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The Islamic State’s Baathist roots

Although the presence and strength of former Baathist officers in the Islamic State is unlikely to revive pan-Arab nationalism, it has implications for a strategy to counter the Islamic State and eventually stabilize Iraq.
Fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) stand guard at a checkpoint in the northern Iraq city of Mosul, June 11, 2014. Since Tuesday, black clad ISIL fighters have seized Iraq's second biggest city Mosul and Tikrit, home town of former dictator Saddam Hussein, as well as other towns and cities north of Baghdad. They continued their lightning advance on Thursday, moving into towns just an hour's drive from the capital. Picture taken June 11, 2014. REUTERS/Stringer (IRAQ - Tags: CIVIL UNRE

The Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria may effectively employ radical Salafist doctrine to mobilize core believers and foreign fighters, but it relies on complex networks led by former Iraqi Baathist officers to operate and control its so-called caliphate. Baathist leadership in IS, most recently noted in Christoph Reuter’s riveting article in Spiegel International, reinforces the political nature of IS and its Sunni Arab, Iraqi nationalist roots. Alongside or within IS’ aim to devise a "pure" Islamic society is a Baathist plan to run a meticulously calculating state able to monopolize power, control territory and eradicate potential threats through brutality and terror. Baathist influences are evident in the nature of IS terror operations — extensive security and spy networks, hierarchical bureaucracies, battlefield tactics and elaborate financial and logistical networks — similar to those used by former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and his Baathist circles for 35 years in Iraq.

How could Iraqi Baathists, known for their secular ideology, find common ground with radical Salafist groups? While the presence and strength of former Baathist officers in IS appears contradictory it reflects the influence of the Jaysh Rijal al-Tariq al-Naqshbandi (JRTN), a group of Saddam’s former officers and Sunni Arab tribes that formed in reaction to the post-2003 Iraqi order. Led by Izzat al-Douri, Saddam’s former vice president and deputy chairman of the Iraqi Revolutionary Command Council (proclaimed to be killed in a recent battle in Tikrit), the JRTN represents a fusion of Islam, Sunni Arab identity and Iraqi nationalism.

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