Questions About Baathists’ Role in the Islamic State

A fascinating article in Der Spiegel on April 18 details the supposed inner workings of an Islamic State that is less a caliphate and more a power being established by Saddam Hussein’s intelligence and security apparatus. These revelations, if true, may complicate the Obama administration’s legal rationale for pursuing the war against the group it bills as an offshoot of core al-Qaeda.

The story is based on a trove of documents captured from a dead man Spiegel calls “the architect of the Islamic State,” Haji Bakr, allegedly a former colonel in the intelligence wing of Saddam’s air defense force and a man who had “secretly been pulling the strings of IS for years.”

If what Der Spegiel writes is correct, it confirms that Bakr and his fellow operatives used their military and intelligence prowess to take advantage of the war in Syria as an opportunity to recruit thousands of foot soldiers and establish a base of operations for a campaign to retake power.

Reporting on the Islamic State has long mentioned the involvement of former Iraqi military officials the organization. However, the alliance between Baathists and the Islamic State’s more religious elements was portrayed last year as an uneasy one in which the Baathists seemed destined to lose out after outliving their usefulness to the hardcore Islamists. The Spiegel article is the latest of a number of recent reports that cast a different light on what the Obama administration has sold as a war against a direct descendant of the al-Qaeda group that attacked the US on 9/11. Der Spiegel portrays an organization run by a secretive group of Baathists that has adopted an affiliation with the terror network as a means to an end.

Take these paragraphs, for example: 

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi may be the officially named leader, but it remains unclear how much power he holds. In any case, when an emissary of al-Qaida head Ayman al-Zawahiri contacted the Islamic State, it was Haji Bakr and other intelligence officers, and not al-Baghdadi, whom he approached. Afterwards, the emissary bemoaned “these phony snakes who are betraying the real jihad.”

Within IS, there are state structures, bureaucracy and authorities. But there is also a parallel command structure: elite units next to normal troops; additional commanders alongside nominal military head Omar al-Shishani; power brokers who transfer or demote provincial and town emirs or even make them disappear at will. Furthermore, decisions are not, as a rule, made in Shura Councils, nominally the highest decision-making body. Instead, they are being made by the “people who loosen and bind” (ahl al-hall wa-l-aqd), a clandestine circle whose name is taken from the Islam of medieval times.

And this one toward the end of the piece:

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.

The stories in Der Spiegel and elsewhere at the very least portray an Islamic State that has been hijacked by former officials from Saddam’s military. If the Islamic State has actually been run by former Baathists, the more immediate questions seem to be:

  • Is the IS really an al-Qaeda offshoot and successor if it is being, and has for years actually been, run by Baathists from Saddam Hussein’s government?
  • If the Islamic State is run by former Iraqi military and intelligence officials, what are their ultimate objectives and how do these shape US strategy toward the Islamic State?
  • What do the answers to those questions mean for the Obama administration’s claims that the 2001 AUMF covers the campaign against the IS? Recall that senior officials argue that the 2001 AUMF applies based on the notion that the IS claims to be “the true inheritor of Usama bin Laden’s legacy.” Not so, according to Der Spiegel’s addition to recent reporting on the matter.
  • Finally, how does this news square with the 2002 AUMF under which the US carried out the 2003 invasion of Iraq? The Obama administration says it’s relying on the 2001 AUMF against al-Qaeda to cover the campaign against the Islamic State, but it’s also indicated that the 2002 legislation could be used for this as well. The 2002 AUMF allows the use of force for the “purposes of helping to establish a stable, democratic Iraq and addressing terrorist threats emanating from Iraq,” according to the Pentagon.

If the latest reports as reflected in Der Spiegel are accurate, the use of force to establish a stable Iraq seems to fit the bill for the campaign against IS better than the valance of the 2001 AUMF (though it might not work for efforts against ISIL elsewhere). So why hasn’t the Obama administration relied on the 2002 as it’s primary cover for operations against the Islamic State? Maybe because doing so would require making the uncomfortable acknowledgement that the war authorized in 2002 has officially returned, or never really ended. 

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About the Author(s)

John Reed

Managing Editor of Just Security (2014-18). Follow him on Twitter (@ReedJustSec).