BAGHDAD (AP) While attending the Iraqi army’s artillery school nearly 20 years ago, Ali Omran remembers one major well. An Islamic hard-liner, he once chided Omran for wearing an Iraqi flag pin into the bathroom because it included the words “God is great.”
“It is forbidden by religion to bring the name of the Almighty into a defiled place like this,” Omran recalled being told by Maj. Taha Taher al-Ani.
Omran didn’t see al-Ani again until years later, in 2003. The Americans had invaded Iraq and were storming toward Baghdad. Saddam Hussein’s fall was imminent. At a sprawling military base north of the capital, al-Ani was directing the loading of weapons, ammunition and ordnance into trucks to spirit away. He took those weapons with him when he joined Tawhid wa’l-Jihad, a forerunner of al-Qaida’s branch in Iraq.
Now al-Ani is a commander in the Islamic State (ISIS) group, said Omran, who rose to become a major general in the Iraqi army and now commands its 5th Division fighting ISIS. He kept track of his former comrade through Iraq’s tribal networks and intelligence gathered by the government’s main counterterrorism service, of which he is a member.
It’s a common trajectory.
Under its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Islamic State group’s top command is dominated by former officers from Saddam’s military and intelligence agencies, according to top intelligence officials.
The experience they bring is a major reason for the group’s victories in over-running large parts of Iraq and Syria. The officers gave ISIS the organization and discipline it needed to weld together jihadi fighters drawn from across the globe, integrating terror tactics like suicide bombings with military operations. They have been put in charge of intelligence-gathering, spying on the Iraqi forces as well as maintaining and upgrading weapons and trying to develop a chemical weapons program.
Patrick Skinner, a former CIA case officer who has served in Iraq, said Sad-dam-era military and intelligence officers were a “necessary ingredient” in the Islamic State group’s stunning battlefield successes last year, accounting for its transformation from a “terrorist organization to a proto-state.”
The group’s second-in-command, al-Baghdadi’s deputy, is a former Saddam-era army major, Saud Mohsen Hassan, known by the pseudonyms Abu Mutazz.
During the 2000s, Hassan met al-Baghdadi in the U.S.-run Bucca prison camp. The prison was a significant incubator for the Islamic State group, bringing militants like al-Baghdadi into contact with former Saddam officers, including members of special forces, the elite Republican Guard and the paramilitary force called Fedayeen.
Former Bucca prisoners are now throughout the ISIS leadership. Among them is Abu Alaa al-Afari, a veteran Iraqi militant who was once with al-Qaida and now serves as the head of IS’s “Beit al-Mal,” or treasury, according to a chart of what is believed to be the group’s hierarchy provided to the AP by the intelligence chief.
Al-Baghdadi has drawn these trusted comrades even closer after he was wounded in an airstrike earlier this year, the intelligence chief said. He has ap-pointed a number of them to the group’s Military Council, believed to have seven to nine members at least four of whom are former Saddam officers.
Saddam-era veterans also serve as “governors” for seven of the 12 “provinces” set up by the Islamic State group in the territory it holds in Iraq, the intelligence chief said.
Iraqi officials acknowledge that identifying IS leadership is an uncertain task. Besides al-Baghdadi himself, the group almost never makes public even the pseudonyms of those in its hierarchy. When leaders are killed, it’s often not known who takes their place and several have been reported killed multiple times, only to turn up alive. Figures are believed to take on new pseudonyms, leaving it unclear if a new one has emerged or not.
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