The Ba’athist brains behind ISIS

Friday 22/05/2015
Who is behind the flag?

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.