Credit: The Guardian
Credit: The Guardian

by Dana Simcox

The Islamic State owes much of its military success to the expertise and leadership provided by Saddam Hussein’s former army officers. ISIL has managed to develop an extensive hierarchy brimming with old Ba’athist party members from pre-war Iraq. Though the Ba’athist creed is purportedly secular and nationalist—seemingly at odds with the fanatical religious goals of the Islamic State—the two have found enough common ground to bridge their ideological gaps. Their alliance is mutually beneficial and makes ISIL a formidable (though not indomitable) enemy.

The Islamic State is attractive to Saddam’s old Ba’athist officers for several reasons, the first being their liberal, freehanded use of violence to enforce law, instill fear, and silence dissenters. These appalling tactics were a defining characteristic of Saddam’s regime in Iraq, so Ba’ath Party officers are comfortable doling out the executions, beheadings, and torture that ISIL espouses and adores. By joining the Islamic State, these former officers regain (in a different form) some of the power they lost after the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003. They see ISIL as a means through which they can once again become feared members of the Iraqi ruling class, commanding troops and reigning over powerless civilians.

While Ba’athism was originally a secular ideology (pan-Arab instead of pan-Islam), it took on a religious bent in the later years of Saddam’s rule. This has made it easier for the remnants of his regime to get on board with ISIL’s mission of extreme Sunni Islam world domination. However, it seems many of these officers do not have any deep-rooted devotion to the jihadist cause. ISIL defector Abu Hamza said of the Iraqi commanders, “They pray and they fast and you can’t be an emir without praying, but inside I don’t think they believe it much…the Baathists are using Daesh…They just want power. They are used to being in power and they want it back.” Despite their weak religious convictions, the religious leaders of ISIL need the Baathists for their capabilities in military command, intelligence, and nation building. And the Baathists are content using ISIL as a platform to rebuild their political careers and reestablish their influence in Iraq after twelve years of marginalization and exile.

Though the Baathists have been crucial to ISIL’s progress, some believe they also hold the key to the organization’s demise. While the groups have been able to reconcile their differences thus far, the competition within the organization could grow as it gains power and territory. Professor Ahmed Hashim thinks that the Baathists “are not interested in ISIS running Iraq. They want to run Iraq. A lot of them view the jihadists with this Leninist mind-set that they’re useful idiots who we can use to rise to power.” If there are fundamentally different objectives among the various leaders of ISIL, there is a possibility the hierarchy of the group begins to crumble. Because the majority of the Islamic State’s leaders—especially those in charge of the militia—may not have a genuine interest in the group’s religious aims, they could implode even without the help of western nations.

For more information and to read more about Abu Hamza and Professor Ahmed Hashim’s remarks, click the links below:

The hidden hand behind the Islamic State militants? Saddam Hussein’s.

How Saddam’s Former Soldiers Are Fueling the Rise of ISIS

Disclaimer: The views, opinions and positions expressed by the authors and those providing comments on these blogs are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions or positions of American Islamic Congress or any employee thereof.