As if events in Iraq weren’t confusing enough, media coverage of what’s going on seems to leave out a critical part of the story. To hear the media tell it, a quick sweep of cities and towns from Mosul south was spearheaded by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant/al Shams (hence the dual acronyms ISIL and ISIS in reference to the same group). Now, al-Da’ish (yet another name for the group based on their name in Arabic) is portrayed as a threat to the central government in Baghdad and hence subject to American military action (i.e., bombing).
But a seemingly important player is left out of reporting on the situation in Iraq; namely, the Army of the Men of the Naqshbandi Way. Naqshbandi is a branch of the Sufi order, a mystical Islamic sect. Despite its religious-sounding name, the Army of the Men of Naqshbandi Way, or the JRTN as it is referred to from the initials of its name in Arabic, downplays Allah and touts Arab nationalism, as evidenced by the Arab World-encompassing graphic on the group’s website. Its leader is Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, a close confidant of Saddam Hussein who was Deputy Chairman of the Revolutionary Command Council. He is the only one of the top Baathist leaders included in our famous deck of 52 (he was the King of Clubs) to still be alive and uncaptured.
Despite its absence from media reports these days, the JRTN has been known to those in the know for quite some time. As far back as 2008, the Jamestown Foundation, a Washington-based outfit with close ties to the intelligence community, published an article entitled “Ex-Baathists Turn to Naqshbandi Sufis to Legitimize Insurgency”, in which they list ex-Iraqi military officers as the main core of JRTN. The article repeats the Naqshbandi claim that in one month, November 2007 – less than a year after the group’s founding – the JRTN “carried out jihadi operations against the Coalition in Baghdad, al-Anbar, Ninawa, Diyala and Salah al-Din provinces, where they launched over 17 rocket attacks using Katyusha, Grad and Iraqi-made Tariq rockets, five mortar attacks, 14 road bombs, four sniper attacks and two massive assaults with light weapons on U.S. military bases.”
In 2011 the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, in an article entitled “The JRTN Movement and Iraq’s Next Insurgency”, described the group as a “driver for the ongoing resilience, or even revival, of Sunni militancy.” The CTC estimated the JRTN has from 1,500 to 5,000 members, but warned “these figures do little to improve understanding of the concentric circles of involvement in such a movement”, noting that the Army has a small core of permanent members by design. Opined the CTC, “The movement’s blend of Islamist and nationalist rhetoric and its appeal to Ba`ath-era nostalgia at a time of weak governance means it is squarely in-sync with the views of the population it relies upon for active and passive support”. Written shortly before our troop withdrawal from Iraq, the CTC speculates JRTN is “playing the long game”; i.e., “waiting us out.”
Even the often purposefully obtuse corporate media once took note of the JRTN. In April of last year, months before ISIS began its supposed conquest of northern Iraq, the respected (for reasons unbeknownst to me) New York Times carried an article devoted to the JRTN, in which the writer asks “Is the country headed toward a new civil war? And, if so, will the group of former Baathists lead one side of it?” They quote Michael Knights, an analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy: “They are playing the long game. This is the next step in the long game. J.R.T.N. is very well positioned to exploit what’s going on.”
So why has this group dropped from sight, as far as the American public is concerned, now that the foreseen “next insurgency” is well underway. Occasionally the JRTN is still mentioned in the corporate media, as in this article from the Times in which the quotable Mr. Knights gives credit to the JRTN, saying: “They [ISIS] couldn’t have seized a fraction of what they did without coordinated alliances with other Sunni groups… there are definitely pockets [Mosul, Kirkuk, Tikrit] where the Naqshbandias are wearing the pants.” But, by and large, the media has turned the JRTN into a non-entity. Just today The Washington Post (also respected for reasons unbeknownst to me) had an article on the Iraqi army’s attempt to retake Tikrit in which no mention is made of the boys of the Naqshbandi. In classic presstitute style, the writer gives the impression the Iraqi army is fighting against “Islamic State militants” while using the more generic, more ambiguous term “militants” when speaking specifically about who the rebels in Tikrit are (if the JRTN exists at all, wouldn’t it be most active in Saddam Hussein’s hometown?)
Even alternative news outlets seem to be unaware of the JRTN’s role in the current fighting. The group is virtually unknown on the popular (ditto on the unbeknownst) Huffington Post, other than through a link to the aforementioned Times article. They merit mention in a couple of articles on the widely-read Counterpunch site, but only in passing. Even the usually astute and informative Franklin Lamb has little to say about them.
If the Men of the Naqshbandi Way are a major player in the present insurgency – perhaps THE major player – it raises some interesting questions. Do we lump all the anti-government groups in Iraq together as the enemy? If not, whom do we see as the bigger threat: ISIS or the JRTN? If the latter, could it be that it is on their positions, not ISIS’s, that we are targeting our bombs. Might we even go further (if we haven’t already) and lend more substantial support to ISIS in its battle with its takfiri rivals for the hearts and minds of Iraqis (The JRTN has dissociated itself from its maniacal fellow insurgents)? It wouldn’t be the first time we’ve utilized fanatical Muslims to combat a secular faction/regime (remember it was Israel which gave Hamas its initial push, using it to counter the PLO). If it’s ISIS we view as the bigger threat (which is the popular perception, since the public has, by and large, never heard of the JRTN) and we see the central government under whomever as a hopeless case, might we – mirabile dictu – throw our support to the Baathists as a force that can bring stability back to Iraq and act as a check on Iranian aspirations, as they once did to our delight.
Midst the fog of hazy, contradictory, agenda-driven facts, commentary, and speculation (including my own!) coming out of Iraq, one thing is certain. If the media ever deigns to mention the Men of the Naqshbandi Way, you can be sure they are doing well on the battlefield.