October 24, 2014

TSG IntelBrief: From Bucca to Kobani: The Hybrid Ideology of the Islamic State

• The reshaping of what is now the Islamic State (IS) began among the detainee populations in military prisons such as Camp Bucca in Iraq, where violent extremists and former regime personalities forged mutual interests over years of confinement

• IS is now a chimera of Ba’athist and takfiri ideologies, with the organizational skills of the former helping channel the motivational fervor of the latter

• It is more than a marriage of convenience between the two seemingly at-odds groups; the former Ba’athists among the group and the religious ideologues now have visions of a return to Sunni glory that merges Usama bin Ladin with Saddam Hussein

• While at smaller unit levels there will be conflict between the two halves of the whole—as witnessed in the fighting between IS and the Naqshbandi Army after the fall of Mosul—the former regime officers who are now senior leaders in IS appear fully committed to the ideals and goals of the group, a result of a thorough radicalization that has extended from imprisonment years ago up to now

• These prison-hardened fighters were so important to IS that they undertook a year-long campaign (2012-2013) called “Breaking the Walls” to free what would prove to be the last pieces needed for expansion.

It is likely that many of the soon-to-be leaders of what is now the Islamic State (IS) were extremists before they walked through the gates of Camp Bucca, the U.S. military prison in southern Iraq, from 2003 to 2009. But it is certain that they all were when they walked out months or years later.

In Camp Bucca, the reshaping of the future IS took place among the mixing of violent ideological extremists and former Ba’athist military officers who were also no strangers to violence. Along with other circumstances (such as the Syrian civil war and the sectarian rule of Iraq’s then-Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki), it is this Bucca bond that forms the nucleus of a cancerous cell that has taken over so much of Iraq and Syria.

Apart from IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, even a partial list of former Bucca detainees who would play major roles in reshaping IS is impressive: Abu Muslim al-Turkmani, al-Baghdadi’s number two; Abu Ayman al-Iraqi, senior military leader; Haji Bakr, instrumental in helping al-Baghdadi into power; Abu ‘Abdul Rahman al-Bilawi, responsible for the operational planning that seized Mosul, Iraq; Abu Qasim, in charge of foreign fighters and suicide bombers; Abu Lu’ay, senior military official; Abu Shema, in charge of logistics; Abu Suja, in charge of programs for families of martyrs; and on and on. Some were officers in Saddam Hussein's military (usually air force or army), the others were teachers, imams, or bureaucrats. But all were dedicated, motivated, and organized members of a smoldering anti-Shi’a group when they left Bucca.

The ex-Ba’athists long had the numbers in terms of tacit support, given their position in the Sunni tribal populations. Popular support and organizational skills were never in short supply among their base. But after successive crushing defeats by first the U.S. military and then the Maliki government, they lacked motivation and inspiration. On the flip side of the equation, the violent takfiri who made up the dwindling core of IS’ precursor group, Islamic State of Iraq, had boundless motivation and inspiration but lacked numbers and organizational skills. Neither group had the skillset to change the equation. In Bucca, the math changed as ideologues adopted military and bureaucratic traits and as bureaucrats became violent extremists.

IS is now a chimera of Ba’athist and takfiri ideologies, with the organizational skills of the former helping channel the motivational fervor of the latter. The result is an extremist group unlike any other. It’s the merging of Usama bin Ladin and Saddam Hussein, with the strengths of one helping negate the weaknesses of the other. The group is of course not all-powerful but it is more powerful than any on-the-ground opponent it might meet in the near term. The longer the group stays in control of areas such as Raqqa, Syria, and Mosul the more the staying power of the Ba’athists will kick in. This is evident in the mixing of oppressive mukhabarat (intelligence) forces working along side social workers and food distribution programs.

The two halves of the whole are now closer than before, and the odds of a split are remote. While at the lower levels there will be clashes between the takfiri and the former Ba’athists—as were reported in the aftermath of seizing Mosul—overall, the hybridization of the group is complete. There are no non-true believers in the IS senior leadership, the result of years of radicalization and circumstance that has moved the group from the cells of Bucca in Iraq now to the border town of Kobani in Syria.


Read The Soufan Group's special report on The Islamic State here.


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