In the ninetieth edition of its newsletter, al-Naba, released on 20 July 2017, the Islamic State (IS) published an obituary for one of its most senior operatives, Ali Aswad al-Jiburi, much better known as Abu Ayman al-Iraqi, who had been serving as the caliph’s “security advisor” when he was killed on 18 May 2016.
A Mistaken Identity
For some time, the kunya “Abu Ayman” was misapplied, as Romain Caillet recently explained, to another IS leader, Adnan al-Suwaydawi. Al-Suwaydawi, known also as Abu Muhannad al-Suwaydawi and Haji Dawud, served as the head of IS’s amniyat (internal security units) and the head of its Military Council between the death of Adnan al-Bilawi (Abu Abdurrahman al-Bilawi) in June 2014 and his own death in May 2015. Al-Suwaydawi, an intelligence officer during Saddam Husayn’s time in power, was among those former regime elements (FRE) that migrated into IS in the early years of the Iraqi insurgency, making him about twenty years older than Ali al-Aswad. This discrepancy became much clearer with IS’s release of pictures and videos of al-Aswad.
One of the early indications that we were dealing with two different people was the assassination of Kamal Hamami (Abu Basir al-Ladqani), a Free Syrian Army (FSA) leader, in Latakia in July 2013, three months after IS openly declared its hitherto-covert presence in Syria and six months before the Syrian opposition went to war with IS. Abu Ayman orchestrated that hit. Near-simultaneously, Abu Ayman was supposed to have led the breakout at Abu Ghraib. In fact, it was al-Suwaydawi who led the Abu Ghraib operation, while al-Aswad was terrorizing the Syrian coast, building a reputation that would follow him as one of the most barbaric IS commanders.
Ali al-Aswad is from Mosul and completed his studies in English literature at the university in the city. Al-Aswad was involved in the Iraqi jihad from its early stages and was imprisoned, it seems between September 2007 and 2010. Al-Aswad spent time in Camp Bucca, among other places. It has been reported that al-Aswad spent time in prison with Ahmad al-Shara (Abu Muhammad al-Jolani), the leader of Jabhat al-Nusra—now Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS)—which began as IS’s secret Syrian wing. By the timeline of al-Shara’s known time in jail, this is plausible.
Upon release from prison, al-Aswad worked in IS’s security services around Mosul, exhausting the Iraqi state with assassinations of its officials, raids against its soldiers and policeman, and suicide bombings. Al-Aswad was sent into Syria early on to take advantage of the Syrian uprising as part of al-Nusra. Al-Aswad was based in Aleppo, where al-Nusra had its major infrastructure at this stage. This was the area into which the muhajirun (foreign fighters) were flowing as they crossed into northern Syria from Antioch.
Interestingly, al-Naba credits Ahrar al-Sham with having “shown it was Islamic”—i.e. jihadi-salafist—at that time, and says Ahrar presented its disputes in terms of legitimate policy disagreements to be mediated with al-Nusra/IS via the shari’a. (God soon revealed the truth of Ahrar’s deviance, says al-Naba.)
Al-Naba claims that in Aleppo al-Shara had surrounded himself with a Syrian leadership cadre “in a clear attempt … to create conditions for treason”, and isolated the non-Syrians in al-Nusra’s leadership by sending them to the most savage fronts or appointing them to remote governorships. Such was the scheme behind al-Aswad’s appointment as governor of the sahel (coastal region).