The Man Who Could Have Stopped the Islamic State

Foreign Policy, 23.11.2016
Brian Fishman, investigador en contratterrorismo (New America Foundation)
  • Almost 10 years ago, an al Qaeda emissary was sent to tell Abu Musab al-Zarqawi to tone down his terrorism. The journey, and its failure, gave birth to ISIS.

The phone in the Anti-Smuggling and Organized Crime Directorate of the police headquarters in Gaziantep, a southern Turkish city, rang at 4:30 p.m. on Oct. 16, 2006. The caller did not provide a name, and records oddly do not indicate the person’s gender. But the caller did offer a well-informed tip. Several Iranian nationals were traveling through Gaziantep to Kilis, a Turkish town on the Syrian border. The Iranians were using forged passports, the caller explained, and they were traveling in a vehicle with the license plate 79 M 0064.

Gaziantep did not penetrate the global consciousness for five years, after the Syrian civil war began. At that point, the city became a hub for all manner of men and women drawn to catastrophes — foreign jihadis, spies, journalists, and aid workers. For many jihadis traveling to join the Islamic State, Gaziantep is one of the last stops before they enter the “caliphate.”

In 2006, however, the caliphate did not yet exist. There were fewer foreigners in Gaziantep then — but one vehicle there had just attracted a lot of attention.

The tip paid immediate dividends. On the evening of Oct. 16, at the southeast corner of Gaziantep University, police intercepted a vehicle with the license plate the tipster gave them. Inside were two men, a woman, and four children. The leader of the group introduced himself as an Iranian named Muhammet Reza Reanjbar Rezaei, which matched the name on the Iranian passport he provided.

The forged passport used by Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi when he was arrested in Gaziantep.

The forged passport used by Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi when he was arrested in Gaziantep.

The Directorate of Foreigners in the Gaziantep Police Department found Rezaei’s passport highly suspect. A Turkish entry stamp dated Nov. 1, 2005, matched computerized entry records, but there was no exit stamp — and Rezaei claimed that his group had crossed into Turkey from Iran days earlier. Moreover, there were no computer records matching three other entry and exit stamps in the passport. Whoever provided the mysterious tip to the Police Department was on to something.

The man calling himself Rezaei was given a lawyer, searched, and formally interviewed at 11 p.m. on Oct. 16. A search of the prisoners and their vehicle uncovered nearly $10,625, two cell phones, two SIM cards, and a headlamp.

Most importantly, after being confronted with the inconsistencies in his passport, the man conceded that his name was not actually Muhammet Reza Reanjbar Rezaei. It was Abdulrahman bin Yar Muhammad. Moreover, he admitted that he was not actually Iranian: He had been born in Takhar, Afghanistan, and lived in Kabul with his wife and four children.

“Muhammad” claimed that he was headed to Europe, where he intended to request political asylum. Per the Turkish police report, he claimed that he wanted to “go to a country where [he could] get a better job, to get a better education for [his] children, and to have a better life.” At the end of the conversation, he requested asylum in Turkey.

But if he was headed to Europe, why was his vehicle stopped en route to Syria? Muhammad explained unpersuasively that he had planned to “do some sightseeing” during Ramadan before moving on to Europe. He said he had crossed into Turkey four days earlier through the Dogubeyazit border crossing with Iran and, after a brief respite in the Turkish lakeside town of Van, had arrived in Gaziantep the morning he was arrested. Notes from the deposition of his wife, “Sonia,” indicate that she was interviewed separately and told the same story.

Muhammad was most adamant about the point that he did not want to go back to Afghanistan. If he could not stay in Turkey, he asked to be sent to Pakistan. He also apologized about the forged Iranian passport and explained that he had purchased it for $500 from criminals in Iran, who promised that it would be easier to use in Turkey than an Afghan one.

The police arrest report of Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi.

The police arrest report of Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi.

It is not clear how much the local Turkish police knew about Muhammad’s identity, but a different set of authorities, allegedly including the CIA, knew quite a bit. They knew that two Turkish al Qaeda operatives, Mehmet Yilmaz and Mehmed Resit-Isik, had traveled to Iran to help him and his family cross the border into Turkey. They knew that Yilmaz had fought in Afghanistan and may have provided assistance for a series of bombings in 2003 in Istanbul. They knew that another suspected al Qaeda operative, Mehmet Polat, had met Muhammad and his family in Gaziantep, and that he was the second man in the vehicle with the license plate 79 M 0064.

Most importantly, they knew that the man arrested in Gaziantep was neither Muhammet Reza Reanjbar Rezaei nor Abdulrahman bin Yar Muhammad. And he was certainly not a refugee en route to Europe.

In fact, the man in Gaziantep police custody was best known as Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi, and he was on a desperate mission to reassert al Qaeda’s authority over its rebellious affiliate in Iraq.

As Abd al-Hadi sat in police custody, he must have known that his mission had failed — but it is unlikely that he knew just how badly. With his arrest, al Qaeda had just lost one of its most creative operatives on a bold mission to establish control over its rebellious Iraqi affiliate — an organization that would eventually evolve into its bitter rival for supremacy of the jihadi movement.

The real Iraqi passport of Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi.

The real Iraqi passport of Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi.

The Islamic State’s so-called caliphate would not be declared until 2014, but that is not when the group established an Islamic state. Indeed, just one day before Abd al-Hadi’s arrest, al Qaeda’s affiliate in Iraq announced the establishment of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI). Its mission was to govern territory and ultimately re-establish the caliphate.

Al Qaeda’s leadership, hiding in the tribal lands of Pakistan far from Iraq, was not consulted. The announcement was therefore a deep challenge to al Qaeda’s authority and foreshadowed the violent, public divorce between the jihadi organization and what would become the Islamic State.

This is the story of al Qaeda’s early relationship with the organization that would become the Islamic State, and the older jihadi organization’s failed efforts to bend the upstart leaders to its authority. The falling out between the two groups took many twists and turns, but one of the most important occurred in October 2006, long before the Islamic State was a household name. Al Qaeda’s boldest effort to rein in its rebellious Iraqi ally, however, would end with one of its most senior commanders in a Gaziantep prison.


Al Qaeda in Iraq and al Qaeda’s Iraqi

Nashwan Abd al-Razzaq Abd al-Baqi arrived in Pakistan in the early 1990s, shortly after the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan. He was an ethnic Kurd from the Iraqi city of Mosul and had served in the Iraqi Army during the Iran-Iraq war. His kunya — or nom de guerre — varied in those years. Sometimes, he was called Abd al-Hadi al-Mosuli, sometimes it was Abd al-Hadi al-Ansari, but eventually he became best known as Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi.

Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi

Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi

Like many jihadis at the time, Abd al-Hadi lived in Pakistan as the civil war among former Afghan mujahideen factions raged in Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal. He seems to have crossed into Afghanistan for good in 1995 or 1996, as the Taliban seized control of much of the country. He quickly put his Iraqi military experience to work, becoming an early leader in the so-called Ansar Battalion, a military unit composed of foreigners who fought alongside the Taliban. After the 9/11 attacks, schematics of the Ansar Battalion’s structure, training procedures, and ideological guidance were discovered alongside Abd al-Hadi’s copy of an Iraqi Army manual he brought along from his previous life.

Years later, some analysts argued that the Islamic State’s use of Iraqi military tactics was evidence that former Baathists were driving the group’s operations. Perhaps. But Iraqi Army doctrine was ingrained in al Qaeda and jihadi military training years earlier — not because Saddam Hussein was supporting these groups, but because the man who led al Qaeda’s conventional military efforts had defected to the jihadi group after a career in the Iraqi Army.

By 1998, Abd al-Hadi was a rising star in al Qaeda. He managed the group’s guesthouse in Kabul and was one of only six Arabs named interlocutors to the Taliban’s Arab Liaison Committee, which gave him the authority to intercede on behalf of Arabs in Afghanistan when they had a request of the Taliban government. He was also on a short list of foreigners included in the “Bamiyan Group,” which American investigators allege means he participated in the Taliban’s infamous operation to destroy the Bamiyan Buddhas in March 2001. In June 2001, he was one of only 10 members of al Qaeda’s consultative committee, an advisory body to Osama bin Laden.

Following the 9/11 attacks and the Taliban’s fall, Abd al-Hadi was named al Qaeda’s commander for northern Afghanistan and seems to have been involved in foreign operations. Richard Reid, the shoe-bomber who tried to blow up a plane from Paris to Miami in December 2001, listed Abd al-Hadi as his second beneficiary in his handwritten will.

The organizational chart of the Ansar Battalion, a military group in Afghanistan composed of foreigners who fought alongside the Taliban. Abd al-Hadi was one of the group's early leaders.

The organizational chart of the Ansar Battalion, a military group in Afghanistan composed of foreigners who fought alongside the Taliban. Abd al-Hadi was one of the group's early leaders.

Unsurprisingly considering his lineage, Abd al-Hadi also helped drive al Qaeda’s strategy toward Iraq. Before 9/11, he remained in touch with family and friends near Mosul, and the camp where many residents of his guesthouse trained included a so-called Kurds Camp, which suggests some Iraqi Kurds may have trained there.

Abd al-Hadi also played a key, secondary role in al Qaeda’s embrace of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian godfather of the Islamic State. Abd al-Hadi fingered the Syrian jihadi Abu Musab al-Suri for trying to poach recruits from the al Qaeda guesthouse in Kabul — and coordinated directly with senior al Qaeda operatives Sayf al-Adl and Abu Hafs al-Masri to develop a countervailing strategy. Among those efforts was a strategy to bolster Zarqawi, in part to limit support for al-Suri from jihadi recruits from the Levant.

Abd al-Hadi’s ties were important when Zarqawi shifted his operation to Iraq from Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks. Al Qaeda had helped Zarqawi establish a training camp in Afghanistan, but the young Jordanian did not swear allegiance to bin Laden while there. This complicated his negotiations with al Qaeda once he arrived in Iraq. In 2003 and 2004, Zarqawi communicated regularly with al Qaeda, requesting financial support and negotiating whether he would finally swear allegiance. Abd al-Hadi was promoted by al-Adl to command al Qaeda’s forces in northern Afghanistan after 9/11 and was often on the other end of Zarqawi’s communiqués. Together with al-Adl, he served as one of the most important early al Qaeda interlocutors with Zarqawi in Iraq.

A drawing by a jihadi volunteer in Afghanistan of the al-Faruq training camp north of Kabul, where many of the residents of Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi's guesthouse trained.

A drawing by a jihadi volunteer in Afghanistan of the al-Faruq training camp north of Kabul, where many of the residents of Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi's guesthouse trained.

Communicating between Iraq and South Asia was perilous. Geography and hostile intelligence services made travel risky, and electronic or telephonic communications could always be intercepted. Indeed, when Zarqawi requested financial support from al Qaeda in 2003, Abd al-Hadi balked, ostensibly out of concern that scarce financial resources would be seized in transit. Abd al-Hadi did eventually dispatch emissaries to negotiate with Zarqawi, the most successful of which was a Pakistani from Balochistan named Hassan Ghul.

When Ghul and Zarqawi met in January 2004, Zarqawi bluntly explained that his strategy in Iraq was to incite a sectarian bloodletting. He would assassinate Shiite political and religious leaders until that sectarian war began. Ghul relayed news of that plan to Abd al-Hadi, who, according to summaries of the conversation published by the Senate Intelligence Committee, replied that he was “opposed to any operations in Iraq that would promote bloodshed among Muslims.” After Ghul was captured by Kurdish counterterrorism forces in 2004 on his way out of Iraq, he told CIA investigators that Abd al-Hadi “counseled al-Zarqawi against undertaking such operations.”

Abd al-Hadi’s concerns were twofold. He objected to Zarqawi’s brutal and divisive strategic vision, but because of distance and communication failures did not have a clear picture of events in Iraq. It was hard to truly assess, let alone criticize, Zarqawi’s approach.

Fortunately for Abd al-Hadi, there were many al Qaeda members eager to travel to Iraq to fight. The al Qaeda leader hoped that if he could embed trusted operatives on the ground, he would have a better picture of the operational environment and therefore more leverage over Zarqawi. So Abd al-Hadi ordered Ghul to broach this issue with Zarqawi, and develop a route for fighters to make the journey to Iraq. Zarqawi had a deep independent streak, so this was a sensitive subject, but he was open to the idea and even requested individuals with specific technical skills.

Perhaps inspired by Zarqawi’s willingness to collaborate, Abd al-Hadi proposed something more radical: He would personally come to Iraq. But Zarqawi’s interest in new recruits did not extend to al Qaeda leaders more senior than he, even if they were actually Iraqi. Perhaps worried about an implicit challenge to his leadership, Zarqawi rebuffed the suggestion, explaining to Ghul, per the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report, that “this was not a good idea, as operations in Iraq were far different than those Abd al-Hadi was conducting in Afghanistan.”

For the time being, Abd al-Hadi did not push the issue.

The Breaking Point

Zarqawi finally swore allegiance to bin Laden in October 2004, but on his own terms. He was bending the knee, Zarqawi explained, only because his “respected brothers in al Qaeda understood [his] strategy … and their hearts opened to our approach.” Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) was born, but the strategy of brutality and sectarianism that Abd al-Hadi warned against would continue.

Al Qaeda’s effort to control Zarqawi continued as well. In a July 2005 letter, al Qaeda’s then second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, warned him not to alienate Iraqis and to “avoid scenes of slaughter.”

Zarqawi was unimpressed. After U.S. Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte released a copy of the letter in September 2005, Zarqawi’s spokesman called it a fraud, arguing that it had “no foundation except in the imagination of the politicians of the Black House and their slaves.”

The disconnect between al Qaeda and Zarqawi became a crisis in November 2005, when Zarqawi’s foot soldiers bombed three hotels in Amman, Jordan, killing more than 60 Jordanians. Al Qaeda’s leadership was furious. “Policy must be dominant over militarism,” wrote Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, an al Qaeda commander in Iran, to Zarqawi three days after the Amman bombing. He ordered Zarqawi to halt all operations outside Iraq.

Atiyah reiterated Abd al-Hadi’s concern about al Qaeda’s ability to manage events in Iraq from afar, and was alarmed that Zarqawi apparently thought Zawahiri’s July letter was fraudulent. The document was authentic, he wrote, and represented “the thoughts of the brothers, the sheikhs, and all of the intellectual and moral leadership here.” He argued that improving coordination between al Qaeda and AQI was the group’s highest priority. “Preparing [the brothers] to be messengers between you and the leadership here,” Atiyah explained, “is more important than … sending the brothers for some operations like … the hotels in Amman.”

Zarqawi finally fell in line, partially. In January 2006, he established a coalition of Iraqi jihadi groups, the Mujahideen Shura Council (MSC), which was designed to assuage some of al Qaeda’s concerns. The group named an Iraqi as emir, and Zarqawi reduced his public profile.

But the MSC was still mostly window dressing. Most importantly, it did not include the second-largest jihadi group in Iraq, Ansar al-Sunnah, which has Kurdish roots and a mistrustful relationship with Zarqawi. Al Qaeda’s central leadership was eager to unify the jihadi movement — but Zarqawi distrusted Ansar al-Sunnah, so they engaged Ansar al-Sunnah’s leadership directly.

On Jan. 26, 2006, Ayman al-Zawahiri wrote to Ansar al-Sunnah on behalf of al Qaeda’s Special Committee for Iraqi Affairs that the committee favored unification between AQI and Ansar al-Sunnah. More strikingly, it acknowledged that such a step was possible only “after reforming the situation of AQI.” Three days later, the committee sent another note urging that “all the obstacles standing in the way [of unification] must be removed.”

One of those obstacles may have been Zarqawi himself.

Al Qaeda quickly moved to resolve that problem: It reported to Ansar al-Sunnah that it had taken a step to improve the conditions needed for unification “by sending an honorable brother and a virtuous sheikh” to Iraq. Al Qaeda did not name its emissary, but noted “you know him very well.”

There is little doubt that al Qaeda’s letter to the Kurdish leadership of Ansar al-Sunnah indicated that Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi, the ethnic Kurd from Mosul, was headed home.

In late 2003, Abd al-Hadi had asked Zarqawi whether he should travel to Iraq. Zarqawi said no. In January 2006, Zarqawi was not offered a veto.

The leadership of AQI would change long before Abd al-Hadi made it anywhere near Iraq. Zarqawi was killed in June 2006 by a U.S. airstrike and was replaced by an Egyptian called Abu Hamzah al-Muhajir. Despite his long ties to al Qaeda, Abu Hamzah continued AQI’s drift away from the central leadership. On Oct. 15, 2006, the Mujahideen Shura Council announced that all of its component groups were being dissolved and folded into a new jihadi government named the Islamic State of Iraq. Long before the Syrian civil war and the Islamic State’s rise to global prominence, the ISI’s explicit goal was to govern and ultimately re-establish the caliphate.

Al Qaeda’s leadership was blindsided. They had not been consulted about the declaration, and the ISI leadership failed to create “unity” among Iraqi jihadis by refusing to incorporate Ansar al-Sunnah, which remained wary of the ISI despite Zarqawi’s death. For a moment, al Qaeda’s leaders might have been heartened that Abd al-Hadi was nearing Iraq’s border and might be able to sort things out. But that moment was brief; Abd al-Hadi was arrested in Gaziantep one day after the ISI was declared.

With that arrest, al Qaeda’s boldest effort to finally control the jihadi movement in Iraq fizzled — and the movement that Zarqawi birthed was moving further out of its orbit. The rest, as they say, is history.

The Kurdistan Brigades

According to the prominent Turkish journalist Rusen Cakir, the CIA was deeply involved in the surveillance and capture of Abd al-Hadi. A story Cakir published in November 2014 reported that Turkish al Qaeda members Yilmaz and Resit-Isik crossed into Iran to help Abd al-Hadi and his family across the border and then ushered him to Gaziantep for the final leg to the Syrian border. Abd al-Hadi was allegedly tracked electronically throughout this journey, but Turkish officials would apparently not arrest him based on such surveillance data. The anonymous tip to the Gaziantep police, which asserted that he was traveling on a fraudulent passport, allowed for him to be detained legally.

It is easy to imagine the American officials’ angst as Turkey considered Abd al-Hadi’s asylum request. Abd al-Hadi’s lawyer, Osman Karahan, had a history of representing jihadis in Turkey and had been charged there with supporting terrorism himself. But the Americans need not have worried. Abd al-Hadi’s request for asylum was denied and, at 2 a.m. on Oct. 31, 2006, he was ushered on a Turkish Airlines flight from Istanbul to Kabul. American officials were waiting for him when the plane landed.

Today, Abd al-Hadi awaits trial at a military tribunal in Guantánamo Bay, where he is listed as one of 17 high-value detainees. In January 2010, the Guantánamo Review Task Force recommended him for prosecution — and many of the raw documents cited in this article were declassified and released so they could be submitted as evidence in that prosecution.

It remains unclear what Abd al-Hadi aimed to do if he made it to Iraq. He was senior enough to challenge — implicitly or explicitly — either Zarqawi or Abu Hamzah, but it is not clear if his mission was to seize control of the ISI or whether that group’s leaders endorsed the journey. Perhaps he aimed to carry out a coup? Perhaps he aimed to build a better-behaved al Qaeda affiliate out of Ansar al-Sunnah? Perhaps he really would have just served an advisor? Or perhaps his arrival would have precipitated the sort of open warfare between jihadis that emerged years later in Syria.

The nature of Abd al-Hadi’s mission raises as many questions as it provides answers, but his route toward Iraq tells us a great deal about al Qaeda’s logistics network in 2006. He did not try to cross directly into Iraq from either Iran or Turkey, but added at least two risky border crossings and detoured through hundreds of miles of Turkish and Syrian territory. His itinerary reflected a path ultimately trod by thousands of foreign fighters who joined AQI/ISI in 2006 and 2007, and that was made famous during the Syrian civil war.

Abd al-Hadi was not the last al Qaeda commander to try to reach Iraq. After his capture, at least two other senior al Qaeda leaders — Atiyah abd al-Rahman and Muhammad Khalil al-Hakaymah — attempted similar journeys. For all the talk about digital communications, al Qaeda understood that it could not drive events in Iraq without putting trusted operatives on the ground.

There are few details about their journeys, but both spent extensive time in Iran after 9/11 and likely would have traveled a similar route as Abd al-Hadi. Internal al Qaeda communications suggest they both ran into trouble, but it is not clear if al Qaeda’s Turkish network faltered (Abd al-Hadi’s driver in Gaziantep, Mehmet Polat, was killed in a shootout with Turkish police in early 2008) or if authorities in Iran restricted their movement.

Despite the growing rift with the ISI, al Qaeda did have some loyalists in Iraq. Many jihadis from Ansar al-Sunnah remained aligned with al Qaeda for years, even though they never took the group’s name. Meanwhile, Abd al-Hadi’s Turkish facilitators, Yilmaz and Resit-Isik, fled to Iraq, where they started a short-lived jihadi group known as the “Kurdistan Brigades,” which tried to bridge the growing divide between ISI and al Qaeda. The Kurdistan Brigades is the only group that publicly pledged allegiance to both bin Laden and the emir of ISI. That conciliation effort dissolved when Yilmaz and Resit-Isik were killed by U.S. troops in June 2007.

Al Qaeda’s ability to move senior jihadi commanders to the battlefield improved after the Syrian civil war began. Numerous senior jihadis linked to al Qaeda have reached their destination, which says something about the aggressiveness of security services in Turkey and elsewhere. Collectively, these core al Qaeda representatives in Syria have become known as the Khorasan Group, a nod to their experience in Afghanistan.

Following in Abd al-Hadi’s footsteps, these leaders initially tried to build bridges with the Islamic State, but ultimately condemned it in favor of more al Qaeda-friendly militants in Jabhat Fatah al-Sham and Ahrar al-Sham. Unlike during the Iraq war, when surrounding countries generally objected to the free movement of al Qaeda operatives, the members of the Khorasan Group were able to enter Syria relatively easily and build up local credibility due to their opposition to the Islamic State. Regardless, the Khorasan Group has not definitively reasserted al Qaeda’s authority over the Islamic State any more than Abd al-Hadi was able to. Proximity is important, but it is not everything.

Indeed, al Qaeda’s success inserting senior commanders into Syria has helped it build close ties with many rebel groups, but the split with the Zarqawiists has escalated into full-fledged war with the Islamic State. Al Qaeda failed to understand that the movement Zarqawi created was fundamentally populist — it was never looking for long-established leaders and authority figures. Whereas jihadi leaders have for decades rejected established political and religious hierarchies across the Middle East and beyond, the Zarqawiist movement is built to reject even the jihadi establishment.

Abd al-Hadi’s mission to Iraq ended when he was arrested in Gaziantep, but al Qaeda’s campaign to seize back control of the global jihadi from the heirs of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi goes on.

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