Abstract: When the Combating Terrorism Center was provided with the three Tactical Interrogation Reports (TIRs) of the individual the U.S. government has identified as the leader of the Islamic State, Amir Muhammad Sa’id Abdal-Rahman al-Mawla, one of our goals was to get the response of experts to the documents. To facilitate such a discussion, CTC hosted a virtual discussion between Cole, Haroro, Gina, and Craig and asked them to offer some preliminary thoughts regarding the meaning and significance of the content of these documents, as well as the unanswered questions that still remain. What follows is a transcription of that conversation, which has been edited for clarity and style. Despite these edits, however, we have sought to preserve the intimate nature of the conversation, including speculative statements regarding how to interpret what the documents do and do not tell us about al-Mawla. In the end, our hope is that this conversation with these experts stimulates future research and inquiry, all while providing a modest but important increase in our knowledge of this important figure in the Islamic State.

CTC: Cole, Craig, Gina, and Haroro, it is great to have you all here to speak with CTC about these documents. Let’s start with some contextual questions. As you all know, we’ve only got three documents of a larger population of approximately 66. What do you think we can make of just three documents? Is it possible to get insight from a limited sample? What are some of your thoughts on that in terms of the limitations, but also potentially the things that can be extracted?

Whiteside: I’ve been through the TIRs a few times, and each time, I’m picking up more stuff. I’m surprised there are that many reports in general. If there’s 66 that are out there, I didn’t realize that detainees were interrogated that often in a place like [the U.S. Camp] Bucca [detention facility], which [had] a reputation for people just getting dumped there and being unmanageable, so it indicates to me that he was a person of interest long beyond the initial screening process.

Ligon: It’s the most that we have from him, and so I think that’s really important. It’s also essentially in his own words, which as a psychologist and somebody who studies leadership style by how people talk, that to me is incredibly important. Using interviews and responses to interviews is an important method for those of us who assess the psychology of leadership. And so the fact that there are three at different time points actually shows some reliability because you can see some of the same speech patterns and constructs he uses across the three time periods, and really remarkable consistency in how he expresses his world views. So I personally deduced a lot out of the length and the fact that it’s a primary account. It’s his own words. Although these summaries are paraphrased by the compilers of the TIRs rather than verbatim, it’s still the closest thing we have to his own words. The key to me is that there was no speechwriter; and his responses, whether deceptive or not, are still his words. So I think it’s incredibly useful.

That said, one limitation is the date of them. It’s 12 years ago, and life experiences shape how someone views the world and their place in it. To get a better sense of his leadership style, I would like to know what’s happened to him since, anything of how he would perceive lessons learned. Insofar as we can deduce anything from a small set of documents and knowing the leadership position he does end up attaining, I think this is someone who does draw upon lessons and experiences that he’s had, so it would be good to know what’s happened to him in the intervening years.

Ingram: I’d just add to what Craig and Gina have said so far. This is an interesting collection of documents, but there’s no question that there are significant limitations. These are only three of 66 or so documents, and so we’re missing that larger context. I think more time is needed to track down, for example, the consequences of his informing on his terrorist colleagues, to verify the accuracy of his claims. But even just beyond that, there’s a real value from a research perspective to taking this as a snapshot and placing it within the historical context for the time.

I would be interested in seeing actual transcripts as opposed to the summaries.a That would allow you to capture the nuances. Sometimes that exchange between interrogator and detainee is actually really important because what you can potentially do over time is track developments in the relationship between the interrogator and the individual. And you can’t really see that in the summaries.

Even though this is someone being interrogated and under pressure, one of the big points we learn is that this is a man who is clearly a rat. When I was reading these summaries, it just reminded me of other snitches. The way he selectively talks up and emphasizes certain details while conveniently ignoring or downplaying others. At least in these summaries, al-Mawla largely focuses on other people and the group. Even when talking about himself, the story of his recruitment seems exaggerated in some ways, whitewashed in others, but largely a means to point to other people. Whether this is part of a master plan for senior members that get caught, the actions of a common snitch, or a bit of both, it’s hard to tell, but it’s all important for context. I think that that’s a really important part of this collection, and that’s why the transcripts would be so interesting. Even if much of what he’s saying is not accurate, it’s such an insight into al-Mawla. It’s also important to recognize that what we see in these summaries is likely partly the result of an interrogation plan, and al-Mawla’s interrogators may have latched on to signs of ego or other vulnerabilities that made him more likely to talk. I’m obviously speculating here because these summaries don’t provide all these details, but the possibilities are interesting.

Aside from these types of limited insights, the real value of these documents from a research perspective will be the ongoing and future research efforts that they can help inform. In my view, it’s that kind of contextual, strategic hindsight-type research that will be really interesting.

Bunzel: Obviously, it’s a limited dataset here, but I still think it’s extremely useful, particularly because we don’t have much verified information about al-Mawla. Not that this is entirely verified, but at least it’s information that comes from a verified source. I’ve seen, for example, reporting that he went by the name of ‘ustaz, or the professor or the teacher, and here one of his pseudonyms given in the TIRs is Ustaz Ahmad, so there’s some corroboration for that. There has also been reporting about him having a religious educational background, and that also finds corroboration here.b

Another interesting thing is the time lag between one of the TIRs and two of the other ones, and you can definitely see that he takes a very different approach from January 8th to January 25th 2008. In the first one, he practically distances himself from the organization, saying, ‘I’ve never even given bay`a to anyone in the organization. Why? Because I’m a Sufi.’ While we might be learning that [he] had some Sufi past, the idea that he is presenting there is that ‘I am a Sufi. Therefore, I have given bay`a to a murshid, which is a Sufi spiritual leader. I cannot possibly give bay`a to a leader of ISI because I have bay`a to a spiritual Sufi leader.’ That’s nonsense, because in terms of ISI’s ideology at that time, having a bay`a to a Sufi spiritual leader is a death sentence. So that seems like nonsense.

He also doesn’t even acknowledge that he was a bona fide member of the group in that earlier January 2008 TIR. And then in the second two, as we all know, he’s singing quite loudly. So even though we don’t know the circumstances of the interrogation—there are also different interpreters, and there is some variation of language used from one set to the other, and these are problems—having that time lag helps understand the development of his willingness to talk with interrogators.

CTC: This has been touched on in your comments, but clearly in the back of all of our minds is the question of whether al-Mawla is just putting out falsehood after falsehood. What are we to make of it all with respect to this adversarial process where potentially there are incentives to deceive or to minimize? How do you try to balance some of those things when you’re looking at information like this and trying to draw out the truth?

Bunzel: At first, I was skeptical that he was giving a whole lot of valuable information away. I thought, ‘these were mostly pseudonyms, so what’s the big deal of saying Abu Ahmad is the administrative leader for some imaginary province?’ But I think when you look more carefully, he’s identifying people by name. At the end of one of these TIRs, the names are given, real names. He does seem to be ratting on people. Then I notice something interesting, which is that when it came to his brother-in-law, he completely distances his brother-in-law from the organization: ‘Oh no, he’s just a driver.’ It’s just fascinating. There was an allegation made in 2019 by an IS [Islamic State] defector that al-Mawla paid a very large sum of money to the Iraqi government for his son-in-law to be released from detention, all the while ignoring requests to seek the release of other detainees. So that struck me as interesting. There may be a pattern here of trying to protect family members at the expense of other members of the organization.

Ligon: Again, as someone who looks at leadership styles based on the psychological constructs they use, I’m actually less concerned with the factual veracity of these statements. I’m really interested in the words used to describe his relationship to others in the organization and the organizational structure. That to me gives more insight into the sense-making he uses and how he might be expected to perceive ambiguous events that happen in the future. So it’s interesting to hear you all talk about the factual veracity, but for me, it’s the word choices and the psychological constructs that he uses to label events and people that are really important from an organizational psychology perspective.

Gina Ligon

CTC: So even in that sense, the falsehoods or fictions are still telling in and of themselves.

Ligon: Yes. And if he was using deception, the level of detail that he gives does show a remarkable capacity for contriving information, so acknowledging Haroro’s point about what happens in these interrogations and how they try to evade culpability, it is interesting to me that he gave really specific details down to acne marks on someone’s face and accents. As those descriptions had stability over time, if he was not being truthful, that gives some indication to his capacity for deception. But the stability of the descriptions does point to the likelihood that he was being truthful rather than a master of deception; in addition, many of these details are verified in other reporting—he just went one step further by giving a true inside look into the organization.

Whiteside: Going to Gina’s point, which I think is a really good one, and also Cole’s point about there being a lag between the interrogations, one question I have is how much was he getting schooled up by other detainees in the facility on what information to protect? ‘Look, this is what they know. This is what you can give them in order to gain something out of it.’ And that may reflect the training that they get upon joining the group, during their equivalent of basic training. If that was the case to a significant degree, it would show he’s really clever and that there was some kind of organizational infrastructure that informed recruits what they could and couldn’t say, what they need to do in order to get out of detention and back into the fight.

Ingram: I think the contradictions that are emerging here are a really important part of understanding this collection of documents. This idea of him giving away a whole lot of information and then dismissing his own involvement, but then in the same breath, really talking up his involvement, these are all important insights and these contradictions actually matter.

These documents again are going to raise questions about prisoner management issues. You’ve got someone who is, according to their own testimony, senior and connected, so why was he released? Now, my own view of this is that a lot of those hindsight discussions are by people who are not fair in their judgment. They don’t actually assess that decision at that point in time with the information that was known, with that context, in those circumstances, and it’s really easy a year, five years, 10 years later to say, ‘oh, why did you do that? He became caliph.’ That kind of retrospective judgment misses the point and isn’t particularly valuable for improving practice. But in saying this, there are some important questions here about the management of not only people but information because he provides some pretty important insights into what was going on underground at the time.

CTC: Several of the comments have drawn us into this historical aspect of what’s going on in Iraq at this point in time, what’s going on for ISI. He claims to have joined in early 2007. He’s captured in early 2008, certainly the capture date we can be confident in. What else is going on in Iraq and ISI at this time, and how does that influence how you look at this material?

Whiteside: His story seems like a pretty normal story of anyone who joins a clandestine organization, except that he’s joining in early 2007. The tide’s already starting to turn against the Islamic State of Iraq. But this doesn’t seem to impact him at all. People are leaving the organization in large numbers. The defections to the sahwa or other resistance groups are just beginning because of the backlash against the Islamic State of Iraq around this time period. But that’s not reflected in these documents much at all.

Furthermore, I find it interesting that he talks about people like Abu Umar al-Baghdadid who the U.S. is, halfway through this particular year, not even acknowledging exists.e He talks about Abu Umar’s speeches and the group’s media’s involvement in the production of the audiotapes that eventually find their way online.

Al-Mawla’s story reminds me of an interview that one of the Islamic State of Iraq Shura Council members gave in 2011. He said, and I’m paraphrasing, ‘most of us joined around 2007 or later,’ which was after the foundation in October 2006 of the Islamic State of Iraq.1 So al-Mawla’s one of this cohort. He probably has a lot of credibility in this organization because he joined in early 2007. And he’s still with the organization in January 2008 (when captured) and obviously long beyond that. Even though there’s lots of questions about what he was doing before early 2007, just the fact that he officially joins the organization right before it steps off the cliff, and yet, he’s still with it, gives him an “OG” factor that is a pretty interesting takeaway.

Bunzel: I found one thing that stands out is the number of people who he is identifying who are also at that time being detained and presumably interrogated. Al-Mawla is being interrogated during the surge at a time when there’s clearly a lot of counterterrorism pressure on ISI. Some of the people he mentions as having been detained before him, which suggests to me that they might have ratted on him, and so perhaps he said, ‘I might as well sing if they’re singing.’ And what’s interesting is it’s hard to tell whether this is all part of some sort of protocol that they have along the lines of ‘The U.S. military is stupid; they’re going to release you. Just say whatever you need to say to get out.’ Or has he completely lost faith in the organization at this point? Everyone seems to be getting arrested. Does he believe people are ratting on him, and he thinks that the project is essentially over. He’s only been involved in it for less than a year, according to his testimony. So maybe his view at this point is that this is over. Or maybe not. It’s hard to say.

CTC: Absolutely. It is important to remember that these interrogations take place in 2008, and it’s unlikely that he was earmarked to become the leader or a senior figure at that point. I think there are some insights in these documents about his own leadership capabilities. What do these documents tell us about his qualifications or capabilities as a leader?

Ligon: One of the things that I do is look at how they interpret the world and what that means for the organization. One of the things that Haroro touched on earlier is that al-Mawla likely has loyalty to the cause over people. In giving so many details up about other leaders and the atrocities they committed, he essentially sacrificed others and perceived them as expendable to the greater cause. This bodes really ill for gaining trust of your inner circle because such behavior might occur again. With the caveat that any picture that can be formed of him is far from in sharp focus because it is based on just three documents, I think he likely perceives people around him as a cog in the greater machine—the dispassionate way he describes others, the way he focuses on how they differ from him—hints at how he perceives even those “closest” to him. For example, in TIR A, when he describes the leaders to whom he was charged with being a confidant and advisor, you can see the way he volleys between who was in his in-group versus not in details such as, “I knew he was from Mosul from his accent.” Then in TIR B, he states about another, “He was not an Iraqi citizen and I could tell from his accent.” In addition, the sheer magnitude of specific details to me shows he was no longer concerned with the outcome for these individuals—they were to be sacrificed for his safety and release. When you have those kind of object beliefs, once people are no longer of instrumental value to you, they’re easily disposable. It’s tough to build loyalty because of that, and you see that in some of his language.

The other piece that I thought was really interesting, and this is sort of triangulated based on where he’s from and the demographics of Al-Muhalabiyyah —90 percent Turkmen to 10 percent Arab, a pretty homogeneous city—and the way that he talks about other people is very outgroupy or ‘othering,’ as you would describe it in terrorism literature. He describes people and how they are different from him. And so, fast forward to him later rising up the hierarchy in the group, this means it’s possible and perhaps likely he’s pretty insular in how he constructs his inner cadre of people who he does let get close to him.

The Islamic State has claimed it is a group for ‘everyone’ and all recruits are unified by fealty to Allah. But the problem for them with this is that he does not seem to see loyalty to the religion as a unifying construct. In the documents, he is looking at differences between people. Based on this, I think it’s possible, even likely, that this will alienate some of the people around him over time. Some will feel ‘I’m not really part of this group.’ If he has anyone in his inner circle right now who he does not perceive to be in-group to him demographically, I would bet that they’re questioning their spot in the group because people notice this kind of sentiment over time.

If he also is going to create an organization like that as well, then it would be a bit more insular and homogeneous than what we saw with this call to foreign terrorist fighters and call to Westerners to come over. From these documents, he doesn’t look like the type who is going to be an inclusive leader or building an organization that way. In thinking about what the implications for an al-Mawla-constructed ISIS could be, this person at least from these statements does not look like he’s going to be this inspirational call-to-arms, open to foreign fighters from such a variety of different countries that we saw in the past. If we do see that, it’s because he likely had a direct experience with leaders from different backgrounds that shaped his mental model about diversity in his “top management team” and organization. But in 2008, my assessment is that he will build a homogenous top circle, and anyone he perceives to differ from him will never earn his full trust.

I’ve read some think-tank pieces from people saying, ‘Oh, they’ve learned from their mistakes; they’re never going to try to recreate the same org structure,’ and based on my readout of these documents, I just don’t buy that if he’s at the top. My bias is that leaders create the image of the organization in their own, and so if this is a person who’s super hierarchical, likes chain-of-command, appreciates authority and lanes, then he’s going to recreate the same type of structure wherever he goes next. At least back at the time of these TIRs, he sees this organizational structure as a sophisticated way to control a population, assessing and controlling elites. I think we may see him continue or in some instances recreate these organizational components, including embedding sharia into various parts of the organization, as well as the conscription of the ‘judicial branch’ to gain control of and influence with the broader population. You see his recount in TIR C about his role in selecting judges and their import to the overall organizational strategy; he will remember this.

We haven’t talked about his strengths much yet, but he does look to be pretty preoccupied with assessing the health and hierarchy of organizations. For example, in TIRs A and B, he uses a lot of language about duty, authority, and what a given person was in charge of and why. Then in TIR C, after describing an effective org structure, he stated that he “did not interfere with those military members because they have a solid structure.” To him, lines of responsibility and chain of command are important, and he will likely build a comparable and rigid organization that reflects his own mental model of how the world should work.

CTC: Haroro, I know you’ve also got some thoughts on what these tell us about him as a leader, a leadership figure.

Ingram: Well, if the details are accurate, of course, then it suggests that he was someone who moved through the ranks pretty quickly. Again, according to his testimony, he gets picked up as a graduate in early 2007; he’s a trainer by March of that year. By July, he’s helping to mediate this conflict between JM and ISI.f By the end of July, he’s the general sharia official. By mid-October, he’s the temporary deputy wali, and then by November 2007, he’s back to his previous role again.g

Some of these claims, as we said before, may be a bit of his ego at play and probably some deception, too. But, assuming that his description of his ascent up the hierarchy is broadly accurate, someone may have seen some potential in him. Or it could be that he’s a sycophant. And as we all know, sycophants move rapidly through organizations, too. Al-Mawla, the sycophant, might be the line that comes out of the larger body of TIRs if and when they are released. But the chances are there was something else about him, that there was some quality about him that the organization, that people around him were impressed by to such an extent that within months, according to his telling, he is mediating a conflict that, by the sounds of it, really could have been quite destructive to the organization.

I think there is another important consideration to keep in mind. You see a lot of articles written about the cult of personality that Baghdadi supposedly had and how charismatic he was and that these leaders benefit from being charismatic. Well, the caliph, by definition, is not necessarily a charismatic figure in the strict sense of the word. The weight of his authority comes from a mix of legal-rational and traditional grounds that form the basis for their leadership and the justification for the pledge he receives. Those details are actually really important because what it means is essentially that the individual is important to the extent that they satisfy legal-rational and traditional criteria. Personality helps, but you can kind of construct that around them. So, what do you do if you’re the Islamic State? You give the appointed leader a kunya; you make them anonymous for a bit of time; you develop and construct their image, and then strategically project it. And so we have to in a sense distinguish between the individual as he is perceived by his inner circle and peers, as Gina has spoken about and I agree with everything that she said, and the way in which the group projects the leader to the world. This all comes back to thinking about what were the qualities that were appealing about al-Mawla, and those qualities as seen by the inner circle may be quite different to the qualities that the group will want to project at some point in time, assuming he is indeed now the leader.

Bunzel: I’ve seen it reported that a pretty large percentage of Sunni Iraqis, Arab Iraqis claim descent from Quraysh. Whether that’s true or not is really irrelevant. What matters is the perception. So maybe people from his area all think that they’re Qurashi. I don’t think there’s a lot of skepticism out there, even among defectors who grew disaffected with the organization, about his lineage. That doesn’t seem to be something that is seized upon as the thing that disqualifies him. There’s a lot of genealogical wizardry that goes on in these groups. If you want to find Qurashi lineage, you’re going to find it. It’s all the other stuff—unscrupulousness, the brutality, that sort of thing, that disillusioned former members of the group have focused on.

One thing I think which comes across from the documents is that he’s practical as a leader. It’s very hard to imagine Abu Musab al-Zarqawi talking to U.S. forces with this kind of openness. I think that he’s a guy who can put on a façade to get what he wants, to get to the next stage. So he’s willing perhaps even to throw lower-level figures in the organization under the bus in order to keep the group or the movement alive.

The one response I would have to Haroro, and I agree with pretty much everything you said apart from this, is that the caliphate, as classically conceived, is a personal institution in the sense that it’s the caliph who has to meet certain criteria in order to be suitable for the caliphate and it’s the caliph who receives the oath of allegiance from his subjects. They don’t give an oath to the caliphate as an institution, but to the caliph himself. So there’s a problem with the anonymity of the caliph as regards the caliphate claim for the Islamic State today. That being said, there’s nothing in here to suggest that al-Mawla doesn’t meet any of the classical qualifications for the caliphate on their face. Traditionally, those qualifications include such things as descent from Quraysh, justice, probity, soundness of body and mind, knowledge and wisdom. There’s a case to be made for most these things in these documents, except for perhaps probity. He does seem to be rather untrustworthy and lacking in principle.

One question these documents raise is why isn’t he giving an audio statement in the present day? That seems kind of odd. Wouldn’t you want to boost the morale of followers of the Islamic State by giving a speech right after being named caliph? There is a precedent for that. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, after succeeding Abu Umar al-Baghdadi as head of the Islamic State of Iraq in 2010, didn’t give an audio address for more than two years.h But what we see from the documents is that al-Mawla’s not somebody who can’t deliver an audio address. Like Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, he served as a preacher in a mosque. One can assume he can give a pretty good sermon, so that’s not the reason why they’re keeping him away from the microphone.

Cole Bunzel

Whiteside: The only thing I’ll add is what he’s not. He’s not a former Baathist, contrary to some of the first media reports on him. He was a private in the Iraqi Army, he’s a conscript like most Iraqis had to be at the time unless they were incapable. Military officers pretty much had to be a Baathist. But as a private, he got the military service without the ‘smudge’ of the Baath label on him. I think that’s important to this organization for the overall leader.

Ligon: I just wanted to add something to specifically Haroro’s point about him possibly being a sycophant. I think that is really insightful, too, given his deference to authority and hierarchy and the way he talked about the line-and-block charts and who reported to whom. Some leaders who focus on others’ prescribed duties, appropriate behavior ascribed to a given position and place, and the importance of ‘duty’ are high on what is called “succorance,” or the need to please those they perceive to be in authority positions in their organizations. This might result in behaviors that are ingratiating toward those he perceives he needs to influence, which could explain his somewhat unconventionally quick rise to such an important position. This mental model, if true, also has implications for needing to please others and not making mistakes—fear of failure. To the extent that the picture that is forming is accurate, I think that’s going to have implications about his decision-making and some of the weaknesses that are probably going to go along with that.

CTC: One of the things that stands out to me is that his self-described path both into and up through the organization really seems to revolve around his religious training and ability to implement decision-making in the religious realm, which I don’t think is a huge surprise. Still, the role of religion seems like such a significant part of his story. What do you make of that? Is that something that stood out to you at all?

Whiteside: It did. Personally, I feel like he was being deceptive here. I wouldn’t be surprised, and this is total speculation, if the group cultivated a relationship with him much earlier, maybe even paid his way through school, and they were grooming people, much like Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and other important people, to get education in key subjects at a very crazy time. In 2007, Iraq was like the apocalypse. Everything is going on; it’s civil war and al-Mawla is in school and he’s not fighting in the resistance. Yes, people do that. One thing I’ve learned is people live their normal lives in very crazy times. But it reminds me of what Aaron Zelin wrote in his recent book on Tunisian jihadists about the grooming process and education that took place before recruits were allowed to officially join the early Islamist movements.2 There is some evidence that ISI worked with smaller groups during this time period that were unaffiliated, and the group patiently cultivated independents as they waited to commit. Unlike other groups, once you gave allegiance to the ISI leader, then you were a ‘card-carrying member’ per se, and that was a final commitment. We even have counts of official members of the early Islamic State thanks to its meticulous recordkeeping. According to one RAND study, there were approximately just under 1,000 in the Mosul area in 2009.i But, I think this number is a bit deceptive, that its tentacles were much broader and their grooming and recruiting activities touched a wider population. What I saw in some other documents was how invested they were in controlling university curricula, so that’s an interesting aspect with regard to al-Mawla in Mosul. Anbar University in Ramadi was heavily infiltrated by the Islamic State during this same period that al-Mawla says he was recruited,j and this might have also been the case with Mosul University—especially the religious studies college he graduated from in January 2007.

One thing that got my attention was that he describes in the TIRs in detail the efforts the ISI are making to integrate sharia oversight into the media department. When you look at the organization charts of that period on the CTC website,3 there is no sharia position in the media wire diagram, but they’re beginning to integrate it. They’re already routinizing it, as Haroro calls it, in 2007, a few months after creating the Islamic State of Iraq, the fake state, the paper state, and they’re integrating sharia into the other stand-alone departments. He’s also talking about integrating sharia into the security force structure of the group. That’s his job as Mosul’s sharia advisor, to vet and nominate the people that are going to work in those different areas.

It’s not clear, however, if this cross-pollination, between the sharia and other sections of the group, was new or something al-Mawla just sought to downplay. Al-Mawla seems to talk about it [as] ‘Well, those are the military people, and that’s not my job here in the sharia section.’ I don’t know if that’s self-serving. While complete separation would make sense from an organizational perspective—like ‘those are the military people. Those are the security people, and never the two shall meet’—some of what he says seems to indicate that this is changing for the organization in 2007. This, despite the sense of acute crisis during this period.

So then I ask the question, ‘why would they integrate the sharia personnel into other sections of the group?’ Along the lines of what [Jacob] Shapiro writes in The Terrorist Dilemma,4 there is a focus in his discussions on the necessity of controlling violence by the organization, and it’s not this hearts-and-minds stuff. Controlling violence and illegal activity becomes a large part of what he is doing in an effort to justify organizational policies to an internal audience, not necessarily an external one. In other words, he is issuing legal rulings regarding what we would consider criminal activity by members of the organization to sanctify it, not from an outside perspective, but for the benefit of those inside the group. It is an important effort to get control of their own people, who are probably not much more organized than hoodlum criminal gangs, and discipline them into funneling their efforts and activities towards the political goals of the organization. But the TIRs show that this effort is led by the religious wing of the group, by integrating the sharia officials into the media, the security, finances, and military. In other words, they are using people like al-Mawla and his peer former caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, to influence all aspects of organization.

Craig Whiteside

Bunzel: I think the role of his religious training and experience is certainly significant. Of course, you get no sense here of exactly what he’s teaching people. He claims that he began his time with the Islamic State of Iraq as a sharia teacher, basically grooming and training sharia officials in Mosul and appointing the head officials and judges for both sides of the city. I suppose being a high-level sharia official in the organization was useful for somebody who wanted to rise quickly. It likely would have given him exposure to a lot of different parts of the organization. He was involved on both sides of Mosul in matters of justice, arbitration, settling disputes. He likely got to know a lot of people that way.

Going back to what Craig said, it’s fascinating that ISI seems to be focused on the credentials of these people. Al-Mawla gets his master’s degree from the University of Mosul two months before Baghdadi defends his dissertation at the University of Baghdad. What’s going on there? It’s very odd also in this respect, which is that ISI, according to its ideology at the time, says that public institutions in the state of Iraq are kufr, “unbelief.” But the University of Mosul is a public institution, so what good is a university degree from the University of Mosul? It’s kind of interesting. Clearly, they’re not following their ideology to the letter. They seem to put a premium on the academic credentials of some of their members. I think clearly they’re taking religious training very seriously. As Craig said, a big focus of theirs when it comes to religion seems to be having a sharia official at every level of the organization. They take this stuff very seriously. I think what we see here is more evidence that religion isn’t just being superimposed on some preexisting network of Baathists. I certainly don’t see that here.

Ligon: I think the only thing I would just echo is that a sharia official making pronouncements gives some sort of absolute authority that is difficult to refute with logic or rational persuasion. And so if he’s proofing the media products and decision-making and arbitration, it’s hard for others in the group to dispute if he’s speaking on behalf of a higher authority. And so that is part of his influence throughout the organization. Craig, Haroro, and Charlie [Winter], in The ISIS Reader, did some great work to show religious training was such an important part of even military training.5 And now these TIRs help show how religious expertise was important in all of the organization’s pursuits. If he is the arbitrator on a lot of these decisions, invoking scripture that maybe others don’t know as well as he does, then he can really have some power in that organization, and it will be difficult to refute with a logic- or fact-based appeal. To me, the significance of ideological authority is verified by his descriptions of the organizational design (i.e., ISIS ideology wasn’t a department like other functional components; it was embedded in every operation).

Ingram: This is just another example of these documents opening up new research avenues that potentially are really important. For example, was al-Mawla part of any effort by the Islamic State to reach out to graduates and qualified people to help rebuild the foundations of the organization? The Islamic State’s first generation, those around Zarqawi, are really important to the movement’s story. But those who are part of this generation, who joined around the time of the movement’s nadir, especially 2007 onwards, are perhaps most important for what followed from 2013-14 onwards. This is a question that is much bigger than al-Mawla and would help set the scene for how we understand the Islamic State’s boom years. It also goes back to the point made earlier that the questions this set of documents raises are probably even more valuable, in fact, than what they reveal.

CTC: That’s a great segue into the final couple questions that I wanted to ask. As you all look through these, what was most surprising to you about what they did or did not reveal? What was something that really stood out to you as significant?

Bunzel: What stood out to me is the fact that he joins the organization just a few months after the announcement of the Islamic State of Iraq and seemed to play a pretty big role in the administration of the imaginary state. A lot of the people he’s talking about—walis, governors—this stuff didn’t exist before October 2006 when they created the Islamic State of Iraq. Also, coming back to the question of him rising so quickly in the organization and whether we want to believe that or not, my sense is that it’s probably true that he joined only in February 2007. He knows that if people are going to rat on him, that’s what they would say about when he joined.

But I have the sense also that he’s probably much more of a jihadi veteran than he’s letting on. This kind of outsider university student doesn’t just immediately join the Islamic State of Iraq and become deputy wali of Mosul in three months. It’s just ridiculous. So what we don’t know is his pre-history before joining the Islamic State of Iraq. What other group or groups was he involved with? That might tell us a lot about his ability to exert so much authority so quickly in the organization.

Ingram: I love the contradictions in the summaries. I think it’s the most fascinating aspect for a range of reasons we’ve all highlighted in different ways. This idea, as Cole said, that he is in this organization so briefly and moves through so rapidly, it just seems so absurd and then you start to factor in the things that Gina spoke about, things that Craig spoke about, that there was possibly a longer relationship and a longer history there of some kind, even if it was informal, or potentially that this guy’s been fighting for a while and had been involved in the organization much longer than he suggests. This might explain why he was someone that could be trusted. It would be interesting to know more about those who brought him in and facilitated his rise. I think that this is all intellectually interesting, but I also think that they’re interesting from a practitioner’s perspective. For people who work in HUMINT, persuasion, the STRATCOM/IO [strategic communications/information operations] areas, and psyops areas, this is potentially really valuable stuff.

Ligon: If you triangulate a few things—his emphasis on authority and chain of command and this aggrandizement, possible sycophant behavior, seeing people as cogs in a machine and his background of selecting judges and their role in controlling a population—we might be able to hypothesize some specific early warning indicators of a growing capability. As we know from the group’s history, ISIS had a history of identifying which elites to conscript toward their ends via the Security and Intelligence Council canvasing activities. Given al-Mawla’s background with the important role of judges, one of the first structures he may overtake is the judicial system, rooting out those who he believes to be “unjust” or capricious in their decisions. This is someone who comes across as likely really skilled at what leadership scholars would describe as Machiavellian assessment of who holds the power in an organization or a society. And if he is indeed a sycophant and good at reading people to please them, he will be able to coopt them very early on as part of his organizational structure to control the population.

Whiteside: Brian Fishman argues that the stigma of Sunni fratricide and the declaration of the Islamic State are the key factors that turns a lot of rival Sunni groups away from it.6 And yet, that understanding is partially contradicted in these interrogation reports from early 2008. Al-Mawla relates his role as a broker with other groups as they try to negotiate disputes, which seems to be a pretty normal and recurring function. In other words he is engaged in an on-going effort to reduce conflict with Ansar al-Islam, the Islamic Army, and the Mujahideen Army. These relationships seem to be much more cooperative than conflictual, at least in Mosul. Al-Mawla specifically references a dispute between ISI, the Islamic Army in Iraq, and Ansar al-Sunna.k The latter group is accused of killing three individuals they thought were Iraqi police officers, but turned out to be two ISI members and an Islamic Army man—all Sunnis.l That’s behavior that we usually attribute to the Islamic State, yet here we have a glimpse into the fact that at least one other group, Ansar al-Sunna, was potentially targeting Sunnis as well for collaboration. But if other Sunni resistance groups are doing it, then what are the differences between all of these organizations that supposedly are mad at the Islamic State for killing Sunni Iraqis and declaring an Islamic State? They’re doing it as well. Once those differences water down, it begs the question why aren’t they with the Islamic State?

And that’s the question the Islamic State is always trying to get other people to answer in a variety of ways. Al-Mawla describes an incident that happened while he was advising the wali of Mosul, after four Mujahideen Army leaders defected to the Islamic State, which goes back to what Cole was saying, this is a very pivotal time. People have to make decisions about the future. These four men later reneged on joining the Islamic State due to the backlash I talked about earlier, and that is a serious violation for this group and the wali had them killed. According to al-Mawla’s testimony from the TIRs, it became a major leadership issue for the Islamic State’s leadership, and the Mosul wali and his Security emir were relieved and replaced, really for following the Islamic State’s own ideology. It appears that the pragmatists in the group’s senior leadership understood that killing four (former) leaders of another group in Mosul was not a good thing.

This anecdote is a bit revealing about this organization, and what al-Mawla learned during this tumultuous period, during a period I don’t think we understand well, about how this group eventually outlasts all the other Sunni rivals that are out there.

My last point is that it seems that Mosul was the center of gravity for the group long before we thought. In 2008, the media department is based out of Mosul, and its growing routinization reinforces what Haroro calls the “adhocratic” nature the Islamic State. The leaders might have been thinking, ‘We don’t have a base to put this thing (in their current situation), so we’re going to put the department under Mosul.’ So, they have the central media being supervised by al-Mawla—the general sharia of Mosul—and not Wilayat Nineveh or what they called “the northern region.” They don’t have those institutions yet. The Islamic State organization is still kind of in flux, and these important institutions are floating around, so here is al-Mawla—a city-level sharia official—and he is vetting the larger organization’s media products, which I thought was surprising and rather important for someone in his position.

CTC: One of the things that’s been interesting to me is the way that this type of research has a tendency to find its way into the hands of the people that it’s about. If you just were looking into the crystal ball of the future, what impact do you think this could have on people who are part or supportive of the Islamic State group?

Ingram: In terms of impact, we should be thinking about this as potential impact and then how to maximize certain effects over others. A lot of what we’ve spoken about today has been hypothetical, trying to fill in the gaps, trying to add color to an incomplete picture. How this information is leveraged, for example by the global coalition against Daesh, is important because if Mawla sits at the top of the Islamic State organization, then what the documents potentially reveal is that the Islamic State has a rat problem. And it’s at the top. You’ve essentially got the canary caliph sitting there. Even if the information he provided was somehow part of a plan by senior Islamic State officials—we know many of them demonstrated similar behavior when interrogated—it is still indicative of him as an individual and potentially a culture in the organization. Perhaps yet another example of the disposability of its members especially for the sake of its elites. Al-Mawla is now someone who has a documented history of giving—and even if it’s only 50 percent accurate—dozens of names, which he then places into organizational charts, and then provides the names of predecessors to those positions. It will be important to find out what the consequences of that and other snitching by senior leaders were. But the image and perception it creates, I suspect, will be enough for detractors to use this information. Whether Mawla is the caliph or he’s a senior leader or even if he is dead, getting some skilled people involved in this persuasion campaign and using these documents (and others) could shake trust in the Islamic State’s leadership group, morale between the leaders and the middle managers, and it brings into question the judgment of those people that brought Mawla into the organization and potentially facilitated and enabled his rise. Clearly, there seems to be something about Mawla that impresses people, but I think that information like this can be a vulnerability for him and for the people who supported him, whatever his current or previous roles.

Some may say, does any of this really matter when the Islamic State’s supporters will just dismiss all of this as lies? For me, that’s a far too passive and defeatist attitude. After all, something which Cole and Aymenn al-Tamimi have covered in a lot of detail is the tensions within the organization, the tensions within the leadership group, those tensions within the Islamic State more broadly, and then you’ve got the tensions between the Islamic State and other organizations, like AQ. So, in a sense, what this information represents is potential ammunition in a persuasion battle. And you’re putting that ammunition out there into an information system, and some are going to ignore it and say that it’s rubbish and it’s not working, some may take it and try to create blowback, but others are going to take it, and they’re going to load up and fire against the Islamic State. Whether there is a role for Western voices in that exchange, probably not directly, but there is a lot that can be done behind the scenes.

In short, we absolutely shouldn’t underestimate the potential of information like this, if harnessed appropriately, to really have an impact in the organization in ways that can hurt just as much as killing its members, if not more. When you erode trust, when you erode morale—especially in this strategic phase that the Islamic State movement is in right now—especially when it’s clandestine, it can have a very negative impact on the group. And involved in a grinding insurgency, it can have a very negative impact on the group. If you are part of a clandestine organization, trust is a crucial factor for your survival, for rebuilding, and for recruiting. Any effort to erode trust, degrade morale, and increase uncertainty is, in my view, worthwhile so long as it is appropriately synched with other efforts and goals.

Haroro Ingram

Ligon: Just one elaboration. What I have learned about this particular group is that the weight of the caliph and who is worthy of assuming that role requires that the individual be willing to bear it, not [be] seeking to ascend to it. But al-Mawla, from these documents, appears to have some real characteristics that are at odds with that. You don’t want a self-aggrandizing [individual], you don’t want a sycophant, you don’t want someone who’s Machiavellian, always thinking about organizational structure. To me, if people are observing him and then they see that he revealed all of this information when he thought no one was looking, it seems that it might raise some questions. If his authority and how he influences people is through that caliph designation, then he’s got some real nefarious personality characteristics that I think would make that less suitable of a role for him and maybe he’s not indeed ‘the chosen one,’ and they made a selection error, right? That’s the issue.

Bunzel: My sense is that most of the people these documents would influence have already formed pretty strong opinions about the Islamic State one way or the other, and that they will likely interpret what is being released here according to their priors. For a small group of defectors from the Islamic State who already believe al-Mawla—whom they call Hajji Abdullah in their documents—is an unscrupulous, tyrannical monster, this is just more evidence of that.m It actually fits a certain narrative, which was something that Gina was getting at, that he’s part of an inner circle that they call Al Baghdad, the people of Baghdad, who were very loyal to Baghdadi and who are very concerned with keeping the higher ranks of the organization in the hands of a small group of Iraqis at the expensive of everyone else.

So there’s a lot there to corroborate other people’s priors who are already disaffected with the group. But for the most committed believers, the regular members of the group, I think this will likely be dismissed as psyops. ‘It’s just lies,’ many will likely say. Why would they trust something that comes out of the United States military that has the appearance, from their perspective, of discrediting ‘our good caliph’? So I think that’s a problem.

Then there are people who are also fairly well established in the leadership of the organization or in some level of the organization who may take notice. One of them might think, ‘Oh, I knew that guy that was ratted out by the caliph. That’s not cool.’ It could have ramifications in that regard. And then for people who are al-Qa`ida loyalists, I think it will also be more evidence, like with the group of disaffected former IS members, that the Islamic State is an unscrupulous and mafia-like organization.     CTC

Cole Bunzel is a fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. He is also the editor of the blog Jihadica. Follow @colebunzel

Haroro J. Ingram is a senior research fellow with the Program on Extremism at George Washington University. Follow @haroro_ingram

Gina Ligon directs the National Counterterrorism, Innovation, Technology, and Education Center (NCITE), a Department of Homeland Security Center of Excellence. Follow @ginaligon

Craig Whiteside teaches national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College resident program at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. Follow @CraigAWhiteside

Substantive Notes
[a] Editor’s note: The Combating Terrorism Center was not provided with, nor is aware of, transcripts of al-Mawla’s interrogation sessions.

[b] Editor’s note: Previous reporting had noted that al-Mawla graduated with training in Islamic law from the University of Mosul. Martin Chulov and Mohammed Rasool, “Isis founding member confirmed by spies as group’s new leader,” Guardian, January 20, 2020.

[c] Editor’s note: Sahwa, or Awakening, refers to the movement among local tribes in Iraq that emerged in opposition to ISI in September 2006 and played a key role in the decline of ISI’s power in Iraq during 2006-2008. Brian Fishman, Dysfunction and Decline: Lessons Learned from Inside Al-Qa’ida In Iraq (West Point, NY: Combating Terrorism Center, 2009).

[d] Editor’s note: Abu Umar al-Baghdadi was leader of the Islamic State of Iraq between 2006 and 2010.

[e] Editor’s note: For a variety of reasons, including ISI’s own deceptive efforts, the identity of Abu Umar al-Baghdadi was a matter of some speculation for some time. Craig Whiteside, “Lying to Win: The Islamic State Media Department’s Role in Deception Efforts,” RUSI Journal 165:1 (2020): pp. 130-141.

[f] Editor’s note: Although we cannot be entirely certain, this reference in the TIRs likely refers to a conflict in early 2007 that flared up between ISI and a number of other groups, including Jaysh al-Mujahidin (JM). In one episode during this conflict, ISI killed several JM members after failed negotiations. Fishman, pp. 11-13.

[g] Editor’s note: Both of the specific positions referenced here are relatively high positions within the Islamic State bureaucracy. The position of wali refers to an individual who is the head or governor of a regional province or district. Underneath the wali, one individual is assigned to oversee the legal courts within that system. This individual also appears to hear appeals and resolve disputes as needed. Patrick B. Johnston, Jacob N. Shapiro, Howard J. Shatz, Benjamin Bahney, Danielle F. Jung, Patrick Ryan, and Jonathan Wallace, Foundations of the Islamic State: Management, Money, and Terror in Iraq, 2005 – 2010 (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2016); Mara Revkin, The legal foundations of the Islamic State (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 2016).

[h] Editor’s note: Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was elevated to emir sometime after the death of Abu Umar al-Baghdadi in April 2010, but the announcement was not forthcoming until May 2010. Anthony Shadid, “Iraqi Insurgent Group Names New Leaders,” New York Times, May 16, 2010; William McCants, “Who is Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi,” BBC, March 8, 2016. His first audio speech did not come until July 2012, although he did release a written eulogy of Usama bin Ladin in May 2011. Aaron Zelin, “Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi: Islamic State’s driving force,” BBC, July 31, 2014.

[i] Editor’s note: The RAND study used declassified internal documents from ISI to estimate the size of the group in Mosul from 2007 to 2009. It found that the group’s membership declined over that period, from approximately 1,300 in 2007 to 990 in 2009. Johnston, Shapiro, Shatz, Bahney, Jung, Ryan, and Wallace, pp. 160-162.

[j] Editor’s note: The story of AQI/ISI’s activities at Anbar University are covered in some detail in a document released in support of the U.S. Army’s history of the Iraq War. These documents are available for download at the website of the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center. Specially, the document titled “1007. Chapter 6” includes several sections that touch on this subject, including “AQI Domination of Anbar University” and “Ramadi Remains the Center of AQI Activity.”

[k] Editor’s note: This specific instance is discussed by al-Mawla as one of the legal cases in which he was required to issue a decision. TIR C.

[l] Editor’s note: The Jaysh al-Islami, or Islamic Army of Iraq, was quite possibly the largest and most influential Sunni resistance group to the occupation in 2004-2008, but it lost many of its members to the Sahwa in 2007 and was not much of a factor after that. An unknown number of members defected to the Islamic State during this period.

[m] Editor’s note: In early 2019, a group of dissident scholars in the Islamic State came to the view that the organization’s leaders, including Hajji Abdullah, were tyrannical and repressive, leading them to defect. On this group’s view of the Islamic State’s leadership, see Cole Bunzel, “Divine Test or Divine Punishment? Explaining Islamic State Losses,” Jihadica, March 11, 2019. For a reference to al-Hajj/Hajji Abdullah as the nefarious “deputy” of al-Baghdadi, see Cole Bunzel, “The Islamic State’s Mufti on Trial: The Saga of the ‘Silsila ‘Ilmiyya,’” CTC Sentinel 11:9 (2018).

[1] Editor’s note: The interview referenced here is a press release put out by ISI fearing an interview with Abu Ubaydah Abd-al-Hakim al-Iraqi, then a member of ISI’s Shura Council. Abu Ubaydah Abd-al-Hakim al-Iraqi, “Press conference with a member of the Islamic State of Iraq’s Shura Council,” Jihadist Media Elite and Al Furqan Media, posted on Ana al-Muslim Network, April 11, 2011.

[2] Editor’s note: Aaron Zelin, Your Sons Are at Your Service: Tunisia’s Missionaries of Jihad (New York: Columbia University Press, 2020): p. 32.

[3] Editor’s note: See, for example, the diagram of a media organization and the accompanying translation included in the appendix of Daniel Milton, Communication Breakdown: Unraveling the Islamic State’s Media Efforts (West Point, NY: Combating Terrorism Center, 2016).

[4] Editor’s note: Jacob Shapiro, The Terrorist’s Dilemma: Managing Violent Covert Organizations (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013).

[5] Editor’s note: Haroro J. Ingram, Craig W. Whiteside, and Charlie Winter, The ISIS Reader: Milestone Texts of the Islamic State Movement (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020).

[6] Editor’s note: Brian Fishman, Dysfunction and Decline: Lessons Learned from Inside Al-Qa’ida In Iraq (West Point, NY: Combating Terrorism Center, 2009).

Stay Informed

Sign up to receive updates from CTC.

Sign up