At the beginning of September, New America published a paper, based on recovered al-Qaeda documents, which concluded that there was “no evidence of cooperation” between the terrorist group and the Islamic Republic of Iran. New America’s study lauds itself for taking an approach that “avoids much of the challenge of politicization” in the discussion of Iran’s relationship with al-Qaeda. This is, to put it mildly, questionable.
A narrative gained currency in certain parts of the foreign policy community during the days of the Iraq war, and gained traction since the rise of the Islamic State (IS) in 2014, that Iran can be a partner in the region, at least against (Sunni) terrorism, since Tehran shares this goal with the West. Under President Barack Obama, this notion became policy: the US moved to bring Iran’s revolutionary government in from the cold, to integrate it into the international system. Continue reading →
Last night, The New York Timesreported and Reutersconfirmed that two British Islamic State (IS) jihadists, El Shafee Elsheikh and Alexanda Kotey, both of them designated terrorists by the United States, have been arrested in Syria. Kotey and Elsheikh, along with the late Mohammed Emwazi (Abu Muharib al-Muhajir) and Aine Davis, formed a four-man cell that has become known as “The Beatles”—hence Emwazi being near-universally known as “Jihadi John”—that guarded, abused, and murdered hostages for IS from before the “caliphate” was founded in 2014. Continue reading →
Ahmad Mabruk in Jabhat al-Nusra’s “Heirs of Glory” video, March 2016. (Source: The Long War Journal)
Ahmad Salama Mabruk (Abu Faraj al-Masri) was an al-Qaeda veteran, close to the organization’s leadership. The United States killed Mabruk in Syria on 3 October 2016 in a drone strike near Jisr al-Shughour in northern Syria. This is the second time in a month the U.S. has killed off a senior al-Qaeda jihadist, and sheds some light on the strength of the U.S. policy in Syria. Continue reading →
War cemetery in Sarajevo (personal photograph, July 2011)
It was announced on Thursday that Guantanamo inmates Tariq Mahmoud Ahmed as-Sawah and Abd al-Aziz Abduh Abdallah Ali as-Suwaydi had been transferred to Bosnia and Montenegro respectively. Sawah’s path to jihadi-Salafism allows a window into the Bosnian jihad, a much-underestimated factor in shaping al-Qaeda, its offshoots, and the wider jihadist movement. In that story is an examination of the role certain States have played in funding and otherwise helping the jihadists. It also leaves some questions about whether emptying Guantanamo of its dangerous inhabitants is the correct policy. Continue reading →
The Islamic Republic of Iran released five senior al-Qaeda terrorists in March, ostensibly as part of a prisoner exchange for an Iranian diplomat kidnapped in Yemen by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). But the murky circumstances in which al-Qaeda’s leaders were “held” in Iran and other inconsistencies cast some doubt on this version of events, and draw attention to some old questions about Iran’s support for al-Qaeda and its affiliates and offshoots. Continue reading →
Saddam Hussein prays at a mosque in Samarra, March 12, 1998 (AP Photo)
It should be stated up front that the question posed in the headline is, strictly speaking, unanswerable: only Saddam Hussein could ever answer that question, and even then any out-loud answer given by Saddam could be untrue in any number of directions, for any number of reasons. Still, from the available evidence it does seem Saddam had some kind of “born-again” experience.
Of crucial importance, however, is that while Saddam’s actual beliefs had a significant impact in providing some of the colour and shape to the Faith Campaign, even if one believes Saddam remained a secularist and Islamized his regime as a wholly cynical means of shoring-up support, this is completely irrelevant to the effect this Islamization had. Saddam put in place a governmental administration that created a religious movement, which brought men to a faith they otherwise would not have had, and in combination with the increased sectarianism fostered by Saddam’s regime, this prepared the ground for al-Qaeda and its offshoots like the Islamic State (ISIS) in the aftermath of the regime. Continue reading →
The myth that Saddam Hussein’s regime had nothing to do with al-Qaeda is persistent. Stephen Hayes’ book, The Connection, ably debunks this notion. There are some additional details that one can add to this. Continue reading →
Umm al-Qura (Mother of All Cities) Mosque, built by Saddam to commemorate his “victory” in the 1991 Gulf War
In December, I wrote a post, “Iraq Is Still Suffering The Effects Of Saddam Hussein’s Islamist Regime,” which was a review/analysis of an academic paper by Samuel Helfont that pointed out that the Saddam Hussein regime had, since the 1980s, used Islamists, including al-Qaeda, as part of its foreign policy. I critiqued the paper a little for having said it would not comment on Saddam’s internal policy with the Islamists, while in fact the paper hinted that Saddam remained hostile to mixing religion and politics. I noted that the evidence does not support this: Saddam’s regime adopted overt theocratic trappings before the end.
There were two kinds of pushback to the idea that Saddam’s regime was Islamist. Predictably, one critique was related to the controversy over the way the Gulf War that Saddam started in 1990 was ended; opponents of the 2003 invasion of Iraq are heavily invested in the Saddam-as-secularist narrative, often coupled with the “Bush lied” hysteria—in this case about a connection between the Saddam regime and al-Qaeda—to say that the invasion empowered a previously, officially-repressed Islamism in Iraq. This simply is not borne out by the evidence. There was also pushback from some Iraqis. But this too was predictable: as I outlined in that post, drawing on Ali Allawi’s book on post-Saddam Iraq, one of the reasons so many people with no agenda get the Islamist aspect of the Saddam regime wrong is that when they turn to what they believe is the best primary source—namely the Iraqis in the West—they encounter a source that for various reasons is actually several decades out-of-date.
Buttressing my initial argument is a 2011 paper, “From Militant Secularism to Islamism: The Iraqi Ba’th Regime 1968-2003,” in which Amatzia Baram provides evidence from Iraqi internal documents and tapes of Cabinet meetings captured after the fall of Baghdad to show that Saddam’s regime had formed an alliance with Islamists in the mid-1980s for use in its foreign policy, and from a bit later in the 1980s had begun steps toward Islamizing Iraq internally. Continue reading →
Throughout his entire trial, Saddam Hussein was never without a Qur’an
In June, Samuel Helfont published a paper for the Middle East Institute entitled, ‘Saddam and the Islamists: The Ba’thist Regime’s Instrumentalization of Religion in Foreign Affairs’. Relying on “newly released Iraqi state and Ba’th Party archives,” Helfont’s central argument is:
“Saddam maintained deep reservations about Islamism until the end. However, this did not prevent his regime from working extensively with Islamists and Islamic activists outside Iraq. Indeed, religion played a leading role in the country’s foreign policy throughout the 1990s.”