How Islamic State Keeps Its Head, Even When It Loses Leaders

The killing of senior commanders will not overthrow ISIS, which, despite fierce internal conflicts, has managed to conduct a complex military and political campaign

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
ISIS fighters in north Syria.
ISIS fighters in north Syria.Credit: AP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Prior to his death after a U.S. Air Force attack in Iraq last week, Saud Mohsen Hassan had quite a number of aliases – Abu Mutazz, Abu Muslim al-Turkmani and Fadel al-Hayali – and also quite a number of roles. Under Saddam Hussein, he was a senior Iraqi intelligence officer. During the American occupation he was imprisoned in the Camp Bucca prison camp, where he met Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL). After his release from prison, Hassan joined the organization. In his last position, he was considered to be Baghdadi’s deputy and the person responsible for moving troops, weapons and ammunition between the various fronts in Iraq and Syria.

The direct hit on the car he was riding in can mostly be attributed to good intel. After a long period of random attacks, most of which hit ISIS facilities and the oil fields the organization controls, it seems the intelligence organizations of the U.S.-led coalition forces managed to penetrate ISIS’ operations and obtained trustworthy and precise information. It is also possible that the sums of money the government is offering in return for the leaders of the organization – $5 million, and another $10 million for Baghdadi himself – has helped.

The problem is that the killing of a senior commander such as Hassan does not shake up the organization, which is built on a flexible hierarchy. The regional commanders have broad powers and conduct their wars sometimes even without coordination with the leadership, which is comprised of an “advisory council” made up of between seven to 10 members, along with Baghdadi.

It seems the Western coalition does not have a monopoly on assassinating Islamic State leaders. Last week, ISIS members murdered Abu Ahmed al-Masri, a senior commander of the organization in the Mosul area, along with 10 of his troops. The official reason for the killings was the failure of the campaign against the Kurdish Peshmerga forces. But it’s possible the real reason was a conflict between Masri and Hassan’s forces over the distribution of money and weapons.

In May, I reported here on the violent confrontations within the organization concerning the appointments for various posts, with the divisions being based along ethnic lines. On one side were the supporters of Tarkhan Tayumurazovich Batirashvili, the Georgian commander better known as Abu Omar al-Shishani; on the other were Islamic State militants of Iraqi origin. It’s hard to know who is more senior today, Shishani – who only a few days ago was given responsibility for the Iraqi front, in order to prepare for a possible attack on Mosul – or Abu Mohammad al-Adnani, a Syrian who is considered the organization’s spokesman and is very close to Baghdadi. These are just two examples of the difficulty in mapping out the group’s internal organization.

Also in May, after U.S. Delta Force commandos raided the home of Abu Sayyaf – who was considered ISIS’ “finance minister” – U.S. intelligence received a large amount of material on Islamic State. In addition to the organization’s financial structure and holdings, it documented how ISIS moves funds and how decisions are made on the allocation of resources. It was also possible to learn more about the group’s organization, too. But three months have passed since then and, according to reports in the Arab media, Baghdadi has made changes throughout the system in an attempt to decentralize control over the channels for transferring funds and to camouflage their sources.

Among other things, Baghdadi has added another level of command, whose goal is to oversee the senior commanders and commanders in the field, in addition to strengthening the internal security units. These units sometimes conduct public executions of those suspected of passing on information or of planning to desert. Reports from Mosul tell of almost daily executions of ISIS fighters and civilian officials within its administration. These executions are not just to deter desertion, but are also meted out as punishment and deterrence for what they call improper or unprofessional conduct or negligence.

It’s impossible not to be impressed by the fact that, despite all the harsh internal conflicts, the organization has succeeded in preserving unity in its ranks and is able to simultaneously conduct military campaigns on two distant fronts, organize complex logistics, obtain sources of funding and maintain a civilian infrastructure in the areas it controls.

It’s important to add to these challenges the ethnic and personal composition of its fighters, who come from various cultures – such as Chechnya, Uzbekistan, Russia, Britain and France – as well as Arabs. This also requires the use of translators within combat units.

Intimidation is a tried and tested method for repressing civil revolt, as Saddam Hussein and Bashar Assad both proved. But treating ISIS as an ordinary organization, one that can be brought down with the potential killing of commanders and leaders, is misguided. As long as there is no proper political alternative in Iraq, Syria or Libya that the citizens can identify with, Islamic State can continue to rule without fear of revolt.

Click the alert icon to follow topics: