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The Orton Report
December 16, 2016

Analysis: ‘The Islamic State’s Media Apparatus and its New Spokesman’

by
Kyle Orton

The Islamic State (IS) has named a new official spokesman, Abu Hassan al-Muhajir. Abu Hassan is the fourth man to hold the position of spokesman within the IS movement, and the third since it declared statehood in 2006. Very little is known about Abu Hassan but assessing the history of IS’s media enterprise offers some hints about his profile. In this regard, a new paper by Dr. Craig Whiteside of the International Centre for Counter Terrorism Terrorism is instructive. Looking forward, examining Abu Hassan’s inaugural speech offers some clues about the direction IS’s messaging and behaviour will take now as its statelet shrinks under pressure from the U.S.-led Coalition.

BACKGROUND

IS was formed in 1999 in Taliban Afghanistan by Ahmad al-Khalayleh, a Jordanian jihadi-salafist who would become world-famous under his kunya, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Though al-Qaeda assisted in setting al-Zarqawi up in his camp in Herat, al-Zarqawi did not formally join al-Qaeda by swearing allegiance to Usama bin Ladin, and indeed fell under the influence of ultra-extremists who opposed al-Qaeda in important respects.

Once the Taliban was overthrown in the wake of 9/11, al-Zarqawi took shelter in Iran. The Iranian revolution did not hinder al-Zarqawi and even provided various kinds of support—by omission and commission—which was later partly reciprocated. It was in Iran that the caliphate project was conceived. The Qaeda network in Iran fed IS when it was al-Qaeda’s Iraqi branch, and the network still operates—out of reach of American drones—under a “secret deal“. The Iran-based al-Qaeda network helps sustain al-Qaeda’s rebranded forces in Syria, helping them co-opt a desperate rebellion, which in turn bolsters the efforts of Iran’s ally in Syria, Bashar al-Assad, to defeat the opposition by making the choice binary between the dictatorship and a terrorist takeover.

Al-Zarqawi moved to Saddam Husayn’s Iraq with a dozen al-Qaeda-linked jihadists in the spring of 2002, and more arrived through the summer and autumn. After trips to Lebanon and Syria, al-Zarqawi returned to Iraq in November 2002, and moved back to Iran during the invasion of March 2003. Infiltrating back into Iraq after the fall of Baghdad, al-Zarqawi’s organization brought off a series of “spectacular” terrorist attacks in August 2003, but they would not be claimed until January 2004. This was because al-Zarqawi’s military infrastructure outstripped his media apparatus, which had to be built from scratch in Iraq.

THE FIRST SPOKESMEN

Al-Zarqawi’s first spokesman was Abu Maysara al-Iraqi, a 24-year-old who had converted from Shi’ism to Sunnism, and then joined the rapidly expanding underground Salafi Trend that Saddam had neither the ability nor inclination to curb. Abu Maysara, one of the first to join al-Zarqawi’s then-small, foreign-led group, began the “virtual caliphate,” the innovative use of the internet by jihadists to broadcast and recruit beyond the “jihadosphere”.

“The tremendous effectiveness of the young spokesman did not go unnoticed by U.S. authorities,” Whiteside writes, “and a vigorous effort was made to suppress his connection to the rest of the world. These efforts were largely fruitless … In a little over a year’s time, U.S. officials went from laughing at Saddam’s information minister ‘Baghdad Bob’ to being bested by a millennial Iraqi with part-time internet access in a café.”

Abu Maysara doubled as the deputy emir of the Media and Communications Department; he maintained this position after al-Zarqawi’s organization, which had officially come under al-Qaeda’s banner in late 2004, changed its name again to al-Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen (MSM) in January 2006 after a merger with some smaller Iraqi Salafist groups.1 Abu Maysara was killed in June 2006, a week before al-Zarqawi, and the unknown emir of the media department appears to have been arrested or killed around the same time.

The interim spokesman after Abu Maysara was Abu Ammar al-Dulaymi.

AFTER FOUNDING “THE STATE”

Hamid al-Zawi (Abu Umar al-Baghdadi)

Hamid al-Zawi (Abu Umar al-Baghdadi)

In October 2006, the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) was declared and the following month al-Zarqawi’s successor, Abdul Munim al-Badawi (Abu Hamza al-Muhajir), declared his allegiance to ISI’s leader, Hamid al-Zawi (Abu Umar al-Baghdadi), ostensibly ending al-Qaeda’s presence in Iraq by subsuming it to this proto-caliphate. (Al-Qaeda maintains that this was a ruse for political reasons and al-Zawi and al-Badawi remained secretly pledged to al-Qaeda.)

The first spokesman of the Islamic State was Muharib al-Jibouri,2 the leader of an independent insurgent group, Saraya al-Ghuraba, based in the Iraqi Salafi Trend, which joined MSM at its foundation. According to Abu Maysara’s biography, he was much influenced in his legal outlook by Ibn Hazm and he “attended lessons … and drank from [the] knowledge” of Muharib, and “joined in the class of the authoritative Shaykh Subhi al-Badri,” who is one of the most important founding figures of Salafism in Iraq. Interestingly, Subhi was a relative of Ibrahim al-Badri (Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi), supervising Ibrahim’s Qur’an and Hadith lessons at Saddam University of Islamic Studies in Baghdad where he supposedly earned a PhD.

Muharib al-Jibouri [source]

Muharib al-Jibouri [source]

Muharib was killed on 1 May 2007, and on 4 July that year the media emir, Khalid al-Mashadani (Abu Zayd al-Mashadani, Abu Muhammad al-Mashadani), was arrested. Al-Mashadani’s capture was consequential not only because one of ISI’s most senior officials—he was on the shortlist to replace al-Zarqawi—had been taken off the battlefield but because of the misinformation al-Mashadani would pass to his captors.

MEDIA AND SECURITY

Within MSM, al-Zarqawi had formally ceded the leadership to one Abu Abdullah Rashid al-Baghdadi. In July 2006, Abu Ammar read a statement on behalf of Rashid that gave the impression Rashid was still free and meant there was no audio of Rashid for the Americans to decipher. It was widely assumed Rashid was al-Zawi and al-Zawi had taken on the Abu Umar moniker when ISI was declared to sound more caliphal. Al-Mashadani allowed this idea to stand but added that Rashid/Abu Umar was a fictional character, an actor who read statements on behalf of al-Badawi.

In fact, as revealed by IS’s newsletter al-Naba earlier this year, Rashid’s real name was Abdurrahman al-Qaduli (Abu Ali al-Anbari), who had been arrested in April 2006 by the Americans. Al-Mashadani’s deception meant that the Americans never understood who they had in custody and by some reports the Americans were never sure Abu Umar was a real person until they killed al-Zawi in the company of al-Badawi in April 2010.

The restructuring that took place with the creation of ISI, away from the tight-knit network and toward a decentralized, provincial structure, transformed the media council from one of the points of vulnerability to one of the leaderships’ primary shields—despite its rapid expansion in size and its continued close interaction with the emir. Al-Zarqawi’s demise “can be traced back to his interaction to the media department,” Whiteside writes, but al-Zawi and al-Badawi “for the most part solved this problem,” and ultimately Abu Ammar and al-Mashadani protected the leadership.

MEDIA OPERATIONS IN THE WILDERNESS

After Muharib’s elimination, it would be four years before IS again appointed an official spokesman. On 22 December 2006, al-Zawi would give his first speech as proto-caliph, and al-Zawi would remain the voice of the organization until his downfall.

While the IS movement had reached its high-water mark in late 2006 in terms of territorial control and strength, its political position was deteriorating and the U.S. Surge would capitalize on this. IS was beaten back by 2008 after the Sunni Arab community revolted against it and its former allies purged it from the cities, driving it into the desert and helping the Coalition hunt its members.

IS movement territorial control, 2006-08 [source]

IS movement territorial control, 2006-08 [source]

The media emir following al-Mashadani was Abu Zahra al-Issawi. The media department had—as outlined above—been through a turbulent time in 2006-07 as a result of American pressure, and al-Issawi’s official biography makes clear a “ferocious campaign to strike the media of the Islamic State” continued.

An early associate of al-Zarqawi’s, al-Issawi, a lifelong Salafi from Fallujah, joined the IS movement with a batch of people that included Abdallah al-Jawari (Abu Azzam al-Iraqi), the chief financier until he was killed in September 2005, one of the connected middle managers that keep the organization working.

Al-Issawi had been closely associated with two of the towering figures of IS’s history, al-Zarqawi’s first and second deputies: Umar Yusef al-Juma (Abu Anas al-Shami) and Mustafa Ramadan Darwish (Abu Muhammad al-Lubnani).

Al-Juma was a Kuwaiti-born jihadist who lived for a long time in Jordan where he had, like al-Zarqawi, fallen in with Issam al-Barqawi (Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi), jihadi-salafism’s leading cleric. In Iraq after 2003, al-Juma was the most senior religious authority of the early IS movement and fought in the first battle of Fallujah, cementing his legend as a scholar-warrior.

Darwish, a Lebanese Kurd who grew up in Denmark and journeyed to Iraq to join the Zarqawi’ists in the aftermath of Saddam, handled IS’s security portfolio, including its military development wing, which included attempts to produce chemical weapons.

Al-Issawi had been imprisoned in the Susa prison in Sulaymaniya in the PUK-run part of Iraqi Kurdistan but escaped in 2007. As Whiteside notes of al-Issawi, “[h]is biography stresses the immense responsibilities of managing the (media) department during the decline of the ‘state’ after 2008.” Al-Issawi would “leave in the morning and return at night worn out by the hardship,” the obituary notes, adding that he was seen “cold from exhaustion,” “tired and anxious from the weight of this trust” during this “critical time through which the Islamic State was passing”.

When exactly al-Issawi was killed is unclear, though it was allegedly at the hands of Blackwater. IS, still in its “paper state” stage, named Ahmad al-Tai, the holder of a PhD, as its new “information minister” or media emir in September 2009. Al-Tai’s death, assumed to be in 2010 or 2011, also went unheralded—by both sides.

THE RETURN OF THE SPOKESMAN

In April 2010, ISI’s dual leaders—al-Zawi and al-Badawi—were killed, and over the next three months 34 of 42 most senior officials were eliminated. But the IS movement held its ground. Al-Badri took over as emir, the bureaucracy went on, and the U.S. withdrew, first from the cities in June 2009 and then entirely in December 2011—five years ago yesterday, to be exact.

The success of the Surge-and-Awakening had not been reckoned an ongoing process; there was an attempt to pocket it and move on. But IS, not as badly damaged as imagined, ruthlessly assessed where it went wrong, producing a “Strategic Plan for Reinforcing the Political Position of the Islamic State of Iraq” in either December 2009 or January 2010, corrected course and began its counter-stroke.

The U.S. prisons themselves were badly enough run—often little more than networking and indoctrination centres—and this was compounded by the disastrous catch-and-release policy, which accelerated as the sense of “post-war” settled in, and the reduction of U.S. security forces opened the way to mass-break outs. Out of public view, over-1,300 Awakening members were assassinated, and many tribes came back into the IS fold as the organization offered a mix of contrition and terror. Also pushing Sunnis back into IS’s camp was the U.S. withdrawal and its fallout, the greater power for Iran in Baghdad and Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki giving free rein to his sectarian and authoritarian tendencies, witch-hunting Sunnis out of the government the moment the Americans left.

The IS movement was “on the upswing by mid-2011,” able to dispatch forces into Syria to create a branch there called Jabhat al-Nusra, which broke with its parent organization in 2013-14 and swore allegiance to al-Qaeda, before rebranding itself Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS) earlier this year and claiming to disaffiliate from al-Qaeda. The amount of support IS provided al-Nusra/JFS is contested but the movement was strong enough to send senior officials into Syria in 2011, and by late 2012 this included the caliph’s deputy.

Taha Falaha (Abu Muhammad al-Adnani)

Taha Falaha (Abu Muhammad al-Adnani)

It was in August 2011 that IS re-appointed an official spokesman, Taha Falaha (Abu Muhammad al-Adnani). Whether this reflected al-Badri’s confidence in his position and the strength of the organization, the ongoing paranoia about public exposure of the leadership (al-Badri’s first audio release was on 21 July 2012), a need to imitate the structures of a state, or some combination of all the above is open to interpretation. What is certain is that Falaha’s pedigree was second-to-none.

Recruited by al-Zarqawi in Aleppo in 2002 as part of the original cadre, Falaha was a religiously-educated salafist who had come under the instruction of al-Juma once he joined the IS movement, according a biography of Falaha by Turki al-Binali, currently IS’s most senior religious official. Falaha was one of the last to pull out of Fallujah in November 2004, with a handful of jihadists that included al-Badawi, the biography adds—assuring, as al-Juma had done in the first round, Falaha’s status as a scholar-warrior. Falaha was so trusted by al-Zarqawi that he was “allowed him to make executive decisions independently,” al-Binali writes. Imprisoned between 2005 and 2010, the Coalition never realized who it had and Falaha was able to help train those who passed through Camp Bucca. Falaha was allegedly free in time to see the collapse of the al-Zawi/al-Badawi regime, whose confidence Falaha also enjoyed.

Amr al-Absi (Abu al-Atheer)

Amr al-Absi (Abu al-Atheer)

Under al-Badri, Falaha also headed the media council until 2011 or 2012, when it was handed over to a triumvirate of Wael al-Fayad (Dr. Wael al-Rawi or Abu Muhammad al-Furqan), Amr al-Absi (Abu al-Atheer), and Bandar al-Shaalan—an Iraqi, a Syrian, and an Egyptian, respectively. A lot of reports have al-Absi as the formal head of the Media Council, and conceivably that was true, at least at some point, but the driving operational force was al-Fayad. Al-Absi’s most important role in 2013-14 was drawing together supporters to lay the foundations for the caliphate.

MEDIA EXPANSION WITH THE CALIPHATE

In the deserts, IS had used the media department as a means of broadcasting the message that it was “remaining,” as al-Zawi had put it, and the workload had been considerable. With the announcement of the caliphate, IS expanded from about 1,000 media releases per year to about 10,000. Simply logistically this must have been—must still be—an extraordinary operation to see in action. The consequences for the balance of power within the organization are also considerable.

Even while giving up the formal title at the head of the Media Council, Falaha became ever-more powerful. In December 2012, Falaha arrived in Syria with IS’s number-two, Samir al-Khlifawi (Haji Bakr), in an attempt to re-assert control over al-Nusra. When that effort failed and conflict erupted, Falaha rose to salience as the organization’s rhetorical attack dog.

Al-Badri would remain above the fray, respectful and proper; Falaha insulted people as varied as John Kerry (“uncircumcised old geezer“) and Ayman al-Zawahiri (“senile” and among the “donkeys and mules of ‘knowledge’.”) The September 2014 call for Western Muslims to murder their disbelieving co-citizens (“[their] blood is like the blood of a dog”) made Falaha one of the most recognizable IS figures and landed him on the sanctions list as a global terrorist—which over time proved more and more justified. As IS leaders began to fall under Coalition pressure, Falaha would become the governor of the IS-held areas in Syria, the overseer of IS’s external terrorism, and the overall deputy who was—as the reference to “the Husayni Quraysh shaykh” in his death notice made clear—in line to replace the caliph.

Whiteside makes an intriguing parallel between IS’s media infrastructure and U.S. special operations forces: “the media department’s rapid growth, decentralisation, and successful product launches have produced an inexorable mission creep,” Whiteside notes, and the inherent difficultly of separating recruitment and propaganda inevitably meant that the media operatives had feet in multiple areas of “the state” to begin with. Since IS puts its “most talented commanders into the media department”—”educated professionals with doctorates (Muharib, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, al-Tai, al-Rawi), politically connected leaders from newly co-opted insurgent groups (Mashadani, Muharib), and future potential emirs/caliphs (Abu Bakr, al-Adnani)”—and given the simultaneous rapid loss of leaders and rapid growth of media output, it was perhaps inevitable that the media personnel would accrue more and more responsibility, including for foreign attacks.

Al-Absi was killed on 3 March in northern Aleppo, and not far away on 30 August Falaha was killed. Al-Fayad’s key underling, Abu Harith al-Lami, was struck down on 6 September, and al-Fayad himself was liquidated the next day.

ABU HASSAN AL-MUHAJIR

IS named Abu Hassan as the new spokesman on 5 December. There had been a notable drop in both the volume and the quality of IS’s media output after the loss of Falaha and al-Fayad, but Abu Hassan’s appointment comes coincident with a recovery to pre-loss levels for photographic and military reports. While IS’s video output remains less-than-half what it was before September, on Tuesday IS produced one of its longest and most high-quality videos ever.

Little is known about Abu Hassan. It might well transpire that Abu Hassan is the pseudonym of somebody already known, or perhaps he is one of those quiet figures of immense importance that emerge from IS’s bench from time-to-time. Some guesses about his profile can be made.

“The continuity of highly educated spokesmen with impeccable Salafi pedigrees had proved to be a constant with this movement,” Whiteside notes. Some rumours suggest that Abu Hassan is a Saudi. This is possible. As Falaha and al-Absi and al-Shaalan show, the media division is one where IS allows non-Iraqis to rise to the very top.

It is unlikely that Abu Hassan will inherit all of Falaha’s duties, which will probably be parcelled out among several individuals.

THE ISLAMIC STATE’S MESSAGE NOW

Abu Hassan takes the reins at a time when IS is falling back from its overt control of territory. IS’s message to its followers in preparation for the impending collapse of its statelet has essentially two parts: (1) this is a temporary retreat into the desert, which has been seen before and is merely part of the cycle on the way to the restoration of the caliphate; but for that reason, because victory is preordained, (2) do not allow this collapse to happen too easily: the suffering incurred resisting the Americans and others, and the hardship to come in the wilderness, are gifts from god, a way of testing the believers and purifying the herd before victory is granted.

Abu Hassan in his first speech stuck to this script. “[B]e patient, O brothers in jihad. Be steadfast and rejoice, for, by Allah, you will be victorious. This tribulation that you are passing through is merely an episode of tribulations by which … distinguishes the wicked from the good,” said Abu Hassan. “This tribulation, which in reality is a gift, is not more difficult than that which preceded it.”

When IS’s proto-state was sacked last time and its fighters were driven into the wilds, IS relied on its media department as both proof-of-life and proof-of-progress. The message, in other words, was the fact of the message: the military defeats and deaths of leaders don’t matter; as long as IS is producing media output, its cause is alive.

It might be tempting to see this as self-consolation but that would be a mistake. IS has good reasons of self interest in the kind of war it is waging to be truthful, to be seen as credible in its reporting, and to state plainly its doctrine. IS really believes the ideology disseminated in its propaganda, it polices its members’ adherence to it, and it seeks to impose it on others—so attracting people who do not believe as they do is counter-productive.

IS might be wrong in its reading of its predicament, but it is likely not lying. The worst part is that IS might be right.

HISTORY REPEATS?

U.S. Defence Secretary Ashton Carter gave a speech today on Thursday about IS that focused solely on Mosul and said matters were “proceeding according to the plan“. This is as Aleppo falls, which is not just a humanitarian catastrophe but a geostrategic disaster, destroying forces that could have been used to sustainably defeat IS and validating the propaganda of jihadi-salafists generally, al-Qaeda very much included, in a manner with few modern precedents. The fates of Aleppo and Mosul are psychologically joined in the region, yet the U.S.-led Coalition has defined counter-terrorism so narrowly that it can’t defeat terrorism.

The Coalition has defined victory essentially in military terms: destroying IS’s statelet, without uprooting its deeper infrastructure or the political problems that allowed it to recover, and—when the focus eventually turned to al-Qaeda in Syria—the use of airstrikes, in direct collaboration with a Russian government that stands foursquare behind Assad, for an enemy that has woven itself into a popular uprising partly by the claim that the West is conspiring with the pro-Assad coalition to defeat the revolution. IS might not seek popularity in the same way as al-Qaeda but the appearance of Western collusion with the Iran-Russia-Assad axis has, as exhaustively documented by Charlie Winter, been used to legitimize IS, as a bulwark-of-last-resort and in its brutal behaviour, to resist what they portray as a global conspiracy against Sunnis.

The Coalition’s prioritization of this shallow, short-termist counter-terrorism has led to military operations being conducted on political timetables, choosing allies that legitimize IS’s political appeal, and ignoring the wider Syrian war—of which prepares the ground for a return of the forces being combated.

IS can take military defeats; it needs political victories. As Hassan Hassan put it, “Islamic State’s doctrine of survival is based on a simple notion: defeat on the battlefield must always leave behind the seeds for a comeback.” The strategy adopted by the Coalition to defeat IS is playing to IS’s strategy almost perfectly, allowing IS’s survival at its core and giving the movement what it needs to recruit and mobilize supporters to attacks in the West and elsewhere using its virtual infrastructure.

Having arisen from the ashes once, the messaging that says that this difficult time is a precursor to victory does not seem so fanciful. Western engagement has been progressively less, and less willing, in pursuit of IS’s defeat. And even when the West does engage, there is a tendency to declare victory and leave the field after IS is swept from its urban areas, to not clear IS’s underground networks and rural sanctuaries, and to allow the political situation to be shaped by IS and other forces in such a way that it leaves the Sunni constituency IS is vying for feeling that its interests are better-served by IS’s shadow state than the official government.

 

 

 

 

Notes:

[1] MSM at its founding on 15 January 2015 included al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia (AQM), Jaysh al-Taifa al-Mansura (The Army of the Victorious Sect), Saraya Ansar al-Tawhid (Monotheism Supporters’ Squad), Saraya al-Jihad (The Jihad Squads), Saraya al-Ghuraba (The Strangers’ Squad), Kataib al-Ahwal (Calamities or Horrors Brigade). Two weeks later, on 29 January 2016, another group, Jaysh Ahl al-Sunnah wal-Jama’a (The Army of the People of Orthodoxy [i.e. Sunnis] and their Community), joined MSM; this group was led by the current caliph.

[2] Muharib mostly went by his real name for reasons that are not entirely clear. But he did have a number of pseudonyms, including: Abu Abdullah al-Jibouri and Abd al-Latif al-Jibouri.

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