The Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham's quiet war minister
Al Nasir Li Din Allah Abu Sulayman, the ISIS war minister [left]; Abu Bakr al Baghdadi al Husseini al Qurshi, emir of the ISIS [right]. Photos from Al Sumaria.
As the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham (ISIS) rampages through Iraq with the help of allied forces, one personality remains characteristically quiet: the group's war minister.
More than four years ago, a man called "Al Nasir Li Din Allah Abu Sulayman" was appointed to the position. Yet very little is known about the ISIS leader who may be playing a prominent role in the jihadists' stunning advances. (Even this, however, is far from certain.)
In April 2010, the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), the ISIS' predecessor, suffered major losses. The ISI was created to serve as the jihadists' political umbrella and included al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), al Qaeda's affiliate in the country. But both of the group's chief leaders, Abu Omar al Baghdadi and Abu Ayyub al Masri (a.k.a. Abu Hamza al Muhajir), were killed in counterterrorism raids. At first, the US military concluded, "Abu Omar al Baghdadi" was a fictitious personality created by al Qaeda leaders to put an Iraqi face on their foreign-led insurgency efforts. After the US and its allies exposed this stunt, the role was backfilled by an Iraqi named Hamid Dawud Mohamed Khalil al Zawi, who was killed.
Abu Ayyub al Masri, however, was the real deal from the start. He had served Ayman al Zawahiri since the 1980s and joined al Qaeda in Afghanistan in the 1990s.
Al Masri rooted himself in Iraq before the US-led invasion in 2003. According to former CIA director George Tenet and other sources, US intelligence officials tracked al Masri inside Baghdad in 2002. And when Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the unruly founder of AQI, was killed in 2006, Abu Ayyub al Masri was waiting to take over. With al Masri in place, al Qaeda's senior leaders had a trusted operative capable of overseeing their efforts in Iraq.
The April 2010 raids changed that. The little-known Abu Bakr al Baghdadi became the ISI's emir, eventually rising in infamy as he expanded his group's operations into Syria (becoming the ISIS in the process) against the wishes of Ayman al Zawahiri and al Qaeda's general command. And when al Baghdadi refused to leave Syria in April 2013, he set in motion the chain of events that led al Qaeda's general command to disown the group.
Abu Bakr al Baghdadi was not the only jihadist to ascend within the ISI's ranks in April 2010. So did "Al Nasir Li Din Allah Abu Sulayman," who was appointed the group's war minister after al Masri's demise. The first part of his alias ("Al Nasir Li Din Allah") is actually an honorific meaning "The Victor for the Religion of God."
Even as the ISI turned into the ISIS and the enlarged organization became an international pariah, however, the war minister remained in the shadows.
Murky terror master
According to published accounts, the ISIS war minister's real name is Neaman Salman Mansour al Zaidi. He is believed to be a Moroccan and may also be a citizen of Syria.
There have been reports of his death, including in 2011, but those turned out to be false.
One of the few times the world heard from the war minister was in April 2010, when the ISI announced his appointment. The group issued a statement in which al Zaidi threatened attacks on "Iraqi security and military targets" as well as Shiites.
A handful of press accounts have provided intriguing, but unconfirmed, details.
In September 2011, the Baghdad-based Al Mada newspaper published an interview with an al Qaeda defector named Nazim al Juburi, who explained the leadership structure of AQI and the ISI. Most of the group's leaders "are locals," al Juburi said, "except for the military commander, the so-called minister of war, who is always an [non-Iraqi] Arab so that there may be no constraints or red lines that would prevent him from ordering operations against some components of the Iraqi society -- operations of which Iraqi [AQI/ISI] leaders may not be convinced."
Al Juburi continued by pointing out that the organization's minister of war is a "Moroccan figure" and that he was trained in camps in Hadithah, which the US struck in 2003.
Although al Juburi referred to the camps by the name "Hadithah," it is likely he was referring to the foreign fighter training camp in Rawah. Contemporaneous press accounts say that US forces attacked the camp in June 2003, killing mostly non-Iraqi guerrilla fighters. An Iraqi policeman who claimed to have seen their graves said, according to the Chicago Tribune, that the dead included fighters from "Afghanistan, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Yemen." At least 80 men, ranging in age from 15 to 50, were reportedly killed. And officials said a significant number of SAM-7 surface-to-air missiles were recovered as well.
Al Juburi told the same story during an interview on Al Arabiyah television in May 2010. The former ISI member claimed that a non-Iraqi is chosen for the position of war minister because there are no "cultural, social, or tribal impediments which might prevent him from carrying out operations demanded by the international organization." Al Juburi added that the non-Iraqi war minister's "loyalty is to the international organization," referring to al Qaeda, and this "will make him carry out anything demanded from him."
An earlier account by Al Hayat in May 2010 claimed to trace the war minister's pedigree back to al Qaeda's camps in Afghanistan. The source for this alleged information was not named in Al Hayat's account, which said that al Zaidi "received his training in Afghanistan and studied with senior aides of Osama bin Laden." And the Moroccan-Syrian is supposedly "known to be very fanatical and cruel when implementing punishments against violators" who do not carefully execute his instructions. He is also reportedly multilingual, with working knowledge of French, Russian, and Dari Persian, in addition to Arabic.
Al Hayat's source claimed that the war minister fought in Iraq for two months in 2006 and again in 2007, traveling through Syria to get to the battlefields. (This conflicts with al Juburi's version of events, as he claimed al Zaidi was in Iraq as early as 2003.)
The Al Hayat report cited an anonymous Iraqi security official, who claimed that, in keeping with al Qaeda's protocols, the new war minister is a non-Iraqi Arab "who is close to al Qaeda in Afghanistan and to its leaders Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri." In this respect, at least, Al Hayat's reporting was consistent with Al Juburi's synopsis.
War ministry orchestrates attacks
The ISIS and its predecessor, the ISI, have repeatedly pointed to the group's war ministry as the brains behind its terrorist operations.
In late 2010, several jihadists stormed a church in Baghdad. They apparently intended to hold members of the congregation hostage, but Iraqi security forces quickly surrounded the church, leading to a shootout. More than 50 people were killed during the exchange of fire. Most of them perished when one of the attackers either threw a grenade into a basement where some of the hostages were being held, or detonated his suicide bomb there.
Iraqi security officials said they found two Egyptian and three Yemeni passports on the terrorists.
"Upon guidance issued by the Ministry of War in the Islamic State of Iraq in support for our downtrodden Muslim sisters that are held captive in the Muslim land of Egypt and after accurate planning and selection, an angry group of righteous jihadists attacked a filthy den of polytheism," the ISI said in a statement claiming responsibility for the attack.
On July 21, 2012, Abu Bakr al Baghadi announced a new wave of attacks in Iraq. The campaign, named "Destroying the Walls," was orchestrated by the war ministry.
A few days after Baghdadi's announcement, on July 24, 2012, the ISI stated that it was "beginning a new phase of jihadi work to take back the areas from which the Islamic State had moved away in previous times," referring to the ground loss during the American-led surge of forces. The "war ministry had its sons mobilized and launched the brigades of the mujahideen and their military and security groups in a blessed new invasion during the month of Ramadan, targeting the pressure points of the Safavid [Iranian] project and its tenets and its followers and supporters in this land," the statement read, according to a translation by the SITE Intelligence Group.
The ISI explained that the "chosen targets were accurately distributed over governmental headquarters, security and military centers, and the lairs of Rafidah [Shiite] evil, heads of the Safavid government and its people, and its Sunni traitor lackeys who sold the religion, the honor and the land, and made the lands of the Muslims permissible along with their cities to the dirtiest people on the earth and the lowest of evils."
More than 100 Iraqis were killed in the campaign's initial wave of violence, which only escalated from there. A massive jailbreak in Tikrit was among the complex assaults executed by the war ministry in the months that followed.
The ISIS war ministry may have played a significant role in planning the current rebel offensive. The group's internal dynamics are not made clear to outside observers, however. Whatever the role played by the group's war minister, he has thus far remained quiet throughout the ISIS' latest advances.