A Syrian Terrorist Due Diligence:Who was Abu Mohammad al-Adnani
Syrian national Taha Sobhi Fahla—known by his alias Abu Muhammad al-Adnani—was the spokesman of ISIS and the group’s emir (leader) in Syria.* He also reportedly led ISIS’s Emni unit, a cell responsible for exporting terror attacks internationally, including to Paris and Brussels.* In June 2014, Adnani publicly proclaimed an Islamic caliphate on ISIS’s behalf, and named Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as its so-called caliph (leader of the Caliphate).*
On August 30, 2016, ISIS’s Amaq news agency reported that Adnani had been “martyred” near Aleppo while “surveying the operations to repel the military campaigns.”* Later that day, Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook confirmed that the United States had targeted Adnani in a precision strike near Al Bab, Syria. While Cook could not confirm if Adnani had been killed, he said that “[Adnani’s] removal from the battlefield would mark another significant blow to [ISIS].”* The following day, Russia claimed that it had carried out the strike.
According to the U.S. State Department, Adnani was one of the first foreign fighters to battle Coalition forces in Iraq alongside al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) in the early 2000s.* During this time, Adnani reportedly met and formed a close relationship with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the former leader of AQI who was killed by a U.S. drone strike in 2006. Zarqawi reportedly recruited Adnani into his jihadist group, Ansar al-Islam, in 2002. Adnani was one of the first members of AQI when the group formed in 2004.*
Adnani was reportedly captured by U.S. troops in 2005 and held until 2010. During this time, he was imprisoned at the U.S.-run Camp Bucca in Iraq, where he reportedly met Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.*Adnani was appointed ISIS’s emir in Syria in early 2013 after ISIS split with the Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’s former affiliate in Syria.* He became known as ISIS’s spokesman in June 2014, when he announced the group’s declaration of the caliphate.*
Adnani was believed to control nearly all of ISIS’s operations in Syria.* He was tasked with leading ISIS’s Emni unit, which, according to Western intelligence documents, was behind nearly all major ISIS attacks in the West since at least early 2014, including the Paris attacks in November 2015 and the Brussels attacks in March 2016. Adnani was also believed to coordinate the movement of ISIS fighters, according to the U.S. Department of Defense.* According to former ISIS member Harry Sarfo, Adnani was the head of ISIS’s so-called “special forces.” “Everything goes back to [Adnani],” Sarfo told the New York Times in early August 2016.*
In addition to leading the Emni unit inside ISIS-controlled territory, Adnani was known for his fiery rhetorical skills and for urging ISIS sympathizers in the West to carry out lone-wolf, attacks.* In September 2014, ISIS released a speech by Adnani in which he called on Muslims in the West to target civilians and military personnel in their own countries. Adnani declared: “If you can kill a disbelieving American or European – especially the spiteful and filthy French – or an Australian, or a Canadian, or any other disbeliever from the disbelievers waging war, including the citizens of the countries that entered into a coalition against the Islamic State, then rely upon Allah, and kill him in any manner or way however it may be.”*
Adnani again called on followers to attack civilians in the West in May 2016. In a speech titled “That They Live by Proof,” Adnani said, “The smallest bit of work that you can carry out in their countries is far better and beloved to us than any major [operations] here. [These operations] would be of much success and more harmful to them.”*
When Adnani announced the formation of the so-called caliphate in June 2014, he was reported to be the only Syrian among ISIS’s top leaders, the rest of whom were Iraqi.* Before Adnani’s reported death, analysts suggested that he would lead ISIS in the case of Baghdadi’s death.* He was designated as a terrorist by the U.S. Department of State, the U.S. Treasury Department, the United Nations, and the United Kingdom.*
Abu Mohammad al-Adnani, designated by the United States as terrorist, gained notoriety for his threats and statements against countries around the world. As the official spokesman for Daesh (ISIS) and the group’s “Emir of Syria,” he is one of the most wanted terrorists in the world. In early 2014 and on May 5, the U.S. State Department offered a $5 million reward for information about him.
Adnani has been known by several names. Originally Taha Subhi Falaha, he was born in Syria’s Idlib countryside in 1977. He grew up loving to spend time in the mosque and he memorized the Quran in less than a year.
Adnani was imprisoned three times by State Security in Syria for proselytization and jihadi activities.
In 2000 he began his formal involvement in jihadi groups by declaring allegiance to the leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. He moved to Iraq in 2003 after the American invasion.
Adnani was arrested by American forces in Iraq on May 31, 2005, under a false name, Yasser Khalaf Hussein Nazal al-Rawi. He was released six years later, his captors having no idea of his importance. American intelligence later found out that he had directly overseen the Paris attacks of Nov. 13, 2015, and the explosions in the Beirut suburb of Burj al-Barajneh.
Adnani regained prominence when he declared his allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as Emir of what was known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. He appeared in a video shot in the border regions of Iraq and Syria, announcing the breakdown of the borders and the end of the Sykes-Picot agreement.
He was sent to Syria near the end of 2011 at the head of a group of fighters including Abu Mohammad al-Golani, Hajji Bakr, and Abu Ali al-Anbari. They called themselves the Nusra Front, although the group recently rebranded as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham. They did not immediately announce that they were linked to Baghdadi, and Adnani’s presence with them was hidden even from international intelligence agencies.
Adnani’s task in Syria was limited to that of spokesman for Daesh, monitoring the activities of the Nusra Front and its leader, Golani, in Syria.
In his reports to Baghdadi, he cast doubt on Golani’s loyalty to Daesh, saying the latter was thinking of splitting from the group and using the tactic of recruiting local fighters to create a welcoming environment for him in Syria, where society was different from that of Iraq.
In one of his reports to Baghdadi, Adnani said he had noticed many behaviors that did not conform to Islamic law, and that fighters who did not fit Daesh’s program had gathered around Golani – including Abu Maria al-Qahtani, the former Islamic legal scholar for the Nusra Front in Deir al-Zor.
Baghdadi decided to announce in an audio recording that the Nusra Front was part of his group. He announced the formation of Daesh in Iraq and Syria. That announcement triggered a bitter dispute between Daesh and Al-Qaeda, reaching the point of armed combat.
After a statement by Al-Qaeda’s leader Ayman al-Zawahri, who ordered Daesh to return to Iraq and Nusra to stay in Syria, Adnani released an audio recording rejecting Zawahri’s orders, confirming that Daesh planned to stay in both Iraq and Syria, with the now well-known slogan in Arabic: “staying and expanding” (baqiya wa tatamaddad).
Other Islamist opposition factions, in coalition with the Free Syrian Army, attacked Daesh bases, targeting their emirs and scholars with the aim of killing them and ousting the rest of the group’s fighters from Syria.
Adnani was educated by a number of Salafist-jihadi preachers, known for declaring other strands of Islam apostates and promoting the use of violence to spread Islam. Among the most prominent were Abu Anas al-Shami, Abu Maysara al-Gharib and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Adnani wrote a number of books, including “The Context of Jihad” and its “Related Issues and Verses on the Jurisprudence of Jihad,” which he published from prison under the nose of American forces. He wrote a number of other works that have been used as textbooks in Daesh training camps. He took an interest in teaching on faith and apostasy, Arabic language and grammar, and Islamic law to the members of Al-Qaeda and later Daesh.
Adnani was in several positions before being appointed as the official spokesman of Daesh in 2013. Most importantly, he was a trainer at Hudaitha Camp in Anbar province, western Iraq, the emir of Hudaitha appointed by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a trainer at the Jazira camp and a scholar in Al-Qata’ al-Gharbi, Anbar. He became known for his speeches inciting violence and inspiring zeal in his audience.
On Jan. 7, 2016, the Iraqi army announced it had failed to assassinate Adnani during an airstrike in Hudaitha, but said he was injured and taken to Mosul to recover.
Feras Hanoush is an activist from Raqqa, a former doctor with Medecins Sans Frontieres in Syria and a member of Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently. This commentary, translated from Arabic, is published by permission from the Atlantic Council and can be accessed at: www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/syriasource/isis-spokesman-abu-mohammad-al-adnani.