The New York Times recently ran a story on receipts that purportedly show payments by the Islamic State (IS) to members of Hurras al-Din (the al-Qa'ida-loyalist organization based in northwestern Syria). If authentic, the documents show, at most, that IS had operatives inside Hurras al-Din. That conclusion would not in itself be surprising. In February 2019, Hurras al-Din issued the following notification to all of its members, warning (among other things) against affiliation and contact with IS:
"In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful
General notification from the leadership council:
To all the brothers (amirs, sectors and members).
Any person or group who is proven to be involved in the following:
1. Gathering firewood [literal meaning: but also interpreted as general looting/extortion in this context: h/t Hassan Hassan].
2. Affiliation or contact with the Dawla organization [IS].
3. Committing one of the violations that necessitate removal.
Will be considered automatically removed from the Hurras al-Din organization before taking any of the removal and judicial procedures against them.
And God is the guarantor of success and the One who guides to the straight path.
15 Jumada al-Akhir 1440 AH corresponding to 2 February 2019 CE.
Leadership council of Hurras al-Din
Sectors (to be published in all bases)
Divisions (to be published in all bases)
Some readers however have raised questions about the receipts. I am quoted as saying that the receipts did not appear to be forged. But how did I come to that judgement? This is a fair issue to discuss and I will discuss further below what happened.
Originally, I was given two sets of documents to look at: one being a group of purported internal letters and notifications of IS, the other being the receipts. There were four documents in each set. I was asked to assess them. Thus, in total I looked at eight documents, of which four were receipts. I did not have access to all eight receipts mentioned in the paper.
The first set of documents raised a number of problems for me. Three of them were marked with a 2018 CE date, but no corresponding Hijri date was given (normally in IS documents, there is marking of a Hijri date or at least space left for it). Further, those same three documents all bore the group's old stamp of 'Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham', which predates the announcement of the Caliphate in June 2014 CE. While some documents in the 2014-2015 CE period may show the old stamp still being used, it is highly implausible for the old stamp to still be used in 2018 CE. Not only that, but the document papers also had the titling of 'Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham'. If one argues (implausibly, in my view) that the old stamp could still be used by 2018 CE, it is even more implausible that the old titling of 'Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham' would be used by this point. It is not as though IS was facing a dire shortage of paper on which it could print its current name.
The contents of the first set of documents showed other red flags. One of the documents (i.e. distinct from the other three mentioned in the preceding paragraph) bears no date, but uses the old stamp and titling. But the main issue is that it contains the following phrase: 'A letter directed to the members of the Islamic State: we ask all the brothers in the organization inside and outside the areas of the Islamic State...' (emphasis my own). IS, as is well known, does not consider itself a mere 'organization' (Arabic: tandhim) but actually sees itself as a state. Similarly, another of the documents mentions the 'security and media files concerned with the organization' and the 'supreme Shura council affiliated with the organization.'
Another point I will note is the references in the first set of documents to the security department as al-Diwan al-Amni and al-Diwan al-Amni al-Muwahhad ('The Amni Diwan' and 'The Unified Amni Diwan'), but this is not the usual formulation in IS documents for the security department. While it is known that name changes occurred for various bodies (e.g. the 'Islamic court' became the 'general court'; the 'General Governing Committee' became the 'Delegated Committee'; and the 'Fatwa Issuing and Research Diwan' eventually became the 'Research and Studies Office'), I have not seen evidence that suggests the Diwan al-Amn/Diwan al-Amn al-Aam ('Security/Public Security Diwan') became 'al-Diwan al-Amni' or 'al-Diwan al-Amni al-Muwahhad'. The dissident-turned-defector trend, for instance, has published much material concerning the behaviour of the security department in the late periods of IS, but does not mention this designation or a name change to 'al-Diwan al-Amni'/'al-Diwan al-Amni al-Muwahhad.'
For these reasons, I concluded that the first set of documents were forgeries.
One concern I then had was that if the two sets of documents came from the same source, then the authenticity of the receipts automatically came into doubt. I was told however that the receipts came from a different source. It was on this basis that I proceeded to look at the receipts further, which superficially showed no obvious problems.
The four receipts I was given to examine had the following Hijri dates:
(i) 7 Rajab 1439 AH
(ii) 11 Rajab 1439 AH
(iii) 18 Ramadan 1439 AH
(iv) 1 Dhu al-Q'ida 1439 AH
Therefore, the four receipts date from the period March-July 2018 CE. For context, note that Hurras al-Din officially declared its existence in a statement in late February 2018 CE, but it is documented that it existed for a time before that (e.g. see testimony by a Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham figure here, which notes the group's framework existed during the times of the Sharq al-Sikka battles in late 2017 CE/beginning of 2018 CE; and compare with this testimony from al-Qa'ida loyalists). There is, however, no evidence that Hurras al-Din existed as an organization in early 2017 CE.
The New York Times says there are eight receipts, dating 'from early 2017 to mid-2018' and 'showing payments by ISIS to members of Hurras al-Din' (emphasis my own). If there is indeed a receipt from early 2017 saying that a payment was made to someone 'affiliated with Hurras al-Din' (to use the formulation of the receipts), it raises a problem regarding authenticity, as Charles Lister has suggested.
I also contacted a source in Hurras al-Din regarding the controversy. He declared the receipts to be fake, describing the story as a campaign to defame the organization.
One possibility of course is that the document papers of the receipts are real, but they were blank when found and someone inserted writing on them to create the story.
The easiest way to resolve this controversy for certain is to publish the original documents in full. Hopefully that will occur and the issue can be discussed more fully.
(Update 10 November 2019 CE): Having reviewed all the receipts, I have come to the conclusion they are not authentic. Further, the Hurras al-Din source mentioned in the text above says that the foundation of Hurras al-Din only goes back to July 2017 CE.