Al Qaeda in Iraq and the Islamic State have had two famous leaders. First was Abu Musab al-Zarqawi who founded the organization originally known as Tawhid wal Jihad. He was known for his beheadings and bombing campaigns against the international community and the Shiites, which helped spark the civil war. The other was current IS head Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi who announced the establishment of the Caliphate after the fall of Mosul in June 2014. In between those two was Abu Omar al-Baghdadi who had a much more obscure reputation. For example, when he was first announced as the new head of Al Qaeda in Iraq there was a debate about whether he was a real person or not, and then there were stories that he was an actor who only acted as a figurehead. Since then more information has come out to show that Omar al-Baghdadi had much more substance and helped the group survive through the Anbar Awakening, the Surge, and the Sahwa. Craig Whiteside and Haroro Ingram recently wrote an article about all three of these personalities in “Don’t Kill the Caliph; the Islamic State and the Pitfalls of Leadership Decapitation." for War on the Rocks. Here is an interview with Whiteside who is a professor at the Naval War College Monterey and a student of the Islamic State movement. He can be found on Twitter at @CraigAWhiteside
1. The founder of Al Qaeda in Iraq Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed in a U.S. airstrike in 2006. He was replaced by Abu Omar al-Baghdadi who was almost immediately denigrated by the U.S. and Iraqi governments. What was said about him at first, and why didn’t those stories seem believable to you?
There has really only been two schools of thought on the impact of Abu Omar on the Islamic State movement. One is that he was a propaganda ploy (not even a real person) to address complaints that the group was led by foreigners, and was hastily and poorly selected. The other acknowledges that he was real enough but treats him as rather unremarkable. Certainly popular accounts today choose even a third path, and ignore this critical period altogether.
My research on the political worldview of the movement from 2003-2013 put Abu Omar’s leadership in a different perspective for me, and I was convinced by Nibras Kazimi’s early work in identifying Abu Omar’s role as a proto-caliph in the early Islamic State that the conventional wisdom could be mistaken.
The case that Abu Omar was a fraud revolves around one ISI defector from 2007 and one recent alleged defector. The first, Abu Sulayman, was an early ISI Sharia chief from Saudi Arabia who arrived in 2006-7 and lasted less than a year before being fired. His account has received significant attention, but should be taken with some skepticism due to his late arrival, short tenure, and ignominious exit. He never met Abu Omar and reported confusion as to his actual position. The second account by a self-proclaimed former ISI veteran who “returned” to AQ contains so many factual errors that it has to be viewed as a possible fraud. One error includes placing Abu Bakr’s internment in Bucca much longer and later that it actually was, which reflected the early popular reports about when he was imprisoned at Camp Bucca (which was for a large part of 2004). This author Abu Ahmad claimed that Abu Bakr was imprisoned in 2006 for several years, when in actuality he most likely served as the emir of Mosul in 2008-9 – the premier position during a period when the ISI was anchored around the famous city in order to survive the 2008-2011 period. While the detail in his account is amazing, no one in IS after 2008 would have made this particular mistake.
I think it is amazing that popular accounts of who Abu Omar and Abu Bakr were before they rose to power depict them respectively as either a complete nobody or as someone mostly working on his PhD and end up being manipulated into being emir. Much more convincing accounts and captured documents tell a different story, which makes much more sense to me: both were movement veterans (from 2004-5) that did key jobs in tough places, and did them well enough to turn heads. This is how our military selects people for promotion to commander, and we should consider that this practice might be a universal characteristic of politico-military organizations that place a large emphasis on armed combat and terror.
2. So what was Omar al-Baghdadi’s background and how did he move up the ranks to become the emir of Al Qaeda in Iraq?
Zarqawi was infamous even before he came to Iraq, but Abu Omar was different. As the first Iraqi emir of the newly proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq, he had a different security dynamic to worry about. In order to protect his extended family in Haditha from retribution from pro-government elements, he did what indigenous insurgents have done forever – relying on pseudonyms (even multiple ones) to protect their identity. Abu Omar supposedly had three that were documented during his time in TwJ/AQI/ISI, which made him a shadowy figure in his own organization, for good reason. The U.S. saw it as something else (deception maybe, or inauthenticity), but for him it was protecting his identity – something a Zarqawi or Abu Hamza did not have to do (I got this idea from a student at NPS who told me he interviewed everyone in Abu Omar’s family in Haditha back in 2009). Eventually Abu Omar’s identity was outed in 2008, and his name released not by the Americans but an Anbari local police chief who figured it out. I think Abu Omar’s background is illuminating to how AQI grew in Iraq. He was not a product of the infamous and over attributed Faith Campaign – as if Saddam controlled every aspect of life in Iraq - but from the more insidious underground Salafi movement that found a receptive audience in certain Sunni areas of Iraq. The biography I found after years of looking – posted on a jihadist site in 2012 by a writer sympathetic to the IS movement – is interesting in its frankness, which is typical of this genre. It paints Abu Omar as a religious ideologue with a hard edge and outspoken opinions about the proper Salafi methodology, someone with managerial skills that outshone any heroic deeds he performed during a fast rise in the AQI organization. Of note, this account is one of the only ones I have seen on Abu Omar – who was a secretive and careful man – and it is difficult to assess its veracity without using classified sources. Our intent in writing the War on the Rocks article was to encourage further research into this important subject.
According to this biography, he was recruited by foreign fighters traveling the Iraqi Salafi networks - Abu Muhammad al Lubnani and Abu Anas al Shami, two legendary Zarqawi lieutenants – in 2004 after he sheltered Zarqawi on several occasions. After proving himself in Haditha and Baghdad in various security and sharia roles, he was selected to be the emir of Diyala, whose capital at the time was one of the jewels of the AQI franchise. From here he moved to be the chief of staff of the organization, hand screening all selections for senior positions, and he was a voting member of the Shura council. It was in this position that the council voted him to be the emir of the newly proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq in October 2006, over long time Zarqawi deputy Abu Hamza al Muhajir (an Egyptian veteran of Al Qaeda).
It seems logical that the council picked an Iraqi with a claim to Qureshi tribal affiliation for their first leader, especially at a time where they were being criticized for declaring an Islamic State (an unspoken mandate to rally to the black banner) and being dominated by foreigners. The truth was that AQI had become very Iraqi at this point, with some highly visible foreigners at the top. For it to take root deep in the Iraqi social fabric, it had to be this way. The death of Zarqawi facilitated this transition, which makes sense now but at the time, the U.S. either didn’t want to believe it or was deliberately conducting a deception campaign to smear the IS movement as foreign. One other interesting dynamic is that the shura council was made up of equal representation from the different groups that joined with AQI to make up the MSC in early 2006, and this meant that the council was mostly Iraqi. Abu Omar states in his first speech that he was humbled and surprised to be chosen, since he had never been one of the original leaders of these separate groups that joined together – and certainly not the senior member from the clearly dominant faction (AQI). Nonetheless, Abu Hamza - Zarqawi’s long time deputy and the post-Zarqawi leader of the AQI “faction” of MSC – quickly pledged allegiance to Abu Omar and from all accounts I have seen, they had a close working relationship. They were killed together in 2010, but not before building and sustaining the organization we know today.
3. You and Ingram wrote that the transition from Zarqawi to Baghdadi marked a shift from a charismatic leader to more of a managerial one. Can you explain what you meant?
My colleague Haroro Ingram has done extensive research on charismatic leadership in the larger Islamic militant movement, and we thought it provided a powerful explanation of Abu Omar’s role in the organization based on the facts we were able to assemble. Zarqawi was the visionary, the dreamer, and the person who broke from the norms everyone told him he had to do to be successful. Charismatic leaders inspire and transform organizations, often from scratch. But at some point they outlive their usefulness. No organization can survive at the turbocharged pace of the charismatic leader, and to progress must conduct what Max Weber called routinization – the normalization of the organization. We feel that the death of Zarqawi in June 2006 gave the Shura Council the opportunity to replace the shooting star with someone who was more of a manager, who paid attention to recruitment, budgets, institutional building, and mergers with like-minded groups. Someone with a low ego who would respect the Shura council’s demands and share power with AQI’s old guard foreign fighters. Everything we have read about Abu Omar leads us to believe that the shura council made a reasonable decision in picking an Iraqi from Anbar with the correct pedigree, skills, and comportment to lead the Islamic State movement through a difficult transition from a charismatic leader to one that Weber calls a legal-rational leader.
4. Omar al-Baghdadi was the leader of the group during what everyone now considers its nadir when it was facing a revolt by its former allies within the tribes and insurgent community as well as the growing counterinsurgency abilities of the U.S. and Iraqi forces. How was he able to bring the organization through this period and even begin to rebuild it?
The question points toward our own bias when we produce reams and reels about a Zarqawi and now an Abu Bakr, when the real miracle was keeping this organization alive during the crucible you described above. As long time students of organizational leadership, my partner Haroro and I gravitated toward this period for insights into what this tells us about IS today and what we can expect once the caliphate is collapsed, which we are confident it will be.
First, Abu Omar didn’t institute any drastic changes in the organization that might have divided its foreign fighter and Iraqi base. He continued Zarqawi’s basic tenets, which are not uncontroversial; but within this organization, they are probably baked in. Secondly, he and his partner Abu Hamza realized that they had to closely meld the ISI military and political strategy to be successful. The Sawha had to be the first target or they would be unable to attain the kind of access to their base that would allow them to eventually challenge the Iraqi government for outright control of Sunni areas. Their carrot and stick campaign, as I have written about, is much more influential in pushing and forcing some Sunni tribes back into their camp than generic stories about Maliki’s devious sectarianism. All the IS written strategies that authors highlight that were instrumental in their success were written during Abu Omar’s emirship and most likely influenced by him. Thirdly, Abu Omar presided over the bureaucratization and institutionalization of a very difficult organization – a clandestine insurgency under pressure from the most capable Army in the world. Even in his own personal life, he was able to balance security concerns with running an efficient organization to achieve effects. Check out RAND’s recent publication that uses captured documents to detail the immense bureaucracy that was the IS movement in 2005-2010. It probably is the most amazing research I have seen yet on the subject.
Finally, his legacy tells a much different story than our current collective wisdom. For over a year after his death, every operational summary from every province credited their assassinations, bombings, and assaults to Abu Omar’s Harvest of the Good campaign. The security crisis brought on by mass wave of ISI arrests in 2010 after Manaf al Rawi’s capture pushed Abu Bakr deep underground as the new emir, and yet the organization flourished and increased its operations significantly despite the lack of visible leadership. This is often called a leader’s true legacy – how it performs after the leader is gone. If you listen closely to IS videos today, you can hear Abu Omar in the background more frequently than ever before. This could be because it was his steadfastness that inspired them to continue the fight in the dark days, a trait they might need here in the near future. A measure of this respect: the first mosque that IS built after 2014’s seizure of Mosul was named after Abu Omar, as well as several training camps around the region.
5. Finally, do you think Omar al-Baghdadi leadership style led to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s rise to the head of the Islamic State?
Haroro and I wrote that the three leaders fit well into the charismatic leadership framework, which reflects significant wisdom on behalf of the shura council that has chosen these individuals and extended the life of an organization that really should have died long ago. This is not to say that they don’t have significant leadership shortcomings or a flawed ideology and doctrine that makes it difficult to imagine they will ever be successful in the future – their former sponsors in AQ are fairly sure of that. Certainly for the benefit of humanity they cannot. That said, all three of the past and current emirs of the movement have shared such a dogmatic embrace of this ideology that it is hard to think that they not only have influenced each other but have carefully groomed and selected people that think this way to continue to lead it. I argue that is why ideology is a helpful and productive way to view IS. Looking back at the Marxist ideology, the movements that adopted it as their centering principles all adapted it over time to fit the environment. I don’t think the same can be said for IS, which other than its accommodation of Sunni tribes, has been rather ideologically rigid.
Consider one prospective successor of the three emirs: Mohammad al Adnani. He is cut from the same cloth as the others; more of a warrior but less of a religious figure than Abu Omar and Abu Bakr (although he wowed Zarqawi early on with his memorization of the Koran as a very young man), and probably the best speaker of the three. But all accounts of his interactions since his long stay in Camp Bucca paint a picture of an arrogant and emotional figure that is the anti-thesis of a Joulani from Nusra Front, and an extremist who could even make the previous three look tame in comparison.
This is why we argued in “Don’t Kill the Caliph” that the group is well positioned for its eventual demise, and that it is important that their own actions be acknowledged as the primary cause – not some Coalition airstrike that removes the so-called caliph. Abu Bakr took Abu Omar’s blueprint and improved upon it, no doubt assisted by the large numbers of IS movement veterans that joined after 2009 as Camp Bucca let out its poison back into Iraqi society. But Abu Bakr’s disastrous decisions after the highpoint of success in the fall of 2014 brought to bear entirely too many simultaneous opponents that were shocked by IS’ brutal massacres, sexual slavery, genocide, and arrogance. While Abu Omar’s persistence and organizational skills helped IS survive one near-death experience, I don’t believe it will survive its next one. The group’s many adversaries will make sure of it this time around.