Reports in January 2017 that the leader of the Islamic State group (IS), Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, had been killed, reports that he had been captured by Russian troops in Syria, and the insistence by IS sources that he is still alive and fighting in the Iraqi city of Mosul, raise a number of questions about the IS chief’s location, and whether he is still alive. The IS response to this, by nominating a potential successor to Baghdadi, and the fact that the group is in the process of moving its Syria capital from the city of Raqqa to Deir al-Zour, suggest important reorganising in the IS structure and leadership to cope with a new military and political situation.
 
The IS leadership has certainly taken seriously the possibility that Baghdadi could get killed (if he is not already dead) or captured in the near future in fighting with the Iraqi or Syrian armies, any of a number of militia groups in the two countries, or airstrikes by the USA, Russia or the Syrian regime. The group’s Shura Council, its supreme decision-making body, has taken the matter seriously enough that it nominated, earlier this month, a  successor to the self-styled ‘caliph’, one Abu Hafsa al-Mawsely, in the event that Baghdadi might become incapcitated.
 
But that decision, which was not unanimously agreed-upon in the Shura, has led to conflicts among IS commanders and fighters, some of whom refuse to accept Mawsely as a possible new leader. Consequently, the Shura Council has decided to reconvene – on an as-yet-unspecified date, and most likely in the Iraqi city of Mosul, to again discuss the matter of Baghdadi’s successor. The new meeting could nominate another candidate.
 
Not much is known about Mawsely, except that he is the deputy commander of IS’s ‘Nineveh province’, has a reputation for being one of the more brutal commanders in the group, is a senior legislator in the group’s governance structure, and has occupied several important military and administrative positions. He is based in the ancient city of Nineveh, on the outskirts of Mosul, the city which IS has occupied since 2014, and is now being forced out of by the Iraqi army and a number of militias, with support from the US-led coalition.
 
The IS Shura Council consists of a selected group of military leaders and legislators from its various ‘provinces’. It is expected that once the Shura Council finalises its decision, IS fighters will accept it and will be willing to pledge their allegiance to the new ‘caliph’ in the event of Baghdadi’s death or capture.
 
Baghdadi became the leader of IS’s precursor, al-Qa'ida in Iraq (AQI), in 2010. He was born near the Iraqi city of Samarra in 1971 , and obtained a PhD in Islamic studies from the Islamic University of Baghdad in 2013. Following the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, Baghdadi helped found the militant Jamaat Jaysh Ahl al-Sunnah wa al-Jamaah (JJASJ), which later joined the Mujahedin Shura Council (MSC) in 2006. The MSC became Islamic State of Iraq (ISI, also known as al-Qa'ida in Iraq) in 2006, with Baghdadi as head of its shari'ah committee and member of its senior consultative council. After a ten-month detention in the US prison Abu Ghaib and Camp Buca detention centres. Baghdadi was announced as ISI leader in May 2010, following the death of his predecessor Abu Omar Al-Baghdadi. He was the mastermind behind the formation of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, and the establishment of the ‘Islamic State’ thereafter.
 
Reports indicate that Baghdadi had escaped from Mosul in February when the road to the west of the city was opened in the wake of a fierce attack launched by IS fighters. The group claims its fighters used seventeen suicide car bombs from Mosul and some units from Syria to temporarily clear the road out of the city it has held, uncontested, for about two years. Before he left the city, however, Baghdadi addressed supporters and fighters in what has been referred to as his ‘farewell speech’. According to a report from its members, the IS ‘caliph’ admitted that the group had been defeated in Mosul by US-backed Iraqi forces and militias, and urged his fighters to flee the urban areas and take refuge in the mountains.
 
While he was on his way out of the city, a US swat team ambushed a vehicle carrying a top IS commander who, it seems, the US military believed was Baghdadi or another senior IS leader. US troops in a helicopter exchanged gunfire  with IS fighters who were protecting the vehicle. IS sources reported that only one person was injured and nobody was killed in the exchange, but some news agencies reported that Baghdadi was in the convoy and that he had been seriously wounded. The US Pentagon, however, admits that it is unsure where the IS leader might be.
 
Baghdadi allegedly broke a months-long silence in May 2016 by releasing an audio message in which he once again urged Muslims from around the world to emigrate to the ‘caliphate’ that the group has proclaimed in areas of Syria and Iraq. The group’s dire military situation and its battle for survival has, however, meant that the flow of fighters and other ‘immigrants’ to its ‘state’ has slowed down considerably.
 
With IS’s Syrian capital, Raqqa, under attack by a range of forces in the past few months, the group began moving its governance structures from Raqqa to the eastern province of Deir al-Zour earlier this month. Its military commanders, bureaucracy and some fighters are now headquartered 140 kilometres southeast of Raqqa.
 
This follows a difficult month of March for IS in Raqqa, with US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces and other groups moving on the city, having captured the Tabqa airbase, and cutting off the road between al-Thawrah (where IS fighters had retreated to) and Raqqa. It is almost certain that Raqqa will fall to opposition groups in the next few months, necessitating the emergency measures undertaken by the IS leadership.
 

By Afro-Middle East Centre

Of the myriad political and social developments since the spectacular rise of the Islamic State group (IS) in mid-2014, it is perhaps the movement’s ability to exacerbate and capitalise on existing fractures between and within Syria and Iraq and regional powers Turkey and Iran that has dramatically altered the nature of politics in the region. IS can be perceived as less a cause than a symptom of the failure of state-building processes in Iraq since the US invasion and occupation in 2003. The operation to retake Mosul from IS began one month ago, but as alliances and rivalries are ever-shifting in the fight against IS, Baghdad has attempted to prevent Turkey from participating in the US-Iraqi campaign to recapture the strategic city.

Mosul, where 5000 IS fighters are based, has historically been an important crossroad for trade and ideas, and was once a major cultural centre of the Islamic world. While it and the Syrian city of Aleppo share an Ottoman past that remains a point of cultural affiliation with Turkey for the people of northern Syria and northern Iraq, Mosul has been the external frontier of Turkey’s war against the Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK) – whose power and access to arms dramatically increased in the aftermath of the 1990s Gulf War. That area in Iraq is also a centre for Turkish military support to Ankara’s ally, the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) of Masoud Barzani.

Turkey’s military presence in northern Iraq goes back to the early 1990s when a brutal civil war broke out between two Kurdish political groups – Barzani’s Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) under Jalal Talabani. Barzani has always been wary of the latter’s close relations with Baghdad and Tehran, and gave Ankara the green light to pursue PKK militants in the Kurdish area of Iraq under KDP control. His difficult relations with PKK leaders enabled a closer relationship between Erbil and Ankara. In the past few years, Turkey’s military has also had military training programmestohelp professionalise the KRG’s Peshmerga forces.

From the end of 2015, Baghdad began vocalising its desire to limit the Turkish presence in Iraq, throwing the generally stable relationship between the KRG and Ankara into stark relief. As the region saw greater Kurdish political consolidation as a result of the two-year battle against IS, Barzani has become less willing to sacrifice himself for the Turkish cause. In December 2015, the Iraqi president, Haider al-Abadi, under pressure from sectarian networks in Baghdad, called on the United Nations Security Council – with Russia’s assistance – to force Turkey to withdraw its troops from Iraqi territory.

Turkeys refusal was met with attacks on its operating bases, for which both IS and Iraq’s Kata'ib Hizbullah claimed responsibility. The Iraqi government’s most recent refusal to allow Turkey to join the Mosul operation that beganmid-October was reluctantly accepted by Turkey, and it is believed that an agreement between the two limited Turkey’s combatant role to air support in exchange for it maintaining its bases in northern Iraq, particularly the key Bashiqa base.

Arguing there was a possibility of a spillover of the Mosul operation through the porous Iraq-Turkey border, Turkish Armed Forces and combat vehicles amassed in the border town of Silopi, prompting Abadi to threaten: ‘If a confrontation happens we are ready for it. We will consider [Turkey] an enemy, and we will deal with it as an enemy.’ Ankara’s response was as undiplomatic, with its foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, publicly challenging Abadi: ‘If you have the strength, why did you surrender Mosul to terror organisations?’ and ‘If you are so strong, why has the [PKK] occupied your lands for years?

Cavusoglu’s comment exposed a sore point for the Turks: the uncomfortable reality that its strategic relationship with the USA is being tested by the shift towards ethnic and sectarian politics in the region, which, since the rise of IS, has favoured the Kurds (including those in the PKK and the Syrian PYG that Turkey regards as an existential threat) and Iranian-backed Shi'a groups in Iraq. The institutionalisation of ethnicity as a means to attain power is largely a by-product of state reconfiguration initiated by the USA during its Iraqi occupation, when it distributed political power and financial support on ethnic and sectarian bases. Whereas Turkey could previously rely on its NATO membership and on the KRG to check the PKK’s influence, rapprochement between the USA and Iran, Russia’s entry into the Syrian conflict, and the legitimation of the Syrian PYD (a PKK ally) have limited Turkey’s ability to decisively influence what happens on its borders. The role of the Shi'a militia, the Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU), and abuses by some Kurdish groups against Sunnis have allowed Ankara to argue that Turkmen and Sunni Arabs in Tal Afar, in particular, will be targeted in revenge attacks, and thus Turkish presence is necessary.

Turkey’s key strategic objective is to limit PKK activities in northern Iraq, and to prevent the armed group from joining with the PMU in Sinjar, east of Mosul, which would create a long stretch of territory connecting the Syrian YPG with the PKK in Iraq. Additionally, Turkey has lost prestige as the guardian of Mosul, Sulaymaniye and Kirkuk – regions which historically had significant numbers of Iraqi Turkmen. These areas were ceded by the Ottomans after the breakup of the Ottoman empire following World War I, a sore point for Turkish nationalists like Kemal Atatürk and his successors.

Apart from its security concern, Turkey also regards Mosul, together with Aleppo in Syria, as the last outpost of the cultural and historical connection between Iraq, Syria and Turkey. Should the city be destroyed, three territories considered ‘disputed territories’ between Baghdad and the KRG will be at the centre of the rebuilding of a new Iraq and, by extension, a new Middle East. This uncertain outcome requires greater attention. Where will IS members seek refuge if not in the porous border region? Who will be responsible for millions of Iraqi refugees? How long can a military battle against IS (or the PKK) be sustained without completely engulfing the region in protracted warfare? To what extent can the politics of sectarianism be exploited at the expense of inclusive and democratic states in the Middle East?

With the operation against IS in Raqqa, Syria, underway at the same time, and with the YPG playing a key role there, Turkish anxieties about the creation of a Kurdish entity on its doorstep are heightening. Should IS continue to be tenacious,and should the war stretch out longer than planned, Turkey may enter the conflict regardless of the Iraqi position. This could no doubt raise serious legal questions, but would also signal a sharp change in the relations between Ankara and both Baghdad and Washington. ISmight be on its last legs as a pseudo-state, but there is little doubt that it has reshaped the nature of the state and politics in the Middle East for some time to come.

By Afro-Middle East Centre

The 16 October declaration by Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi of the beginning of the offensive to retake the city of Mosul from the Islamic State group (IS) was welcomed by a range of forces in the Middle East and globally. However, there was immediately an attempt to address fears of potential sectarian violence that might be unleashed upon the liberation of the city, IS’s de facto Iraqi capital.

At a conference of Iraqi tribes held in Erbil, in Iraqi Kurdistan, to support the Mosul offensive, tribal leaders from Nineveh, the province in which Mosul is located, insisted Shi'a militias should not be involved in the military attempt to liberate Mosul. They feared that Mosul’s Sunnis will be blamed for IS’s crimes, and were afraid of revenge attacks. They based their fears on reports that more than 700 Sunni males had disappeared after Shi'a militias captured Fallujah, and that looting and mass killings occurred in Tikrit when that city was liberated from IS.

Responding to concerns about sectarian reprisals, Iraqi Kurdish leaders promised that their Peshmerga forces would not enter Mosul, and the USA conditioned its air support on Shi'a militias not entering the city. The alliance of Shi'a militias, the Popular Mobilization Force (PMF), one of the more successful anti-IS forces, has not been excluded from the battle, however. As the Iraqi army advances from the south and west, and Peshmerga forces conduct a multipronged assault from the north and east, the PMF headed westwards to block IS’s escape route from Mosul into Syria. Adding another sectarian dimension, Turkish forces stationed in Bashiqa camp near Mosul joined the fighting against IS this week – despite protests from the Iraqi government – after an invitation from the Peshmerga. Turkey claimed concern for Mosul’s minority Turkmen population and for the Sunni majority.

Mosul and its surrounding area, although having a majority of Sunnis, is one of the most ethnically and religiously diverse areas in Iraq. The last major stronghold of IS in Iraq, its three million population (before IS captured it) included Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen, Assyrians, Armenians, and Circassians, with a religious and sectarian diversity that included Sunnis, Shi'as, Salafis, Yezidis and Christians.

Over the past year IS has taken a battering on the battlefield. Its loss of the Syrian town of Dabiq earlier this month was a huge symbolic defeat. The Iraqi army, meanwhile, has regained morale and momentum with the recapture of major cities such as Sinjar, Ramadi and Fallujah over the past ten months. The Mosul offensive involves more than 30 000 forces, mostly made up of Iraqi troops and Kurdish Peshmerga, supported by US air strikes and special forces. IS probably has around 6 000 fighters in the city. The initial advance on Mosul saw more than twenty villages and hamlets liberated by Iraqi and Kurdish forces within two days, but the offensive then slowed down due to the number of explosives and booby traps on the roads. Earlier this week, around forty kilometres separated the coalition forces from Mosul.

There have already been reports of some local IS fighters abandoning Mosul, leaving foreign fighters behind. Nevertheless, IS is expected to mount stiff resistance from within the city. The fall of this crucial city will affect IS politically as it loses territory, thus jeopardising its state-building project, and also financially since Mosul has been a huge contributor of tax revenue for the group. Coalition forces claim, however, that Mosul will fall within two months. They are hoping that, as IS fighters defend the city against coalition forces, resistance within Mosul will rise up to battle IS from within. This has already begun with an Iraqi flag being raised over an IS government building last week.

Much of the city will likely be in ruins before it is liberated. It is uncertain whether the fragile Iraqi state will be capable of reconstructing this and other devastated areas. It will also have to take over the provision of services and security in areas in which it has not had the responsibility for the past two years, thus increasing its resource burden. Most importantly, the grievances and sense of marginalisation of Sunni communities in the north has not disappeared. The real mark of Iraq’s success in defeating IS will be whether the government is able to address this marginalisation, and include Sunnis in the state in a manner that removes these grievances. If not, then the reasons that IS was able to take Mosul so easily will persist, and the region will remain ripe for others who claim to support the Sunnis in the north against the central government.

 

IS militants struck back in an attack on an Iraqi army base near Ramadi. This comes just days after the city was recaptured by government troops. At least sixty government soldiers are reported to have been killed. For more we have on the line Mr Na'eem Jeenah from the Afro Middle East Centre.

By Afro-Middle East Centre

The revelation that the alleged mastermind of the 13 November Paris attacks claimed by the Islamic State group (IS) was of Moroccan descent, the turmoil in Libya, and the general strife in numerous African countries such as Nigeria and Somalia that is being attributed to IS and Al-Qa'ida has sparked speculation that IS is likely to expand within Africa, and even in South Africa.

However, most of these assertions are the result of hurried summaries rather than sober analysis. One news outlet, for example, carried two contradictory headlines on the IS threat in Libya within two days of each other. One claimed IS was ‘struggling to expand in Libya’ and the other that IS ‘could expand from Libya’.

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Established in 1998, the Afro-Middle East Centre (AMEC) aims to foster, produce and disseminate the highest quality of research on the Middle East, to maintain public discussion and to help shape the public discourse on issues related to the Middle East. Amec's research includes relations between Africa and the Middle East.

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