwaydawi (Abu Muhannad al-Suwaydawi), Walid al-Alwani (Abu Ahmad al-Alwani), Nima al-Jiburi (Abu Fatima al-Ansari, Abu Fatima al-Juhayshi), and Abu Arkan al-Ameri.

The Rebirth of the War Ministry?

Interestingly, it seems the “minister of war” position has returned.

Tarkhan Batirashvili (Abu Umar al-Shishani), the photogenic Chechen with nine lives who was finally confirmed dead in July 2016, was identified by the Pentagon as “a key member of the ISIL leadership team [and] their minister of war”.[16]

What the war ministry job entails this time is unclear, since the Military Council clearly remains the most powerful institution in setting and directing policy.

Batirashvili seemed to lead a special forces-type unit that was deployed to various hotspots throughout Iraq and Syria.[17] This role has been retained by Russian-speakers after Batirashvili’s passing, with the Uzbek Unit, primarily made up of Uzbeks—many of them recruited while working as labourers in Russia, incidentally[18]—and Chechens, deployed on the Islamic State’s harshest frontlines from Mosul to al-Bab in Aleppo, and in key zones like the Qaim border-crossing.[19]

According to some reports,[20] the war ministry is now held by Gulmurod Khalimov, a former colonel and special forces operative in Tajikistan, though U.S. sanctions against Khalimov focus on his role as a propagandist-recruiter.[21] This is not necessarily a contradiction: it was widely known that Batirashvili’s military utility was overstated and that even on the most generous assessment of his battlefield capacity Batirashvili was most significant to the Islamic State as a recruitment tool, starting in the earliest days. It was around Batirashvili that a lot of the early core of foreign fighters, including from Europe, gathered in Aleppo in 2012 under the command of Amr al-Absi (Abu al-Atheer).

***

Notes

[1] Thomas Joscelyn, “The Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham’s quiet war minister,” The Long War Journal, June 16, 2014, http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2014/06/the_islamic_states_q.php

[2] Thomas Joscelyn, “The Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham’s quiet war minister,” The Long War Journal, June 16, 2014, http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2014/06/the_islamic_states_q.php

[3] Nibras Kazimi, “The Islamic State of Iraq’s New Caliph,” Talisman’s Gate, December 1, 2010, http://talismangate.blogspot.co.uk/2010/12/islamic-state-of-iraqs-new-caliph.html?m=1

[4] Bill Roggio, “Photos of AQI’s top 2 leaders,” The Long War Journal, December 3, 2010, http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2010/12/photos_of_aqis_top_two_leaders.php

[5] Osama bin Laden, “Letter from Osama bin Laden to ‘Atiyya Abd al-Rahman [English translation],” SOCOM-2012-0000019, Harmony Program, Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, July 6, 2010, https://www.ctc.usma.edu/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/SOCOM-2012-0000019-Trans.pdf

[6] Bill Roggio, “Al Qaeda in Iraq’s security minister captured in Anbar,” The Long War Journal, December 1, 2010, http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2010/12/al_qaeda_in_iraqs_se_1.php

[7] Bill Roggio, “Al Qaeda appoints new ‘war minister’ for Iraq,” The Long War Journal, May 14, 2010, http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2010/05/al_qaeda_appoints_ne.php

[8] Thomas Joscelyn, “The Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham’s quiet war minister,” The Long War Journal, June 16, 2014, http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2014/06/the_islamic_states_q.php

[9] Christoph Reuter, “The Terror Strategist: Secret Files Reveal the Structure of Islamic State,” Der Spiegel, April 18, 2015, http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/islamic-state-files-show-structure-of-islamist-terror-group-a-1029274.html

[10] “Al-Qaeda ‘military leader’ Abu Suleiman killed in Iraq,” BBC, February 25, 2011, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-12581313

[11] “ISI Denies Death Of Its Minister Of War,” MEMRI, March 1, 2011, http://www.memrijttm.org/isi-denies-death-of-its-minister-of-war.html

[12] Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, “The State of Islam Will Remain,” Al-Furqan Media, 7 August 2011, http://triceratops.brynmawr.edu/dspace/bitstream/handle/10066/15267/ADN20110807.pdf

[13] Charles Lister, “Islamic State Senior Leadership: Who’s Who,” Brookings Institute, November 2014, http://www.brookings.edu/~/media/Research/Files/Reports/2014/11/profiling-islamic-state-lister/en_whos_who.pdf?la=en

[14] Alessandria Masi, “If ISIS Leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi Is Killed, Who Is Caliph Of The Islamic State Group?” International Business Times, November 10, 2014, http://www.ibtimes.com/if-isis-leader-abu-bakr-al-baghdadi-killed-who-caliph-islamic-state-group-1721638

[15] Aymenn al-Tamimi, “An Account of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi & Islamic State Succession Lines,” Blog, January 24, 2016, http://www.aymennjawad.org/2016/01/an-account-of-abu-bakr-al-baghdadi-islamic-state

[16] Peter Cook, “Department of Defense Press Briefing by Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook in the Pentagon Briefing Room,” U.S. Department of Defense, July 14, 2016, https://www.defense.gov/News/Transcripts/Transcript-View/Article/839181/department-of-defense-press-briefing-by-pentagon-press-secretary-peter-cook-in

[17] Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, “The Islamic State’s Anbar Offensive and Abu Umar al-Shishani,” War on the Rocks, October 9, 2014, https://warontherocks.com/2014/10/the-islamic-states-anbar-offensive-and-abu-umar-al-shishani/

[18] Michael Weiss and Katie Zavadski, “Vladimir Putin’s Newest Export: Terrorists,” The Daily Beast, January 4, 2017, http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2017/01/04/vladimir-putin-s-newest-export-terrorists.html

[19] Mustafa Habib, “Extremists’ Tactics On Fallujah’s Frontlines,” Niqash, June 7, 2016, http://www.niqash.org/en/articles/security/5286/

[20] “Isis: US-trained Tajik special forces chief Gulmurod Khalimov becomes Isis ‘war minister’,” The International Business Times, September 6, 2016, http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/isis-us-trained-tajik-special-forces-chief-gulmurod-khalimov-becomes-isis-war-minister-1579966

[21] “Rewards for Justice – Reward Offer for Information on ISIL Terrorist Gulmurod Khalimov,” U.S. State Department, August 30, 2016, https://2009-2017.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2016/08/261373.htm

6 thoughts on “The Caliph’s First Deputy

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