It’s been known for a while now that ISIS has been working, at least in Iraq, alongside many ex-Iraqi army officers and men, many of whom took to fighting the American occupation after they were purged from the army by Paul Bremer’s “De-Baʿathification” orders in 2003. But a report from the German weekly Der Spiegel over the weekend contends that ISIS hasn’t just been fighting alongside former Iraqi Baʿathists, it was actually formed by them. Reporter Christoph Reuter described what Der Spiegel found in an examination of the papers of a man known as Hajji Bakr, formerly Samir Abd Muhammad al-Khlifawi, a colonel in Saddam Hussein’s military, who was killed in a firefight in early 2014:
The story of this collection of documents begins at a time when few had yet heard of the “Islamic State.” When Iraqi national Haji Bakr traveled to Syria as part of a tiny advance party in late 2012, he had a seemingly absurd plan: IS would capture as much territory as possible in Syria. Then, using Syria as a beachhead, it would invade Iraq.
Bakr took up residence in an inconspicuous house in Tal Rifaat, north of Aleppo. The town was a good choice. In the 1980s, many of its residents had gone to work in the Gulf nations, especially Saudi Arabia. When they returned, some brought along radical convictions and contacts. In 2013, Tal Rifaat would become IS’ stronghold in Aleppo Province, with hundreds of fighters stationed there.
According to Reuter, Bakr essentially recreated Saddam’s security apparatus and then synthesized it with Al-Qaeda in Iraq, with the jihadi gloss of the latter group expected to expand the new outfit’s ideological appeal:
In 2010, Bakr and a small group of former Iraqi intelligence officers made Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the emir and later “caliph,” the official leader of the Islamic State. They reasoned that Baghdadi, an educated cleric, would give the group a religious face.
Bakr was “a nationalist, not an Islamist,” says Iraqi journalist Hisham al-Hashimi, as he recalls the former career officer, who was stationed with Hashimi’s cousin at the Habbaniya Air Base. “Colonel Samir,” as Hashimi calls him, “was highly intelligent, firm and an excellent logistician.” But when Paul Bremer, then head of the US occupational authority in Baghdad, “dissolved the army by decree in May 2003, he was bitter and unemployed.”
Thousands of well-trained Sunni officers were robbed of their livelihood with the stroke of a pen. In doing so, America created its most bitter and intelligent enemies. Bakr went underground and met Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Anbar Province in western Iraq. Zarqawi, a Jordanian by birth, had previously run a training camp for international terrorist pilgrims in Afghanistan. Starting in 2003, he gained global notoriety as the mastermind of attacks against the United Nations, US troops and Shiite Muslims. He was even too radical for former Al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden. Zarqawi died in a US air strike in 2006.
Although Iraq’s dominant Baath Party was secular, the two systems ultimately shared a conviction that control over the masses should lie in the hands of a small elite that should not be answerable to anyone — because it ruled in the name of a grand plan, legitimized by either God or the glory of Arab history. The secret of IS’ success lies in the combination of opposites, the fanatical beliefs of one group and the strategic calculations of the other.
Bakr was also able to leverage his contacts within Bashar al-Assad’s security apparatus in order to persuade Assad to leave ISIS alone as it consolidated its gains in and around Raqqa, which wound up biting Assad in the behind once ISIS was strong enough to consider double-crossing him:
In battles between IS and rebels in January 2014, Assad’s jets regularly bombed only rebel positions, while the Islamic State emir ordered his fighters to refrain from shooting at the army. It was an arrangement that left many of the foreign fighters deeply disillusioned; they had imaged jihad differently.
IS threw its entire arsenal at the rebels, sending more suicide bombers into their ranks in just a few weeks than it deployed during the entire previous year against the Syrian army. Thanks in part to additional air strikes, IS was able to reconquer territory that it had briefly lost.
Nothing symbolizes the tactical shifting of alliances more than the fate of the Syrian army’s Division 17. The isolated base near Raqqa had been under rebel siege for more than a year. But then, IS units defeated the rebels there and Assad’s air force was once again able to use the base for supply flights without fear of attack.
But a half year later, after IS conquered Mosul and took control of a gigantic weapons depot there, the jihadists felt powerful enough to attack their erstwhile helpers. IS fighters overran Division 17 and slaughtered the soldiers, whom they had only recently protected.
There’s a lot more at the link. Obviously this is the kind of report that should be taken with huge grains of salt. Indeed, Reuter takes his case too far when he minimizes ISIS’s religious component:
IS has little in common with predecessors like al-Qaida aside from its jihadist label. There is essentially nothing religious in its actions, its strategic planning, its unscrupulous changing of alliances and its precisely implemented propaganda narratives. Faith, even in its most extreme form, is just one of many means to an end. Islamic State’s only constant maxim is the expansion of power at any price.
For one thing, I’m not sure what “predecessors like al-Qaida” means, since Al-Qaeda was a pretty new phenomenon itself. It’s not like we’ve had a lot of examples by which to develop a typology of 21st century jihad to which ISIS can be compared, you know? ISIS may not mean what it says when it delves into religious/apocalyptic symbolism, but it’s not like they’re not using that symbolism, and anyway if we’re going to argue that the religious aspects of the organization were originally camouflage put in place by secular nationalists, who’s to say that the religion hasn’t genuinely co-opted some of those former secularists along the way?
But what this report does do, assuming it’s accurate, is that it emphasizes just how destructive America’s mishandling of the immediate post-invasion period really was. Hajji Bakr was a colonel, so maybe he would have been canned anyway, but it’s unlikely he would have had as many followers as he did if the Bremer and the other Bushies hadn’t summarily purged Iraq’s entire officer corps because of their political affiliations. A policy of reconciliation and reconstruction, rather than purges, could have saved the Iraqi people, and America, a whole lot of trouble in the long run.