The Head of ISIS Is a Hypocrite and a Traitor
Newly released documents expose the Islamic State leader’s betrayal of his comrades, which presents a golden opportunity to discredit the movement.
Recently declassified U.S. military documents suggest that the purported new caliph of the Islamic State, Amir Muhammad Said Abdal-Rahman al-Mawla, betrayed dozens of Islamic State of Iraq members to interrogators while held at the U.S.-run Camp Bucca prison in southern Iraq in 2008. The Tactical Interrogation Reports were released by West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center in September, although the significance of the documents and their implications for efforts to counter Islamic State influence seem to have been lost amid a competitive U.S. election and a rampant global pandemic.
Mawla’s interrogation reports reveal a great deal about the man who would be caliph as well as the inner workings of the Islamic State at a critical moment in its evolution. More importantly, they provide an opportunity to degrade the Islamic State’s brand at a time when it is strategically vulnerable.
After all, the Islamic State’s leadership ranks have been devastated by targeted strikes, while the pressures of decline threaten to exacerbate tensions inside the Islamic State as well as with its jihadi rivals, such as al Qaeda. Discrediting the group’s so-called caliph by exposing him as a snitch and a hypocrite has the potential, if harnessed effectively and synchronized with broader influence efforts, to undermine not only his perceived authority but also the credibility of the movement he leads.
Of the 66 reports related to Mawla’s interrogations held by the U.S. Department of Defense, only three were released, limiting a complete analysis of Mawla—who was given the flattering but likely inaccurate nom de guerre Abu Ibrahim al-Hashemi al-Quraishi, which implies a lineage tracing back to the Prophet Mohammed—or how his relationship with interrogators evolved.
What is beyond question is that he was an informant while detained by U.S. military forces in Iraq. If recent State Department and United Nations reports identifying the Islamic State’s new caliph as Mawla are accurate, that means the Islamic State is now led by a man who betrayed dozens of Islamic State members, including many senior leaders holding Sharia Council, administrative, and military positions in Mosul, going so far as to give their physical descriptions and phone numbers. He even identified these individuals and their predecessors within the organizational hierarchy.
From 2008 to 2009, counterterrorism operations in Mosul, largely led by U.S. forces, devastated the Islamic State’s leadership, and it seems Mawla identified many of them in January 2008. The CTC Sentinel, published by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, which first analyzed the interrogation reports, writes that 11 of 20 individuals who featured in Mawla’s testimonies are authentic; many of them subsequently faced imprisonment or death.
Drawing on an archive of terrorist activities in Mosul since 2004, it seems that other leaders faced similar fortunes, including Muhammed Bazzuna, a “Military Amir” in Mosul, who was killed in 2008; Firas al-Luhaibi, who took over Mosul with al Qaeda and was arrested in 2008; and Muadh Abdullah, the son of a former mufti for an al Qaeda ally, Ansar al-Sunna, who was killed in 2009. For many victims of the Islamic State’s violence there must be a bitter irony to knowing that during Mawla’s sordid ascent to chief he ordered the deaths of countless people for supposed disloyalty while knowing that his own treachery had once devastated the group’s ranks.
Mawla’s testimonies also show how the Islamic State survived and rebuilt itself in the aftermath of the 2007-2008 U.S. troop surge and the so-called Sunni Awakening. This is an important historical period for the Islamic State movement because it represents the group’s historical and strategic nadir but also, in its aftermath, a crucial period of rebuilding, under the leadership of Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, that laid the foundations for its resurgence in 2014. Indeed the Islamic State will likely look back to this period for inspiration and a strategic blueprint to guide its current efforts to recover after devastating defeats.
Although the Islamic State’s first generation—under the leadership of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi—is revered for founding the movement, it is arguably members of the generation that joined and stayed through the years of near-decimation beginning in 2007 who are crucial for understanding the group’s approach to survival and revival. While Mawla provided insights into the personalities and hierarchies within the Islamic State in Mosul, it is his explanations of receipts and letters found in his possession that suggest how the group was raising funds and using Iraq’s deserts to reconstruct itself.
Over a decade later, the Islamic State is once again using Iraq’s deserts to regenerate, slowly rebuilding its ranks, and mounting a grinding insurgency to exhaust its enemies. Just as these lessons from history must not be ignored, neither should openings to opportunistically exploit missteps by the Islamic State, especially when it involves its top leaders.
Today, the Islamic State is vulnerable. Having lost all its territorial control and its first caliph, it is now mounting an insurgency across Syria and Iraq while managing its global operations. The Mawla testimonies are an opportunity for government and civil society actors to launch new campaigns designed to erode trust in the Islamic State and its ideology, harm its image, and deplete its ranks. There are certain guiding principles that should be central to any such effort.
First, the Islamic State’s leadership succession procedure is to conceal the identity of its top leader, a practice that has attracted intense criticism, to protect his security and give the group time to sculpt an image of him and his message to the world. Publicly releasing Mawla’s interrogation reports throws a wrench into these plans, because it provides a range of potential Islamic State detractors—including rival jihadi groups—with messaging fodder ready-made to attack Mawla’s character, reputation, and authority, as well as the Islamic State project more broadly.
It is not enough, however, to simply release material into an information ecosystem and rely on these largely ad hoc and informal processes to take effect. It will be necessary to engage in targeted and coordinated efforts wherever the Islamic State is active, whether led by government agencies nationally or civil society locally, using a variety of online and offline platforms to maximize the reach and impact of an “al-Khalifah al–Mukhbir” (“The Treacherous Caliph”) campaign.
Second, Mawla’s history of informing on his fellow Islamic State members should be one of several interconnected themes that contribute to undermining his credibility and that of the Islamic State’s brand more broadly. For example, Mawla’s ascension of the leadership ranks after engaging in behavior that would have led to subordinates being tortured and killed can be leveraged to highlight an elitist culture within the Islamic State movement, where there is a double standard between leaders and rank-and-file members. When the Islamic State was losing territory across Syria and Iraq, there were reports of leaders being ferried away from cities under siege while others were expected to remain and fight to the death.
Mawla’s duplicity emerges as symbolic of a range of other issues. After all, to join the Islamic State, one must pledge to the caliph and, after previous leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s death last year, pledges flowed from all over the world to his successor. But, as the Islamic State’s critics highlighted, those pledges were made to an unknown figure. Now the world knows that, if nothing else, Mawla is nothing more than what some have called a “canary caliph.” Moreover, while the Islamic State’s pitch to potential supporters was much easier to make five years ago when it could use its propaganda to project an image of strength and success, it is now an insurgency on the run everywhere that it claims to operate. Undermining Mawla’s credibility helps to degrade an Islamic State brand in decline and intensifies the pressures at a critical moment for the movement.
Credibility and trust are important values upon which the Islamic State has attempted to build and project its brand. Both its credibility as a political-military movement and the trust that is vital for its survival are largely based on its ability to convince supporters and enemies that it is not corrupt or hypocritical and that—compared to its adversaries in the West or among rival jihadis—it is reliable and consistent.
The military war against the Islamic State has devastated its ranks and resources, but the propaganda war has not been won. Exposing its leaders’ betrayals undermines their credibility among potential supporters and erodes trust within its ranks. The Islamic State movement has slaughtered hundreds, if not thousands, of people for supposedly betraying the group. But today’s Islamic State is unlikely to execute its own leader for treachery.
Given its long history of hypocrisy and double standards, this should not come as a surprise. With the Islamic State on the ropes but still demonstrating its ability to inspire and direct attacks from Kabul and Vienna to Cabo Delgado, Mozambique, it is time for a rejuvenated international campaign to degrade the Islamic State brand, expose the duplicity of its leaders, and ruin morale within its ranks.
Haroro J. Ingram is a senior research fellow with the Program on Extremism at George Washington University and co-author of The ISIS Reader: Milestone Texts of the Islamic State Movement. Twitter: @haroro_ingram