Saddam Did Not Create ISIS

Getting the Terrorist Group's Origin Story Right

An Islamic State (ISIS) fighter holds an ISIS flag on a street in the city of Mosul, Iraq, June 23, 2014. Reuters

In his recent response to an article we wrote in Foreign Affairs, Amatzia Baram contests our claim that former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein did not promote Islamism in Iraq. Baram’s criticisms are based on his book, Saddam Husayn and Islam, and subsequent analyses of the topic, which posit that the policies of Saddam’s regime eventually gave us the Islamic State (ISIS). One of Baram’s key arguments is:

Even if Helfont and Brill accurately interpreted what was said within the party itself, they misunderstood the public face of the regime’s beliefs, or what it presented as its beliefs—critical evidence supporting Saddam’s Islamization efforts between 1993 and 2003.

That point is crucial. Whatever the Baath leadership may have said internally or even publicly against Islamism, what ultimately influenced the Iraqi Sunni population the most were Saddam’s actual policies and how they were conveyed to the public.

But the notoriously closed nature of Saddam’s regime meant that without access to the millions of pages of internal regime records available at the Hoover Institution archives, researchers outside Iraq had an incomplete picture of what the regime “presented as its beliefs” to its population. These archives provide detailed documentation not only on internal discussions and reasoning, but also on “Saddam’s actual policies and how they were conveyed to the public.” Furthermore, it is one thing to dismiss the importance of sources after consulting them. It is quite another matter to dismiss sources without consulting them, especially when there is general agreement that they contradict one’s argument. Baram has not visited the Hoover archives himself, and yet, he disregards the importance of the archival work upon which our piece was based, claiming that we “put too much weight on the archives” and that we “ignore” open source records on the regime. For one thing, that is simply not true. Our work is also informed by and cites previously available open sources and the generation of scholarship based on them,

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