In the mid-1990s, Anbari moved back to Tal Afar, a mixed city of Shiites and Sunnis. He was assigned to a local school in one of the city’s largest Shiite neighborhoods, Khadraa, and later also became an imam at a nearby mosque. He used the pulpit to attack Shiites and Sufis as deviant sects.
Anbari was swept along by these trends. After 9/11, he and some of his former students created a “nucleus of an emirate”—a sort of proto–Islamic state—in northern Iraq. The students were trained on the hillsides surrounding Tal Afar by a close associate of Anbari named Iyad Abu Bakr.
Beyond spurring jihadism, the 9/11 attacks seem to have polarized the religious scene in Iraq. Anbari and like-minded jihadists began to see rival Islamists, including the Muslim Brotherhood, as enemies—a position that would become a notable aspect of the Islamic State’s ideology. Anbari viewed the Muslim Brotherhood’s embrace of political norms and its rejection of al-Qaeda as a betrayal. His fixation with the Muslim Brotherhood is also evident in his audio lectures, in which he refers to its members as “the devil’s brothers.”
Anbari took great stock in a new set of jihadist books that were circulating in post-9/11 Iraq, primarily ones by Zarqawi’s prison mentor, Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, and Abdulqadir bin Abdulaziz, an Egyptian jihadist ideologue. These materials, his son wrote, “polished the sheikh’s concepts” and “corrected his creed” on matters such as apostasy and the adoption of man-made laws. Thus, a man who had never embraced moderation rejected the concept as totally anathema to Islam.
What I hope is now clear to readers is that Anbari’s extremist views, which were later mirrored by isis, were forged before the American invasion of Iraq—and before he met Zarqawi.
According to Abdullah’s biography, Zarqawi arrived in northern Iraq from Afghanistan in the spring of 2002. Anbari met him a month later in Baghdad, where Zarqawi was hosted by an envoy of the Kurdish jihadist group Ansar al-Islam and a friend of Anbari’s. (This is the first time an isis publication has acknowledged that Zarqawi was present in Baghdad before the invasion. Previously, some claimed this chronology was false or politicized—part of the Bush administration’s attempts to justify the war by linking Zarqawi to the Hussein regime.) During this period, Anbari moved back and forth from central to northern Iraq to facilitate jihadist activities. “Preparations for jihad were maturing, in terms of finance, men and arms,” Abdullah’s biography reads. “All this was happening under the rule of the Baath.”
“All this” included the preinvasion professionalization of the Islamist movement, as former Baathists, who “repented” before the war, set about organizing new recruits. Abu Muslim al-Turkmani, once a colonel in Hussein’s army and the eventual No. 3 in the Islamic State of Iraq’s hierarchy, trained an anti-Saddam jihadist group that was then put under Anbari’s command. Anbari and Turkmani’s men made gun silencers and improvised bombs for Zarqawi.
When the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, Anbari and Zarqawi led separate groups that were not yet part of al-Qaeda in Iraq. (Both pledged allegiance in 2004, Anbari as Zarqawi’s deputy.) There’s a great deal of evidence that Anbari, not Zarqawi, set the extremist pace, advancing the policies that would characterize isis.
Soon after the invasion, Anbari’s group in Tal Afar targeted anyone regarded as heretical or obstructive; it attacked Shiites, members of the Muslim Brotherhood, and local informants regardless of what tribe they belonged to.
By contrast, it would take another year for Zarqawi to embrace such extreme sectarianism. After Zarqawi formally pledged allegiance to bin Laden and became the head of al-Qaeda in Iraq, he wrote a letter to al-Qaeda’s central leadership articulating a plan to attack Shiite civilians and places of worship. The idea for targeting the Shiites probably came from native Iraqis like Anbari—possibly even Anbari himself. Prior to 2004, Zarqawi’s fixation was largely with secular Arab regimes, exemplified by his bombing of the Jordanian embassy in Baghdad in the summer of 2003. Laith Alkhouri, a close watcher of the group and a co-founder of the intelligence company Flashpoint in New York, said Zarqawi found anti-Shiite views instrumental to mobilizing Sunnis in Iraq in 2005, which led him to declare an all-out war against Shiites “wherever they are.”
Anbari also had a direct role in the transformation of al-Qaeda in Iraq from a foreign-dominated force into one run by Iraqis. Abdullah’s biography reveals that Anbari was dispatched by Zarqawi to Pakistan in late 2005, passing through Iran with fake documents, to brief leaders of al-Qaeda there about rumors that the Iraqi branch was alienating fellow jihadists. (The detail about Anbari’s journey is a rare admission of the fact that Iran is used as a transit corridor in the region.) When Anbari returned, he presented a plan to merge al-Qaeda in Iraq with other, local forces to establish the Mujahideen Shura Council in January 2006. Anbari headed the council, using his new nom de guerre, Abdullah Rasheed al-Baghdadi.
One year later, the newly “Iraqized” local operation rebranded itself as the Islamic State of Iraq, and the group’s attacks against Shiites and Americans rose exponentially.
Anbari was arrested by U.S. troops in Baghdad in 2006, and Zarqawi was killed two months later, at which point, of course, his influence came to an end. Although Anbari remained in custody until March 2012, he stayed involved in the jihadist story by recruiting and indoctrinating fellow inmates. After Anbari’s release—which the Islamic State of Iraq apparently arranged by bribing Iraqi officials—Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi summoned him to Baghdad and assigned him to a critical mission.
Anbari’s new task was to investigate whether the group’s branch in Syria, then known as Jabhat al-Nusra, was still loyal to Baghdadi. He found that Abu Muhammad al-Julani, the Syrian branch’s leader, was a “cunning person” and “double-faced”—according to an account published by isis—so Anbari and Baghdadi plotted against him. The two formed independent relationships with key members of Jabhat al-Nusra, and then Baghdadi unilaterally announced a merger between the two branches. Although the merger didn’t last, many of Jabhat al-Nusra’s leaders went over to Baghdadi’s group. Anbari was also tasked with communicating with al-Qaeda, under the nom de guerre Abu Suhayb al-Iraqi, to resolve the jihadist infighting. The reconciliation effort failed and al-Qaeda formally disavowed isis in February 2014.
For Syrian rebels, Anbari was the face of isis as he met and negotiated with them from late 2012 through the summer of 2014. After the takeover of Mosul, he turned his full attention to sharpening the organization’s ideology. Indeed, he became the ideologue in chief, in which capacity he trained senior clerics, instructed members to draft religious texts, and issued fatwas about major issues affecting the caliphate. Under his supervision, a Jordanian pilot was condemned to immolation, a dark realization of the younger Anbari’s desire to burn the ghajars who’d come to Mujama Barzan; Yazidis who came in contact with the group were massacred or enslaved; and two tribes in Syria and Iraq were massacred as a warning against rebellion in the wake of the group’s capture of one-third of Iraq and nearly half of Syria. Anbari also labeled Syria’s moderate rebels as apostates in 2013, and authored a detailed fatwa against them.
Later on, Baghdadi appointed Anbari to serve as the group’s chief of finance, a task that involved regular travels between Syria and Iraq. In March 2016, on one of those frequent trips, Anbari was killed near the Syrian city of Shaddadi, along the Syrian-Iraqi border. According to the biography, American soldiers attempted to capture him in a raid but he blew himself up using a suicide belt. Anbari outlived Zarqawi by 10 years, and out-influenced him.
Perhaps scholars have ignored Anbari’s contributions because he was so elusive. He had, for example, around a dozen noms de guerre. For many years the U.S. thought he was at least two different people. Officials had only two pictures of him. When he was captured briefly in Mosul in 2005, his U.S. captors did not know his true identity, because he used fake documents. The second time he was captured, in 2006, they recognized him but only as the local terrorist cleric from Tal Afar, rather than as the leader of the al-Qaeda–dominated Mujahideen Shura Council.
Zarqawi led a jihadist group that later evolved into the Islamic State of Iraq and later still into the Islamic State proper—but it is too simplistic to say that isis was Zarqawi’s brainchild. Experts who closely tracked Zarqawi’s early activism agree that the Jordanian had no clear sectarian vision before he arrived in Iraq, and his ideas before that did not depart from mainstream jihadist worldviews. Nada Bakos, a former CIA analyst and the author of the forthcoming The Targeter: My Life in the CIA, on the Hunt for the Godfather of isis, told me that Zarqawi “was a good tactician, not a strategic thinker, and he was responding to the circumstances around him. People near him built the strategy of what he wanted to achieve.”
Husham Alhashimi, an Iraqi historian of jihadist groups who advises the Iraqi government on isis, studied the insurgency against the United States up close from the outset. He pointed to three Iraqi ideologues who directly shaped Zarqawi’s thinking and approach. They had similar profiles to Anbari in terms of religious training and were all wanted by the former regime for their extremist ideas and activities: Abu Abdulrahman al-Iraqi, a former aide to Zarqawi who currently in jail; Nidham Addin Rifaai, who was imprisoned several times, starting in 1978, for involvement in the Salafi Monotheists Movement and who is also currently in jail; and Abdullah Abdelsamad al-Mufti, who has been wanted since 1991 and who is a highly regarded Salafi ideologue in Iraq.
Alhashimi said these Iraqi jihadist clerics advanced ideas eventually rejected by al-Qaeda but embraced by isis, including extreme sectarianism and the concept of establishing an Islamic state. “These clerics had a complete school of jurisprudence and methodology, as well as foundational religious texts,” Alhashimi said. “Zarqawi was merely a commander who worked according to their approach, which was why his approach diverged from al-Maqdisi and bin Laden after he mingled with the people of Iraq.”