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The Orton Report
April 9, 2017

Analysis: ‘An American Jihadist At the Top of the Islamic State’

by
Kyle Orton

The eighth edition of the Islamic State’s magazine, Rumiyah (Rome), was released on 5 April 2017, and contained an obituary for one of the architects of the magazine itself. Named by his kunyas, Abu Sulayman al-Shami, Abu Sulayman al-Halabi, and Ahmad Abdul-Badi Abu Samrah, the jihadist referred to is Ahmad Abousamra, a U.S.-Syrian dual citizen. Abousamra is quite possibly the most senior American ever to have been in IS’s ranks, and the Rumiyah article gives a very interesting glimpse more generally of IS’s hierarchy.

Abousamra was born in France on 19 September 1981 and grew up in Boston. Abousamra attended Xaverian Brothers, a Catholic high school, for three years, before graduating Stoughton high school in 1999.

In 2000 or 2001, Abousamra had become friendly with Tarek Mehanna, a U.S. citizen of Egyptian extraction who lived in Sudbury, and another man known as “CW2”. All were united by radical Islam and had come up with vague plans before 9/11 to travel to Pakistan for terrorist training. Abousamra went to Pakistan from New York’s JFK Airport on 4 April 2002, and returned to the U.S. sometime in May 2002. From May to August 2002, Abousamra kept in contact with somebody in Pakistan named as “Abdul Majid”.

Over the summer of 2002, back in the U.S., Abousamra became acquainted with Daniel Joseph Maldonado (Daniel Aljughaifi), an American citizen currently in jail for receiving terrorist training with al-Shabab, al-Qaeda’s Somali branch. Abousamra then introduced Mehanna and Maldonado. They bonded over videos of the suffering of Muslims in Chechnya and Palestine and jihadi propaganda of mujahideen victories. The four men—Abousamra, Mehanna, CW2, and Maldonado—planned to do jihad, but thought getting into Afghanistan via Pakistan, after September 11, would be impossible.

On 17 November 2002, Abousamra went back to Pakistan and there befriended a man named “Abdulmajid,” according to a conversation he had with CW2. While in Pakistan, Abousamra made contact with Lashkar-e-Tayyiba, but was forbidden to join because he was an Arab. Abousamra was forbidden to join the Taliban, with whom he also made contact, because he had no experience. Back in America, vague efforts were made at training with weapons by the four men and there was much discussion of domestic terrorism, including killing a member of the Executive branch and the legitimacy of attacking civilians at malls and other public spaces. Nothing came of it. In October 2003, Abousamra flew to California to meet with “Individual A,” who gave him the name of a town and an interlocuter in Yemen.

On 1 February 2004, Abousamra, Mehanna, and CW2 left Boston bound for the United Arab Emirates, via London, with a cover story of attending a school, Dar al-Mustafa, for religious studies. CW2 dropped out as soon as they were in the U.A.E. on 3 February after an email from family. On 4 February, Abousamra and Mehanna moved from the U.A.E. to Yemen. Finding their contacts—and many others in the jihadi world of Yemen—either dead or in prison, Mehanna returned to the U.A.E. on 11 February and headed back to America.

Abousamra went to Iraq on 13 February 2004, and remained for about fifteen days. Abousamra was unable to join the jihadists because he was an American and they were suspicious. Abousamra was in Jordan from 28 February 2004, entered Syria from Jordan on 18 April, and arrived back in Boston in August 2004. Abousamra would return to Syria multiple times over the next two years. At this time, Syria was functioning as the hinterland for the Islamic State’s predecessor, particularly in the east of the country where safehouses overseen by the military-intelligence apparatus of the Bashar al-Assad regime operated, feeding foreign fighters and suicide bombers to the Islamic State’s war against the Iraqi government and the Coalition.

During this period, from 2004 to 2006, Abousamra studied at Northeastern University and the University of Massachusetts Boston, graduating with a degree in Computer Science.

In late 2005, Daniel Maldonado had moved to Egypt and was visited in August 2006 by Mehanna. In November 2006, Maldonado moved from Egypt to Somalia with his wife and three children. The Islamic Courts Union (ICU) had captured large parts of Somalia, including the capital Mogadishu in June 2006, and Maldonado wanted to live in a shari’a-run state. In early December 2006, Mehanna spoke to Maldonado, in a rudimentary code, and made clear he was in Somalia for jihadist activity. Mehanna expressed a desire to join him.

The FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) made its move shortly after this, interviewing Abousamra, Mehanna, and CW2, who became an informant, on 12 December 2006. On 15 December, CW2 recorded a conversation with Abousamra, which enabled the FBI to charge Mehanna with providing false information when they interviewed him the next day. On 26 December, Abousamra fled the United States to Syria. Maldonado was arrested on 21 January 2007 by Kenyan forces as he crossed the border from Somalia, fleeing the advancing Ethiopian troops, and was promptly turned over to the Americans. Maldonado admitted going to Somalia to fight jihad and live in an Islamic state, receiving weapons training, and his contacts with Mehanna.

In October 2009, Abousamra and Mehanna were indicted by a Federal grand jury for conspiring to provide material support to a terrorist group, namely al-Qaeda. Mehanna was hit with four terrorism-related charges, three of them concerning the provision of false information to federal authorities related to his trip to Yemen and relationship with Maldonado, for which he was found guilty in December 2011. Mehanna was sentenced to seventeen years in prison in April 2012.

In December 2013, Abousamra was added to the FBI’s most-wanted list, with a $50,000 reward offered for information leading to his capture. Details about Abousamra were released—including that he had a “high-pitched voice that would distinguish him from others”—and it was noted that Abousamra had “shown that he wants to kill United States soldiers”. Abousamra was believed to be plotting terrorism against the United States. Rumiyah says that Abousamra was in Syria from “the beginning of the jihad,” and Abousamra was identified as being in Aleppo at that time.

This likely means Abousamra was part of the cadre of early jihadists, grouped around Amr al-Absi (Abu al-Atheer), who were nominally part of Jabhat al-Nusra, IS’s secret Syrian wing, but in reality linked directly to IS via the caliph’s deputy, Samir al-Khlifawi (Haji Bakr), rather than through al-Nusra’s leader, Ahmad al-Shara (Abu Muhammad al-Jolani). When al-Nusra and IS split in 2013-14, essentially the entire northern wing of al-Nusra defected with al-Absi to IS. The Syrian opposition then ejected IS from Aleppo City in early 2014. It would take al-Nusra many years to rebuild a presence in that area.

Abousamra was keen to be a suicide bomber, according to Rumiyah, but was instead talent-spotted by Wael al-Fayad, also known as Abu Muhammad al-Furqan and Dr. Wael al-Rawi, the head of IS’s Media Department. When al-Fayad was killed on 7 September 2016 in Raqqa City, it was fairly evident from the circumstantial evidence that he was an extremely important figure in IS—in the category with men like Taha Falaha (Abu Muhammad al-Adnani) and Abdurrahman al-Qaduli (Abu Ali al-Anbari)—partly because there was so little actual information available about him. Rumiyah now confirms this, revealing that al-Fayad was the “general caretaker” of IS, underlining just how important and powerful the Media Department is within IS.

Rumiyah says that al-Fayad came up with the name for Dabiq, IS’s infamous first English-language magazine, named for the village in northern Syria where a Hadith says the apocalypse will begin after a battle between Christendom and Islam. Abousamra was Dabiq’s “chief editor,” Rumiyah says. Though al-Fayad was very hands-on in the production of Dabiq, he was also the day-to-day operator of IS, so Abousamra had a lot of responsibility for translating, editing, and writing material. Using the name Abu Maysara al-Shami, Abousamra wrote some of the most memorable content in Dabiq.

Abousamra especially hated the anti-IS Muslim clerics, Rumiyah explains, and that is certainly evident in the material that appears under Abu Maysara’s byline. The Saudi Wahhabi or “Najdi,” as they’re referred to here, clerics were attacked, and the Rumiyah article is also accompanied by pictures of pro-al-Qaeda jihadi clerics—the current leader of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula Qasim al-Rimi and the overall leader of al-Qaeda Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Jordan-based Issam al-Barqawi (Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi) and Umar Othman (Abu Qatada al-Filistini), the London-based Hani al-Sibai, and the Canada-based Tariq Abdelhaleem—who are referred to as the “Jews of jihad”. This was the name of perhaps Abousamra’s most famous essay.

Abousamra’s hatred for non-IS Muslim clerics went beyond rhetoric, according to Rumiyah. Abousamra plotted to assassinate the American Islamic scholar Hamza Yusuf, who was referred to as the “pinnacle of apostasy” in the fourteenth issue of Dabiq in April 2016, during a visit to Turkey, but IS’s networks were unable to pull it together

IS lost the village of Dabiq in October 2016, and had noticeably abandoned the Dabiq magazine and brought out the first issue of Rumiya on 5 September 2016. It seems likely this was to get ahead of a potentially embarrassing propaganda situation, but Abousamra’s obituary explains it as the culmination of a long-mediated project to unify IS’s output. Where there had been Dabiq in English, Istok in Russian, Konstantiniyye in Turkish, and Dar al-Islam in French all released separately and at varying times, Rumiya would be “one magazine in several languages, with each language’s version being periodically released at the same time.”

Abousamra was “greatly saddened” by al-Fayad’s death, Rumiyah records, and repeatedly requested permission to go to the front until finally his emir relented. Abousamra was killed in Tabqa by a missile strike on the house he was in while engaged in fighting against the U.S.-backed “Syrian Democratic Forces” between 10 and 16 January 2017. Previous reports had said Abousamra was killed near al-Qaim, Iraq, in June 2015; it now seems this was mistaken.