Anyone following terrorism, and the Islamic State in particular, cannot help but notice the recent sharp increase in the amount of discourse regarding the number of former Baathists in the Islamic State leadership and their influence upon the organization. I'm not sure if the growing emphasis on this point is an intentional attempt to undercut the Islamic State's appeal by questioning the group's Islamist credentials and motivation, or if it is simply a reflection of the growing recognition of the role that ex-members of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's Baath Party have played in the group's post-2010 resurgence.
Certainly, the debaathification program instituted in the wake of the 2003 invasion of Iraq sent many Sunni Baathists into the waiting arms of jihadist groups such as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's Jamaat al-Tawhid and Jihad. These men brought not only tons of weapons but also a wide range of skills — such as intelligence and counterintelligence, networking, and smuggling — that were useful to the rapidly growing jihadist movement. Many of the former Iraqi army officers who defected to the jihadists also had military skills that have allowed them to train local and foreign fighters. These officers have also been instrumental in crafting the Islamic State's hybrid warfare style, which has employed elements of terrorism, such as multiple suicide vehicle bombs to breach perimeters and provide "shock and awe" during conventional military operations.
A large number of the Iraqi military personnel who joined the jihadists came from the Fedayeen Saddam paramilitary force, which was well versed in irregular warfare. Saddam created the Fedayeen Saddam in the 1990s, and its members became a generation of stone-cold killers expertly trained in sadistic torture and dramatic executions. They were also known for cutting off body parts of victims, executions by beheading and throwing victims off buildings — actions clearly reflected in the Islamic State's behavior. However, it is simply disingenuous to try to paint the Islamic State as a Baathist organization, or to imply that Baathists are somehow secretly controlling the organization and using religion as a cover for the continued pursuit of their Baathist agenda.
In examining former Baathists' possible roles in the Islamic State, it is important to consider the nature of the Arab Socialist Baath Party and its rule in Iraq, which lasted from 1968 until 2003. First of all, the Baath Party was a Pan-Arab socialist party that sought to unite the entire Arab world under Baathist rule. The Baath Party was also a revolutionary party that believed in armed uprising. It is no mistake that the Baath parties in Iraq and Syria came to power via coups d'etat. The Baath Party in Iraq established an oppressive, totalitarian police state that was rife with informants and fostered intense fear in the population. Iraq became a socialist police state not unlike Communist East Germany or Enver Hoxha's Albania.
When Saddam came to power in 1979, he led a Stalinesque purge to consolidate his control over the Iraqi Baath Party and Iraq. He would not tolerate any dissent and famously killed untold thousands of his own people in his quest to exert total control over the country. Iraq's Baathism morphed from a Pan-Arab revolutionary socialist movement to a personality cult centered on Saddam — what many authors refer to as "Saddamism." The formation of the Fedayeen Saddam — literally "those who are willing to die for Saddam," a force of some 30,000 men who had pledged to lay down their lives for their leader — reflected this cult of personality.
Rather than attempt to unite politically with other countries like Syria to form a Pan-Arab Baathist state, Saddam instead opted to expand his Saddamist state by invading first Iran and later Kuwait. Both of these ventures brought disaster upon Iraq and the Iraqi people. Uprisings by Iraq's Shiite majority and Kurdish minority were put down with extreme force. Syria's Baathist government strongly opposed these expansionist ambitions; the Syrians even participated in the international coalition behind Operation Desert Storm, the operation to liberate Kuwait from Iraqi forces.
Not even the most fervent Baathist can have any hope of re-establishing the old Saddamist order.
As Communist Party membership was in totalitarian East Germany, Maoist China or the Soviet Union, Baath Party membership in Iraq was important for anyone hoping to hold any type of government office, operate a business or otherwise get ahead. Iraqi Baathism was not a winsome, attractive ideology; instead, it was brutally forced upon the Iraqi people. Although there certainly were some true believers, most Baath Party members joined the party for pragmatic purposes. To quote one of my Iraqi colleagues, "Most Iraqis were forced to join the Baath Party, but not all of them were Saddamists." Many of the people currently discussing whether many Islamic State leaders are true believers and are using the jihadist ideology as a screen for their Baathism don't seem to be asking themselves if these leaders could have been Islamists who previously hid behind a screen of Baathism.
In the run-up to the Gulf War, Saddam attempted to play the Pan-Arab card to rally the Arab world behind him, and he failed miserably. In fact, many Arab countries joined the U.S.-led coalition against Iraq. In the wake of the Gulf War, Saddam changed his ideological tactics and increasingly emphasized Islam. He did this not only symbolically and rhetorically, but also practically, by giving Salafist preachers more leeway. This increase of religiosity within the state opened the door for Salafist-minded Iraqis to operate within the state as "Baathists."
It has been 12 years since the U.S. invasion of Iraq forced Saddam and his cronies from power. Saddam is dead, and his cult of personality is long gone. Not even the most fervent Baathist can have any hope of re-establishing the old Saddamist order.
Islamic State Leadership
It is obviously impossible to read the minds of the Islamic State's leaders to determine exactly how fervently they believe in the group's ideology. There are, nevertheless, some observable behaviors that can help in assessing their ideological commitment.
One indicator of the leaders' ideological frame of mind is their indefatigable persistence in their offensive operations despite casualties. Like pit bull terriers, once they get their teeth into something they simply will not let go. This was clearly reflected in their dogged insistence on taking the Syrian city of Kobani. Even though the city is a non-critical location on the battlefield, the Islamic State would not relent in its attempts to take Kobani and repeatedly poured reinforcements of men and weapons into the meat grinder the city became. This seemed to indicate that the group's leaders truly believed that they are inexorable and divinely blessed. The Kobani decision showed no signs that the group's leaders were making pragmatic decisions based solely on military considerations.
The Islamic State's leaders also have not been pragmatic in using policies of severe sectarianism and takfirism (the doctrine of deeming other Muslims as apostates and therefore acceptable targets for attacks) to pick fights with every ethnic and religious group the Islamic State has encountered. This stands in stark contrast with al Qaeda's philosophy of only attacking other groups if al Qaeda is attacked first and of focusing on one enemy at a time. The Islamic State has declared war on the world and has not shied away from attacking anyone (with the possible exception of the understanding the group seems have reached with Syrian President Bashar al Assad's government and the group's decision not to provoke Turkey until Islamic State supply routes were threatened). This often results in the group having to fight on multiple fronts at once.
In much the same way, the group's leaders have not been very sensible when it comes to making external enemies. While already engaged in brutal warfare on multiple fronts in Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State intentionally provoked the United States and other foreign countries to enter into the fray. Drawing the United States and other "crusader" countries into the conflict does help the Islamic State ideologically, but the group was not having any problems in recruiting foreign fighters prior to these outside powers' entering the fight. A more practical approach would have been to take care of local business before provoking external enemies.
The Islamic State promotes an apocalyptic, millenarian ideology that claims the group will suffer heavy losses until a small core of true believers, led by the Prophet Isa (which is Arabic for Jesus), defeat the "crusader" forces led by the Antichrist in a final battle at Dabiq in Syria. After the victory at Dabiq, the true believers will be able to extend their Islamic State to conquer the Earth. Provoking the Americans and other foreign forces to attack them would seem to indicate that the Islamic State's leaders not only promote this ideology but also believe it to be true and act accordingly. This is not to say that there are no opportunists among the Islamic State leadership and members — just that the group's leaders appear to be acting as if they are true believers rather than cynical manipulators.
Speaking of Dabiq (which is also the name of the Islamic State's English-language magazine), the town lies inside the safe zone that the Turks are seeking to establish in northern Syria. It will be very interesting to watch how the Islamic State leaders respond to efforts to push their forces out of the town. Dabiq occupies a prominent place in Islamic State eschatology, and it will be important to see how much effort the group makes to maintain control of it. The town of Dabiq has no real tactical significance, and if the Islamic State takes actions to protect the town despite its tactical irrelevance, it will be another sign that the group's leaders are believers and not cynical Baathists using ideology to manipulate their followers.