The fall of Ramadi, capital of Iraq’s Anbar Province, to the Islamic State last month has frayed nerves in Washington, but what few appear to grasp is that ISIS’s May offensive has given Ramadi back to its former owners — the ex-Baathist Sunni terrorists known as the Former Regime Loyalists. The FRLs, as they’re called, were Saddam Hussein’s most ardent followers, the same fighters whom the United States fought non-stop for eight years. Their resurgence has implications not just for the United States but for ISIS itself. For while these forces may fly the ISIS flag today, their ultimate plans for Iraq are quite different than those of the “caliphate.”
ISIS’s roots in Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party are deep — many of the group’s most devoted commanders, advisers and fighters started out as Baathists. The ex-Baathists essentially run ISIS, and their past is evident in the tactics they are using now.
After the 1963 coup that first gave the Baathists a share of power in Iraq’s government, Saddam became head of the secret Jehaz Al-Khass, or Special Branch, and collected meticulous dossiers on friends and enemies alike. Saddam used these dossiers to carry out a political putsch in the mid-sixties, as well as the bloodless 1968 coup that brought his party to full control of Iraq. From 1968 until 2003, Baathists controlled every aspect of Iraqi life and generalized the surveillance techniques that Saddam had used so effectively in his rise to power.