A lengthy document—roughly sixty pages and 12,000 words—was published online on 21 February 2019 containing biographies of twenty-seven senior Islamic State (IS) officials, past and more recent. Those bios that are dated were written between October 2018 and the time of publication, with one exception that was written in the summer of 2018. The author claims to be an IS veteran. While longevity is difficult to prove, the fact that the author provides heretofore unseen images of some of the IS leaders suggests that at a minimum he is an IS operative. Continue reading
The forty-first edition of the Islamic State’s newsletter, al-Naba, was released within the territory of the caliphate on 30 July 2016 and released online on 2 August; it and the forty-third edition (released 13 and 16 August) contained an obituary for Abdurrahman al-Qaduli (Abu Ali al-Anbari), the caliph’s deputy, who was killed on 25 March. The obituaries were entitled, “The Worshipping Scholar and the Mujahid Preacher: Shaykh Abu Ali al-Anbari”. The German version of the third issue of the Islamic State’s Rumiyah magazine on 11 November contained this obituary. Below is a very rough translation. Some interesting or important sections have been highlighted in bold. The subheadings are mine.
United States Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter announced this morning that he believed Abd al-Rahman Mustafa al-Qaduli, a senior leader of the Islamic State (IS), had been killed in a U.S. raid into Syria earlier this week. Al-Qaduli was “serving as a finance minister” and had been “responsible for some external affairs and plots,” said Carter. America is “systematically eliminating ISIL’s cabinet,” Carter went on, noting the alleged killing of Tarkhan Batirashvili (Abu Umar al-Shishani) two weeks ago, adding that al-Qaduli’s removal will “hamper” IS in conducting operations inside and outside its caliphate. Continue reading
About three weeks ago I wrote a piece for The New York Times explaining the evolution of Saddam Hussein’s regime away from the hard-secularism of its Ba’athist origins, and how this had prepared the ground for the Islamic State (IS). I received much positive feedback, but the social media reaction was inevitable: little thought and much anger, particularly from people who view Iraqi history through a political prism and felt I was trying to exculpate George W. Bush. With rare exceptions, the critique could hardly be called thoughtful. So it is nice to finally have such a critique to deal with, from Samuel Helfont and Michael Brill in today’s Foreign Affairs. Continue reading
Published in The New York Times.
Whom should we blame for the Islamic State? In the debate about its origins, many have concluded that it arose from the American-led coalition’s errors after the 2003 invasion of Iraq. In fact, the groundwork for the emergence of the militant jihadist group was laid many years earlier by the government of Saddam Hussein.
The Arab nationalist Baath Party, which seized power in 1968 in a coup in which Mr. Hussein played a key role, had a firmly secular outlook. This held through the 1970s, even as religiosity rose among the Iraqi people. But soon after Mr. Hussein invaded Iran in 1980, it began to change.
In the last few months I’ve increasingly focussed on the former (Saddam) regime elements (FREs) within the Islamic State (I.S.). There’s now an entire section on this blog about it, and Aaron Zelin over at Jihadology recently gave me time to elaborate in a podcast.
In studying this topic there is one inescapable name: Samir Abd Muhammad al-Khlifawi, better-known by his pseudonym Haji Bakr, and sometimes by his kunya, Abu Bakr al-Iraqi. Al-Khlifawi is a former colonel in an elite intelligence unit of the Saddam Hussein regime—focussed on air defence at Habbaniya airbase, though what exactly that entails is murky. Al-Khlifawi was also apparently involved in weapons development.
Al-Khlifawi came to international attention in April when Christoph Reuter published an article in Der Spiegel naming al-Khlifawi as the “architect” of I.S.’s expansion into Syria, and the man who had been “pulling the strings at IS for years.” Continue reading
Book Review: The Weight of a Mustard Seed: The Intimate Life of an Iraqi Family During Thirty Years of Tyranny (2009) by Wendell Steavenson
Wendell Steavenson’s The Weight of a Mustard Seed—the title drawn from a verse of the Qur’an about the difference between attaining heaven and hell—comprises five years of research about Kamel Sachet Aziz al-Janabi, one of Saddam Hussein’s favourite and most senior generals.
Born in 1947, Kamel Sachet joined the Iraqi police straight from school in the mid-1960s and joined the army in 1975. Sachet was soon in the Special Forces, training in mountain warfare in Germany in 1978, taking part in joint exercises with Iranian Special Forces during the time of the Shah—learning Farsi along the way—and then being part of the Iraqi Special Forces advanced party sent to invade Iran after Ruhollah Khomeini’s takeover. Sachet would later be part of the elite forces sent to secure Saddam’s occupation of Kuwait. After Saddam was evicted from Kuwait, Sachet, who had been slipping deeper and deeper into religious zeal from the early 1980s, was made governor of Maysan where he ran a de facto Salafi commune. Sachet was eventually removed from this post by regime internal intrigue, and was moved to a job in the office of the president. For reasons never definitively established, Sachet was murdered on Saddam Hussein’s orders on the first day of Operation DESERT FOX in December 1998.
Kamel Sachet’s story is an interesting one for what it says about the Saddam regime’s changing attitude toward Islamism as it ran its course, reversing the hard-secular outlook that prevailed at varying degrees of intensity from the late 1960s to the early 1980s, and transforming into an Islamist State in the last fifteen years of the regime. Continue reading
In the 1990s, the combination of the sanctions and Saddam Hussein’s predatory regime debauched Iraq, ushering in a period of chaos, scarcity, and corruption as the regime gradually broke down. With a religious revival already underway, the population turned to faith for succour, and the regime encouraged this in a way that—in the wake of the brutal repression of the Shi’a rebellion after the first part of the Gulf War—hardened sectarian identities. The security services were deeply affected by the Saddam regime’s Islamization and the Salafists exploited their newfound freedom, and the regime’s increasing lack of capacity, to plot a future after Saddam. By 2003, these various organized Islamist strains, part in and part out of the regime, stood ready to succeed Saddam and had a more zealous and sectarian population to draw on. Saddam had set the stage for the emergence of something like the Islamic State long before Coalition troops invaded Iraq. Continue reading
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. Continue reading