American intelligence analysts have been pressured into giving a more positive assessment of the progress of the war against the Islamic State (ISIS), it has been reported, confirming what was obvious to everyone not subject to influence from the White House: the anti-ISIS campaign is failing. To devise an effective strategy involves understanding where ISIS came from, and that involves examining the Saddam Hussein regime.
Saddam is commonly regarded as the quintessential secularist, and he was initially. But over its last fifteen years the Saddam regime Islamized, effectively creating a religious movement under Saddam’s leadership, giving additional space and power to the non-governmental Salafi Trend, and hardening the sectarian differences in Iraq—paving the way for something like ISIS in its aftermath.
After the Ba’ath Party seized power in Iraq in 1968 it was never able to wholly separate religion from politics because to do so would have provoked a popular backlash and probably the party’s downfall. But, especially in the first half of the 1970s, buoyed with confidence by increased oil revenue, the Ba’ath was able to show its secularism more clearly, and there were even hints of atheism, especially in the party’s more high-brow magazines. The unveiling of a giant statue of the Abbasid-era poet Abu Nuwas, best known for his wine-laden and homoerotic poetry, can only have been intended to tweak the sensibilities of the traditionalists.
In the late 1970s, the Iraqi Ba’ath regime had held firm against the “return of Islam,” notably with Saddam’s series of programmatic lectures in 1977, saying that while the Ba’ath were good Muslims they would not compete on the Islamists’ turf in terms of governance; the shari’a was “ancient jurisprudence,” Saddam said, and no basis for a modern regime. Saddam’s regime rode out the internal upheaval caused by the Iranian Revolution, and in September 1980 went to war with Iran.
Saddam intended to make himself a Nasser-style leader of the Arab world, but the war was a disaster. The invasion stalled within months and Khomeini refused Saddam’s requests for a ceasefire. Saddam’s “infidel” regime would be overrun, Khomeini said, and replaced with a sister republic to Iran.
The charge of impiety was hurting the Iraqi regime and by mid-1982 Iraqi forces had been expelled from Iran and would fight the rest of the war on Iraqi territory. Any concessions to the religious at that point would have been taken as a signal that Khomeini’s victory was near and could have unravelled the entire structure of the Ba’ath regime in the south, which rested largely on a layer of Shi’ite party members who were already tilting to the Islamists.
The Ninth Regional Iraqi Party Congress, convened in June 1982, was the last stand for Ba’athist secularism. It condemned sectarianism and ultra-religiosity among the “youth” (read: Shi’ites).
A stalemate soon set in in the war, and noticeably quickly after the existential peril passed, in April 1983, Saddam held his first “Popular Islamic Conference” (PIC), bringing hundreds of religious activists and scholars to Baghdad to declare for his regime and call on Khomeini to cease his “aggression.” Saddam was seeking Islamic cover and, with the Islamization of Iraqi rhetoric and its notably anti-Shi’ite edge, many Sunni Islamists were happy to oblige.
The decisive moment in the Saddam regime’s change of policy came at a meeting of the Pan-Arab Command (PAC), the Ba’ath regime’s highest ideological institution, formally led by the Ba’ath Party’s (Christian, atheist) founder Michel Aflaq, on 24 July 1986. The PAC decided that the Saddam regime would align with “religious current,” i.e. Islamist groups, provided they were in opposition, but “would launch a large scale attack on them if they are close to taking over power [sic].”
The Muslim Brotherhood—in Sudan, Egypt, and Syria—was to be the major beneficiary of this policy. But the policy in practice showed how profoundly the Saddam regime had changed. In 1989, the Sudanese Brothers did take power and, instead of fighting them, Saddam invited their leader, Hassan al-Turabi, to Baghdad to bless the Iraqi conquest of Kuwait. Saddam would later establish “Islamic relations” with the Taliban regime, despite Saddam’s loathing of the Taliban for their primitiveness.
The regime remained somewhat suspicious of Islamism in this period, especially among the Shi’ites. However, the reorientation of foreign policy toward the Islamists could not be done wholly secretly, and to justify it required certain internal changes. The 1986 PAC meeting ostensibly “had nothing to do with domestic affairs,” writes Amatzia Baram in his study of the evolution of Islam’s role in Saddam’s Iraq, Saddam Husayn and Islam, 1968-2003: Ba’athi Iraq from Secularism to Faith. But in fact “much more was at stake” and the participants knew it. The alliance with the Islamists was “a clear-cut deviation from party doctrine,” and it is difficult to be a little bit heretical.
When Aflaq died in 1989, the regime announced that he had converted to Islam. True or not, what is important is that the Saddam regime said Aflaq had converted. The Saddam dictatorship made a political issue of Aflaq’s faith when they had no need to. While Aflaq in life was a restraint on the Ba’ath regime Islamizing, as a dead convert Aflaq was a means of baptizing the new order.
By November 1989, the regime had opened the Saddam University for Islamic Studies, which would become his most proud possession, a center for religious learning and the production of loyalist clerics. (ISIS’s ‘caliph,’ Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, enrolled at this institution in 1996.) Over the next four years, especially in the run-up to and aftermath of Saddam’s defeat in Kuwait, numerous steps toward Islamizing the regime would take place, notably the further socioeconomic empowerment of clerics—which had begun during the war with Iran—and making the study of the Qur’an a national focus, from the schools and legal system to the media and even the regional party branches.
In June 1993, Saddam formally launched the Faith Campaign, led by Saddam’s deputy, Izzat ad-Douri. Ad-Douri also oversaw a criminal economy that smuggled oil and other commodities across Iraq’s borders to evade sanctions, often through the tribes. Ad-Douri’s economy provided resources for a patronage network, often distributed through the mosques. The Faith Campaign likely began cynically, as an attempt to win the Saddam regime some pillars of support to head off what it feared most—a repeat of the 1991 Shi’a revolt—but it took on a life of its own, not least because Saddam himself became a believer.
Saddam mixed Salafism into his ideological instruction and effectively formed a religious movement, Ba’athi-Salafism, of which he sought to become the spiritual leader. Saddam did not engage in deep theology; he set broad outlines and then left the details to the ulema. The additional pay and recruitment boosted the status of the ulema. By the end of the regime, mid-level clerics were more powerful than they had been in the Shi’a areas and in the Sunni areas they were the community leaders—the mosque replaced the party headquarters as the center of power.
A “shari’a-lite” system was introduced that left some of the old European-modelled legal code in place but largely replaced it with the shari’a, including the hudud; the fixed punishments like amputation of the hand for theft and execution for adultery. Public consumption of alcohol and gambling were banned. The mosque-building campaign started in the late 1980s was intensified. In a January 1995 meeting of the PAC, Saddam even declared that regime policy was no longer opposed to a pan-Islamic State, as long as it began with a pan-Arab State—the near-exact position of Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna.
Alongside the Ba’athi-Salafists, the ‘pure’ Salafi Trend was significantly strengthened; no longer was regular mosque attendance a red flag for the secret police, and indeed many intelligence officers sent to infiltrate the mosques found that they could take the Salafism without the Saddamism. Saddam’s approach to power never changed, and the Salafi Trend was independent of the government, so he naturally tried to infiltrate and manipulate it—and some of the more extreme Salafists launched terror attacks against the regime. Still, the relationship was largely symbiotic.
Outside of the ultra-radicals, the Faith Campaign “reduced [the Salafists’] reservations with respect to the […] regime,” Baram writes. “At the very minimum, such people could far more easily coexist with the regime, and even serve loyally in its administration.”
In the Shi’ite areas, the Faith Campaign backfired. Because allowing Shi’a religious festivals highlighted the potential power of Shi’a opposition—especially the birthday of the Twelfth Imam, which coincided with the anniversary of the 1991 rebellion—the Saddam regime alternated between allowing and banning Shi’a ceremonies, but never restricted Sunni worship. Shi’a clerics who got too vocal—or just too popular—were liquidated; this never happened to Sunni/Salafi dissident clerics. And outside of Najaf and Karbala, regime resources disproportionately went to Sunnis.
Despite its ecumenical claims, the Shi’ites came to see the Faith Campaign as a sectarian sham, and in combination with the heavy-handed post-intifada security measures that made clear that the regime saw all Shi’ites as potential subversives, the deliberate under-reconstruction of the south, and the anti-Shi’ite discrimination in government hiring, State-Shi’ite relations further declined, and any space the Shi’ites had to express themselves was used to harden an identity that included a distinct anti-Sunni edge.
Contrary to popular belief, neither sectarian antagonisms nor religious militancy were held in check by Saddam: both were actively and accidentally inculcated. In combination with ad-Douri’s networks and the connections to foreign Islamists, the ideological and material foundations for ISIS were in place long before the Saddam regime was deposed.
This was Iraq as it stood in 2003: “A new country,” Baram writes, “no longer a moderately religious society with a large number of secular individuals and a modernizing secular ruling elite, but a country on the way to deep religiosity and under the powerful influence of local mid-level […] clerics.”
In the aftermath of the regime there is no doubt that former regime elements (FREs) took the lead in organizing the insurgency. The old security sector, the tribes who ran ad-Douri’s smuggling networks and had their income sources shut down when the Coalition closed the borders, the criminals released by Saddam on the eve of his overthrow, and the foreign-led Salafi-jihadists, including al-Qaeda, who had already been brought into Iraq under Saddam coalesced to fight the Americans and constitutional government, abetted by the Assad regime, which hosted ad-Douri.
Between 2007 and 2010, the Americans ground down the leadership of ISIS’s precursor. With the jihad in Iraq failing, there were fewer foreign volunteers to replace the lost men, intensifying the Iraqization that ISIS had begun as a marketing campaign. The great cull of ISIS’s leaders had the unintentional effect of leaving ISIS only with those most skilled at counterintelligence and operational security—the FREs. All of the leaders of ISIS’s Military Council, its most important institution, have since 2010 been FREs: Samir al-Khlifawi (Haji Bakr), Adnan al-Bilawi, Adnan as-Suwaydawi, and Fadel al-Hiyali (Abu Muslim al-Turkmani).
What is crucial to note is that the FREs who dominate ISIS’s post-2010 leadership did not join ISIS after 2010: they had been there since 2003-04. This is important because of the claims that some sort of ‘Ba’athist coup’ took place within ISIS in 2010. In reality, when the FREs who now lead ISIS joined in 2003-04, the group was known as Jama’at at-Tawhid wal-Jihad (TWJ), led by Abu Musab az-Zarqawi, and was a small, takfiri-jihadist organization. Those simply wishing to get power back would not join the TWJ at that time; it was an ideological choice. For its part, TWJ did not accept impious Ba’athists. To call the FREs leading ISIS ‘Ba’athists’ is misleading; they had not been believers in Ba’athism for a long time before the fall of Saddam’s regime.
The FREs masterminded ISIS’s intrusion into Syria and the setting up of a proto-state that then expanded into Iraq, where ISIS’s recovery was—unnoticed by the Coalition—already well advanced.
In the ISIS-conquered areas of Syria, the authoritarian rule took on recognizable characteristics: there was the use of spies as a routine matter of social control, intelligence agencies that spied on one another, the exploitation of human weakness and fractiousness to enable coercion, the elimination of those who fit the profile to be even potential leaders of opposition, and the spread of a blanket of fear while offering inducements, the “terrorizing and enticement” (al-tarhib wal-targhib) of the Saddam years.
U.S. intelligence analysts have been “urged” to say that “killing particular ISIS leaders and key officials would diminish the group and lead to its collapse.” But many ISIS leaders responsible for setting up ISIS’s ‘caliphate’ have been killed, and yet the institutions and methods of ISIS’s surveillance state live on. Killing Saddam didn’t prevent ISIS emerging as his afterlife; it was and is naïve to believe the removal of ISIS’s leaders alone will lead to its downfall.
ISIS isn’t solely reliant on the FREs for strategy: it benefits from three decades of Salafi-jihadist experience, too. The 2004 manual, The Management of Savagery, and The Call to Global Islamic Resistance by Abu Musab as-Suri—probably al-Qaeda’s shrewdest strategist—are key parts of ISIS’s military thinking. But Jabhat an-Nusra has access to these materials and many of the personnel who led these campaigns as well, and it has not mastered territory in the way ISIS has. ISIS has absorbed the intellectual capital grown in the Saddam regime’s KGB-trained military-intelligence services, and it has the institutional capacity to retain and build on it.
ISIS might not be made up of the supermen of its own propaganda and some of the more sensationalist Western press, but it is a serious adversary. While ISIS has learned the lessons of its earlier failures and corrected course, the U.S.-led Coalition cannot even admit to failures, which guarantees ISIS’s survival for quite some time to come.