The True Origins of ISIS
A secret biography suggests that Abu Ali al-Anbari defined the group’s radical approach more than any other person.
Updated at 10:20 a.m. ET on January 7, 2019.
Most historians of the Islamic State agree that the group emerged out of al-Qaeda in Iraq as a response to the U.S. invasion in 2003. They also agree that it was shaped primarily by a Jordanian jihadist and the eventual head of al-Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. The Jordanian had a dark vision: He wished to fuel a civil war between Sunnis and Shiites and establish a caliphate. Although he was killed in 2006, his vision was realized in 2014—the year ISIS overran northern Iraq and eastern Syria.
Narratives about the origins of Islamic State ideology often focus on the fact that Zarqawi and Osama bin Laden, both Sunni extremists, diverged on the idea of fighting Shiites and on questions of takfir, or excommunication. Such differences, the story goes, were reinforced in Iraq and eventually led to the split between ISIS and al-Qaeda. Based on this set of assumptions, many conclude that Zarqawi must have provided the intellectual framework for ISIS.
Recently, I came to question the conventional wisdom. The groundwork for ISIS was arguably laid long before the invasion, and if there was one person responsible for the group’s modus operandi, it was Abdulrahman al-Qaduli, an Iraqi from Nineveh better known by his nom de guerre, Abu Ali al-Anbari—not Zarqawi. It was Anbari, Zarqawi’s No. 2 in his al-Qaeda years, who defined the Islamic State’s radical approach more than any other person; his influence was more systematic, longer lasting, and deeper than that of Zarqawi.
A month ago, I obtained a 93-page document that chronicles Anbari’s life, as well as the extremist landscape around him in 1990s Iraq. Anbari’s son, Abdullah, wrote the biography for the internal use of the Islamic State, which published parts of it in its weekly Arabic magazine, Al-Naba, in 2016, shortly after Anbari’s killing. Dissidents within ISIS recently spread the full document on social media, which is how I came across it. Abdullah has stated that the biography was based on 16 years of working closely with his father, a diary that Anbari kept, and firsthand accounts of Anbari from fellow ISIS members.
In addition to Abdullah’s biography, I’m relying here on a series of lectures that Anbari delivered in 2014 and 2015, and on my notes from interviews with members of the organization and Syrian rebels. All in all, it’s become clear to me that Zarqawi was likely influenced by Anbari, not the other way around.
Anbari was born in northern Iraq in 1959 into a Turkified family of Arab and Armenian descent. The household was devout. Abdullah tells the story of when a young Anbari wanted to buy pigeons. His father told him he had to ask the local imam if keeping pigeons was sound from an Islamic-law standpoint. The imam told him it was a “devilish” habit, so he dropped the idea. (In some Arab countries, testimony from pigeon keepers is inadmissible in court; Arabs associate them with dishonesty, as their profession is thought to involve stealing pigeons owned by others and then lying about it.)
Anbari studied Sharia after he completed elementary school, at an institute in the northern Iraqi city of Tal Afar. He graduated from the University of Baghdad in 1982 with a degree in Islamic studies. (He shares an alma mater with the Islamic State’s current leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.) After graduation, he joined the Iraqi army, served for seven years, and fought in the Iran-Iraq war. “He obtained military and religious training, a rare combination,” his son wrote.
After Anbari’s military service, according to the biography, he was assigned to teach a Sharia class in a small, diverse town called Mujama Barzan. One day, a rich citizen of the town invited ghajars—an ethnic group similar to the Roma—to pitch a tent and throw a party with music and dancing. Anbari was enraged by the news; the party seemed to him profoundly sacrilegious. He offered 10 extra marks to any student who did not attend, but that wasn’t enough of a statement. Anbari considered killing the ghajars, but he had no gun. He then asked one of his students to bring him gasoline, with the idea that he would burn the ghajars alive inside their tent. Ultimately, he simply delivered a sermon against the ghajars and the planned, profane celebration. Under intense pressure, the rich sponsor sent the ghajars away. But the incident left Anbari thinking: There is something wrong with a government that would even consider allowing such an event to take place.
In the mid-1990s, Anbari moved back to Tal Afar, a mixed city of Shiites and Sunnis. He was assigned to a local school in one of the city’s largest Shiite neighborhoods, Khadraa, and later also became an imam at a nearby mosque. He used the pulpit to attack Shiites and Sufis as deviant sects.
Later that decade, he associated himself with Kurdish jihadist organizations in the north. The biography explains that he was influenced by jihadist materials, including audio sermons, coming out of Afghanistan and Chechnya. He developed relationships with three men who later became notable jihadists. One was killed by the Kurdish Peshmerga in Mosul in the early days of the Iraq War, and two became senior leaders of the Islamic State of Iraq, as ISIS was known from late 2006 until it expanded into Syria in 2013.
Around the time of 9/11, support for jihad spiked in Iraq. The success of the attacks was, of course, one factor behind the preinvasion spike—but it was not the only one. In the wake of the Gulf War in 1991, Saddam Hussein’s government inaugurated the so-called Islamic Faith Campaign, which promoted Islamization of the public sphere. Seven months before the attacks, the government mobilized Iraqis to join the volunteer-based Jerusalem Army, which had a stated mission of expelling Jews from the holy city. Abu Maria al-Qahtani, one of the founders of al-Qaeda in Syria, once told me that Hussein’s persistent anti-American rhetoric galvanized many to fight against U.S. influence before and after the invasion. Al-Qahtani himself was trained by Hussein’s regime for a possible suicide mission in Israel.
Anbari was swept along by these trends. After 9/11, he and some of his former students created a “nucleus of an emirate”—a sort of proto–Islamic state—in northern Iraq. The students were trained on the hillsides surrounding Tal Afar by a close associate of Anbari named Iyad Abu Bakr.
Beyond spurring jihadism, the 9/11 attacks seem to have polarized the religious scene in Iraq. Anbari and like-minded jihadists began to see rival Islamists, including the Muslim Brotherhood, as enemies—a position that would become a notable aspect of the Islamic State’s ideology. Anbari viewed the Muslim Brotherhood’s embrace of political norms and its rejection of al-Qaeda as a betrayal. His fixation with the Muslim Brotherhood is also evident in his audio lectures, in which he refers to its members as “the devil’s brothers.”
Anbari took great stock in a new set of jihadist books that were circulating in post-9/11 Iraq, primarily ones by Zarqawi’s prison mentor, Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, and Abdulqadir bin Abdulaziz, an Egyptian jihadist ideologue. These materials, his son wrote, “polished the sheikh’s concepts” and “corrected his creed” on matters such as apostasy and the adoption of man-made laws. Thus, a man who had never embraced moderation rejected the concept as totally anathema to Islam.
What I hope is now clear to readers is that Anbari’s extremist views, which were later mirrored by ISIS, were forged before the American invasion of Iraq—and before he met Zarqawi.
According to Abdullah’s biography, Zarqawi arrived in northern Iraq from Afghanistan in the spring of 2002. Anbari met him a month later in Baghdad, where Zarqawi was hosted by an envoy of the Kurdish jihadist group Ansar al-Islam and a friend of Anbari’s. (This is the first time an ISIS publication has acknowledged that Zarqawi was present in Baghdad before the invasion. Previously, some claimed this chronology was false or politicized—part of the Bush administration’s attempts to justify the war by linking Zarqawi to the Hussein regime.) During this period, Anbari moved back and forth from central to northern Iraq to facilitate jihadist activities. “Preparations for jihad were maturing, in terms of finance, men and arms,” Abdullah’s biography reads. “All this was happening under the rule of the Baath.”
“All this” included the preinvasion professionalization of the Islamist movement, as former Baathists, who “repented” before the war, set about organizing new recruits. Abu Muslim al-Turkmani, once a colonel in Hussein’s army and the eventual No. 3 in the Islamic State of Iraq’s hierarchy, trained an anti-Saddam jihadist group that was then put under Anbari’s command. Anbari and Turkmani’s men made gun silencers and improvised bombs for Zarqawi.
When the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, Anbari and Zarqawi led separate groups that were not yet part of al-Qaeda in Iraq. (Both pledged allegiance in 2004, Anbari as Zarqawi’s deputy.) There’s a great deal of evidence that Anbari, not Zarqawi, set the extremist pace, advancing the policies that would characterize ISIS.
Soon after the invasion, Anbari’s group in Tal Afar targeted anyone regarded as heretical or obstructive; it attacked Shiites, members of the Muslim Brotherhood, and local informants regardless of what tribe they belonged to.
By contrast, it would take another year for Zarqawi to embrace such extreme sectarianism. Before Zarqawi formally pledged allegiance to bin Laden and became the head of al-Qaeda in Iraq, he wrote a letter to al-Qaeda’s central leadership articulating a plan to attack Shiite civilians and places of worship.* The idea for targeting the Shiites probably came from native Iraqis like Anbari—possibly even Anbari himself. Prior to 2004, Zarqawi’s fixation was largely with secular Arab regimes, exemplified by his bombing of the Jordanian embassy in Baghdad in the summer of 2003. Laith Alkhouri, a close watcher of the group and a co-founder of the intelligence company Flashpoint in New York, said Zarqawi found anti-Shiite views instrumental to mobilizing Sunnis in Iraq in 2005, which led him to declare an all-out war against Shiites “wherever they are.”
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.
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.
Later on, Baghdadi appointed Anbari to serve as the group’s chief of finance, a task that involved regular travels between Syria and Iraq. In March 2016, on one of those frequent trips, Anbari was killed near the Syrian city of Shaddadi, along the Syrian-Iraqi border. According to the biography, American soldiers attempted to capture him in a raid but he blew himself up using a suicide belt. Anbari outlived Zarqawi by 10 years, and out-influenced him.
Perhaps scholars have ignored Anbari’s contributions because he was so elusive. He had, for example, around a dozen noms de guerre. For many years the U.S. thought he was at least two different people. Officials had only two pictures of him. When he was captured briefly in Mosul in 2005, his U.S. captors did not know his true identity, because he used fake documents. The second time he was captured, in 2006, they recognized him but only as the local terrorist cleric from Tal Afar, rather than as the leader of the al-Qaeda–dominated Mujahideen Shura Council.
Zarqawi led a jihadist group that later evolved into the Islamic State of Iraq and later still into the Islamic State proper—but it is too simplistic to say that ISIS was Zarqawi’s brainchild. Experts who closely tracked Zarqawi’s early activism agree that the Jordanian had no clear sectarian vision before he arrived in Iraq, and his ideas before that did not depart from mainstream jihadist worldviews. Nada Bakos, a former CIA analyst and the author of the forthcoming The Targeter: My Life in the CIA, on the Hunt for the Godfather of ISIS, told me that Zarqawi “was a good tactician, not a strategic thinker, and he was responding to the circumstances around him. People near him built the strategy of what he wanted to achieve.”
Husham Alhashimi, an Iraqi historian of jihadist groups who advises the Iraqi government on ISIS, studied the insurgency against the United States up close from the outset. He pointed to three Iraqi ideologues who directly shaped Zarqawi’s thinking and approach. They had similar profiles to Anbari in terms of religious training and were all wanted by the former regime for their extremist ideas and activities: Abu Abdulrahman al-Iraqi, a former aide to Zarqawi who currently in jail; Nidham Addin Rifaai, who was imprisoned several times, starting in 1978, for involvement in the Salafi Monotheists Movement and who is also currently in jail; and Abdullah Abdelsamad al-Mufti, who has been wanted since 1991 and who is a highly regarded Salafi ideologue in Iraq.
Alhashimi said these Iraqi jihadist clerics advanced ideas eventually rejected by al-Qaeda but embraced by ISIS, including extreme sectarianism and the concept of establishing an Islamic state. “These clerics had a complete school of jurisprudence and methodology, as well as foundational religious texts,” Alhashimi said. “Zarqawi was merely a commander who worked according to their approach, which was why his approach diverged from al-Maqdisi and bin Laden after he mingled with the people of Iraq.”
What sets Anbari apart from these clerics is that in addition to holding extreme sectarian views at least a decade before Zarqawi’s appearance, he had a high-level organizational role within al-Qaeda in Iraq and later within ISIS. He was the longest-serving and highest-ranking cleric within the organization since its inception until his death.
Recognizing the central role of Anbari in the formation of ISIS, and of the events that cultivated leaders like him before the 2003 invasion, establishes that the group was not merely the creation of one cunning Jordanian jihadist. It seems that Zarqawi landed in a country where the ideological contours of the group he would one day lead had already been defined. He was influenced by the existing environment and by the native ideologues who shaped it before him.
The distinction matters. If ISIS grew organically for at least a decade before the U.S. invasion, and before Zarqawi’s arrival, that helps explain how it was able to rise in and then dominate a country as demographically diverse as Iraq. The group has deeper roots than has previously been acknowledged.
* This article misstated the sequence of Zarqawi’s actions. He wrote the letter articulating a plan to attack Shiite civilians before he became head of al-Qaeda in Iraq, not after.