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Baghdadi Caliphate's Longevity Questioned.

The reclusive "Caliph" Baghdadi has given his deputies in the Shura Council covering in Iraq and Syria wide-ranging powers under a plan to ensure that, if he or other top figures are killed, the "caliphate" will quickly adapt and continue to expand through terror-based conquests. These include the ministers of war, finance, religious affairs and others. He has drawn mainly from two pools: veterans of Zarqawi's al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia (AQM) who survived the insurgency against US forces with battle-tested militant skills, and former Ba'thist officers of Saddam Sunni/Ba'th dictatorship with expertise in strategy, organisation, intelligence and internal security.

It was a merger of these two skill sets which made ISIS such a potent terror force. But equally important to the "caliphate"'s flexibility has been the power given to the top ISIS military commanders, who receive general operating guide-lines but have greater autonomy than usual to run their own operating areas. This means the lower-ranking officers and foot-fighters have limited information about the inner workings of ISIS to give up if captured, and that local commanders can be killed and replaced without disrupting the wider organisation.

Within this hierarchy, Iraqi Arabs of the Sunni/Neo-Salafi faith hold the top posts, while other elite Arabs of this extremist faith such as Jordanian/Palestinians like the late Zarqawi, Saudis, or Tunisians hold religious posts. (Much of the information about the ISIS leadership has come from the financial transactions, recruiting methods and security measures found in materials seized in May 2015 from a US commando raid in north-eastern Syria).

In delegating power, Baghdadi has learned from Zarqawi who was killed in June 2006 by a US air-strike near Ba'quba in the north-eastern province of Diyala bordering Iran, and from other Neo-Salafi groups like the Yemen-based al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), AfPak-based al-Qaeda Central (AQC) and AfPak's Taliban terror groups (see news4AfPak27July15). Leaders of these groups have been whittled away by repeated US drone strikes over the years.

In forming this new structure, Baghdadi has been motivated primarily by his effort to secure the longevity of the ISIS "caliphate". But most experts in this particular field question the effectiveness of this effort and doubt the ISIS leadership will last long enough to become a major power. They still expect that, after Baghdadi's demise, the top members of the Shura Council are more likely to kill each other than survive a long-drawn war against ISIS which the US-led multinational coalition is waging, with the Saudi-led Sunni front in the Muslim world being part of this alliance.

Saudi Arabia is particularly keen on seeing ISIS defeated because only then will it be able to expose to the world the roles of the IRGC/QF and Syria's Alawite dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad behind ISIS. This, a top Saudi analyst predicts in a confidential talk with APS, "will happen sooner or later after Baghdadi has died", arguing: "Traditionally, Arabs of this category of people are inevitably ambitious enough to be selfish to the extent of destroying each other, rather than sacrificing their individual objectives for the sake of a collective leadership of such a murderous organisation".

American counter-insurgency experts were recently quoted by the Western media as saying the ISIS leadership had also studied revelations from Edward J. Snowden, the former US National Security Agency (NSA) contractor, about how American spies gather information on militants like ISIS. One such report says a main result is that the top ISIS leaders now use couriers or encrypted channels that Western analysts cannot crack to communicate. But the Saudi analyst tells APS this does not change the nature of Arabs of such category, insisting that eventually the post-Baghdadi leaders will be killing each other mainly because they come from two different backgrounds: Neo-Salafism, being far more violent and ambitious than really pious; and Ba'thism, which essentially has been based on a secular ideology.

According to the Western media, the two top post-Baghdadi leaders are Abu Ala' al-Afri, a former top deputy to Zarqawi; and Fadel al-Hayali, known as Abu Muslim al-Turkmani, a former Iraqi Ba'thist Special Forces officer from the mainly Turkoman town of Tal Afar, near Mosul, although there have been un-confirmed Iraqi reports that both men were killed in air-strikes in recent months.

A Kurdish official was recently reported as saying it could not be Afri, assuming he is alive, because he also is an "ethnic Turkoman, and the "caliph" must be an Arab from the Quraysh tribe of the Prophet Muhammad, as Baghdadi claims to be.

The US has been reported to be actively hunting Baghdadi rumours that he was killed or injured this year have been dispelled. Defence Secretary Ashton Carter - who visited Baghdad on July 23 - earlier this month told reporters that if the opportunity for a strike against Baghdadi presented itself, "we would certainly take it".

The top Saudi analyst talking to APS says: "Baghdadi is a big liar and is certainly not from the tribe of Quraysh which is located in Saudi Arabia's western province of the Hejaz". Baghdadi's real name is Ibrahim al-Samarra'ie, from the Sunni town of Samarra' in the southern part of the Sunni Arab province of Salahuddin north of Baghdad. There have been more than three successors to Zarqawi who assumed the name of Baghdadi after the super-terrorist was killed. Ibrahim al-Samarra'ie once used to be one of Saddam's Ba'thist soldiers. Later he pursued Islamic studies and then attended a source at Baghdad University. He joined Zarqawi's AQM after the US invasion and was jailed by the American military. When he was released subsequently, a US officer described him as "one of the street thugs". It is said it was during that jailing period that he planned to help develop the "Islamic State of Iraq" (ISI) as an offshoot of AQM. When Zarqawi died, he was succeeded by two different Baghdadis. But Samarra'ie was among those who became close to Zarqawi before the latter's death.

One of the current Baghdadi antics is that, as in the early stages of Islam, for one to become qualified to assume the rank of caliph one must be a "superior Quraishi Arab Muslim, because Arabic is the language of the Prophet Muhammad, of the Qur'an, and the only tongue used in the Garden of Eden". But a "superior Arab Muslim" cannot accept to have anything to do with such "inferior people" or "infidels" as the Shi'ites of the IRGC.

It was the IRGC in the summer of 2012 which got then Iraqi PM Nuri al-Maleki to release Baghdadi and almost 1,500 other AQM/ISI members from Abu Ghraib Prison just west of Baghdad. It was Maleki, guided by QF Commander Gen Qassem Suleimani, who ordered the Iraqi Armed Forces (IAF) to drop their weapons and flee as ISIS fighters were advancing on Iraq's north-western province of Ninewa and its capital Mosul in the first half of June 2014. Thus, ISIS got huge quantities of US-made weapons and other military equipment as well as about $500m worth of cash and quantities of gold from the Mosul branch of Iraq's Central Bank, etc. These were parts of revelations made later to the public by one of Maleki's Shi'ite ministers.

Despite the trove of information found in May 2015, US intelligence and counter-terrorism officials have been reported as saying there are still large gaps in what they know about how the ISIS leadership operates and how it inter-acts with a growing number of affiliates and other followers from Nigeria to Afghanistan. The strict secrecy of ISIS, which has allowed its leadership to remain mysterious, has led to some differences among US and other Western analysts on the degree to which Baghdadi is in charge and whether the main power in the organisation rests with his allies, including several of ex-Ba'thist commanders.

The Western media have reported the "senior Kurdish security official in northern Iraq and several American officials" as saying Baghdadi is very much the top leader and that he is involved in issuing orders across the group's territories. A "senior US military official with access to classified briefings on ISIS" was recently quoted as saying: "While many other group leaders also over-see and manage operations, Baghdadi asserts his role through providing guidance and holding meetings with leadership". But other analysts say Baghdadi's religious credibility is more significant than any operational prowess. But the Saudi analyst tells APS such reports tend to inflate Baghdadi's status and persona.
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Publication:APS Diplomat Redrawing the Islamic Map
Date:Jul 27, 2015
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