Over the weekend, in what the Telegraph described as "a potential sign of the fraying of the Sunni insurgent alliance that has overrun vast stretches of territory north of Baghdad in less than two weeks," a deadly firefight broke out west of Kirkuk, Iraq, between members of the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham and a rival insurgent group called Jaysh Rijal al-Tariq al-Naqshbandi, or the Army of the Men of the Naqshbandi. JRTN now represents the main obstacle to ISIS’s creation of an Islamic caliphate spanning Iraq and Syria, and is most likely being led by Saddam Hussein’s old friend Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, the King of Clubs from the infamous deck of cards of most-wanted Iraqis—that is, if he's not dead.
Born in 1942, Douri came from Dawr, a town of 35,000 people on the east bank of the Tigris and just 20 miles from Hussein’s birthplace (and burial place) of Al-Awja. Growing up poor, Douri worked for an ice-seller as a boy but quickly turned to violent revolutionary politics in his late teenage years. He worked alongside Hussein, who, being a few years older, was Douri’s mentor. They both served in the intelligence and peasantry offices of the Baath Party and later spent time in jail together after the Baath’s brief seizure of power in 1963. Douri remained as Hussein’s eyes and ears in Iraq while Hussein was abroad for the five years preceding the Baathist return to power in 1968.
Back in power, Douri and Hussein picked up where they left off—as inseparable partners. Douri was rewarded for his loyalty by inheriting Hussein’s prior position, the vice presidency and deputy chairmanship of the Iraqi Revolutionary Command Council. Until Hussein's capture in 2003, Douri served as his most trusted deputy, always careful not to threaten Hussein's position. The Douris consistently backed Hussein, and the two families even merged for a time. In a show of loyalty, Douri consented to marry his daughter to Hussein’s eldest son, the infamous sadist Uday. As Iraqi tribal expert Amatzia Baram told me years ago, Douri’s sway with Hussein was so substantial that he could even levy a condition—that the union would not be consummated—and later made a successful petition that his daughter be permitted to divorce Hussein’s homicidal offspring.
But aside from keeping Hussein happy and in charge, Douri also had a personal project, a patronage network that he jealously guarded for himself. The name of that network was the Men of the Naqshbandi.
The Naqshbandi is a Sufi Islamic religious order associated with dervish mystics capable of entering deep trances. My research inside and outside Iraq showed that a strand of Iraq’s Naqshbandis had used the movement as a political and business fellowship—somewhat similar to freemasonry—to advance their joint interests. The order cultivated Douri as their sponsor, and he was rushed through the process of confirmation as a Naqshbandi sheikh, officially connecting his spiritual lineage directly to the Islamic prophet Muhammad. Douri initiated numerous military families into the Naqshbandi order from the 1980s onward.
Douri and the Naqshbandi kept a low profile after Hussein’s fall, until he was hung by Shia militiamen on December 30, 2006. Thereafter Douri took full command, publicly announcing the activation of JRTN as a militant group.
Confusion greeted the emergence of the Sufi insurgent group, and it took international analysts some time to make sense of the movement. I recall talking with Kurdish intelligence men and marveling at their descriptions of an exotic new group that employed “Sufi dervish snipers.” In fact JRTN was led primarily by former Republican Guard officers with connections to Douri. They built military-style boot camps, had a recognizable military organizational chart, and they were serious about operational security. These were guys who didn’t want to get caught and who were in it for the long-term.
One intelligence officer confided to me that JRTN were “one of the least ‘interfered with’ terrorist groupings” in Iraq because Sunni civilians and even local police accepted the Naqshbandi as legitimate rebels. And if JRTN did have a problem with the locals, they sub-contracted mass casualty attacks to Al Qaeda fighters, for instance killing many of their tribal rivals in Dawr with a massive car bomb in December 2006.
Douri's role within JRTN has always been shrouded in mystery. Like Osama bin Laden, Douri has needed to keep a low profile due to the $10 million U.S. ransom on his head. Also like Osama, rumors constantly circulated about his health and his location. He had leukemia, he had diabetes, he was dead. He was in Dawr, in Syria, in Iraqi Kurdistan, in Yemen. Occasionally he has popped up to undertake audacious media stunts, such as public letters to presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, or in an interview with Time magazine. He was last heard from on in January 2013, when he issued a video calling for an uprising against Baghdad.
Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri’s dream of a Baathist “return” was given a shot in the arm by the Arab Spring, the subsequent protest movements, and the Sunni Arab uprising in Syria. These phenomena provided precisely the conditions that Douri and his movement were seeking: an opportunity to slip some of their elements onto the political spectrum amongst the greater mass of legitimate Sunni Arab protestors; maybe even to mount an uprising after U.S. forces departed. JRTN seized the opportunity with alacrity, setting itself up as the power behind a number of protest sites and so-called “military councils” opposed to federal government presence in Sunni Arab areas.
The uprising predicted for so long by a few forward-looking U.S. intelligence officers nearly began in March 2013 when Shia SWAT teams killed 53 Sunnis in Hawija at a protest site set up by JRTN. In the days that followed, JRTN launched a localized uprising that previewed many of the features of this year’s collapse of the Iraqi military, with Iraqi Army units dissolving and the Kurds stepping up to take over terrain.
The Sunni Arab uprising that overran northern Iraq this month was as much about a long-feared resurgence of Baathist insurgents as it is about the much-discussed Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Shams (ISIS). The uprising spread so rapidly precisely because the ISIS-led victory in western Mosul was seized upon by neo-Baathist militant groups to uncork their own uprising all across northern Iraq.
Though able to cooperate against a common foe, JRTN’s Baathists have always had a troubled relationship with ISIS and its forerunners. JRTN and ISIS fighters were killing each other before the June uprising, and such clashes and kidnappings have already recommenced near Kirkuk and along the Hamrin mountains. The military men and tribal politicians that make up JRTN will be decidedly unenthusiastic about living under the ISIS yoke: they don’t tend to like outsiders and they do like a whisky. As JRTN spokesman Muzhir al-Qaisi told the BBC recently, ISIS are “barbarians.”
How does this all end for Douri and the Men of the Naqshbandi? The 72-year old has been on the run for eleven years. Earlier this year, Iraqi intelligence officers told me they believe Douri is alive and that, like Hussein in his “spider hole,” he has taken refuge with his own people in Dawr. He still underwrites a wealth of tribal relationships, they say, and remains the hidden sheikh of the Men of the Naqshbandi.
His role as the last living link to the Hussein regime makes him resemble some fantastic figure from a 1970s best-seller about the Fourth Reich, the aging Nazi hiding away in Patagonia. When he dies, if he's not dead already, Douri may well be interred at Hussein’s tomb complex in al-Awja, alongside the graves of a raft of other senior Baathist leaders. This will break the only living tie to the 1968 Baath coup plotters and their disastrous three decades in governance. Indeed, Douri may have to fade away if JRTN’s Baathists are to slide back onto the political spectrum.
Regardless of al-Douri’s fate, this month's uprising puts JRTN in a considerably stronger position. It may be that the Baath can achieve a partial, qualified return to power—perhaps with a deal between the federal government and JRTN-led Sunni Arab military councils over the formation of one or more federal regions in Sunni Arab Iraq, each with its own constitution and parliament, akin to the Kurdistan Regional Government.
Indeed, there are strong parallels to the way Iraqi Kurdistan was born as an autonomous region by the collapse of Hussein’s military in 1991. In Baghdad in March, a senior Sunni politician joked with me that perhaps one day the Americans would extend a no-fly zone over a post-uprising Sunni Iraq as it once did with the fledgling Kurdish autonomous zone in 1991. That may be a little ambitious, but the outcome that a handful of U.S. intelligence officers predicted—a subterranean Baathist “return” cocooned within a nationalist uprising—may be closer than ever. Failing a unified response by Iraq’s political factions, JRTN may also represent the best chance of stopping ISIS from forming an Islamic caliphate in the heart of the Middle East.
Dr. Michael Knights is the Lafer Fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He has worked in all of Iraq’s provinces, including periods embedded with the Iraqi security forces. He recently provided Congressional testimony on the threat posed by ISIS in December 2013.