Thursday, February 11, 2016

Not Saddam's ISIS?

Samuel Helfont and Michael Brill disagree with one currently popular answer to the question of "Saddam's ISIS?" - and their answer is "No" in their remarks about "The Terrorist Group's Real Origin Story" (Foreign Affairs, January 12, 2016):
One of the key arguments in support of the "Saddam gave us ISIS" line is that veterans of Saddam's military and intelligence services are now members of ISIS. This should not be surprising. Since 2003, former Baathists have joined a variety of insurgent groups, not just ISIS. They have shifted their loyalties over time according to the political climate - basically to those they judged could successfully take power. Like others throughout history, Iraqis have repeatedly demonstrated a tremendous capacity for adapting to current circumstances and acquiescing to the dominant ideology . . . . Domestically, Saddam . . . opposed Islamism and those promoting any other version of Islam than his own . . . . The Baathists were ruthlessly consistent in their attempts to track down and "neutralize" anyone with the slightest hint of Salafist or Islamist sympathies . . . . The party secretariat asked the local branches . . . to take special note of adherents to "Salafism, Wahhabism, and the Muslim Brotherhood." Throughout the 1990s, the regime also fine-tuned the organization of its security services, creating special sections to deal with the Muslim Brotherhood, Wahhabis, and various Shiite Islamists. Another [incorrect] argument is that Saddam was applying sharia law when he beheaded prostitutes, cut the hands off thieves, or threw homosexuals from the rooftops; but there is no evidence in the Baathist records that the regime applied sharia law in Iraq. Such atrocities were carried out by regime paramilitaries such as the Fedayeen Saddam, many of whom, the regime's records indicate, were poor Shiites who are considered heretics by ISIS. Although elements of the regime's brutality resemble proto-ISIS behavior today, they are better understood as an evolution of the cruelty that characterized Baathist rule in Iraq. There was no Islamist motivation behind it.
Helfont and Brill thus argue that there's no evidence that Saddam turned toward Islamism in the latter days of his rule, nor is there any evidence that leading members of the Baath Party were involved in establishing the Islamic State. Rather, leading members of Iraq's Baath Party wound up as officials in the Islamic State for purely opportunistic reasons - and, I suppose, because their experience in governing was useful to the Islamic State.

Relevant to this issue would be the number of ex-Baathists in positions of genuine power in the Islamic State's governing agencies. The secular Arab Nationalist ideology known as "Baathism" had lost a lot of its legitimacy as a ruling ideology under Saddam, and he did turn toward Islam - cynically, I think - to regain some of that lost legitimacy. In a sense, then, one can speak of a kind of continuity, even if cynical in origin, if ex-Baathists' predominate in the Islamic State's governing institutions.

So . . . do they?

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