Shadowy leader delegates authority to help ISIS survive

WASHINGTON • The reclusive leader of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has empowered his inner circle of deputies as well as regional commanders in Syria and Iraq with wide-ranging authority, to ensure that if he or other top figures are killed, the group will quickly adapt and continue fighting.

United States and Iraqi intelligence officials say the leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, delegates authority to his Cabinet, or shura council, which includes ministers of war, finance and religious affairs.

ISIS' leadership under al-Baghdadi has drawn mainly from two pools: veterans of Al-Qaeda in Iraq who survived the insurgency against US forces with battle-tested militant skills, and former Baathist officers under Saddam Hussein with expertise in organisation, intelligence and internal security.

It is the merger of these two skill sets that has made the organisation such a potent force, officials say.

But equally important to the group's flexibility has been the power given to ISIS military commanders, who receive general operating guidelines but have significant autonomy to run their own operations in Iraq and Syria, according to US and Kurdish officials.

This means that fighters have limited information about the inner workings of ISIS to give up if captured, and that local commanders who are killed are replaced without disrupting the wider organisation.

In this hierarchy, Iraqis hold the top positions, while Tunisians and Saudis hold many religious posts.

Much of a new understanding about the leadership of ISIS has come from information about the organisation's financial operations, recruiting methods and security measures found in materials seized during an American commando raid in May in eastern Syria.

Officials said gathering more information on ISIS' shadowy leadership was a top priority.

In delegating authority, al-Baghdadi has drawn lessons from the fate of other militant groups, including that of a branch in Yemen called Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, whose leaders have been whittled away by drone strikes, said one Western diplomat.

"ISIS has learnt from that and has formed a structure that can survive the losses of leaders by giving mid-level commanders a degree of autonomy," the diplomat said.

ISIS has also studied revelations by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden about how the US gathers information on militants.

A key result is that ISIS' top leaders now communicate via couriers or encrypted channels that Western analysts cannot crack, said intelligence and military officials.

ISIS' secrecy has led to some differences among Western analysts on the degree to which al-Baghdadi is in charge. A senior Kurdish security official in northern Iraq and several US officials said al-Baghdadi was very much the top leader.

"While many other group leaders also oversee and manage operations, Baghdadi asserts his role through providing guidance and holding meetings with leadership," said one senior US military official.

But other analysts disagree.

"Baghdadi is to a certain extent a religious figurehead designed to grant an aura of religious legitimacy and respectability to the group's operations, while the real power brokers are a core of former military and intelligence officials," said Mr Matthew Henman, managing editor of IHS Jane's Terrorism and Insurgency Centre.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 22, 2015, with the headline 'Shadowy leader delegates authority to help ISIS survive'. Print Edition | Subscribe