Terra Incognita: Are Saddam-era soldiers secretly behind the rise of Islamic State? No.

The “Saddam-era officers” story is compelling because it provides a simple understanding of the failure of the Iraqi army; Saddam Hussein bogeyman are the “hidden hand” behind the rise of IS.

ARE THEY back? An Iraqi army honor guard parades around the monument of the unknown soldier in Baghdad in January of 1998 (photo credit: REUTERS)
ARE THEY back? An Iraqi army honor guard parades around the monument of the unknown soldier in Baghdad in January of 1998
(photo credit: REUTERS)
‘ISIS top brass is Iraqi army’s former best and brightest.” The Associated Press piece by Hamza Hendawi and Qassim Abdul-Zahra informs us that the “experience” these officers bring to Islamic State (IS, also ISIS or ISIL) help provide it discipline and military prowess.
The evidence provided by the authors was that army officers of the current Iraqi government had blamed their inability to stop IS on the presence of these Saddam military experts. Ali Omran, who now serves in Iraq’s 5th division, claimed that an old artillery major he knew was serving with the Islamists now. The article claimed Saud Mohsen Hassan, who also goes by the names Abu Mutazz, Abu Muslim al-Turkmani and Fadel al-Hayali, was a Saddam-era major and now is the IS “second in command.” Four of nine members of the IS military council were Saddam-era officers. Seven of 12 IS provinces even has governors who served in the Ba’ath army. In total there might be as many as 100- 160 Saddam-era soldiers in the IS ranks, according to the report.
Evidence of the “military prowess”? One former Saddam army officer named Assem Mohammed Nasser, who also calls himself Nagahy Barakat, led an attack in Haditha in Anbar province, killing 25 policemen.
The “Saddam-era officers” story is compelling because it provides a simple answer to and viable excuse for the failure of the Iraqi army; Saddam Hussein bogeyman are the “hidden hand” behind the rise of IS. What could be more palatable to excuse the brutal crackdown of the Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias that America is now collaborating with in Iraq than to pretend everyone is on the same side against the evil “regime remnants.”
Expert Michael Ryan told reporters that these Saddam- era officers “must have been inside the core of the jihadist movement in the Sunni triangle from the beginning...their knowledge is now in the DNA of ISIS.”
Many in the international media have re-printed stories about the Ba’athist officers running IS.
“The secret to ISIS success: the 100 former Saddam Hussein era officers run Jihadi group’s military and intelligence,” claimed the Daily Mail. In June Reuters told us that “Saddam’s former army is the secret to IS success,” in an article by Samia Nakhoul.
The article quotes Abu Mohammed al-Maqdisi and Abu Qatada al-Filistini, two al-Qaida theologians, who claim that IS is “Ba’athist in the dictatorial and security sense.” Al-Qaida opposes IS, so it to wants to portray IS as not really Islamic. The article draws on the Bucca prison connection between the former Saddam men and IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Abu Ali al-Anbari, a general under Saddam, “wields real power” over IS, along with Abu Muslim al-Turkmani (killed in 2014 and mentioned above), according to the piece.
Der Spiegel is partly responsible for launching this story by inflating the importance of a 31-page document that included “handwritten charts” that were supposedly drawn by Samir Abd Muhammad al-Khlifawi, a former colonel in the intelligence arm of Saddam’s air defense corp. Known as Haji Bakr he was killed in 2014 fighting Syrian rebels, but supposedly not before his handwritten charts were put into use to construct the blueprint of IS administrative control. His organizational expertise was “honed” in the security apparatus of Saddam’s era. A source for the Spiegel piece is an Iraqi journalist named Hisham al-Hashimi, who also was a source for Reuters.
To trace back the “Iraqi officers” conspiracy to one of its sources leads to claims that Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, a 72-year-old Saddam loyalist, founded the Jaish Rijaal al-Tariqa al-Naqshabandiyya (JRTN), which was supposedly the backbone of IS. His Naqshabandi order “led the conquest of Syria and Iraq,” according to a July 2014 piece in the Daily Beast.
Liz Sly’s April 2015 piece in The Washington Post lent the narrative even more of an imprimatur when it claimed that Ba’athists were a “hidden hand” behind IS. One of her sources was Abu Hamza, who had worked for IS in Syria. He claimed that he received orders from secretive masked men, “former Iraqi officers who had served under Saddam Hussein,” and that one of them was even from the former Iraqi intelligence. Sly noted that when the US disbanded the Iraqi army 400,000 disbanded Iraqi soldiers were “barred from jobs” under the de-Ba’athification policy. “They [Ba’athists] were instrumental in the group’s [IS] rebirth from the defeats inflicted on insurgents by the U.S. military, which is now back in Iraq bombing many of the same men it had already fought twice before.”
Those who propagate this story are not always clear about the motivations of these officers. Whereas Sly implied it was opportunism stemming from being out of work, Malcolm Nance at the website The Intercept claimed, “it is reasonable to surmise that the ex-Ba’athists flying the ISIS flag today are covertly working to undermine ISIS’s caliphate and eventually achieve their own political goals.” Kyle Orton at National Review argues that ISIS commanders Abu Abdulrahman al-Bilawi (Adnan Najem al-Bilawi) and Abu Ali al-Anbari were actually already Islamists under Saddam. “The former regime elements matter because they highlight the hybrid nature of ISIS – its fusion of elements of Ba’athism with Salafism – and also how difficult ISIS will be to defeat.”
The simplicity of the conspiracy lends it credibility.
Pamela Engel and Michael Kelley wrote on April 21 in Business Insider, “ISIS was reportedly masterminded by a former Iraq colonel in Saddam Hussein’s intelligence services.” Here Haji Bakr is pinpointed again, based on an interview with Hashimi, as the “non-Islamist, nationalist” behind IS. “It was not radical Islamists who conceived and created ISIS [suggests one study], but rather a small group of senior Iraqi officers in Saddam Hussein’s brutal police state,” writes Max Fisher at Vox.
The simplistic story about the Ba’athist officers has rarely been challenged. Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, who has done significant research on IS, called the concept of a “hidden hand” a “myth” but focused primarily on discounting the relative influence of the Naqshabandi order. He concluded that whatever role the JRTN played in IS conquests of Mosul, Tikrit and Falluja, it was sidelined in 2014.
LET’S PAUSE and digest all this. 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. Here we find Abu Ayman al-Iraqi, a former colonel in the air defense, Haji Bakr and Abu Ahmed al-Alwani, whose real name is Waleed Jassem al-Alwani, a former Saddam-era soldier.
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. Just the elite units in Saddam’s disbanded army included 30,000 commandos, tens of thousands of Republican Guard and trained “fedayeen,” or guerrilla fighters who were supposed to lead the insurgency. 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? The truth is that a story of a Ba’athist hidden hand has been packaged and provided by sources in Iraq and Syria, primarily those who support the Iraqi government, are connected to its army or support the Shi’ite militias, in order to excuse the abject failure of the Iraqi central government; “Saddam is back, please help us, it’s not our fault.” Other sources have little credibility and are passed off by journalists as if they give some sort of real evidence.
The Iraqi army, that received hundreds of millions of dollars in equipment and training from the US, melted away in 2014. It surrendered thousands of US armored vehicles and Humvees to IS.
So we are to believe that a few Saddam-era colonels, majors and captains, artillery officers and air defense intelligence honchos swept aside thousands of vehicles, literally whole divisions, in their 2014 offensive? The same men who were so incompetent under Saddam? What is a Saddam-era “air defense colonel”? What air defense? His air defense achieved nothing. Saddam’s intelligence services were good, but what does that have to do with IS ability to destroy the Iraqi army and withstand the bludgeoning of Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias? IS is a formidable fighting force in a sense, because its enemies are often so worthless. IS emerged in Iraq and Syria because of a backbone of Sunni supporters who were disenfranchised or disillusioned by the insurgency against Maliki and Syrian President Bashar Assad. When it came up against Kurdish fighters, after initial gains, it was defeated. The Kurds complained that their real problem fighting IS was lack of armored vehicles and anti-armor weapons, because ISIS had stolen so much American equipment. In small-unit battles IS was not superior to Kurdish peshmerga militia, who had learned their tactics fighting Saddam.
So the former Saddam officers couldn’t defeat their old Kurdish adversaries. That tells you what you need to know about IS. The Islamists are a relatively average military force, composed of large numbers of foreign zealots and local Sunnis who have chosen it over the depredations of the Shi’ite militias.
It is not some mutant combination of Saddam’s “brilliant” military commanders and jihadists. The IS-Ba’athist story all flows back to just a few reports, one involving shadowy “handwritten” charts; and the dropping of a few Arabic names that the reader is expected to think gives the sources some sort of veracity, just because someone told a journalist it was true.
It’s no surprise that former regime elements came to run parts of IS. The only surprising thing would have been if one didn’t find some of them in the Sunni insurgency. But their impact has loomed large primarily because of the weak nature of the Iraqi army, not because IS itself is so powerful. IS is a vacuum-filler. It won’t be easily defeated because the only option those living under it have today is to live under an Iranian-militia-dominated Middle East, and that’s not going to happen. For their part, some in the Syrian rebels, the Iraqi and Syrian governments and the Iranian-backed militias all want IS to be some sort of superhuman bogeyman, because that provides an excuse for their failures, or a reason for them to use overwhelming firepower against it and beg the West for help to defeat it.
Follow the author on Twitter @Sfrantzman