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Inside ISIS: Interrogation trove shows terror group's leader was a snitch

ISIS overall leader al-Mawla "was a songbird of unique talent and ability," wrote West Point professor Daniel Milton in an essay.

Updated: April 9, 2021 - 8:46am

The Facts Inside Our Reporter’s Notebook

A newly released trove of U.S. military interrogation documents depict both betrayal and banality within the upper echelons of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, known as ISIS. The documents are a portion of the 2008 interrogation records for Amir Muhammad Sa'id Abdal-Rahman al-Mawla, who currently leads the jihadist organization. 

Although the Department of Defense last fall released a few documents from the interrogations, the newly released 53 reports reveal a deeper view of "prison canary" al-Mawla and of ISIS itself. 

Al-Mawla was captured by U.S. forces in January 2008 in Iraq, according to the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, which on Tuesday released the documents. Although al-Mawla at first denied being involved with ISIS, he quickly revealed detailed information to his interrogators about the extremist group. The trove contains reports on interrogation sessions spanning seven months.

Significant portions of some of the documents remain redacted other than to identify the man who is being interrogated, or to reveal brief observations — but even those say much. 

"Detainee seems to be more cooperative with every session," wrote the author of one 2008 report. 

Al-Mawla's position and access within ISIS made him valuable in 2008, while he was rising within the organization, one scholar observed.

"Al-Mawla was a songbird of unique talent and ability," wrote West Point professor Daniel Milton in an essay. The interrogation sessions were "chock-full" of minute details about ISIS leaders, he wrote.

Some of the details revealed where ISIS leaders and fighters lived, worked, or ate meals, and what types of cars they drove. Others gave personal characteristics, such as having "chubby cheeks," a "pot belly," or a waddling gait.

The documents also portray ISIS as being beset with bureaucratic duties, including writing letters to families whose members ISIS killed by mistake, and issuing disclaimers blaming others for various attacks.

The view into the civil service element of jihad is important, Milton noted, particularly as a way to counteract romanticized views about the movements overall.

"The members of these organizations are imagined to be committed and passionate, capable and cunning," he wrote. "While this is certainly true in some cases, previous research and reporting has shown that these groups struggle with the banalities of organizational management."

The second round of interrogation documents was released amid recent discussions about the presence of U.S. troops in Iraq, against a backdrop of mixed messages concerning the threat from ISIS.

"We didn't go in there with the idea of being a permanent presence" in Iraq, Defense Department spokesman John Kirby told reporters Wednesday at the Pentagon. "The idea was to defeat ISIS. And that's still the goal." 

Officials in the U.S. have described the Islamic State as "diminished," with a far smaller force than when the group fielded an estimated 100,000 fighters. In March, though, international ministers from the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS described the group as a continuing and possibly resurgent threat.

The newly released documents provide a timely reminder to ISIS members that their leaders cannot be trusted, defense intelligence officials privately told Just the News. The message is not lost on the Arab world, where media outlets in recent days have presented al-Mawla as devious, ambitious, and untrustworthy.

Al-Mawla during interrogation betrayed a high-ranking ISIS leader in order to take the man's place, wrote journalist Thomas Harding in an Abu-Dhabi-based publication, The National. 

"Amir Al Mawla's treachery led to a US military operation in which the second-in-command of the ISIS predecessor group was killed in 2008," Harding wrote.

Al-Mawla at some point was released from U.S. military detention. He reconnected with ISIS, and rose to lead the group after the previous leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was killed.

The U.S. State Department lists al-Mawla as one of its most wanted terrorists, and has offered a reward of up to $10 million for information that helps bring him to justice.  

"Al-Mawla, also known as Hajji Abdallah, is the overall leader of ISIS," the department wrote on the website for its Rewards for Justice program. 

"As one of ISIS's most senior ideologues, al-Mawla helped drive and justify the abduction, slaughter, and trafficking of the Yazidi religious minority in northwest Iraq and also led some of the group's global terrorist operations," the State Department wrote.

Additional interrogation records on al-Malwa remain classified, according to counterterror officials at West Point.

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