The Islamic State’s temporary leader is a former Iraqi physics teacher located in the country’s second-biggest city, Mosul, the adviser to the Iraqi government on ISIS has revealed.
Yesterday, it was reported by the Guardian that the terror group’s caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was seriously wounded in a U.S. coalition airstrike in western Iraq in March, leaving him with injuries which allegedly rendered him incapable of carrying out the day-to-day duties as caliph. The revelation raised questions about the leadership structure of the group and reportedly led to frantic meetings between senior ISIS officials on life after Baghdadi.
Speaking to Newsweek, Dr Hisham al Hashimi, the Iraqi government adviser, confirmed that Abu Alaa Afri, the self-proclaimed caliph’s deputy and a former physics teacher, has now been installed as the stand-in leader of the terror group in Baghdadi’s absence.
“After Baghdadi’s wounding, he [Afri] has begun to head up Daesh [arabic term for ISIS] with the help of officials responsible for other portfolios,” confirms Hashimi. “He will be the leader of Daesh if Baghdadi dies.”
It is believed that Afri is located in the al-Hadar region of the city of Mosul. He has risen through the ranks of the group, becoming more prominent in the eyes of the group’s leadership and even more important than Baghdadi himself, Hashimi claims.
“Yes – more important, and smarter, and with better relationships. He is a good public speaker and strong charisma,” says the adviser when asked if Afri is now more important within the group than Baghdadi. “All the leaders of Daesh find that he has much jihadi wisdom, and good capability at leadership and administration.”
Little is known about Afri, also known as Haji Iman, but Hashimi reveals some details about the previous life of Baghdadi’s mysterious right-hand man.
“He was a physics teacher in Tal Afar [northwestern Iraqi city] in Nineveh, and has dozens of publications and religious (shariah) studies of his own,” he says. “He is a follower of Abu Musaab al-Suri [prominent jihadi scholar].”
ISIS experts support Hashimi’s claim that Afri is the rising star within the terror group. Hassan Hassan, Middle East analyst and co-author of the New York Times bestseller ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror, says that Afri is “one of its most important players”.
“Abu Alaa [Afri] seems to have become more prominent in recent months, especially after the group began to suffer tactical defeats in Syria and Iraq since December. He replaced [ISIS’s Syria governor Abu Ali] al-Anbari as al-Baghdadi's top man after al-Baghdadi became less involved in decision making for security reasons,” says Hassan.
Before becoming Baghdadi’s deputy, Afri was a key coordination link between Baghdadi and his inner circle and also his emirs in different provinces across the group’s extensive caliphate in Syria, Iraq and Libya. “Appointment as a wilayat [province] coordinator is an indication of profound trust and this position is essentially the last link between ISIS’s upper echelon and its lower ranks,” Hassan adds.
It is believed that Afri, when senior al-Qaeda operatives Abu Omar al-Baghdadi and Abu Ayyub al-Masri were killed in 2010, was Osama bin Laden’s preferred choice to become emir of al-Qaeda in Iraq, the group which eventually morphed into ISIS. Further, last July, The Telegraph revealed ISIS’s cabinet of which it reported that Afri, named as Abu Suja in the report, was a “general coordinator for the affairs of martyrs and women”.
Afri is believed to have travelled to Afghanistan in 1998, according to Hashimi, before becoming a senior member of al-Qaeda after its future Iraqi leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi pledged allegiance to the terror group in 2004. He oversaw the sharia authorities in northern Iraq and “was very strict”, notes the Iraqi adviser.
While details about Afri’s personality are limited, it is believed that he leans toward reconciliation with rival extremist group al-Qaeda and its Syrian affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra and prefers that ISIS’s leadership structure is composed half of Arabs and half of foreign members of the group.
Hassan concludes that the rise of Afri should not be viewed as the overtaking of Baghdadi as he was installed a “supreme leader” with his generals having the authority to “steer the group”, leading and planning their activities while ensuring the entire leadership “communicate on big issues”.
The group, who swept across Syria and Iraq to capture key towns and cities last summer, have suffered a number of setbacks as a result of the U.S.-led coalition’s military campaign, being forced from the Syrian city of Kobane and losing the Sunni-majority city of Tikrit in Iraq.