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On the Origin of ISIS

Why has a terrorist state blossomed in Syria and Iraq?

Sep 8, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 48 • By HUSSAIN ABDUL-HUSSAIN and LEE SMITH
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In other words, any policy addressing ISIS also has to address the root problem: What gave ISIS room to take hold and blossom is the Iranian-backed order of the Levant, consisting of Hezbollah in Lebanon, Bashar al-Assad in Syria, and Nuri al-Maliki and his successor, Haidar al Abadi, in Iraq. All these are sustained by the Shiite Islamic revolutionary regime in Tehran. And the White House has virtually signed onto this regional security apparatus. It is the tacit agreement the Obama administration has made with Tehran that has not only galvanized ISIS but also made foes out of former allies. Sunni Arab tribes that sided with the United States during the surge to defeat Al Qaeda in Iraq less than a decade ago are now joining the Sunni extremists of ISIS.

Western commentators often marvel that ISIS, unlike other terrorist organizations, is capable of mounting serious military campaigns. For instance, in a June 10 blitzkrieg, ISIS units stormed Iraqi military bases and police stations in the country’s second-largest city of Mosul. The fighters swept through Nineveh, most of Salaheddine, and parts of Diyala provinces. They linked up with tribal fighters from Anbar Province who had been in revolt against the government of Nuri al-Maliki for months. The reason ISIS and its allies seem to operate like a real army is that their military council is made up of former officers from an Arab army—Saddam Hussein’s. 

Accordingly, it might be most useful to see the current sectarian conflagration tearing through the Middle East as an extension of the Iran-Iraq war. After that nearly decade-long conflict (1980-1988), Saddam Hussein, ever fearful of coups, liquidated senior army officers who’d emerged from the war as heroes. One such officer was his cousin, childhood friend, and brother-in-law, Defense Minister Adnan Khairallah Talfah. Having thus hollowed out the Iraqi army, Saddam built special units, like the Republican Guards and Fedayeen Saddam, that were well trained in espionage work and explosives. After the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, some of these officers, along with others from Saddam’s M4 directorate of the Iraqi intelligence service, joined the insurgency against coalition forces and Iraq’s new Shiite-dominated ruling order, which from their perspective was a collaborative American and Iranian affair.

On the other side, Tehran’s first order of business in 2003 after Saddam had been toppled was to take revenge on the Iraqi military and intelligence personnel the Iranians had fought in the 1980s. Many of Iran’s allies in Iraq—including, some say, former prime minister Maliki—formed death squads to go after these officers. Saddam’s onetime officer corps went into hiding and used their expertise and money to wage war against the regime that had replaced them. When the United States, in partnership with major Sunni tribes, defeated the Sunni insurgency, American officials pleaded with Maliki to stop hunting the former Baathists and allow them to resettle peacefully in a post-Saddam Iraq. Maliki didn’t, nor did his allies. Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps officers like Quds Force commander and Iran-Iraq war veteran Qassem Suleimani as well as Iranian-backed militias like Asa’ib ahl al-Haq continued to prosecute their war against Iraq’s Sunni community. Eventually the Sunnis came to see ISIS as one of their few lines of defense against this Shiite persecution. 

Today, some of these former Iraqi officers constitute ISIS’s core military leadership. As the New York Times reported last week, the last two heads of ISIS’s military council were officers under Saddam, as was the current head of ISIS’s military operations, Adnan al-Sweidawi, also known as Abu Ayman al-Iraqi, who worked as a colonel in Saddam’s air defense intelligence unit. Other former Saddam loyalists have fought alongside ISIS. They include Jaysh Rijal al-Tariqah al-Naqshbandiyah (JRTN), a well-trained group of former Iraqi intelligence and army officers, led by Ibrahim Izzat al-Douri, a former high-level Baath party official. Douri was the king of clubs in the U.S.-led coalition’s deck of playing cards of most-wanted Iraqi officials, yet he evaded American forces. It was reportedly JRTN that provided the main muscle in ISIS’s takeover of Mosul in June.

The other key players in the ISIS-led Sunni rebellion are the Arab tribes on both sides of the Syrian-Iraqi border. Indeed, the map of ISIS’s new caliphate, with its so-called capital in Raqqa and encompassing Deir al-Zour in Syria and Nineveh, Anbar, Salaheddine, and Diyala in Iraq, overlays a much older map of tribal lands forming a contiguous territory with a total area of around 168,000 square miles, bigger than Great Britain (143,000 square miles). To see how ISIS has succeeded, it is of paramount importance to understand the tribal politics behind its achievement. 

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