Saddam's ISIS?

The Terrorist Group's Real Origin Story

Saddam Hussein addresses the court during his trial in Baghdad, Iraq, February 14, 2006. Chris Hondros / Reuters

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 of The 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

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