Present at the Creation
The never-told-before story of the meeting that led to the creation of ISIS, as explained by an Islamic State insider.
The al Qaeda allegiance lie
Baghdadi, however, faced one big problem in realizing his goal. The assembled emirs explained to the ISI chief that most of them had sworn allegiance to Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s chosen successor and the leader of al Qaeda. How could they suddenly abandon Zawahiri and al Qaeda and switch to Baghdadi?
According to Abu Ahmad, they asked Baghdadi during the meeting: Have you pledged allegiance to Zawahiri?
Baghdadi told them that he had indeed pledged allegiance, but hadn’t declared it publicly, per Zawahiri’s request. But Baghdadi assured the men that he was acting under the command of the al Qaeda leader.
The jihadi leaders had no way to check if this claim was true. Zawahiri was perhaps the most difficult person in the world to contact — he had not been seen in public in years, and is still in hiding, most probably somewhere in Pakistan or Afghanistan.
With Zawahiri unable to mediate the dispute himself, the jihadi leaders had to make up their own minds. If Baghdadi acted on behalf of Zawahiri, there was no doubt they had to follow the order to join ISIS. But if Baghdadi was freelancing, his plan to take over Nusra and other groups was an act of mutiny. It would divide al Qaeda and create fitna, or strife, between all the jihadi armies.
So the commanders gave Baghdadi a conditional allegiance. “They said to him: ‘If it is true what you are saying, then we will support you,’” Abu Ahmad told us.
Baghdadi also spoke about the creation of an Islamic state in Syria. It was important, he said, because Muslims needed to have a dawla, or state. Baghdadi wanted Muslims to have their own territory, from where they could work and eventually conquer the world.
The participants differed greatly about the idea of creating a state in Syria. Throughout its existence, al Qaeda had worked in the shadows as a nonstate actor. It did not openly control any territory, instead committing acts of violence from undisclosed locations. Remaining a clandestine organization had a huge advantage: It was very difficult for the enemy to find, attack, or destroy them. But by creating a state, the jihadi leaders argued during the meeting, it would be extremely easy for the enemy to find and attack them. A state with a defined territory and institutions was a sitting duck.
Abu al-Atheer, the MSM emir, had already told his fighters before the arrival of Baghdadi that he was very much against declaring a state. “Some people are talking about this unwise idea,” Atheer told his men. “What kind of madman declares a state during this time of war?!”
Omar al-Shishani, the leader of the Chechen jihadis, was equally hesitant about the idea of creating a state, said Abu Ahmad. There was a reason why Osama bin Laden had been hiding all these years — to avoid getting killed by the Americans. Declaring a state would be an open invitation to the enemy to attack them.
Despite the hesitation of many, Baghdadi persisted. Creating and running a state was of paramount importance to him. Up to this point, jihadis ran around without controlling their own territory. Baghdadi argued for borders, a citizenry, institutions, and a functioning bureaucracy. Abu Ahmad summed up Baghdadi’s pitch: “If such an Islamic state could survive its initial phase, it was there to stay forever.”
Baghdadi had another persuasive argument: A state would offer a home to Muslims from all over the world. Because al Qaeda had always lurked in the shadows, it was difficult for ordinary Muslims to sign up. But an Islamic state, Baghdadi argued, could attract thousands, even millions, of like-minded jihadis. It would be a magnet. “Baghdadi and other jihadi leaders,” said Abu Ahmad, “would compare this to Prophet Muhammad’s migration, or hijrah, from Mecca to Medina to escape persecution.”
The assembled jihadi leaders extensively discussed how a state would function, how it would deal with its population, what its aim would be, and its stance toward religious minorities.
After days of talking, every participant — including initial skeptics Atheer, Shishani, and the two Nusra Front intelligence officials — agreed with Baghdadi’s plan. The only condition they wanted from him was this: The newly created state must be declared in full cooperation with Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham, another jihadi rebel group. Baghdadi agreed to these terms.
The next step was, on the spot, to pledge allegiance.
One by one they stood in front of Baghdadi, shaking his hand and repeating the following words: “I pledge my allegiance to the Emir of the Faithful, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi al-Qurashi, for compliance and obedience, in vigor and impulsion, abjectness and abundance, and in favoring his preference to mine, and not contending the orders of his trustees, unless I witness manifest disbelief.”
Then Baghdadi asked each commander to bring in some of his fighters. Abu al-Atheer, the MSM commander, invited Belgian, Dutch, and French fighters who were under his command to the occasion. Among the foreigners who personally met Baghdadi and pledged allegiance were Abu Sayyaf, known as “the slayer”; Abu Zubair, a Belgian jihadi; Abu Tameema al-Fransi, a French jihadi killed in July 2014; and Abu Shishan-al-Belgiki, a handsome blond jihadi with a Chechen background wanted in Belgium, his home country, for possible participation in beheadings.
Later that day, the Europeans — who until recently mostly had been small-time criminals in Amsterdam, Brussels, or Paris — enthusiastically told everybody how they pledged bayah to Baghdadi.
Many others followed suit. Our narrator, Abu Ahmad, would offer bayah two days later to Abu al-Atheer.
The switch from ISI to ISIS meant that all groups or factions who had joined ISIS would cease to exist in name. For the Nusra Front and its leader, Abu Muhammad al-Jolani, this development was a potential disaster; it could mean the end of their influence in the world’s most important jihadi battleground. Jolani ordered Nusra fighters not to join ISIS but wait until al-Zawahiri published a ruling on who should lead the jihad in Syria.
A large majority of Nusra commanders and fighters in Syria didn’t listen. When Abu Ahmad visited Aleppo only weeks later, some 90 percent of the Nusra fighters in the city had already joined ISIS.
Baghdadi’s new soldiers ordered the few remaining Nusra Front loyalists out of the al-Oyoun Hospital, which had been until then the main Nusra base in the city. “You must leave; we are from al-dawla [the state] and we hold a clear majority among the fighters,” they told the Nusra men, according to Abu Ahmad. “So this headquarters now belongs to us.”
Everywhere in northern Syria, ISIS seized Nusra headquarters, ammunition caches, and weapons stores. Amazingly, al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria was suddenly fighting for its existence. A new age had begun — the age of the Islamic State.