Islamic State: The Afterlife of Saddam Hussein’s Regime

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on July 4, 2015

Published at Baghdad Invest


Izzat Ibrahim ad-Douri, Saddam Hussein’s long-time deputy, was reported dead (again) on April 17. An audio message on May 15 disproved this. Douri was the implementer of the Saddam regime’s Islamization program in its later years and a key architect of the insurgency after the regime was overthrown, which helped pave the way for the Islamic State (ISIS). ISIS has now turned on Douri and his associates, but ISIS could not have risen to its current stature without Douri’s help.

The Faith Campaign

From the mid-1980s, Saddam’s regime formed connections with, and used, all manner of Islamist terrorist groups, very much including al-Qaeda, in its foreign policy, while internally the regime was Islamizing, and with the beginning of Saddam’s Islamic Faith Campaign in 1993 the Islamization accelerated, creating a Ba’athist-Salafist synthesis that has now morphed into ISIS, a group where nearly all the senior posts are held by ex-members of Saddam’s military-intelligence apparatus. It was Douri who oversaw the implementation of the Faith Campaign.

The Faith Campaign was “most likely a cynical step,” says Iraq scholar Amatzia Baram, and it is certainly true that the Campaign followed, rather than led, a major return to religiosity in Iraq as the sanctions-plus-Saddam regime took hold.

Saddam promoted Salafism as a counterweight to the Muslim Brotherhood, which Saddam regarded as a genuine threat after discovering in 1986-7 that the Brothers had been able to set up a network of cells across Iraq under the instruction of their Egyptian guide, Umar al-Tilmisani, committed to the overthrow of the government, Colonel Joel Rayburn, a former adviser to Gen. David Petraeus, writes in Iraq After America.

One of the key, though less advertised, aims of the Faith Campaign was to infiltrate religious institutions and communities and bring them under control. This didn’t work exactly as planned. Because “most of the officers who were sent to the mosques were not deeply committed to Baathism by that point, … many became more loyal to Salafism than Saddam,” Rayburn notes. Some graduates of the Faith Campaign left the Ba’athist component behind altogether and adopted a “pure” Salafism, which put them on a collision course with the regime; some “pure” Salafis were even executed after they launched terrorist attacks against the regime.

Still, the long-standing “purist” Salafi opponents of the regime were empowered alongside the Ba’athist-Salafists, Rayburn notes, and Saddam’s regime gave Iraq “an extra push in the direction of an authentic Islamization process,” as Baram puts it. It is for this reason that it is more accurate to refer to former regime elements (FREs) rather than “Ba’athists” in describing the personnel of the Saddamist military-intelligence apparatus who still operate in the Iraqi insurgency and ISIS: most FREs haven’t been Ba’athists for a long time.

Saddam’s regime finished as a “shari’a-lite” government, where hands were amputated for theft, prostitutes were beheaded in the street, and homosexuals executed. If shari’a is being applied as State policy, religious teachers and leaders acquire the positions of leadership over their communities, and the population is being indoctrinated with toxic religious and sectarian propaganda, what difference does is make if the senior leaders of Saddam’s regime actually believed it?

For what it is worth, the documents captured after the fall of the regime suggest Saddam had some kind of “born-again” experience: he thought the imposition of Islamic law and especially the mosque-building could absolve him in the eyes of god, which is why Saddam pressed on with the Islamization program even when it alienated sections of the party—including his own brother-in-law, Barzan Ibrahim.

Douri was also given the task of forming a State-supervised organized crime network, most importantly oil smugglers across the Syrian border, to evade the sanctions, which provided the resources for an internal patronage network, much of it centred on the mosques, that bound sections of the population, notably the Sunni Arabs, to the regime.

The Faith Campaign and Douri’s networks are the ideological and material structures that underpin ISIS at the present time.

The Post-Saddam Insurgency

The post-Saddam insurgency was composed of essentially three streams: FREs buttressed by the 100,000 criminals released by the regime in October 2002; the tribes who received direct patronage from the Saddam regime and the benefit of sanctions-busting smuggling operations; and foreign-led Salafi-jihadists. Douri was involved in all three.

At the fall of the regime, there were up to 95,000 FREs still in the field, which included: 26,000 Special Republican Guards, 30,000 Fedayeen Saddam, 31,000 officers, agents, and analysts of the Iraqi Intelligence Service (IIS), plus Ba’ath Party militiamen and officers from various other formations. PROJECT 111 in late 2002 trained a special cadre of 1,000 Ba’athist intelligence officials in sabotage and covert operations, and gave them specific instructions to reconnect with one-another and operate as a decentralized network to fight their way back to power in the event of the regime’s collapse.

It was “this disparate group of select Ba’ath Party operatives, security agents, officers in the elite military formations, Fedayeen Saddam members and a few tribal leaders, shored up by criminal elements that formed the nucleus of the insurgency,” Ali Allawi, who held several Ministerial positions in the post-Saddam government, has written.

There was nothing monolithic or hierarchical about the insurgency, but it was structurally built on an “emergency plan” put out by the Saddam regime in January 2003, and it did have a networked command structure and a resource stream that placed the balance of power, at least up to 2005, in the hands of the fallen regime’s leaders, specifically Douri and Muhammad Younis al-Ahmed who had fled to Syria.

Saddam’s doomsday directive had laid the groundwork for a decentralized but nonetheless interconnected insurgency. Saddam didn’t anticipate an invasion but instead Western bombing that might spark a repeat of the 1991 Shi’ite revolt, into which Iran would intrude. Saddam therefore concentrated regime resources on securing the border and distributing cash and weapons stocks, with sleeper cells (predominantly Fedayeen Saddam) throughout the south of the country to head off this possibility.

If, “God forbid[,] the Iraqi Command falls,” the directive said, then the local Ba’ath Party branches should destroy their offices and the records so intelligence agents and others could not be identified, disperse physically while remaining in contact, buy weapons from the black market, then conduct sabotage against public infrastructure and assassinations against potential senior leaders of a new political order, especially Shi’ite clerics.

There is no doubt that this infrastructure, plus the old regime’s looted resources, allowed Douri and al-Ahmed to guide the formation of the insurgency in the early days. No one group was strong enough to direct the insurgency, even highly-organized groups like then-al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia (AQM), now ISIS, which meant cooperation with and connections to the old regime were inevitable.

The amorphous shape of the insurgency at a local level means that neither the Douri/al-Ahmed sponsors nor the local recipients can be exactly sure who got donated resources. This fact is what makes it difficult nail down exactly which people and groups are precursors to ISIS. Insurgents’ contacts were much more based on personal connections and opportunism than strict principle. Even actual allegiances were fickle, especially among the tribes. This doesn’t mean the differences aren’t real: at the present time virtually all insurgents have been marginalized or annexed by ISIS, but no doubt beneath the carapace of terror and bribery the local, tribal, and factional/ideological differences remain. But it does show the complexity.

Rayburn has noted that there was “no secular Sunni resistance at all” in Iraq. This, too, was Douri’s doing. The Faith Campaign left Iraq with a much more religious, sectarian population—something that shocked the exiles. Douri and al-Ahmed concentrated their patronage on FREs, Ba’athist-Salafist groups like al-Hizb al-Awda (The Party of the Return), Jaysh al-Muhammad, and Jaysh al-Mujahideen, which was particularly dominated by Fedayeen Saddam (Saddam’s Men of Sacrifice), a militia set up in 1994 that was fanatically loyal to the regime, where the Ba’ath-Salafist fusion can be seen perfectly.

The Fedayeen’s primary task was to eliminate the regime’s internal enemies, but the Fedayeen also functioned as a mutaween (religious police) in Saddam’s final years—it was they who beheaded prostitutes in public squares and made crowds watch, very much in the spirit of ISIS. As Baram has elsewhere noted, this is no accident: “Many [Fedayeen] … fled to Syria, where they constituted the nucleus for the establishment of ISIS”.

Douri, however, exercised no fastidiousness in ensuring that funds and weapons stayed out of the hands of Salafi-jihadists; to the contrary. The FREs-al-Qaeda alliance that formed the insurgency started before the invasion. The Saddam regime had collaborated with al-Qaeda to help Ansar al-Islam wage war against the Kurds since the late 1990s. During the invasion Ansar fled to Iran with its by-then-leader Abu Musab az-Zarqawi. After the fall of Baghdad, Douri and the Ba’athist remnants would “help smuggle the [Ansar] fighters … to central Iraq so they can join the fight against U.S. forces.” By late 2003, Douri and his allies were helping Ansar al-Islam and the Salafi-jihadists “coordinate their attacks“.

With the connivance of the Assad regime, foreign Salafi-jihadists were arriving through Damascus International Airport to wage holy war against constitutional order in Iraq. The mosques infiltrated during the Faith Campaign were used to bring in fighters from Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Syria, North Africa, and the Sudan. Douri-sponsored insurgents collaborated enthusiastically with the holy warriors and “sub-contracted mass casualty attacks to Al Qaeda fighters”. Among the sanctions-busting rackets Douri had run was the importation of stolen cars from Europe via the Jordanian port of Aqaba; these cars were now put at the service of the suicide bombers.

The irony is that Douri is a Sufi of the Naqshbandi order, regarded by the Salafi-jihadists as heretical.

Alongside the Faith Campaign, Douri “fostered a fraternity of Sufi military and intelligence officers inside the Baathist regime,” explains Rayburn, centred on Douri’s Naqshbandis, which functioned as “a parallel network”—not unlike a Freemason-style secret society. This Sufi society went somewhat dormant at the fall of the regime and Douri instead patronized other regime remnants and Salafi-jihadists who would frustrate the American project for constitutional government in Mesopotamia.

Douri’s primary job for decades had been keeping Saddam in power, and even in exile Douri didn’t want to overshadow his former boss. Only after Saddam went to the gallows in December 2006 would Douri claim a public role as leader of the Ba’ath Party and reactivate this Sufi network, which became Jaysh Rijal at-Ṭariqa an-Naqshabandiya (JRTN).

JRTN drew from the Naqshbandi Order and was distinctly Islamist in ideology. Though Sufism is commonly regarded as a more contemplative, peaceful form of the faith, it has a history of religious militancy—it was, for example, Sufis who led the first major revolt against Atatürk’s secular reforms in Turkey in 1925. JRTN is run by FREs, and would become one of the most powerful Iraqi insurgent groups.

Given Douri’s age (he was born in 1942) and health (he has apparently had leukaemia for nearly two decades), it is doubtful he could lead a military campaign. But Douri “tend[ed] to the coalition,” as Michael Knights puts it, of tribes and mid-level military men (these being the professionals) that make up JRTN, a job Douri’s long role in the Ba’ath regime and personality made him ideal for.

The Awakening

The tribes of western Iraq deeply resented their loss of income as the Coalition cracked down on the smuggling networks across the Syrian border, and in combination with the loss of prestige, U.S. cultural missteps, and the growing recognition of Iranian power in Baghdad “under the nose” of the Coalition, the tribes came to see AQM/ISIS, as an ally in restoration.

The local insurgents were initially dominant over the Qaeda elements in Iraq, but by the end of 2005, “the guest-worker insurgents,” as Rayburn brilliantly puts it, were overwhelming the local insurgency; empowered by their Levantine networks inside Iraq, AQM/ISIS was even powerful enough in 2005-07 to spill out from Iraq to Jordan and Lebanon.

Sunni revanchism had motivated the locals: Lana al-hukum; wa lakum al-latum (for us political power; for you self-flagellation) was the Sunni supremacist refrain to the Shi’a. The fallen dictatorship and its tribal clientele saw the holy warriors as an ally in getting rid of the Americans so they could take the country back from the Shi’a and the Kurds. Zarqawi had a rather larger strategic picture in mind.

Zarqawi wanted to start a grand religious war, which would have the Shi’ites “bear their inner vengeance” and “awaken the sleepy Sunnis” by making the Sunnis “fearful of destruction and death,” at which point Zarqawi could pose as their last line of defence—a strategy pursued by Iran in reverse, which has included helping the Zarqawi’ists at times. This clear alliance of interests between the Zarqawi’ists and Iran convinced some Sunni insurgents, already mired in conspiracy theories, that AQM/ISIS was really an Iranian puppet.

Getting the Americans out of Baghdad and keeping the Shi’ites from having political power proved not to be enough common ground between the Sunni insurgents and the takfiris: the Sunnis wearied of the imposition by foreigners, and signs of the Sahwa (Awakening) were appearing by the summer of 2005, though they were not self-sustaining and needed the Surge to succeed.

With the creation of the Anbar Salvation Council, led by Abd al-Sattar al-Rishawi (Abu Risha), in September 2006, the Sahwa had begun in earnest. The Surge began in January 2007.

The most serious rift opened in the Iraqi insurgency in April 2007: AQM/ISIS killed thirty members of the Islamic Army of Iraq (IAI), the largest Ba’athist-Salafist insurgent group, and IAI publicly appealed for Osama bin Laden to get a grip of his wayward affiliate. Even the “formal” Ba’athists began to take their distance from AQM/ISIS. It was announced in August 2007 that Douri had “decided to sever ties with al-Qaeda” in favour of a program of “national resistance”.

By late 2007, most Iraqi Sunni Arabs were done with the foreign-led Salafi-jihadists of AQM/ISIS. There were now splits among the Ba’athist-Salafist and Iraqi Salafist insurgents on the question of whether to accommodate to the new order by joining the Sahwa and government institutions, or continuing the struggle to overturn the post-2003 order on an Islamist-nationalist basis; the Iraqi rejectionists would over time be gathered under JRTN’s banner. JRTN was “the only Iraqi insurgent group to have grown stronger during and since the U.S.-led ‘surge’,” according to Knights.

After the Surge

The major effect of the Surge, because it so severely weakened the insurgency, was that by 2009 it forced the disparate rejectionists to combine into two broad coalitions, namely JRTN and ISIS. JRTN was the stronger, ISIS then being at its absolute nadir. There was an ideological divide between JRTN and ISIS and an organizational division, but cooperation became unavoidable.

JRTN shifted to a consistent public posture of only opposing “occupiers”—the U.S. and (supposedly) the Kurds in Ninawa and Kirkuk, and Iran in Baghdad. JRTN had access to funds from former Republican Guard officers (mostly in Jordan) and rents exacted as “taxes” from the Sunni communities in the Tigris Valley with which it was deeply interwoven. Indeed Douri’s rent-seeking networks—especially agriculture and black market—gave Douri strength not only in Iraq but allowed Douri to resist an attempt by Assad to supplant him with al-Ahmed, who fell under Damascus’ sway.

This funding and local connectedness allowed JRTN to intimidate judges, penetrate the Iraqi security forces, and call on tribal support. Because of JRTN’s (ostensible) focus on foreigners, it went unimpeded even by Sunnis who had ceased “resistance”. To maintain this image, JRTN would use AQM/ISIS to carry out mass-casualty attacks on Iraqi civilians, to eliminate or intimidate rivals. Douri’s web of contacts allowed this “blurring of the organization,” which meant that often the executors of attacks were unaware of who actually ordered the hit.

Douri’s death is potentially important because it would remove a major node in coordinating the disparate elements of JRTN.

Zarqawi’s Egyptian successor Abu Ayyub al-Masri was killed in April 2010, and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi took over ISIS. Many FREs (whom Douri had helped Salafize) would now rise to dominance within ISIS. ISIS had been moving toward Iraqization since at least 2006, with the founding of the Mujahideen Shura Council by Zarqawi, which would become the Islamic State of Iraq later that year; this process would be completed in 2010-11.

The MSC had joined the foreign-led AQM to Iraqi Salafist insurgent groups dominated by FREs, and with ISIS’ devastation during the Surge—thirty-four of forty-two senior AQM/ISIS operatives had been removed by June 2010, and the foreign fighter flow had dried up—ISIS fell back on its most militarily capable members. No doubt some of the FREs who joined ISIS in 2006 gained advancement. But it is important to note that the most prominent FREs within ISIS since 2010 have been there since 2003-04, and had given up Ba’athism for a variant of Salafism long before that. There has been some recent commentary suggesting al-Baghdadi is merely a front-man for the FREs, and that the FREs are not really Islamists. Both claims fail to meet the timeline.

Al-Baghdadi might have appeared to come from nowhere, but he was actually rather well-known, both within ISIS and the intelligence services battling it, not least because he had been imprisoned at Camp Bucca between January and December 2004.

There is little doubt that al-Baghdadi emerged from the milieu of the Faith Campaign. The intriguing question is the personal relationship between al-Baghdadi and Douri.

Derek Harvey, America’s top intelligence analyst in figuring out the post-Saddam insurgency, says that “one of Baghdadi’s mentors at the University of Islamic Sciences was close to Izzat al-Douri.” And al-Baghdadi, who sought in his youth to pursue a career at Saddam’s Ministry of Islamic Endowments, is from Samarra, which was “very tight” with the Saddam regime, according to a U.S. military official. When al-Baghdadi attended the Islamic University of Baghdad it was at the height of Saddam’s Faith Campaign “when the Baath Party was controlling admissions”. The official added:

There’s no way you’d get vetted and approved by the party without having an extended family network of uncles and cousins and so on who are in the regime and endorsing you. … [A]l-Baghdadi may not have been a Baathist himself, but I guarantee you he had a lot of Baathist family members who put him into the Islamic University.

The exact extent of the relationship between al-Baghdadi and Douri might never be known, but there is reason to think it is closer than would be flattering to the self-styled “caliph” who rejects the ex-Ba’athists as socialist infidels.

After the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq in December 2011, JRTN continued attacks against the Iraqi government and continued tactical cooperation with ISIS. But as ISIS strengthened, with the removal of the common (American) foe, the tenuous Salafist-Sufist entente frayed.

Former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s consolidation of a sectarian autocracy that was dependent on Iran is the major factor in pushing the Sunnis into accepting ISIS back as a bulwark against Baghdad. But JRTN in the earlier period, and ISIS by the summer of 2012 with Operations BREAKING THE WALLS and SOLDIERS’ HARVEST (which also freed ISIS members from prison), helped stroke the Shi’a-led government’s overreaction precisely in order to foster a sense of persecution among the Sunnis to which the insurgents could claim to be the answer. ISIS especially also continued an assassination campaign against the Sahwa leaders at the same time Baghdad was witch-hunting the Sahwa out of the government and refusing to supply them with the means of defending themselves, leading to destabilization and a security vacuum in the Sunni areas of northern Iraq that ISIS would fill.

Maliki responded violently to the Sunni protest movement that began in December 2012, and by December 2013 it boiled over into a full-scale Sunni uprising. Fallujah slipped from government control in January 2014. Initially, Douri-aligned insurgents held Fallujah; it was only in June 2014 that ISIS would take over. Mutatis mutandis, this pattern was repeated in many places across Iraq. ISIS would cooperate with Iraqi Sunni insurgents, including JRTN, in the first half of 2014—at the time ISIS was forming a “shadow authority” in Mosul—and ISIS’ invasion of Iraq from Syria could not have happened without JRTN’s help.

ISIS’ drive for monopolistic control, however, led to arrests and executions of JRTN soon after ISIS invaded Iraq, and then again more recently. ISIS’ consolidation of control in Iraq has quite deliberately come at JRTN’s expense, with ISIS moving into areas of Mosul like Tarmooz 19 that are known Ba’athist strongholds, to eliminate potential enemies.

JRTN had tried since at least the time of the U.S. withdrawal to refashion itself as a cross-sectarian nationalist movement. The JRTN spokesman who denied that Douri had been killed, for instance, is a Shi’a named Khudayr al-Murshidi. JRTN has tried outreach to the Kurds (much less successfully than ISIS, it should be noted.) Thus JRTN had some criticisms of ISIS’ persecution of minorities, but these were kept somewhat oblique, even in the early months of this year. But by May, JRTN started naming ISIS in their critiques, and JRTN’s break with ISIS now seems to be complete. It is too late for JRTN, however.

JRTN’s final play to rescue itself after ISIS’ invasion of Iraq last summer was, seemingly, outreach to the Arab States, especially Saudi Arabia and Jordan, to convince them that JRTN was the anti-ISIS, anti-Iran force we’ve all been waiting for in Iraq. JRTN paid tribute to the deceased Saudi monarch and supported the Saudi-led operation against the Houthis in Yemen. JRTN condemned the burning to death of Jordanian pilot Moaz al-Kasasbeh by ISIS as a “despicable crime” against “the brother Jordan”. Jordan has long been a hotbed of popular agitation against the New Iraq, and the Hashemite monarchy has openly hosted members of the Iraqi insurgency, including as recently as last October, when the IAI attended a conference in Amman.

Whether JRTN was trying to leverage itself into the National Guard, the proposed force to replace the Sahwa militias, or not is a moot point: Aymenn al-Tamimi has argued persuasively that JRTN has “become totally marginalised,” and Douri and the other senior war criminals of the Saddam regime were no kind of answer to the dual problems of ISIS and Iran in Iraq.


As Iran conquers Iraq, enabled by President Obama’s attempted détente with Iran, ISIS has dismantled its main Sunni insurgent rivals and the remainder have closed ranks around ISIS as the vanguard of Sunni revanchism. The Sunnis and the ex-Saddamists have not given up on their former dominion. That the rallying-cry for this attempted restoration is Islam is no surprise. Ba’athism was a spent ideology and, thanks in no small part to Douri, the Iraqi population is now much more sectarian and religiously militant, and less responsive to an appeal in secular-nationalist terms.

There is a question remaining over what would happen if ISIS took Baghdad. Harvey, for example, thinks the conversion of the ex-Saddamists to Islamism is real enough, and some kind of shari’a regime would be the result of an ISIS victory in Iraq. Another view is given by Michael Pregent, a former U.S. military intelligence officer who worked with Harvey, who says that the Islamism is a marketing scheme: the FREs converting to Islamism would be “like saying that every Army Ranger or Special Forces soldier suddenly became a Branch Davidian.” As ISIS approaches Baghdad, the Iraqi Sunni chauvinists are certainly strengthened against the takfiris—the prospect of a Sunni restoration has appeal well outside Salafist circles among Iraqi Sunnis—but there is reason to wonder if the nationalists could off-ramp the takfiris at this point.

Many actors have influenced and manipulated ISIS’ rise. Iran has played a nefarious role from ISIS’ beginnings. The Assad regime was determined to make ISIS the face of the rebellion, and Iran has done its utmost to help that project. The U.S. disbanding Saddam’s army put military-intelligence professionals at the service of the insurgency who might otherwise have joined the New Iraq. ISIS’ revival in the wake of the Surge has been enabled by the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and refusal to intervene in Syria in 2011 or 2012, which gave ISIS the time and space it needed to establish the beachhead from which it could invade Iraq.

Still, ISIS needed help after the Surge to survive and found it in Douri. Moreover, the actions of the Saddam regime—with Douri as its prime mover—had ensured that something like ISIS was coming as a successor force in Iraq no matter what. ISIS’ turning on Douri is little surprise—the Sufi Douri was playing with fire all along—and it doesn’t change what Douri did to condition the rise of ISIS. In light of this, ISIS can be regarded as the afterlife of the Saddam Hussein regime.

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