August 20, 2014

TSG IntelBrief: In Saddam’s Footsteps: Islamic State’s Tactics of Violence

• The so-called Islamic State’s tactics of assassination, extreme violence to terrorize, and rounding up and executing suspected dissidents ironically follow Saddam Hussein’s same playbook

• Much as Saddam feared a unified but still Shi’a-led Iraq, so too do the killers of Islamic State, which is why the immediate term is crucial to determining whether Iraq, with a new prime minister, can unite against the threat
• The appearance of overwhelming and terrifying strength is quite effective against a weak and divided opponent; for the first time since its June takeover of Mosul, Islamic State has undeniably been pushed back
• The introduction of US airstrikes won’t evict Islamic State and like-minded terrorists from Iraq but it might signal the end of the group’s recent advances, at least in areas with US air coverage.


While he would have persecuted the fanatics of the Islamic State, former Iraqi despot Saddam Hussein certainly would have approved of its over-the-top takfiri tactics, which come straight out of his dictatorial playbook.

The violent extremists of the so-called Islamic State (IS) have achieved remarkable success of late due to a variety of factors—the never-ending Syrian civil war being at the top of that list. But also on the list is a strict adherence to using terror to achieve and maintain dominance. Saddam himself took power through the use of terror against opponents already paralyzed by the audacity and speed of his movements. The recently self-branded IS has done the same.

Like Saddam, IS depends first on spies, informants, and cells already in the population. While much has been rightfully made of IS’s triumphant return to Iraq, it had never really left, and had maintained an effective, if somewhat low-key, presence in Mosul and much of Anbar Province for years. IS sources identify and track key influencers who might pose a threat to the group. Once identified and the timing is right, these targets are assassinated, a hallmark of Saddam Hussein’s decades-long rule. Anyone with leadership ability and potential followers is eliminated. For IS, that meant figures in Mosul and in the now-dormant-but-of-great-potential Sahwah (Awakening) movement in Anbar.

After selecting a weaker target and assassinations (and bribes) have disabled potential opposition, IS moves in, which explains how it took the second-largest city in Iraq without a tremendous struggle. Immediately upon moving into the target area, IS—à la Saddam—rounds up masses of people who are anathema to its aims: usually Shi’a and Kurdish populations, as well as minorities such as Christians and Yazidis. Some are executed, others detained. The rest are made to pledge public allegiance to the new power. Here, the power of the spectacle is brought to full bear.

The spectacle of IS compelling allegiance through public executions is eerily similar to Saddam’s 1979 televised speech purging his rivals. Indeed, only the quality of video is different, while both demonstrations of terror have the same paralyzing effect. In the public spectacle, the violence is the entire message, telling the population that resistance is futile and will invite communal reprisals.

Both IS and Saddam-ist terror tactics aim to demonstrate a sense of ruthlessness that implies omnipotence. It also sets the stage for the next phase, which is to communicate that normalcy will return only through obedience. Here, IS is adopting the paternalistic flavor of Saddam, trying to provide social services and an order that is predictable within harsh rules. Saddam’s Ba’athist party had its rules, as does IS, and compliance with the rules ensures but not guarantee a lack of punishment. Indeed, it is the capricious nature of the threat that makes it truly terrifying.

One key distinction between the two is that Saddam controlled, at the time, almost all the tools of lethal compliance. The army was his, in a sense, and there was no existential military threat inside the country. IS doesn’t have that luxury. It has more enemies than it has supporters, and its enemies are well-armed, though perhaps poorly-led. IS has more ambition than it has members, and recent supporters don’t make the best of soldiers, which the group is noticing as it tries to transform from a terrorist network cum strike and capture force to a state. And, as it’s acutely aware of this week, IS doesn’t have an air force. Saddam lost control over Kurdistan precisely because his air force was rendered moot by the decade-long ‘no-fly zone’ established at the end of the 1991 Gulf War.

After enough time, Saddam’s regime became the status quo, however horrible it remained. The key with IS is not to give it the time to become the status quo. US air power, in coordination with the best of the available Iraqi/Kurdish forces, will likely be enough to end IS’s summer of violence. It will be unlikely that it seizes more significant areas, though it’s possible if the committed and obsessively violent actors of IS pick their spots well.


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