Abstract: Tensions between the Islamic State and al-Qa`ida have been in the headlines since the Islamic State’s feud with its one-time Syrian affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra, became public in 2013, and particularly since the Islamic State declared itself a caliphate in 2014. The Islamic State’s leaders see al-Qa`ida as irrelevant meddlers, while al-Qa`ida’s commanders believe their Islamic State counterparts to be so ideologically extreme that they cannot cobble together a coherent strategic plan. Al-Qa`ida’s concerns about the Islamic State were heightened in 2007 when a defector disclosed that the Islamic State of Iraq’s leaders had declared a state in 2006 because of apocalyptic premonitions. Nearly a decade later the defector’s accusations remain part of the war of words between the Islamic State and al-Qa`ida.

On November 23, 2013 a Twitter user with the handle @rakan_77 established the hashtag #qadi_dawlat_al-Baghdadi-yantaqiduha to highlight the contents of a private letter written by Abu Sulayman al-Utaybi to Usama bin Ladin six years earlier.[1] Although the letter excoriated the then-Islamic State of Iraq and its leaders, Abu Umar al-Baghdadi and Abu Hamzah al-Muhajir,[a] it might easily have been dismissed as delusional ranting or pure propaganda—in 2007 or 2013—if not for its author. Abu Sulayman was the former Chief Shariah Judge of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI). That is why @rakan_77’s 2013 hashtag was so provocative; it read, essentially: “chief judge of Baghdadi’s state criticizes it.”

Born in Saudi Arabia in 1980, Abu Sulayman studied at the prestigious Islamic University of Imam Muhammad bin al-Sa’ud in Riyadh. Although reportedly a strong student, Abu Sulayman abandoned his studies in 2006 and joined al-Qa`ida in Iraq (AQI).[2] When U.S. forces raided an ISI outpost near Sinjar in September 2007, Abu Sulayman’s name was listed on a roster of foreign fighters that had joined their cause.[3]

Abu Sulayman’s scholarly credentials were not stellar, but he had some religious education and, most critically, had the qualification most valued by the then-leader of AQI, Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi: he was willing to put himself in harm’s way. A leading jihadi propaganda outlet, the Global Islamic Media Front, emphasized these aspects when it memorialized Abu Sulayman as “a scholar and a mujahid who lived and worked according to Islam.”[4]

Abu Sulayman was named Chief Judge of ISI in March 2007, almost a year after Zarqawi’s death. Although he released public sermons in April and June 2007, Abu Sulayman had deep reservations about the Islamic State of Iraq and its leadership.[5] He worried that Abu Hamzah, the group’s military leader, was dangerously divorced from the battlefield, which had allowed lower-level commanders to exploit and oppress the Sunni community they were ostensibly defending.[b] The problem was familiar to broken bureaucracies in government, companies, and terrorist organizations around the world: a leader dependent on reports produced by subordinates unwilling to deliver bad news. “Mayors and emirs say they only provide accurate news to the state,” Abu Sulayman explained in his letter to Bin Ladin, but in fact “they only report the good news.”[6] Abu Sulayman charged that this was obscuring a deeply dysfunctional organization—one in which local elements were abusing the population and running petty criminal operations, including prostitution rings.

End of Days
Even more worryingly, explained Abu Sulayman, Abu Hamzah was obsessed with the apocalypse and it was leading him to make irrational strategic decisions. The deposed judge complained that Abu Hamzah expected the imminent return of the Mahdi, a heroic figure that Islamic prophecy suggests will return to earth to save good Muslims prior to an apocalyptic showdown with the forces of evil. According to Abu Sulayman, the two leaders had timed the declaration of the Islamic State of Iraq for October 2006 because they thought the Mahdi would return within a year.[7] It was not the first time that jihadi insurrectionists had declared the imminent return of the Mahdi; when Juhayman al-Utaybi’s raiders seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979, they claimed that Juhayman’s brother-in-law Muhammad bin Abdallah al-Qahtani was the Mahdi.[8]

Two years later, with no Mahdi in sight, the group’s purported then-leader Abu Umar al-Baghdadi was retelling eschatological prophecies to motivate followers. In the end-of-days tale, villainous “Romans” camped near the Syrian city of Dabiq would face an army of Muslims from Medina in an apocalyptic confrontation. “One third will run away, and Allah will never forgive them. One third will be killed and they will be the best of martyrs in Allah’s site. One third, who will never be subject to trials or tribulations, will win.”[9]

If Abu Sulayman’s accusations about Abu Hamzah’s apocalyptic worldview are accurate, then the ISI leader’s views shifted significantly in the coming years—away from eschatology and toward management before he and Abu Umar al Baghdadi were killed in in a joint U.S.-Iraqi raid in April 2010. “The immediacy of the Mahdi’s return and the apocalypse to follow was attenuated in favor of building the institution of the caliphate,” argues Will McCants. “Messiah gave way to management.”[10] Management was never ignored completely, however. Only three months after ISI was declared, the group released a long book outlining its basic governance structure, priorities, and procedures.[11] Despite the eschatological rhetoric, they were building the foundation for institution-building from day one.

Still, there are lingering hints suggesting that Abu Sulayman was on to something. The Islamic State in 2014 named its preeminent English language magazine Dabiq to honor the apocalyptic prophecy, and leads each issue with a quote from Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi arguing that, “the spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify—by Allah’s permission—until it burns the crusader armies in Dabiq.”[12]

Legitimate or fabricated, Abu Sulayman’s concerns did not stay private for long. On August 25, 2007, only months after being named Chief Judge, ISI unceremoniously announced that Abu Sulayman had been replaced.[c] There was no detailed explanation, but the announcement was structured to create doubt about Abu Sulayman’s credibility. It read, in part: “this decision is in accord with the commitment to the application of God’s law, especially in the matters of theft, fornication, black magic, augury, blood and financial matters, and the worship of idols and tombs instead of God.”

Abu Sulayman responded by defecting; he traveled to Pakistan to take his concerns directly to al-Qa`ida’s senior leadership. The document that reappeared on jihadi forums in 2013 thanks to @rakan_77 is a version of the complaint he delivered to Ayman al-Zawahiri and Usama bin Ladin. [13]

It is impossible to know whether Abu Sulyaman’s concerns were accurate, exaggerated, or manipulated by an intelligence service. Al-Qa`ida’s leadership considered all three possibilities.[d] In a long, anonymous missive dated December 17, 2007, an al-Qa`ida leader warned that a recent message from a “delegate” was “of suspicious accuracy.”[e] The author urged an investigation into the truth of the accusations, explaining that such critics often “have no shame in allowing the apostate state intelligence to lead them.”[14]

Abu Sulayman’s accusations came at a moment of upheaval in the jihadi community about the declaration of the Islamic State of Iraq. Al-Qa`ida vociferously backed the new group at the time, but a number of leading jihadis, including Hamid al-Ali and Abu Bashir al-Tartusi, did not.[15] ISI’s supporters often saw such reservations as evidence of meddling by hostile governments. “Because of them,” the anonymous al-Qa`ida author explained, “there is a real threat against the establishment of the Islamic State [of Iraq], and their desire to withdraw from it, and you need to be careful of them.”[16]

There is no definitive evidence that the anonymous December 2007 letter referred to Abu Sulayman’s accusations (as opposed to those made by other delegates). Al-Qa`ida’s leadership did, however, follow up on Abu Sulayman’s charges in a number of letters to the ISI leadership. The first was dated November 19, 2007; it explained that Abu Sulayman was about to arrive in Pakistan and asked why he had been dismissed.[f]

The second was dated January 25, 2008 and repeats Abu Sulayman’s detailed accusations about Abu Umar and Abu Hamzah. It requests a swift reply from ISI’s leadership, especially regarding “the most important thing and the biggest danger—if true—[which] is the existence of the corrupt influential men who have become leaders in the [Islamic] State.”[17] The letter goes on to query Abu Hamzah about his views on the return of the Mahdi and the apocalypse, a core accusation of Abu Sulayman.

The third letter, dated March 8, 2008, was signed by Ayman al-Zawahiri and addressed to Abu Umar. It urged the ISI to maximize its human resources by creating a database of jihadis under its command, including skills and educational background, and offhandedly requested an answer to the queries about Abu Sulayman.

The fourth letter was dated March 10, 2008 and included the previous three as appendices. It assured Abu Hamzah that the entire al-Qa`ida leadership group was aware of the controversy, but that they were still simply investigating his claims. “Details are required, [as is] setting the record straight on all accounts,” it reassured Abu Hamzah, “[Abu Sulayman] may have mixed truth and falsehood, and so it is necessary to provide details and to give whoever is right his due in word, judgment, and action.”[18]

The last letter, with its three appendices, arrived in Iraq, but Abu Hamzah or Abu Umar may never have seen it. All four documents were captured when coalition forces killed ISI’s Information Minister, Abu Nizar.[19] Nonetheless, Abu Sulayman’s campaign to discredit Abu Hamzah and Abu Umar ended ignominiously and unceremoniously. Abu Sulayman and his fellow defector, Abu Dujanah al-Qahtani, died in early May 2008, killed by U.S. forces in Afghanistan’s Paktika Province. Al-Qa`ida Central’s primary media outlet, rather than ISI’s, announced his death.[20]

Ironically, Abu Sulayman’s defection probably had as much influence on the American assessment of ISI as it did on al-Qa`ida Central. Abu Sulayman had never met Abu Umar al-Baghdadi and suggested to al-Qa`ida’s leadership that Abu Hamzah had invented him. Abu Sulayman argued that Abu Hamzah had declared the Islamic State of Iraq before selecting an emir and had told Abu Sulayman that he would remove the first person selected if they failed to perform. The accusation seemed to confirm the U.S. military’s previous position that neither Abu Umar nor ISI were genuine, and that, as a U.S. spokesman had put it, Abu Hamzah had created a “virtual organization in cyberspace called the Islamic State of Iraq in 2006 as a new Iraqi pseudonym for al-Qa`ida in Iraq.”[21] [g]

In 2006, characterizing ISI as a “virtual organization in cyberspace” was a slur. A decade later the same words suggest innovation rather than weakness.

The origins of the Islamic State of Iraq are the origins of the Islamic State. That is why @rakan_77 brought up Abu Sulayman’s critique of ISI to discredit the Islamic State. There are lessons in this approach. First, despite the overwhelming narrative that the Islamic State is a product of the Syrian civil war, its long history in Iraq before that time offers important insights into the group’s strengths and weaknesses. That tenure points to the Islamic State’s resilience, but it also exposes weaknesses; the Islamic State’s jihadi enemies, like @rakan_77, are exploiting them, so too might others.

Second, the split between al-Qa`ida and the Islamic State was bubbling long before the Islamic State’s declaration of a caliphate or the war in Syria. The intellectual clash between the Islamic State and al-Qa`ida is important, but it has not been and will not be strategically determinative. The Islamic State’s authority is a function of its power on the ground, not the approval of Ayman al-Zawahiri or any jihadi scholar.

Third, a digital afterlife is not limited to just Islamic State–supporting jihadis or propagandists such as Anwar al-Awlaki. Abu Sulayman al-Utaybi has been dead since 2008, but is still in the fight against the Islamic State, operating as a virtual sheikh in cyberspace.

Brian Fishman is the former Director of Research at the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. He is a Fellow with the International Studies Program at New America and an Affiliate with the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University. Follow @brianfishman.

Substantive Notes
[a] “Abu Umar al-Baghdadi” and “Abu Hamzah al-Muhajir” are both nicknames used on the battlefield. Abu Umar’s real name is Hamid Dawud Muhammad Khalil al-Zawi; Abu Hamzah’s most commonly cited real name is Abu Ayyub al-Masri, but officials in the United States, Jordan, and Egypt also claim that his given name in Egypt was Yusuf al-Dardiri. The two men split duties in managing ISI. Abu Hamzah was the ISI’s primary operational manager and interlocutor with al-Qa`ida; Abu Umar grew into a key oversight role for the group’s ideological and political efforts.

[b] Abu Sulayman al-Utaybi “Letter to Usama bin Laden.” There are legitimate questions about the validity of the letter attributed to Abu Sulayman al-Utaybi in 2013, but it accords closely with the comments by Ayman al-Zawahiri in a series of letters to Abu Hamzah al-Muhajir written in late 2007 and early 2008. Those letters were declassified and released to the Long War Journal and then subsequently translated by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

[c] Abu Sulayman was replaced by an Iraqi named Abu Is-Haq al-Juburi.

[d] Abu Sulayman left Iraq in August 2007 with Abu Dujanah al-Qahtani, and traveled across Iran with the assistance of Ansar al-Sunnah, the jihadi group that had empowered Zarqawi when he arrived in Iraq but that subsequently objected to the ISI’s efforts to control the jihadi effort in Iraq.

[e] The author of this letter is anonymous, but the best indications suggest it was written by either Usama bin Ladin himself or Sayf al-Adl, who was under house arrest in Iran. The letter insists that communications with al-Qa`ida franchises be signed either “by me or Abu Muhammad,” which is a reference to Ayman al-Zawahiri. Clearly very few senior leaders in al-Qa`ida would have such authority, but Bin Ladin was one. Those letters were declassified and released to the Long War Journal and then subsequently translated by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies

[f] Specifically: “We have a question: about the brother sheikh Abu Sulayman al-‘Utaybi, for he is on his way to us as we’ve been informed. He has recently arrived and sent word to us, and perhaps he might arrive to us in the next few days, with God’s help, and so we would like to ask you about him: why did he leave you and come [here]? Is it perhaps something bad or some problems? What is your recommendation on the brother? … What was the reason that you dismissed him from his work?” Bill Roggio, Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, and Tony Badran, “Intercepted Letters Shed Light on State of Network in Iraq,” Foundation for Defense of Democracies, September 12, 2008.

[g] This earlier intelligence came in part from a senior ISI operative captured on July 4, 2007. Dean Yates, “Senior al-Qa’ida Figure in Iraq a Myth: U.S. Military,” Reuters, July 18, 2007.

[1] Will McCants, “Death of a Sulayman,” Jihadica, May 13, 2008.

[2] Wasim al-Dandashi, “A Saudi Who Did Not Complete His Studies Becomes the Judge of the Islamic State of Iraq,” Ilaf, April 25, 2007.

[3] Harmony Project Document NMEC-2007-657716, Combating Terrorism Center, West Point. Abu Sulayman’s pseudonym Muhammad Bin-Su’ud Bin-Mas’ad al-Thubayti appears 32nd.

[4] “The General Command eulogizes Shaykh Abu-Sulayman al-Utaybi, and Shaykh Abu-Dujanah al-Qahtani, May God Accept Them Among the Martyrs,” Global Islamic Media Front, May 12, 2008.

[5] Office of the Emir of the Believers, Untitled Statement, Ministry of Information of the Islamic State of Iraq, August 25, 2007. For public statements, see: Abu Sulayman al-Utabyi “Preserving the Truth” Al-Furqan Media Establishment, April 6, 2007 and Abu Sulayman al-Utaybi “Why We Perform Jihad” April 9, 2007.

[6] Abu Sulayman al-Utaybi, “Letter,” Ana al-Muslim, November 24, 2013.

[7] Ibid.

[8] For a nice history of the Mahdi, see Timothy Furnish, “Bin Laden: The Man Who Would be Mahdi,” Middle East Quarterly, Spring 2002, pp. 53-59.

[9] Abu Umar al-Baghdadi, “The Believers are a Single Brotherhood,” Al-Furqan Media Establishment, January 10, 2009.

[10] Will McCants, The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State of Iraq, (New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press, 2015) pp. 146-147.

[11] Uthman bin Abd al-Rahman al-Tamimi, “Informing the People About the Islamic State of Iraq,” Al-Furqan Media Establishment, December 2006.

[12] “Reflections on the Final Crusade,” Dabiq, Issue 4.

[13] “Untitled Statement,” Office of the Emir of the Believers—Islamic State of Iraq, August 25, 2007.

[14] Anonymous, “Letter to Abu Abdallah al-Hajj,” December 17, 2007. Available as part of “Bin Laden’s Bookshelf,” Office of the Director of National Intelligence, May 20, 2015.

[15] See: Cole Bunzel, “From Paper State to Caliphate: The Ideology of the Islamic State,” Brookings Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, Analysis Paper No. 19, April 2015.

[16] Anonymous, “Letter to Abu Abdallah al-Hajj.” See: “A Statement from the Al-Fajr Media Center regarding the martyrdom of the two jihad leaders Sheikh Abu Sulayman al-Utaybi and Sheikh Abu Dujanah al-Qahtani,” Al-Fajr Media Center, May 11, 2008.

[17] Bill Roggio, Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, and Tony Badran, “Intercepted Letters Shed Light on State of Network in Iraq.

[18] Ibid.

[19] “U.S.: Letters Show Infighting Over al-Qaeda in Iraq’s Mission,” CNN, September 11, 2008.

[20] “A statement from the Al-Fajr Media Center regarding the martyrdom of the two jihad leaders Shaykh Abu-Sulayman al-Utaybi and Shaykh Abu-Dujanah al-Qahtani, may God accept them among the martyrs,” Al-Fajr Media Center, May 11, 2008.

[21] Dean Yates, “Senior al-Qa’ida Figure in Iraq a Myth: U.S. Military.” See comments from Brigadier General Kevin Bergner.

Stay Informed

Sign up to receive updates from CTC.

Sign up