Amir Muhammad Sa’id Abdal-Rahman al-Mawla is the U.S.-designated leader and one of the founding members of ISIS. He was appointed as the successor to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi on October 31, 2019, following the death of the former caliph in a U.S. raid on October 26, 2019.Hesham Abdulkhalek, Yousef Saba, and Ulf Laessing, “Islamic State confirms Baghdadi is dead, appoints successor,” Reuters, October 31, 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-baghdadi-confirmation/islamic-state-confirms-baghdadi-is-dead-appoints-successor-idUSKBN1XA25A. Al-Mawla was a former officer in Saddam Hussein’s army and was considered one of the most prominent ISIS members in Baghdadi’s circle.“Baghdadi's successor likely to be Iraqi religious scholar,” CNN, October 29, 2019, https://m.cnn.com/en/article/h_873c1d33867a3fe972d26223a97b697c. The U.S. Department of State has both designated al-Mawla as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist and is offering a $5 million reward for information leading to his capture.“Wanted: Amir Muhammad Sa’id Abdal-Rahman al-Mawla,” Rewards for Justice, August 21, 2019, https://rewardsforjustice.net/english/amir_al_malwa.html.; “Designation of Amir Muhammad Sa'id Abdal-Rahman al-Mawla as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist,” Federal Register, March 24, 2020, https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2020/03/24/2020-06112/designation-of-amir-muhammad-said-abdal-rahman-al-mawla-as-a-specially-designated-global-terrorist.
Al-Mawla hails from the Sunni district of Tal Afar, Iraq. He graduated from the Islamic Sciences College in Mosul. It is reported that he also studied Sharia legal studies at the University of Mosul.“New non-Arab Daesh leader confirmed by intelligence,” Middle East Monitor, January 21, 2020, https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20200121-new-non-arab-daesh-leader-confirmed-by-intelligence/. Upon the completion of his schooling, he served as an officer in Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s army. Following the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq and the capture of Hussein in 2003, al-Mawla turned to violent extremism and eventually took on the role of religious commissary and a general Sharia jurist for al-Qaeda.“Speculation mounts of a new ISIS leader in the making,” The National, August 8, 2019, https://www.thenational.ae/world/mena/speculation-mounts-of-a-new-isis-leader-in-the-making-1.895931.
In 2004, al-Mawla was captured by U.S. forces due to his links to al-Qaeda. While imprisoned at Camp Bucca in Basra, near the Iraqi-Kuwaiti border, al-Mawla met and formed a close bond with Baghdadi. It was at Camp Bucca where Baghdadi radicalized many future al-Qaeda and ISIS militants, leading the camp to be considered the birthplace of ISIS.Terrence McCoy, “Camp Bucca: The US prison that became the birthplace of Isis,” Independent, November 4, 2014, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/camp-bucca-the-us-prison-that-became-the-birthplace-of-isis-9838905.html. It is uncertain when al-Mawla was released, but it is assumed he went back to Mosul and re-joined al-Qaeda following his detention.
In 2014, al-Mawla welcomed Baghdadi to Mosul. Al-Mawla then left al-Qaeda and pledged allegiance and full support to the radical’s mission, providing ISIS the support to quickly take control of the city.Giorgio Cafiero, “New IS leader takes over following Baghdadi’s death,” Al-Monitor, October 28, 2019, https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2019/10/isis-death-baghdadi-new-leader-qardash.html.; Chris Pleasance and Joe Middleton, “The Professor - ISIS's 'cruel but popular' new leader: Ex-Saddam officer Abdullah Qardash, who was imprisoned alongside Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and eliminated his rivals, takes the reins after former chief was killed in US strikes,” Daily Mail, October 28, 2019, https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-7620271/ISIS-new-leader-barely-day-former-chief-Baghdadi-died-dog.html. Al-Mawla quickly established himself among the insurgency’s senior ranks, and was nicknamed the “Professor” and the “Destroyer.” Serving Baghdadi as his lieutenant, al-Mawla was well-respected among ISIS’s members. A brutal policymaker, al-Mawla was responsible for eliminating those who opposed Baghdadi’s leadership.Remy Mahzam, “Abdullah Qardash: IS Successor to Al-Baghdadi?,” RSIS Commentary, September 20, 2019, https://www.rsis.edu.sg/rsis-publication/icpvtr/abdullah-qardash-is-successor-to-al-baghdadi/#.XicauTJKipo. Furthermore, it is reported that in 2015, al-Mawla was among the people that gave an alleged Islamic ruling for ISIS to murder and enslave thousands of Yazidis—a religious minority in Iraq.“New non-Arab Daesh leader confirmed by intelligence,” Middle East Monitor, January 21, 2020, https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20200121-new-non-arab-daesh-leader-confirmed-by-intelligence/.
Despite al-Mawla’s Turkmen origin—most of ISIS’s senior hierarchy have been Iraqi Arabs and descended from the Prophet Mohammed’s Quraysh tribe—in August of 2019, ISIS’s Amaq News Agency reported that Baghdadi had nominated al-Mawla to be his successor.“Speculation mounts of a new ISIS leader in the making,” The National, August 8, 2019, https://www.thenational.ae/world/mena/speculation-mounts-of-a-new-isis-leader-in-the-making-1.895931. On August 21, 2019, the U.S. Department of State’s Rewards for Justice program offered a $5 million reward for information leading to his capture.“Wanted: Amir Muhammad Sa’id Abdal-Rahman al-Mawla,” Rewards for Justice, August 21, 2019, https://rewardsforjustice.net/english/amir_al_malwa.html. The State Department increased the reward up to $10 million on June 24, 2020.“Rewards for Justice – Increased Reward Offer for Information on ISIS Leader Amir Muhammad Sa’id Abdal-Rahman al-Mawla,” U.S. Department of State, June 24, 2020, https://www.state.gov/rewards-for-justice-increased-reward-offer-for-information-on-isis-leader-amir-muhammad-said-abdal-rahman-al-mawla/.
On October 31, 2019, a few days after Baghdadi’s death by U.S. forces, ISIS released an audio recording announcing al-Mawla—or rather, his nom de guerre, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Quraishi—as the new leader of ISIS.Rukmini Callimachi and Eric Schmitt, “ISIS Names New Leader and Confirms al-Baghdadi’s Death,” New York Times, October 31, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/31/world/middleeast/isis-al-baghdadi-dead.html. Intelligence officials suggest that al-Mawla is hiding out in a small band of towns to the west of Mosul or that he has gone as far as Turkey, where his brother Adel Salbi is a representative for the Turkmen Iraqi Front.Martin Chulov and Mohammed Rasool, “Isis founding member confirmed by spies as group's new leader,” Guardian, January 20, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jan/20/isis-leader-confirmed-amir-mohammed-abdul-rahman-al-mawli-al-salbi.
On March 24, 2020, the U.S. Department of State designated al-Mawla as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT) under Executive Order 13224.“Terrorist Designation of ISIS Leader Amir Muhammad Sa’id Abdal-Rahman al-Mawla,” U.S. Department of State, March 17, 2020, www.state.gov/terrorist-designation-of-isis-leader-amir-muhammad-said-abdal-rahman-al-mawla/; “Designation of Amir Muhammad Sa'id Abdal-Rahman al-Mawla as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist,” Federal Register, March 24, 2020, https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2020/03/24/2020-06112/designation-of-amir-muhammad-said-abdal-rahman-al-mawla-as-a-specially-designated-global-terrorist.
On May 20, 2020, reports circulated that al-Mawla had been captured in Iraq. Iraq’s National Intelligence Service announced the capture of an ISIS leader named Abdul Nasser Qardash. Some reports initially claimed Qardash was in fact al-Mawla, who used the pseudonym Abdullah Qardash. Iraqi security forces quickly retracted the claim and identified the captured militant as an ISIS leader who had once been considered as Baghdadi’s replacement.“Iraq claims capture of senior Daesh leader,” Arab News, May 21, 2020, https://www.arabnews.com/node/1677661/middle-east; Ross Ibbetson, “ISIS chief once tipped to replace Baghdadi is captured in raid by Iraqi special forces,” Daily Mail (London), May 20, 2020, https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-8341865/New-ISIS-chief-captured-Iraqi-intelligence-officers-months-taking-over.html.
The U.S. government designated Amir Muhammad Sa’id Abdal-Rahman al-Mawla as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist on March 18, 2020.“Counter Terrorism Designation; Iran-related Designations,” U.S. Department of the Treasury, March 18, 2020, https://www.treasury.gov/resource-center/sanctions/OFAC-Enforcement/Pages/20200318.aspx.