Since the full-blown revival of Iraq’s Sunni insurgency at the beginning of 2014, there has been much misunderstanding of the relationship between the Islamic State and insurgents of Baathist orientation, principally represented by the Jaish Rijaal al-Tariqa al-Naqshabandiyya (JRTN). Much of the discourse on this subject attempts to tie the JRTN to the Islamic State, arguing that a so-called ‘alliance of convenience’ between the two groups has been key to the Islamic State’s maintenance of power in areas outside of government control. Linked to this theme is the portrayal of the Islamic State as somehow Baathism reincarnated, most commonly noting the former careers that many leading figures in the group had in the security apparatus of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein’s government. As such, it is worthwhile to trace the relationship between the JRTN and the Islamic State from the initial emergence of the former until the present day, primarily focusing on the aftermath of the United States’ military withdrawal from Iraq at the end of 2011, in order to highlight that the common notion of the ‘alliance of convenience’ is mistaken and that there is a clear dividing line between the two groups. Whatever co-ordination that took place in mid-2014, in particular, soon dissipated as the Islamic State consolidated power and local territorial control at the JRTN’s expense, so that the JRTN has largely descended into irrelevance. Consequently, whatever the veracity of claims by Shia militias that the JRTN leader and former aide to Hussein, Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, was killed in mid-April 2015, the JRTN’s impact on Iraq’s security situation in the face of the wider Islamic State threat is minimal.
Ideology and beginnings
The JRTN was founded at the end of 2006 following Hussein’s execution in December, officially as part of a Douri-led coalition called Al-Qiyadat al-Ula lil-Jihad wal-Tahrir, or the Supreme Command for Jihad and Liberation (SCJL). Although the coalition nominally included other groups, at least in the beginning, in practice the JRTN has become interchangeable with the SCJL. The goal of the JRTN can be summed up as aiming to resurrect Iraq’s Baathist state that existed before the US-led invasion in 2003. The Sufi religious aegis of the Naqshbandi order, deriving from the cultivation of the sect during the Hussein era, should be viewed as secondary, though it does help to separate the JRTN from the Salafist-jihadist ideology of the Islamic State, as will be discussed subsequently. The primacy of Baathist ideology is illustrated by the JRTN’s pan-Arab logo portraying a unified Arab world, as envisaged by Baathism, as well as the first point of the JRTN’s creed as stated on its official website, “Our army believes that Iraq is an Arab, Muslim state that cannot be separated from the Arab Islamic Ummah.”
The term “Arab Islamic Ummah” is a key part of Iraqi Baathist discourse, reflecting not only the classical pan-Arabism but also the Islamic face that Hussein tried to give his regime following the 1990-91 Gulf War. Also in keeping with official Baathist ideology is a superficial anti-sectarian stance, reflected in point 16 of the JRTN creed, which states, “Our army believes in the outlawing of the establishment of sectarian, racist, and regionalist blocs and parties and their possession of weapons.” Indeed, the JRTN even claims non-Sunni members, describing itself in a July 2014 statement as an “extension of the prior national Iraqi army”, with members from all sects and ethnicities, including Arabs, Kurds, Shia, Sunnis, Turkmen, and even Christians, Mandaeans, and Yezidis.
Linked to this point is a rejection of any notion of dividing Iraq, which implicitly entails the repudiation of concepts of federalism by sect that has gained increasing popularity among Iraq’s Sunni population, especially the more ‘moderate’ sections of the pro-insurgency movement, such as the Islamic Army in Iraq (IAI). The IAI set up an activist wing after the US withdrawal – named Al-Hirak al-Shaabi al-Sunni – to work for the goal of a Sunni federal region. In contrast, therefore, the JRTN stands out as an inherently rejectionist and revolutionary actor in Iraq’s Sunni insurgency. The fact that the IAI showed itself to be more amenable to compromise within the system was also demonstrated by the large number of its fighters and commanders who ended up joining the Sunni Awakening (Sahwa) movement from the beginning of 2007 onwards, which proved key in driving back the Islamic State’s predecessor, the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI).
However, there is much less evidence of extensive JRTN participation in the Sahwa. Consequently, by the time of the US withdrawal, one could affirm with reasonable confidence that the two main Sunni insurgent actors in Iraq were the ISI and the JRTN. Partly on the basis of the consistent shared rejection of the post-2003 Shia-dominated political order in Iraq, allegations emerged from security officials even in this period of collaboration between the JRTN and the ISI, with the JRTN reportedly assisting the ISI in carrying out vehicleborne improvised explosive device (VBIED) attacks in various parts of Iraq, including Kirkuk, Ramadi, and Tikrit. Although unverified, the reports are somewhat credible as during 2010-11 the ISI was a weakening organisation under heavy security force pressure and was unable to impose its will over other groups in the same way the Islamic State is currently able. By comparison, the type of JRTN operations officially advertised by the group’s own media always tended to be much less sophisticated than those of the ISI, with no suicide attacks, co-ordinated VBIED attacks, or sustained territorial assaults.
Rather, JRTN operations entailed more basic hitand-run guerrilla operations, particularly the use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), rockets, and mortars. One operational video, for example, dated 25 November 2011, features an IED attack purportedly targeting a vehicle of “the American enemy” in northern Baghdad. In this video, the JRTN claims the IED was manufactured locally “and with [the] co-operation of members of the government army”, referring to the new Iraqi army of the Baghdad government. The fact that the group might have had local sympathisers in the security forces at this stage is not surprising. Despite the US withdrawal, most officially advertised JRTN video operations post-2011 continued to portray attacks as targeting “the American enemy”, as though the perceived occupier was somehow still present. This was probably related to the fact that in the immediate aftermath of the US withdrawal, the Sunni narrative of Iranian influence over a supposed “Safavid” – a pejorative term used in Sunni discourse to mean an Iranian client – government in Baghdad did not yet have sufficient currency to give credibility to attacks on Iraqi government forces that might end up harming civilians through collateral damage. The available videos on JRTN operations indicate a reach across predominantly Sunni areas of Iraq, ranging from Diyala province in the east to Anbar province in the west, and from the Baghdad area and surrounding belt all the way to Ninawa province in the north.
However, to understand further where JRTN influence was particularly strong, it is best to examine the JRTN’s activist front organisation, known as Intifada Ahrar al-Iraq (IAAI), or the Uprising of the Free People of Iraq.
IAAI and protests in Iraq
The link between the IAAI and the JRTN is demonstrated by numerous lines of evidence, despite the fact it was initially denied by IAAI spokesperson Dr Ghazi Faisal. First, the IAAI regularly shares official JRTN statements on its official and linked social media pages, while declining to do so with other insurgent groups. Second, IAAI discourse exactly mirrors that of the JRTN, using the same revolutionary rhetoric, the same forms of address in its statements, and the same superficial anti-sectarian messaging. Third, it is notable that the same areas where the JRTN was seen as traditionally strong became strongholds for protests organised by the IAAI in 2013.
Protests that broke out in 2011 were nationwide on the model of the Arab Spring demonstrations and tended to focus on popular grievances such as the provision of public services, government corruption, and calls to end the US occupation and perceived foreign interference. In this context, the IAAI announced itself on 24 February 2011, urging a “violent/tremendous revolution against the occupation, oppression, and tyranny”, and calling on “Iraqis from Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen, Sunnis, Shia, Muslims, Christians, and the rest of the other religions, sects, and ethnicities” to rise up. Playing on the notion of nationwide grievances and resentment at the US occupation, the first IAAI statement made the US presence in Iraq the focus of its anger, rather than sectarian-tinged talk of the “Safavid” government. The IAAI also launched a video channel at this point, filming and uploading footage of some of the protests. Among some of the demonstrations captured on camera by the IAAI and shared on its channel was a local protest held in Rawa, in western Anbar (currently controlled by the Islamic State), in May 2011 featuring a banner reading, “The tribe of the people of Rawa rejects foreign intervention and demands the departure of the occupier”, and chants of “Iran, out, out. Iraq will remain free. With blood, with soul, we sacrifice for you oh Iraq.” The IAAI undoubtedly hoped to capitalise on the wave of popular protests, but little ultimately came out of the 2011 demonstrations.
The IAAI would have to wait until the beginning of 2013 for its status to become prominent. Unlike the 2011 protests, these demonstrations had a distinct Sunni sectarian element, focusing on grievances such as de-Baathification legislation introduced in May 2003 – seeking, at a minimum, its total repeal – and the detention of friends and relatives by the security forces. However, the IAAI used the protests to push its revolutionary agenda, for example releasing a song in March 2013 entitled “Our people want the downfall of the government“. Other familiar JRTN themes came out in other songs released by the IAAI in this period, such as the song “The People have Revolted“, featuring lyrics including, “We won’t stop until Baghdad, bringing down the ruling system and the constitution” and “we reject all rule of division”. At IAAI protests, there was a familiar JRTN slogan – “Qadimun ya Baghdad“, or “Coming, oh Baghdad” – in reference to the notion of retaking the capital and overthrowing the government. The most prominent IAAI protest sites were at Hawija in Kirkuk province, and the cities of Mosul and Tikrit, with notable influence also in Diyala and Fallujah – which gained notoriety for the presence of some protesters waving ISI flags.
It was clear that the IAAI was not going to be reconciled to the system, whatever concessions the government might make. Rather, its aim was to revive a full-blown insurgency through confrontation, and the government played right into the IAAI’s hands with the Hawija massacre in April 2013, which resulted in the killing of dozens of apparently unarmed protesters by security forces. Following the incident, the JRTN’s military spokesperson released a statement invoking the traditional Quranic justification for defensive jihad, while emphasising that the “patience of this oppressed people will not last and the peacefulness of their demonstrations and sit-ins will not continue”. The immediate aftermath of the massacre led to an apparent upsurge in JRTN activity, with reported attacks at Mosul airport, and in Abu Ghraib, east Mosul, Fallujah, the Hamrin Mountains, the Tariq camp near Fallujah, Tikrit, and Tuz Khurmato. The JRTN also briefly seized control of the town of Sulaiman Bek.
Subsequent violence in Iraq has never dipped below pre-Hawija massacre levels, so the incident, the wider Sunni demonstrations, and the JRTN’s involvement in the post-incident escalation can be interpreted as a key turning point in the revitalisation of Iraq’s Sunni insurgency. At this stage too, focus on the “Safavid” angle becomes more apparent in the JRTN’s propaganda, with an official JRTN video on the “operations of liberating Sulaiman Bek” featuring an “assault on the Safavid militias and destruction of a tank”. Similarly, a JRTN video from the Fallujah area on 25 April 2013 is entitled “Bombing of a base of the Safavid militias in Fallujah.” However, evidence is lacking of co-ordination in this upsurge between the JRTN and the ISI – which had become the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in April 2013 following the decision by emir Ibrahim al-Badri (alias Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi) to expand into Syria and attempt to subsume Jabhat al-Nusra. Furthermore, in the protests themselves, the issue of people showing up with ISI/ISIL banners was a localised problem in Fallujah and Ramadi, and not one affecting IAAI protest sites in particular.
What can be said with certainty though is that ISIL, having already intensified operations in 2012, exploited the new level of instability in Iraq – which had arisen thanks in no small part to the actions of the JRTN – to accomplish some of its most daring operations yet. The most notable of these was the Abu Ghraib prison break in July 2013, in which hundreds of jihadi veterans of the insurgency against the US were released, significantly strengthening ISIL’s ranks. To better scrutinise any seeming alliance of convenience and co-ordination between ISIL and the JRTN, it is necessary to more closely examine the events of late 2013/early 2014, as the security situation in Iraq descended into a full-blown insurgency with the loss of government control over significant cities, beginning with Fallujah and culminating with Mosul, Tikrit, and other towns in the north and west of the country in the summer of 2014.
Descent into chaos
The fall of Fallujah from government control in early January 2014 can be ascribed in large part to failures on the part of then Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, who decided to dismantle the Ramadi protest site by force in December 2013 on the grounds that it was a base for ISIL, despite the fact that ISIL militants had only occasionally appeared when the site was largely empty and the protests were dissipating on their own. Later that month, security forces arrested Sunni member of parliament Ahmad al-Alwani, killing his brother and five of his guards during the operation, causing widespread anger across Anbar province. In an attempt to ease tensions, the army was ordered to withdraw from Fallujah and Ramadi in the hope that the local police could deal with the situation, but the result was that ISIL – in co-ordination with other insurgents, including the JRTN – exploited the security vacuum to seize control of Fallujah and parts of Ramadi, although Ramadi was re-taken by security forces and pro-government militias several days later. Media coverage at the time tended to portray Fallujah as having fallen under ISIL control, when in reality a variety of Sunni militant groups had taken over the city in conjunction with ISIL, including the JRTN, the IAI, Jaish al-Mujahideen, and the 1920s Revolution Brigades.
ISIL of course would have an interest in downplaying the presence of the other smaller factions, and vice-versa. On account of the other factions, though, ISIL initially had to adopt a more conciliatory approach, not targeting the families of local police. In line with its approach in Syria whenever it entered an area where other factions were present, it also set up a Virtue and Vice Committee/Islamic court. Gradually, ISIL began to subsume its rivals through a mixture of co-option and coercion, providing incentives to pledge allegiance, so that by May-June 2014 it had become the dominant group in the city. Evidence for the JRTN’s presence in Fallujah was found on the IAAI’s media channel. For example, on 10 January, the IAAI uploaded a video featuring insurgents in Fallujah, one of whom proclaimed that its aim was to conquer Baghdad, and that they were not members of Daesh, a pejorative term for ISIL based on its Arabic acronym.
Throughout the beginning of 2014, the IAAI also released videos of self-proclaimed “Military Councils for the Revolutionaries of the Tribes” in a variety of locations across Iraq, playing on typical JRTN themes of superficial cross-sectarianism, including supposed Kurdish and Shia tribal councils. In mid-January it also announced the formation of a unifying body known as the General Military Council for Iraq’s Revolutionaries (GMCIR), which features a political wing where the participation of the JRTN is openly acknowledged. It is also clear that the GMCIR includes other insurgent factions ideologically close to JRTN, such as the 1920s Revolution Brigades.
Like the fall of Fallujah, the capture of cities in the north of Iraq – above all Mosul and Tikrit – was not the work solely of ISIL, which changed its name to the Islamic State in June 2014. Indeed, the wider insurgency beyond the Islamic State initially seemed ecstatic about the lightning offensive across northern and western Iraq. However, rather than a case of co-dependence between the Islamic State and other factions, as had been the case for some time in Fallujah, it is clear these advances against the government were being spearheaded by the former – which by then represented by far the most powerful insurgent force in the country – and the other factions were trying to ride this wave in a bid to carve out their own spheres of influence. However, the Islamic State was no longer in the business of compromise and issued a charter for Mosul in mid-June, shortly after capturing the city, making clear that not only had the era of “Safavid” government passed, but also that of Baathism.
Furthermore, in a statement issued by its newly formed “Committee to Administer the Affairs of the Mosques” in Mosul, the Islamic State explicitly affirmed that it would not tolerate any other group displaying banners. Within approximately one month, following on from the group’s declaration of a caliphate on 29 June, a sophisticated administration was emerging within Mosul, with various declared diwans (Islamic State departments), such as the Diwan al-Taaleem, issuing examination timetables for Mosul University’s various colleges.
A similar pattern of the marginalisation of the JRTN and other non-Islamic State militants emerged even in places where the JRTN would be expected to have had more influence, including Tikrit – the spiritual heartland of Baathism – with other groups pushed out to the rural peripheries. The fate of JRTN forces in places such as Mosul was best summarised by an account given to IHS Jane’s in late December 2014 by a Mosul resident, “They are present but have no influence; some of them gave allegiance, some of them were detained, and some of them fled.” Were the ‘alliance of convenience’ more than a short-term, pragmatic gambit, the Islamic State might have made some concessions to JRTN sensibilities, but in fact the group indulged in all its worst excesses to the anger of the JRTN, including the destruction of shrines and heritage sites – which was particularly offensive to the JRTN’s Sufi image – the genocidal targeting of Yezidis, and the displacement of Christians from Mosul.
Consequently, the JRTN distanced itself from these Islamic State actions in its statements, while sticking to its standard practice of not mentioning the Islamic State by name and blaming its deeds on supposed agents of the Baghdad government and Iran.
As the JRTN’s influence declined in the face of the Islamic State’s local dominance, the group tried to portray itself as defiant on the path of the so-called ‘revolution’ despite its clear distancing from the Islamic State’s worst actions. In mid-to-late 2014, unverified local reports emerged that the US-led international coalition against the Islamic State was reaching out to the JRTN in a bid to form a local Sunni force to combat the Islamic State – although this has since been denied by US ambassador Brett McGurk. In a statement circulated on JRTN social media pages, but not its official website, this outreach was portrayed as a sign of desperation and a list of JRTN demands was posted, reflecting the US’ inherent inability to come to an understanding with the JRTN. The actual party in desperation was the JRTN, however, which in the past six months has tried to turn to Saudi Arabia and aligned Arab states in a bid to bolster its position – largely through the provision of funding. This has been reflected in effusive praise for the deceased Saudi King Abdullah as a champion of the cause of the “Arab Islamic Ummah”, congratulations extended to the new monarch King Salman, and a eulogy to the Jordanian pilot Muaz al-Kasasbeh who was burnt alive by the Islamic State, portraying him as a “martyr” carrying out the obligatory duty of defending the “Arab Islamic Ummah” and its heritage. Most recently, the JRTN has declared its firm support for the Saudi-led coalition’s Operation Decisive Storm against Zaidi Houthi militant group Ansar Allah in Yemen, hailing it “the great historic operation” to halt Iranian expansionism. The IAAI also released a song praising the operation.
In an audio message attributed to Douri in April, prior to reports of his claimed death, he clearly distances himself from ‘takfiri’ thought – a reference to the Islamic State – and hails the old pan-Arab nationalism of former Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser, while trying to tie his cause to that of Saudi Arabia. The veracity of his claimed killing is now readily in doubt following another audio message released in May. As far as dating the speech goes, it is almost certainly from after the reported claims of his killing, as he makes reference to a controversy postdating his alleged death over the status of the town of Nukhayb in Anbar province. In this recording, the denunciation of the Islamic State is even clearer, as he condemns the June 2014 massacre of Shia security forces by Islamic State militants at Camp Speicher in Tikrit and makes clear that there is no alliance between the JRTN and the Islamic State, stating about the latter, “They declare the Baath to be kuffar [disbelievers].” Undoubtedly part of this speech reflects justifiable pushback against portrayals of the Islamic State as Baathism resurrected. It also seems that Douri is not under any illusions about the Islamic State’s strength relative to his group, as he speaks of the current fighting in Anbar and how 90% of the province is under the control of the Islamic State and affiliated “armed men”.
In conclusion, therefore, the JRTN cannot be seen as the local Sunni force that will turn the tide against the Islamic State. It has become totally marginalised and reflects a bygone era of Iraq’s Sunni insurgency, which used to be much more diverse. Now is the era of the Islamic State, and policy-making and analysis must do away with notions that the Islamic State is maintaining localised power and territorial control in Iraq because of any ‘alliance of convenience’ with Baathists, or that the Islamic State is somehow Baathism in disguise. The fact that senior figures within the group might have had a past in Saddam Hussein’s security apparatus does not automatically make those figures Baathists in secret alliance with the JRTN. Rather, the true ideological forerunner lies in the Islamist and Salafist ideas that gained currency in the last decade of Hussein’s rule thanks to the regime’s efforts to seek an Islamic facade, fused with the brutal jihadism brought to Iraq by the founder of the ISI’s predecessor Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and his contingent following the US-led invasion.