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In this Aug. 4, 2015 photo, souvenirs of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein are on display at a gift shop in Baghdad, Iraq. — AP
In this Aug. 4, 2015 photo, souvenirs of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein are on display at a gift shop in Baghdad, Iraq. — AP
FILE - In this Jan. 6, 1999 photo, an Iraqi officer prepares his soldiers before the Army Day ceremony at the Unknown Soldier monument to celebrates the 78th anniversary of their army foundation in Baghdad, Iraq. — AP/file
FILE - In this Jan. 6, 1999 photo, an Iraqi officer prepares his soldiers before the Army Day ceremony at the Unknown Soldier monument to celebrates the 78th anniversary of their army foundation in Baghdad, Iraq. — AP/file

BAGHDAD: While attending the Iraqi army's artillery school nearly 20 years ago, Ali Omran remembers one major well. An Islamic hard-liner, he once chided Omran for wearing an Iraqi flag pin into the bathroom because it included the words “God is great.”

“It is forbidden by religion to bring the name of the Almighty into a defiled place like this,” Omran recalled being told by Maj. Taha Taher al-Ani.

Omran didn't see al-Ani again until years later, in 2003. The Americans had invaded Iraq and were storming toward Baghdad. Saddam Hussein's fall was imminent.

At a sprawling military base north of the capital, al-Ani was directing the loading of weapons, ammunition and ordnance into trucks to spirit away.

He took those weapons with him when he joined Tawhid wa'l-Jihad, a forerunner of al Qaeda's branch in Iraq.

Now al-Ani is a commander in Daesh or the self-styled Islamic State (IS) group, said Omran, who rose to become a major general in the Iraqi army and now commands its 5th Division fighting IS.

He kept track of his former comrade through Iraq's tribal networks and intelligence gathered by the government's main counterterrorism service, of which he is a member.

It's a common trajectory.

Under its leader, Iraqi jihadi Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, IS's top command is dominated by former officers from Saddam's military and intelligence agencies, according to senior Iraqi officers on the front lines of the fight against the group, as well as top intelligence officials, including the chief of a key counterterrorism intelligence unit.

The experience they bring is a major reason for the group's victories in overrunning large parts of Iraq and Syria.

The officers gave IS the organisation and discipline it needed to weld together jihadi fighters drawn from across the globe, integrating terror tactics like suicide bombings with military operations.

Read: Saddam’s former army is secret of Baghdadi’s success

They have been put in charge of intelligence-gathering, spying on the Iraqi forces as well as maintaining and upgrading weapons and trying to develop a chemical weapons program.

Patrick Skinner, a former CIA case officer who has served in Iraq, said Saddam-era military and intelligence officers were a “necessary ingredient” in the Islamic State group's stunning battlefield successes last year, accounting for its transformation from a “terrorist organisation to a proto-state.”

“Their military successes last year were not terrorist, they were military successes,” said Skinner, now director of special projects for The Soufan Group, a private strategic intelligence services firm.

How officers from Saddam's mainly secular regime came to infuse one of the most radical Islamic extremist groups in the world is explained by a confluence of events over the past 20 years - including a Saddam-era program that tolerated Islamic hard-liners in the military in the 1990s, anger among Sunni officers when the US disbanded Saddam's military in 2003, and the evolution of the Sunni insurgency that ensued.

The group's second-in-command, al-Baghdadi's deputy, is a former Saddam-era army major, Saud Mohsen Hassan, known by the pseudonyms Abu Mutazz and Abu Muslim al-Turkmani, according to the intelligence chief.

Hassan also goes by Fadel al-Hayali, a fake name he used before the fall of Saddam, the intelligence chief told The Associated Press.

Like others, he spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the intelligence.

During the 2000s, Hassan was imprisoned in the US-run Bucca prison camp, the main detention center for members of the Sunni insurgency, where al-Baghdadi also was held.

The prison was a significant incubator for the Islamic State group, bringing militants like al-Baghdadi into contact with former Saddam officers, including members of special forces, the elite Republican Guard and the paramilitary force called Fedayeen.

In Bucca's Ward 6, al-Baghdadi gave sermons and Hassan emerged as an effective organiser, leading strikes by the prisoners to gain concessions from their American jailers, the intelligence chief said.

Former Bucca prisoners are now throughout the IS leadership.

Among them is Abu Alaa al-Afari, a veteran Iraqi militant who was once with al Qaeda and now serves as the head of IS's “Beit al-Mal,” or treasury, according to a chart of what is believed to be the group's hierarchy provided to the AP by the intelligence chief.

Al-Baghdadi has drawn these trusted comrades even closer after he was wounded in an airstrike earlier this year, the intelligence chief said.

He has appointed a number of them to the group's Military Council, believed to have seven to nine members - at least four of whom are former Saddam officers. He brought other former Bucca inmates into his inner circle and personal security.

Saddam-era veterans also serve as “governors” for seven of the 12 “provinces” set up by the Islamic State group in the territory it holds in Iraq, the intelligence chief said.

Iraqi officials acknowledge that identifying IS leadership is an uncertain task.

Besides al-Baghdadi himself, the group almost never makes public even the pseudonyms of those in its hierarchy.

When leaders are killed, it's often not known who takes their place - and several have been reported killed multiple times, only to turn up alive.

Also read: Saddam’s Iraq

Figures are believed to take on new pseudonyms, leaving it unclear if a new one has emerged or not.

“IS's military performance has far exceeded what we expected.

The running of battles by the veterans of the Saddam military came as a shock,” a brigadier general in military intelligence told the AP, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive topic. “Security-wise, we are often left unable to know who replaces who in the leadership. We are unable to infiltrate the group. It is terrifying.”

Estimates of the number of Saddam-era veterans in IS ranks vary from 100 to 160 in mostly mid- and senior-level positions, according to the officials.

Typically, they hail from Sunni-dominated areas, with intelligence officers mostly from western Anbar province, the majority of army officers from the northern city of Mosul and members of security services exclusively from Saddam's clan around his hometown of Tikrit, said Big.

Gen. Abdul-Wahhab al-Saadi, a veteran of battles against IS north and west of Baghdad.

For example, a former brigadier general from Saddam-era special forces, Assem Mohammed Nasser, also known as Nagahy Barakat, led a bold assault in 2014 on Haditha in Anbar province, killing around 25 policemen and briefly taking over the local government building.

Many of the Saddam-era officers have close tribal links to or are the sons of tribal leaders in their regions, giving IS a vital support network as well as helping recruitment.

These tribal ties are thought to account, at least in part, for the stunning meltdown of Iraqi security forces when IS captured the Anbar capital of Ramadi in May.

Several of the officers interviewed by the AP said they believe IS commanders persuaded fellow tribesmen in the security forces to abandon their positions without a fight.

Skinner, the former CIA officer, noted the sophistication of the Saddam-era intelligence officers he met in Iraq and the intelligence capabilities of IS in Ramadi, Mosul and in the group's de facto capital of Raqqa in Syria. “They do classic intelligence infiltration. They have stay-behind cells, they actually literally have sleeper cells,” Skinner said.

“And they do classic assassinations, which depends on intelligence,” he said, citing a wave of assassinations in 2013 that targeted Iraqi police, army, hostile tribal leaders and members of a government-backed Sunni militia known as Sahwa.

Knowing who to assassinate and how to get to them requires good information, Skinner said, and the IS obviously knew how to acquire it.

One initiative that eventually fed Saddam veterans into IS came in the mid-1990s when Saddam departed from the stringent secular principles of his ruling Baath party and launched the “Faith Campaign,” a state-sponsored drive to Islamise Iraqi society.

Saddam's feared security agencies began to tolerate religious piety or even radical views among military personnel, although they kept a close watch on them and saw to it they did not assume command positions.

At the time, the move was seen as a cynical bid to shore up political support among the religious establishment after Iraq's humiliating rout from Kuwait in the 1991 Gulf War and the Kurdish and Shia uprisings that followed.

“Most of the army and intelligence officers serving with IS are those who showed clear signs of religious militancy during Saddam days,” the intelligence chief said. “The Faith Campaign ... encouraged them.”

In the run-up to the 2003 US-led invasion, Saddam publicly invited foreign mujahedeen to come to Iraq to resist the invaders.

Thousands came and Iraqi officials showed them off to the media as they were trained by Iraqi instructors. Many stayed, eventually joining the insurgency against American troops and their Iraqi allies.

After the collapse of the Saddam regime, hundreds of Iraqi army officers, infuriated by the US decision to disband the Iraqi army, found their calling in the Sunni insurgency. In its early stages, many insurgent groups were relatively secular.

But Islamic militants grew in prominence, particularly with the creation and increasing strength of al Qaeda in Iraq. Some Sunnis were radicalised by bitterness against the Shia majority, which rose to power after Saddam's fall and which the Sunnis accuse of discriminating against them.

Al Qaeda in Iraq was initially led by a Jordanian militant, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and had a strong foreign presence in its leadership.

But after al-Zarqawi's death in a 2006 US airstrike, his Iraqi successor, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, began to bring in more Iraqis, particularly former Saddam officers.

That process was accelerated when Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi took over after his predecessor was killed in a 2010 airstrike.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi's first two deputies, who each played a major role in setting up what would become its sweep over Syria and Iraq, were both Saddam-era officers, according to those interviewed by the AP.

They were Sameer al-Khalifawy, an air force colonel killed in fighting in Syria in 2014, and Abdullah el-Bilawy, a former intelligence officer who was killed in Mosul by the Iraqi military in May 2014, a month before the city fell to the Islamic State group.

He was replaced by the current deputy, Hassan.

“It's clear that some of these (Saddam-era officers) must have been inside the core of the jihadist movement in the Sunni triangle from the beginning,” said Michael W.S. Ryan, a former senior executive at the State Department and Pentagon, referring to the Sunni-dominated area that was the most hostile to American forces in Iraq.

“Their knowledge is now in the DNA of ISIS,” he said, using an alternate acronym for the extremist group.

“This melding of the Iraqi experience and what we might call the Afghan Arab experience became the unique ISIS brand,” said Ryan, now a senior fellow at the Jamestown Foundation, a Washington-based think tank. “That brand ultimately became more successful in Iraq than al Qaeda in Iraq ... and, at least for now, stronger in Syria than al Qaeda.”

Comments (13) Closed

PinkPeacock Aug 09, 2015 02:00pm

Stunning revelations! The world is still paying the price for criminalities committed by George Bush, Tony Blair and their ever-lying aides. If there was any justice in this world, these guys should be punished for war crimes and destruction of humanity. As for IS, Al-Quaida and similar other groups, its time they should now try and help prevent shedding more blood. Let there be some peace on earth.

Muhammad Ahmad Aziz Aug 09, 2015 03:16pm

This made a fascinating read and makes sense. However, the thing that needs to be remembered is that the US invasion of Iraq is the primary cause for the IS insurgence. They went in when it wasn't warranted and then half-assed it. Shouldn't have invaded in the first place but after they did, should have then gone in fully and owned the whole operation.

saf Aug 09, 2015 04:35pm

It's simple Saddam Hussain boys realised use religion like the Saudis and you get millions of fools supporting you and thousands fighting for you for free.

Observer1 Aug 09, 2015 04:43pm

@Mohammad Ahmed Aziz. I know , that American Invasion was not a wise move but Saddam's Faith Campaign back in 1990 was the start and was like foundation stone for ISIS and Al-Qaida. Today Muslim World should stand up against Sauid, Qatari and other Arab nation's extreme agenda. Main supports of ISIS and AL-Qaida is Saudi and Qatar, Lets not put blame on others, We do have problem with in our Muslim Umaah

Shaukat Ali Khan Aug 09, 2015 04:44pm

Another media campaign to mislead. If Saddam loyalists were that strong, they would have shown more resistance to US invasion.

M.Saeed Aug 09, 2015 05:06pm

This is correct. Those who had visited Iraq during the period when Saddam was in command, would remember that the main aim of Saddam's Government was creation of "Arabistan". All the prominent places of Baghdad had large banners and slogans painted on buildings and road over-bridges saying, "Baghdad,the Capital of Arabistan". Along the statement of slogan, there was a solid painted map, that showed all the Arabic speaking countries of the world from North Africa to the Gulf, being the area under the command of Arabistan. Clearly, it explains that the dream of Saddam is what actually is being implemented by IS, added with a lot of vengeance.

Proust Aug 09, 2015 05:29pm

The lies spun by Americans and their allies have produced the monster called IS. They should be held accountable for the destruction of the region and the countless, meaningless killings done by the group. But as usual US will remain shameless because they have the money to do all this and no one dare say anything against the powerful and mighty. World is sure an unfair place.

frkh Aug 09, 2015 06:15pm

In case people have forgotten due to their knowledge of history limited to the last five day feed of their facebook accounts, the Sadam hussein's army was heavily supported and trained by the US and the west. Also, according to the defense intelligence agency chief Michael Flynn(look it up), the rise of the IS was a willful decision.

Shadaan Ahmad Aug 09, 2015 08:43pm

Looking at the ruins and disintegration of Iraqi society, it seems Iraq was a better place (if not heaven) under Saddam. JW Bush and T Blair tarnished everything there chasing false weapons of Mass Destruction. Whatever their goals were, setting aside, Iraq turned out to be a wounded animal, wounded but not culminated. Now these are the repercussions of leaving a nation (with one of the best armies in the world) bleeding. With invasion of US and allies, and after some resistance the whole army (hundreds of thousands) of well-trained soldiers disappeared. Nobody pointed out, at that time because it was free for all loot and plundering by new occupiers. So, it’s not wrong that US and allies created and nurtured a monster in the form of IS, which is showing its viability for obvious reasons

Sarwar, USA Aug 09, 2015 09:24pm

Is there any justice?? George Bush and Tony Blair invaded and destroyed Iraq and ME and killing millions. They go unpunished. Again Republicans are gaining ground to win US presidential race another alarm bell ringing what's next???

Faisal Bajwa Aug 10, 2015 12:31am

Instead of disbanding the Iraqi armed forces and other state institutions, the Americans should have worked with them to transform a new post-Saddam Iraq and saved everyone a never ending blood bath.

Ranga Aug 10, 2015 02:56pm

Fascinating read. Well complied.

Adil Haider Aug 12, 2015 10:05am


Thanks for forwarding the Michael Flynn link...

Has the mainstream media even alluded to what this American general is admitting...our world is a rotten place to be in...