The General Directorate of Provinces: Managing the Islamic State's Global Network.
|Hamming, Tore Refslund
When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi took the pulpit in Mosul's Great Mosque on July 4, 2014, in his first public appearance as the new self-declared caliph, his organization had its firm foundation in Iraq and Syria, a region referred to as the Levant. Growing out of al-Qa'ida in Iraq, the Islamic State had historically been preoccupied with a regional focus, but the caliphate declaration immediately augmented the group's geographical ambition to a global scale. In less than five months, the Islamic State would begin announcing its expansion to new countries around the Middle East, South Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa through its model of establishing provinces (wilayat).
In an attempt to manage its expanding organization and ensure the Levant-based leadership's command over its new provinces, the Islamic State established the institution of the Administration of Distant Provinces (ADP) that later evolved into the General Directorate of Provinces (GDP). While its Delegated Committee (al-lajna al-mufawadda) (a) was in charge of defining the ideological course and clarifying issues of creed (aqida) and methodology (manhaj), the ADP was an administrative body intended to ensure cohesion and function as a focal point for communication across borders that over time developed to become the global organization's most important institution. Although scarcely reported, it was of huge importance when a drone strike on February 20, 2023, killed Abu Sarah al-Iraqi while he was traveling on the Qah-Deir Hassan road in rural Idlib, northern Syria. Better known as Abd al-Raouf al-Muhajir, he was the emir of the Islamic State's Shura Council and the GDP, effectively making him the Islamic State's primary decision maker. (1)
According to U.N. reporting, the ADP/GDP was developed as "a hub-and-spoke approach to the problem of the core's inability to maintain its previous level of command and control." (2) But over time, and especially under al-Baghdadi's successor Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi (the 'caliph' between October 2019 to February 2022), it has become an increasingly important institution within the 'caliphate' and now allegedly occupies a central position in the execution of external terrorist operations. (3) Illustrating the concern in the counterterrorism community about the activities of the institution, on June 8, 2023, the U.S. State Department announced the designation of two GDP leaders as Specially Designated Global Terrorists. According to the State Department, "ISIS Core has relied on its regional General Directorate of Provinces (GDP) offices to provide operational guidance and funding around the world." (b)
There remains little concrete information about the GDP's exact role and activities, but this article intends to collect and present the pieces in the puzzle that are available to shed light on arguably the most important institution within the Islamic State. The GDP will likely be central in the evolution of the Islamic State in terms of its internal cohesion and power balance and the terrorism threat it will pose in the future. This article begins with an overview of the GDP's origin, structural configuration, and institutional authority before proceeding with an examination of the first-known example of its interference in the Islamic State's transnational affairs in the context of Yemen. Over the following three sections, it describes the institution's decisive role in the group's military and economic affairs and its growing responsibility managing its external attack planning and execution, before offering some concluding obeservations.
In addition to numerous reports by the United Nations' Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team, the primary empirical foundation for this article is a series of internal Islamic State documents that the author has compiled from the platforms Telegram and Rocket.chat. Especially within the past year, a number of documents detailing the affairs of the ADP/GDP have been leaked by an account within al-Qa'ida's online ecosystem. Because of the competitive and conflictual relationship between al-Qaida and the Islamic State, there is a real risk that such documents are forgeries. (4) Fake documents have been seen in the past. (5) Hence, there is a need to carefully consider each leaked internal document to assess its veracity.
The account that has been leaking many of the documents is allegedly run by former Islamic State members who identified with the so-called Binaliyya wing (c) of the Islamic State and left the group in protest against the dominance of a more extreme group, known as the Hazimiyyah. (6) In examining the documents, however, this author did not find any red flags indicating that the documents are forgeries. Whenever possible, information in the letters has been triangulated through alternative sources.
Origins, Structure, and Leadership of the Directorate
It is not known exactly when the ADP was established. The earliest document mentioning the institution dates back to September 28, 2015, but the document's top left corner states that it is document number 145 issued by the ADP. On this basis, it seems fair to assume that its origin dates back to the announcement of new Islamic State provinces in November 2014 or even earlier, going back to the announcement of the caliphate in late June that year.
The Islamic State has, since November 2014, been active announcing new provinces (wilayats) outside of the Levant. But it is likely that with the caliphate declaration several months prior, the organization identified a need to engage with like-minded groups outside of Syria and Iraq. Much of what is publicly known about the ADP/GDP comes from the United Nations' Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team and is based on U.N. member state intelligence, but this information is largely limited to confirming the institution's existence, including specific offices and responsibilities. This article offers the first in-depth look into the ADP/GDP. Through a detailed examination of the paper trail, a better understanding of its structure, responsibility, and importance for the Islamic State can be established.
At the very beginning, the ADP was nothing more than a committee based exclusively in the Levant with direct responsibility for outreach to and control over official affiliate groups. Yet, in the author's assessment, it was a committee in its own right and not one and the same as the Delegated Committee (al-Lajnat al-Mufawwadah), as some have argued. (7) The two institutions have existed simultaneously and with distinctive responsibilities, although there appears to have been an overlap in members between the ADP, the Delegated Committee, and the Shura Council. For instance, according to a variety of Islamic State documents reviewed by the author, the first emir of the ADP was Abu Muhammad al-Furqan (Wa'il al-Ta'i), who also headed the Islamic State's Media Department and, for a brief period, the Delegated Committee, while also being a member of the Shura Council. As head of the ADP, al-Furqan used the kunya Abu Ubaydah Abd al-Hakim. Other members of the ADP and its successor include Haji Hamid (Sami Jasim al-Jaburi) and Hajji Zaid (Bashar Khattab Ghazal al-Sumaidai), who were both on the Delegated Committee, and who have both been arrested.
After the death of Abu Muhammad al-Furqan in September 2016, there is little information about the leadership of the ADP until September 2019, when Abu Sa'ad al-Shimali (Fayez Al-Akal) took over. Al-Shimali was himself killed near al-Bab in Syria in June 2020 by a drone strike while traveling on a motorbike. (8) He was then succeeded by Abd al-Raouf al-Muhajir (Abu Sarah al-Iraqi), a senior leader who also occupied a place on the group's Shura Council and was a central voice in the election of Abu al-Hussein al-Husseini as caliph. As already outlined, al-Muhajir was killed on February 24, 2023. (9)
At some point during the Islamic State's evolution, the structure of the ADP started to change. New provinces were added while the existing organization of provinces was altered to either better fit realities on the ground or simply as a symbol of power projection. For instance, in late 2015, prior to it becoming an official province, Somalia was under the authority of the Islamic State's Yemeni Province, which 'supervised' Islamic State sympathizers in Somalia, (10) but on December 24, 2017, Somalia was for the first time referred to as an independent province. (d) The major restructuring, however, came with the establishment of a series of regional offices: Maktab al-Sadiq covering Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, India, and the rest of South Asia; Maktab al-Karrar covering Somalia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and Mozambique; Maktab al-Furqan covering the Lake Chad Basin and the Sahel; Maktab al-Anfal (now defunct) covering Libya and neighboring countries; Maktab Umm al-Qura covering Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf; Maktab Dhu al-Nurayn covering Egypt and Sudan; and Maktab al-Farouq covering Turkey, the Caucasus, Russia, and Europe. (See Figure 1.)
It is not clear exactly when this development of regional offices happened, but it likely occurred with the creation of a series of new smaller provinces such as Central Africa, Turkey, and India in the spring of 2019. (11) With the rapid expansion of new provinces, a regional office structure enabled the Islamic State's central institutions to command and communicate to its global provinces much more efficiently. According to internal documents, as of late 2020, salary structure for the leaders of the organization is as follows: emirs and deputies of ADP/GDP offices are paid a monthly salary of $300, emirs of provinces are...
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