Who Is IS?

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."