Manaf Abdul Rahim al-Rawi was the leader of operations in Baghdad for the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), the predecessor to the Islamic State (IS), between 2008 and his arrest in 2010. Al-Rawi had been with IS from its earliest days and his arrest in 2004 only advanced him through the ranks as he networked in prison. Upon release and assumption of the post of wali (governor) of Baghdad, al-Rawi was responsible for some of the worst atrocities in 2009 and 2010 in that city. Al-Rawi was executed in prison in 2013.
Al-Rawi, also known as Falah Abu Hayder, was an Iraqi citizen born in Moscow in 1975, where his father, an Iraqi army officer, was studying engineering. The family returned to Iraq shortly thereafter, and al-Rawi’s father was killed in the war with the Iranian revolution, leaving his mother alone with five children. Al-Rawi retained connections, however, with an uncle enabling him to do military service in the Housing Ministry, rather than anywhere near a front-line.
When the Saddam Husayn regime came down, al-Rawi was based in Zayouna, Baghdad, and—using a stockpile of weapons left by the Fedayeen Saddam—he and some other young men from the area began insurgent activities against Anglo-American forces. Al-Rawi was recruited into the IS movement, then known as Jamaat al-Tawhid wal-Jihad, in late 2003 by Ghassan al-Rawi (Abu Ubayda).
Ghassan was a former Ba’ath officer in Saddam’s army and a key deputy to IS’s founder, Ahmad al-Khalayleh (Abu Musab al-Zarqawi), who was crucial in the early stages in bringing the foreign jihadists into Iraq from Syria and training them in Anbar Province. Ghassan was involved in the famous (to IS supporters) Rawa Camp, and that was where al-Rawi travelled to meet Ghassan and Mustafa Ramadan Darwish (Abu Muhammad al-Lubnani), al-Zarqawi’s second deputy and the leader of the security wing of the early IS movement, including its chemical weapons program.
Manaf al-Rawi was by 2004 a close assistant of Darwish’s, including being his driver. While not himself, at this time, a member of the inner-circle, al-Rawi worked parallel to it and met many who were—and who would be. Al-Rawi met with Umar Yusef al-Juma (Abu Anas al-Shami), the lead religious guide to al-Zarqawi, and with al-Zarqawi himself in Fallujah. A notable case is Abdul Munim al-Badawi (Abu Hamza al-Muhajir), who had accompanied al-Zarqawi to Baghdad in 2002 and would succeed al-Zarqawi as head of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) in 2006, before becoming the deputy and war minister to Hamid al-Zawi (Abu Umar al-Baghdadi) once the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) was formed later that year. Al-Rawi would work closely with al-Badawi later on.
After the Rawa Camp was bombed and its leader, Abu Raghd, was killed, over time, according to IS, Darwish and al-Rawi displaced Ghassan as the main conduit for smuggling jihadists over the border. It seems al-Rawi and Darwish were physically present when Nicholas Berg, a U.S. communications contractor, was beheaded in Fallujah by al-Zarqawi on 7 May 2004; the video was released four days later, inaugurating a trend that has become all-too-common and earning al-Zarqawi the moniker “shaykh of the slaughterers”.
Al-Rawi was arrested in June 2004 near Fallujah as the Coalition tried to gain control of Anbar Province. Taking religious lessons in jail from Abdurrahman al-Qaduli (Abu Ali al-Anbari), one of IS’s most important operatives whom the Coalition never understood they held, and connecting up with other jihadists in these prison daw’a (proselytization) sessions, notably Hudayfa al-Batawi, al-Rawi emerged from prison in November 2007 with his stature greatly increased.
Though “most of al-Rawi’s jihadi contacts were dead,” Brian Fishman writes in The Master Plan, he had new contacts, including one from Camp Bucca, Haji Abd al-Wahid (Abu Sulayman), with whom he had become close. Al-Wahid, a sixty-year-old, was at the time of al-Rawi’s release the wali (governor) of Baghdad. Al-Rawi was first debriefed by ISI deputy al-Badawi, and then had an hour-long meeting in Samarra with Muhammad al-Nada al-Jiburi (Abu al-Bashair al-Jiburi), a former official in Saddam’s army and ISI’s chief of staff, who explained the situation to him and re-inducted him into the organization, appointed him as a deputy to al-Wahid. Al-Rawi’s work involved, among other things, facilitating ISI’s communications—acting as a mailman, in short. One of the mail-houses belonged to the current caliph, Ibrahim al-Badri (Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi), then-known as Abu Du’a.
Al-Walid was being challenged on grounds of competence and misuse of funds under the shari’a system of al-khums that required a fifth of proceeds from all regions to be directed to the centre. Several senior leaders were agitating for al-Wahid to be replaced by a newly-released and evidently-respected jihadist named Abu Aqil. In mid-2008, al-Walid was cashiered and al-Rawi replaced him. 2008 was a difficult year to be handed a leadership position in ISI. Pushed back from its territorial holdings in urban areas, ISI was strategically beaten and its leadership decimated. An IS defector, whose testimony is not wholly reliable, said al-Rawi was one of the few who was not an “emir of necessity”. In fact a lot of the effect of the Surge and Awakening was to leave the most capable emirs standing. Regardless, ISI survived, and rebuilt.
How close al-Rawi was to the ISI leaders is somewhat contested. By some accounts, al-Rawi was among the handful of people with access to al-Zawi. By al-Rawi’s own account he had minimal dealings with al-Zawi, communicating mostly with al-Badawi, and even then through an intermediary, “Jaafar”. It does seem that al-Rawi was in closer contact with al-Badawi than al-Zawi, and this would make sense: al-Rawi had a military role and al-Badawi was the war minister, not to mention the obsessive secrecy of al-Zawi.
Al-Rawi says he received, via courier, written instructions to carry out probably his most consequential act: a series of crippling strikes against Iraqi government institutions. The letters “specified four ministries [to attack]: foreign, justice, the finance and the Baghdad governorate.” Al-Rawi then met with his “military commander”—this refers to al-Badawi—to plan the reconnaissance and to request the necessary budget ($120,000) to conduct the attacks.
On the morning of 19 August 2009, a cell directed by al-Rawi and his deputy, Hudayfa al-Batawi, struck the Finance Ministry and the Foreign Ministry with massive explosions. The Iraqi government had been expecting this attack because they infiltrated the meeting in Syria where it was planned between ISI, the Ba’athi-Islamist insurgents, and the intelligence agencies of Bashar al-Assad’s regime. The target had changed when ISI realized Baghdad was upping its security around the Interior Ministry, and the Iraqis thus failed to thwart the attack. Baghdad withdrew its ambassador from Syria and demanded the extradition of two senior officials of the fallen Saddam regime, Sattam Farhan and Muhammad Yunis al-Ahmed, who had been involved in directing the Iraqi insurgency from Syria since 2003.
The Justice Ministry (and the adjacent Ministry of Municipalities and Public Works) and the Baghdad Provincial Council were severely damaged and more than 100 people killed on 25 October 2009 by the al-Rawi/al-Batawi cell. Four explosions on 8 December 2009 targeted the Central Bank, which was acting as a temporary home for the Finance Ministry, plus the Judicial Institute, where judges are trained, the Karkh district courthouse, and a technical institute in Dora.
The damage to state institutions was both physical and political. The buildings had been shattered, records and personnel lost, and the remaining staff reluctant to remain for very long. The August bombing came a fortnight after the Iraqi government had ordered the removal of blast walls as part of an effort to normalize civilian life in Baghdad. These attacks not only led to a reimposition of hated security measures that slowed everything down, but added some new ones. And then the 7 March 2010 election froze Iraqi politics for nearly nine months. The need for emergency measures to simply have the state function was compelling. Unfortunately, it meant concentrating power in the hands of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, whose sectarianism and authoritarianism—and enabling of Iran—all got worse as the constraints against him were lifted. The actions of an empowered al-Maliki are a considerable measure of the story in the Sunnis returning to armed activity and opening their areas to ISI again in 2012-13, and these bombings are a key moment when those dynamics were set in place.
Al-Rawi directed the bombing of four hotels—the Sheraton, Palestine, Babylon, and Hamra—in central Baghdad on 25 January 2010. The operations of al-Rawi’s cell were by no means confined to the spectacular, however. Regular extortion continued, as did the assassinations of (especially Sunni) foes. Al-Rawi was responsible for the assassination of Harith al-Ubaydi, an Iraqi MP with the (Sunni) Iraqi Accord Front bloc, on 12 June 2009.
Al-Rawi was arrested on 11 March 2010, though his capture was not initially reported to the Americans (p. 622-3). Instead, al-Rawi was handed off to the Office of Special Investigations, one of a number of intelligence agencies created by, and loyal to, al-Maliki, as part of a deliberate effort to sideline the Iraqi National Intelligence Service (INIS), which was supported by the CIA. Within a week, however, the U.S. had arrested al-Rawi’s twin brother, which led to the discovery that al-Rawi was in custody already. The other al-Rawi was given to the Interior Ministry and the head of U.S. forces in Iraq, General Ray Odierno, confronted al-Maliki and demanded access to al-Rawi, which was grudgingly granted.
Al-Rawi stonewalled the Americans until they brought his brother to visit him, at which point he became quite cooperative with interrogators and gave up two couriers, one of whom, “Jaafar,” the Americans had him meet so they could arrest. “Jaafar” quickly divulged the location of the leaders’ safe-house just south of Tikrit. The Americans watched (p. 623) the other courier go into the Tikrit safe-house and then stormed it on 18 April 2010, arresting the courier and getting the women and children out—but finding the house bizarrely empty. The courier then pointed out that al-Zawi and al-Badawi were hidden in an underground compartment and that the entrance was under the sink. Apparently sensing they were cornered, al-Zawi and al-Badawi began firing on the JSOC team, which threw grenades into their lair. Whether the grenades killed ISI’s leaders or they detonated suicide vests is not completely clear. Four people were killed: the emir, his deputy, al-Zawi’s son, and al-Badawi’s assistant. Sixteen others were arrested.
This was a time where ISI’s leadership was being systematically eliminated. Days after ISI’s leaders were killed, a U.S. intelligence official said: “AQI’s best leaders operate in Baghdad and in northern Iraq. Al-Qaeda’s network is most cohesive in the north in the Mosul region due to its proximity to Syria, which serves as it sanctuary. Over the past four months we’ve gutted the leadership cadre there.” By June 2010, the U.S. reported that eighty-percent of ISI’s leadership had been removed.
In custody, al-Rawi’s apparently-cooperative stance and his senior position made him quite the attraction. On 20 May 2010, CNN interviewed him. Al-Rawi testified to his own position in the organization, his orchestration of the bombings in Baghdad, the change over time of AQI/ISI from a foreign-led organization to an Iraqi-dominated one, and his continued belief in jihad, albeit with some regret about the civilian casualties. Al-Rawi said that the Iraqi security forces really had ISI on the backfoot: “It is 80 to 100 percent harder to operate for al-Qaeda these days … [B]efore we could prepare a car bomb anywhere, there was no opposition. Now you can’t do that. Even the place you prepare a car bomb will be discovered.” Al-Rawi added that the flow of foreign fighters from Assad’s Syria was being squeezed, too: “The borders and the entry of the fighters, and entry of materials became difficult, not like the past”.
The strange thing is that al-Rawi, who gave information to the Americans that led to the killing of the first proto-caliph, still occasionally appears in IS propaganda—and not in a negative way. Al-Rawi was referred to as a “hero” in IS’s newsletter, al-Naba, as recently as July. This stands in bold contrast to, say, Salah Abdeslam, who seemingly failed to go through with the November 2015 Paris attacks and who was then captured and surrendered what he knew. Abdeslam has been disappeared in IS’s propaganda universe: he was not claimed—or even mentioned—in the Dabiq rundown of events, and has never appeared on any other official channel.
One possible reason IS still claims al-Rawi, while obliterating Abdeslam from memory, is that perhaps al-Rawi was not as forthcoming with his captors as all that. For example, what al-Rawi told CNN about the progress of the Iraqi security forces was what the American military wanted to hear, yet at this distance it seems overstated and al-Rawi must have known that. More concretely, al-Rawi was close in prison with al-Qaduli and knew fully who he was and how important he was to al-Dawla (the State), yet did not inform the Americans of this, allowing the careful information operation IS had run to defend al-Qaduli’s identity to continue all the way until al-Qaduli was released, going on to help knit together the caliphate in Syria. It might be said that they never asked, but this is another way of saying that al-Rawi was less than fully co-operative.
Nuri al-Maliki’s government could work quickly enough when it wanted to: al-Rawi was sentenced to death with five of his underlings on 16 March 2011, a mere five days after he was arrested, and was sent to the gallows with three other ISI operatives on 1 April 2013.
Leaked documents in 2014 disclosed that the IS emir of Baghdad was Ahmad al-Jazaa (Abu Maysara, Abu Abd al-Hamid). There has been no report of al-Jazaa’s demise.