The Complex Connection Between Baathists and Islamic State

Updated on May 19, 2018
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Evelyn is a writer who received her Bachelors of Political Science from UW-La Crosse.

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Origins of Baathist connections to IS

The Islamic State arose out of the chaos of the Iraq War. However, it is rooted in the rule of Saddam and his Baath party. This is not to say that there was any deliberate effort from the Baathists, only that the rise of ISIS resulted from the confluence of many complex events in which the Baathists are just a part, albeit a significant one.

Former Baathists who joined IS had already been converted to Salafi-jihadism during the 1990s. Though Baathism is secular, it also sees Islam as part of the greatness of Arab culture. The difficulty placed on Iraq during the sanctions after the Gulf War led to a rise in religious sentiment and to cater to this trend, Saddam Hussein put forth the Faith Campaign in 1993. He added Allahu Akbar to the flag and introduced punishments based on Sharia law. Fedayeen carried out beheadings of women suspected of prostitution, killing over 200 people.

Saddam himself became religious later in life; however, he did not become a radical Islamist and his ties with terrorists were tenuous at best. He distrusted religious invasion into politics; he felt it insulted religion and damaged politics. He also considered Sunni fundamentalism a greater threat than the Shia or Iran. Saddam was threatened by Wahhabism, because it came from his own base of support, the Sunnis, and excited those who had been disappointed by Arab political leaders. He was suspicious of Wahhabis and thought they were trying to infiltrate his government. Naively, perhaps, Saddam thought that 9/11 would bring the US and Iraq closer together, because the US would need his secular government to fight extremists.

Saddam executed and arrested radical Islamists. He also sent spies into mosques to keep an eye on radicals, but it turned out his own people became Islamists instead, carrying out the overall trend of increased religiosity of the 1990s. There was no initial connection between Saddam and Islamists. However, when the Iraq war neared, Saddam did encourage foreign mujahedeen to come to Iraq and fight the US, who afterwards stayed and melted into the insurgency.

Post-US insurgency

After the US took over in 2003, it purged the government of anyone with ties to the Baath party. Four hundred thousand lost their jobs, although they were allowed to keep their guns. However, anyone who wanted to be a part of management or go to a university had to join the Baath party, whether they were enthusiastic members or not. People were stripped of their jobs and given no compensation. Many were hunted down by Shia officers, and put in prisons where they became radicalized. Additionally, there was a lack of security agencies to fight lawbreakers.

During the Anbar Awakening, Sunni tribesmen joined US to fight against Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). The government, however, did not respect them, didn’t pay their salaries, and put some in jail. Some joined AQI.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki didn’t let up on the Baathists after the Americans left in 2011. He fired even those who had been rehabilitated by the US military. Ex-Baathists were not inclined to be pleasantly disposed toward the Shiite-led government. And when they joined AQI, they at least were paid. Captains and sergeants who served Saddam enlisted in Zarqawi’s army, where their skills in leadership, intelligence and weapons were appreciated. However, Zarqawi never fully trusted ex-Baathist officers, because they had emerged from a secular milieu. Sunnis outraged at their treatment during de-Baathification were only too happy to provide support against their enemies. When Zarqawi was killed in a US airstrike in 2006, Baathists began to assert more control in AQI.

Rise of ISIS

In 2011, Al Qaeda in Iraq was nearing extinction, and it was then that it moved to Syria. An influx of ex-Baathists joined the Islamic State between 2008 and 2010. Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, ISI’s leader until his death in 2010, was a former officer in the Iraq army and, from 2006 onward, brought in more former members of the Iraqi armed forces. The army and police divided ideologically, some joining the Islamist camp, and some staying more traditionally Baathist, that is, nationalist. When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi took over in 2010, he opened the embrace wider to Iraqis, especially Saddam officers. Al-Baghdadi himself had come from a Baathist stronghold, Samarra, and had been endorsed to university by Baathist family members, a necessary step to admission.

One of the most prominent ex-Baathists in ISIS was Haji Bakr, who converted to Salafism before the end of the Iraq war and was a former Revolutionary Guard colonel. Haji Bakr was instrumental in propelling Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to leadership, while he preferred to remain in the shadows. He became al-Baghdadi’s most trusted deputy and mentor. Al-Baghdadi had met Bakr and other ex-Baathists while imprisoned in Camp Bucca. Imprisonment—far from destroying the insurgency—strengthened the relationship between ISIS and ex-Baathists, which resulted in their skills strengthening ISIS. The fact that Haji Bakr had been in the Republican Guard served ISIS well, including his organizational skills and network of ex-Baathists. He and two officers headed the military council, and he based the ISIS intelligence service on the one he knew, Saddam’s. In 2011, Haji Bakr went to Syria to establish a relationship with Syrian intelligence, creating a safe haven for the Islamic State. Bakr was killed there in January 2014.

With the influx of ex-officers, ISIS military skills became more professional. Iraqis led all other groups in ISIS; Baghdadi’s policy was Iraq first. Thirty percent of senior leaders in ISIS military command were former Iraqi security forces, skilled in urban guerrilla and conventional combat. Among these were Baghdadi’s deputies, former Special Forces officer Fadel al-Hayali (killed 2015), Abu Ali al-Anbari, a former general in the Iraq army, Abu Ayman al-Iraqi, a former air force colonel (killed 2014). Other former officers included Waleed al-Alwani, member of the military council (killed 2014), Abdullah Ahmad al-Mishhadni, in charge of suicide bombers, and Abd Nataf al-Jabouri, in charge of operations in Kirkuk.

The Naqshbandi Army, a group of Baathist officers, rallied Mosul to rebel against Baghdad and commanded other military successes. However, ISIS took over, breaking followers out of jail, taking the army’s weapons and shoving Naqshbandi Army to the sidelines. In June 2014, ISIS officials told the Baathists to either join ISIS or stop fighting. Some joined and provided ISIS with more military expertise, intelligence, and experience. After taking over Mosul in June 2014, ISIS arrested members of the Baath party. They also killed over 600 Baath party supporters and fighters, asserting their control and dominance. This was part of an overall pattern of tolerating groups who fought alongside them and once victory was claimed, crushing them if they didn’t submit to ISIS supremacy.

Military Influence of Baathists

Haji Bakr was influential in creating the structure of the Islamic State, especially its spy networks. For each region, the intelligence department reported to a security emir with deputy emirs for each district. An intelligence and information manager reported to each deputy emir, while the local spy cells reported to district emir’s deputy, creating an intricate spy network in which no one was safe.

ISIS set up Dawah offices in each village and recruited men to discover the most powerful families, their sources of income, names of rebel brigades and their leaders, and illegal activities for blackmail. The spies sought intricate information about the towns they wanted to take over such as who was religious, what the imam’s views were, what side of the regime he was on, who paid his salary, and how many people in the village supported democracy. The security and intelligence agencies in Mosul were overseen by Amniya, or “Security”, which had six branches. Ayad Hamid al-Jumaili, the head of Amniya until he was killed in March 2017, was an intelligence officer in Saddam’s regime, then joined the insurgency after the invasion. The intelligence network was overseen by other former army and intelligence officers of Saddam’s state.

In the military, Bakr created a parallel command structure, with elite units alongside regular soldiers, commanders alongside the military head. There are 23 portfolios, or ministries, in the Islamic State, and Baathists run security, military, and finance. They give the Islamic State expertise on strategy, planning, and explosives. IS wormed its way into almost every village. Homes of former Iraqi military officers were turned into bases and informants ran rampant.

Baathist influence on ISIS character

At first glance, the Islamic State appears to be against the very idea of Baathism, which is a form of secular nationalism. However, they share a totalitarian mindset, and are expert at tools of repression. The Baathists used brutal tactics in a regime that did not tolerate dissent and used terror to crush opposition.

Also like Iraq under Hussein, the Islamic State is headed by an absolute leader with an autocratic government—which brutally suppresses both Islamists and Baathists who dissent. They also share a similar outcome—returning to the glory of the past, and applying it to a utopian future. The Islamic State does include non-Arabs, unlike Baathism, which was quintessentially Arabist. However, they share the desire for a state run by a small group that believes in its inherent authority. And the Baath Party also saw itself as a transnational movement, spreading to countries across the Middle East, gathering foreign fighters in training camps.

Baathists and ISIS both rely on fear to oppress the people, including reprehensible torture. The Islamic State sent execution squads to neighborhoods, shooting them or beheading them. There is a mass grave, al-Khafsa, a natural crater south of Mosul, where those who rejected Islamic State were thrown. Also like the Baathists, Islamic State used the tribes by playing them off of one another, dividing them so they would not attack the ruler.

However, ISIS is not simply a reincarnation of Baathism; it has a complex metamorphosis, of which Baathism is merely an element, albeit a significant one. If we examine the similarities while appreciating the differences, we can not only understand ISIS more, but we can concoct a way to confront them.

© 2018 Evelyn

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