The Baathists of ISIS.


Haider Al-Abadi, Prime Minister of Iraq speaking to the media following the Counter-ISIL Coalition Small Group Meeting in London, 22 January 2015. Picture courtesy of The Foreign and Commonwealth Office. .

Haider Al-Abadi, Prime Minister of Iraq speaking to the media following the Counter-ISIL Coalition Small Group Meeting in London, 22 January 2015.
Picture courtesy of The Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

It must come as a surprise to no-one, that the self-proclaimed Islamic State owes much of its success to ex-Baathist strategists and administrators. Brutal men, with a sense of Sunni superiority, authoritarians looking for a new outlet.

One of the less spoken reasons for the rise of ISIS, is the tactical failure of Paul Bremer, Ahmad Chalabi and the Coalition Provisional Authority’s badly handled de-Baathification process following the war. Specifically, the policy that anyone affiliated with the Baath Party in any way whatsoever, was to immediately lose their job, and be barred from public sector employment from May 2003 onwards. This – predictably – created thousands of unemployed Sunni’s in a war torn country of a majority Shia population, many of whom sought refuge in Mosul (now under ISIS control), many others ended up meeting in close quarters with other former Baathists and – significantly – Islamists in detention camps like Bucca, planning and sharing ideas; especially the reestablishing of Sunni political superiority, and Sunni political superiority finds no greater friend than a newly disenfranchised Sunni population.

Before his death in 2014, Abu Muslim al Afari al Turkmani – who spent time in Bucca – was working as al Baghdadi’s leading man in Iraq. When he was killed, intelligence agents stumbled upon documents setting out ISIS’ leadership that place al-Turkmani (a native of Iraq) as al-Baghdadi’s number two. He seems to have been responsible for working with ISIS appointed governors in cities and towns in Iraq captured by the extremist group. But tellingly, prior to his involvement with ISIS, al-Turkmani was a lieutenant colonel in Saddam’s Iraqi military intelligence.

Al-Turkmani’s counterpart in Syria is Abu Ali al-Anbari. Al-Anbari is responsible for overseeing ISIS appointed governors in Syria. Prior to the toppling of Saddam, al-Anbari worked as an Iraqi Major General for Saddam’s regime. Two of ISIS’s leadership were Baathists, fighting to defend Baath principles and the Baath state, later joining and leading a violent Sunni group, opposed to a return to Baathism.

Abu Ayman al-Iraqi is now ISIS’s head of its Military Council. Prior to life in ISIS, al-Iraqi – real name Adnan Latif Hamid al-Sweidawi – was a colonel in Saddam’s Iraqi Army, and a member of Iraq’s air defence intelligence, before – predictably – serving time in Camp Bucca. Immediately following his release from Bucca in 2010, he coordinated ISIS fighters in Aleppo.

Al-Iraqi’s predecessor as head of ISIS Military Council was a man by the name of Abu Abdulrahman al-Bilawi. Bilawi is believed to have been the head tactician behind the attack on Mosul. He was killed by Iraq’s security forces in 2014. Prior to ISIS, al-Bilawi was a captain in Saddam’s Military between 1993 and 2003, at which point he joined Al Zaqarwi’s AQI, and was later – predictably – serving time in Camp Bucca.

Haji Bakr was a senior commander for ISIS before his death by the Syrian Martyrs’ Brigade in 2014. Prior to his ascendancy in ISIS, Bakr – real name Samir al-Khlifawi – was a Military Officer for the Baath regime in Iraq, working on weapons development. Upon joining the militant group – swelling with disenfranchised Sunnis – Bakr helped to secure al-Baghdadi’s position as leader of the group, by ordering a purge of opponents.

ISIS’ top leadership over the past few years, have been former Baathists. Both al-Turkmani and al-Iraqi were members of IS’s Shura Council. Both al-Turkmani and al-Anbari were fundamental to ISIS propaganda efforts in Iraq. Al-Baghdadi, during the early phase of his leadership – and swift takeovers of disenfranchised Sunni areas – was keen to use Iraqi nationals, rather than angry Western kids to coordinate attacks. An ex-ISIS member by the name of Abu Hamza told The Washington Post:

“All the decision makers are Iraqi, and most of them are former Iraqi officers. The Iraqi officers are in command, and they make the tactics and the battle plans”

“But the Iraqis themselves don’t fight. They put the foreign fighters on the front lines.”

– The necessity of Iraqi nationals in leadership positions in order to give credit to ISIS overall was set years earlier, when al-Zaqawi lead AQI. AQI found to their detriment fairly quickly, that seemingly enthusiastic Sunni communities were less likely to accept Islamist interference in their lives (and those that did, soon changed allegiance with the US and Iraqi government’s diplomatic efforts during the surge), given that it was perceived as an outside, non-Iraqi militant force. A Sunni awakening against violent Islamists was the result. Today, The use of al-Turkmani and al-Anbari is an attempt to provide a national face to ISIS, whilst advocating a borderless Caliphate. This is coupled with a merciless policy of murdering any Sunni tribal groups that resist ISIS, as the Al Bu Nimr tribe found out so horrendously twice in 2014; once for fighting ISIS, and again when 150 women were slaughtered by the group, for refusing to marry the militants.

ISIS use ex-Baathists for the knowledge of the region, the military expertise, smuggling networks, local connections, the administrative capabilities, their nationality, and then they offer an ultimatum; drop the Baathist aspirations, or die. In July last year, ISIS caught 60+ ex senior military officers of Saddam’s regime – including Saifeddin al-Mashhadani, formally on the US’s Iraq’s Most Wanted list – during their takeover of Mosul. At the time, when he was a Parliamentarian, the now Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar Abadi said:

“ISIL called on their friends who are ex-Baathists to cooperate and they did. And now ISIL is kicking them out. Some will pledge allegiance. Those they don’t believe will pledge allegiance, they will execute.”

– For their part, ex-Baathists seem to fall into two categories for IS. Firstly, those who firmly seek a reestablished Islamic Caliphate – those holding senior positions in IS. These are the people intrinsic to the the future of ISIS in Iraq. And secondly, disenfranchised Sunni’s that ISIS consider expendable; those seeking protection, influence, and pay, following a catastrophic sectarian al-Maliki government in Baghdad. The dream of Sunni superiority restored to Iraq might motivate both ex-Baathists and IS, but the ideological differences between the two cannot be masked forever. As seen with Al Zarqawi’s similar attempt to enlist Sunni majority towns to his cause, it is easy to speak to a disenfranchised population and offer salvation, but those people are no more likely to accept long term harsh Islamist conditions that restrict their rights, than they are likely to accept sectarian policies coming out of Baghdad.

The de-Baathification of Iraq, coupled with the divisive sectarianism and revenge mentality of Shia political groups and the government of al-Maliki, has been disastrous for Iraq. It has fed ISIS far beyond what al-Zarqawi could ever have dreamed possible, and far beyond the war itself. The defeat of ISIS will of course take military might and international cooperation (seemingly impossible as Assad remains in power, and funding funnels up from the Gulf, along with Iran’s influence on the battlefield) but the key to a lasting suppression of the poison of extremism in Iraq, is in the hands of Baghdad, the new Prime Minister, and a much needed policy of reconciliation between Sunni & Shia, equal civil protections for all – including the right to expression and belief, regardless of gender, ethnicity and sexuality – alongside representative democratic accountability. Given that the religious dogma that informs the split in Islam is so horribly ingrained, it is fair to say that it is not going to be addressed any time soon, and so a secular political settlement that privileges no sect, and extends civil liberties to all, is the only way forward. And on that front, all eyes are on Haider al-Adabi.

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