Daniel Greenfield, a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center, is a New York writer focusing on radical Islam.
The Russia-Iran-Assad axis and its useful idiots in the West claim that the United States created ISIS. Some of the loonier conspiracy sites that gleefully repost Russian propaganda allege that the Caliph of ISIS is a Jewish Mossad agent named Elliot Shimon or a CIA agent named Simon Elliot.
Elliot doesn’t exist, but ISIS’ Deputy Caliph Abu Ali al-Anbari, who was Saddam’s major general and a Baathist member, does. The Caliph’s right hand man, Abu Muslim al Turkmani, was also a Baathist and a lieutenant colonel in Saddam's military intelligence organization before being killed by a drone strike.
Considering the history between Saddam and the USSR, it is likely that one or both of the Caliph’s deputies received training from Russian intelligence advisers during their careers. Turkmani’s DGMI in particular was closely entangled with the KGB. One of the reasons ISIS is much better than its Sunni Islamist opponents is that its top people had been trained by Soviet experts.
The ISIS blowback doesn’t lead to America, but in a completely different direction.
Before the Islamic State’s current incarnation, it was Al Qaeda in Iraq and its pipeline of suicide bombers ran through Syria with the cooperation of Assad’s government.
Assad and Al Qaeda in Iraq had a common enemy; the United States. Assad had a plan to kill two birds with one stone. Syrian Islamists, who might cause trouble at home, were instead pointed at Iraq. Al Qaeda got manpower and Assad disposed of Sunni Jihadists who might cause him trouble.
Meanwhile Al Qaeda openly operated out of Syria in alliance with the Baathists. While Syria’s regime was Shiite and Iraq’s Sunni, both governments were headed by Baathists.
The Al Nusrah Front, the current incarnation of Al Qaeda in the area ever since the terror group began feuding with ISIS, named one of its training camps, the ‘Abu Ghadiya Camp”. Abu Ghadiya had been chosen by Zarqawi, the former leader of the organization today known as ISIS, to move terrorists through Syria. This highway of terror killed more American soldiers than Saddam Hussein had.
The Al Qaeda presence in Syria was backed by Assad’s brother-in-law, Assef Shawkat, who had served as Director of Military Intelligence and Deputy Defense Minister. His real job though was coordinating Islamic terrorist organizations. During the Iraq War, he added Al Qaeda to his portfolio.
Handling terrorists without being burned is a tricky business though and the blowback kicked in.
In 2008, a US raid into Syria finally took out Abu Ghadiya and some of his top people. A year later, General Petraeus warned that, “In time, these fighters will turn on their Syrian hosts and begin conducting attacks against Bashar al-Asad’s regime itself.”
Shawkat was killed by a suicide bomber three years later. Assad’s support for terrorists had hit home. Those Sunni Islamists he had sent on to Iraq who survived returned with training and skills that made them a grave danger to his regime.
Exactly as Petraeus had predicted.
Anti-American Leftists who claim that the US created ISIS were cheering on its early terror attacks as the work of a Baathist “Resistance”. ISIS these days is accompanied by top Baathists including General al-Douri, a close Saddam ally. The same outlets claiming that we created ISIS celebrated the “Resistance” campaign against NATO “neo-colonialism” when what they were really celebrating was ISIS.
Putin’s regime has claimed that it is fighting ISIS, but it was supporting Assad back when Syria was a conduit for ISIS to attack Americans. The Baathists in Syria and Iraq had both been Soviet clients and it was the USSR which turned international terrorism into a high art.
The United States has gotten plenty of the blame for supporting Mujahedeen in Afghanistan against the USSR, but the USSR had started the practice much earlier and had signed on to the Red-Green alliance. As Primakov, a top Soviet leader and KGB figure closely involved with the Muslim world, had said, the "Islamic movement" has a "radical trend which is strongly charged with anti-imperialism."
It’s no coincidence that ISIS has thrived best in countries that were former Soviet clients whose governments attempted to fit Primakov’s definition by walking a fine line between Socialism and Islam. Nor is it a coincidence that in addition to its beheadings and sex slavery, ISIS plays up its free medical care and price controls. ISIS is still offering Socialism and Islam with a bigger emphasis on Islam.
While Baathism is often described as secular, it actually sought to blend Islam with its politics. It was a leftist Islamism that emphasized Socialism in contrast to the rightist Islamism of the Muslim Brotherhood whose leaders were often businessmen and landowners with a more capitalistic bent.
These distinctions, which led the USSR to build ties with the Baathists while Western countries got involved with the Muslim Brotherhood, were more style than substance. The preference of the Muslim Brotherhood or the Turkish AKP for crony capitalism as the next best thing to a lost former feudalism did not make them friendly to the West. And the Baathists were tribal dictators who cloaked their clannish authoritarianism and familial feuds in a blend of hollow Socialist and Islamic platitudes.
Critics claim that there would be no ISIS if Saddam were still in power, but the Iraqi dictator helped create ISIS through his alliances with Islamists. ISIS did not suddenly rise out of the ruins of his regime. Instead it grew within Saddam’s regime as the dictator responded to his setbacks against Iran and Saudi Arabia, two Islamist states, by reinventing Iraq and Baathism as explicitly Islamist entities.
During the Iran-Iraq War, Saddam had begun building ties with the Muslim Brotherhood, hoping to bridge the old split between Baathists and Brotherhood and meet Shiite Islamism with Sunni Islamism.
After the Gulf War, Saddam Hussein went in a blatantly Islamist direction. The man in charge of his “Return to Faith” campaign was General Al-Douri, who would be the key ally that Al Qaeda used to move its people through Syria and who would live long enough to fight alongside ISIS as it retook Tikrit.
Allah Akbar was added to the Iraqi flag and Islamic education was embedded into the system from elementary schools to Islamic universities. It is likely that the Caliph of ISIS owes his own Islamic education to Saddam’s newfound interest in the Koran.
By the mid 90s, Saddam endorsed a Caliphate and implemented Sharia punishments such as chopping off the hands of thieves. When ISIS amputates hands, it’s just restoring one of Saddam’s Sharia policies.
Everyone knows about Saddam’s palaces, but fewer know about his campaign to build the world’s biggest mosques. One of the biggest of these had a Koran written in Saddam’s own blood. This mosque would become a major center for ISIS allied operations run by a Muslim Brotherhood organization.
The Caliph of ISIS was recruited into the Muslim Brotherhood by his uncle. And like so many Jihadist leaders, he moved on to Al Qaeda. His own Baathist-Islamist background made him the perfect man to take Saddam’s vision of a Pan-Islamic state with Sharia and Socialism for all to the next level.
Saddam’s outreach to the Muslim Brotherhood helped create ISIS, just as Assad’s backing for Al Qaeda did and much as Gaddafi’s LIFG deal with the Brotherhood paved the way for his own overthrow.
Barzan, Saddam’s brother and the leader of his secret police, had warned him that his alliance with Islamists would lead to the overthrow of his regime. And that is what likely would have happened. American intervention changed the timetable, but not the outcome.
ISIS is a Baathist-Islamist hybrid that devours its creators, turning on Al Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood, and at times even threatening its Baathist allies. Its hybrid of Socialism and an Islam so medieval and brutal that it even frightens Al Qaeda and the Brotherhood has its roots in Saddam’s Iraq. Televising new and more extreme tortures was a tactic that was more Saddam than Osama.
Even ISIS’ most revolutionary step, declaring its leader the Caliph, echoes Saddam’s effort to don the vestiges of the Abbasid Caliphate by linking himself to Caliph Al-Mansur. The difference between Saddam and ISIS is that it is willing to follow through on the symbolism.
For Saddam, Islam was a means. For ISIS it is an end. ISIS is Saddam’s Islamized Iraq without Saddam. It uses Saddam’s tactics and infrastructure for purely Islamic ends.
ISIS is blowback, but not against America. It’s the outcome of two Russian client states that climbed into bed with terrorists only to see the terrorists take over their countries. Saddam and Assad were both warned about the consequences of their alliance with Islamists.
Saddam aided the Muslim Brotherhood in trying to topple Assad’s father, yet learned no lessons from it. Assad aided the Al Qaeda attacks on Americans, but didn’t consider what would happen when Al Qaeda turned its attention to him. Both regimes sowed the Islamist seeds of their own destruction and made inevitable their transformation into Islamic terror states.