Who Runs the Islamic State Group?


May 22, 2015

A still from video purportedly of Islamic State militants, posted to social media sites on April 19, 2015

A still from video purportedly of Islamic State militants, posted to social media sites on April 19, 2015

Social Media via Reuters

This commentary originally appeared on U.S. News & World Report on May 22, 2015.

In the past year, the Islamic State group has become an international phenomenon for its ambition, its cruelty and its striking military successes. Most terrorism experts agree that the Islamic State group has eclipsed al-Qaida as the world's preeminent jihadi terrorist organization. But despite the group's notoriety, a wide range of theories are still circulating about who really runs the Islamic State group.

Recent reports have revealed that the Islamic State group's leadership contains former high-level Iraqi military and intelligence officials from Saddam Hussein's Baathist regime. These accounts attribute the Islamic State group's rise to the skilled hand of these former regime elements, which the United States displaced by disbanding Saddam's security services in 2003. To some, the presence of these former regime elements in high-ranking Islamic State group positions suggests that the group's formidable capabilities, repression and brutality are the result of the Islamic State group having a Sunni nationalist, not a Salafi-jihadist, outlook.

But this story woefully misinterprets the facts.

While it is true that there are many former Baathist regime elements within the Islamic State group, the group's organization and ambitions bear little resemblance to the Saddam-era Baathist state. Ironically, the Islamic State group's organization and aims much more closely resemble its most bitter rival in the Sunni Arab world: al-Qaida. The Islamic State group derived both its blueprint for building an Islamic state and its Salafi-jihadist ideology from al-Qaida, not from Iraqi Baathists associated with Saddam Hussein's former regime.

The group that evolved into the Islamic State group was formed, trained and indoctrinated in al-Qaida-sponsored training camps in Afghanistan in the late 1990s. There, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian, founded a Salafi-jihadist organization named Jamaat Tawid Wal-Jihad. Zarqawi's group moved to Iraq in 2002 and became al-Qaida's official arm in Iraq in 2004. The internal documents of both core al-Qaida and al-Qaida in Iraq show that their goal was to establish an Islamic state. These documents also show that al-Qaida's organizational principles were directly handed down to the Islamic State group.

Zarqawi was killed in a U.S. airstrike in mid-2006. But al-Qaida's plan to establish an Islamic state with the “intended goal … of a caliphate” moved forward: al-Qaida in Iraq and a coalition of other Sunni jihadi groups in Iraq formally declared the “Islamic State of Iraq” even before the U.S. surge began in 2007.

It would be a mistake to misread the presence of former Baathists within the Islamic State group as a sign that the group has a moderate wing. The presence of former Baathists in the Islamic State group is not new. In fact, the Shiite-dominated government of Iraq, especially under former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, has long obsessed over their subversive influence. Long before the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, Saddam had, for political purposes, cultivated extremist elements within his officially secular government. After the United States disbanded the Iraqi security services, many former regime elements joined al-Qaida in Iraq or other Islamist insurgent groups. Further, the Islamic State group formally consolidated control over the Sunni nationalist insurgent groups in 2006, meaning that the remaining Baathists in the Islamic State group are likely true believers in the group's worldview.

While well-trained and highly skilled former Baathist military and intelligence officials have long bolstered the lethality of the Islamic State group, they did not design the Islamic State group to be the organization it is today — al-Qaida did. Declassified documents show that the Islamic State's organizational structures are — and always were — almost identical to the organizational blueprint devised by al-Qaida's founders (PDF) in the 1990s. The main impact of the former Baathists has arguably been to enhance the Islamic State group's ability to conduct full-scale military operations. They have increased the Islamic State group's ability to carry out the vision of al-Qaida, only helping to make the group more extreme and more powerful than al-Qaida ever was.

Sectarian and ideological differences will continue to make any sort of peace settlement difficult in Iraq; the Islamic State group talks the talk of a Salafi-jihadist group, and it walks the walk of one too. There may be former Baathists in leadership positions inside the Islamic State group, but it's likely that they only now seek Sunni nationalism through the vehicle of jihadi domination.

There is no hope of trying to negotiate with the Islamic State group, nor is there much hope of finding political fissures to manipulate inside of the group. The skill and depth of the Islamic State group's security forces also make it difficult to imagine how winning the minds of locals could really turn the tide.

But there is hope that the Iraqis can militarily defeat the group in Iraq and the coalition can help to contain it within Syria. The United States and its coalition partners can also help to empower moderate Syrian militants to chip away at the Islamic State group's areas of control. If the Iraqi government handles the military campaign prudently and makes the political concessions that Iraq's Sunnis demand, the Sunni communities of Iraq and Syria may eventually be able to stand up and resist the Islamic State group's control. And with luck, the slow demise of the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria will degrade its global brand, helping to eventually sweep the group to where it belongs: the dustbin of history.

Benjamin Bahney is an adjunct researcher at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation and author of An Economic Analysis of the Financial Records of al-Qa'ida in Iraq. Patrick Johnston is an associate political scientist at RAND.

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