Away from social media networks — especially Twitter, which is the most prominent outlet for jihadists and the most important observatory of their movements and statements — and through reliable mediators, As-Safir had a long phone interview with a Syrian leader who has defected from the Islamic State (IS) and identified himself as Sheikh Maher Abu Ubaida. He said that he was the Wali [ruler] of the desert before he defected from the group.
During the interview, Ubaida appeared indignant with the group, and insisted on calling it “ISIS,” which is the term used in the media to identify the group. He explained, “It has deviated from its basic objective and has transformed into a militia of mercenaries that steals oil and derails from the eternal path,” he said.
Ubaida explained that he joined the group in early 2013, when he was trained in the Anbar camp in Iraq, and met briefly, on two occasions, with the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. He confirmed, “Baghdadi is the one who appeared in the recently surfaced video that has raised doubts among the Iraqi intelligence services with respect to its authenticity.”
On Baghdadi, Ubaida said, “He is Ibrahim Awad al-Badri, born in 1970, and is a lecturer in Islamic studies. He is married to three women, one of whom hails from Samarra. He was the imam at Ahmad ibn Hanbal Mosque, and preacher at the Great Mosque in Baghdad. He traveled to Afghanistan and established strong ties with Ayman al-Zawahri (the current leader of al-Qaeda), where he spent some time, as some of his close associates told As-Safir. While he was there, he succeeded in establishing a network of good ties with leaders on the ground. He brought them to Iraq and Syria after he assumed the leadership of the group as successor of Abu Musab Zarqawi, where the group started to strongly emerge and expand.
On the reason why he joined IS and not Jabhat al-Nusra, Ubaida said, “I am an imam and preacher at a mosque in Syria, and when Jabhat al-Nusra began to emerge, it considered all of the imams and preachers in Syria as regime agents. It started to pursue them, and I was scared of them. Thus, the emergence of IS was very convenient for me and for many others who believe in the Islamic rule.” At the same time, he emphasized, “There is no fundamental ideological difference between IS and Jabhat al-Nusra; their dispute is only over leadership and control.”
After he joined IS, Ubaida was appointed “general coordinator of the emirates between Iraq and Syria,” before he engaged in internal conflicts with some of the group leaders, where the Wali of Raqqa, Abu Saad al-Hadrami, recommended Baghdadi to appoint him. So he took over the post of “wali of the desert,” which is a province that was established in the desert area and stretches from al-Tanf in Iraq to the Anbar border, the desert in Palmyra, the Balaas mountains and Taldara [village] close to Salima [city] in the countryside of Hama. It consists of nearly 32 small villages. Ubaida viewed [his appointment there] as [an attempt] by IS to send him away with a group of 70 gunmen to a desert area, where his presence served no purpose. He said that the reason behind that move was due to differences within IS, which fuelled his defection and spurred him to pledge allegiance to Abu Mohammed al-Joulani, the leader of Jabhat al-Nusra, before he was executed by IS in Raqqa.
In this context, Ubaida said, "Seventy members were assigned to go to the Wilaya, or province, where we set up six checkpoints. I was left with them in the desert area, where the desert and sands surround us from every side, as if I was exiled on purpose.”
The combined factors of his exile, differences with some leaders — whom he declined to name — and the group’s “derailing from the eternal path and basic objective” are, according to Ubaida, factors that pushed him to defect from the group and declare himself caliph [or leader] of all Muslims in Syria, claiming that a large number of IS fighters in Syria will join him and pledge allegiance to him.
Ubaida reiterated to As-Safir his opinions expressed in a statement issued on July 9 in which he called for pledging allegiance to him. He believed that whoever refuses to pledge allegiance to him is associated with the Iraqi intelligence. “Baghdadi is an agent of the Iraqi intelligence. How else can he deliver a full speech without being targeted?” Ubaida asked.
When asked about the reason for not joining Jabhat al-Nusra like Hadrami, he sarcastically replied, “Jabhat al-Nusra is on the verge of disappearing; only its skeleton remains and is getting all the buzz in the media.”
Speaking about IS, Ubaida suddenly regained his Syrian roots and made a distinction between Syria and Iraq. He spoke extensively about how Baghdadi stole Syria and transferred its resources to Iraq. He also expressed his admiration for Abu Omar al-Chichani. He noted, “He is a strong man, he has great experience and know-how and can booby trap anything, whatever the size; he can even booby trap an apple or a loaf of bread. He always wears an explosive belt, and I think he will discover one day that Baghdadi is manipulating him.”
Ubaida explained that the IS structure is fairly complex; Baghdadi is at the top of this pyramid structure — as is common knowledge — while the man who effectively controls the military operations is Shaker Wahib, who is a Saudi national recently appointed to the post of military general commander. Ubaida denied what has been reported by some media outlets and social networks regarding the death of Hadji Bakr, Baghdadi’s assistant. He asserted, “He is alive and he had spread the rumor of his own death. Most of IS leaders, who are being reported dead by the media are still alive. These leaders spread rumors of their deaths to end prosecutions against them by some intelligence networks and facilitate their movement and mitigate their exposure to risk.”
When asked about some of the social media activists, he replied that most of them are ordinary fighters, working under fictitious names different from their titles within the organization, and some of them assume fictive positions within IS.
According to Ubaida, IS suffers from a significant lack of human resources and is trying to fill this vacuum by pressuring some of the factions and tribes to pledge allegiance to it. He said, “The current effective number of IS fighters in Syria does not exceed 10,000 individuals, while the death toll since its inception in Syria amounts to about 2,000 fighters, most of whom were killed during the battles with armed factions.”
On the reason why IS fights Islamic factions in Syria and refrains from fighting the Syrian army, Ubaida explained, “The plan was to secure the internal front, force the small factions to merge with the organization and kill and expulse whoever refuses to obey. The next step consisted of engaging in an open war with the regime that is outperforming it due to its military air force. Indeed, this was the plan before IS deviated from the right path and followed its whims lured by oil resources. IS left its battles and ran after money, this is why it will not withstand for long in Syria.”
Ubaida believes that IS will leave Syria at intervals, within a year from now, will give up its areas of influence and restrict its forces to the oil regions. He pointed out that IS will head to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, where it has started to establish cells. He also indicated that there are cells affiliated to IS in Qassim, Khamis Mushayt, Dammam and Hofuf. The latter explained that two persons, one from al-Maghamisi family and the other known as al-Matiri, are responsible for the distribution of these cells and for their formation to fulfill their mission when needed.
Explaining why IS will head to Saudi Arabia, Ubaida indicated, “A large number of IS fighters are Saudis who are currently exerting a lot of pressure to drag IS to Riyadh and are preparing the ground for this step. Ubaida confirmed that it will not be long before IS emerges in Najd, considering that the Prophet Muhammad said, “In that place shall rise the devil's horn.”