Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Saddam’s ISIS?: The Terrorist Group’s Real Origin Story

Saddam’s ISIS?: The Terrorist Group’s Real Origin Story

The Islamic State (also known as ISIS) might be led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and may have emerged out of al Qaeda in Iraq, but the question of who exactly is responsible for the group’s rise is still debated. One increasingly popular argument places the blame on the former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. As blogger Kyle W. Orton wrote recently in The New York Times, “Those who assumed leadership roles in the Islamic State’s military council had been radicalized earlier, under Mr. Hussein’s regime.” Before Orton, Liz Sly ofThe Washington Post portrayed Saddam as an Islamist, based on the revitalization of Islamic practices during his 1993 Faith Campaign, and even argued that he promoted Salafism, the rigid brand of Islam practiced by ISIS. Amatzia Baram, who wrote a book about Saddam and his relationship with Islam from 1968 to 2003, has since stated that Baghdadi “is Saddam’s creation.”

These depictions are inaccurate and dangerously misleading, as documents in the Iraqi archives and at Hoover Institution’s Ba’ath Party records make clear. Our rigorous study of those records has found no evidence that Saddam or his Baathist regime in Iraq displayed any sympathy for Islamism, Salafism, or Wahhabism. Proponents of the Islamization narrative have attempted to distinguish between the latter two terms, arguing that the regime supported Salafism but not Wahhabism. Yet the Baathist regime used these two terms synonymously and were equally antagonistic toward them. In one instance, Saddam referred to “the Wahhabi movement” in his comments on a report about a “study of the Salafi religious phenomenon.” Saddam also made clear his general aversion to any form of Islamization of his regime, particularly in a landmark speech in 1996, in which he attacked Islamists and the “two-faced” men of religion. He was particularly critical of religious arguments that denied the need for Arab unity and instead called for Islamic unity. Saddam rejected this outright, stating that “it is not permissible to be fooled by this ruse.” He noted that the regime saw itself as more ideologically aligned with the “new generation” of “Nasserists in Egypt and Yemen whose call is based on the sincere foundation . . . of nationalism and fighting for it.” Arab nationalism, not Islamism, continued to guide the regime’s policies, even on religious issues. The regime’s records show that Saddam’s speech was read aloud to every Baath Party member and was intended to be the basis of the regime’s policies toward religious actors.

Our findings fall in line with other major works that involve research in the Iraqi Baath Party archives. For example, the scholars Joseph Sassoonand Aaron Faust found that the regime had no sympathy for any type of Salafist or Islamist. Sassoon notes that in 2001, the minister of endowments and religious affairs “held a meeting attended by academics, religious leaders, and representatives from the different security organizations to discuss Wahhabism—how to fight it and how to show that its teachings had nothing to do with real Islam.” Similarly, Faust writes, “Throughout the 1990s, the Baath banned Sunni Islamists’ books; removed Sunni Islamists as preachers and imams when they discovered the imams’ Islamist leanings; did not allow Islamists to teach in religious schools; and disqualified them from entrance into the military, teaching, and other secular academies.”

One of the key arguments in support of the “Saddam gave us ISIS” line is that veterans of Saddam’s…

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