Contemporary Takfiri Streams in Iraq; A History of Development

By Reza Alghurabi

Salafism in Iraq does not categorize as an original and influential movement. It has always been affected by Arab movements outside the country.

To better understand the typology of terrorist and Takfiri groups in Iraq after the 2003 American invasion of the country, it is necessary to identify the roots of Salafism in Iraq. The nature of the relation between Iraqi Sunnis and groups like ISIL must be investigated thoroughly to help provide an accurate analysis of Salafism.

Over the last few decades, many Sunni writers in Iraq have insisted on showing that the Salafi stream of Iraq is a structured and highly organized movement. Despite Iraq is known to be a leading place of origin for the Salafi streams, there is a major difference between Salafi streams in Iraq and the ones in Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia in terms of structural organization. Salafism in Iraq has never been as organized as it has been in other countries. It has always been limited to sporadic efforts made in line with the global organization of Jihad which began with Al-Qaeda, without playing a significant role in the development of Salafi streams around the globe.

Some characteristics of Iraqi Sunnis make the Salafists in this country distinguishable. Sunni Muslims of Iraq are either of Hanafi origins (in western regions of the country) or Shafe’ei (in Kurdish regions) or on a smaller scale, of Hanbali origins (in south). Though Iraq has been a home for Salafism, it has always been recognized as a fierce enemy of Wahhabism. Wahhabi streams rising from Saudi Arabia have targeted Iraqi Shiites and Sunnis alike. The Iraqi Salafists have never allowed the grow of Wahhabism in this country, specially after the establishment of the modern Iraq, including at the end of the Ba’ath party in 2003. For this reason, Iraq could never get into the regular network of Salafi streams in the region. Some limited efforts were made in this path by a group called Jama’at-e Movahhedin which came to be known as the primary core of the Salafi stream in modern Iraq. However, the Jama’at-e Movahhedin are known as scholar movement of Salafism or the traditional Salafi stream with tendencies very similar to the ones of Muslim Brotherhood. In other words, they are basically harmless Salafists.

In the 1980s, during the 8-year long Iraq-Iran war, Salafists achieved their social place in Iraq due to their close alliance with Saddam and the Saudi Arabia. In the early 90s, after the war was over, the activities of Salafists who were then designated as Wahhabis, were limited due to tensions in relations between Iraq and the Saudi Arabia. It seemed certain at the time that such a designation was a pretext for a severe security crackdown on the Salafi stream in Iraq. Some Sunni Iraqi writers have made comparisons between Saddam’s treatment of Salafists with his conduct of the Islamic Dawa Party, however one could argue based on indications that few similarities could be found, including a few executions.

In 1993, a movement called ‘Al-hamalat al-Imaniah’ or the ‘movement of faith/religion’ was founded in Iraq by Saddam to cover up his failures in the past recent wars. Many Iraqi people were driven towards religion. A lot of military personnel and Ba’athi officers were forced to attend religious programs. Quran lessons were held for high ranking Ba’ath officials. Attending such classes was a privilege for the officers and the party officials to be able to rise to higher ranks.

After the fall of Saddam’s regime, many experts argued that not even Saddam Hussein himself imagined that the ‘religious movement’ would have such an influence on Ba’athi figures. Although Saddam’s establishment of this movement was an act of demagoguery, it impacted the military, security forces and the presidential guard deeply.

It could be concluded that the Salafi stream in Iraq is not an original inspiring movement and has always been under the influence of Arab movements outside of Iraq. In fact, Iraqi Sunnis became familiar with Sunni political/religious movements in 2001. The same year when Ansarul Islam, a Kurdish Salafi movement in Iraq which also inspired the Iranian Kurds, was founded by Molla Karikar.

Then, since 2003, a new development took place in Iraq, that is Iraq's entry into the area of global jihad, namely the imported Takfir and jihadist Salafism. It began with the arrival of Zarqawi and formation of the Jama'at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad as well as the entrance of foreign groups to Iraq, especially from Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Palestine and Syria. Later, the Tawhid and Jihad movement turned into al-Qaeda, and then the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, ISIL, was formed.

Eventually, indigenous and local Takfiri and Salafist groups formed in Iraq. At this stage, groups such as Jaish al-Islam, Ansar al-Sunna, Jaish al-Mujahideen, and battalions with common ideological foundations were formed with the centrality of Sunni political figures.

Thus the contemporary Salafi streams in Iraq are divided into five categories:

1. The first category is the traditional and theoretical groups. Among these groups are Jama'at Al-Movahedin in the 1960s, to which the former Iraqi Speaker Mahmoud al-Mashhadani is related. This group looks similar to the Muslim Brotherhood and currently is present in Iraq.

2. The second is the Jami stream. The origin of this current has been in Saudi Arabia and its dominant aspect which was implemented in Iraq is the issue of obedience to the ruler. The group strongly believes that the ruler should be supported and disobedience to the ruler is forbidden. In a demonstration against Maliki by the Sunni movement in western Iraq in 2013, the Jami current boycotted the uprising against him.

3. The third stream is local jihadist Salafi groups. This stream which includes groups such as Jaish al-Islam, Jaish al-Mujahideen and Ansar al-Sunna was formed since 2003 and is still present in the local area of Iraq. The focus of these groups was mainly on anti-occupation. However, in 2006 and 2007, there were clashes between them and police forces as well as Shiite militias, especially the Jaish al-Mahdi. Although claiming to have no plans against Shiite citizens, terrorist incitements by them against the Shiites have been reported.

4. Then, the imported Salafi-Takfiri stream began with the presence of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian national, formed the Jama'at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad which pledged allegiance to bin Laden, and was subsequently killed. In the meantime, the assembly of Mujahedin council was also established and because of the clashes between al-Qaeda in Iraq and the Iraqi tribes, Abu Hamzah al-Muhajir and Abu Omar al-Baghdadi founded the Islamic State of Iraq and then the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which included al-Qaeda.

5. The last category is the Ba'athist Salafism. Perhaps this is a new type among the Salafi streams and the Salafi structure of the contemporary era. That is, in fact, part of the ‘faith movement’ that emerged during the Saddam regime in 1993. The existing Ba'athis - the religious Ba'athis or in other words Naqshbandi Salafists, and the secular Ba'athis - came together to unite with the al-Qaeda and ISIL and formed the Ba'athist Salafist movement.

The question that arises is whether there are other Salafist terrorist movements operating in Iraq besides ISIL? In 2014, with the advent of ISIL, many Iraqi Salafist streams reduced their activities and some were recruited by the ISIL. Some in their tribal community in western and central Iraq joined the ISIL out of fear of being cleansed by the group.

After the liberation of Mosul and a few other areas, ISIL was expected to continue its operations in the form of "lone wolves" or in the form of cohesive nuclei in Iraq. Part of the existing fear is due to the lack of knowledge about the fate of the groups that existed in Iraq before 2014. What about all the weapons that remain in the hands of the terrorist and Takfiri groups? What about the security situation in Iraq with the volume of weapons that are in the homes of Takfiri groups? This is a security threat, especially if there is a tension in the Iraqi political process. As some political leaders in the past have supported rebel and terrorist groups.

The main challenge about whether or not the Sunni community in Iraq are being marginalized, is the government's inability to build trust between Baghdad and the Sunni areas, especially al-Anbar and the damaged Sunni territories. On the other hand, the political relations of today’s Baghdad or the Baghdad after ISIL, with Riyadh, are very important. These relationships can play a key role in weakening or strengthening Takfiri streams. Attracting the largest number of political opponents - the issue of national reconciliation - is very crucial. How to deal with Sunni tribes and how the government interacts with the Ba'ath party is also a key factor; The challenge that Iraq has faced for 16 years since outlawing Ba'ath Party.