After Hawija: What to expect from Islamic State's commanders

After Hawija: What to expect from Islamic State's commanders
Analysis: After the fall of Hawija, it is highly possible that the Islamic State commanders may regroup and start a new insurgency - so what is already known about them?
4 min read
08 September, 2017
Iraqi commanders organising the final fight against the Islamic State group [AFP]
Some 42,000 Iraqi and Kurdish troops are currently amassing outside Hawija, a town relatively unknown to the world outside Iraq prior to the IS phenomenon. 

Though it doesn't fit in the same arena of importance as the cities of Raqqa and Mosul, Hawija is anything but a frontier province. A close look at the leadership is indicative of much of IS' wider make-up; furthermore, it holds important lessons for what we might expect from the State, post-Hawija.

IS' leadership within the pocket remains extremely close to two of Islamic State's founding fathers - and should the group attempt to flee to the Hamrin Mountains south west of the Hawija pocket, as many are expecting, a look at IS' leadership there shows the potential leadership of a future insurgency in Iraq.

The New Arab last week identified Ghraith Ibrahim Murad as the Emir of Hawija. Murad's involvement with Iraq's insurgency goes back to at least 2007, when he served as the group's "officer for assassinations" in Mosul.

That year he was arrested and held in Camp Bucca, the US detention facility near Um Qasr.  By 2010 he had been released from Bucca, but he was not free for long as Iraqi forces caught up with him once more - this time jailing him in Tikrit Central Prison, formerly Saddam Hussein's hometown. 

It was here he became a cellmate of Abu Waheeb, real name Shaker Wahib al-Fahdawi al-Dulaimi, a notorious IS field commander. Indeed, prior to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi's ascension to Caliph, Abu Waheeb was described as the heir apparent of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

Abu Waheeb was killed in a US airstrike in May 2016. Barely a month later, the gunman behind the Orlando Nightclub massacre, Omar Mateen, told police negotiators the death of Waheeb had been a trigger for his actions.

Waheeb escaped from jail in September 2012, as part of then al-Qaeda in Iraq's "Breaking the Walls" campaign - when hundreds of prisoners escaped from overcrowded prisons in a mass jailbreak.

Although Murad didn't manage to escape, he was "deeply involved" in its organisation, according to security sources.

A separate attack on a convoy transferring him from Tikrit Central prison to the notorious Abu Ghraib complex managed to free him just a few months later, alongside one Abu Sufyan, a senior IS commander who helped found the group in 2005 with Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi.

Abu Sufyan later became known as Abu Saif, though his real name was Suleiman Abd Shabib al-Jabouri. He served as a high-ranking member of the group and sat on its military council until his death in a raid in Hamam Alil, south of Mosul in April 2016. Murad is still alive and now forms part of what remains of IS' senior leadership in Iraq.
Map of Iraq

Murad originally hails from the village of Sheikh Hamad, Saladin province. His extensive links to some of the upper most echelons of IS' senior leadership go back nearly a decade and - combined with his local knowledge of the the Hamrin Mountains surrounding Hawija - render him, in the words of the Iraqi security forces, "among the most dangerous terrorists" in Iraq.

The group's Wali in Kirkuk and Dijlah, Abu Haytham, real name Qusay Hassan Wali al-Bayati, is another product of Camp Bucca. An Iraqi military source confirmed to The New Arab that Abu Haytham was incarcerated at Bucca at the same time as Murad. Like Murad, Haytham also hails from Saladin province.

The largely local derivation of IS leadership within the Hawija pocket, coupled with their shared experiences of detention in places like Camp Bucca and Tikrit Central Prison, hold valuable lessons in how IS might operate when they lose the last of their governable territories in Hawija and west Anbar.

These men led an insurgency long before the fall of Mosul and the ascension of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as Caliph.

When the inevitable happens and Hawija is recaptured, experts expect devolution and a return to the old fashioned tactics of insurgency - something even the powerful US military was unable to subdue.

This is not so much a preview of Iraq after IS than it is a review.