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The Structure of the Islamic State (ISIS)

Much has been written and said about the Islamic State in Iraq and Sham (the Levant) — ISIS.   Most of the commentators have looked at ISIS as another terrorist organization, an al-Qaeda off-shoot, waging a guerrilla war with cohorts of unorganized thugs. The Afghani-style gear, the pickup trucks, the all black or army fatigue uniforms which most ISIS fighters wear, the unshaven beards, the turbans, hoods and head “bandanas” with Arabic inscriptions have added to the confusion.

In fact, ISIS is much more than a terrorist organization; it is a terrorist state with almost all governing elements. Over the last three years, since the beginning of the civil war in Syria, the Islamic State developed from an extremist fringe and marginal faction participating in the civil war to become the strongest, most ferocious, best funded and best armed militia in the religious and ethnic war that is waged today in Syria and Iraq.

But first, what is the name of this entity and what are the borders of the Islamic State? From the first days of its appearance in Syria in 2011, the organization was known as ISIS.  However, since the declaration in Summer 2014 of the establishment of an Islamic Caliphate headed by Ibrahim ‘Awad Ibrahim Al Badri al Samarra’i, alias Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi — now the self-declared “Caliph Ibrahim” — ISIS has been transformed into the “Islamic State” (Al Dawla Al Islamiya ) in order to stress the fact that the Caliphate is not to be limited to Iraq, Syria, Israel (Palestine), Jordan  and the Levant, but its ambitions lie well beyond those limited borders.

Isis releases map of 5-year plan to spread from Spain to China  -  The Structure of the Islamic State (ISIS)

ISIS releases map of 5-year plan to spread from Spain to China

According to the maps published by the Islamic State, the Islamic State will include Andalus in the West (Spain) and stretch from North Africa — the Maghreb — (and the whole of West Africa including Nigeria) through Libya and Egypt (considered one geographical unit – Ard Al-Kinana), include what is called in Islamic state terminology, Ard el Habasha (from Cameroon in  the west, Central Africa, the Victoria lake states, Ethiopia and Somalia), the Hijaz (Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States), Yemen until Khurasan in the east – defined as the Central Asian Muslim Republics beginning with Azerbaijan and including Pakistan and the South west part of China, land of the Muslims of Turkish origin, the Uyghurs. The Islamic State includes also Iran and Turkey (named Anadol) in their entirety and parts of Europe (mainly the Balkans, more or less conforming to the borders of the defunct Ottoman Empire with the Austro-Hungarian territories).

Government Structure

Caliph Ibrahim is the sole decision-maker in the Islamic State and his decisions are implemented with no avenue for recourse. As the representative of the Prophet Mohammed, he holds absolute power and does not share authority with any of his lieutenants. A sole exception is Abu Muslim Al Turkemani who is reported to serve as his deputy.1 Turkemani, also known as Fadl Ahmad Abdullah al Hiyali, is mainly charged with overseeing the Iraqi provinces in the Islamic state. He served as a lieutenant-colonel in the Iraqi military’s intelligence corps and as a special forces officer.

Caliph Ibrahim sits atop a pyramid of power.2 Even though little has been published about the structure governing the Islamic State — mainly for security reasons — the Islamic State seems to be partly composed of former military officers who served in the Iraqi Army until Saddam Hussein’s ousting and is structure as follows:

  • The Military Council: Headed by Abu Ahmad al ‘Alawani, the Council includes three members whose task is to plan and supervise the military commanders and the actual operations in the field. The members of the Council are all appointed by the Caliph.
  • The Shura (Consultative) Council: Headed by Abu Arkan Al Ameri, this Council is supposed to include 9-11 members, all selected by Caliph Ibrahim. Theoretically, this Council can depose the Caliph but only in theory. The main task of the Council is supervising affairs the state.
  • The Judicial Authority: Headed by Abu Mohammad al-Ani, the Authority deals with all judicial issues as well as spreading the message of the Islamic State by means of recruitment and preaching.
  • The Defense, Security and Intelligence Council: This Council may be the most important at this moment, since it is not only responsible for the personal security and safety of the Caliph, but also serves to implement orders, campaigns, judicial decisions and, of course, as the agency responsible for the collection and dissemination of intelligence. This Council is headed by Abu Bakr (AKA Abu Ali) al-Anbari, a former major-general in Saddam Hussein’s army together with three other high ranking officers who served also during Saddam Hussein’s presidency.
  • The Islamic State Institution for Public Information: Headed by Abu Al Athir Omru al Abbassi. The Islamic State spokesman was Abu Mohammad al-‘Adnani who was killed in a military raid and who may have been replaced by Abu Ahmad al ‘Alawani.

However, information recently discovered on memory sticks taken from the home of Al-Baghdadi’s military chief for the Iraqi territory, Abu Abd el Rahman al Bilawi, killed in a military raid, reveal another parallel structure which suggests an executive branch of the State, a sort of “cabinet” dedicated to the daily administration of the state.3 (See Appendix.)

In any case, events on the ground have shown some of the more brutal facets of the management of the Islamic State. This issue has been examined in a previous analysis.4 The Islamic State’s first priority was to wage “ethnic cleansing” to eliminate any potential foes and opposition as well as to observe its religious creed.

Once the area controlled by the Islamic state became more or less homogenous, the Islamic State decided to implement Phase Two in its pursuit of power: Islamic education according to the Islamic State philosophy. The Education Authority in the Islamic State issued a statement asking all principals and school teachers, males and females alike, in the Syrian town of Raqqah not to begin the schooling year before having participated in a seven-day seminar in which they were supposed to be taught what were permitted and forbidden subjects to teach according to the values of the Islamic State.5  Looking at the list provided by the Islamic State, there are more forbidden things than permitted ones:

It is absolutely forbidden to teach art, music, civics education, sociology, history, sports, philosophy, psychology, and religious education, be it Muslim or Christian. (Religious studies are conducted exclusively in the madrassa – religious schools.) There should be no mention of the nation-state, Syria, nor use of the word “homeland.” The national anthem is also forbidden. Instead the students/pupils should learn to say Islamic State or Country of Islam or the Province of Sham (the Levant). In mathematics, no example should be given that would point at calculating interest, or mentioning democracy or elections. In natural science there will be no mention of Darwin or Darwinism.

Recruitment of Foreigners

These radical changes do not seem to create any discord between the IS and the Jihadists coming from abroad. On the contrary, IS has been so successful in creating an atmosphere of hatred against all “heretics” and all that Western civilization represents that it has succeeded to attract thousands of foreign and Arab volunteers to abandon previous allegiances and apply to the ranks of the Islamic State. By one estimate, “perhaps 12,000 foreign fighters” have joined the IS ranks.6

Moreover, the conquest of Mosul and huge swaths of land between Syria and Iraq have become a beacon for extreme Jihadists from all over the Muslim World, especially those who seek to implement the example of the IS in their own countries. The extreme adulation expressed by young Muslims living outside the Middle East, and subsequently their enrollment in the rank and file of the Jihadi fighters, have created an unprecedented situation In the West where governments have become conscious of the imminent danger of those Jihadists coming back to their domestic front after their indoctrinations and gaining experience in weapons and explosives.

The Islamic State does not seem like a passing phenomenon. The structures being established indicate that even if the actual leaders of the IS are killed, the system has created a succession procedure that will allow it to survive, just like al-Qaeda survived the killing of Osama Bin Laden. Uprooting the IS phenomenon will be a long and arduous road. Without creating a chasm between the IS and the local population, and without reaching a long and lasting political solution that will put an end to Sunni-Shiite rivalries in Iraq and to the conflict in Syria, the chances of success will remain negligible.


(As published by the Telegraph)


Nom de guerre                      Real name                                                                    Function

1. Abu Bakr Kadr                     Shawkat Hazem el Farhat                                             General management official

2. Abu Muhammad                 Basher Isma’il al Hamdani                                             Prisoners and detainees

3. Abu Louay aka Abu ‘Ali     ‘Abd el Wahid Khutmayer Ahmad                                General security

4. Abu Salah                             Muwaffaq Mustafa Mohammad el Kharmoush         General finance

5. Abu Hajar al Assafi             Mohammad Hamid al Duleimi                                      General coordinator between the provinces

6. Abu Kassem                          ‘Abdullah Ahmad al Meshedani                                   Arrival of the Arab and foreign Jihadists, “transporter of suicide bombers”

7. Abu ‘Abd el Rahman al Bilawi    ‘Adnan Isma’il Najem Bilawi                               Former chief of the Military Council ( Killed )

War Office

1. Abu Shema                          Fares Reif alNaima                                                          Guardian Warehouses

2. Abu Suja                              ‘Abd el Rahman al Afari                                                   Coordinator Martyrs and Women

3. Abu Kifah                              Khairy ‘Abd Mahmoud al Taey                                     Operations using improvised explosive devices and rigging bombs


(All under the Authority of Al-Anbari and Turkmani)

1. Wissam ‘Abd Zeid el Zubeidi ( Abu Nabil), Salah Eddine Gorvernorate

2. Nemr ‘Abd el Latif Jubouri ( Abu Fatma), Kirkuk

3. Ahmad Mohsen Khalal al Jihaishi (AKA Abu Fatma), South and Middle Euphrates

4. Rathwan Talib Hussein al Hamduni (Abu Juma), borders close to the IS

5. ‘Adnan Latif Hamid al Suweidawi ( Abu ‘Abd el Salem aka Abu Mohammad al Sweidawi), Governorate of Al- Anbar, member of the Military Council, ex lieutenant-colonel

6. Ahmad ‘Abd el Kader al Jazza ( Abu Maysara), Governorate of Baghdad

 * * *

3 Telegraph, sup.cit.
6 Michael Singh, “The Islamic State’s Triple Threat,” Foreign Policy


About Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah

Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah, a special analyst for the Middle East at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, was formerly Foreign Policy Advisor to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Deputy Head for Assessment of Israeli Military Intelligence.
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