Sun, Jun 21, 2015 - Page 9 News List

Saddam’s former army is secret of al-Baghdadi’s success

The IS leader heads a ruthless militant force worth billions; however, he is only a figurehead that can be replaced

By Samia Nakhoul  /  Reuters, BEIRUT

Illustration: Constance Chou

A year after declaring his caliphate, it is clear that the secret of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s success is the army and state he has built from the remnants of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein’s military and the allegiance he has won or coerced from alienated Sunni Muslims in Iraq, Syria, and beyond.

In the past year, the self-appointed caliph has expanded his turf from eastern Syria and western Iraq to include adherents in pockets of war-racked Libya and Egypt’s lawless Sinai Peninsula.

He has set his sights on Saudi Arabia, birthplace of Islam, and his Islamic State (IS) has launched an online magazine for Turks, who have volunteered for his jihad in hundreds if not thousands.

His speeches, freighted with Koranic verses ripped from their context and loaded with hadith — sayings attributed to the prophet, many regarded as spurious — sound more like sermons.

The recruiting drum he beats is loud and clear: Summoning his followers to a pitiless jihad against Shiite heretics, Christian crusaders, Jewish infidels and Kurdish atheists. He berates Arab despots for defiling the honor of Sunni Islam.

His message is this: Where Iraq’s rulers could not prevent the 2003 US-led invasion that delivered the country into the hands of Shiites and were unwilling to mount a jihad against Alawite minority rule in Syria, much less deliver Jerusalem from Israel, the Islamic State can now lead the way.

In this pseudo-religious and sectarian narrative, the IS jihadis are on a divine mission to redeem a fallen Arab world by fire and the sword — as shown in its videos of beheading’s and immolation’s.

Other factors are critical to IS success. Beyond the alliance of Saddam loyalists and Islamist extremists born of the Iraq war, al-Baghdadi relies on local Sunnis and their tribes, whereas his jihadi precursors relied more on foreign fighters.

Despite thousands of foreign volunteers, jihadist ideologues say IS forces are 90 percent Iraqi and 70 percent Syrian in its two main strongholds, where they have about 40,000 fighters and 60,000 supporters.

Al-Baghdadi, who forged links with Saddam’s Baathists while a prisoner during the US occupation, also claims descent from the Prophet Mohammed and his Quraishi tribe — a heritage that allows him to assert that “we are the soldiers of the mission declared by the Prophet.”


Abu Mohammad al-Maqdisi, the jihadi theorist who was the spiritual mentor of Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq killed by a US airstrike in 2006, says that before it took over swathes of Syria and Iraq, IS wiped out almost all other Islamist and Sunni rivals.

It gave them the choice of death or repentance and declared war on its al-Qaeda-allied rival in Syria, the Nusra Front.

“They now consider the Nusra Front apostates,” al-Maqdisi says in an online publication. “Abu Bakr [al-Baghdadi] is Iraqi, has a popular base in Iraq [and] he has Iraqi tribes with allegiance to him, while Abu Musab [al-Zarqawi] was Jordanian and surrounded by foreign fighters.”

“They are winning militarily because they are depending on former Baathist officers who know their ground,” al-Maqdisi says; but in the end they rely on fear.

Abu Qatada al-Filistini, another al-Qaeda-linked ideologue who with al-Maqdisi has signed a fatwa declaring it legitimate to fight IS, says “this state is advancing because of the military, security and intelligence background of its leadership which seeks to impose a state of terror. They impose their authority, with blood, with the sword.”

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