ISIS, the world understands, is a violent jihadist group driven by twisted religious devotion and its dream of radical Islamist conquest. ISIS's own members understand the group that way. But what if they're wrong? What if ISIS is not a spontaneous religious movement, but rather was constructed by a shadowy group of secular military leaders to fulfill their secret agenda?
Explosive new documents uncovered by Der Spiegel's Christoph Reuter, published on Saturday, reveal that there is a dark secret at the heart of ISIS. It was not radical Islamists who conceived and created ISIS, they suggest, but rather a small group of senior Iraqi officers in Saddam Hussein's brutal police state. Their plan appears to have been to use ISIS to reconquer Iraq. For them, jihadism was simply a means to the end of retaking the country they had lost, a counterattack to the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled them from power.
Der Spiegel says it uncovered the documents from a house in Syria that was used by a former Iraqi military intelligence official who, before he was killed in a 2014 firefight, went by the name Haji Bakr. The documents show the blueprint for the creation of the Islamic State, written before the group became what it is today and executed to detail. While we have known for some time that former officers in Saddam's military were working with ISIS — they shared a Sunni background and a hatred of the new American-installed government — these documents suggest the officers were far more involved in planning and launching the Islamic State than previously thought.
As Der Spiegel's stunning investigation found, ISIS was organized in much the same way as Saddam's police state. Haji Bakr's goal was to use the chaos and extremism of the Syrian war to build up this new group in Syria, giving it a beachhead from which it could invade and conquer much of Iraq. Once there, it would set up an intricate and Orwellian system of control in the mold of Saddam's Iraq.
ISIS, in other words, would replace one totalitarianism with another. Though Saddam's Iraq had been Sunni and secular and ISIS's Iraq would be Sunni and Islamist, this same group of former Saddam officials would remain at the top. For Haji Bakr and the other officers working with him, the group's apocalyptic jihadism would simply be a vehicle for their return to power.
Here is Der Spiegel's Christoph Reuter:
There is a simple reason why there is no mention in Bakr's writings of prophecies relating to the establishment of an Islamic State allegedly ordained by God: He believed that fanatical religious convictions alone were not enough to achieve victory. But he did believe that the faith of others could be exploited.
In 2010, Bakr and a small group of former Iraqi intelligence officers made Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the emir and later "caliph," the official leader of the Islamic State. They reasoned that Baghdadi, an educated cleric, would give the group a religious face.
[Haji] Bakr was "a nationalist, not an Islamist," says Iraqi journalist Hisham al-Hashimi.
Bakr's journey from serving in a violently secular regime to helping found a violently Islamist group began in 2003, after the US-led invasion of Iraq. One of America's first decisions on taking Iraq — a terrible mistake that has haunted the region ever since — was to disband Iraq's enormous army, leaving its officers and soldiers with no income. Haji Bakr was left "bitter and unemployed," a source who knew him told Der Spiegel, as were many officers like him.
This speaks to a terrible irony of the 2003 American-led invasion of Iraq. The war was premised in part on the assertion that Saddam's regime was linked to anti-American jihadist terrorists. This was a falsehood. But the invasion made this falsehood true — and in more terrible fashion than we ever imagined possible.
Haji Bakr, desperate after 2003 to defeat the Americans and the new Shia-majority government, fought alongside Sunni extremists in Iraq. Later, he began constructing ISIS. As Der Spiegel's investigation found, he was able to use his knowledge of running an oppressive security state to build up ISIS into more than just another jihadist group.
Bakr had something else that proved essential: deep contacts with Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad's military and intelligence services. This allowed him to arrange the unofficial alliance of convenience between ISIS and Assad, as the two tacitly tolerate one another in Syria and fight their mutual enemies there.
As Der Spiegel's Reuter writes, there are unmistakable parallels in the architectures of ISIS and of Saddam's Iraq. "The two systems ultimately shared a conviction that control over the masses should lie in the hands of a small elite that should not be answerable to anyone," he writes. "The secret of [ISIS's] success lies in the combination of opposites, the fanatical beliefs of one group and the strategic calculations of the other."