It is not uncommon to hear accusations that many of the Middle East’s current problems would not have existed if it wasn’t for the 2003 invasion of Iraq by America and a significant number of its allies in the “Coalition of the willing”. Some even go as far as to appear to be romanticising the days of Saddam.
The reality is that many of the roots of Islamic State’s proliferation, indeed many of the daily and longer-term tactics employed by Baghdadi and his saplings are pulled straight out of the textbook of the Saddam Hussein regime.
Whilst Saddam’s Baathist party was, and still is, described by observers as secular, the reality is that this ceased to be the case in the 1990s. In the wake of plunging levels of popularity and legitimacy, Saddam undertook significant measures to Islamise his regime. These measures were most evident in 1993, as Saddam began his “Faith campaign” – a cynical manipulation of Salafi Islam, the reverberations of which are shaking Iraq today. The introduction of Zakat – an Islamic tax, the building of hundreds of news mosques by the state, and the use of Sharia to justify state amputations and executions all started to change Iraqi society at this time. Religion was also brought into the classroom: the Quran began to play a central role in state education and teachers had Quranic instruction forced upon them. Perhaps the most visual measure occurred in 1991, with the addition of the words “Allahu Akbar” to the Iraqi flag, where they remain to this day.
This period also saw the opening of the Saddam University for Islamic Studies, allowing the regime to promote hard-line Salafi Islam and, in theory, produce swathes of loyal clerics The reality was very different; perhaps the most notable graduate of this policy of Saddam’s is Ibrahim Awad Ibrahim al-Badri, who now goes by the name of Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi – the leader of ISIS. Furthermore, in an attempt to what Joel Rayburn describes “monitor and manipulate” this new, burgeoning Salafi Islamist movement, Saddam began sending swathes his Baathist officers and civil servants into the mosques in the hope that they would provide him a solid foothold. Unfortunately for the regime, things didn’t work out as intended and instead many of these men became committed Salafists – such is the law of unintended consequences.
Documents captured in 2014 revealed the identity of a great number of ISIS senior leadership, and as expected, many of them served as mid to high ranking officers in Saddam Hussein’s regime. Abu Muslim Turkmani (the group’s former deputy leader who was killed in an airstrike in August) served in the military intelligence section of Saddam’s Special Forces. Abu Ali al-Anbari (a member of the group’s cabinet) served as a Major-General in Saddam’s army, and the former head of ISIS military council (killed immediately before the Mosul offensive in June 2014) was a former Captain in Saddam’s army. The list of senior ISIS figures that held mid-level positions in Saddam’s security apparatus is extensive, and these individuals proved essential in the group’s rapid growth and operational strategy over the past few years. The group’s repressive tactics are so reminiscent of Iraq’s dark recent history that the phrase “the walls have ears”, once used to describe Saddam’s systematic authoritarianism, has been resurrected.
The proliferation of arms has also been critical to the Islamic State’s rise, and a recent study by Amnesty International describes the Saddam regime’s stockpiling of weapons throughout the 1970’s and 1980’s as a “seminal moment” in the development of the global arms market. Such stockpiling coincided with Saddam overseeing the development of a vast national arms industry to produce small arms and artillery shells. Rampant corruption within his army and the ensuing breakdown in the country’s security infrastructure saw huge numbers of these weapons proliferate into the hands of multiple militia groups throughout Iraq. A great number of these can be found in the barracks of IS today.
The sickly propaganda produced by ISIS is another factor that can be traced back to the times of Saddam. A great many words have been written on the sleek, yet shocking videos that have relayed amputations, executions and the throwing of people from buildings but they are not a new phenomenon to the Iraqi people. Saddam would throw his domestic enemies from the top of buildings; not tall buildings, but low ones, in order to maximise the amount of times his men might be able to do so and prolong their pain. The Iraqi propaganda machine was relentless and extremely well planned; a lingering lesson from the KGB training given to many of the officers in Saddam’s army.
It is easy to develop a form of historical myopia when looking at the current events in Iraq and Syria, but the truth is Iraq’s problems began long before the 2003 invasion. The dictator may be dead, but the people of Iraq are far from being free of his shadow.