By January 2014, the al-Maliki regime had completely lost control of its largest province, al-Anbar. At the time, attempting to make sense of the ground situation in Anbar was difficult; rumors, stories, false facts, and misleading facts, everything conflicted. Making sense of it was challenging. Despite the background noise in the intelligence signal, anecdotal information gleaned from a handful of Anbar residents and tribal sheiks lent credence to the idea that an emergent IS battlefield leader–a tactical game changer, was operating in Anbar. Some analysts conflated the Islamic State (IS) gains in Anbar with an on the ground presence of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi–“Abu Du’a”; perhaps he was occasionally present. However, the Anbar locals were seeing someone else, someone different who interestingly, was not a stranger. If Sunnis got close enough and survived the encounter, or if they dared study the face under his beard they might have recognized a Sunni native son. But, to fully tell this story we have to go farther back in time.
Born in 1986 and raised in the heart of Anbar province, Shakir Waheeb al Fahdawi al Dulaimi was 17 when the U.S invaded Iraq in 2003. After graduation from high school, al-Fahdawi matriculated into the University of Anbar where he enrolled in a curriculum of mathematics and computing science. Located on the southwestern periphery of Ramadi, the campus, and its buildings cut a stark contrast to the low brown houses and two-story structures that make up much of Ramadi, the seat of the provincial government.
While a student at the University of Anbar, al-Fahdawi was recruited by members of the outlawed Fedahyeen. Out of those associations, Fahdawi became involved in the engine room of Al Qua’ida In Iraqi’s (AQI) insurgency within Anbar. Fahdawi came of age in AQI during the leadership tenure of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. As the insurgency burned out of control across Iraq, Fahdawi became a highly skilled insurgent and small unit tactician; tutored by Hussein-era Iraqi Army and Special Forces personnel in AQI. But when Fahdawi was arrested by U.S. forces in mid-2006 in Ramadi, his insurgent career seemed destined to end. Alas, this would not the final time Waheeb would walk the streets and neighborhoods of Ramadi.
After his 2006 arrest, evidence at his trial linked Fahdawi to a string of AQI conducted murders, assassinations, and abductions involving U.S. and Iraqi victims. For those crimes, he was sentenced to death. At first, U.S. Forces Iraq imprisoned Fahdawi at Camp Bucca, the sprawling U.S. detention facility near the Kuwaiti border west of Basra. Years later U.S. intelligence realized that Bucca was the incubator of a future generation of even more hardened insurgents: the membership base of the IS. The setting at Bucca put criminals with an AQI past in daily contact with each other. Fahdawi’s incarceration at Bucca did not coincide with Ibrahim Awad Ibrahim al-Badri, a.k.a., Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s sentence. By late 2004, Baghdadi was freed and hard at work on the outside reorganizing AQI, especially after the death of Abu Omar al-Baghdadi in April 2010. U.S. officials transferred Fahdawi to another prison among the ten in the U.S. system within Iraq, the Tikrit Detention Facility where his death sentence was to be carried out.
Some blogs such as Long War Journal place the date of Fahdawi’s escape from the Tikrit Detention Facility as November 2012; that is incorrect. Furthermore, the exact number of inmates that escaped because of the AQI attack of September 28, 2012 is in question; the total likely between 90 to 102. Whatever the headcount, Fahdawi and 47 other death row inmates walked out of Tikrit that night to rejoin AQI. These former inmates were vital new but highly experienced AQI foot soldiers that further augmented the core of a roiling Iraqi insurgency. Later prison breaks staged by AQI put over 1,000 more convicted criminals–most of them former AQI members, back on the streets where they swelled the ranks of a new organization: AQI reimagined, The Islamic State.
After his escape from prison in September 2012, Fahdawi likely moved around western Iraq, reintegrated with IS operatives and reconnected with former Bucca and Tikrit inmates. What happened next is unclear, but by early 2012, the Lions of Anbar–“Usud al-Anbar” formed with Fahdawi as a key leader. It was then that Fahdawi’s nom de guerre became more widely known: Abu Waheeb. Often incorrectly transliterated and translated in western writings, Abu Waheeb (the correct transliteration [not “Wahib”]; in Arabic accurately translated as “the giver, donor” [not “the generous”]) borrowed a page from the Zarqawi playbook: murders captured on video in his role as self-styled on-the-spot judge, enforcer, and executioner.
By the summer of 2013, auto and truck traffic traveling on Highway 1–the trans-Iraq to Jordan ribbon of asphalt that runs 350 miles from Baghdad to the Tarbil Border Crossing on the Iraq/Jordan border, came under daily attacks from what then seemed like well-organized banditry. Usud al-Anbar, in a pattern that persists today, stopped drivers with the intent of extorting money and seizing vehicles when their freight met the needs of Usud or had black market value convertible to cash to fuel the insurgency. In mid-August 2013 a four-minute grainy cellphone video emerged of Waheeb talking with three Syrian truck drivers stopped by his band of men as the truckers drove eastbound toward Baghdad. Waheeb escorted the men into the sandy highway median and successively shot each to death as each failed to correctly reply to Waheeb’s rambling interrogation as to the alleged proper positioning of one’s hands during prayer; Waheeb deemed the men as Sunni imposters. Later in October of 2013, in an act that critically undermined the morale of policemen in Anbar, Waheeb and a band of IS fighters captured and executed 16 provincial policemen.
Only three months later in January 2014, IS forces ousted Iraqi security forces from Fallujah. Waheeb had a front line role in making the conquest of Fallujah a reality. Some ten years after he left the University of Anbar and first picked up a weapon to participate in that insurgency, Waheeb participated in the IS’s first stunning act of expansion. With Fallujah in IS hands, Waheeb, and his band pivoted westward and set their sights on the 40-mile line of villages that stretched along the northern edge of Habbaniyah Lake toward Ramadi. There was to be a homecoming of sorts. Fallujah taught Waheeb and other IS fighters how to conduct effective small unit operations on larger scales. Waheeb and others put those skills to work as they advanced on Ramadi.
In 2014 and 2015 there were six separate battles and over 50 skirmishes for control of the center of Ramadi with regime and IS forces episodically pushing each other out of the city center towards peripheral neighborhoods and districts. There were occasions when the regime gained the upper hand; still other times the Iraqi Army’s Camp Warrar near Ramadi came under pressure from IS attack. Back in Ramadi, where this image was taken of Waheeb, he was in his element and old haunts. He knew every street and likely knew them better than the Iraqi Army Sh’ia dominated units and Popular Mobilization Forces the regime brought into Anbar to snuff out IS resistance.
Waheeb’s skills, cunning, resourcefulness, and courage improved with each passing month. As months passed and Anbar became fully consolidated by the IS–except for a fleeting Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Services tactical win, Waheeb occasionally appeared in mosques on Fridays where he berated Anbar’s Sunnis for not welcoming the IS, Abu Du’a, and the caliphate. That Waheeb was a gifted tactician with real combat skills is not in dispute; however, as an Anbar Homeboy, he and thousands of other IS militants turned Anbar into a caliphate territory the regime could not turn around. Seen here wearing a Counter Terrorism Services helmet he found on the battlefield or removed from a captured/killed Iraqi, Waheeb continued his career of impressive tactical leadership even as Coalition air support arrived overhead. In fact, the May 2015 recapture of Ramadi under a dome of U.S. air superiority was as indignifying for the Iraqis as it was brilliant for Waheeb.
What is the point of this discussion of the career and times of one of the IS’s most sociopathic, perhaps psychopathic militants? Most westerners want the IS over, gone; threat eliminated. Paradoxically, contemporary history demonstrates that the harder the West works to eliminate extant militant jihadi threats, the more the West’s efforts inadvertently encourage change and foster innovation among those they seek to destroy. Not to mention the gross effect of that which hastens the development of mutated transnational threats worse than what they replaced. Call it whack-a-mole, decapitation, killing the heads of the hydra, but as a kit bag of strategies, they are slow in getting Iraq, the region, and Europe to a strategic end state without incurring unacceptably high costs (Paris, Brussels, bombings in Baghdad today). As tactical options executed with strategic reach and scope, those courses of action may be the only ones readily available to the West to achieve some near-term disruption of local killing patterns.
In closing, this brief essay was not a commentary on Waheeb the man so much as a short story of Waheeb’s times. At the center of the Iraqi insurgency now in its 13th year is a rebellion with sophisticated, evolved terrorist methods and whose political/theological objectives are to overthrow the regime, permanently exorcise Western presence from the Middle East, and annihilate all infidels–regardless of lineage or origin.
There is another way to view this: in Waheeb was a man who brought the sword and died from it. Rest assured tomorrow will bring an updated target kill list.
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