How Saddam’s men have helped ISIS
MALA QARA (Iraq) - Mohannad is a spy for the Islamic State (ISIS). He eavesdrops on chatter in markets in Mosul and reports to his handlers when someone breaks the militants’ rules. One man he informed on — a street trader defying a ban on selling cigarettes — was fined and tortured, according to a friend of Mohannad’s family. If the trader did not stop, his torturers told the man, they would kill him.
Mohannad is paid $20 for every offender he helps catch.
He is 14.
The teenager is one cog in the intelligence network ISIS has established since it seized vast stretches of Iraq and Syria. Informers range from children to battle-hardened fighters. Overseeing the network are former army and intelligence officers, many of whom helped keep former Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein and his Ba’ath Party in power for years.
Saddam-era officers have been a powerful factor in ISIS’s rise. ISIS out-muscled the Sunni-dominated Ba’ath Party and absorbed thousands of its followers. Those recruits joined Saddam-era officers who held key ISIS posts.
The Ba’athists strengthened the group’s spy networks and battlefield tactics and are instrumental in the survival of its self-proclaimed caliphate, according to interviews with dozens of people, including Ba’ath leaders, former intelligence and military officers, Western diplomats and 35 Iraqis who recently fled ISIS territory.
Iraqi Finance Minister Hoshyar Zebari, a Kurd who spent years opposing Saddam’s regime, said the ex-Ba’athists working with ISIS provide highly effective guidance on explosives, strategy and planning.
“The fingerprints of the old Iraqi state are clear on their work. You can feel it,” one former senior security official in the Ba’ath Party said.
In many ways, it is a union of convenience. Most former Ba’athist officers have little in common with ISIS.
Many ex-Ba’athists working with ISIS are driven by self-preservation and a shared hatred of the Shia-led government in Baghdad. Others became radicalised after Saddam’s ouster, converted on the battlefield or in US military and Iraqi prisons.
One former intelligence commander who served in Iraq’s national intelligence service from 2003-09 said some ex-Ba’athists pushed out of state agencies by Iraq’s government were only too happy to find new masters. “ISIS pays them,” he said.
Turning point in Tikrit
Ba’athists began collaborating with al-Qaeda in Iraq — the early incarnation of what would become ISIS — soon after Saddam was ousted in 2003. The US occupation dissolved the Ba’ath Party and barred senior and even mid-level party officials from joining the new security services. Some left the country; others joined the anti-American insurgency.
As ISIS fighters swept through central Iraq, they were joined by the Army of the Men of the Naqshbandi Order, a group of Ba’athist fighters.
The Naqshbandi and groups of Saddam-era officers made up the majority of fighters in the initial stages of 2014’s military onslaught, according to Sunni tribal leaders, Ba’athists and an Iraqi security commander. It was the Naqshbandi who rallied locals in Mosul to rise up against Baghdad and who planned and commanded military advances, according to Iraqi officials and Abdul al-Samad al-Ghrairy, a senior official in the Ba’ath Party.
Within days, though, ISIS “took the revolution from us”, Ghrairy said. “We couldn’t sustain the battle.”
In Tikrit, ISIS opened a jail and released up to 200 followers. More ISIS fighters poured into the city. These men “took all the army’s weapons and didn’t give the Naqshbandi any. They kicked them aside,” a senior security official in Saladin said.
Soon after the fall of Tikrit in June 2014, leaders from main factions of the Sunni rebellion met in the house of a Ba’ath Party member. According to the senior security official, Tikrit tribal leaders and Ba’ath officials, ISIS told Ba’athists they had a choice: Join us or stand down. Some Ba’athists abandoned the revolt. Others stayed, swelling the ISIS ranks with mid-level security veterans.
That has boosted ISIS’s firepower and tactical prowess. “This is not the al-Qaeda we fought before,” said a prominent Sunni from Mosul who battled ISIS’s forerunners.
“Their tactics are different. These are men educated in military staff college. They are ex-army leaders. They are not simple minds, but men with real experience.”
Ghrairy and Khudair Murshidy, the Ba’ath Party’s official spokesman, told Reuters that the party’s armed wing is frozen after its defeat. ISIS, they added, killed some 600 Ba’ath supporters and Naqshbandi fighters.
“Their policy is to kill everyone, destroy everyone,” Murshidy said. “They create fear and death everywhere and control areas. Many people have joined them now. At first they were a few hundred; now they are maybe more than 50,000.”
‘The walls have ears’
Emma Sky, a former adviser to the US military, says ISIS has effectively subsumed the Ba’athists. “The mustached officers have grown religious beards. I think many have genuinely become religious,” she said.
Among the most high-profile Ba’athists to join ISIS are Ayman Sabawi, the son of Saddam Hussein’s half-brother, and Raad Hassan, Saddam’s cousin, said the senior Saladin security official and several tribal leaders. Both were children during Saddam’s time but the family connection is powerfully symbolic.
More senior officers now in ISIS include Walid Jasim (aka Abu Ahmed al-Alwani), who was a captain of intelligence in Saddam’s time, and Fadhil al-Hiyala (aka Abu Muslim al-Turkmani), who some say was a deputy to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. He was killed in an air strike in 2015.
The group’s multilayered security and intelligence agencies in Mosul are overseen by an agency called Amniya — “Security”. The agency has six branches, each responsible for maintaining a different aspect of security.
The overall head of Amniya in Iraq and Syria is a former Saddam-era intelligence officer from Falluja called Ayad Hamid al-Jumaili, who joined the Sunni insurgency after the US-led invasion and answers directly to Baghdadi, according to Hisham al-Hashimi, an Iraqi analyst who has worked with the Iraqi government.
A vice squad known as Hisba enforces order on the streets.
Hisba officers punish everyone from cigarette traders to women not fully covered. They run a network of informants, placing children, such as 14-year-old Mohannad, in mosques and markets and women at funerals and family gatherings, according to Mosul residents.
“The work of these children is rewarded with gifts or small cash prizes,” said the former intelligence officer. “Women, on the other hand, are recruited mostly from (ISIS) families and they gather information for no reward.”
The repression has become so intense in Mosul, residents said, people have revived a phrase used in Saddam’s era: “The walls have ears.”
Reuters sat in on debriefings of the 35 men who recently escaped from ISIS-held areas. Most of those questioned were former members of the Iraqi security forces.
The men described a life of increasing deprivation under ISIS and a climate of paranoia in which they could trust no-one, even their own relatives.
A web of informants
In September, according to several of the men who fled, ISIS’s Amniya executed about 400 former members of Iraq’s security forces. Families of those dumped in a crater were sent a kind of receipt to notify them of the execution. Some of the escapees said people are banned from leaving ISIS territory and those caught leaving are routinely killed. Two escapees recounted the fate of a group of men who recently tried to leave. ISIS caught them and dropped a concrete blast wall on top of them. The killing was filmed and played on large screens the militants erected in public spaces.
According to the fugitives’ testimony, ISIS has embedded itself in almost every village, converting the homes of former Iraqi military officers into bases and creating a web of informants.
Ahmed, 32, said he was wanted by ISIS for belonging to a tribal militia that fought insurgents before the fall of Mosul. He said he had not been home for months because he feared one of his young daughters would inadvertently betray his presence.
Local ISIS leaders send their own children out as scouts, some of the escapees said. One man said militants paid cigarette sellers to inform on their customers.
So pervasive is ISIS’s surveillance network that even at home people cannot let their guard down, according to 31-year-old policeman Saad Khalaf Ali. He was arrested and accused of speaking against the militants. He denied it but the militants produced footage of him in his own home saying he wished for government forces to retake the area. The video had been secretly filmed by a boy from the village, the policeman said.
It will be difficult for Baghdad to lure away ex-Ba’athists and Saddam-era officers working with ISIS. The Iraqi government itself is bogged down by internal divisions while the parts of the Ba’ath Party that have not joined ISIS cannot agree on whether they want talks or even who should represent them.
Meantime the war drags on.
In October, Baghdad created a special office to share intelligence between Iraq, Iran, Russia and the Syrian government. That office is providing Iraq’s air force with information on ISIS positions. Baghdad has also stepped up efforts to squeeze ISIS financially by attacking oil facilities, pressuring businessmen who have helped the militants and stopping salaries to government employees in areas under ISIS rule.
Zebari said ISIS had responded by “extorting more money from the public. They are going more towards criminal actions and kidnapping.” The group’s surveillance network is testament to its resourcefulness and ability to survive.
After his release from prison, Ahmed al-Tai’i, the cigarette salesman reported by Mohannad, confronted the boy’s father. The father admitted that ISIS paid Mohannad and other youngsters to help them, according to a friend of Tai’i.
The cigarette salesman says his arrest and imprisonment have left him paranoid. “Since I left prison a constant fear has lived with me. If I want to say or do something that contravenes the orders and instructions of the Islamic State I look around to check there is nobody, even my friends, and especially small children,” he said. “I have lost trust in everyone around me.”