Sunday, April 05, 2015

Former Ba'athists in ISIS

Today people are talking about Liz Sly's Washington Post article on the role of former Iraqi Ba'athists within ISIS:
Even with the influx of thousands of foreign fighters, almost all of the leaders of the Islamic State are former Iraqi officers, including the members of its shadowy military and security committees, and the majority of its emirs and princes, according to Iraqis, Syrians and analysts who study the group.
They have brought to the organization the military expertise and some of the agendas of the former Baathists, as well as the smuggling networks developed to avoid sanctions in the 1990s and which now facilitate the Islamic State’s illicit oil trading...
The public profile of the foreign jihadists frequently obscures the Islamic State’s roots in the bloody recent history of Iraq, its brutal excesses as much a symptom as a cause of the country’s woes...
Under the leadership of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliph, the former officers became more than relevant. They were instrumental in the group’s 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. 
The entire article is worth reading, and highlights elements of continuity between Iraq before and after Saddam Hussein which are too often overshadowed by the dramatic changes at the top. (I previously discussed some of these here.)  Although Ba'athist ideology was secular, the actual Ba'ath parties were more institutions by which entrenched regimes maintained power, and so Iraq's freely adopted a form of internally aggressive salafism during the 1990's.  From there, it was an easy shift into the salafi-laced anti-American insurgency and ultimately ISIS today.  I suspect this is some of what is covered in Amatzia Baram's recent book Saddam Husayn and Islam, which I have not read.

This does not mean that ISIS is simply the reconstituted Ba'ath or Sunni insurgency from ten years ago.  The organization has at times and in places distanced itself quite strongly from elements of Ba'athism and Saddam Hussein's regime.  Nonetheless, it is recruiting from the disaffected Sunni heartland of Iraq which was the Ba'athists' social base, and which has lots of former military and intelligence men whose training allows them to take over key positions in the organization.

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