The Man Who Made Crime Pay For the Islamic State

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on 9 September 2018

The United States has launched at least five raids into Syria to date, all of them against the Islamic State (IS).[1] The second such raid, on 15 May 2015, killed Fathi al-Tunisi (Abu Sayyaf al-Iraqi), who oversaw critical revenue-generating criminal schemes for the group. Al-Tunisi was primarily responsible for the oil industry in eastern Syria, in which capacity he collaborated with Bashar al-Asad’s regime, and he worked as head of the Antiquities Division of IS Diwan al-Rikaz, which translates literally as the “Department of Precious Things That Come Out of the Ground”, usually given as the “Department of Natural Resources”. Al-Tunisi was what is sometimes termed a “middle manager”: the connective tissue between the most senior levels of the leadership and local administrators, ensuring smooth coordination between the two by inter alia keeping the books. In short, the kind of terrorist operative that keeps an organisation going.
FATHI AL-TUNISI

Though al-Tunisi’s kunya includes “al-Iraqi” this is more a reflection of the length of time he has been with the IS movement. Al-Tunisi is, as his real name suggests, from Tunisia, a country that produced a disproportionate number of jihadists that joined IS. Born in a working-class neighbourhood of the capital, Tunis, in the early 1980, al-Tunisi was around 30-years-old when he was killed. Al-Tunisi journeyed to Iraq shortly after Saddam Husayn fell and joined the jihadists, though there are few details about how this happened. Al-Tunisi married an Iraqi woman, Nisreen Assad Ibrahim Bahar (Umm Sayyaf), in 2010.

Al-Tunisi was appointed by an Iraqi IS commander, Haji Hamid, to oversee the oil fields in Hasaka and Deir Ezzor, and set himself up in a multi-story complex at the massive Omar oil field, where he was eventually killed.

The Wall Street Journal reported:

[Al-Tunisi’s] 152 employees included managers from oil-producing Arab-speaking countries who had joined the extremist group: a Saudi, who managed the top-producing fields; an Iraqi, who ran oil-field maintenance; an Algerian responsible for refinery development; and a Tunisian, who was in charge of refinery operations. …

Abu Sayyaf was a strict and unpopular manager … Employees were threatened with transfers to Iraq, … where they feared oil bosses who were even more extreme. The areas around the fields became scenes of occasional horror, said the drilling technician who fled Syria last year: “You go to work and you find someone beheaded.”

Al-Tunisi’s Saudi deputy was later identified by U.S. sanctions as Faysal al-Zahrani (Abu Sarah al-Zahrani). Al-Zahrani has been consistently promoted since then and is now IS’s financial emir.

For all of the barbarism accompanying their rule, al-Tunisi and the IS managers around him managed to end the local fighting and corruption between the tribes and the armed opposition groups over the oil wells; this was welcomed by many locals, The Journal notes. A version of meritocracy replaced the prior patronage system of familial connections required to get jobs, which also helped IS’s image. Less sentimentally, the monopoly established by terror allowed IS to pay three and more times the average monthly wage in Syria.

Al-Tunisi is sometimes said to have been IS’s “oil minister”, which is metaphorically true, though that was never his title within IS. Before this, he was involved in IS’s media program. An internal document shows that Abu Jihad al-Tunisi was removed from the Antiquities Division post and Fathi al-Tunisi was given this additional responsibility in November 2014. The bureaucratic rivalry the document records provides the final proof that IS is staffed by men: al-Tunisi has to have the job, it says, because his predecessor is a “simpleton” who can’t cope.

The looting of Syrian treasures occurred in all areas: a study in late 2015 documented the widest-scale looting in areas where governance was weakest, namely where the rebels held power and at that time the Kurdistan Workers’ Party or PKK (the PKK’s governance has tightened-up a lot since then); where there was a centralised authority, either the regime or IS, less sites were looted, but those targeted were stripped bare in a way the individual thefts in the rebel and PKK areas did not approach.

In September 2015, the U.S. offered $5 million for tips leading to the disruption of IS’s antiquities and oil trade. A year later, in December 2016, the U.S. Justice Department filed suit for the forfeiture of antiquities as foreign holdings of IS’s. There seems little doubt that IS has, in an “official” capacity as it were, pillaged Syria’s heritage—after destroying those items marked idolatrous—and found a market in Europe, through intermediaries, first in Syria and then in Turkey and Lebanon. The question is over the scale.

When al-Tunisi took over the Antiquities Division, explains Ben Taub, “dispatched investigation teams to identify places ‘that are anticipated to have precious things,’ [as a captured IS document put it,] then licensed locals to excavate the sites with shovels or rented backhoes. Amid Syria’s wartime chaos, this arrangement offered a rare chance for civilians to earn some cash”. Whatever civilians found was theirs, Taub writes, but “the State” took khums, a fifth, the traditional tax owed to the caliph from ghanima (war spoils).

Some estimates have said al-Tunisi was sitting on antiquities worth $1.3 million. Even that amount would have been small in relative terms: estimates were that IS was making $1 billion per year at that time. The reality, however, is that al-Tunisi had $265,000 in receipts for antiquities over his six-month tenure. As Taub notes, there were severe constraints on how big the antiquities trade could get. IS was—contrary to the accusation that it cynically labelled items too big to move shirk (polytheistic or idolatrous), while selling the rest—theologically consistent, whether the camera was on or off, Taub finds, and the international market for undocumented and/or evidently stolen Palmyran and Mesopotamian relics is quite minimal.

THE RAID

The U.S.-led raid that killed al-Tunisi included the British SAS, who carried out surveillance beforehand and then took part wearing American uniforms. The operation, made possible by a spy “deep inside the group”, was intended to capture al-Tunisi, but he fired at the Special Forces and was killed, along with perhaps a dozen other IS fighters, including an associate of al-Tunisi’s, Abu Tamim. Bahar was taken into custody, and an 18-year-old Yazidi woman that al-Tunisi had been keeping as a slave was freed.

The Yazidi slave girl was eventually tracked down by James Harkin of The Independent. Referred to as “Jalila”, the former captive described al-Tunisi as cruel and Bahar as even worse. “Jalila” says she was defiant with her captors and in the end was instrumental in their downfall: “Umm Sayyaf did not react at all to the killing of her husband, according to Jalila, and instead attempted subterfuge. ‘I am also Yazidi,’ she said to the troops, but when the soldiers asked Jalila she denied it. ‘That’s Umm Sayyaf,’ she protested.” Harkin wrote in late 2015: “Fourteen of [Jalila’s] relatives are still with ISIS, including her father and mother, three sisters, one brother and her brother’s children.”

“Jalila” and a second Yazidi girl, 14, who had earlier escaped (along with yet another Yazidi slave, “Amshe”) enslavement by al-Tunisi, say that another captive kept at al-Tunisi’s home was the American aid worker Kayla Mueller. Mueller was kidnapped on 4 August 2013 as she left a Médecins Sans Frontières hospital in Aleppo city by the original IS network in that area gathered around Amr al-Absi (Abu al-Atheer). Mueller was announced killed on 6 February 2015 in what IS claimed, likely falsely, as a Jordanian airstrike. Both Yazidi captives claim that an IS commander, “Abu Khaled”, used to come to al-Tunisi’s house to rape Mueller, and that this man was the caliph, Ibrahim al-Badri (Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi).

According to “Amshe”, “there was competition among the ‘caliphate’s’ senior commanders for Kayla. They wanted her for her pale skin and because she was an American. … Haji Mutazz had tried to get Kayla for himself.” Haji Mutazz, also known as Abu Mutaz al-Qurayshi and Abu Muslim al-Turkmani, refers to Fadel al-Hiyali, IS’s second-in-command at that time.

AFTERMATH

That al-Hiyali was the caliph’s deputy was disclosed by the raid against al-Tunisi. While al-Tunisi might not have been the highest-ranking official, he was at the centre of IS’s complex governance structure and the keeper of its records, making him personally and the digital systems in his possession very valuable.

American officials told The New York Times that intelligence agencies had “extracted valuable information about the Islamic State’s leadership structure, financial operations and security measures” from the captured materials, such as laptops, mobile telephones, and documents. The attack on al-Tunisi’s headquarters was the “single largest intelligence haul in special operations forces history”: seven terabytes of “spreadsheets, personnel files, receipts, and communications that fleshed out the network like never before”.

The intelligence from al-Tunisi’s compound allowed a series of follow-on operations, the Times documents, including an airstrike that killed Abu Hamid (likely the Haji Hamid mentioned above), the emir of shari’a and tribal affairs, near al-Shadadi, on 31 May 2015. Al-Hiyali’s own death in August 2015 was quite possibly related to al-Tunisi’s.[2]

A key change in policy was provoked by the finding that IS’s oil industry was run by a relatively small cadre of ideologically-committed professionals, not conscripted locals. The U.S.-led Coalition began Operation TIDAL WAVE II in October 2015 and by a year later, according to Matthew Reed, 224 of the 253 oil wells in Iraq and Syria that al-Tunisi’s documents said were under IS control had been obliterated—after just four oil wells had been hit in the first year of Coalition airstrikes.

Information gleaned from the raid led to sanctions by the U.S. Treasury against Sami al-Jiburi in September 2015. Al-Jiburi was identified as the shari’a council chief and IS deputy in southern Mosul in 2014, who had promoted to supervise the oil, gas, antiquities, and mineral operations in March 2015—effectively the finance minister (a position al-Zahrani will take over once al-Jiburi is killed in August 2016). Al-Jiburi had, says Treasury, begun working with al-Tunisi in April 2015 “to establish a new funding stream for [the Islamic State] from increased production at oil fields held by the organization”.

An interesting sub-theme from al-Tunisi’s demise was an attempt to implicate Turkey in IS’s oil trade. One “senior Western official” told The Observer that direct dealings between Turkish officials and IS were now “undeniable”:

There are hundreds of flash drives and documents that were seized there. … [T]he links are already so clear that they could end up having profound policy implications for the relationship between us and Ankara.

There is no doubt oil had been smuggled in Turkey by IS, but the notion that this had official complicity conflicts sharply with the evidence that the Turkish government had severely cracked down in late 2014 on the ever-porous frontier with Syria, a smuggling route for oil from Iraq since the Saddam Husayn days. By the end of 2015, even the oil trading through Turkey was nearly halted.

This did not stop the ludicrous accusations from the Russian government and others against the Turks. Moscow was, as so often in its active measures campaigns, projecting. The largest source of revenue to IS from its oil trade was the Asad regime, through oligarch cut-outs like Hussam al-Katerji, George Haswani (himself deeply connected to the Kremlin), and, as revealed just this week, Muhammad al-Katerji. Al-Tunisi was involved in this collusion with Asad’s state.

Al-Tunisi’s death likely led to an elevation in the status of Muwaffaq al-Kharmush (Abu Saleh), a former member of Saddam’s intelligence services who became an Islamist radical before the regime came down. Al-Kharmush was “a legacy al-Qaeda member”, according to the U.S., and served as IS’s “financial minister” (for which he was placed under sanctions) until he was killed in November 2015. The failure of the wali of Deir Ezzor, Ali Aswad al-Jiburi (Abu Ayman al-Iraqi), to prevent the raid probably contributed to his removal and reassignment to Iraq.

UMM SAYYAF

A criminal complaint was filed by the FBI against al-Tunisi’s wife, Nisreen Bahar or “Umm Sayyaf”, on 8 February 2016, as she sat in jail in Iraqi Kurdistan, where she still is. The FBI said Bahar “did knowingly and intentionally combine, conspire, confederate, and agree to knowingly and unlawfully provide material support and resources to a foreign terrorist organization, namely Islamic State …, knowing that the organization was a designated terrorist organization … The death of Kayla Jean Mueller, a citizen of the United States, resulted from the commission of this offense”.

According to the FBI’s affidavit, Mueller was transferred to al-Tunisi “on or about” 24 September 2014. The FBI says Mueller “was sexually abused by Baghdadi”, apparent confirmation of a controversial accusation, further elaborated later in the document, and Bahar “knew” how Mueller was treated and had enabled it by holding Mueller hostage.

Captured by the Americans on 15 May 2015, Bahar began speaking to the FBI a month later, on 17 June, according to the complaint. Bahar “was read her Miranda rights, acknowledged understanding her rights in writing, and voluntarily agreed to waive those rights, again in writing”. The complaint adds:

The defendant [Bahar] admitted that her family members belonged to the al-Qa’ida in Iraq (AQI) terrorist organization. AQI is the predecessor group to ISIL. The defendant stated she chose to marry Abu Sayyaf in 2010 while he was a member of AQI. The defendant admitted she admired the courage and strength of AQI. She also admitted that Abu Sayyaf remained a member of the terrorist organization when its name changed to ISIL.

The defendant admitted that she, along with her husband, was responsible for maintaining custody of Ms. Mueller, Individual #2 [a Yazidi sex slave], Individual #3 [another Yazidi sex slave], and others on behalf of ISIL. The defendant admitted she had sole responsibility for maintaining Ms. Mueller, Individual #2, Individual #3, and others in captivity while her husband traveled to address ISIL business.

The defendant admitted that ISIL members, including Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, would stay at her residence on an as-needed basis.

The defendant admitted that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi “owned” Ms. Mueller during the period of time that Ms. Mueller was in captivity at the Sayyaf residence. The defendant admitted that “owning” is equivalent to slavery.

Bahar admitted that her home at the Omar oil field had been used to store jihadists and weapons for IS.

Intriguingly, the complaint says: “The defendant admitted to meeting an individual named Abu Hassan, who produced propaganda videos for ISIL. The defendant admitted that she recognizes the voice of Abu Hassan as the narrator on multiple ISIL propaganda videos she has viewed.” IS’s official spokesman at the time Bahar was at liberty and, crucially, at the time this complaint was issued, was Taha Falaha (Abu Muhammad al-Adnani). Falaha was killed in August 2016 and replaced with Abu Hassan al-Muhajir four months later. It seems conceivable, given al-Tunisi’s connections with senior IS leaders, that the Abu Hassan referred to by Bahar is the current IS spokesman.

*                  *                  *                  *                  *

Notes

[1] The first raid, on 4 July 2014, saw Delta Force commandos enter Uqayrishah near Raqqa city in an attempt to rescue James Foley, Steven Sotloff, and (as it was later revealed) Kayla Mueller. The third raid, on 25 March 2016, in Deir Ezzor, near the Iraqi border, killed Abdurrahman al-Qaduli (Abu Ali al-Anbari), the caliph’s deputy. The fourth raid, on 8 January 2017, by the U.S.’s Iraq-based Expeditionary Task Force, had them on the ground in Deir Ezzor for around ninety minutes; an IS leader was killed after the effort to capture him failed, and two prisoners held by the terrorists were released. Some reports said twenty-five IS jihadists were killed in this fourth raid, which the U.S. military said overstated the casualties by “orders of magnitude”. The fifth raid, on 6 April 2017, also into Deir Ezzor, near the city of Mayadeen, killed Abdurakhmon Uzbeki, an IS operative “close” to the leader who facilitated the IS attack on the Reina nightclub in Turkey on New Year’s Eve 2017.

Deir Ezzor 24 reports that a Jordanian spy who had become an emir within IS was extracted from Deir Ezzor by two “Coalition” helicopters in a raid that killed four IS jihadists, two of them foreigners. According to Deir Ezzor 24, this occurred on 6 April 2017. Perhaps it was a part of the operation that killed Uzbeki. Or perhaps not. A later Vanity Fair report, relying on Israeli sources, said a raid occurred in February 2017, undertaken by “Sayeret Matkal commandos…, along with members of the technological unit of the MOSSAD”. It was “an Israeli spy planted deep inside ISIS territory” that made this mission possible, says Vanity Fair, and information captured by the Israelis led to the March to July 2017 ban on laptops on airplanes. This became a subject of controversy, as Vanity Fair explains, because President Trump apparently revealed then-classified information on how the ban came about to the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on 10 May 2017, angering the Israelis. Piecing this together, since it is unlikely that Israel had human intelligence in IS, while Jordan, a dependency of Israel’s, almost certainly does, it is probable that an Israeli incursion to recover a Jordanian spy took place at some point in early 2017—and the Deir Ezzor 24 report and the later Trump/Israel episode are one and the same thing.

[2] Al-Hiyali was killed near-simultaneously with Junaid Hussain, the infamous British hacker, and there were signs that a spy in IS’s ranks had allowed these two strikes; if it was, it will likely never be known, nor whether it was the same informant that led to al-Tunisi’s downfall.

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