The Islamic State's organizational structure one year in

A year after declaring itself a caliphate, the Islamic State employs a complex hierarchy and system of command.

al-monitor Residents of Tabqa city and Islamic State militants tour the streets in celebration after Islamic State militants took over Tabqa air base in northeast Syria, Aug. 24, 2014. Photo by REUTERS.

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terrorism, syrian civil war, ramadan, palmyra, mosul, is, caliphate, abu bakr al-baghdadi

Jul 2, 2015

A year ago, the Islamic State (IS) chose the month of Ramadan — symbolic as it is — to take a sudden step by declaring the establishment of the caliphate headed by Amir al-Mu’minin Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, whose original name is Ibrahim Awad Ibrahim al-Badri al-Samarrai.

When IS declared this step, it had already succeeded in controlling wide swaths of land, equivalent to half of Syria’s surface area and one-third of Iraq’s surface area. It had also occupied around 250 square kilometers [96 square miles] of al-Qaa barren lands and Ras Baalbek, accounting for 2.4% of Lebanon’s total surface area.

During the caliphate’s first year, IS managed to implement a “border-breaking” strategy, especially between Iraq and Syria, despite the international alliance’s war against it. IS got hold of most border gates and outlets between both countries, and it is likely that Baghdadi will declare a “beyond border-breaking” strategy before the end of Ramadan this year, in a clear challenge to all regional and international strategies opposing it.

In less than 10 years, IS has evidently created an unprecedented image for itself in modern history through the “diversity” of its savage techniques in killing and persecuting, and through the large number of its victims.

It won’t be surprising to see IS adopting new techniques that are bloodier, and claiming the lives of more victims, given the regional and international leniency with its emergence, expansion and further entrenchment.

IS also succeeded in securing huge funding and an arsenal of weapons, which would allow it to go on for years to come, according to analysts. Its expansion in the Levant and the Maghreb prove this, and its three most recent simultaneous operations in Kuwait, Tunisia and France serve as a reminder of the September 11 attacks in the US. 

A year since the establishment of the caliphate — which tarnished the Sykes-Picot borders — IS has managed to launch successive attacks and expand to the north and west of Iraq and north and east of Syria. The organization faced some setbacks as a result of the US-led international alliance’s interference in military operations, thus pushing it to withdraw from the Iraqi city of Tikrit and the Syrian towns of Kobani and Tell Abyad.

However, IS expelled the Syrian opposition forces, at times, and the Syrian or Iraqi governmental forces, at other times, from strategic regions — most recently, Ramadi in Iraq and Palmyra in the Syrian center. The latter opened the way for IS to reach the Syrian desert and the Iraqi borders [from another direction] and drew it nearer to the underbelly of Damascus and Homs.

Obviously, IS is following its alleged “state” strategy demarcated by its famous slogan “Remaining and Expanding.” This is an apparent through IS’ multiple fronts, which are no longer limited to the Iraqi and Syrian battlefields.

On its first anniversary, the IS caliphate now has 10 branches, following the pledges of allegiance in the past few months. The fronts include Syria, Iraq,Yemen, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Algeria, Afghanistan, Nigeria and, most recently, the Caucasian Emirates.

Although IS has not announced its official structure, experts in following the development of this organization and other jihadist groups indicated to As-Safir the headlines of IS’ organizational structure as follows:

Baghdadi is the decision-maker who has the final say in the organization. Abu Abdullah al-Baghdadi was his VP. Caliph Baghdadi created this position after the death of IS' former emir, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, along with his defense minister Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, to avoid leaving the leadership position vacant in such cases.

Fade Ahmed Abdullah al-Hiyali (aka Abu Muslim al-Afari al-Turkmani), who is IS' deputy leader in Iraq, holds the third spot in the organization’s hierarchy.

Responsibilities in IS are distributed on a number of councils, most of which are headed by former officers in the Iraqi army, which was dissolved after the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime. The councils are the following:

• Military Council: chaired by Iraqi Walid al-Alwani (Abu Ahmed al-Alwani) and including three members who are appointed by the caliph. Their mission is to oversee IS military operations.

• Defense, Security and Intelligence Council (or the Security and Sharia Committee), headed by Iraqi Abu Ali Anbari (Baghdadi’s deputy leader in Syria). This council is the most important in the organization’s structure. It is partly responsible for Baghdadi’s security and for putting plans into action, gathering intelligence information and evaluating them and giving orders.

• Judicial Council: chaired by Iraqi Abu Mohammed al-Ani. Its mission is to oversee all judicial and Sharia-related issues of IS.

• Shura Council: headed by Iraqi Abu Arkan al-Amiri and including 11 members appointed by the caliph. The council handles all IS’ supposed affairs.

• Fiscal Council: chaired by Iraqi Mowaffaq Mustafa Muhamad al-Karmoush.

• Media Council: headed by Iraqi Abu al-Atheer Omar al-Absi and assisted by a number of media and social media experts.

The ministries

In parallel with these six councils, IS established ministries, each headed by a minister, to take up executive functions. However, after Baghdadi's accession to power, these ministries were abolished and new radical changes were introduced to the organization's structure. As per these amendments, a deputy leader position was introduced and the ministries were seemingly replaced with specialized councils, as there was no mention of any new ministry under his command. It should be noted, however, that his predecessor Abu Abdullah al-Baghdadi announced the establishment of a "government" in 2009, which was the second that followed "the government" was formed following the declaration of the founding of the Islamic State of Iraq in late 2006.

The governors

Baghdadi appointed about 15 governors, including the following known ones:

• Governor of Raqqa: Syrian Taha Subhi Falaha (Abu Muhammad al-Adnani), who is the official spokesman for the organization.

• Governor of Baghdad: Iraqi Ahmed Abdel Kader al-Jazaa (Abu Maysara).

• Governor of Salahuddin: Iraqi Wissam Abdul Zayd al-Zubaydi (Abu Nabil), who has been recently said to be killed or have moved to Libya.

• Governor of Kirkuk: Iraqi Naameh Abed Nayef al-Jabouri (Abu Fatima).

• Governor of the border: Ridwan Taleh Hussein Ismail Hamdanin (Abu Jarnas).

• Governor of south Iraq and central Euphrates: Iraqi Ahmed Mohsen Khalf al-Juhaishi (Abu Fatima).

• Governor of Aleppo: Syrian Omar al-Absi (Abu Atheer al-Absi). There have been reports that he was removed from his post since IS’ withdrawal from Azaz in north of Aleppo last year.

• Governor of Damascus: Iraqi Abu Ayyub.

• Governor of Deir ez-Zor: Iraqi Haji Abdul Nasser.

• Governor of Homs (and the desert): Iraqi Abu Yehya.

• Governor of Hasakah: Iraqi Abu Osama.

• Governor of Ninevah is unknown and it is still unknown who replaced Iraqi Adnan Latif Hamed al-Suwaidawi (Abu Mohannad) after his death; he has been the governor of Anbar.

Leaders of different nationalities

Baghdadi is surrounded by many leaders, the most-known and prominent of which are the following:

Chechen Tarkhan Batirashivli (Omar al-Chichani), Iraqi Wahib Shaker al-Fahdawi (Abu Wahib), Albanian Lafadarim Mohaskari (Abu Abdullah al-Kosovi), Iraqi Abu Khutab al-Kurdi (leading the battle in Kobani), Yemeni Abu Hazifa al-Yamani, Iraqi Abu Omar (the boxer), American-Syrian Ahmed Abu Samra and Bahraini Turki al-Banali (Abu Himam al-Athari), who is one of the most prominent theorist leaders in the organization, especially after the killing of Othman al-Nazeh.

Among other well-known leaders, we mention: Iraqi Abdullah Ahmed al-Mashhadani (Abu Qasim), who has been said to be responsible for supplying Arab fighters and of transporting kamikazes [suicide bombers]. This is in addition to Iraqi Bashar Ismail al-Hamdani (Abu Mohammed), responsible for following up on prisoners' issues; Iraqi Abdul Wahed Khudair Ahmed (Abu Luay), the general security official; Iraqi Mohammed Hamid al-Dulaimi (Abu Hajer al-Assafi), the state's mail official; Iraqi Auf Abdul Rahman al-Afawi (Abu Saja), Turkmenistan's Abu Omar al-Qardash and Tunisian Tarek Bin Taher bin al-Faleh al-Aouni al-Harazi (Abu Omar), whom the Pentagon declared it had killed in an airstrike in Mosul on June 15, 2014. He is also one of those accused of killing the US ambassador in Benghazi, Libya.

The caliph's armies

After the international alliance’s airstrikes against IS in Syria and Iraq, IS leadership divided the group's structure in Syria into six states, each with an independent army and autonomy to take decisions. This included:

• The army of Raqqa: IS’ biggest army in Syria, estimated at 11,000 fighters and led by Syrian Ali al-Hamoud, nicknamed "Ali Moussa al-Shawakh" (Abu Luqman). He is a former detainee of the Syrian regime and is seen as one of the leaders in the forefront in Syria. A number of IS top leaders are in Raqqa, including Syrian Abdullah al-Shoukh, Iraqi Todab al-Barij al-Abdul Hadi, who is responsible for tribal issues; Abdul Rahman al-Sahu (security official), Abu Hamza al-Riyadiyat (security official), Abu Hassan al-Furati (security official), Abu Ahlam (Amir) from Anbar and Abu Aqba al-Jazrawi.

• The army of Aleppo: estimated at about 11,000 fighters and led by Tunisian Abu Osama al-Tunisi, who is now in the city of al-Bab in Aleppo countryside. Hassan Aboud al-Sarmini (former commander of the Daoud brigade) is considered one of the most important commanders in the army of Aleppo.

• The army of Deir ez-Zor: estimated at about 9,000 fighters and led by Syrian Ahmed al-Mohammed al-Obaid (Abu Dajana al-Zer).

• The army of Hasakah: estimated at 6,000 fighters. It has been reported that Abdul Mohsen al-Zaghilani al-Taresh (Abu Jandal al-Kuwaiti) is one of its top commanders.

• The army of Aleppo: estimated at about 4,000 fighters. Among the army's most prominent commanders, German Abu Talha, who is a rap singer. The army was previously led by Mohammed Hussein Hamid, who was killed in one of the battles.

• The army of Damascus: estimated at 1,500 fighters.

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