At the height of the Islamic State’s (IS) success, in 2013 and 2014, a constant flow of information emerged on social media about the group’s leaders.
Though not enough to endanger the group’s leadership, it did give a general idea of its chain of command. At times IS actively contributed to this through its propaganda, while exercising care not to compromise security.
In 2014, it was simple: Abu Bakr al Baghdadi was the “Caliph”, Abu Muhammad al Adnani was his spokesman and second in command, Abu Muslim al Turkmani (also known as Abu Mutaz al Qureshi) was the deputy in charge of Iraq, Abu Ali al Anbari was the deputy in charge of Syria, Umar al Shishani was the exotic commander from Georgia who was often shown in propaganda, and Turki al Binali and Abu Bakr al Qahtani were the group’s most prominent preachers. The rest of the leadership was left in the shadows for understandable reasons.
Today Al Baghdadi is the only survivor of that group of leaders. After the collapse of the Islamic State as a territorial entity, that flow of information has been greatly diminished. Prisoner interrogations and internal dissidents' allegations fail to compensate. The Islamic State has decided to return to a regime of almost absolute secrecy – as was the case before 2013 – in which the names of the commanders are mostly hidden and eulogies are rare. Photos and videos no longer offer the same mass of information.
Today IS leaders are under pressure and disclosure is to be avoided. The structure of the organization has also probably changed compared to 2014, since many bodies dealing with governance and administration are no longer needed. Thus, drawing up a clear idea of IS leadership has become exceedingly difficult.
Spokesman Abul Hassan al Muhajir takes turns with Emir Abu Bakr al Baghdadi in spreading audio propaganda messages addressed to followers around the world. Al Muhajir is a foreign fighter and experts in Arabic accents posit that he is of either Saudi or Tunisian origins. Allegedly, he has been part of IS since it was called Tawhid wal Jihad (in 2003 and 2004) and operated under the command of Abu Musab al Zarqawi.
This is a standard procedure for choosing leaders: those that belonged to previous iterations are favored. According to “Mr Orange” (pseudonym used on Twitter), a jihadi expert, Muhajir’s voice appears in a 2004 video pledging solidarity "to the detainees in Cuba", referring to the maximum security prison of Guantanamo Bay. We know neither the identity nor the nom de guerre of the wali (governor) of Iraq, probably one of the most prestigious roles in the group’s chain of command.
The wali of Syria could be “Haji Hamed” also known as “Abdel Qader”, who was alive as of 2018 according to statements by dissidents translated by IS expert Aymenn al Tamimi. The last time he was allegedly seen was in the Baghouz pocket, where many commanders were killed or captured before the liberation in March 2019.
The military emir of the Islamic State in Syria could be an Iraqi national in his fifties, Taha al Khuwayt also known as Haji Abd al Nasir, from Tal Afar, a town east of Mosul that was the birthplace of many senior leaders of the group. The man has been designated as a Special Global Terrorist by the US government.
Syria is where the Islamic State is currently waging the most intense insurgency. We do not know the name of any other senior military commander in Iraq or Syria. One of the most prominent was Gulmorod Khalimov from Tajikistan, who was allegedly killed in action in 2017. No confirmation has yet been issued of his death.
We do not know the names of the current religious officers of the Islamic State Central (where Central means the original core of the group operating in Iraq and Syria). The current head of media is unknown, although we can list some of his predecessors killed between September 2016 and December 2018: Abu Mohammed al Furqan, Abu Hakeem al Urduni and Abu Abdullah al Australi.
The same can be said of the head of the Amniyat, the much feared security services, who had important predecessors such as Adnani and Abu Ahmad al Iraqi and then, allegedly, Abu Luqman al Raqqawi until his unconfirmed death in April 2018.
Interestingly, there are two quite secretive leaders belonging to the old guard – when the group still called itself “The Islamic State of Iraq” – whose names still appear at times. One is Abu Ubaydah Abd al Hakim al Iraqi, mentioned in a dispute with al-Qaeda in 2011 and who also authored a letter to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in 2014.
The other is “Haji Abdullah”, described by a dissident as the deputy of Abu Bakr al Baghdadi in 2014. He could be the same Abu Abdullah al Hasani, cited as the new deputy of the group in the official statement released on May 16 2010, which announced the appointment of Abu Bakr al
Baghdadi as leader of the Islamic State. There are reasons to believe they are still alive.
In 2014, Baghdadi tried to deploy some of his most trusted men abroad to create new divisions of the Islamic State. In Libya, the emir of the local branch could be one of his emissaries, Abu Muaz al Tikriti, also known as Abdul Qader al Najdi. He was sent there in the summer of 2014.
We also know that Abu Ali al Anbari was tasked to lead the group in Yemen, but getting him there was deemed too risky. Another top lieutenant of Baghdadi, Abu Muslim al Turkmani, was instrumental in the creation of the IS branch in Afghanistan (we do not know whether he actually traveled there and was killed in Iraq in August 2015), according to researcher Paweł Wójcik.
Today the trend is different. The leaders are locals and appointed by the Islamic State Central. In early March, Baghdadi allegedly named Abu Abdullah Ibn Umar al Barnawi (Barnawi, meaning from the Nigerian state of Borno) the new leader of the Islamic State in West Africa.