What is the true ISIS origin story?

The sudden appearance of the group ISIS and the rapid growth in the territory that it holds, coupled with the extraordinary brutality of its methods, has spurred a great deal of interest in its origins and ultimate goals. Is it primarily a political organization with secular territorial goals that uses religion as a unifying and motivating element and brutality as a tactic, or is it a fanatical religious organization that uses the appeal of territorial gains and a new state as the motivating factor?

Christoph Reuter writing in the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel says that they have obtained secret files that show support for the former view and about the brains behind the whole enterprise, a man named Samir Abd Muhammad al-Khlifawi who worked under the pseudonym Haji Bakr and was killed in January 2014. He was one of those people in the Iraqi army who lost his job when Paul Bremer, the US’s viceroy in Iraq after the 2003 invasion, decided that the entire Iraqi army should be summarily disbanded. That stroke of genius resulted in many seasoned military and intelligence officers losing their jobs and plotting to regain power.

The former colonel in the intelligence service of Saddam Hussein’s air defense force had been secretly pulling the strings at IS for years. Former members of the group had repeatedly mentioned him as one of its leading figures. Still, it was never clear what exactly his role was.

But when the architect of the Islamic State died, he left something behind that he had intended to keep strictly confidential: the blueprint for this state. It is a folder full of handwritten organizational charts, lists and schedules, which describe how a country can be gradually subjugated. SPIEGEL has gained exclusive access to the 31 pages, some consisting of several pages pasted together. They reveal a multilayered composition and directives for action, some already tested and others newly devised for the anarchical situation in Syria’s rebel-held territories. In a sense, the documents are the source code of the most successful terrorist army in recent history.

What Bakr put on paper, page by page, with carefully outlined boxes for individual responsibilities, was nothing less than a blueprint for a takeover. It was not a manifesto of faith, but a technically precise plan for an “Islamic Intelligence State” — a caliphate run by an organization that resembled East Germany’s notorious Stasi domestic intelligence agency.

The plan was to have a massive intelligence operation that would know everything about everyone and use that information as a tool for coercion. Religious leaders and mosques would serve the same function.

Those in charge of training the “Sharia judges in intelligence gathering” also reported to the district emir, while a separate department of “security officers” was assigned to the regional emir.

Sharia, the courts, prescribed piety — all of this served a single goal: surveillance and control. Even the word that Bakr used for the conversion of true Muslims, takwini, is not a religious but a technical term that translates as “implementation,” a prosaic word otherwise used in geology or construction

Bakr clearly understood the value of religion in advancing his goals though he himself did not seem very religious. In this he is very similar to political leaders down the centuries who have seen in religion a tool for unifying, pacifying, and inciting the public as needed.

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.

Bakr was “a nationalist, not an Islamist,” says Iraqi journalist Hisham al-Hashimi, as he recalls the former career officer, who was stationed with Hashimi’s cousin at the Habbaniya Air Base. “Colonel Samir,” as Hashimi calls him, “was highly intelligent, firm and an excellent logistician.” But when Paul Bremer, then head of the US occupational authority in Baghdad, “dissolved the army by decree in May 2003, he was bitter and unemployed.”

Thousands of well-trained Sunni officers were robbed of their livelihood with the stroke of a pen. In doing so, America created its most bitter and intelligent enemies.

So the roots of ISIS can be traced right back to the ill-fated invasion of Iraq by the Bush-Cheney regime that overthrew a secular regime and created a massive power vacuum that religious extremism has been used to fill. This is a view that had been argued for before but receives even more support now from these documents, assuming their veracity can be confirmed.


  1. says

    the Bush-Cheney regime that overthrew a secular regime and created a massive power vacuum that religious extremism has been used to fill.

    It wasn’t -just- that, but in a nutshell, yes. The US’ overthrow of Iraq and attack on Iran amounted to the US taking sides in the Sunni/Shiite war that has been going on for centuries. That didn’t just create a power vacuum, it perturbed other relationships throughout the region.

  2. busterggi says

    Well crap, there should have been a spoiler warning that this was about the 4th Avengers movie.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *