Baghdadi evades capture as a new ISIS takes shape

Some counterterrorism analysts suspect that Saif al-Adl has moved into the ISIS orbit.
Sunday 27/05/2018
A watch that belonged to a former Islamic State (ISIS) fighter, bearing the group’s logo. (AFP)
Ticking bomb. A watch that belonged to a former Islamic State (ISIS) fighter, bearing the group’s logo. (AFP)

BEIRUT - US officials from President Donald Trump on down say the Islamic State (ISIS) should be on its last legs with its short-lived caliphate broken up in late 2017 and its fighters dispersed to the four winds.

However, as one terrorist horror follows another, the warnings from experienced counterterrorism specialists that ISIS would not go away gently but would strike wherever it could until it reorganises are proving to be deadly accurate.

The Trump administration seems to have accepted the harsh reality by announcing it was reversing plans to dismantle the US State Department’s special unit overseeing the war against ISIS.

Ten days earlier, Trump boasted that five of ISIS’s “most wanted” leaders had been captured by US and Iraqi forces, which lured them into a trap from their hideouts in Syria through Baghdad’s intelligence service.

Among those taken was Ismail al-Eithawi, identified as a close aide to ISIS’s fugitive leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, self-proclaimed caliph of the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims. So far, Baghdadi has evaded capture in a global manhunt.

The other four leaders were not identified by the US-led anti-ISIS coalition but Iraqi sources identified one as Saddam al-Jammel, a Syrian who controlled an ISIS stronghold around Deir ez-Zor in north-eastern Syria.

Eithawi was the central figure in the capture of the ISIS chieftains on May 9. He was seized by Turkish authorities in February and handed over to Iraq’s military intelligence apparatus. Iraqi and US agents used his Telegram messaging app on his mobile phone to lure the others from Syria into Iraq, Iraqi officials said.

There’s no doubt this was a body blow to ISIS as it struggles to reinvent itself but the group, like other jihadist organisations before it, has proven to be extremely resilient in absorbing such shocks.

The fear is that this sort of reversal will trigger retaliatory, high-casualty terrorist attacks by ISIS and possibly bring about a merger of Islamic fanatics from other groups.

To the dismay of the United States and its allies, Baghdadi’s organisation, held together by seasoned militants who include former Iraqi Army officers and top intelligence operatives who served Saddam Hussein, have in recent weeks carried out dozens of attacks as far apart as Mali, Niger, France, Burkina Faso, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country and increasingly a linchpin in ISIS’s drive to reorganise from the splintered territories it holds in Iraq and Syria.

The Washington Institute for Near East Policy recently stressed that defeating ISIS and other jihadist organisations militarily is essential but the “real objective should be” eliminating the Muslim grievances that fuel extremism.

ISIS militants recently repledged their support for Baghdadi in what is believed to be their first such declaration of allegiance to him since the group’s caliphate was torn apart by US-led Western and regional forces in 2017.

In a statement on social media, the militants declared: “To infuriate and terrorise the infidels, we renew our pledge of loyalty to the commander of the faithful and the caliph of the Muslims, the mujahid Sheikh Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi al-Husseini al-Qurashi, may God preserve him.”

By using the honorific “al-Qurashi,” Baghdadi’s followers are trumpeting his claim to be a son of al-Qurashi clan of Saudi Arabia and thus a direct descendant of the Prophet Mohammad.

In Islam, the caliph must be of the Prophet’s family. Baghdadi’s claim is difficult to verify but for Muslims it’s a powerful symbol that has elevated ISIS above other jihadist movements and will undoubtedly be a major boost for recruiting new militants for what is shaping up to be a global conflict.

What ISIS’s next moves will be are anybody’s guess. However, piecing together fragments of information obtained by Western and Middle Eastern intelligence services, it seems clear that Baghdadi and his lieutenants may be on the run but are far from crushed and remain deadly.

Some counterterrorism analysts suspect that Saif al-Adl, a former colonel in the Egyptian Army’s special forces and one of Osama bin Laden’s right-hand men, has moved into the ISIS orbit and may be seeking to revive the organisation.

Adl was associated with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian street thug who led a deadly breakaway faction that coalesced into the Islamic State in Iraq, the forerunner of ISIS.

The Combating Terror Centre (CTC) at the US Military Academy said the two met in a guesthouse in Kandahar, Pakistan, in 1999 and Adl “found that he had a lot in common with Zarqawi, including an ‘uncompromising’ nature.”

The CTC report said Adl convinced bin Laden to invest in Zarqawi’s nascent organisation, which allowed it to establish a training camp in Herat, Pakistan, a vital step in the eventual emergence of ISIS.

After the United States invaded Afghanistan in response to 9/11, Adl holed up in Iran — or was held there for some years, the circumstances are not clear — and avoided the US attacks that decimated al-Qaeda’s leadership.

Adl and others in bin Laden’s inner circle opposed the 9/11 operation because they felt it would endanger the Taliban, which allowed al-Qaeda to incubate and he was right.

The CTC reported that it is “unclear where Adl stood in the schism between bin Laden and Zarqawi due to a lack of primary source documentation” but, it added, Adl “raised ideas that the Islamic State would later champion.”

If Adl entertained any hopes of succeeding bin Laden as head of al-Qaeda, they probably suffered from the focus on bin Laden’s son and heir, Hamza, widely mooted as al-Qaeda’s future leader.

Still, the CTC noted, Adl “has demonstrated an uncanny capacity to adapt to changing circumstances, for example not only surviving over a decade of imprisonment in Iran but using it to lengthen his career.”

Adl is believed to be in Syria, possibly helping ISIS regroup. This suspicion has been heightened by the appearance of a jihadist master plan thought to have been largely drawn up by Adl, al-Qaeda’s operations chief.

Brian Fishman, a counterterrorism expert at the CTC, said the seven-stage plan mapped out how jihadists could conquer the world by 2020 and outlined the restoration of the historic caliphate, that ended with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after the first world war, in Syria between 2013 and 2016.

That effort, of course, failed but it validated the reported master plan, which was apparently smuggled out of Iran by Adl on 42 pages of yellowing paper.

Since then “it has seemed remarkably prescient,” observed Malise Ruthven in the New York Review of Books.

“Stages One and Two — ‘The Awakening’ (2000-03) and ‘The Eye-Opening’ (2003-06) — mention attacks against US targets in Iraq to provoke direct conflict with America, and doubtless reflect an element of hindsight following the US occupation (of Afghanistan).

“The subsequent stages, however, invite no such suspicion. ‘Stage Three — Standing Upright (2007-10)’ — envisions jihadist expanding their operations across Syria and into Lebanon and able to strike both Israel and Turkey.

“Stage Four — ‘Recuperation and Power (2010-13)’ — predicted that the jihadis would overthrow regimes across the Middle East (a striking if inaccurate prediction of the ‘Arab spring’).

“Stage Five — ‘Declaring the State’ (2013-16) — predicts, impressively, a British-led reversal of the ‘rising unity of Europe,’ offering a prime opportunity to ‘declare an Islamic state — the caliphate,” Ruthven observed.

Although the master plan would seem to have foundered, its structure implies that jihadist leaders are adhering to a strategy that is more clear-cut than has widely been believed. If Adl is operational again, more dangers lie ahead.

Fishman observed in his book “The Master Plan: ISIS, al-Qaeda and the Jihadi Strategy for Final Victory” that Baghdadi’s proclamation of the caliphate in Mosul in June 2014 closely follows the plan’s timetable, with Stage Seven, “The Final Victory,” predicting that the world’s Muslims “will rally under a single banner of overthrow the remaining ‘apostate Muslim regimes and destroy Israel’.”

The plan, even when viewed as a millennial fantasy, suggests that, although ISIS seems to be struggling desperately, Adl is determined to resurrect the jihadist cause in preparation for that final battle and may reunite al-Qaeda and ISIS.

If that’s the case, he can be expected to employ his professional military skills of avoiding major set-piece confrontations with jihadism’s foes — primarily the United States — while ISIS is weak and eschew “the opportunism of bin Laden and Khaled Sheikh Mohammed (a key 9/11 planner) while pursuing a meticulous cost-benefit analysis before taking action,” security analyst Ari Weisfuse said.