ISIL and the Baathist Factor

An amazing analysis of how Daesh bears an uncanny resemblance to the ostensibly now-defunct Baath Party.

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Narration: This is the story of a terrorist group that spread like wildfire across Iraq and Syria in 2014; ISIL; an extremist group of local and foreign militants that had a meteoric rise to prominence in last summer after it took over Nineveh Province in just a few days. Much information had leaked out about the group at that point, but none offered an explanation for its incredible feat; none, except for one.

When this man was gunned down in a firefight in Tal Rifaat, Syria in January 2014, he forgot to take something to the grave: the blueprint for ISIL. The architect of this bloodthirsty group was Samir Abd Muhammad al-Khlifawi, better known by his nom de guerre, Haji Bakr. The documents found after his death prove that he was the real man behind ISIL's conquests in Syria and Iraq. Haji Bakr was a colonel in Saddam Hussein's intelligence services before the 2003 invasion; In fact, he was one of Saddam Hussein’s top brass, secretly pulling the strings at ISIL; He was only the tip of the iceberg.

The posthumous papers found in Haji Bakr’s house portray ISIL as an organization that is calculating in cold blood; not just a fanatic religious group with a penchant for suicide and homicide.According to DerSpiegel, a German magazine that has full access to the papers, the takeover of northern Syria was part of a meticulous plan overseen by Haji Bakr using techniques like surveillance, espionage, murder and kidnapping, all honed in the security apparatus of Saddam Hussein.

SOUNDBITE [Arabic] Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Political Leader of ISIL: “Indeed, your brothers have been favored with aid and victory after long years of jihad, patience, and fighting the enemies. God granted them the success and enabled them to make their goal a reality.”

Narration: After moving into Iraq from their base in Syria in June 2014, ISIL militants captured Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city; though an astonishing success in itself, not everyone was taken aback. Richard Barrett, a British counter-terrorism expert says:

Still on screen [English] quote of Richard Barrett, British Counter-Terrorism Expert: “This is not the work of neophyte enthusiasts inspired by their imagined rewards of martyrdom, it is clearly the result of detailed planning by people who know Iraq well, have prior experience and training, and are able to manage an organization with discipline and secrecy; all characteristics of Saddam Hussein’s Baathist supporters.”

Narration: It seems ironic that the highest ranks of ISIL are filled with former Saddam Hussein’s henchmen; the followers of Baathism, a secular, pan-Arab movement, which the pan-Islamist movements have been at odds with for decades. That’s why some experts call this unity, a marriage of convenience; while ISIL plans to create a religious regime across national borders, the Baathists want to reassert the power they had before the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

The pedigree of the ISIL leadership shows Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-declared leader of “All Muslims”, at the top the organization, with 25 deputies he has handpicked for Iraq and Syria. About one-third of these deputies are former military officers under Saddam Hussein. In addition, there are many Iraqi ex-officers among the rank-and-file members of the group; those who lost their job after the De-Baathification Law, promulgated by L. Paul Bremer, Iraq’s American ruler in 2003. At a stroke, 400,000 members of the defeated Iraqi army were barred from government employment and denied pensions. In 2010, al-Baghdadi, tasked with rebuilding the greatly weakened insurgent organization, embarked on a campaign to woo the former officers, drawing on the vast pool of men who had still remained unemployed.

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Narration: ISIL has also built an unlikely coalition with over 40 different armed groupsin Iraq. The Naqshbandi Order is a case in point. Located in Mosul, it were formed and spearheaded in 2007 by Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, Saddam Hussein's former deputy and the head of the Baath party after his master’s execution in 2006.

At first glance, the secularist dogma of the Baath Party seems at odds with ISILs’ unorthodox interpretation of the Islamic laws. But things are not what they seem; the two creeds overlap in several regards, especially in their reliance on fear to secure the submission of the people under their rule. Two decades ago, the elaborate and cruel forms of torture perpetrated by Saddam Hussein cast a shadow over Iraq, much as ISIL’s harsh punishments do today.

Like ISIL, the Baath Party also regarded itself as a transnational movement, forming branches in countries across the Middle East and running training camps for foreign volunteers from across the Arab world.

In 1994, the Baath Party launched the Faith Campaign to introduce the so-called Islamic precepts. Overnight, Baathist officers embraced the Salafism in the years preceding the U.S. invasion. In the last two years of Hussein’s rule, a campaign of beheadings, took the lives of more than 200 people, according to human rights reports of the time. The brutality deployed by ISIL today recalls the from the Saddam Hussein era include scenes resembling those broadcast today by ISIL.

At the end of the day despite any kind of resemblances and differences, ISIL and the Baath Party are not moonstricken partners pledging eternal love to each other; and their relationship is no more than mutual back-scratching.

The fall of Ramadi, capital of Iraq’s Anbar Province, to ISIL in May 2015 has given the city back to its former owners — the ex-Baathist terrorists known as the Former Regime Loyalists. For a while, these forces may fly the ISIL flag, but their ultimate plans for Iraq are quite different their extremist brethren. How long they can act under the banner of ISIL is just a matter of time. Ex-Baathists may decide it’s in their interest to continue harnessing the energy of ISIL in order to regain prominence in Iraq or else, they may simply come to the conclusion that there is nowhere else for them to go. What is beyond reasonable doubt is that ISIL today is a hybrid of terrorists and an army; and essentially a Baathist-organized amalgam of virtually every insurgent group emerged after 2003. It is fueled by the ideology of al- Qaeda and is under the nominal leadership of foreign terrorists. No matter that foreign militants are the Amirs with high-level roles, without ex-Baathists like Haji Bakr and al-Douri, ISIL could be no more than a flash in the pan. 

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