The terror strategist: Secret files reveal the structure of ISIS

Samir Abd Muhammad al-Khlifawi aka Haji Bakr

Samir Abd Muhammad al-Khlifawi aka Haji Bakr

Christoph Reuter reports: Aloof. Polite. Cajoling. Extremely attentive. Restrained. Dishonest. Inscrutable. Malicious. The rebels from northern Syria, remembering encounters with him months later, recall completely different facets of the man. But they agree on one thing: “We never knew exactly who we were sitting across from.”

In fact, not even those who shot and killed him after a brief firefight in the town of Tal Rifaat on a January morning in 2014 knew the true identity of the tall man in his late fifties. They were unaware that they had killed the strategic head of the group calling itself “Islamic State” (IS). The fact that this could have happened at all was the result of a rare but fatal miscalculation by the brilliant planner. The local rebels placed the body into a refrigerator, in which they intended to bury him. Only later, when they realized how important the man was, did they lift his body out again.

Samir Abd Muhammad al-Khlifawi was the real name of the Iraqi, whose bony features were softened by a white beard. But no one knew him by that name. Even his best-known pseudonym, Haji Bakr, wasn’t widely known. But that was precisely part of the plan. The former colonel in the intelligence service of Saddam Hussein’s air defense force had been secretly pulling the strings at IS for years. Former members of the group had repeatedly mentioned him as one of its leading figures. Still, it was never clear what exactly his role was.

But when the architect of the Islamic State died, he left something behind that he had intended to keep strictly confidential: the blueprint for this state. It is a folder full of handwritten organizational charts, lists and schedules, which describe how a country can be gradually subjugated. SPIEGEL has gained exclusive access to the 31 pages, some consisting of several pages pasted together. They reveal a multilayered composition and directives for action, some already tested and others newly devised for the anarchical situation in Syria’s rebel-held territories. In a sense, the documents are the source code of the most successful terrorist army in recent history. [Continue reading…]


The Revolutionary Guard — Iran’s deep state

Aaron Bastani writes: At the beginning of March a photo emerged of Qassem Suleimani, the head of the Quds Force (the extraterritorial element of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard), smiling as he despatched troops into Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s birthplace and now a front line in the fight against Isis. Ben De Pear, the editor of Channel 4 News, tweeted it alongside a similar photo, of a dozen men in desert fatigues and with smiles as wide as Suleimani’s, making victory signs to the camera. They were US marines in Tikrit in April 2003.

During that brief period of euphoric triumphalism in the White House and Downing Street, you’d have been laughed out of the room for suggesting that Tehran would gain the most from Saddam’s overthrow, and that within 12 years its sphere of influence would extend to four Arab capitals. More likely, the experts would have rejoined, that Iran would itself see regime change, by force if necessary.

Yet as Alireza Zakani, a member of parliament for Tehran, said last September, three Arab capitals – Beirut, Baghdad and Damascus – now ‘belong’ to the Islamic Revolution. The rise of Ansar Allah in recent months (the Zaidi Shia militias fighting in Yemen, often referred to as Houthis) means that Sana’a could be added to the list, though for how long is unclear.

The expansion of the Islamic Republic’s reach can’t be seen in isolation from the Arab Spring. Iran considers the uprisings the continuation of a historical movement it initiated. The former foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati said in December that Iran supports the ‘rightful struggle’ of Ansar in Yemen, and considers the movement part of the ‘successful materialisation of the Islamic Awakening’ – Tehran’s name for the Arab Spring, which it views as evolving rather than defeated. [Continue reading…]


Top Saddam Hussein aide reported killed in northern Iraq

The New York Times reports: An Iraqi provincial governor said Friday that militiamen had killed Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, the highest-ranking official from Saddam Hussein’s government who was still on the loose, in clashes in a mountainous region of northern Iraq.

News of Mr. Douri’s death has been announced several times by different authorities over the years, and officials cautioned that confirmation would not come until DNA testing had been conducted.

The announcement was made by the governor of Salahuddin Province. Its capital is Tikrit, Mr. Hussein’s hometown, which was recently liberated from the Islamic State. A representative for one of the militias involved in the fighting on Friday, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, said a body that fighters believed was Mr. Douri’s was on its way to Baghdad on Friday evening for DNA testing. [Continue reading…]


Iraq: ISIS escapees describe systematic rape

Human Rights Watch: The extremist group Islamic State (also known as ISIS) has carried out systematic rape and other sexual violence against Yezidi women and girls in northern Iraq. Human Rights Watch conducted research in the town of Dohuk in January and February 2015, including interviewing 20 women and girls who escaped from ISIS, and reviewing ISIS statements about the subject.

Human Rights Watch documented a system of organized rape and sexual assault, sexual slavery, and forced marriage by ISIS forces. Such acts are war crimes and may be crimes against humanity. Many of the women and girls remain missing, but the survivors now in Iraqi Kurdistan need psychosocial support and other assistance.

“ISIS forces have committed organized rape, sexual assault, and other horrific crimes against Yezidi women and girls,” said Liesl Gerntholtz, women’s rights director at Human Rights Watch. “Those fortunate enough to have escaped need to be treated for the unimaginable trauma they endured.”


Pentagon: Ramadi isn’t about to fall to ISIS, but if it does, it’s not a big deal (unless you live in Ramadi)

The Wall Street Journal reports: U.S. defense officials said a provincial capital in Iraq could soon fall to Islamic State, while America’s top military officer sought to minimize the strategic importance of the city.

At a Pentagon news conference, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, suggested that maintaining control of Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, isn’t central to the U.S. and Iraqi aims of defeating Islamic State forces.

“The city itself is not symbolic in any way,” Gen. Dempsey said. “It’s not been declared part of the caliphate on one hand, or central to the future of Iraq.”

Earlier this week, Pentagon officials minimized the possibility that Ramadi was going to fall. But U.S. officials have monitored large numbers of civilians fleeing from the city, a sign that residents fear an imminent takeover.

Islamic State fighters have taken over a number of villages surrounding Ramadi, destroyed bridges and other infrastructure and reversed recent gains by Iraqi Security forces, defense officials said Thursday.

The U.S. has been stepping up strikes around Ramadi, but those have been insufficient to blunt the advance of Islamic State fighters.

Officials compared the city with Kobani, a Syrian city that was on the brink of being taken over before Kurdish fighters, aided by U.S. airstrikes, retook it. [Continue reading…]

Which is to say, Ramadi is like Kobane, minus the Kurdish fighters.


ISIS’ attack on Ramadi just upended U.S. war plans

Nancy A. Youssef reports: ISIS is reportedly marching on key Iraqi city of Ramadi—upending the momentum that the U.S.-led military coalition seemed to have just days ago, and threatening to shatter an already delicate recent power shift that both the U.S. and Iraq hoped to exploit.

Until Wednesday’s reports about Ramadi both U.S. and Iraqi officials were examining what effects ISIS’ recent losses could have in future battles. The officials were even talking about where they would take down ISIS next. During his visit to Washington, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi suggested in an interview Wednesday with reporters that his troops could move on both Anbar province—where Ramadi in the local capital—and the oil-rich city of Baiji.

But that was before, according to residents, three cities near Ramadi fell into ISIS hands. Hours later, area security forces reportedly asked for more support from the central government to retain control of the city. Pentagon officials stopped short of saying the city was on the brink of falling. But they didn’t sound confident it would hold, either. [Continue reading…]


Soleimani: No more selfies

Arash Karami writes: When the fighters of the Islamic State (IS) took over large parts of western Iraq in the summer of 2014, Iran did not hesitate to assist both Iraqi and Kurdish forces in pushing back against the advance of the terrorist group. Iran’s geopolitical decision was also accompanied by what seemed an unofficial media decision: to promote the status of Quds Force Cmdr. Qasem Soleimani in the fight against IS.

Pictures of Soleimani at the front line among Iraqi forces surfaced on social media overnight. The various Facebook, Twitter and Instagram pages dedicated to Soleimani had begun to act as his unofficial media arm, and his popularity has soared online. Often he could be seen looking at the camera, making no attempt to conceal that Iran had sent its commander in charge of regional policy to Iraq.

But now it seems that Soleimani has had enough. In an April 11 open letter to an Iranian filmmaker requesting that he cease producing a film about him, Soleimani also denied some of the things said about him on social media and asked officials to control the rumors. [Continue reading…]


Pentagon: ISIS pushed out of 25% of its territory

USA Today: Iraqi forces have pushed the Islamic State out of about 25% of the territory seized during the militants’ lightning advance last year, according to a Pentagon assessment released Monday.

The area represents 5,000 to 6,500 square miles in northern and central Iraq, the assessment said.

The United States has been backing Iraqi forces with daily airstrikes against the Islamic State, also known as ISIL or ISIS.

“ISIL is no longer the dominant force in roughly 25 to 30% of the populated areas of Iraqi territory where it once had complete freedom of movement,” the Pentagon said.

The assessment comes as President Obama is to meet Tuesday with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi for his first White House visit as prime minister. Al-Abadi has said Iraq needs more international assistance in his country’s fight against Islamic State militants.


Four Blackwater guards sentenced in Iraq shootings of 31 unarmed civilians

The Washington Post: A federal judge Monday sentenced a former Blackwater Worldwide security guard to life in prison and three others to 30-year terms for killing 14 unarmed civilians in a Baghdad traffic circle in 2007, an incident that fomented deep resentments about the accountability of American security forces during one of the bloodiest periods of the Iraq war.

U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth of the District rejected a claim of innocence by Nicholas A. Slatten, 31, of Sparta, Tenn., who received the life sentence after being convicted of murder in October for firing what prosecutors said were the first shots in the civilian massacre.

The three others — Paul A. Slough, 35, of Keller, Tex.; Evan S. Liberty, 32, of Rochester, N.H.; and Dustin L. Heard, 33, of Maryville, Tenn. — were sentenced to 30 years plus one day after being convicted of multiple counts of manslaughter and attempted manslaughter.


ISIS has destroyed ancient city of Nimrud

Channel 4 News: On March 6, there were reports that Islamic State fighters had looted Nimrud, in Iraq, in one of their several assaults on some of the world’s greatest archaeological and cultural treasures.

In the video uploaded on Saturday, a man said to be an IS militant said: “God has honoured us here in the Islamic State and helped us to destroy anything that used to be worshipped besides God in ancient days. Look at us here, all praise be to God, we are destroying all statues and monuments.”

Standing in front of explosives rigged in front of a stone frieze another man said: “We remove the signs of polytheism and spread monotheism in every single territory we acquire. By God, we will destroy the signs of polytheism and we will destroy the graves and shrines of the rejectionists (Shi’ites) in their homes.

“We will smash the (Christian) crosses and we will demolish the Black House (White House) in the middle of America, the home of infidels.”

This UNESCO video shows Nimrud before its destruction:


Reuters Iraq bureau chief threatened, denounced over story

Reuters reports: The Baghdad bureau chief for Reuters has left Iraq after he was threatened on Facebook and denounced by a Shi’ite paramilitary group’s satellite news channel in reaction to a Reuters report last week that detailed lynching and looting in the city of Tikrit.

The threats against journalist Ned Parker began on an Iraqi Facebook page run by a group that calls itself “the Hammer” and is believed by an Iraqi security source to be linked to armed Shi’ite groups. The April 5 post and subsequent comments demanded he be expelled from Iraq. One commenter said that killing Parker was “the best way to silence him, not kick him out.”

Three days later, a news show on Al-Ahd, a television station owned by Iranian-backed armed group Asaib Ahl al-Haq, broadcast a segment on Parker that included a photo of him. The segment accused the reporter and Reuters of denigrating Iraq and its government-backed forces, and called on viewers to demand Parker be expelled.

The pressure followed an April 3 report by Parker and two colleagues detailing human rights abuses in Tikrit after government forces and Iranian-backed militias liberated the city from the Islamic State extremist group. Two Reuters journalists in the city witnessed the lynching of an Islamic State fighter by Iraqi federal police. The report also described widespread incidents of looting and arson in the city, which local politicians blamed on Iranian-backed militias. [Continue reading…]


ISIS strikes Iraqi town, exacting deadly toll

The New York Times reports: Islamic State fighters launched a heavy attack on government-held territory in Anbar Province late on Thursday and on Friday, killing 25 Iraqi police officers and soldiers, and then 15 family members of local police officers, according to Iraqi officials.

The attackers overran large parts of Albu Faraj, a town just north of the provincial capital, Ramadi, less than two days after officials in the province declared that they had begun an offensive against the extremists to the east of the capital, police officials in Ramadi said.

A convoy of police reinforcements sent to Albu Faraj was attacked by a suicide bomber, wounding Maj. Gen. Kadhim al-Duleimi, the Anbar Province police commander, the police officials said. They spoke on the condition of anonymity as a matter of official policy.

The attack continued into Friday afternoon, they said. Officials were still trying to determine how many of those who had been taken to a hospital in Ramadi from the attack in Albu Faraj had died. [Continue reading…]


U.S. military sidesteps red tape to coordinate with PKK

The Daily Beast reports: On the volatile front lines facing the so-called Islamic State outside the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk, American military personnel have been coordinating with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), according to a local commander from the left-wing guerrilla group that is still on the U.S. State Department list of foreign terrorist organizations.

Ageed Kalary commands a unit of about 30 PKK fighters positioned some 500 meters from the front. He claims that he has met with U.S. military personnel accompanying commanders from Iraq’s Kurdish Regional Government, whose soldiers are known as the Peshmerga, and which has strong, open American support. The last direct encounter, he said, was in December. But the coordination does not have to be face to face.

“The Americans tell us what they need and share information but there is no formal agreement,” he says about the U.S. military’s interaction with a group that earned its “terrorist” label for the tactics it employed in its 29-year armed struggle against Turkish rule. [Continue reading…]


What really happened in Tikrit after ISIS fled

Al Jazeera reports: Arson and looting incidents in Tikrit after the Iraqi army recaptured the city last week from fighters with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) have highlighted the deep divisions between the Sunni tribes that supported ISIL and the Sunni tribes that opposed it, local and federal security officials said.

Those divisions threaten to tear apart the Sunni community in the areas still under ISIL control, Iraqi officials said.

Hundreds of homes and stores were set ablaze after they were looted by unidentified people last week in Tikrit, one of the biggest Iraqi cities dominated by a Sunni Muslim population. It was seized by ISIL last summer.

More than 30,000 Iraqi security troops as well as the Popular Mobilisation forces, a multi-sect force, have since regained control of the city, forcing ISIL fighters to flee after a month-long battle. [Continue reading…]


Identifying ISIS’s victims

Sheren Khalel and Matthew Vickery report: Last time Tadrian Abdullah was at Merkaz al Medina kebab restaurant in his hometown of Khanaqin, he was promptly asked to leave. The pungent lingering smell of rotten human tissue and blood that still clung to his hair and skin despite hours of scrubbing was too revolting for the owner to stomach.

That day was a particularly bad dig, Abdullah recalls. The images of the partially decomposed bodies he dragged out of the ground, and the accompanying smell of rotting human flesh, continues to haunt him.

Abdullah works for Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government’s Ministry of Martyrs and Anfal Affairs. Five months ago Abdullah was a desk worker, filing paperwork and faxing documents at the ministry. However, with the sudden advance of the so-called Islamic State around Khanaqin, his job took a drastic turn.

Today he digs up the bodies of the recently executed, the victims of ISIS who have been dumped in mass graves across the region. The most recently discovered are in and around Tikrit, where ISIS recently was defeated. Some 1,700 mostly Shia soldiers captured at the former Camp Speicher military base in June 2014 are believed to have been slaughtered there. [Continue reading…]


ISIS executes Baathist officers

NOW reports: ISIS has reportedly executed a number of leaders in the Army of the Men of the Naqshbandiyah Order, a Baathist Sufi militant group that helped ISIS sweep through large swathes of Iraqi territory in its summer 2014 offensive.

“A large number of ISIS members carried out the execution of a number of Naqshbandiyah Order commanders and members in eastern Mosul’s Sumer and Al-Nour neighborhoods,” a source in the Ninevah province told Iraq’s Sumaria News on Monday.

“ISIS carried out the executions after the Naqshbandiyah Order tried to plan attacks against the group,” the source added.

The official website of the Naqshbandiyah Order, also known by its acronym JRTN, makes no reference to the alleged executions, with its latest statement on March 26 praising the beginning of the Saudi-led military campaign against the Houthis in Yemen.

However, ISIS’s alleged Mosul executions are not the first instance of infighting between the militant group and its Baathist allies in Iraq. [Continue reading…]


Iraq, U.S. are divided on what’s next in battle against ISIS

The Wall Street Journal reports: Neither Iraq’s government nor the militias have released a comprehensive assessment of the casualties they suffered in Tikrit. But U.S. officials say thousands of Iraqis were killed and that the bulk of the suffering could have been avoided had the Iraqis coordinated with the U.S. in advance.

After two weeks of fighting that inflicted heavy casualties on the militias, Baghdad asked the U.S. to launch airstrikes. Iran’s militia allies withdrew partly in anger, and partly at the U.S. insistence that they step aside. But smaller Shiite militias more closely aligned with Baghdad’s government played a central role in seizing central Tikrit.

U.S. military officials recognize that they will have to work with the irregular militia forces, even if they do not want to, military officials in Washington said.

Iraqi militia leaders agree that the confusion of Tikrit should have been avoided.

“The government is trying to avoid the problem that happened in Tikrit,” said Mr. Hussaini. The militias, Sunni tribal fighters and Iraqi military have established a joint operations command so that Iraq’s sundry anti-Islamic State forces can communicate their needs to the U.S. with a unified voice.

Yet Iraqi Shiite militias still appear determined to fight alone without U.S. support. Their focus on Tikrit appears in part to be aimed at securing a morale-boosting victory without the help of foreign airstrikes.

It’s a question of pride that U.S. officials worry is interfering with tactical considerations.

“Of course, everything depends on the nature of the battle,” said Mr. Hussaini. “But the leadership, they prefer the fight to be purely Iraqi because it tastes better, it has a better impact for the future. It’s a national thing for Iraqis.” [Continue reading…]


Iraqi Sunnis forced to abandon homes and identity in battle for survival

The Guardian reports: Last November, with his home in flames and his father missing, 21-year-old Omar Mazen abandoned his home town of Baquba and fled to the Iraqi capital, 60 miles south.

But his home was not the only thing he left behind. He also decided to abandon his name.

The journey was perilous. At every checkpoint, Shia militiamen or Iraqi soldiers read his papers and stared suspiciously at his identifiably Sunni name. “I didn’t want to show them,” he said. “I was terrified every time. So many Sunnis had disappeared at checkpoints and my father was one of them.”

Somehow, he made it through the heart of the fight against Islamic State that was raging all along the highway. But afterwards he faced a constant dilemma of how to stay safe in a city and society in which Sunni Iraqis – the core of the ruling class under Saddam Hussein – were often viewed by the new Shia-led establishment as either enablers or agents of the extremist insurgency.

Mazen decided to change his name to a more neutral Ammar, and seek refuge among the Shias. In February, he went to the residency office and started the process. “They were helpful,” he said of the government officials he dealt with – not an observation often made about Iraq’s turgid bureaucracy. “They said it would take about a month.”

Mazen’s dilemma reflects the latest upheaval in Iraq, as its existential fight against Isis approaches a second year. In the past 10 months, huge numbers of people – perhaps a quarter of the population – have again been displaced, and Iraq’s social fabric, badly frayed through the years of civil war, is once more being tested. [Continue reading…]