In April 2015 Der Spiegel published “The Terror Strategist: Secret Files Reveal the Structure of Islamic State” about Samir Abdul Mohammed al-Khlifawi, also known as Haji Bakr a leading military strategist for the Islamic State (IS) and former intelligence officer under Saddam Hussein who helped plan the group’s surge into Syria. That set off a number of other articles speculating on the role of former Baathists and Saddam era military and intelligence men in IS. Some argued that the Baathists were still ideologically Iraqi nationalists who were simply using the organization to return to power. Others said that these men were committed Islamists who joined IS for ideological and religious reasons. To help explain this debate is Kyle Orton, a Middle East analyst, contributing editor to Left Foot Forward and who blogs at The Syrian Intifada. He can followed on Twitter at @ @KyleWOrton.
1. Lets start off with the debate about the role of Baathists within the Islamic State. What were the arguments about their influence within IS and what are your own thoughts on the issue?
At its extremes you had one side saying this shows that the Islamic State is nothing but Ba’athism wrapped in a shahada, and on the other side were those who said the Ba’athists didn’t matter at all. Two interconnected things confused this whole debate from the start: the timeline and the terminology.
“Ba’athists” was an unhelpful description of the former military and intelligence officials of Saddam Hussein’s regime within IS because it at a minimum prejudiced the debate. FREs—”former regime elements”—seems a better term to me. This became clearer as one looked at the timeline. Samir al-Khlifawi and his successor as head of the Military Council, Adnan al-Bilawi, had joined with, and become important members in, Abu Musab az-Zarqawi’s group in Iraq when it was still Jamaat at-Tawhid wal-Jihad (JTJ) before it even became al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) in October 2004.
Zarqawi, as is well-known, was a fanatic even by Salafi-jihadist standards and had a particular penchant for pronouncing takfir. A tactical alliance with the fallen regime was one thing—and Izzat ad-Douri was willing to provide resources, both small arms, money, and his stolen car shops for the creation of bombs—but FREs joining JTJ had to repent their history. Zarqawi saw Ba’athists as “socialist infidels,” and the penalties for un-Islamic behavior within JTJ were severe. (Even in December 2006, when then-Islamic State in Iraq (ISI) was in some trouble and could have done with an infusion of militarily skilled personnel, the new leader, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi called on the FREs to join ISI only “on condition that the applicant must know, at a minimum, three sections of the Holy Qur’an by rote and must pass an ideological examination”)
In 2003-04, the insurgency was dominated by Iraqis, with most insurgent groups led by FREs. So for al-Khlifawi and al-Bilawi—and a number of others, notably IS’s governor of Syria, Abu Ali al-Anbari, who might well be the next head of the Military Council and is currently the man most responsible for keeping the “caliph” safe—it makes little sense to put themselves through this process of repentance to join what is at that time a small, foreign-led group. Both the push and pull factors suggest that senior military-intelligence officials joining Zarqawi’s group in 2003-04 did so out of ideological conviction.
2. You believe that some historical background is important to understand how and why former Baathists have joined IS, specifically Saddam Hussein’s Faith Campaign from the 1990s. Can you explain what the campaign was about and how it shaped a whole generation of Iraqis that eventually took part in the insurgency and the Islamic State?
This is the larger timeline problem. If you’re asking, “How could Ba’athists become True Believers in a couple of months?” then the narrative of some kind of “Ba’athist coup” within IS is more believable. But Ba’athism had been dead for a decade by the time Saddam fell.
The Iraqi Ba’ath regime had begun as a hard-secular regime. The Ba’ath Party’s founder, Michel Aflaq, was a Christian atheist; in a cultural sense, to accept such a man as one’s leading light, meant that the inner-party at least were inclined to a stern secularism. When the Ba’ath takes power in 1968 it’s got the legacy of its own catastrophic first run at government in 1963, the Arab nationalist defeat in the Six-Day War, and its secularism to live down, so it dissimulates. But by the early- and mid-1970s, with the regime consolidating control—Saddam is master of the interior by about 1971—and then the oil boom, it begins to show more of its true colors, which include not just secularism but hints of outright atheism. One of my favorite examples is the unveiling of a giant statue of Abu Nuwas, whose poetry is all about wine and homosexual encounters. The statue itself consists of Abu Nuwas holding a wine glass the size of a bucket. This can only have been intended to annoy the traditionalists. In the party’s high-brow magazine, al-Muthaqqaf al-Arabi (The Arab Intellectual), the implied atheism is laid on thick; among other things the Ba’ath was competing with the Communists for the intellectuals, so denunciations of the supernatural and praise for “science” and “progress” were easy ways to score points.
After the Shi’a riots in 1977, Saddam gives a series of programmatic lectures saying the Ba’ath are good Muslims but they will not try to “out Muslim” the Islamists in a governance sense because this is terrain on which only the Islamists can win. He’s holding the line for secularism. The same policy is adopted when the shockwaves of the Iranian revolution reach Iraq in the form of Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir as-Sadr in 1979. The Ba’ath regime cracks down ferociously, and it quiets the disturbances, but it notices a problem, especially in the south: much of the public, even in the lower levels of the party, is caught up in the “return of Islam“. After Saddam’s invasion of Iran, the internal documents show that he is aware that the propaganda from Khomeini calling the Ba’athists “infidels” is damaging the Iraqi regime. Saddam sticks with the 1977 settlements for a while, but the Ninth Regional Iraqi Party Congress in June 1982 is effectively its last stand for secularism, with the resolutions condemning “sectarianism” and “ultra-religiosity” among the “youth”—very carefully avoiding directly mentioning the Shi’a.
It’s this history—which a lot of Iraqi exiles, one of the most ready sources, remember—which makes it so difficult for people to properly assimilate the scale and depth of the about-face.
First Saddam Islamizes his foreign policy. In April 1983, the first “Popular Islamic Conference” is held, bringing Islamist agitators and scholars to Baghdad to hold a meeting, the upshot of which is a resolution telling Khomeini to cease his “aggression”. Another PIC meeting in 1985 convenes to ask why Khomeini ignored them the first time around.
The most important moment in the turn to Islam is the meeting of the Pan-Arab Command, the Ba’ath’s highest ideological institution, which has representatives ostensibly representing Syria and Sudan on it in preparation for the Ba’ath’s pan-Arab revolution. At the PAC meeting—which Aflaq attends—Saddam announces that the regime will be forming an alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood, specifically in Syria, Sudan, and Egypt. Saddam had already trained and armed the Syrian Brothers during their rebellion against Hafez al-Assad, and sheltered them after the rebellion was crushed. But it was sub-rosa and could be passed off as tactical and unimportant. Now it was a full-scale reorientation of policy and everyone knew the implications. Indeed—it’s quite funny—Tariq Aziz arrives late to the meeting so doesn’t know that Saddam has spoken in favor of allying with the “religious trend,” so Aziz speaks really forcefully against it, quoting Saddam’s 1977 speeches. Saddam allows that “Comrade Tariq came late” and “we agree with all the concepts he mentioned as a general principle,” and even adds that the Ba’ath will “launch a large scale attack on [the Islamists] if they are close to taking over power.” Realizing what’s happened Aziz says, “I may not have been able to express myself accurately,” and “I agree with what our Comrade President said”. There is no other dissent, and officially the decision is to stay secret.
But the Ba’athists don’t fight them—not only when close to power but when in power. When the Sudanese Brothers take power in 1989, Saddam invites their leader, Hassan al-Turabi, to Baghdad after Saddam annexes Kuwait. The alliance with the Egyptian Brotherhood extends to an alliance with Egyptian Islamic Jihad, whose leader, Ayman az-Zawahiri, in exile in Afghanistan and increasingly part of Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda, comes to Baghdad three times we know about—in 1992 and 1998 as a personal guest of the regime, and in 1999 as part of a PIC. The al-Qaeda connections are obviously hyper-controversial but the evidence of repeated contacts through the 1990s, including at quite senior levels, is clear, and even clearer with the affiliates, especially in the Philippines. There’s relations with the Taliban, too.
This change of policy could not happen completely in secret; if the regime is now instrumentalizing Islamists abroad, praising some of their actions in the media for example, it has implications for internal policy.
The internal Islamization of Saddam’s regime happened in roughly three stages: there’s a notable Islamization of official rhetoric between 1983 and 1989; there’s the first steps toward Islamic rule between 1989 and 1993; and then there’s the really intense, organized Islamization of the regime after the Faith Campaign is announced in 1993.
In the first stage, during the war with Iran, it meant that expressions like “secular state” were taken out of the media, the war was increasingly described as a jihad, and there was also the beginning of the empowerment of the clergy through increased patronage—one of the more important social changes that long outlasted the regime.
We have a clear beginning to the second stage: when Aflaq dies, the regime announces that he had converted to Islam. It doesn’t matter if it’s true: what matters is that the regime chose to make a political point of it. Where Aflaq alive was a bulwark against Islamization, in death he could be used to baptize the new direction. Saddam began with his mosque-building; zakat was introduced; Qur’an-learning became a focal point of national life; and religious exams for all teachers of all subjects were introduced. By November 1989, the regime had opened the Saddam University for Islamic Studies, which would become Saddam’s proudest possession, a center for religious learning and the production of loyalist clerics—entry was controlled by Douri—the template for many further religious universities. One of its graduates was Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. While this began before the Gulf War, it got much more intense in the lead-up to Saddam’s expulsion from Kuwait, and this leads to the suspicion that it was a cynical gambit, which—in inception—is probably right.
In June 1993, Saddam begins the Faith Campaign. In effect it was the creation of a religious movement with Saddam at the helm. Saddam chose to mix Salafism into the regime’s ideology because he feared the Muslim Brotherhood; it was his old enemy and was more covert and had branches abroad. Under the sanctions-plus-dictatorship regime, the changes of the 1970s intensified, and many more looked for solace in the faith. Clerics become community leaders in Sunni areas in a way they hadn’t been since at least the 1950s and in the Shi’a areas the mid-level clerics had their power expanded at the expense of senior clerics, and a shari’a system was instituted, including with penalties like amputation of the hand for theft and execution for adultery (carried out by beheading in a public square or on the doorstep of a woman’s father.)
The resulting “Ba’athi-Salafism” worked in the Sunni areas, changing the majority’s conception of their faith and drawing them closer to the regime—not least because it was accompanied by a massive patronage network, much of it distributed through the mosques to the tribes, to give the regime some pillars to resist a repeat of the 1991 Shi’a revolt. The regime’s new Islamism also lowered the tension with the “pure” Salafi Trend, which Saddam now saw as a complement to his project, whereas previously they’d been seen as subversives—witness the difference in Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, dismissed from the police in the late 1980s, and Kamel Sachet who remained a senior officer until Saddam had him killed in 1998.
The Campaign really deeply affected the security sector. The religious instruction was intense, and a great number of Saddam’s officers ended up slipping into the “pure” Salafism. One of the less-advertised aspects of the Faith Campaign was the infiltration of the mosques to keep the religious revival Saddam was fostering under control, but since Ba’athism was a spent force and many of the military guys saw Saddam as having led the country to disaster, they found they could take the Salafism without the Saddamism. Some of the “pure” Salafis went too far and launched attacks against the regime, and Saddam tried to manipulate the Salafi Trend and took out some of its leaders, but that says more about Saddam’s approach to power than his beliefs. (It’s incidental to the effects of the Faith Campaign but Saddam seems to have got religion before the end—to have come to believe what he likely started cynically.)
In the Shi’a areas, the Faith Campaign backfired almost entirely, worsening State-Shi’a relations and exacerbating sectarianism generally. The regime’s fear of the Shi’a after the 1991 revolt got the better of it. The savagery with which the revolt was put down left a lot of scars, but they were not insurmountable. The security measures, however, which visibly told the Shi’a that the regime perceived of the community in toto as potential subversives, and the clear lack of equity in the distribution of resources—from State employment to mosque patronage to repairs from the Iran-Iraq War—meant that the resentments from 1991 never abated. Moreover, Shi’a clerics who spoke up too much—or who just got too popular—would be assassinated; nothing like that happened in the Sunni areas. Salafi clerics who spoke against Saddam would be arrested for a few days and roughed-up, but soon released.
So by the time the U.S. and Britain invade in 2003, you have a society that’s deep into a religious revival, with sectarian tensions at a level with few historical precedents. The middle-class—the bastion of secular nationalism—has been destroyed, and the security sector has been Islamized on its own account and has connections to a powerful underground network of “pure” Salafists, which has been formed partly by regime encouragement and partly because as the regime crumbled it couldn’t contain it even if it wanted to. And the government—whatever its leaders really believed—has been enforcing a version of Islamic law, empowering clerics as community leaders, and producing more religious individuals through the schools, mosques, and the party.
3. Another factor in the movement of former regime members into IS was the Iraqization of the organization, which started off being largely foreign led by Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. How did that process work?
By 2005, you’ve got signs of Sunni resistance to AQI because of its brutality, which is all the harder to take because it’s seen as a foreign intrusion. So in January 2006, Zarqawi formed the Mujahideen Shura Council (MSC), allying AQI with several Iraqi Salafist groups, supposedly under the leadership the Iraqi, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, to give AQI more local legitimacy. Whether these other groups were actually AQI front-groups is contested, but there is no doubt that they included elements of the fallen regime. In June 2006, Zarqawi was killed and replaced by Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, and in October the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) was formed, to which AQI pledges allegiance in November, officially dissolving “al-Qaeda” on Iraqi soil, and—in theory—removing the foreign taint from ISI. Now it doesn’t actually work: everyone keeps calling them AQI, about which they’re furious because it seems that Abu Omar and Abu Hamza actually come to see ISI as something more than a PR stunt.
At all events, the surge then begins in 2007, grinding down ISI’s leaders, and in 2010 the organization is essentially decapitated in the first six months of the year. The failing jihad means the pull factor for the foreign fighters wanes, so the pool of replacements is largely Iraqis. The side-effect of the cull is that the last men standing are the ones who are best at counterintelligence and operational security: the FREs—men like al-Khlifawi.
The crucial thing here is that al-Khlifawi and the other FREs, who form such a large part of ISI’s post-2010 leadership, were already in ISI and had been since the AQI days, which is very suggestive of their ideological leanings—this wasn’t “Ba’athists” within ISI purging the “Salafi” AQI faction as some have argued, not least because the “purge” came from without.
4. You brought up that much of the focus has been on Baathists joining IS but it is really military and intelligence officers from the Saddam era who did so. Besides their obvious skills you think they also helped shape IS’s organization. Can you explain that?
The FREs have had two major effects.
One is in the structure and strategic-military behavior of IS. The Amniyat, for example, the counter-intelligence units which keep the “caliph” safe and which prevent internal overthrow in Syria were set up by al-Khlifawi and Abu Ali al-Anbari, and the nature of the statelet they control in Syria is recognizable: the competing lines of authority for the spies, the manipulation of the tribes, the blanket of fear, the pre-emptive elimination of people who fit the profile of an oppositionist, and the propaganda as a means of social control. This is what you get when men who were produced in an intelligence apparatus trained by the KGB and the STASI are in charge.
The other is more ephemeral; the spirit of the group, its fanaticism and cruelty and its enforced participation—the element of fascism, if you like. It’s hard to pin down and ideologically it’s not really mappable because it’s subsumed into a Salafi-jihadist shape, but it is there. The Fedayeen Saddam are the best example of this. A Praetorian militia of Saddam’s set up in 1994—he’d never trusted the military but after 1991 he deliberately weakened them and diverted resources to these militias—the Fedayeen over time became heavily Salafized and evolved into something like a mutaween. It was the Fedayeen that beheaded prostitutes in Baghdad and threw people accused of sodomy off buildings. The Fedayeen even dressed as IS now does, with the hoods/masks. A lot of the Fedayeen moved into AQI/ISI because the professional military—especially Douri, who was the lead sponsor of the Ba’athi-Salafist insurgents in the aftermath of the regime—never liked them and kept their distance; the Fedayeen had been recruited more for their loyalty to the ruler than their military skill. The Fedayeen seem to form a part of IS’s mid-level structure now.