The Ba’athist brains behind ISIS
BEIRUT - The Islamic State’s conquest of the strategic Iraqi city of Ramadi has underlined the group’s military prowess, which became evident in the summer of 2014 when it punched out of its Syrian base and launched a lightning campaign that overran a large swathe of northern Iraq, including the city of Mosul.
The irony is that the brains behind this blitzkrieg and the blueprint for the caliphate that Islamic State (ISIS) leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed in Mosul, Iraq’s second city, were former generals of Saddam Hussein, ruthless men with vast experience in terrorism and repression, but little in the way of religious credentials.
It is this cadre of resurrected Ba’athists, mainly Sunnis, who are the architects of ISIS’s battlefield victories and the signs are that their eyes are set firmly on conquering the Iraqi capital Baghdad.
For centuries Baghdad’s population was a mix of Sunnis and Shia, but since the sectarian bloodletting unleashed after the March 2003 US-led invasion that ended Saddam Hussein’s grotesque regime, it is now largely Shia.
The genesis of the conversion of the Ba’athist generals, known for their secular ideology, came shortly after the US-led invasion when the American conquerors summarily disbanded Saddam’s vast Sunni-dominated military and intelligence apparatus. That stripped the Ba’athist officer corps of its power, prestige and privilege, and left them looking for revenge.
The Salafists, who had been contained under Saddam, saw an opportunity for power in the post-invasion anarchy. The roots of the discontent on which they fed lay in the 13 years of economic sanctions against Iraq that began in 1990, which caused immense hardship for Iraq’s long-suffering population of 35 million.
“These conditions helped break down the middle class and enhanced a sense of relative deprivation and alienation in which religious radicalism and militant Iraqi Arab nationalism could breed,” observed Denise Natali of the US National Defense University.
“The Ba’athist-Salafist nexus did not necessarily entail a Ba’athist ideological conversion,” she wrote in an April analysis of ISIS’s Ba’athist roots. “Even though Saddam forged alliances with Islamic groups and advocated greater piety in Iraq, he did not become ‘a born-again Muslim’ as some have argued. Rather, most continued to instrumentalise Islam for their own individual political and party interests.”
Indeed, the anarchy that followed Saddam’s fall “allowed the Ba’athist- Salafist nexus to thrive”, Natali said. “It was driven by a shared sense of Sunni Arab disenfranchisement within the post-Saddam order, reactions against the ‘foreign occupation’ and Ba’athism’s deep roots and clandestine networks among Sunni Arab populations.”
The disgruntled Ba’athist officers gradually took over command of the various Sunni insurgent groups who fought the occupation as their leaders were picked off by the Americans. These included the merciless Jordanian known as Abu Musab al- Zarqawi, who led al-Qaeda in Iraq, the predecessor of ISIS, until he was killed in a US air strike in June 2006.
According to analyst Richard Barrett of the US Soufan Group, a security consultancy run by former FBI agent Ali Soufan, a Lebanese- American with vast experience in the Middle East, two of Baghdadi’s deputies are former Ba’athists.
Abu Muslim al-Turkmani, a former special forces commander and military intelligence officer; oversees operations in Iraq; and Abu Ali al-Anbari heads operations in Syria. Both are members of ISIS’s ruling Shura Council.
According to ISIS documents studied by the German magazine Der Spiegel, the key figure in all this was a former senior officer in air force intelligence, Colonel Samir Abd Muhammad al-Khlifawi. But few knew his real name and his main alias was Haji Bakr.
ISIS defectors had been telling for some time of Ba’athists within the group’s command echelon. But it was not until the discovery of two batches of secret files that the extent of Ba’athist influence became known.
The papers included a handwritten 31-page blueprint for ISIS complete with organisational charts, directives, timetables for ISIS’s expansion and the eventual creation of a caliphate run by a ruthless and pervasive intelligence hierarchy in much the same way that Saddam ruled Iraq from 1979 to 2003.
These papers came to light in January 2014 after Haji Bakr was killed in a gun battle in the northern town of Tel Rifaat, where he had drawn up what Der Spiegel called “a technically precise plan for an Islamic Intelligence State” with a ruling pyramid of bureaucratic departments all headed by Baghdadi.
The documents identified Haji Bakr as the eminence grise behind the meteoric rise and expansion of ISIS and a key architect of its blitzkrieg campaign in northern Iraq in which a few thousand fast-moving jihadists vanquished a large force of the Iraqi Army and seized vast amounts of weapons and equipment.