Who are they anyway? IS, the Islamic State, that is.
There are two big components: religious fanatics and totalitarian leaders. The secret of IS’ success lies in combining the two ideologies and methods of enlisting and controlling millions of people. Sometimes the two merge in fanatical leaders, as took place in the latter years of Saddam’s Iraq (the dictator himself had a personal imam, even). Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi seems a case in point. This appears to be rare, however; for the most part the Islamic Staters are one or the other, with fanatics populating the rank-and-file and politburo-style regime builders dominating the elite. We hear a lot about the faithful, but not so much about the nomenklatura. Here’s a look-see at what we might call the caliphate’s political class.
IS recruits and operate globally, but their leaders are mostly Iraqi, drawn from Saddam’s Baathist armed forces and intelligence services. The same Saddam who was in constant cahoots with the Soviet Union, whose Baathist rule copied much of Soviet practice, and whose top military officers and spooks were often trained by the Soviets themselves.
The Baathist makeup of IS’ leadership is well known. Listen to the Weekly Standard:
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,
Or listen to the Washington Post: “It was under the watch of the current Islamic State leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, that the recruitment of former Baathist officers became a deliberate strategy, according to analysts and former officers.”
If those are the guys running IS, maybe there’s a Russian connection?
AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL FOOTNOTE: In the years following our invasion of Iraq in 2003, as I became aware of the massive Iranian campaign to kill Americans there, I once commented to a senior Pentagon official: “You know, I’ll bet the Russians are involved in this.” He gave me a very quick, intense look, and said, “Absolutely. Big time!” Keep in mind that Iraq and Syria constitute a single battlefield.
Recent documentary evidence supports this hypothesis. The German magazine Der Spiegel recently published a lengthy analysis, based on a set of IS documents dating to the creation (2013) of the organization’s current structure in Syria. The “architect” of the Islamic State, known mostly as Haji Bakr, laid out his blueprint in considerable detail. As Spiegel puts it,
What Bakr put on paper, page by page, with carefully outlined boxes for individual responsibilities, was nothing less than a blueprint for a takeover. It was not a manifesto of faith, but a technically precise plan for an “Islamic Intelligence State” — a caliphate run by an organization that resembled East Germany’s notorious Stasi domestic intelligence agency.
Bakr accompanied the blueprint with a set of rules for recruiting the leaders, and it indeed reads like a manual for a Stalinist state.
The group recruited followers under the pretense of opening a Dawah office, an Islamic missionary center. Of those who came to listen to lectures and attend courses on Islamic life, one or two men were selected and instructed to spy on their village and obtain a wide range of information. To that end, Haji Bakr compiled lists such as the following:
List the powerful families.
- Name the powerful individuals in these families.
- Find out their sources of income.
- Name names and the sizes of (rebel) brigades in the village.
- Find out the names of their leaders, who controls the brigades and their political orientation.
- Find out their illegal activities (according to Sharia law), which could be used to blackmail them if necessary.
The spies were told to note such details as whether someone was a criminal or a homosexual, or was involved in a secret affair, so as to have ammunition for blackmailing later. “We will appoint the smartest ones as Sharia sheiks,” Bakr had noted. “We will train them for a while and then dispatch them.” As a postscript, he had added that several “brothers” would be selected in each town to marry the daughters of the most influential families, in order to “ensure penetration of these families without their knowledge.”
The architect used religious ceremonies to identify the truly faithful, just as the KGB and the Stasi used indoctrination sessions in their empire to select “good Communists” for leadership roles. The architect’s task was facilitated by the Iraqi/Baathist background of his targets. Their loyalty had already been tested during Saddam’s rule, and their discipline and toughness had often been confirmed during the long jihad against the Coalition forces. Thus, to quote Spiegel:
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.
But people are fickle, and loyalties can be bought. As any good KGB officer, Bakr created an elaborate network of internal informers. The excellent book by Maurizio Molinari recounts numerous public executions of traitors, and absolute loyalty is a regular theme at daily prayers.
Those of us who have studied states run by the SS or the KGB see familiar patterns in these accounts, and suspect that there are still active connections between the IS leaders and the men who trained them. We know that there is long-standing activity by the Russians in Syria–Assad is a principal client of Putins’s–and that Syria is strategically imperative for the Russians, as for the Iranians, another piece in the pattern. Our suspicions become stronger when we see the presence of Russians and their neighbors in ISIL. Indeed, the top IS military commander, Abu Omar al-Shishani (the red-bearded jihadi frequently misidentified as a Chechen), is a former Georgian military officer, and IS just recruited a former Tajik special forces colonel. They’re not all Iraqis. Moreover, the Russians are exploiting their strategic position in Ukraine to set up transit facilities for IS. Ukrainian security forces recently arrested five IS volunteers: three from the ‘stans, two from Russia.
So I think the Russians are involved, in tandem with the Iranians, who have had their own troops on the Syrian battlefield for years. It’s part of the global war, of which Syria is only one killing field, and IS is one of the band of killers. A big band, at least for the moment. But still just one army, at the service of a totalitarian caliphate, itself helped and guided by two much bigger totalitarian states.
If we only focus on IS, we will not see the real war. Nor the global alliance amassed against us.