Under the Black Flag: ISIS emerging during Saddam’s rule

Friday 20/11/2015
Sami Moubayed

London - The Islamic State (ISIS) for many was a bolt from the blue, especially when it suddenly seized large sec­tions of Iraq, including the city of Mosul, in June 2014. In his re­cently published, well-written book Under the Black Flag, Syrian histo­rian and journalist Sami Moubayed examines not just ISIS’s modus op­erandi and prospects but sets out to explain its origins.
The ground was laid in Iraq, he ar­gues, by a growth in political Islam under the Ba’ath Party in the 1990s, encouraged by Saddam Hussein’s vice-president, Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri. “The old-time Saddam friend and pro­tégé started to court the clerics of Baghdad, cre­ating something of an informal Is­lamic bloc within the Iraqi govern­ment,” Moubayed told The Arab Weekly from Da­mascus.
“He became a frequent mosque-goer and created a clique around him of seculars turned Islamists. Saddam himself started to flirt with the Is­lamists, encouraging mosques-go­ing and Quranic education so long as it remained under his watchful eye. The more Iraq sank under US sanc­tions, poverty and need, the more people turned to Islam during 1991- 2003,” he said.
The US-led invasion of 2003 led to the Ba’athists developing close relationships with the most militant Islamists. “Many of those Ba’athists just slipped into the underground, they had plenty of money, connec­tions and knew the terrain well. They turned outlaws and core mem­bers of the ‘Sunni insurgency’,” he said.
“When al-Qaeda arrived shortly afterward, the Ba’athists were al­ready there, armed to the teeth, ready and willing to work with anybody who would advance their cause.”
In his book, Moubayed identifies Ba’athists and a former Iraqi gen­eral within the ISIS elite and shows Ba’athist influence in its adminis­tration as well as in the anti-Persian sentiment of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, proclaimed caliph in June 2014 in the Iraqi city of Mosul only a year after ISIS emerged from its ear­lier incarna­tion, the Is­lamic State in Iraq.
As ISIS was Iraqi in origin and still has a majority of Iraqi fighters, it is re­sented in Syria by the rival Jabhat al- Nusra, al-Qaeda’s Syrian wing. But Moubayed attrib­utes ISIS’s progress in Syria to two fac­tors. Firstly, it was “an organisation that paid well, both mili­tarily and financially”.
In other words, ISIS had money and the fighting expertise of ex-Ira­qi Ba’athists and soldiers. Secondly, ISIS ideology was close to the think­ing of many already resisting the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad.
“The Syrian opposition has secu­lar elements but the strong majority are Islamists, or at least, many of those with influence on the ground are driven by political Islam,” said Moubayed. This current of ideas goes back to the Muslim Brother­hood (Ikhwan), apparently the main force in Syrian Islamism until rela­tively recently.
“The Brotherhood has always wanted a theocracy with a caliph — this is no secret,” said Moubayed. “Their problem now is that [in their view] the caliph [Baghdadi] is a charlatan who has hijacked Islam.”
In Under the Black Flag, Mou­bayed finds roots of ISIS thinking in the 13th-century theologian Ibn Taymiyya, who polemicised against Christians, Shias, Alawis and Sufis and whose objections to kings and sultans led him to spend 15 years in the prisons of Damascus and Cairo.
But when Moubayed looks at the struggle between the Syrian re­gime and the Muslim Brotherhood, it is clear he believes the Brother­hood was already losing ground to the more militant Fighting Van­guards during the 1982 Hama revolt, crushed by Bashar’s father, Hafez Assad, with thousands of deaths.
Ikhwan, Moubayed argues, are no longer a significant force in Syria. “Back in 2011, the Brotherhood had a lifetime opportunity of recreating themselves after decades under­ground,” he said. “Their colleagues were coming to power in Egypt and Tunisia and the international com­munity was starting to deal with them.
“They failed to produce real lead­ership and a programme appealing to a new generation of Syrians. The Syrian Brotherhood has been com­pletely dwarfed by the rise of ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra and by other splinter Islamic groups. They’re now a relic of the past — something from a bygone era.”
But Moubayed is cautious over whether the future belongs to ISIS. He is non-committal on the pros­pects for the Syrian Ba’ath, while noting in the book that it continues to be marked by “greed, authoritari­anism, cult worship, nepotism and embezzlement”.
His concluding chapter sketches a scenario in which the “Islamic state” is made more viable by the toppling of Baghdadi in an internal coup.
“If al-Baghdadi is replaced by a caliph who pledges non-intervention, wears a modern suit and trims his beard — one who doesn’t order the decapitation of prisoners or the destruction of statues — would more people be willing to come out expressing public support for the Islamic state? History is riddled with states which have been founded by thugs with big swords and brutal tactics,” he said.
Sami Moubayed, Under the Black Flag: At the Frontier of the New Ji­had, IB Tauris.