Former Saddam officers form the core of a rampant ISIS horde

If there was ever any reasonable doubt about the morality of removing Saddam Hussein in 2003, it should have vanished with the revelation, last week, that between 100 and 160 former Baathist military and security officials of the Iraqi regime hold high-level positions in the ISIS terror-state metastasizing in Iraq and Syria.

"It's clear that some of these (Saddam-era officers) must have been inside the core of the jihadist movement in the Sunni triangle from the beginning," said Michael W.S. Ryan, a former senior officer at the State Department and Pentagon.   Saddam regime veterans also serve as the "governors" for seven of the 12 "provinces" set up by the Islamic State group in the territory it holds in Iraq.

 As ISIS morphed from a terrorist organization to an oil-pumping proto-state last year, the former regime officers of Iraq turned out to be crucial in giving this villainous horde the battlefield experience, complete with suicide bombings, chemical weapons training, and rank-and-file discipline it needed to overrun huge land areas in both Syria and Iraq.

Under the leadership of the former U.S. Camp Bucca prisoner Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, whose latest atrocity included ordering the murder of 19 young women who refused to have sex with his fighters, four members of the seven-member Military Council of ISIS are actually former officers of the Saddam regime.  The group's second-in-command, al-Baghdadi's deputy, is a Saddam-era army major, Saud Mohsen Hassan.

These secular-religious ties go back a long way.  The American prison of Camp Bucca, during the Iraqi insurgency, held the most violent and irredeemable fighters, and it turned out to be a toxic incubator for a merger between Baathist and religious extremism.   Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was arrested by U.S. forces on February 2, 2004, near Fallujah and was detained there as a "civilian internee" until December 2004, when he was recommended for release by a Review Board as a "low-level prisoner" without ties to the regime.  After all, secular Baathists and religious Arabs would never hatch and execute plots together, the CIA had repeatedly claimed.

Al-Baghdadi’s deputy, Saud Hassan, was also imprisoned in Ward 6 of Camp Bucca, where he came into contact with former Saddamite officers, including members of the elite Republican Guard and the paramilitary force called Fedayeen Saddam.  When both were detained in Ward 6, al-Baghdadi and Hassan gave sermons and plotted strikes with the ex-officers of the Baathist regime to gain concessions from the American jailers, including releases.

But releasing these men was a mistake.  Now, many years later, ISIS is seen by many in the U.S. intelligence community as developing the ability to carry out mass casualty attacks in the Middle East and beyond, using its new recruits as suicide bombers.  And al-Baghdadi and Hassan seem to have an endless supply of new recruits, many with Western passports.  Western intelligence currently estimates the total number of ISIS fighters only roughly – between 20,000 and 30,000, it is said, about the same numbers as existed when the U.S.-led Coalition air campaign began exactly one year ago.  This is not because the Coalition campaign, known as Operation Inherent Resolve, hasn’t killed many people – it has – but rather because ISIS has recouped its losses through new recruitment.  ISIS, with the essential help of Saddam’s Baathist progeny, has stalemated the West’s efforts.

But what can be done?  Despite the presence of about 3,550 American soldiers in Iraq, helping to build “partner capacities” and “assisting” in the training of Iraqi soldiers, none of our troops is spotting ISIS targets on the ground for airstrikes.  The entire Coalition campaign against ISIS is based on air-based targeting intelligence using satellites, drones, and manned aircraft.  This severe limitation completely explains why ISIS has lost, by the Obama administration’s own estimates, only about 30% of its control of terrain after an entire year of Coalition bombing that included 5,900 sorties.

Most of the Western airstrikes seem to hit individual ISIS vehicles, including armored and un-armored trucks, roadside bomb factories, and “fighting positions” – when they can be identified from the air.  Although its capability to do so has been severely degraded, ISIS is still drilling and selling oil.  It is, of course, still terrorizing the local population with mass and gruesome murders.  But for reasons of cost, logistics, intelligence processing, or all three, the Coalition seems to be able to handle a mission tempo of only a handful of airstrikes every few days.  While this has been enough to stop ISIS’s net overall expansion of terrain, it has manifestly not been enough to roll it back to any significant extent.  We are treading water.

And so ISIS has had the time to begin focusing more on acts of terror directed at the Iraqi government.  Saddam’s former officers, specially trained by the old regime in the dark arts of internal repression, have trained the ISIS terror-leaders in “classic intelligence infiltration ... they actually literally have sleeper cells," said Patrick Skinner, a former CIA case officer with Iraq experience.  "And they do classic assassinations, which depends on intelligence," he added, citing an orgy of assassinations in 2013 that slaughtered Iraqi police, military, tribal leaders, and members of a government-supported Sunni militia called Sahwa.  

It is high time the West intensified its own tempo of attacks, including the use of ground-based targeting spotters, lest the ISIS cancer show up on our own shores in a spectacular Day of Wrath, made possible by the sinister merger of secular and religious violence.

Christopher S. Carson, an attorney, holds a master’s in national security studies.

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