A still from a propaganda video released by the Islamic State. Photo credit: Islamic State media, screenshot via Military Times
Editor’s Note: The Islamic State’s current leader, Amir Muhammad Sa'id 'Abdal-Rahman al-Mawla, is something of a mystery. Forced to keep a low profile for fear of being on the wrong end of a drone strike, al-Mawla is not well known to outside audiences, in contrast to his predecessor, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Al-Mawla, however, was in U.S. custody more than a decade ago, and the U.S. government recently released interrogation reports from his time in detention. Daniel Milton of West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center analyzes these just-released reports, offering insights into al-Mawla and into jihadist organizations in general.
The Islamic State’s current leader, Amir Muhammad Sa'id 'Abdal-Rahman al-Mawla, was captured and interrogated by U.S. forces in 2008, well before he was chosen to lead the group, and probably released in the same year. When he was captured, al-Mawla was the overall leader of Islamic law in Mosul for the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI, the successor to al-Qaeda in Iraq and predecessor of the Islamic State) and had even served a stint as the group’s deputy governor in Mosul. In September 2020, the Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) at West Point declassified three tactical interrogation reports (TIRs) from his 2008 interrogations. The documents offer tantalizing insights into al-Mawla’s background and early activities before he ascended the Islamic State’s hierarchy. Although that record was incomplete, as highlighted by experts, a notable tune emerged: Prior to his capture, al-Mawla was a developing leader who was advancing his own interests, honing his decision-making and mediation skills, and climbing the ranks of his organization. Once captured, however, he sang like a bird about his organization and, in the words of one scholar, became the “canary caliph.”
Now, with the release of an additional 53 documents on April 6, counterterrorism researchers can further study and analyze who al-Mawla is and what his actions during his detention suggest about him as a leader. By publicly releasing these documents, the CTC hopes that the files will become an important resource for those studying the history and evolution of the Islamic State, the trajectory of its current leader, and the functionality of militant groups more broadly. Given the mention of dozens of individuals, meetings, and incidents across the 53 new documents, this post provides only a small sample of the themes that emerge, a mixtape of key al-Mawla tracks.
A Brief Overview of the Material
TIRs document information obtained from interrogations of alleged enemy combatants, ranging from biographical information, to organizational structure, to planning and capabilities. (The process for generating TIRs is described at length in an article on al-Mawla published in the CTC Sentinel.) Similar to the documents released previously, the Department of Defense decided to release these 53 documents with redactions. The documents are summaries of conversations al-Mawla had with U.S. interrogators, most of them covering a period from early January to early February 2008, although a couple are dated as late as July 2008. The tempo of the interrogation sessions, as represented in the documents, is about two sessions per day. Some of the documents are lengthy, stretching to 15 pages, while others are short and do not contain much substantive information because of redactions. As was the case previously, like any bureaucratic documentation, there appear to be some clerical errors in the TIRs. Beyond the occasional typo, some deviations or mistakes are worth highlighting.
The first has to do with the beginning date: Even though al-Mawla was captured on Jan. 8, 2008, five TIRs contain dates that come before that time period (here, here, here, here and here). Although it is difficult to conclusively state when personnel created the chronologically anomalous TIRs, comparing the language at the end of the Feb. 1, 2008, TIR with the TIR labeled Jan. 3, 2008, reveals that both seem to indicate that al-Mawla had been cooperating for some time and was claiming that he was “out of information.” The other TIRs all indicate an individual who was comfortable providing information, and such a level of comfort is unlikely to have occurred without some relationship building between al-Mawla and his interrogators. Thus, it is possible that the five “out-of-order” TIRs actually took place in early February, not early January, but were entered incorrectly.
The documents do not clearly denote the end of al-Mawla’s cooperation and time in detention. The chronologically last TIR is dated July 2, 2008, but the entirety of this TIR is redacted, so it provides little information of use. There are two TIRs from the day before, July 1, 2008 (here and here). Although both documents are heavily redacted, at least one suggests that al-Mawla may have started having second thoughts about cooperating around that period, noting that “[d]etainee stated that he will not endorse any information he has provided in the past but admits that some information may be true and some may be exaggerated.” This perspective seems consistent with someone “clamming up” and may suggest that the sessions were becoming less cooperative, potentially drawing to a conclusion. Ultimately, the gap between the large body of TIRs and the small number in July leaves room for speculation.
It is also important to assess this material carefully. Not all of the documents from al-Mawla’s interrogation sessions were released. Based on our best understanding, there are likely another 10 TIRs that will not be declassified and released, and there are also redactions throughout the documents that have been released. We know from past document releases that material may be redacted if it might damage the relationship between the United States and a partner or an ally. Another reason to redact material would be to protect intelligence sources and methods, and there is some indication that this particular consideration weighed heavily here. For example, at least one TIR includes the stamp “1.4(c)” in every location where material is redacted. According to the National Archives, this code corresponds to “[i]ntelligence activities (including covert action), intelligence sources or methods, or cryptology.” Even though this helps inform an understanding of why redactions took place, it does not tell us anything about the specific content of these redactions. Users of this material incorporate due caution into their analysis.
The “Top” Tracks
Several main themes emerge from this newly released batch of documents, though these points are certainly not the only ones that will arise as researchers and journalists examine the documents. I hope that this sampling of the documents will entice others researchers to keep digging.
Al-Mawla starts talking quickly and doesn’t fade out until much later. The 53 additional TIRs that have now been made available allow for a better portrait of al-Mawla’s personality and willingness to talk during his time in U.S. custody. According to what can be pieced together from the documents, al-Mawla was captured in the early morning hours of Jan. 6, 2008. The first TIR, in which he completely denied and downplayed his involvement, takes place about 24 hours later. By his second TIR on Jan. 8, 2008, at 0600, al-Mawla provided details such as his personal history, phone numbers of other members, and walking directions to various ISI operatives. Although he still downplayed his involvement for some time, he became increasingly open with his secrets. Eventually, by July 1, 2008, he began to minimize and turn somewhat away from his comments.
Al-Mawla sings when officials ask about his ISI colleagues. Although the analysis of the three previously released TIRs suggested al-Mawla’s willingness to dime out his friends, the release of these remaining TIRs seals the deal: Al-Mawla was a songbird of unique talent and ability. These TIRs are chock-full of such details, but just a few highlights will give a general idea:
Al-Mawla provided a detailed description of the personal residence of Harith, the ISI general administrator in Mosul, as well as his vehicle.
Al-Mawla offered detailed commentary on several ISI members that is replicated through the TIRs. His descriptions of a number of individuals include identifying characteristics, including “chubby cheeks,” accented Arabic, “prescription glasses with silver frames,” a “pot belly,” and one associate who “waddles when he walks.”
Al-Mawla noted that, while waiting for a ride, another ISI member saw him waiting and offered him a ride. Upon dropping off al-Mawla, the ISI member offered his house as a place for al-Mawla to stay if he ever needed help. The section immediately following this narration is redacted, but it is suggested that al-Mawla provided directions to this individual’s house.
Several weeks into his detention, al-Mawla apparently “attempted to create a computer composite facial sketch” of a Saudi Arabian foreign fighter known as Jar Allah. One can almost see al-Mawla, “CSI”-style, offering critiques of the shade of the Jar Allah’s skin or the color of his eyes.
Al-Mawla appears to have pointed out specific areas of Mosul where ISI personnel (including high-level security personnel) and foreign fighters liked to eat lunch and pass time (here and here).
Although the reflections of al-Mawla’s interrogators are sometimes heavily redacted, they take note of al-Mawla’s willingness to answer questions and talk about ISI. Many of the TIRs note in the “Remarks” section at the end of the document that he appeared willing to share information on his colleagues. In one, the interrogator noted that al-Mawla was “willing to speak with other men associated with Mosul ISI.” It is not known if this was in concert with security forces or merely an observation. That said, another TIR specifically says that al-Mawla was “sincere in attempting to identify photographs of other detainees.” One final example comes from a TIR in which al-Mawla went through a black notebook that was captured with him and identified 19 phone numbers, telling interrogators who they belonged to and what the individuals’ roles were in ISI. Clearly, al-Mawla didn’t have a hard time answering questions about his colleagues.
Al-Mawla breaks down details about a man named Abu Qaswarah. Building on the second point, al-Mawla clearly sold out Abu Qaswarah, a high-ranking foreigner in ISI. In the CTC’s original analysis of the three TIRs released initially, there was some suggestion that the October 2008 raid that ultimately killed Mohamed Moumou (aka Abu Qaswarah) may have taken place in part due to information provided by al-Mawla. Although it is still not certain that the United States was acting on intelligence from al-Mawla, since details about Abu Qaswarah remain unknown, the TIRs make it absolutely clear that al-Mawla did reveal the following:
Al-Mawla, perhaps recognizing Abu Qaswarah’s importance, denied knowing anything useful about Abu Qaswarah or even having met him for at least a week before beginning to provide information about him (here and here).
Al-Mawla may have been one of the first individuals to help connect disparate pseudonyms together as belonging to Abu Qaswarah.
Al-Mawla went to great pains to describe the courier who connected Abu Qaswarah to the rest of the organization, including his physical appearance, preferred vehicles and typical hangouts (here, here, here, here, here, here and here).
Al-Mawla offered details about his own journeys to Abu Qaswarah’s camp, including offering directions, describing physical geography and even going so far as to help draw a map of the layout of the camp (here, here, here, here, here and here).
Al-Mawla lays tracks on Khalid, an unassuming media operative. As noted in the September 2020 CTC article, the ISI’s media operation in Mosul featured an individual named Khalid, about whom al-Mawla seemed to have some sort of familiarity. That article speculated that al-Mawla’s testimony might have led to Khalid, but that case is strengthened tremendously by the details revealed in these documents. In just his second session, al-Mawla provided a detailed description of his interaction with the media office, a description of Khalid and a description of Khalid’s vehicle. Later, although denying that he knew where Khalid lived, the summary of one TIR notes that “detainee identified with a 90% certainty AQIZ [al-Qaeda in Iraq] media work[er] Khalid’s vehicle.” And, although some of the TIR from his second session is redacted, the nature of the text suggests al-Mawla could have provided an address for the media office. This is confirmed in a later TIR, which states that al-Mawla “map tracked to an ISI media office,” essentially guiding his interrogators to the office in which Khalid worked. Al-Mawla offered a detailed description of the color of the doors and gates, apparently noting that “the best time to catch someone at the office is 1000 to 1200 daily except Friday.”
Al-Mawla indicates that leadership decapitation strikes a chord. A large body of academic and policy discussion examines the value of leadershipdecapitation as a counterinsurgency or counterterrorism tool. One of the purported benefits of leadership decapitation is that it can possibly have a deterrent effect on others. Al-Mawla’s TIRs offer an interesting anecdote along these lines. One of the previously released TIRs notes that al-Mawla was made ISI’s deputy governor of Mosul only after other people declined the position, but it was not made clear why they declined. However, in a newly released TIR, al-Mawla claimed that at least one of the appointees apparently decided not to take the post because of his belief “that the post holder would probably only last 10 days before being either killed or captured by [coalition forces].”
Al-Mawla offers a preview of ISI’s burgeoning bureaucracy. Terrorist groups like paperwork and process. This has become apparent from several prominent research efforts based on troves of information either captured from terrorist groups or released by these same organizations online. These TIRs, however, offer a brief insight from someone who worked inside the bureaucracy that generated such documentation. In one session, al-Mawla briefly discussed two sources of ISI fundraising (taxes generated from oil and construction contracts), as well as the payment structure that was in place at the time for ISI members. In another, he identified some of the bureaucratic functions associated with ISI’s media and administrative offices, to include the media office’s creation of “letters to the families of individuals who have been killed in error by ISI” and “disclaimers when particular buildings or areas are attacked which blame others for the attacks.”
Al-Mawla doesn’t like the sound of female suicide bombers. It is important to remember that the TIRs offer only a summary of longer conversations, but clearly there are parts of those conversations that would have been interesting to observe. One touches on the use of women as suicide bombers, something that was debated at that time and continues to be today. During a discussion that seems to have been about ISI macro-level strategy and policy, one TIR contains the following comment: “Detainee denied AQIZ/ISI uses female suicide bombers and denied there is a network in place. Detainee calmed and reminded Collector this was forbidden.” It seems that the discussion about ISI’s potential use of female suicide bombers may have inflamed al-Mawla’s anger somewhat. It would be interesting to know if he still holds that perspective today, especially given relativelyheateddebates among analysts about the role of women in the Islamic State’s fighting operations.
A Starting Point for New Research
The release of al-Mawla’s TIRs provides counterterrorism researchers and policy practitioners a unique opportunity to examine the current head of the Islamic State based on what he said and did during his time in U.S. military custody. This information not only has been verified but also in many cases has added further insight to the initial takeaways highlighted by the first look carried out by the CTC and other analysts in September 2020.
Even though the CTC has a high level of confidence in the credibility of these documents overall, they require critical analysis, and the nitty-gritty details will benefit from further scrutiny. To the extent possible, journalists and researchers should work to validate and substantiate the information contained in these documents. Hundreds of names, numerous groups, and many events are highlighted throughout the al-Mawla interrogation sessions. Each offers another data point that can be mined and cross-referenced for further evaluation.
Even though this material is somewhat dated, there are some areas in which these materials can help inform counterterrorism efforts moving forward.
First, it is no surprise that networks and relationships matter in terrorist organizations. That idea was the underlying foundation for U.S. efforts to engage in leadership decapitation, raids, and other activities designed to understand and unravel those networks. The fact that al-Mawla was able to describe and draw detailed diagrams of the organization and could offer information on so many people provides a vivid case study of the value of understanding interpersonal dynamics and structure within networks. In counterterrorism and research efforts, there is utility in taking stock of dynamics within and between groups, even at the more personal level.
Second, the counterterrorism field, to some extent, romanticizes militants’ and extremists’ commitment to their movements. The members of these organizations are imagined to be committed and passionate, capable and cunning. While this is certainly true in some cases, previous research and reporting has shown that these groups struggle with the banalities of organizational management. The documents paint an interesting picture of this. In the reports, we see al-Mawla dealing with individuals of varying levels of competence and commitment. Given the large number of names that he gave up, al-Mawla appears to have varied on these attributes as well. These types of dynamics are not unique to ISI or even to jihadists. What is more, these dynamics can prove to be the seeds of discontent and disengagement. Examining and highlighting this aspect of extremist organizations may be an important way to undermine their effectiveness.
Finally, although the examination of this material will undoubtedly yield important findings about al-Mawla, ISI, and other militant groups, another lesson comes from not seeing this material until now. To some extent, there was a missed opportunity to exploit this information beyond its utility in dismantling ISI’s terror network at the tactical and operational levels. Although it is impossible to go back and view what the ultimate effect of having released or discussed this material in 2009 or 2010 would have been, it seems likely that revealing this information would have been useful for understanding ISI better in that time frame and also for highlighting the hypocrisy of some of its leading figures. Even releasing this material in 2014-2015, as the Islamic State was trying to build its state-like institutions, might have helped undermine the trust necessary to accomplish those goals. Moving forward, governments fighting against terrorist organizations should be more proactive with this type of information.
The views expressed in this report are those of the author and not of the United States Military Academy, the Department of the Army, or any other agency of the U.S. government.