New Document Cache Shows the Real Roots of ISIS Are as Much Secular as Religious


Spiegel has quite a fascinating report this week about the origins and growth of ISIS. It’s a great counterpoint to Graeme Wood’s Atlantic piece from February that focused on the Islamic and theological roots of ISIS and the territorial ambitions of its self-appointed caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

But it turns out that this is far from the whole story. According to Christopher Reuter, a recently discovered cache of documents shows that the founding architect of ISIS was actually Haji Bakr, the pseudonym of Samir Abd Muhammad al-Khlifawi, a former colonel in the intelligence service of Saddam Hussein’s air defense force. Bakr, who lost his job and his power in 2003 when Paul Bremer made the decision to disband the Iraqi army, was the real mastermind behind ISIS. In dozens of detailed pages written in 2012, he laid out an organizational plan for the kind of pervasive, brutally efficient spy state he knew best:

It seemed as if George Orwell had been the model for this spawn of paranoid surveillance. But it was much simpler than that. Bakr was merely modifying what he had learned in the past: Saddam Hussein’s omnipresent security apparatus, in which no one, not even generals in the intelligence service, could be certain they weren’t being spied on.

….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.

So the roots of ISIS are purely pragmatic: Bakr wanted to build an organization that could retake Iraq, and he calculated that this could best be done by combining the secular mechanisms of Saddam Hussein with the religious fanaticism of an Al Qaeda. The whole piece is well worth a read.