By Isabel Coles and Ned Parker, Reuters, December 13 2015:… By 2014, the Baathists and the jihadists were back to being allies. As Islamic State fighters swept through central Iraq, they were joined by the Army of the Men of the Naqshbandi Order, a group of Baathist fighters. The Naqshbandi and smaller groups of Saddam-era officers made up the majority of …
How Saddam’s men help Islamic State rule
From military forces to spying, former Baathists are a powerful factor in the rise and control of Islamic State. A look inside the group’s surveillance operation shows how
MALA QARA, Iraq – Mohannad is a spy for Islamic State. He eavesdrops on chatter in the street markets of Mosul and reports back to his handlers when someone breaks the militant group’s rules. One man he informed on this year – a street trader defying a ban on selling cigarettes – was fined and tortured by Islamic State fighters, according to a friend of Mohannad’s family. If the trader did not stop, his torturers told the man, they would kill him.
Mohannad is paid $20 for every offender he helps to catch.
He is 14.
The teenager is one cog in the intelligence network Islamic State has put in place since it seized vast stretches of Iraq and neighbouring Syria. Informers range from children to battle-hardened fighters. Overseeing the network are former army and intelligence officers, many of whom helped keep former Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein and his Baath Party in power for years.
Saddam-era officers have been a powerful factor in the rise of Islamic State, in particular in the Sunni militant group’s victories in Iraq last year. Islamic State then out-muscled the Sunni-dominated Baath Party and absorbed thousands of its followers. The new recruits joined Saddam-era officers who already held key posts in Islamic State.
The Baathists have strengthened the group’s spy networks and battlefield tactics and are instrumental in the survival of its self-proclaimed Caliphate, according to interviews with dozens of people, including Baath leaders, former intelligence and military officers, Western diplomats and 35 Iraqis who recently fled Islamic State territory for Kurdistan.
Of Islamic State’s 23 portfolios – equivalent to ministries – former Saddam regime officers run three of the most crucial: security, military and finance, according to Hisham al-Hashimi, an Iraqi analyst who has worked with the Iraqi government.
Iraq’s Finance Minister Hoshyar Zebari, a Kurd who spent years opposing Saddam’s regime, said the ex-Baathists working with Islamic State provide the group with highly effective guidance on explosives, strategy and planning. “They know who is who, family by family, name by name,” he said.
“The fingerprints of the old Iraqi state are clear on their work. You can feel it,” one former senior security official in the Baath Party said.
In many ways, it is a union of convenience. Most former Baathist officers have little in common with Islamic State. Saddam promoted Arab nationalism and secularism for most of his rule.
But many of the ex-Baathists working with Islamic State are driven by self preservation and a shared hatred of the Shi’ite-led government in Baghdad. Others are true believers who became radicalised in the early years after Saddam’s ouster, converted on the battlefield or in U.S. military and Iraqi prisons.
One former intelligence commander who served in Iraq’s national intelligence service from 2003 to 2009 said some ex-Baathists pushed out of state agencies by Iraq’s government were only too happy to find new masters. “ISIS pays them,” he said.
A few Sunni lawmakers hope that former Saddam-era officers might be persuaded to abandon their Islamic State allies. But a senior official close to Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said dealing with them was difficult because the Baathists are so deeply split, with some supporting Islamic State and some opposed. “Who are they?” he asked. “Some wave olive branches. Others still wave a gun.”
BAGHDAD: Hoshyar Zebari, now Iraq’s finance minister, says former Baathists provide Islamic State with “highly effective guidance.” REUTERS/Thaier al-Sudani
A spokesman for Abadi, Saad al-Hadithi, said the Iraqi government opposes negotiations with the Baath Party. “There is no space for them in the political process,” he said. “They are banned under the constitution.”
TURNING POINT IN TIKRIT
Baathists began collaborating with al Qaeda in Iraq – the early incarnation of what would become Islamic State – soon after Saddam Hussein was ousted in 2003. Saddam had run a brutal police state. The U.S. occupation dissolved the Baath Party and barred senior and even middling party officials from joining the new security services. Some left the country, others joined the anti-American insurgency.
But then the Baathists and jihadists disagreed over who should be in charge. Many ex-Baathists struck an alliance with the U.S. military and turned on the jihadists.
By 2014, the Baathists and the jihadists were back to being allies. As Islamic State fighters swept through central Iraq, they were joined by the Army of the Men of the Naqshbandi Order, a group of Baathist fighters.
The Naqshbandi and smaller groups of Saddam-era officers made up the majority of fighters in the initial stages of last year’s military onslaught, according to Sunni tribal leaders, Baathists and an Iraqi security commander. It was the Naqshbandi who rallied locals in Mosul to rise up against Baghdad, and who planned and commanded many of last year’s military advances, according to Iraqi officials and Abdul al-Samad al-Ghrairy, a senior official in what’s left of the Baath Party.
Within days, though, Islamic State “took the revolution from us,” said Ghrairy. “We couldn’t sustain the battle.”
In Tikrit, Islamic State fighters opened a jail and released up to 200 followers. More Islamic State fighters poured into the city, many of them with heavy machine guns. These men “took all the army’s weapons and didn’t give the Naqshabandi any. They kicked them aside,” a senior security official in Salahuddin said.
FIGHT BACK: Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi touring the city of Tikrit after Iraq security forces regained control from Islamic State militants on April 1, 2015. REUTERS/Stringer
Soon after the fall of Tikrit in June 2014, leaders from the main factions of the Sunni rebellion met in the house of a Baath Party member. According to the senior security official, Tikrit tribal leaders and Baath officials, Islamic State told Baathists they had a choice: Join us or stand down. Some Baathists abandoned the revolt. Others stayed, swelling the ranks of Islamic State with mid-level security veterans.
That has boosted Islamic State’s firepower and tactical prowess. “This is not the al Qaeda we fought before,” said a prominent Sunni from Mosul who battled Islamic State’s forerunners. “Their tactics are different. These are men educated in military staff college. They are ex-army leaders. They are not simple minds, but men with real experience.”
Both Ghrairy and Khudair Murshidy, the Baath Party’s official spokesman, told Reuters that the party’s armed wing is frozen in the aftermath of its defeat. Islamic State, they added, had killed some 600 Baath supporters and Naqshbandi fighters. “Their policy is to kill everyone, destroy everyone,” Murshidy said. “They create fear and death everywhere and control areas. Many people have joined them now. At first they were a few hundred, now they are maybe more than 50,000.”
“THE WALLS HAVE EARS”
Emma Sky, a former adviser to the U.S. military, believes Islamic State has effectively subsumed the Baathists. “The mustached officers have grown religious beards. I think many have genuinely become religious,” she said.
Among the most high profile Baathists to join Islamic State are Ayman Sabawi, the son of Saddam Hussein’s half brother, and Raad Hassan, Saddam’s cousin, said the senior Salahuddin security official and several tribal leaders. Both were children during Saddam’s time, but the family connection is powerfully symbolic.
More senior officers now in Islamic State include Walid Jasim (aka Abu Ahmed al-Alwani) who was a captain of intelligence in Saddam’s time, and Fadhil al-Hiyala (aka Abu Muslim al-Turkmani) whom some believe was a deputy to Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi until he was killed in an airstrike earlier this year.
The group’s multi-layered security and intelligence agencies in Mosul, the biggest city in northern Iraq, are overseen by an agency called Amniya – literally ‘Security’. The agency has six branches, each responsible for maintaining a different aspect of security.
The overall head of Amniya in Iraq and Syria is a former Saddam-era intelligence officer from Fallujah called Ayad Hamid al-Jumaili, who joined the Sunni insurgency after the U.S.-led invasion and now answers directly to Baghdadi, according to Hashimi, the analyst.
A vice squad known as Hisba enforces order on the streets. Hisba officers punish everyone from cigarette traders to women not fully covered. They also run a network of informants, placing children such as 14-year-old Mohannad in mosques and markets, and women at funerals and family gatherings, according to residents of Mosul.
“The work of these children is rewarded with gifts or small cash prizes,” said the former intelligence officer. “Women, on the other hand, are recruited mostly from (Islamic State) families and they gather information for no reward.” The repression has become so intense in Mosul, residents said, people have revived a phrase used in Saddam’s era: “The walls have ears.”
Interviews with 35 men who recently escaped from Islamic State-held villages around Mosul offer rare details of what is happening inside Islamic State territory. Reuters sat in on debriefings of the men by Staff Lieutenant Colonel Surood Abdel Salal, a Kurdish intelligence official at a base behind the frontline south of Erbil. Most of those questioned were former members of the Iraqi security forces defeated by Islamic State in Mosul.
DISCARDED: A vehicle belonging to Iraqi security forces outside Mosul the day after Sunni insurgents seized control of the city in June last year. REUTERS/Stringer
The 35 men described a life of increasing deprivation under Islamic State and a climate of paranoia in which they could trust no-one, even their own relatives.
One man in Mosul told Reuters his brother had been executed in early October after he cursed Islamic State and the Caliphate while arguing with his son, who wanted to join the group. “My brother’s shouting was heard by the neighbours. During that time there was a group of children who were playing in front of the house,” said the man. “Not a week had passed and my brother was arrested on charges of cursing God and the Islamic State.”
Islamic State execution squads often arrive in a large bus with tinted windows, another resident said. Police seal off streets surrounding the place where a killing is to be carried out. Men dressed in black with balaclavas either shoot people, or behead them with swords.
The bodies of those deemed to have committed the worst offences – cursing God or the group – are thrown in an area called al-Khafsa, a deep natural crater in the desert just south of Mosul, residents in the city said. Those killed for lesser crimes are returned to their families wrapped in a blanket.
A WEB OF INFORMANTS
In September, according to several of the men who fled, Islamic State’s Amniya agency rounded up around 400 former members of Iraq’s security forces and executed them. Families of those dumped in al-Khafsa were then sent a kind of receipt to notify them of the execution. Among those who described the massacre was a 21-year-old from a village east of Mosul whose cousin’s corpse was returned on the second day of the Muslim Feast of Sacrifice. “They brought it wrapped in a blanket with three bullet wounds,” he said.
Some of the 35 escapees said people are banned from leaving Islamic State territory; those caught leaving are routinely killed. Two escapees recounted the fate of a group of men who tried to leave recently. Islamic State caught them and executioners dropped a concrete blast wall on top of them. The killing was filmed and replayed on large screens the militants have erected in public spaces. According to the fugitives’ testimony, Islamic State has embedded itself in almost every village, converting the homes of former Iraqi military officers into bases and creating a web of informants. Mobile phones are banned as is access to the Internet.
RESCUED: Policeman Saad Khalaf Ali, one of 69 hostages rescued from Islamic State in a raid by U.S. and Kurdish special forces in October. REUTERS/Azad Lashkari
“They had an informant in each area who said so-and-so didn’t go to prayers,” said Fathi, a 30-year-old former policeman from a village east of Mosul. Many of the escapees had been on the run for months, carefully avoiding Islamic State checkpoints, especially those equipped with laptops the militants use to look up names on a database. Some hid in woodland along the Tigris River. Ahmed, 32, said he was wanted by Islamic State for belonging to a tribal militia that fought the insurgents before the fall of Mosul. He said he had not been home for months because he feared one of his young daughters would betray his presence. “Maybe someone will come and ask my children (where I am) and they don’t know any better,” he said.
Local Islamic State leaders send their own children out as scouts, some of the escapees said. One man said the militants paid cigarette sellers to inform on their customers. So pervasive is Islamic State’s surveillance network that even at home people cannot let their guard down, according to 31-year-old policeman Saad Khalaf Ali. He was arrested and accused of speaking against the militants. He denied it, but the militants produced footage of him in his own home saying he wished for government forces to retake the area. The video had been secretly filmed by a boy from the village, the policeman said. “They take advantage of small children most of all because people don’t suspect them.”
Ali begged the militants for forgiveness and was released. But they detained him again several months later on charges of informing Kurdish and Iraqi forces about Islamic State positions. This time, he said, his own nephew and a cousin informed on him. He would have been executed but for a joint raid by American and Kurdish Special Forces in October which rescued him and 68 others.
It will be difficult for Baghdad to lure away ex-Baathists and Saddam-era officers working with Islamic State. The Iraqi government itself is bogged down by internal divisions, while the parts of the Baath party that have not joined Islamic State cannot agree on whether they want talks, or even who should represent them.
Meantime the war drags on.
In October, Baghdad created a special office to share intelligence between Iraq, Iran, Russia and the Syrian government. That office is providing Iraq’s airforce with information on Islamic State positions. Baghdad has also stepped up efforts to squeeze Islamic State financially by attacking oil facilities, pressuring businessmen who have helped the militants, and stopping salaries to government employees in areas under Islamic State rule.
Iraqi Finance Minister Zebari said Islamic State in Mosul had responded by “extorting more money from the public. They are going more towards criminal actions and kidnapping.” The group’s surveillance network is testament to its resourcefulness and ability to survive.
After his release from prison, Ahmed al-Tai’i, the cigarette salesman reported by 14-year-old Mohannad, confronted the boy’s father. The father admitted that Islamic State militants had paid Mohannad and other youngsters to help them, according to a friend of Tai’i.
The cigarette salesman says his arrest and imprisonment have left him paranoid. “Since I left prison a constant fear has lived with me. If I want to say or do something that contravenes the orders and instructions of Islamic State I look around to check there is nobody, even my friends, and especially small children,” he said. “I have lost trust in everyone around me.”
SADDAM’S GHOST: One of the thousands of pictures of former president Saddam Hussein that once dotted the country. This painting was in Tikrit in 2007, four years after Saddam’s fall. REUTERS/Nuhad Hussin
Coles reported from Mala Qara and Parker from Erbil. Additional reporting by Ahmed Rasheed, Stephen Kalin and Michael Georgy in Baghdad and Phil Stewart in Washington: Editing by Michael Georgy and Simon Robinson
UANI, Joe Lieberman and the MEK (Mojahedin Khalq)
Ali Gharib, Lobelog, August 12 2015:… As far back as 2008, Lieberman was joking—yes, joking, as if this were a laughing matter—about the “appeal” of bombing Iran. In a 2010 speech to the Council on Foreign Relations that re-purposed many of the talking points Lieberman had used to push for the invasion of Iraq, he spoke of a six-month deadline—six months! …
UANI, Joe Lieberman and the MEK (Mojahedin Khalq)
I only have a few words to add to Jim’s post about United Against a Nuclear Iran naming Joe Lieberman as its new president. Those words are: Mojahedin-e Khalq. That’s the ex-terrorist Iranian opposition group, often known as the MEK, that has campaigned tirelessly for decades for regime change in Iran, and Joe Lieberman is one of their favorite advocates in Washington.
Here’s a bit of something I wrote in June about Lieberman’s positions on Iran and the MEK:
As far back as 2008, Lieberman was joking—yes, joking, as if this were a laughing matter—about the “appeal” of bombing Iran. In a 2010 speech to the Council on Foreign Relations that re-purposed many of the talking points Lieberman had used to push for the invasion of Iraq, he spoke of a six-month deadline—six months! in 2010!—for Iran to roll back its nuclear program before the U.S. had to seriously consider a military strike.
Lieberman’s been at it since then, too. In 2012, he said that a military strike could cause Iran’s nuclear program to “be delayed for enough years that we may hope and pray that there will be a regime change.” And that is the central point of Lieberman’s advocacy: he wants a U.S. policy of regime change. Just this month, he participated by video in a confab of the Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK), the ex-terrorist Iranian opposition group that relentlessly pushes for regime change.
“Inevitably,” Lieberman addressed the MEK members directly, “as individuals you may ask yourself: Is it possible that we can bring about a change of regime in Iran? And I want to say to you that it is. I’m confident that it is and it will happen.” The US, he said, “should be working closely with your resistance group.” The event was even the subject of a “sponsored report“—whatever that means—from The Washington Times that helpfully categorized Lieberman’s statements as “American support for regime change and the Iranian opposition.”
I mention this because of the raft of deal opponents who just won’t stop insisting that actually they don’t want war with Iran, they just want a “better deal.” If that’s the case, they ought to stop naming Joe Lieberman to prominent positions in their organizations. As it stands now, the hawkish former Democrat holds positions in several major anti-deal groups in Washington. Jim noted his roles at theAIPAC anti-deal spin-off (which has also promoted MEK materials in its advertisements), the American Enterprise Institute, and the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, adding to that now his elevation from advisory board member at UANI to being its leader.
Fellow board members who actually support the Iran nuclear deal, such as Graham Allison and its Lieberman’s immediate predecessor, Gary Samore, might take note.
But hawkishness on Iran is a matter apart from support for the MEK. The group is reviled in Iran; it has launched terrorist attacks there; many impartial analysts have described it as a cult. Eli and I have already written about UANI’s targeting of legal humanitarian trade with Iran, and how it belies its professed solidarity with the Iranian people. Now, we can add UANI’s promotion of a pro-MEK hawk to that score. What’s worse, though, is the group’s elevation of a man who has such a cavalier attitude toward war with Iran and who wants official US policy toward the Islamic Republic to be regime change.
We’ve seen this move before with the Iraq war, and UANI seems determined to have Joe Lieberman, who, as Jim noted, was Honorary Co-Chair of the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq, return to star in the sequel.
About the Author
Ali Gharib is a New York-based journalist on U.S. foreign policy with a focus on the Middle East and Central Asia. His work has appeared at Inter Press Service, where he was the Deputy Washington Bureau Chief; the Buffalo Beast; Huffington Post; Mondoweiss; Right Web; and Alternet. He holds a Master’s degree in Philosophy and Public Policy from the London School of Economics and Political Science. A proud Iranian-American and fluent Farsi speaker, Ali was born in California and raised in D.C.
Poe’s Financial Ties To MEK May Explain Maryam’s House Testimony
Eli Clifton, Lobelog, April 30 2015:…The group, which went into exile after losing a violent power struggle in the early years of the Islamic Republic, aligned itself with Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war and, despite claims to being Iran’s viable democratic government in exile, is widely believed to have little …
Poe’s Financial Ties To MEK May Explain Maryam’s House Testimony
Wednesday’s scheduled congressional hearing on “ISIS: Defining the Enemy” is rapidly shrinking in size. Two key witnesses are refusing to attend due to the invitation to testify that Ted Poe (R-TX), the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Terrorism, extended to Maryam Rajavi, leader of the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq (MEK).
Former U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford and former State Department counterterrorism director Daniel Benjamin have both said that they won’t appear for the hearing after learning that Rajavi would also be a witness on the same panel. She is scheduled to participate via videoconference from Paris, the headquarters the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), a MEK front.
MEK, which the State Department removed from terrorism list in 2012 following a lengthy and expensive lobbying campaign, is believed to have been responsible for the killing of six Americans in Iran between 1973 and 1976.
The group, which went into exile after losing a violent power struggle in the early years of the Islamic Republic, aligned itself with Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war and, despite claims to being Iran’s viable democratic government in exile, is widely believed to have little or no grassroots support in Iran. The group has long faced criticism from Iran specialists and rights groups such as Human Rights Watch that it has devolved into a cult based on devotion to Maryam and her long-missing husband, Massoud Rajavi. According to numerous accounts, the group exerts a high degree of control over its followers, going so far as to mandate divorces and celibacy for their soldiers.
But, as Ali Gharib and I documented in February, MEK’s influence in Washington, particularly with Iran hawks, has coincided with a flow of money from the group to American politicians, in particular, to embattled Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) who is currently under indictment on unrelated federal corruption charges.
So why did Poe and the Republican majority on the terrorism subcommittee decide to invite Rajavi (a copy of whose testimony was obtained by Ali who previewed it Tuesday on The Nation’s website) Campaign finances may offer at least part of the answer.
Poe received $17,900 in campaign contributions from supporters of the MEK between 2009 and 2014, according to an analysis I conducted of campaign finance data. Surprisingly, nearly half—or $8,600—of the total flowed into his campaign while the group was still on the State Department’s terrorism list between 2009 and its delisting in 2012.
In contrast, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), returned a $2,600 campaign contribution from a MEK supporter in Virginia in 2013. “During routine due diligence by campaign staff, it was discovered that a few donors had associations the campaign was uncomfortable with,” a spokesman for Graham’s campaign told Politico. “In an abundance of caution, the contributions were refunded.”
Poe seems less concerned about the association. His insistence on inviting Rajavi adds to the irony of his chairmanship of the terrorism subcommittee (shades of Sen. James Inhofe’s chairmanship of the Senate Environment Committee).
With Ford and Benjamin out, Rajavi will be joined on Wednesday by only one other witness: Walid Phares, a pro-Israel Lebanese-American Maronite Christian with a long association with hard-line neo-conservatives and a terrorism “expert” for Fox News. During Lebanon’s civil war that raged from 1975 through the 1980’s, Phares served as an ideologue for the Lebanese Forces, an umbrella group of various Christian militias. Some of these militias carried out the Sabra and Shatila massacres in September, 1982, in which at many as 3,000 Palestinians—mostly women, children and the elderly—were killed following Israel’s conquest of Beirut. Among other positions, he served as co-chairman of the Middle East working group of Mitt Romney’s foreign policy advisory team.
Paulo Casaca, Struan Stevenson and Alejo Vidal-Quadras lost their seats as MEPs over support for terrorism
European MEK Supporters Downplay ISIS Role in Iraq (aka Mojahedin Khalq, MKO, NCRI, Rajavi cult)
Press TV, October 30 2015:… Three Iraqi soldiers guarding the camp were also killed and at least 16 others wounded during the rocket attack, according to Iraqi police. In an interview with Fars news agency on Friday, Wathiq al-Battat, the leader of Iraq-based Mukhtar Army, claimed responsibility for the rocket attacks.In December 2011, the United Nations (UN) …
VIVIAN SALAMA, The Associated Press, Baghdad, October 29 2015:… A barrage of rockets slammed late Thursday into a former military base near the Baghdad International Airport that houses an Iranian refugee group, killing three Iraqi soldiers, officials said. The Iranian exiles said at least 20 of their people died in the attack. Iraqi police said 16 rockets …
Mazda Parsi, Nejat bloggers, October 29 2015:… While members of the Mujahedin Khalq Organization (the MKO) are undergoing unstable days of striving in a declining cult-like dissident group, US senators, paid by the MKO lobbies, wonder where the leader of the cult, Massoud Rajavi is. In an October7th, hearing before the US Senate committee on Armed …