The US Treasury Department announced today that three Islamic State officials have been sanctioned for their role supporting the “caliphate’s” operations. The newly designated jihadists are: Faysal Ahmad ‘Ali al Zahrani (a senior official in the Islamic State’s oil division), Husayn Juaythini (a facilitator for foreign fighters), and Turki Mubarak Abdullah Ahmad al Binali (the group’s “chief religious advisor”).
Treasury’s announcement provides new details concerning the “caliphate’s” oil infrastructure in eastern Syria, as well as the organization’s attempt to build a presence in Gaza.
Lucrative oil revenues
Zahrani, a Saudi, controlled “at least five oil fields” in northeastern Syria as of early 2015 and also “oversaw the activities of seven [Islamic State] oil and gas officials.” The facilities under his command have produced a lucrative business, generating “tens of millions of dollars in oil and gas revenues” during the seven month period between September 2014 and March 2015.
Zahrani joined the Islamic State’s “natural resources ministry,” which “oversees” the jihadists’ trade in oil and gas, in July 2014. He was appointed to serve as the “oil and gas division official” for the Al Barakah Governorate (Al Hasakah Province) located in northeastern Syria.
In this capacity, he served “directly under” and “regularly transferred funds to” Fathi Awn’ al Murad al Tunisi (also known as Abu Sayyaf), who was the Islamic State’s emir for all of its oil and gas operations in Syria until his demise.
Delta Force commandos killed Tunisi during a raid on his compound in Syria in May 2015. The Americans recovered a treasure trove of information. The New York Times reported that the haul netted “four to seven terabytes of data,” which revealed new intelligence on the “caliphate’s” leadership structure and tactics.
It is not clear from Treasury’s announcement what position Zahrani currently holds within Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s enterprise. He “remained responsible” for “oil and gas activities in the areas around Shaddadi, Al Hasakah Province” as of December 2015. And earlier in 2015, he “assumed control and oversight of” a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED) production site that was located at an “oil production plant compound,” making for a potentially combustible mixture of responsibilities.
In addition to the native Iraqis and Syrians who serve in the Islamic State’s senior ranks, Baghdadi has also entrusted key positions to foreign nationals. At one point, for instance, the Saudi Zahrani was reporting to a Tunisian. (Fathi Awn’ al Murad al Tunisi’s name implies that he was originally from Tunisia.)
The Department of Justice charged Tunisi’s wife, Nisreen Assad Ibrahim Bahar (also known as Umm Sayyaf), earlier this week. Bahar allegedly admitted that she and her husband kept Kayla Mueller, an American, hostage in their compound prior to Mueller’s death. Bahar is not slated to stand trial in the US, however, as she is currently in Iraqi custody.
The Islamic State’s man in Gaza
In early February 2014, a coalition of jihadists known as the Mujahideen Shura Council (MSC) in the Environs of Jerusalem released a statement expressing support for Baghdadi’s “caliphate.” It was not clear at the time whether the MSC had any operational ties to the Islamic State, or if its message was merely a rhetorical show of support.
Treasury’s announcement reveals that at least one key figure in the MSC did forge a working relationship with Baghdadi’s men.
As of mid-2014, according to Treasury, Husayn Juaythini was the “deputy head” of the MSC. He had previously “attempted to acquire supplies for the MSC…to conduct attacks against Israel and help the group overcome financial difficulties.”
But in September 2014 he travelled to Syria “to pledge allegiance” to the Islamic State. Juaythini “was tasked to return to Gaza and establish a foothold for” Baghdadi’s global network there. Juaythini then became “the link” between Baghdadi “and armed groups in Gaza,” using funds he received (presumably from Baghdadi or his subordinates) to build a presence for the “caliphate” in his home turf.
Juaythini has been designated for facilitating “the movement of foreign terrorist fighters” and “conducting financial activities” on behalf of the Islamic State. His network stretches into North Africa.
Juaythini has “worked with a Libya-based facilitator, who served as the primary money and weapons facilitator” for his “activities in Gaza.” As of January 2015, Treasury adds, “Juaythini was instrumental in fostering connections between Gaza and Libya-based terrorists, and facilitating their travel to Syria.”
According to Treasury, therefore, the Islamic State has a facilitation node in Gaza that is funneling fighters into Syria from North Africa.
While Juaythini joined Baghdadi’s camp, it is likely that other members did not break from al Qaeda’s network. Prior to the Islamic State’s “caliphate” declaration in June 2014, the MSC dedicated some of its attacks to al Qaeda’s leaders. [See LWJ report, US government adds Gaza-based jihadist ‘umbrella’ group to terrorist designation lists.]
A prominent ideologue
The third and final jihadist designated today is Turki Mubarak Abdullah Ahmad al Binali, who is a prolific jihadist ideologue. Treasury describes him as “a recruiter for…foreign fighters,” who also authors “literature and fatwas” for the Islamic State’s “training camps.”
Binali “has written several pamphlets to recruit more fighters,” including “the first call for Muslims to pledge allegiance to” Baghdadi as “caliph”. He is in charge of a “support network” that recruits Gulf nationals to join the Islamic State in Syria. Binali was “was appointed to the post of chief religious advisor for” Baghdadi’s group in November 2014.
The Bahraini government stripped Binali of his citizenship on Jan. 31, 2015.