Michael Weiss

Saddam’s ghost

Michael Weiss explores how Saddam's holdovers in Iraq are emerging as Islamic State supporters

An image made available by Jihadist media outlet al-Itisam Media on June 29, 2014, allegedly shows members of the IS (Islamic state) including military leader and Georgian native, Abu Omar al-Shishani (Tarkhan Batirashvili) (C-L) and ISIL sheikh Abu Mohammed al-Adnani (C-R), whose picture was blurred from the source to protect his identity, speaking at an unknown location between the Iraqi Nineveh province and the Syrian town of Al-Hasakah (AFP Photo/HO/Al-Itisam Media)

The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) may have recently cut its name in half, but its fortunes have gained by orders of magnitude, judging by recent developments across a stretch of territory that is now more appropriately referred to as “Syraq.” First, the Islamic State’s (IS) self-appointed “caliph,” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, managed to give a Friday sermon in broad daylight in a major mosque in the city of Mosul, which is home to 2 million people. This is quite the upgrade from Waziristan’s finest cavernous soundstage, and no major transnational jihadist leader – not Osama bin Laden or Ayman al-Zawahiri – has ever dared make so public and conspicuous a showing of himself as this, least of all with American drones swarming overhead. (Adolf Eichmann giving a Nazi rally at the Brandenburg Gate in 1961 might be the equivalent spectacle.)


Yet such is Baghdadi’s confidence that he feels he can appear before his flock without concern for his own safety. Clearly he’s a better judge of Iraq’s current security conditions than are Nouri al-Maliki or the 700 US servicemen who have been dispatched back into the Green Zone. The establishment of the caliphate, Baghdadi said, was nothing less than the executed will of Almighty God. To many in attendance – not mention the hordes of IS admirers watching the sermon on YouTube – this proclamation will no doubt have had a ring of truth to it. IS’s ranks will swell.


Furthermore, Baghdadi’s bluster was met by actual battlefield triumphs. IS has used its considerable haul of US-supplied military equipment – estimated in the hundreds of millions of dollars – to advance deeper into Deir Ezzor, where it has largely routed the forces of “official” al-Qaeda, Jabhat al-Nusra. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, IS has already expelled 30,000 people from their homes in the town of Al-Shheil (a former stronghold of Nusra), while still another 35,000, who were expelled from the towns of Khasham and Tabieh Jazeera in late June, have yet to be allowed to return (IS wants their “repentance,” their weapons, and their patience for 10 more days to let IS feel “safe” in its in new domain).


Elsewhere, large swath of Sunni tribes, evidently aware of which nutjobs fortune now favors in the Land of the Two Rivers, have declared their allegiance to IS. “The clans of the city of Ishara, and the villages around it… and all of the factions in these areas,” declared one tribal leader, who referred to Baghdadi’s new moniker, Caliph Ibrahim, “announce before God that they will cease fighting with the Islamic State.” This might have something to do with the new caliph’s beatific commandment to treat the tribes with respect and “prioritize forgiveness over punishment.” Or it might just be good business sense.


Already in firm control of the oil fields of Raqqa, IS now stands to assume an additional 75,000 barrels per day in Deir Ezzor, which it will no doubt sell to the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Damascus remains IS’s main state financier in spite of its artfully manufactured propaganda about fighting a war on “terrorism,” and in spite of IS’s fire-and-brimstone propaganda about murdering nusayris, and in spite of the Western commentariat’s propaganda that Saudi Arabia is underwriting IS and therefore we must work with Assad and Iran to defeat the bearded men in black. (Iran has been sending virtually free oil to Assad, which means that even under supposedly crippling international sanctions, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is still willing to forfeit hundreds of millions of dollars rather than focus his counterinsurgency on retaking Syria’s oil fields. Funny, that.)


Even erstwhile allies-turned-enemies have become allies once more. This week, the Islamist rebel group Liwa Dawoud, in Idlib, decided to re-pledge its allegiance to IS, probably sensing a resurgence of the group in Syria’s north, from which it had been largely expelled in January. IS has already sacked Kurdish villages near Ayn Arab along the Syrian-Turkish border. Sensing this to be as good an opportunity as any, Assad’s forces have moved into Aleppo in an attempt to retake Syria’s industrial second city, which rebels seized two summers ago. The Iranian Republican Guard and Hezbollah are both said to already be in position in Aleppo for what may be a prolonged but decisive battle.


So far, the regime has retaken villages to the north and neighborhoods to the east of the city, adding to their near-total control over entrances from the south, and its presence in the west. Assad plans to squeeze Aleppo like a carbuncle. And its fall, most Middle East analysts and activists agree, would spell the end of the Syrian revolution. Baraa Halabi told the Associated Press: “You look to the right, and there’s the regime. You look to the left, it’s the Islamic State. We are caught in a pincer.” As ever. And because Assad prefers not to bomb IS unless Quds Force commander Qassem Suleimani tells him he must do, we can expect that his army and his Iranian proxies will now use the takfiris as an advance guard in crushing the insurrection once and for all.


Finally, the temporary partnership formed between IS and the Baathists in the Sunni Triangle region of Iraq has disintegrated. According to Reuters, IS has detained between 25 and 60 former military officers and party members of the defunct Iraqi regime, without whose assistance Mosul would never have been sacked in June. Even as the city fell last month, the signs were already apparent that a split was imminent: the Baathists hung portraits of Saddam Hussein and were duly informed to take them down. They also had a lethal shootout with ISIS west of Kirkuk. However, the upper hand, at least for now, belongs to the jihadists. “ISIS called on their friends who are ex-Baathists to cooperate and they did,” Shiite parliamentarian Haidar Abadi told Reuters. “And now ISIS is kicking them out. Some will pledge allegiance. Those they don’t believe will pledge allegiance, they will execute.”


Everyone has by now learned the name Army of the Men of the Naqshbandi Order (JRTN), which led the Baathist arm of the June 10 charge – and arguably the whole campaign itself – into Mosul. Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, Saddam’s former vice president and confidant (he was the “King of Clubs” in the famous deck of cards handed out to US troops to identify the regime’s dead-enders) founded JRTN during the bad old days of the ancient regime, when Douri was also known for running a stolen car ring that imported European models from the Jordanian port at Aqaba. In Syrian parlance, he’d be considered the ringleader of the shabiha, like that minister-without-portfolio Maher al-Assad. No one knows if Douri is still alive or well enough to lead an insurgency today (he’d be about 72 today, and he’s rumored to have had every kind of terminal illness), but his last public appearance was in April 2012 when he gave an hour-long speech in full field marshal regalia, exhorting Iraqis to unite and rise up against Iranian hegemony.


Douri reactivated JRTN in 2006 after Saddam’s execution. Michael Knights has studied the group, which is in fact a Sufi religious order, and compared it to a kind of Arab Freemasons. Nevertheless, because its ranks drew from ex-security personnel who, after de-Baathification, were left with two means of supporting themselves apart from joining the insurgency – agriculture or the black market – JRTN has remained incredibly well-funded, well-staffed, and well-integrated into the social fabric of the Sunni communities in the Tigris River Valley. It has worked with jihadists before. “[I]f JRTN did have a problem with the locals,” Knights wrote in a recent profile of Douri for The New Republic, “they sub-contracted mass casualty attacks to Al Qaeda fighters, for instance killing many of their tribal rivals in Dawr with a massive car bomb in December 2006.”


Col. Derek Harvey, America’s top intelligence analyst of the Iraqi insurgency, named Douri, along with another high-ranking Baathist, Muhammed Yunis al-Ahmed, as two masterminds behind it. The underground nature of Saddam’s vast security apparatus – replete with paramilitary organizations such as the Baath militias and Fedayeen Saddam – became crucial to the clandestine guerrilla warfare that erupted when American troops arrived in 2003. According to Michael R. Gordon and Gen. Bernard E. Trainor’s The Endgame: The Inside Story of the Struggle for Iraq, from George W. Bush to Barack Obama, which is the definitive history of the Iraq war, “Networks for safe houses and arms caches for the paramilitary forces, including materials for making improvised explosives, were also established throughout the country.” Saddam even inaugurated the “Gafiki project” dedicated to building IEDs and “small backpack-size bombs,” which were subsequently put to deadly use against the foreign occupiers and are no doubt being used again against Maliki’s Iraqi Security Forces and Suleimani’s Shia militias.


And here we encounter an unmistakable yet seldom remarked-upon fact about IS’s triumph in recent months. While it is certainly the case that the group owes its good fortunes to the miscalculations and complicities of Assad and Maliki, a deceased Arab strongman deserves just as much credit for creating a welcome environment for jihadism. Those now partnering with IS, if not joining up with it, originated in Saddam’s own patented brand of factory-made fanaticism.


True, the dictator had suppressed Sunni Islamism in the 1970s and 1980s – the Muslim Brotherhood especially – but then, like all Arab strongmen, he tried to co-opt the phenomenon as a bulwark against his real and perceived enemies. The 1990s saw Iraq’s “Faith Campaign,” a period perhaps best symbolized by his addition of the slogan “God is Great” to the Baathist Iraqi flag. Douri, despite being Sufi, was the senior Iraqi official placed in charge of this state-sponsored inoculation of religious fundamentalism, the goal of which was to fuse Salafism – then seen as a safeguard against the more dangerous Brotherhood – with Baathism. The plan was a mixed success. Some graduates of the Faith Campaign did indeed take to the contradictory Baath-Salafism cocktail, while others took so well to the religious ingredient that they abandoned entirely the secular ideological chaser. Many in this latter camp went on to commit terrorist attacks against the regime that spawned them.


Both the Baath-Salafists and the “pure” Salafists would join the anti-American insurgency; both would also be facilitated by the dying dictatorship in Baghdad. In 2003, Saddam issued a doomsday directive, known as his “emergency plan.” He instructed his Baath networks that, “God forbid, the Iraqi Command falls to the coalition forces: American, British and Zionist,” they should destroy their official headquarters and go to ground, conducting guerrilla attacks and sabotage campaigns against the occupiers, and using the Iraqi black-market to purchase weapons to do so. These networks were also instructed to assassinate high-level clerics given the likely contingency that previously monitored and controlled imams would become militant leaders in their own right. The terrorist franchises that emerged from this doomsday directive would bedevil coalition forces for nearly a decade. Many of the insurgency’s architects would also find shelter next-door, in Assad’s Syria.


Douri and Ahmed – Col. Harvey’s designated brains trust for the insurgency – were both given refuge in Syria following the US invasion of Iraq. This was the ironic coda to decades of mutual suspicion and outright enmity between the Baath parties of Damascus and Baghdad. Saddam, for instance, had sheltered Michel Aflaq, the founder of the Syrian Baath, while Hafez al-Assad rather fancifully referred to himself as the president of both Syria and Iraq. But now Douri and Ahmed were desperate and made a bold proposal to Hafez’s son and unintended heir: that both Baath parties should merge to expel the Americans and reconquer Iraq under a united banner. Bashar rejected this offer, instead opting to subordinate the Douri and Ahmed clans to his own Syrian-minted Iraqi Baath syndicate.


Assad also personally oversaw Syria’s contribution to the jihadist anarchy just getting started across the border. In the early days of post-invasion Iraq, Bashar’s brother-in-law and intelligence chief, Assef Shawkat – killed by Syrian rebels in 2012 – was tasked with facilitating and manipulating the exiled Iraqi Salafists created by the Faith Campaign and who were now angling to wage holy war on their native soil.  Douri, consigned more to an outcast status in Syria, cultivated JRTN using plundered cash reserves from Iraq.  Col. Joel Rayburn, a former US military intelligence analyst in Iraq who has written a forthcoming history of the conflict, told me that he doesn’t think Douri was “very well supported by Assad” at all; he maintained his own guerrilla army.


Nevertheless, it was these types of Sunni revanchists who led the Iraq insurgency prior to 2005, Rayburn argues. Al-Qaeda before that point had played a “secondary role.” Some of the top troublemakers, in fact, moonlighted as insurgents because by day they were acting politicians. These included Khalaf Ulayan, a former officer in Saddam’s army and then a top-ranking Baath-Salafist after Saddam’s fall. Another was Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, one of the Faith Campaign’s ardent Salafist alumni, who then wound up in prison for trying to attack the regime. (Mashhadani became speaker of Iraq’s parliament in 2006, although his performance was so crude and strange that many believed he was on drugs.) Still another insurgent leader was Adnan al-Dulaimi, a former Brotherhood member who had been let out of prison in 1991 following Saddam’s “amnesty” for Islamists – a policy Assad would imitate in 2011, during the early days of Syria’s revolution.


What ultimately shot al-Qaeda into a primary insurgent role was its vast fundraising apparatus and deft assembly of foreign muhajireen fighters from all over the Levant, Maghreb and Persian Gulf.  Once again, Assad’s regime provided the gateway into Iraq for the non-Iraqi ultras, as hundreds arrived at Damascus International Airport, then made their way east — often with the connivance of Shawkat’s mukhabarat before finally alighting in Anbar and Ninewah provinces. Rayburn writes that based on captured al-Qaeda documents, between 2006 and 2007, around 700 muhajireen made it into western Ninewah via Syria, a flow so heavy that a “Border Emir” had to be appointed to handle all the traffic. (Now that there’s no border between Syria and Iraq, one wonders if there’s still an emir.)


The transformation of al-Qaeda in Iraq to the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) was, in fact, a publicity stunt designed to mollify Iraqis who believed the organization to be too foreign in its makeup, and too heavy-handed in its tactics. The rebranding was also meant to deter the rising Sunni participation in Iraq’s democratic political process – rejectionism having been the takfiris’ wellspring of popular support.  The ISI was the outgrowth of the Mujahideen Shura Council, which consisted of al-Qaeda and token Iraqi Salafist groups. Instead of a global or regional caliphate, the Islamic State wanted to partition Iraq along sectarian lines and rule the Sunni-dominant areas of the northwest and central provinces. Hardline Islamist clerics rejected this idea because they rejected the notion of nation-states tout court; local Sunni populations rejected the Islamic State’s draconian “governance” style, which involved murdering tribal leaders and sheikhs (herein lay the seeds of the celebrated “Awakening”); and al-Qaeda’s former allies, including the Baath-Salafists, finally deemed the group too psychotic even for them.


But it was widespread Sunni disillusionment that registered the group’s fall from prominence. In his forthcoming book, Rayburn gives a telling anecdote about a police commander in the Anbar city of Habbaniyah who, on Christmas Eve 2007, saw young Sunnis dancing with their girlfriends, letting off fireworks, and drinking alcohol. He asked them how it was possible that they could now act as Christians when just a year ago they were committed Zarqawists. The response came: “Al Qaeda? That was last year!”


That was seven years ago.


IS’s recrudescence in the intervening period owes as much to JRTN and Baath-Salafism as it does to Saddam’s defunct security sector. Hisham al-Hashimi, who has written what is to date the most detailed organizational anatomy of IS, has emphasized its reliance on Baathist remnants of the upper echelons of Baghdadi’s revamped terrorist franchise. The head of IS’s powerful Security and Intelligence Council, for instance, is Abu-Ali al-Anbari, a former intelligence officer in the Iraqi Army. The entirety of the three-person council, notes Hashimi, consists of ex-intelligence officers from the Saddam era, all of whom were handpicked by the Samarra-born Baghdadi. The Council is responsible for the caliph’s movements and engagements; overseeing the implementation of sharia court rulings; and running IS’s counterintelligence services to protect against infiltration – a task well suited to former mukhabarat.


Indeed, Baghdadi’s tendency toward Iraqi nativism in the staffing of IS’s leadership positions dwarfs the multi-national promiscuity of the founder of al-Qaeda’s Iraq franchise as Baghdadi’s forebear, the Jordanian-born Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. What Hashimi calls “Arab expatriates” (foreign fighters) are typically relegated to the Islamic jurisprudence, and also IS’s extensive media establishment. The most important IS bureau is the Military Council. Its former head was Adnan Ismai’l Najm al-Biblawi, who was killed on June 5. Biblawi was a captain in Saddam’s army. Three of the remaining IS Military Council co-chairs are all former army officers.


In an interview with al-Arabiya last March, Hashimi observed that much of IS’s newest cadres were made in the “incubator” that was Camp Bucca, the detainee prison established by coalition forces and subsequently shuttered by Maliki. Baghdadi himself was a former inmate. “When Bucca prison was shut down there was not something called ISIS, when the camp was evacuated,” Hashimi said. “But most of the leaders of ISIS are military personnel, or former army officers from the Baath party or the Iraqi dissolved bodies, who could have joined [the] al-Qaeda organization, or Islamic State of Iraq in Bucca prison.”


This is another way of saying that wartime exigencies, money, marriages of convenience, America’s myopic occupational policies and its categorical withdrawal from Iraq, have all conspired to determine IS’s trajectory as much as jihadist doctrine has. In a sense, Saddamism now comes wrapped in the shahada. A personality cult as well as a desire to outmaneuver rivals and competitors continue to govern the Republic of Fear. Therein may lie IS’s future undoing, even as it busies itself with shoring up weapons, influence and territory in the present.


Already, Iraqi tribal leaders such as Anbar’s Sheikh Hatem al-Suleiman have indicated their willingness to turn on IS, but not until and unless Maliki is removed from power. “The point is that Maliki’s tyranny and the lack of strong leadership forced some Sunni cities to accept ISIS over Maliki’s sectarian government,” Sheikh Suleiman told Kurdish news portal Rudaw, adding that he was confident that the tribes would eventually expel IS as they did in the mid-aughts.


Suleiman’s assessment tracks with what Rayburn and others had observed in the last two years with respect to how Maliki set the stage for the grand return of all extremists. Shortly after Douri’s proof-of-life video surfaced, he sent Middle East watchers an email explaining how the Iraqi premier’s crackdown on the Sunni political class – namely the al-Iraqiya party of former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi – was being pursued. Maliki’s true purpose, Rayburn maintained, was to eliminate any and all credible challengers to his authority, such as Iraqi Vice President Tariq Hashemi, who was driven out of the country in 2011 on spurious “terrorism” charges. Iraqiya’s contenders would thus be replaced with unpopular or irrelevant Sunni non-starters. More often than not, these were unreconstructed insurgents. Two were Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, the Faith Campaign Salafist; and Misha’an Jabouri, another prominent ex-Saddamist turned hardcore insurgent. Here is what Rayburn predicted in 2012:


“By fracturing the Iraqiya coalition that has sat astride the Sunni political center for the past two years, the Malikiyoun [Maliki camp] will not just be opening up space for protective Maliki henchmen like Jabouri and Mashhandani (and other willing tools who will emerge as time passes); they will also open up space for radical rejectionists. The Malikiyoun have ultimately succeeded in ending Tariq Hashemi’s career; but what will happen to the nearly quarter of a million Iraqis who voted for him? And if the Malikiyoun ultimately succeed in driving off Ayad Allawi, as they certainly aim to do, what will happen to the more than 400,000 Iraqis who voted for him? In which direction will this sizable Sunni-majority constituency… migrate? Will they drift, as the Malikiyoun wish, toward the Malikiyoun’s preferred Sunni proxies, like Misha’an Jabouri, Mashhadani, and the ‘rump’ Iraqiyah? Or will they, having seen their chosen representatives destroyed by a Maliki government whose motives they perceive as sectarian, drift more toward radical options – like Izzat al-Douri?”  


Opening the door to JRTN, Rayburn concluded, was tantamount to opening the door to the takfiris.


Several months prior to this analysis, in December 2011, Maliki was in Washington meeting with US officials to discuss the ongoing US-Iraqi partnership. Then CIA Director David Petraeus was imploring him to help with international efforts to pressure Assad into abandoning power. Maliki countered that Assad’s fall would mean civil war, the mayhem of which would undoubtedly bleed over into Iraq – an outcome that transpired precisely because of the failure to remove Assad.


Then Maliki met with President Obama. According to Gordon and Trainor’s recounting of this conversation, the president told the premier: “Some people will think that our withdrawal will bring more influence by Iran. I am confident in your independent leadership and we accept that Iraq needs a normal relationship with Iran. But as partners we must say our main problem with Iran is their nuclear ambition. We said we would not use Iraq as a platform to attack Iran, but in Iraq there are groups supported by Iran who target our people. This is a major concern. We would prefer to resolve the issue of the militias by diplomatic means.” This, even as White House officials joked that Iraq’s Transportation Minister Hadi al-Amari, one of Suleimani’s agents for negotiating with Washington, was dressed in a tie – starkly out of the Iranian fashion custom. Obama also reassured Maliki that the United States was not seeking to militarily overthrow Assad.


IS moved into Syria from Iraq not long thereafter. Today, the militias Obama was referring to are asking for US airpower to defeat IS. And Obama’s administration has apparently given up on Maliki’s “independent leadership” and asked him to step down, too, though not in so many words. Meanwhile, those who helped destroy Iraq long before America ever got there, are doing so again not long after America has gone.


Saddam’s ghost must be smiling.


Michael Weiss is a columnist at Foreign Policy and a fellow at the Institute of Modern Russia. He tweets at @michaeldweiss

Strange bedfellows. (AFP Photo/HO/Al-Itisam Media)

No one knows if Izzat al-Douri is still alive or well enough to lead an insurgency today, but his last public appearance was in April 2012 when he gave an hour-long speech in full field marshal regalia, exhorting Iraqis to unite and rise up against Iranian hegemony.

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    Weiss's columns are so long and full of hot air that they end up being like the proverbial bridge to nowhere, or big budget movies that leave you wondering if this "fellow" of some Soviet vintage institute is even trying to make a point. I thought editors impose a limit on such rants, particularly by double-faced Zionists parading themselves as "papier-maché freedom-fighters".

    July 10, 2014