Murad Batal Shishani, a prominent jihadism expert from Zarqawi’s hometown, told me that Zarqawi’s trials in Jordan in the mid-1990s—for his involvement in a secret Islamist organization—produced no evidence that he held the extremist views associated with ISIS after 2003. In Jordan, “Zarqawi did not deviate from his jihadi peers, only through his character,” Shishani said. “He was more radical, he was a thug, and so on, but ideologically he was a lightweight. He was influenced by what was happening around him in Iraq.”
Anbari also had a direct role in the transformation of al-Qaeda in Iraq from a foreign-dominated force into one run by Iraqis. Abdullah’s biography reveals that Anbari was dispatched by Zarqawi to Pakistan in late 2005, passing through Iran with fake documents, to brief leaders of al-Qaeda there about rumors that the Iraqi branch was alienating fellow jihadists. (The detail about Anbari’s journey is a rare admission of the fact that Iran is used as a transit corridor in the region.) When Anbari returned, he presented a plan to merge al-Qaeda in Iraq with other, local forces to establish the Mujahideen Shura Council in January 2006. Anbari headed the council, using his new nom de guerre, Abdullah Rasheed al-Baghdadi.
One year later, the newly “Iraqized” local operation rebranded itself as the Islamic State of Iraq, and the group’s attacks against Shiites and Americans rose exponentially.
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Anbari was arrested by U.S. troops in Baghdad in 2006, and Zarqawi was killed two months later, at which point, of course, his influence came to an end. Although Anbari remained in custody until March 2012, he stayed involved in the jihadist story by recruiting and indoctrinating fellow inmates. After Anbari’s release—which the Islamic State of Iraq apparently arranged by bribing Iraqi officials—Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi summoned him to Baghdad and assigned him to a critical mission.
Anbari’s new task was to investigate whether the group’s branch in Syria, then known as Jabhat al-Nusra, was still loyal to Baghdadi. He found that Abu Muhammad al-Julani, the Syrian branch’s leader, was a “cunning person” and “double-faced”—according to an account published by ISIS—so Anbari and Baghdadi plotted against him. The two formed independent relationships with key members of Jabhat al-Nusra, and then Baghdadi unilaterally announced a merger between the two branches. Although the merger didn’t last, many of Jabhat al-Nusra’s leaders went over to Baghdadi’s group. Anbari was also tasked with communicating with al-Qaeda, under the nom de guerre Abu Suhayb al-Iraqi, to resolve the jihadist infighting. The reconciliation effort failed and al-Qaeda formally disavowed ISIS in February 2014.
For Syrian rebels, Anbari was the face of ISIS as he met and negotiated with them from late 2012 through the summer of 2014. After the takeover of Mosul, he turned his full attention to sharpening the organization’s ideology. Indeed, he became the ideologue in chief, in which capacity he trained senior clerics, instructed members to draft religious texts, and issued fatwas about major issues affecting the caliphate. Under his supervision, a Jordanian pilot was condemned to immolation, a dark realization of the younger Anbari’s desire to burn the ghajars who’d come to Mujama Barzan; Yazidis who came in contact with the group were massacred or enslaved; and two tribes in Syria and Iraq were massacred as a warning against rebellion in the wake of the group’s capture of one-third of Iraq and nearly half of Syria. Anbari also labeled Syria’s moderate rebels as apostates in 2013, and authored a detailed fatwa against them.