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