The Bitter Power Struggle Within the Islamic State

Although it’s still not known whether ISIS’ two top commanders are alive or dead, it is clear that the jihadist group is riven by internal disputes and ethnic tensions.

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Islamic State fighters wave the group's flag on top of a downed government fighter in Raqqa, Syria, August 2014.Credit: AP

Does Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi continue to command Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL)? Was his deputy, Abu Alaa al-Afari, killed? And who is really running the jihadist militant organization? In comparison to the intricate details that accompany the horrific executions carried out by ISIS, the video clips presenting the organization’s military victories and the “operational” reports it publishes on dozens of websites – as far as the leadership goes, there is almost complete radio silence.

The Daily Beast website reported last Sunday that Baghdadi is being treated by nine doctors, who were brought in especially to the city of Raqqa, Syria – the “capital” of the Islamic State – and that he can function and even sends orders for action. ISIS also released an audio message purportedly from Baghdadi on Thursday, in which he called on Muslims to “emigrate” to the caliphate.

On the other hand, there are many reports from Arab websites that Baghdadi was injured in the spine, with some even saying he is incapacitated. As for Afari, reports on Wednesday of his death are based on a statement by the Iraqi Defense Ministry, but similar reports of his death appeared two years ago. In any case, Afari delivered the Friday sermon last week in Mosul’s grand mosque – the sermon that Baghdadi traditionally delivers as caliph of the Islamic State. It will be interesting to see who stands in front of the crowd of worshippers in the mosque on Friday.

Exposing the conflict

Baghdadi’s injuries, more than the killing – or not – of Afari, exposed the conflict engulfing ISIS, and not just recently. Back in January, reports leaked out about the dispute between those who supported the immolation of Jordanian pilot Moaz al-Kasasbeh, and those who wanted to keep him alive as a hostage. A deeper dispute has broken out between the organization’s overseas volunteers and Arab militants. For example, it turns out that Russian-speaking volunteers – such as Chechen, Uzbek and other fighters who came from the Former Soviet Union – do not particularly like the Iraqi volunteers. The French-speaking volunteers, meanwhile, reportedly hate the Syrian militants.

Still from a video purporting to show ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi delivering a sermon at a mosque in Iraq, July 2014.Credit: Reuters

Even within the ranks of Russian speakers, there have been conflicts – especially between the Chechens and Uzbeks. In at least one instance, a senior commander of the Chechen forces, Abu Omar al-Shishani, was forced to separate the sides and calm things down, a truce that didn’t last long. Despite his name, Shishani is actually Georgian-born (his given name was Tarkhan Tayumurazovich Batirashvili). His father was an Orthodox Christian and his mother a Muslim. He “discovered” jihadist Islam only in 2010, after being discharged from the Georgian army after catching tuberculosis.

Such disputes break out mostly over the division of spoils and appointments to senior positions, but also because of personal issues. For example, in February, 18 ISIS fighters were killed in Haditha (in the Anbar Province, west of Baghdad) because the head of a local Arab tribe refused to let one of the girls from the tribe marry an ISIS militant from Tunisia. His refusal led to a violent confrontation that required Baghdadi himself to intervene, ruling on when and how it is possible for ISIS members to marry local residents.

Another serious dispute broke out earlier this month, between Iraqi militants who live in Tel Afar (northwestern Iraq) and Chechen activists, over appointments and positions in the city of Nineveh, southeast of Mosul. The Chechen fighters succeeded in driving a large number of the Iraqi militants back to Tel Afar, but not before the Iraqis accused the Chechens of coming to Iraq only to satisfy their sexual urges. The Chechens then accused the Iraqis of only wanting to loot as much as they could.

Battle ramifications

These internal battles also damage the military coordination between the forces. The fighting forces of ISIS are usually divided by ethnicity: they are commanded by one of their own, and he does not always speak Arabic. Such a lack of coordination in the field between the various forces has important ramifications. Recently, it was reported that a large group of fighters from Syria decided to leave the front in Iraq and go back to Raqqa. If the reports in the Western press are true – that ISIS has lost a great portion of the oil wells it controlled (previously estimated at about 200); that its ranks have been depleted by about 25 percent; and that the territory it controls, mostly Iraqi towns, has shrunk significantly – then it is possible to assume that the battle over the allocation of resources has contributed to such internal conflicts between groups of fighters.

The battle over the succession in ISIS is, therefore, also connected to the ethnic and political conflicts between the groups of fighters. This is how – even before the death of Afari was reported this week – his appointment as Baghdadi’s deputy had created a major conflict: Afari is a Turkmen ethnically, and the appointment of a non-Arab could well cause his leadership to be rejected by Arab fighters, especially those hailing from Saudi Arabia. The split between Arab and non-Arab fighters recently caused the organization to transfer Turkmen militants from Mosul to Tel Afar, where there is a large Turkmen population, and to move the Arab fighters from there to Mosul.

Another candidate for the ISIS leadership is Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, 38, who serves as the organization’s spokesman and is considered to be the most senior Syrian in the group. But Adnani is not considered an expert on Islamic law, and his relatively young age could hurt his chances of being appointed. Other candidates include a Tunisian, Tariq bin al-Tahar al-Harzi, and an Iraqi, Abu Ali al-Anbari, who served as a senior intelligence officer in Saddam Hussein’s army.

Herein lies the difficulty in fighting ISIS. The Western coalition bombing sorties may have damaged an important part of the organization’s resources, but they are unable to destroy its infrastructure and management – or its local source of funds, which are not reliant solely on oil exports. To a great extent, though, these attacks have stopped ISIS’ intentions of spreading its control over new territory, and forced it into a local war for basing itself more strongly in those areas under its control.

The group is now readying for battle over the city of Mosul – which it has controlled since last June – which will be its most significant fight to date. Facing it will be the Iraqi army, Shi’ite militias operating under Iranian orders and funding, Kurdish Peshmerga forces and the Western coalition. Victory, or defeat, in this campaign – for which there is no scheduled start date – will determine the future of ISIS in Iraq, and maybe elsewhere.

This could turn out to be the most extensive ground war since the U.S. military pulled out of Iraq in 2011. But as long as there is no intention of launching a ground offensive inside Syria, ISIS can continue to base itself there, where the battles between the rebel militias prevent any real organized fight against the jihadists.