The Islamic State: from Baghdadi the founder to Baghdadi the “caliph”

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An image grab taken from a video uploaded on Youtube on June 17, 2014, allegedly shows militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) parading with their group's flag in the northern city of Baiji in the in Salaheddin province. (Photo: AFP/Youtube)

By: Suhaib Anjarini

Published Thursday, July 10, 2014

Suhaib Anjarini

The previous leader, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, can be credited for establishing the overall structure of IS. That is, before current leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi developed it further to consolidate his absolute control over all the levers of the organization and implement his expansion plans.

The IS infrastructure is very hierarchical with the “caliph” at the very top. The caliph directly supervises the group’s governing councils, each of which acts as an important hinge of the “central command.” Baghdadi has the power to appoint the heads of these councils, and although he consults the so-called Shura Council to this end, the final decision is in his hands.

These councils include:

  • The Sharia Council: Despite its great importance, this body has received limited coverage in the media and in the many reports that have tried to probe the secrets of the organization. Baghdadi heads the Sharia Council personally. The council has six members (emulating the six-party shura body established by early Muslim caliph Omar ibn al-Khattab to choose his successor). Among its duties is monitoring the adherence of other councils to “Sharia provisions,” and choosing a “caliph” in the event of the current caliph’s death.
  • The Shura Council: It is headed by Abu Arkan al-Ameri. Its duties include recommending candidates for governor posts and for membership of the Military Council. It has between nine and 11 members, who are traditional religious leaders from the organization chosen by Baghdadi. Theoretically, this council has the power to impeach the emir of the group.
  • The Military Council: It consists of a commander, and between eight and 13 members (the number increases or decreases from time to time). Ismail Najm (Abu Abdul-Rahman al-Bilawi) headed the council until his death in January. He was succeeded by Walid Jassem Mohammed (Abu Ahmad al-Alwani), who was the council’s “chief of staff.” While it is possible that Omar al-Shishani has replaced him as chief of staff, what is certain is that he has become an active member of the council, which is in charge of all military tasks, including “strategic” planning; launching “raids”; evaluating the performance of military commanders, and affairs related to armament and “spoils.”
  • The Security Council: It is headed by Abu Ali al-Anbari, a former Iraqi army intelligence officer, and has two members. The council handles the security affairs of the organization, and the personal security of the “caliph.” It is also tasked with monitoring the work of security commanders in the “states, sectors, and cities,” enforcing Sharia rulings and carrying out punishments, infiltrating “enemy groups,” and protecting the group from infiltration. The council plays a role in forming units of inghimassi fighters [suicide guerilla fighters] in cooperation with the Military Council.
  • Sharia Commissions: Headed by Abu Mohammed al-Aani, they supervise the work of religious judges in the “states, sectors, and cities.” Among their functions is to supervise the Sharia court, arbitrate in disputes, carry out punishments, and promote virtue and prevent vice – in addition to offering guidance, recruitment, preaching, and handling media affairs.

Administrative divisions

The organization divided its areas of influence into administrative units called “states,” which now number 16, half of which are located in Iraq: the State of Diyala; the State of the South; the State of Salah al-Din; the State of Anbar; the State of Kirkuk; the State of Nineveh; the State of Northern Baghdad; and the State of Baghdad. The second half are located in Syria, namely: the State of Homs; the State of Aleppo; the State of al-Kher (Deir al-Zour); the State of al-Baraka (Hasaka); the State of al-Badiah; and the State of al-Raqqa, in addition to the State of Hama and the State of Damascus.

These states are divided into “sectors” based on cities, named in accordance with their existing names before IS seized control of them. For example, the State of Aleppo has been divided into two sectors, Manbij, which includes the cities of Manbij, Jarablos, and Maskana, and al-Bab sector, which includes the cities of al-Bab and Deir Hafer.

The highest authority in each state is held by the wali, or governor. The governor is assisted by a military commander and a sharia commander, who heads the Sharia Commission and the Security Council in the state. The commander of each sector is the highest authority in each respective sector, and is also assisted by military, security, and sharia commanders, a hierarchy that is also replicated at the level of cities. The governors and their deputies oversee the commanders of the sectors and their deputies, who in turn oversee the commanders in the cities and their deputies.

The sharia troika

IS has three main sharia leaders, each of whom has the capacity of “mufti.” The three men are:

  • Abu Bakr/Omar al-Qahtani, a Saudi national, who changed his name from Abu Hafs to Abu Bakr to express his affection for Baghdadi. There have been many rumors about his attempted defection from the group earlier this year. However, he recently appeared in a video footage “teaching the Muslims how to swear allegiance to the caliph,” demonstrating the high status he enjoys in the organization.
  • Turki al-Benali: Turki bin Mubarak bin Abdullah, a Bahraini Salafi born in September 1984. He studied for a year and a half at the Faculty of Islamic Studies in Dubai, before he was expelled for his “corrupt beliefs and his manipulation of Emirati youths.” He was deported to Bahrain. He traveled to Beirut to enroll at the Imam Ouzai Institute there, and during his presence in Lebanon, he was able to forge strong ties with a number of Salafi clerics. He put those contacts to good use to recruit jihadis to fight in Syria. Benali is known by many other nicknames, including Abu Dergham and Abu Hammam al-Athari.
  • Osman al-Nazeh al-Asiri: Saudi national. He holds a master's degree in Islamic jurisprudence from King Khalid University in Abha, Saudi Arabia. He went to fight in Syria in early 2013. He played an influential role in limiting defections in the organization after the Islamic Front, al-Nusra Front, and their allies declared war on IS (formerly ISIS).

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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