Published in The New York Times.
Whom should we blame for the Islamic State? In the debate about its origins, many have concluded that it arose from the American-led coalition’s errors after the 2003 invasion of Iraq. In fact, the groundwork for the emergence of the militant jihadist group was laid many years earlier by the government of Saddam Hussein.
The Arab nationalist Baath Party, which seized power in 1968 in a coup in which Mr. Hussein played a key role, had a firmly secular outlook. This held through the 1970s, even as religiosity rose among the Iraqi people. But soon after Mr. Hussein invaded Iran in 1980, it began to change.
In a few tactical instances during the 1980s, Mr. Hussein allied with Islamists, notably the Muslim Brotherhood, to destabilize his regional rival in Syria, but these were limited, plausibly deniable links. In 1986, however, the Pan-Arab Command, the Baath Party’s top ideological institution, formally reoriented Iraq’s foreign policy toward an alliance with Islamists. This was the first clear deviation from secular Baathism.
The shift was accompanied by a domestic “Islamization,” with regime media dropping references to a “secular state” and describing the war against Iran as a “jihad.” The changes accelerated after 1989 when Michel Aflaq, the Christian founder of the Baath Party, died, and Mr. Hussein claimed that Mr. Aflaq had converted to Islam. Alive, Mr. Aflaq was a bulwark against Islamization; as a dead convert, he could—and did—baptize a new direction.
The campaign of Islamization intensified further after Iraq’s devastating defeat in Kuwait in 1991 and the subsequent Shiite revolt, culminating in 1993 with Mr. Hussein’s abandonment of the last vestiges of Baath secularism when he initiated the Faith Campaign. In some respects, Mr. Hussein’s government was following rather than leading public opinion, as Iraqis fell back on their faith for solace under the harsh international sanctions. But what began as a cynical attempt to shore up support, as the regime retreated to its Sunni tribal base, took on a life of its own, transforming Iraq into an Islamist state and imposing lasting changes on Iraqi society.
The government imposed a version of Shariah law: Thieves had their hands cut off, homosexuals were thrown from rooftops and prostitutes were beheaded in public squares. Numerous mosques were built, Quran study became a national focus and midlevel clerics acquired new roles as community leaders.
The Faith Campaign claimed to be ecumenical, but its clear pro-Sunni tilt led to a final collapse of relations between the state and the Shiite population and heightened sectarian tensions. In the Sunni areas, however, the campaign was effective, creating a religious movement I call Baathi-Salafism, under Mr. Hussein’s leadership. It also eased strains between the regime and independent religious movements like the “pure” Salafists, whose long opposition to the regime gave way to some of its members serving in its administration, even though Mr. Hussein was warned by his intelligence chief that if the alliance continued, the Salafists would eventually supplant the regime.
Alongside the Faith Campaign, Mr. Hussein’s regime constructed a system of cross-border smuggling networks designed to evade the sanctions. This funded a system of patronage, much of it distributed through mosques, that maintained a series of militias directly loyal to the ruler, like the Fedayeen Saddam and the Sunni tribes, as a hedge against any repeat of the 1991 Shiite revolt. These networks, which are deeply entrenched in the local populations, especially the tribes of western Iraq, are now run by the Islamic State, adding to the difficulty of uprooting the “caliphate.”
One of the less advertised aspects of the Faith Campaign was the infiltration of mosques by military intelligence officers. There was a trapdoor in this policy: With Baathism a spent force by the late 1990s, many of them slid into Salafism. The security sector had been profoundly influenced by Salafism by the time Mr. Hussein’s government fell.
It’s true that disbanding the Iraqi Army after 2003 put professional soldiers at the service of the Sunni insurgency. It’s also true that Al Qaeda in Iraq—the small, foreign-led nucleus of what became the Islamic State —used poorly run American prisons like Camp Bucca to recruit former regime elements. But the significant fact is that those who assumed leadership roles in the Islamic State’s military council had been radicalized earlier, under Mr. Hussein’s regime.
There was never any “Baathist coup” of former regime elements inside the Islamic State, as some analysts assume, because these men had long since abandoned Baathism. They joined Al Qaeda in Iraq early after the invasion as an act of ideological conviction, and when Al Qaeda in Iraq’s leadership was nearly destroyed in 2008-10, these officers were the last men standing precisely because of their superior counterintelligence and security skills.
It was these Salafized former military intelligence officers—led by Samir al-Khlifawi, also known as Haji Bakr, who had joined the group in 2003 and rose to be the so-called caliph’s deputy, until he was killed in 2014—who planned the Islamic State’s dramatic expansion into Syria. There, they set up a Saddam Hussein-style authoritarian regime that was the launchpad for the jihadists’ invasion of Iraq in 2014.
“On the eve of the American invasion in 2003, Iraq was a new country,” writes Amatzia Baram in his book “Saddam Husayn and Islam, 1968-2003.” It was “no longer a moderately religious society with a large number of secular individuals and a modernizing secular ruling elite, but a country on the way to deep religiosity.”
Mr. Hussein did not hold down religious militancy and sectarianism, but incubated them and prepared the ground for an armed Salafist movement. The tribes, criminal networks, militias and distributed weapons stores that the regime used to secure support and head off a new revolt laid the material basis for a decentralized insurgency.
The Islamic State was not created by removing Saddam Hussein’s regime; it is the afterlife of that regime.