Colonel Bakr, American Policy, and the Rise of ISIS

In April 2015, we learned that ISIS was formed by former Iraqi intelligence officers serving under Saddam Hussein (see this Reuters article). The U.S. had dismantled their army and discharged them in 2003 after we took over Iraq. Their leader, Colonel Haji Bakr, spent three years in U.S. army prisons, including Abu Ghraib. According to a trove of documents found in Bakr’s house and published by Der Spiegel, a major German newspaper, Colonel Bakr and other former officers developed a “master plan” to use religion to take Iraq back. To give their plan a religious face, in 2010 they decided to make al-Baghdadi the official leader of what they would proclaim as the “Islamic State.” Der Spiegel’s journalists conclude after interviewing people close to Colonel Bakr that he was not religious but a “nationalist.”

Haji Bakr in Saddam’s intelligence service (left), in American prison-camp (center), and as an ISIS chief (right)

Considering these findings alongside the more recent revelation about the early strength of extremist radicals in Syria after the Arab Spring and our allies’ support of those radicals, we can now conclude that:

1. Under the Bush administration, the dismantling of the Iraq army during the U.S. occupation and discharge, imprisonment, and likely abuse of senior Iraqi officers at places like Abu Ghraib directly gave rise to ISIS, a group that now makes us feel unsafe at home.

2. Under the Obama administration, the United States made a grave mistake when, after the beginning of the Arab Spring in Syria, we excluded Iran from talks and allowed our allies to support extremist radicals against Assad.

Clearly, the incompetence of our Middle East policy is non-partisan. Given this history, do we really believe that Republican or Democratic politicians know how to solve this problem and keep us safe just because they have traveled the world and met foreign leaders (Clinton), sat on a committee (Rubio), have famous relatives (Bush), or talk to God (Carson, Cruz, Huckabee)?


Hassanaly Ladha is Associate Professor of French and Comparative Literature at the University of Connecticut.