For a few months now, the name DAESH (Arabic acronym for ISIS – the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham) has been featured prominently at the top of newscasts worldwide. Since their prompt and surprising takeover of the city of Mosul in northern Iraq and substantial parts of northern, central and western Iraq, where the population is predominately Sunni, and their subsequent domination of a substantial part of north-eastern Syria – where the terrain is mostly desert-like but contains several oil fields as well as the river Euphrates, this organization has become a household name in the Middle East as well as in the western world, to the point of becoming an international threat. President Obama has recently announced the establishment of a coalition that would fight the organization until it is defeated. The countries that already joined this coalition have started launching air strikes against ISIS outposts and the oil reserves the organization had captured.
Reports that had come in and keep coming in from the field describe the exploits of this organization, the killings and atrocities it inflicts on the innocent, be they local civilians or foreign nationals kidnapped in Syria, its successful combat tactics and how it organizes and prepares to manage the territories its forces had dominated and turn them into an Islamic caliphate in the style of the early days of Islam.
All of these reports have raised the question of who this organization really is and who stands behind it. Who plans its moves and how come it has been so successful in its encounters with both the new Iraqi Army that was established, equipped and trained by the US Army pursuant to the capturing of Iraq in the spring of 2003, and the Syrian Army, which is also equipped with weapon systems and equipment that are superior to those ISIS possesses?
Well, the mystery has been resolved recently through information provided by the present Iraqi intelligence services. These services managed to uncover the names of some of the leaders of ISIS, who currently use different pseudonyms and aliases of a religious nature, for reasons of security and to conceal their true identities, and the facts they discovered only verified their suspicions. Apparently, many of the leaders of ISIS are warfighters who had previously served in a ruthless organization known as “Fida’i Saddam”, which was established at the time by Uday, the son of the Iraqi tyrant. These men bequeathed on ISIS the methods of operation employed by the previous organization and its mentality with regard to the murders, killings, destruction and devastation, as was the case during Saddam’s reign, thereby establishing within the new organization elements believing in the “language of blood”. Fellow members of ISIS include former members of Saddam’s intelligence and internal security services, who were widely known for their cruelty toward enemies of the regime.
The leader of ISIS, known as Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi, had also served with “Fida’i Saddam”, where he acquired some important skills. Apparently, his real name is Ibrahim Ibn Awwad Ibrahim al-Badri, from the town of Samarra (hence the nickname al-Samarrai).
“Fida’i Saddam” (meaning “Those who would sacrifice themselves for Saddam”) was a regime-protecting force established in early October 1994 as part of the implementation of the lessons derived pursuant to the massive Shi’ite rebellion that had erupted in Iraq in March 1991, and in view of the persistent threat imposed by the coalition on Iraq and its regime.
The forces of “Fida’i Saddam” deployed in the various provinces were intended to serve as an effective measure of the regime for handling similar cases of rebellion attempts or other serious internal security incidents. The force was subject to the close personal supervision of Saddam Hussein. This was an additional military of sorts, fiercely loyal to the regime and possessing a unique character, engaged in internal security missions in Baghdad and the other major cities. The members of the organization operated against hostile elements that sought to undermine the national economy and security, especially among the Shi’ite population. The men of “Fida’i Saddam” acted against various criminal activities discovered among the armed forces and, among other things, handled the elimination of suspected insurgents.
The force was organized as an independent system headed by a senior officer carrying the rank of major-general (Farik) and the title of chief of staff. He was in charge of command centers, formations and units that operated throughout Iraq. Personnel was based on volunteers who were sorted and selected through the party apparatus. Many of the force’s commanders were servicemen who volunteered to serve with that particular organization. Youngsters recruited to the force received arduous training through special courses conducted at military camps, and were trained in various types of warfare that called for exceptional displays of courage. Units were organized as battalions and brigades and the force even included formations above brigade level. According to western estimates at the time, the “Fida’i Saddam” force had a personnel of several tens of thousands. Members of the force donned unusual attire: they had white and black uniforms and wore masks over their faces.
Like other regime-protection forces, “Fida’i Saddam” were also intended to face external enemies by, among other means, staging self-sacrifice (suicide) operations. In early 2003, prior to Operation Iraqi Freedom, units intended to engage in operations behind enemy lines were established as part of the force. In preparation for the forthcoming war, they even prepared to stage suicide operations against the coalition forces in Kuwait, should Baghdad come under threat. “Fida’i Saddam” even went as far as preparing plans (at least after 1999) for terrorist operations to be staged outside of Iraq – in Iran, in the Kurdish province that was under coalition rule, and even in such European objectives as London.
“Fida’i Saddam” were prepared to execute guerrilla operations. They were trained in commando and sabotage tactics as well as in the use of such unique weapon systems as attack helicopters, Unmanned Airborne Vehicles and boats armed with rockets, all in the context of the special operations warfare to which they had been trained and prepared. During Operation Iraqi Freedom (2003) “Fida’i Saddam” proved themselves as the most audacious and fanatic fighters on the Iraqi side. They fought courageously in the various cities of southern Iraq and attacked the armored columns of the coalition in an attempt to slow down their progress toward Baghdad. During the fighting over Baghdad, they attempted, along with hundreds of volunteers from other Arab countries – and rather unsuccessfully – to block the entrance of the coalition forces into the city, even after the forces of the Iraqi Republican Guard, the force originally responsible for the defense of the capital, were no longer operational. Reportedly, thousands of “Fida’i Saddam” warfighters were killed in those battles.
The collapse of the Iraqi regime did not cause the surviving members of the force to stop fighting. They continued to fight against the occupation forces, mainly in the Sunni-dominated areas, where they had their primary strongholds, and evolved into a major nuisance for the coalition.
Many “Fida’i Saddam” members fled to Syria, where they constituted the nucleus for the establishment of ISIS and took part in the fighting against the Syrian regime.While the “Fida’i Saddam” force was being established, another force, “Ashbal Saddam” (Saddam’s Lion Cubs) was also established in 1994 under Saddam’s son Uday. This organization consisted of units of young volunteers, 10-15 years old, who received military training, including firearms training and even more advanced training, such as the use of helicopters in raiding operations and antitank tactics. They also attended lectures on cultural, political and religious subjects.
The establishment of ISIS pursuant to the capturing of Iraq constitutes yet another tier in the perpetuation of Saddam Hussein’s legacy, like the establishment of the “Army of the Men of the Naqshbandi Order” (JRTN) by Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, Saddam’s Vice President, and members of the Ba’ath party. These “successors” set as their goal the return to power in Iraq, which, since the capturing of Iraq, has been entrusted to the Shi’ite community, and the establishment of a new state in the region – “The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham”.
Now, under the ISIS name, they have substantially expanded the boundaries of their vision, and their future state extends to any territory that was ever under Islamic rule, but their topmost priority remains Iraq and at its heart – Baghdad. Hence the punishing of the Iraqi and Kurdish Shi’ites for their rebelliousness and for seizing power pursuant to the fall of Saddam. Jordan, Israel, Assad, the Saudis, the Egyptians and all the rest will have to “wait” patiently until it is their turn.
Professor Amatzia Baram is the Head of the Center for Iraq Studies at the University of Haifa
Colonel (res.) Pesach Malovany served with the IDF Intelligence Directorate in various intelligence collection and analysis positions. He is currently engaged in research on the Arab military forces as an independent researcher