Images of Haji Bakr released by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham. From the SITE Intelligence Group.
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham, the jihadist group that was denounced by al Qaeda’s General Command just days ago, has confirmed that one of its senior leaders was killed during a clash with a Syrian rebel group in early January.
The ISIS leader, known as Abu Bakr al Iraqi or Haji Bakr, was a senior military commander and top deputy to Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the embattled emir of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham. Haji Bakr was first reported killed in early January after his group clashed with the Syrian Martyrs’ Brigade, a unit of the Free Syrian Army in Aleppo. A picture that purported to show Haji Bakr’s corpse was published on LiveLeak, but the image does not appear to match a picture released by the ISIS.
The ISIS announced the death of Haji Bakr in an official statement that was released on a jihadist Twitter account on Feb. 2. The statement was obtained and translated by the SITE Intelligence Group.
“We congratulate the mujahideen in general and in Iraq and al Sham in particular, for the martyrdom of the Mujahid Sheikh, the Commander, Abu Bakr al Iraqi,” the ISIS eulogy stated. The ISIS claimed he was “knocked down by the cowardly, insidious hands in the countryside of Northern Aleppo by the criminals of the Awakenings.” The group has tagged Free Syrian Army and even allied Islamist groups as Awakening, or anti-al Qaeda groups, that are supported by Western and Arab countries.
Haji Bakr “was one of the very first of those who joined the mujahideen after the Crusader [US] invasion of Iraq,” and was detained twice by US forces. The ISIS claimed he was jailed for four years at one point.
According to the ISIS, Haji Bakr was assigned to “wage the war of the silencers and security work inside the cities,” a reference to the ISIS’ assassination campaign after it lost overt control of cities and towns throughout Iraq during the US and Iraqi military surge that began in 2007. The ISIS has released videos of its assassination campaign and referred to its assassins as “knights of the silencers” as they use silenced pistols to gun down their enemies. [See LWJ report, Al Qaeda in Iraq video shows series of attacks against Iraqi security forces.]
Haji Bakr “was nominated to command the staff of war amidst the most difficult circumstances,” the ISIS claimed. This is likely a reference to his being appointed as the military commander of the Islamic State after former emir Abu Omar al Baghdadi and military leader Abu Hamza al Muhajir (Abu Ayyub al Masri) were killed by US and Iraqi forces during a raid in the Thar Thar area in 2010.
The ISIS claimed that at the end of 2010, Haji Bakr was tasked with establishing operations in the Syrian city of Aleppo. “He took over the administration of the special training camps of the Islamic State in Sham, then the Sheikh came back to be the deputy governor of Aleppo,” a position he held until his death.
But an alternative narrative by a Twitter user who goes by the name @wikibaghdady claims that Haji Bakr was the top adviser to ISIS emir Abu Bakr al Baghdadi as well as the group’s military commander. US intelligence officials contacted by The Long War Journal said that wikibaghdady’s account is credible. Wikibaghdady is thought to be a senior ISIS leader, perhaps even a member of the ISIS’ executive shura.
According to wikibaghdady, Haji Bakr served as a colonel or brigadier in Saddam Hussein’s army before he and other officers sided with al Qaeda in Iraq during the early years of the Iraqi insurgency. Al Qaeda in Iraq was renamed the “Islamic State of Iraq” (ISI) in 2006, and then the “Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham” (ISIS) in 2013.
Haji Bakr served as the head of ISI’s “military council,” and was instrumental in getting Abu Bakr al Baghdadi (Abu Du’a) appointed to lead the ISI after its Abu Omar al Baghdadi and Abu Hamza al Muhajir were killed.
After Abu Bakr al Baghdadi assumed control of the ISI, Haji Bakr organized an internal purge, which included the assassinations of scores of rivals in order to cement al Baghdadi’s rule. Haji Bakr appointed a jihadist known as Abu Safwan Rifaii to spearhead the assassinations.
Wikibaghdady claimed that Haji Bakr convinced al Baghdadi to create the Al Nusrah Front for the People in the Levant as a means to prevent disaffected members of the ISI from traveling to Syria to wage jihad. Haji Bakr forbade members of the group from leaving Iraq to fight in Syria, but encouraged jihadists from across the globe to join the Al Nusrah Front.
But as the Al Nusrah Front and its emir, Abu Muhammad al Julani, who was one of al Baghdadi’s former lieutenants, grew in popularity and stature, Haji Bakr and al Baghdadi began to view Julani as a threat, wikibaghdady said:
Al Nusrah started growing with the leadership of Abu Muhammad al Julani and he became even more popular. Fighters from the Gulf, Tunisia, Libya, Morocco, Algeria, and Europe began joining al Nusrah Front. This scared Abu Bakr al Baghdadi because members of al Nusrah Front didn’t have any loyalty towards him. This is when Abu Bakr al Baghdadi sent a message to al Julani and informed him that he should publicly announce al Nusrah Front belonged to the State.
The attempt to force a merger began in April 2013. Julani rejected al Baghdadi’s attempt to subsume the Al Nusrah Front into the ISIS. Ayman al Zawahiri, al Qaeda’s emir, sided with Julani and ordered al Baghdadi to cease operations in Syria.
Al Baghdadi, following Haji Bakr’s advice, rejected Zawahiri’s order and subsequent efforts by senior jihadists and clerics to mediate the dispute. Haji Bakr reached out to clerics and other influential jihadists in an attempt to legitimize the ISIS’ position. Meanwhile, he organized assassination teams that were to target Al Nusrah Front leaders; he also created teams that were assigned to seize key warehouses and logistic nodes.
The very public dispute between the ISIS on one side and al Qaeda and its allies on the other ended less than a year after al Baghdadi attempted to absorb the Al Nusrah Front.
On Feb. 2, al Qaeda’s senior leadership officially disowned the ISIS.