The battles are many, and the names used are varied. But the goal is one: a Crusader-Rafidite [Shi’a] war against the Sunnis.
—Abu Musab al-Zarqawi

Make no mistake, we are fighting a religious war.
—U.S. Army chaplain, Mosul, September 11, 2005


Origins and Organizational Structure

The origins of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, formal name ad-Dawlah al-Islāmiyyah) have roots in Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad and Al Qaeda in Iraq’s (AQI) failures in securing the nation of Iraq as a bedrock for Salafist militancy. These organizations were largely the genesis of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi as a central thought leader following his activities in Pakistan. Zarqawi’s scale of influence both strategically and operationally is debatable within the intelligence community, but within the open source realm, as well as the group’s own propaganda, he remains at the forefront of both Jama’at al-Tawhid and AQI historical narratives. Following Zarqawi’s death in June 2006, AQI transitioned its name to the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), seeking to nominally distance itself from the larger Al Qaeda (AQ) organization and appeal primarily to the local Sunni minority groups. This distance was nominal in light of the ISI’s leadership under Abu Ayyub al-Masri, a key member of AQ. Following al-Masri’s death in 2010, the organization continued to operate primarily in Northern Iraq and through cross-border efforts from Syria with facilitation from Iran. ISIL eventually arose from the merging of fighters within Syria and AQI members that had crossed into Syria.


ISIL’s organizational structure is well built and reflects the transition from a series of small groups under a nominal umbrella to a cohesive organization with clear objectives and intent. The group has structured leadership and reflects a series of business processes as functional components of an operational organization seeking results from its militant activities on the ground. Nevertheless, it is in a constant state of flux, particularly as it attempts to fill the governance void in Iraq. Abstractly, the best representation of ISIL is a rhizomatic organization as articulated by the French philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. In botany, rhizomes are underground stems of a plant with roots that extend from its core. Deleuze and Guattari explain concepts outside of a strict linear definition that reflected botany’s rhizomes:

As a model for culture, the rhizome resists the organizational structure of the root-tree system which charts causality along chronological lines and looks for the original source of “things” and looks towards the pinnacle or conclusion of those “things.” A rhizome, on the other hand, is characterized by “ceaselessly established connections between semiotic chains, organizations of power, and circumstances relative to the arts, sciences, and social struggles.”

ISIL’s leadership respects and notes its origins (particularly via its propaganda) but is less concerned with history than with the inputs and outputs of its current existence. It is a nonlinear organization that has a degree of centrality derived from function and sociocultural discrimination as related to Islam, nationality, and experience within the Salafist community. However, this is not the sum of its parts. Despite ISIS’s structured top-tier leadership, its holistic structure is very nonlinear, lending itself to the nature of mutualism that is characteristic of rhizomatic entities. The organization seeks agility and fluidity, and integrates and separates people and qualities based on their utility in relation to organizational growth. In the future, were the organization to diminish in size, it would simply adopt a different format. Much like the origins of ISIL are in Jama’at al-Tawhid and AQI, ISIL will continue to attempt to survive and grow.

This abstract model is key in characterizing ISIL and in dispelling paradigms that reject exclusionary hypotheses. Examples: The Sunni-Shi’a divide prevents Iran as well as Bashar al-Assad from facilitating ISIL. ISIL will not accept assistance from the People’s Republic of China. ISIL and AQ are existentially at odds. Since it is impossible to prove a negative, any logical analysis of the group should begin with a degree of scientific positivism that inductively conceptualizes every one of these possibilities. In fact, there is evidence that Iran has in the past and currently facilitates Al Qaeda, as noted by the U.S. Rewards for Justice program’s Wanted note on Yasin al-Suri. Since we can conclude that some members of ISIL are former members of AQI or ISI, it logically follows that Yasin al-Suri will conditionally assist ISIL. Additionally, and speculatively, Assad may receive a percentage of revenue from the sale of illicit black market oil sold by ISIL to fund its own operations. Further, as Musa al-Gharbi argues, drawing the United States into the conflict in fact substantiates Zarqawi’s claims of a Western-Shi’a conspiracy to kill Sunnis. In order to survive, ISIL’s leadership will evaluate any and all opportunities in relation to their mid- and long-term goals.

Finally, the nature of this model is particularly relevant when considered in parallel with noted Syrian Abu Musab al-Suri’s long-standing strategy of the open front jihad as outlined in his two-volume The Global Islamic Resistance Call. Al-Suri discusses Islamic jihad from 1963 until 2001, defining most of these efforts as military failures. He particularly notes that a large portion of this failure was the result of the regional, secret, and hierarchical nature of the movements. Much as rhizomes should be considered a modern construct befitting our age of information propagation, al-Suri argues that “times have changed and we must design a method of confrontation, which is in accordance with the standards of the present time.” His well-argued solution is the jihad at open fronts belonging to the “whole Islamic nation.” In the section “The Military Theory of the Global Islamic Resistance Cell,” he notes,

The conclusion which we have arrived at now, is: That the basic axis (al-mihwar al-asasi) of the Resistance’s military activity against America and her allies now, must lie within the framework of “light guerrilla warfare,” “civilian terror” (al-irhab al madani) and secret methods, especially on the level of individual operations and small Resistance Units completely and totally separated from each other. However. along with this I say: Any alteration of the balance of power in favor of the Resistance and the jihad, which minimizes the effects of American control in areas which fulfills the requirements of the Open Fronts, which I will present, will again make the issue of open confrontation for the purpose of liberating land, settling on it, and establishing the starting points or seeds for a legal and political entity for the Islamic power, a goal that one must pursue whenever the opportunities arise.

The discussion of rhizomes and open front can appear both confusing and rife with cognitive dissonance when viewed by Western eyes, particularly as ISIL transitions from rhizome to state construct. However, within the cultural paradigm of the Middle East, this is not unusual. It is a typical occurrence in political, social, and family life. The key idea to take from this is that it is difficult to characterize ISIL as a static snapshot in time; it should be viewed as an evolving organism striving to survive. Most important, it is a human-driven organism where not all decisions are logical, but all decisions are rational within the rational choice theory of international relations. If ISIL is indeed following the strategy of open fronts, as it appears to be, then our answer should be to assess it as a rhizomatic entity. As of this writing, it would then appear that ISIL has liberated land, settled on it, and begun sowing the seeds for transition to an Islamic power.


In the future, ISIL’s structure will likely reflect the older organizational structure of caliphates, specifically that of the Umayyad Caliphate, with conditional modifications to more closely align itself with contemporary Salafist ideology. This is supported by evidence of a structure growing within the existing rhizomatic nature of the group as told by notebooks found in Yemen of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s (AQAP) own carefully constructed plans for building a caliphate . Although the groups are distinct, the cross-pollination of ideas is not unusual in the melting pot of online forums and transitions of fighters from one group to another. Thus we can expect to see “emirs” or “walis” correspondent to their function within the organization. An example of this is outlined at Caliphate Online, a blog whose only author is listed as AK and notes his location as the UK. The author has created an organizational structure reminiscent of the structure the intelligence community has noted in AQI prior to its evolution into ISIL. The overarching control of ISIL as it becomes less agile will likely be in the form of a governing body with a head of state that retains a significant amount of control but shares this control with a house of representatives.

This body will be an amalgamation of parliamentary monarchy and theocratic presidential authoritarianism. It is unlikely that ISIL will allow the election of their leader but may concede the need for representation as long as there is a sharia-style framework of laws to enforce Salafist ideals, thus creating an artifice of representation for its constituency. With the establishment of this leadership, it will template infrastructure based on ministries that reflect governance. If ISIL is successful, it is possible that the government of Iraq (GOI) will be absorbed and restructured to reflect ISIL’s idea of a caliphate as the easiest road toward a new government. To understand what this government will look like, one needs only look at the current structure of the GOI and note where modifications can be made to increase and consolidate power under the caliph.

Currently, the core of the ISIL organization probably looks much like a war cabinet, still retaining emirs as titular heads of components of the network, with no service components or unified combatant command leadership. However, it likely has a director or directors, joint chiefs of staff, military intelligence, weapons procurement, and regional commands. It stands to reason that the same is true for logistics and finance. Each of these may have the appointment of an emir.

In summary, there are certainly core elements to this leadership that are appointed based on experience or Islamic credentials or a mixture of both. However, as the organization is traced out to its operational components, the lines of command and control become less clear. The outermost nodes of this network still very much align themselves along the open front strategy: fighting and bargaining with opponents and allies to gain as much as advantage as possible. Successes and failures are then reported upward to the core. Much of the West’s existing knowledge of the leadership is based on media sensationalizing or isolating key figures. This is a true representation not of the structure of the group but rather of facets of the organization that have distinguished themselves enough to be noticed.

Institutionalization and Consolidation

Institutionalization and consolidation is an issue Eric Selbin identifies in his book Modern Latin American Revolutions. Selbin uses institutionalization and consolidation as mechanisms for social revolutionary processes. He applies this to Socialist revolutions, but this problem also applies to ISIL if it expects to succeed. In essence, they are two problems that ISIL must overcome to effectively transition from a rhizomatic entity to a state. According to Selbin, institutionalization and consolidation are two paths revolutions should follow in the period following political victory. If ISIL does indeed succeed at the land war in Iraq and declares victory, this is not the end of its struggles. It will have an extremely limited amount of time to begin to accomplish the duties of a state. It must demonstrate the ability to transfer political power from the previous government (the GOI) to its own political structure.

Consolidation is fundamentally the support of the population. The clichéd term “hearts and minds” is a double-edged sword. Once ISIL establishes itself as the governing body of Iraq, it can no longer rely only on fear to coerce the populace into support. In order to maintain any longevity, it will require the participation of the population to execute the duties of a state that it has struggled to establish. The constituency of ISIL will need to go to work at state and commercial workplaces to begin the process of rebuilding Iraq. Unless it shores up support for its regime, ISIL will quickly find itself at the pointy end of the spear of a dissenting group that has splintered away due to its dissatisfaction with the manner in which ISIL governs. Even if this consolidation occurs in the short term, without active participation in the process itself and without a vested belief in a future that includes their needs, the citizens of this new Iraq will rebel against any government ISIL erects.

ISIL will also need to institutionalize its process. In other words, ISIL will have to identify its ideological framework and transition it into facets of governance. How will it provide health care? What sort of system of education will it have? How will the public works function? These are just some questions among many that will need to be answered. In light of these questions, ISIL will need to retain its ideology or else risk compromising its core tenets by satisfying the demands of a constituency. Thus far, it seems unlikely that ISIL will compromise its core tenets. Unlike groups in the past, ISIL has thus far relied on a self-declared vision of a brighter future for all Muslims who fit into the Salafist mold. If it cannot actually run the institutions of state in that mold, it is just as unlikely to succeed as if it does not consolidate popular support.

Speculating further, ISIL will need then to acquire international partners to assist in executing these institutional demands. ISIL will certainly attempt use its current relationships with strategic actors such as Saudi Arabia, the People’s Republic of China, Russia, and Iran and build these into state relationships as part of its foreign trade portfolio. Given its current predilections, the organization will avoid as much trade with the West as possible. It’s unclear whether this will be enough to satisfy their import and export requirements. However, ownership of the fifth-largest proven oil reserves is a powerful bargaining chip in the international community. ISIL will try to circumvent any attempts at undermining the legitimacy of its statehood. If it abides by its current ideological standards, it will declare all other types of states apostates and attempt to reverse international standards to reflect its own concepts of statehood. Since most modern states trace their origins to the Treaty of Westphalia, it will likely first attack the nature of that treaty and declare its lack of Islamic origin or support. It will also attempt to conduct strategic communication and information operations that seek to undermine other Muslim nations, particularly those closest geographically, in order to begin the process of annexing the rest of the Levant.

So far, ISIL has no record of success in transitioning any of its current processes into a state that it envisions, let alone a Western style of government that will be acceptable or even palatable to the international community. A state has more legitimacy than an organization that is not recognized as having acquired statehood by the international or even regional community. ISIL may be successful militarily, but there seems little likelihood of its success as a state. Thus using “IS” for “Islamic State” is invalid. It is likely ISIL realizes this. It may already be considering with whom it will negotiate and bargain to create a palatable (by its standards) power base. Its outward-facing component (the one that faces the international community) will make gestures of compliance and potentially peace with several cohorts. These gestures will be theater only. ISIL will do this when it provides the most advantage. If ISIL assesses success against Baghdad, this is when it will begin creating secret power-sharing agreements with the GOI, leveraging its wins against the GOI. However, its inward-facing component will seek the most fanatical, militant, and political members to run its political offices, ensuring that its ideological roots do not become watered down in the ensuing negotiations. The new government will be dominated by ISIL and have smaller groups of former GOI parties. ISIL when then proceed to slowly remodel the existing infrastructure toward its ultimate goals. ISIL is not likely to negotiate as long as it sees itself failing at the hands of the United States and possibly the GOI. The core belief of most ISIL fighters is they can continue fighting indefinitely in one form or another. However, they recognize that the same cannot be said for the assumption of governance. This is not a recommendation to avoid military action against ISIL; rather, the expectation for success should be clear when considering committing ground forces. As Henry Kissinger commented on our efforts in Vietnam,

The North Vietnamese and Viet Cong, fighting in their own country, needed merely to keep in being forces sufficiently strong to dominate the population after the United States tired of the war. We fought a military war; our opponents fought a political one. We sought physical attrition; our opponents aimed for our psychological exhaustion. In the process, we lost sight of one of the cardinal maxims of guerrilla war: the guerrilla wins if he does not lose. The conventional army loses if it does not win. The North Vietnamese used their main forces the way a bullfighter uses his cape—to keep us lunging in areas of marginal political importance.

It would behoove our administration to have a clear goal, with steps to achieve this goal, in place prior to committing ground troops in this effort.

Key Figures

It is important to note that it is normal for Western journalists and analysts to attribute a cohesive and hierarchical structure to the ISIL network. Our cultural paradigm abhors a vacuum of organization, yet in order for ISIL to survive and transition to a state, it must remain agile enough to repel efforts at its disintegration. Thus, the group likely does not make the same assumptions of stable command and control that the West places on it. Rather, it creates a structure that emphasizes utility to the nth degree. This emphasis then requires that group members acknowledge their expendable nature (via martyrdom or otherwise). Constructions by analysts and journalists consistently reflect a top-down hierarchy that is at best temporary. A representation of this can be found in percolation theory. Percolation theory in complex systems and mathematical graph theory attempts to represent the behavior of connected clusters in a random graph. Frequently clusters form as the result of shortest-path behavior. ISIL is much more likely to reflect this behavior than the artificial structure of a military hierarchy.

Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim Ali al-Badri, aka Abu Du’a, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi

It seems highly probable that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is at best a political figurehead; much of the information on him appears to derive from the group itself. The exception to this is the official State Department designation posted in 2011 listing him as Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim Ali al-Badri, aka Abu Du’a. The State Department (probably as a result of derogatory data from the Department of Defense) attributes the destruction of the Sunni Umm al-Qura mosque to Baghdad. Assuming this is true, it lends credibility to his hagiography and supports estimations of his ability to lead ISIL. What is not clear, other than the two known photographs, is how Abu Du’a transitioned to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi following his alleged detention.

Furthermore, his predecessor, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, was a myth who grew and disappeared almost from the moment that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi arrived onstage, which appears to be approximately five years ago. This designation of leadership seems purposely structured to appear to be the carefully seeded growth of a future martyr on a par with Osama bin Laden. If, as his history suggests, he was indeed interned at Camp Bucca, then the United States Intelligence Community (USIC) likely has his prisoner docket on file as part of the judicial process of internment. (Logically this is the source of one photo.) Yet the USIC is unwilling or unable to disclose its contents. At present, very little of his history can be corroborated, and he has grown very rapidly out of obscurity into the de facto leader of ISIL. His appearance at Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul is particularly notable because he wore a black turban, suggesting direct attribution to the bloodline of the Prophet Muhammad, and he led Jummah prayers. If ISIL is indeed attempting to build a myth, what better place to start than leading prayers as a descendant of the Prophet in Mosul? The location will provide the latitude to increase his local acceptance and, later, can clearly be pointed to as a key moment in history on the road to ISIL victory.

Adding to this are operational units that suggest the West has hunted men by this name for several years. “We either arrested or killed a man of that name about half a dozen times, he is like a wraith who keeps reappearing, and I am not sure where fact and fiction meet,” said Lieutenant-General Sir Graeme Lamb, a former British Special Forces commander who helped U.S. efforts against Al Qaeda in Iraq. “There are those who want to promote the idea that this man is invincible, when it may actually be several people using the same nom de guerre.” We agree with Lieutenant-General Lamb. We believe this is an individual who earned some credibility at the edges of AQI and was then interned at Camp Bucca as a minor combatant. During his internment, several operational commanders took note of his zeal and saw his enthusiasm as a mechanism to create a mythos that would serve their operational needs. Having a fictional reoccurring leader means that this mythos can be transferred to any individual bland enough to fit the basic requirements of the myth’s history. By now, ISIL well understands the DOD’s find, fix, and finish mechanics, so creating a dangle/mythos would ostensibly force the United States to divert forces to eliminate this figurehead. However, his loss would not create power vacuum within the organization, and the operational components would continue functioning. Of course, this fits very much in line with al-Suri’s open front strategy as well.

Abu Ali al-Anbari

According to the Telegraph, information derived from a USB stick indicates that Abu Ali al-Anbari is a major figure within ISIL. He appears to manage operations in Syria under ISIL control and was a major general under Saddam Hussein and likely is from Mosul. There also are indications he was previously a member of Ansar al-Islam. This appears to corroborate information that former members of Saddam Hussein’s regime are working with ISIL to control Iraq. It also suggests that Baathists are assisting ISIL, since almost every flag officer under Saddam was committed to the Baathist Party as a vetting mechanism.

Taha Sobhi Falaha, aka Abu Mohammad al-Adnani

Abu Mohammad al-Adnani is the head spokesman for ISIL. He is also very likely either the second or third most important individual in the organization. According to the State Department designation, it was al-Adnani who actually declared the creation of the “Islamic Caliphate [State].” He is of Syrian origin and is a titled emir within the organization. His rhetoric also seems to have spawned the temporary schism between Al Qaeda and ISIL, where each has laid claim to ownership of the global jihad. This schism likely will not last for very long, as each group sees how a mutualism will benefit the greater cause. Indeed, it is likely that the Khorasan Group, senior AQ members in Syria, will be the primary arbiter of any issues and will ultimately resolve the dispute with senior members of ISIL. The group will likely attempt to reconcile this along clearer lines of operation between Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIL.

Tarkhan Batirashvili, aka Omar al-Shishani

Al-Baghdadi and al-Adnani are strategic and political animals occupied primarily with overall growth of their organization. Their responsibilities can be considered benign when compared to Omar al-Shishani, arguably the most dangerous of these key figures. Al-Shishani is at an operational level and controls a vitriolic brand of fighters that occupy a key role within ISIL. His fighters are exceptionally competent and are used as storm troopers or shock troops when assaulting urban areas in Iraq. They effectively execute sweep, clear, and hold operations. Once in hold phase, secondary elements of ISIL then further secure the target urban area with either greater numbers and technicals or mechanized units. This kind of operation route du jour for standing military indicates that ISIL has evolved over years of combat and retains at least enough operational military leadership to teach small unit tactics in conjunction with larger military elements. Not yet combined arms, but a step above “spray and pray” tactics followed by consecutive retrograde actions.

Omar al-Shishani’s nom de guerre indicates he may be of Chechen origin, but he is more likely Georgian. He may have received a poor nom de guerre, since many less educated Salafists automatically throw any Eastern-born Muslim into the “Chechen” category. However, it may be of his own choosing. According to the Web site Al-Akhbar English, and supported by investigations conducted by the BBC into his background, al-Shishani was born in 1986 in Pankisi Gorge region of Georgia and drafted into the Georgian military. He was apparently very impressed by conversations with an unidentified Saudi national, who recounted the exploits of Chechen Thamir Saleh Abdullah al-Suwailem. This motivated al-Shishani to join the jihad against both Russians and Americans. On arriving in Syria, he formed the Army of Emigrants and Partisans in March 2013 and began a his jihad against the Syrian regime under the al-Nusra Front banner. According to Al-Akhbar English, in late 2013 Twitter user @wikibaghdady began disclosing growing rifts in the various jihadi groups in Syria, including al-Shishani’s. Al-Shishani decided to separate himself and half of his unit from Jabhat al-Nusra and pledge allegiance to ISIL. Allegedly this split was at least partially motivated by fear for his own life if he did not join ISIL. According to @wikibaghdady, al-Shishani’s decision was at least partially influenced by Hajji Bakr, a now deceased prominent figure who may have aided in Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi’s rise to prominence within ISIL.

The men described here are a very short list of key players within ISIL. Surprisingly, after a decade in the region, there is little Western open source material available in the media about them. More important, a full list of ISIL’s key players is worth a book itself when combined with effective open source analytics.

The Baathists

And what of the Baathists? There is a noticeable dearth of Western media coverage on the list of former Saddam Hussein regime members who reside in Syria. Ostensibly, the West has painted Baathists as a secular entity. Contextually this should be qualified as secular in comparison to Salafists. Baathists are generally Sunni. However, as a matter of identity, most claim party loyalty first. This does not dispel the notion of most Shiites that it is a party comprised primarily of Sunnis. This is a key concept, since many analysts claim that Baathists are generally at odds with Al Qaeda due to its secular nature. In fact, Baathists will work with any temporary ally that will assist them in removing a GOI that has no desire to reconcile with Baathists. Four former regime members immediately come to mind: Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, former head of the Baathist Revolutionary Command Council; Mohammed Younis al-Ahmed, former aide to Saddam Hussein and former member of the Political Guidance Directorate of the Iraqi Army; Sayf al-Din Fulayyih Hassan Taha al-Rawi, former Iraqi Republican Guard chief of staff; Tahir Jalil Habbush al-Tikriti, former head of the Iraqi Intelligence Service. Of the four, two are particularly notable.

Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri

Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri remains a key figure in contemporary Iraq, despite a history reaching back into Saddam Hussein’s regime. He is seventy-two years old and is likely the leader (or at the very least a key member) of the Army of the Men of the Naqshbandi Order, or Jaysh Rijal al-Tariq al-Naqshabandiya (JRTN). Al-Douri’s absence following the toppling of Saddam Hussein can probably be attributed to a hasty border crossing into Syria, where he remained with fellow Baathists to watch subsequent U.S. operations from afar. Initially, it appeared that his influence within JRTN was to counter both the United States and AQI.

However, in 2009, Lieutenant General Raad Majid al-Hamdani met with representatives of Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri to discuss the future of former military Iraqi Baath Party members in Iraq and their peaceful return home. During this meeting, the representatives suggested that control of the remnants of the Iraqi Baath Party (as opposed to the Syrian Baath Party) be divided among several former Iraqi military officers and in particular between al-Douri and Mohammed Younis al-Ahmed. Both sought to return to Iraq and reconcile with Prime Minister Maliki’s Dawa Party. However, Maliki adopted a hard-line stance against this proposition.

As a result of the GOI’s stance against Baath elements, it is highly likely that al-Douri began to engage ISIL as it grew in prominence, perhaps with the expectation that early adoption within ISIL would guarantee a small place for Baathists within any future government. The nature of this assistance is likely both a logistical facilitation for cross-border operations and military experience garnered from his many years in the Iraqi military. According to Dr. Michael Knights,

JRTN appears to have maintained a tight relationship with ISI and other Salafi terrorist groups, trading on Al-Douri’s Islamist credentials, including his “Return of Faith” campaign during the last decade of Baathist rule. In some cases, this has led to JRTN carrying out attacks on behalf of ISI, or where ISI has been allowed to claim the lion’s share of the credit due to ISI contributions (usually money or suicide attackers). JRTN has facilitated the movement of ISI fighters. Notably, ISI leader Abu Omar Al-Baghdadi and ISI war minister Abu Ayub Al-Masri were killed in Tikrit, Saddam’s home town and one of the major JRTN power bases.

According to Brett McGurk, deputy assistant secretary for Iran and Iraq, Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, House Foreign Affairs Committee, “The JRTN is a militant offshoot of the Iraqi Baath party, and together with AQI, designated under U.S. law as a Foreign Terrorist Organization. Its resurgence added to the instability in Sunni areas, fueled mistrust in Shia areas, and facilitated the rise and entrenchment of ISIL, particularly in border regions of Ninewa province. Today, ISIL and JRTN appear to be working together in some areas, but with vastly different agendas—this partnership is likely to be short-lived.” Clearly, Baathists are not above working with ISIL, since there is a long history of their assisting even a nascent ISIL with operations that work in their favor. So it seems that Mr. McGurk’s statement contradicts the facts.

Mohammed Younis al-Ahmed

Mohammed Younis al-Ahmed was a close aide to Saddam Hussein, and following the ousting of Saddam, he too migrated quickly across the border to Syria. There were uncorroborated rumors he took several billion dollars with him. Mohammed Younis al-Ahmed has a long-standing dispute with Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri and may have been key in the ostensible ejection from the remains of the Iraqi Baath Party in 2012. Al-Ahmed remains in Syria and likely continues to fund groups that seek to undermine the GOI. It is possible that he is much more actively involved than al-Douri.

These individuals would likely not be central had Syria remained stable as Iraq attempted to consolidate power and rebuild itself. However, in the wake of the Arab Spring and the destabilization of Syria, it is worth asking about their current status. Are al-Douri and al-Ahmed assisting fellow Baathist Bashar al-Assad? Are they the engineers of Assad’s attempts to force the United States to support him? The military prowess of ISIL is substantial when compared to previous efforts by AQI. Are they assisting in a type of “military adviser” role established during the ongoing conflict in Syria?

The Architect

Mustafa Setmariam Nasar, better known as Abu Musab al-Suri, has been called “the most dangerous terrorist you’ve never heard of.” For ten years, his address has been “whereabouts unknown.” He has been listed as still in a Syrian prison, released, or dead. According to Foreign Policy, “On Feb. 2, [2012,] plugged-in online jihadists confirmed that one of the jihad’s most original and respected theoreticians, Abu Musab al-Suri, had been released from a Syrian prison.” Yet senior Al Qaeda leaders up until last year used rhetoric suggesting they believed he remained in prison. Aron Lund at the Carnegie Endowment for Peace spoke in 2009 with members of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, who said that “they had information that Abu Musab was being held in the Palestine Branch, a Syrian military intelligence compound in southern Damascus that has long been infamous for the torture of high-value political prisoners.

If Abu Musab al-Suri remains in prison, he has likely heard about the death of his longtime companion Abu Khalid Al-Suri and is primed to be the voice of reconciliation between the sparring factions of the Jabhat al-Nusra Front and ISIL. Video footage shot in June 2012 depicts members of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) holding Brigadier-General Munir Ahmad Shlaybi, head of the Palestine Branch prison, alongside Major-General Faraj Shahadeh al-Maqet. If the FSA was able to capture the head of the Palestine Branch prison, one wonders how long this prison will remain intact. Even in prison, al-Suri’s influence will continue to impact ISIL for the foreseeable future. His release would be a major victory for any group committed to seeing him free.