A Response to Criticism: Why the Ex-Saddamists in the Islamic State Matter

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on August 10, 2015

Abu Ayyub al-Masri and Abu Omar al-Baghdadi: ISIS's co-leaders, 2006-10

Abu Ayyub al-Masri and Abu Omar al-Baghdadi: ISIS’s co-leaders, 2006-10

In the Jerusalem Post on Sunday, Seth Frantzman wrote in opposition to the idea that the ex-military-intelligence officials of the Saddam Hussein regime had contributed significantly to the success of the Islamic State (ISIS) in taking over large swathes of Syria and Iraq. Much of what Frantzman says, about the overestimation of ISIS and Iran’s growing Imperium pushing Sunnis into ISIS’s camp, is unarguable, but he is in error about the time-frame of the ex-Saddamists’ migration into ISIS and underestimates their impact.

The core of Frantzman’s case is:

140 or so men who served under Saddam are thought to play a role in middle or senior ranks of IS. Three Saddam-era officers ended up in the top six ranks of IS. …

When one considers how large Saddam’s army was, it would be surprising if IS didn’t have a plethora of former Saddam-era soldiers. … Saddam’s elites were Sunnis, precisely the people disaffected under Nuri al-Maliki’s Shi’ite-led government. But what was this “formidable” military experience they brought to help IS? If they had fought in the Iran-Iraq war they would today be in their fifties or older.

Most of these men came of age when Saddam’s army was withering on the vine in the 1990s, and they spent 10 years supposedly unemployed from 2003 to 2013, when they decided to secretly become the backbone of IS? Why had they been such dismal insurgents for those 10 years, only then suddenly finding their stride?

Frantzman critiques the articles in The Washington Post by Liz Sly and Der Spiegel by Christoph Reuter, which appeared in April and helped—after a long delay in recognizing the role played by the ex-Saddamists in ISIS—popularize the idea that Ba’athists were in control of ISIS. In Frantzman’s telling, the Ba’athist “hidden hand” narrative has been sold by people in and around the Iraqi government as an excuse for the Iraqi army’s failure and as a plea for more Western help.

Frantzman mentions me by name as a contributor to this narrative, but in fact the area of disagreement I have with Frantzman is very small.

For example, I critiqued the Sly article back in April, noting that “Sly says, ‘after 2010, [ISIS’s new leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi] embarked on an aggressive campaign to woo the former officers’,” and this was clearly the wrong way around: those ex-officers supported al-Baghdadi’s accession to power from within ISIS.

More recently, I critiqued Reuter’s assessment by noting that where he has ISIS run by a cabal of Ba’athists/nationalists, who seize power after 2010 and then used the religious cover to bring in foreign zealots as shock troops to fight a local battle, this simply doesn’t meet the timeline. The “Ba’athists” within ISIS are better referred to as “former regime elements” or FREs because they had not been ideologically committed to Ba’athism for some time; they had converted to a form of Islamism during Saddam’s Faith Campaign. The most important FREs—including Reuter’s central character, Samir al-Khlifawi (a.k.a. Haji Bakr), a former colonel in Saddam’s intelligence who was the strategic planner of ISIS’s expansion into Syria—had joined ISIS in 2003-04, when it was a small, foreign-led organization, buttressing the point that these FREs were not Ba’athists: if the FREs just wanted to return to power there were larger insurgent units, with more Ba’ath-sympathetic ideologies and run by their former comrades in the Saddam regime, to choose from.

Frantzman is also undoubtedly correct that in a society like Iraq’s, so infiltrated by Saddam’s intelligence apparatus and so intensely militarized, it is little surprise that some of these agents and organs of the old order were among the resistance to the new order. This is doubly unsurprising when it is considered that Saddam’s regime was so heavily based on Sunnis and the new government was Shi’a-led and—with Iran’s help—had begun persecuting Sunnis, especially those with some connection to the fallen regime.

When Frantzman writes that the FREs have had so much effect primarily because of the “weak nature of the Iraqi army, not because IS itself is so powerful,” again, there is little to argue with.

Frantzman sees ISIS’s rise as partly a function of Iran’s growing hegemony; I agree. In explaining ISIS’s massive expansion of numbers since it conquered central Iraq in June 2014—a recent estimate by Charles Lister says ISIS might now have 70,000 to 100,000 members and an analysis by Daveed Gartenstein-Ross in February gave similar numbers—there is no doubt that Frantzman is correct this has been driven by Sunni Arabs in these areas seeing ISIS as “the only option” other than “an Iranian-militia-dominated Middle East”.

Writing against President Obama’s détente with Iran in January, I noted that the policy was a strategic failure because allying with Iran didn’t weaken ISIS, but rather strengthened it: “No Syrian (or Iraqi) Sunni is going to turn on the I.S. if they are convinced the alternative is sectarian domination by Iran”. And Lister is likely correct that “a great deal of those [100,000] fighters … could be deemed only marginally loyal to the core IS cause,” and if the West helped provide “a credible socio-political alternative to IS, the group may dwindle to a smaller core”.

So this leaves only the questions of: (1) How 140 men can have this much effect?; (2) How are men who are by now over fifty orchestrating this?; and (3) Why was there a ten-year delay in the FREs having this effect?

The first and second are relatively easy to deal with.

With people trained by the KGB, as Saddam’s military-intelligence services were, cabals much smaller than one-hundred-and-forty have done much worse—see, for example, here and here on Algeria. Perhaps the role of these one-hundred-and-forty (or one-hundred-and-sixty, according to other sources) men has been overstated, but if that is so, the small number is not part of the evidence for that.

The easiest way to demonstrate that age is no impediment to orchestrating mayhem is to look at Izzat Ibrahim ad-Douri, the man who erected the sanctions-busting smuggling networks and ran the Faith Campaign—laying the material and ideological groundwork for ISIS—and who then gave ISIS’s predecessors much help in the aftermath of the regime.

Douri, a Sufi, was not well-regarded by the Salafism he helped to incubate, and he formed his own network of loyalists—not unlike the Freemasons—within the Iraqi security services that was activated as an insurgent unit, Jaysh Rijal aṭ-Ṭariqa an-Naqshabandiya (JRTN) in late 2006 and seems now to have been destroyed. Still, when Douri was doling out resources to insurgents, he never shied from donating to ISIS.

Douri is seventy-three-years-old, but even now his power is not at an end. JRTN has been removed from the battlefield but Douri’s role was always more about “tending to the coalition of tribal and factional relationships,” as Michael Knights put it. JRTN’s focus was shaping operations rather than direct insurgent work, working through its network of agents inside the new government and security services and other cut-outs to provide a seedbed for others to take action to destabilize the Iraqi government—sometimes at the direction of JRTN and often unaware of the fact.

Mutatis mutandis, the FREs within ISIS play the same role: key nodes for counter-intelligence—including offensive capabilities like penetration and provocation learned from Saddam’s old friends in Moscow—logistics, personal connections, strategic planning, and so on that do not require these men to be actually on the battlefield. It is also notable that many of the key FREs are now (reportedly) dead, testifying both to the length of time this intellectual property has been available to ISIS to teach and ISIS’s institutional capacity to retain it without regular resupply.

The beginning of wisdom is that there was nothing sudden about ISIS’s spectacular public emergence in 2013-14. ISIS’s capacity had been expanding for a long time; its ability to emerge in public and seize territory at this time was driven by numerous factors. One, already highlighted, is Iran’s growing power in the Fertile Crescent, which has closed Sunni ranks around any capable bulwark—in a lot of cases ISIS. Related, the uprising in Syria and Western inaction gave Iran and its proxy regime in Damascus the time and space they needed to put their old connections with ISIS to work and help ISIS expand inside Syria to divide and discredit the rebellion, and possibly draw in international intervention to put down the insurgency. From Syria, ISIS invaded Iraq last summer. And the Western failure to understand that the 2007 “surge” was not a done deal—that ISIS would, and had, changed strategy in its wake—meant that when the U.S. abandoned Iraq in late 2011 there was no recognition that the diplomatic disengagement since 2009, the growing power of Iran in Baghdad behind an increasingly sectarian and authoritarian government, and the instability in Syria meant ISIS’s power was on the upswing as U.S. soldiers crossed the border into Kuwait.

The FREs didn’t “secretly become the backbone” of ISIS after 2013; as mentioned some parts of the Salafized remnants of Saddam’s regime moved into ISIS’s predecessor in 2003, and the process by which the FREs became dominant in ISIS’s leadership structure was gradual, and began long before 2013—in 2006, to be exact.

With signs of Sunni resistance already appearing against ISIS’s predecessor, al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia (AQM), by the summer of 2005, specifically because AQM was being seen as a foreign intrusion, Zarqawi formed the Mujahideen Shura Council (MSC) in January 2006, allying AQM with several Iraqi Salafist groups, supposedly under the leadership of an Iraqi, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, to give AQM more local legitimacy. Whether these other groups were actually AQM front-groups is contested, but there is no doubt that they included elements of the fallen regime. In June 2006, Zarqawi was killed and replaced by Abu Ayyub al-Masri (Abu Hamza al-Muhajir), and in October the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) was formed. The Iraqization of AQM had begun.

In ISIS’s telling, when ISI was formed, AQM’s baya (oath of allegiance) switched from Osama bin Laden to Abu Omar. While many at the time saw ISI as a front for AQM, ISIS contends that Abu Ayyub’s AQM was now subordinate to Abu Omar’s ISI. The common view undoubtedly had elements of truth: AQM—of which Abu Omar himself was probably a member—was primus inter pares within ISI, its members filling the most important positions, and Abu Ayyub, formally the “war minister” (2007-09) and “prime minister” (2009-10), was co-leader with Abu Omar.

The common view, however, was likely mistaken that Abu Ayyub held the balance of power against Abu Omar. And if Abu Omar did not have the upper-hand initially, he certainly appears to have gained it over time. This co-presidency—Abu Ayyub (the Egyptian with a background in Islamic Jihad appointed by al-Qaeda “central”) and Abu Omar (an Iraqi and former officer in Saddam’s regime connected to the Iraqi Salafist underground)—with the trend towards ever-greater power for Abu Omar was symbolically representative of the real evolution of AQM/ISIS. Personal connections are extremely important for Salafi-jihadist groups, and the networks that ISIS’s leaders were tied into changed as time went on.

AQM’s initial leaders were foreigners with backgrounds in networks associated with al-Qaeda “central” (AQC). As the U.S. and Sahwa ground down ISI’s leaders, the Iraqi Salafi-jihadists within AQM rose to the fore, plugged into more local networks—the old officer corps and the Salafist movement, both the “official” Ba’ath-Salafists nurtured by the Saddam regime, and the underground “pure” Salafists, ostensibly in opposition to the old regime, but in reality tolerated, helped by the Faith Campaign, and kept under close watch with infiltrators. ISIS’s leaders were AQM members, but most of them do not have AQC background. Again, this has little to do with ideology, and is simply a question of personal connections.

While ISIS’s strategy between 2007 and the present shows a deep continuity, the composition of the leadership is clearly different. Already reeling after the 2007-09 period, in early 2010, ISIS’ leadership was essentially decapitated. In January 2010, the U.S. killed Abu Khalaf, ISIS’s most important foreign fighter facilitator, who was based in Syria. In March 2010, Manaf Abd ar-Rahim ar-Rawi (“the dictator”), ISIS’s emir in Baghdad, was arrested. Rawi led to Abu Ayyub and Abu Omar, who were killed in April 2010, after which Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi became leader. Then Thirty-four of ISIS’s forty-two leaders were removed between April and June 2010.

With the drying up of the foreign fighter flow—because of American disruption and the waning appeal of a failing jihad—the survivors able to fill ISIS’s senior roles were largely Iraqis. The other major effect of this cull was it left ISIS’ leadership in the hands of those who were best at operational security and counterintelligence, which is to say the FREs.

The Surge reshaped the Iraqi insurgent landscape, drawing most insurgents into the Sahwa or putting them into dormancy; the two rejectionist camps left were then-ISI and JRTN. ISI(S) was at its nadir between 2009 and 2011, but it had already begun a targeted campaign of assassination against Sunni leaders who had expelled it from its heartlands in Anbar and had begun consolidation of a Mafia-style rule in Mosul and areas of Ninawa.

ISI(S) needed a little help from an old friend, namely Douri. Douri had already prepared the way for ISIS with the Faith Campaign, giving them a more sectarian, Salafized population to draw upon, and had given ISIS’s predecessors significant resources in the early days after the regime. In the 2009-11 period, JRTN had helped prevent the new government enforcing its writ in Mosul and the broader Tigris River Valley of north-western Iraq, outsourced some of their own hits to ISI(S), as well as passing along the intelligence that helped ISI(S) with their own murders and with their prison breakouts that restored their most dangerous members to terrorism.

Throughout 2012 and 2013, with the U.S. gone, ISIS would consolidate a “shadow authority” in Mosul and began infiltrating Syria. ISIS had set up some Emirates in Syria by late 2013 but would only come to control areas of Syria in State-like fashion in early 2014 after the Syrian rebel offensive against ISIS.

With the international campaign against ISIS, leaders are being killed, and it is possible that some will be replaced with foreigners who have responded to ISIS’s claim to have restored the Caliphate. Without deep global Salafi-jihad background in theatres dominated by al-Qaeda, these young foreigners are a new breed, with their identity shaped, and their training conducted, by ISIS. ISIS has let few non-Iraqis near real levers of power, so it remains to be seen how far this new generation of foreign fighters rises within ISIS.

Other than the weakness of ISIS’s opponents, the other explanation for its success is that it contains fighters hardened by decades of holy war. As demonstrated, this isn’t so: while ISIS’s leaders have been zealots for a long time, they have not (as a rule) fought in the jihads in Afghanistan, Algeria, Bosnia, Chechnya, or any of the others. They have gained experience in Iraq and now Syria, of course. But compare this to Nusra: Nusra’s leadership is stocked with men who have up to three decades of experience in jihadism, but they do not display the same skills of espionage and military strategy. Where ISIS has seized territory and then begun regimented indoctrination to gather a loyalist base that prevents it being dislodged, Nusra’s strategy is to meld itself within the Syrian insurgency and gradually build the popular base necessary to assume power. The FREs seem very likely to be the difference-makers here.

In conclusion, then, Frantzman’s article very importantly calls for a sense of perspective: ISIS’s fighters are not ten feet tall and when confronted with professional ground forces like the Peshmerga backed by modern air power, ISIS has fallen back. America disbanding the Iraqi army helped place Saddam’s military-intelligence apparatus at the service of the Salafi-jihadists, and Iran’s imperial push in the region is helping swell ISIS’s ranks as Sunnis calculate that anything is preferable to sectarian domination from Tehran. Frantzman is also correct that the “hidden hand” narrative—that ISIS is really under the control of Ba’athists—is mistaken. But Frantzman’s timeline is mistaken; the FREs taking the leadership of ISIS is a long-term process, and the movement of FREs into ISIS was—in the most important cases—not motivated by tactical considerations but by ideological conviction borne of the transformation of Saddam Hussein’s regime into an Islamic State in its latter years. The FREs have brought to ISIS unique skills that come when a military-intelligence apparatus is trained by the KGB, and they have also brought the knowledge of, and connections with, the local landscape and the old elite that will make ISIS extremely difficult to degrade, let alone destroy.


Post has been updated

14 thoughts on “A Response to Criticism: Why the Ex-Saddamists in the Islamic State Matter

  1. Robert Smythe

    Are the Iraqi and Syrian branches of ISIS operated separately or would Assad’s secret service have influence over what happens in Iraq as well considering his likely penetration of ISIS? Also if Saddam’s Baathists and Assad’s Baathists hate each other, how could they be so willing to work together?

    1. KyleWOrton

      ISIS’s geographic structure is deliberately compartmentalized; if you destroy ISIS in Mosul, you barely effect ISIS in Raqqa in personnel terms — obviously supply-lines, prestige, morale, etc. get damaged, which will affect EG foreign fighter flows. ISIS’s leadership is also carefully isolated from its mid-level and ground level, and those levels from each other, to prevent infiltration. Remember: ISIS has (nominally) probably something around 100,000 men at this point, but most are annexed former civil servants who are made to continue work and others who have to apply to “the State” to make a living. The True Believers form a core of ~30,000 and the leadership is much smaller again. Also, Assad has not used infiltration as the main method of manipulating ISIS, certainly not on the scale of, say, Algeria. But even accepting your premise, the answer is: it depends how high up the infiltrators are. If Assad’s agents within ISIS were senior enough to set overall policy, then Assad could theoretically affect ISIS in Iraq, but if (as I suspect) it is local field commanders that have been recruited then the influence is rather less and somewhat isolated. The major Assad/Iran manipulation takes place by neglecting ISIS and concentrating firepower on the nationalist rebels, and other more indirect methods of assistance.

      The former Saddam regime elements in ISIS are *not* Ba’athists and haven’t been since at least the mid-1990s, in some cases before. The whole Saddam regime was Islamized, but among those elements, notably around Izzat Ibrahim ad-Douri, that maintained a stronger Ba’athist component with their Islamism, there was a dual game. For an extended answer, see here: http://goo.gl/Pv25no, but the short version is that Douri maintained his own network and eventually insurgent group (JRTN) based on the Sufi networks and loyalist clans and officers throughout the old security service and even the new bureaucracy, and has used this to help ISIS, but Douri wanted to use the Salafi-jihadists as a battering ram to get back to power, after which they would be sidelined. ISIS and its allies had other ideas and Douri got outplayed and has now been essentially removed from the battlefield.

      Syria’s Ba’ath regime and the Iraqi Ba’ath regime did hate one-another but they hated America more. Assad opened the jihadi ratlines before the invasion and took in Douri and Mohammed Younis al-Ahmed during the invasion, allowing them all free movement and logistical support for their attacks on the New Iraq from the very beginning. As late as 2007, former Fedayeen Saddam commanders running foreign fighter camps in Syria were being rounded up by the Americans. There were tensions; at one point Assad tried to take direct control of the Douri network by supplanting Douri with Younis. But in general the alliance held.

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