Iraqi Sufis Join the Fight Against Coalition Forces

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 3 Issue: 36

Of all the Islamic trends, Sufism, a mystical branch of Islam, is reputed to be the least prone to violence and more tolerant of other currents within Islam as well as other faiths. This is why the recent announcement by a group of Qadiri Sufis that they have formed the Battalions of Sheikh ‘Abd al-Qadir al-Gilani to fight against coalition forces and the Shiite-led government of Iraq is surprising to many.

Although Sufism is a minority trend within Islam, it is not uncommon in Iraq. There are different branches of Sufi Islam in Iraq, with the Qadiriyah, of which this group is comprised, being the largest. The Qadiris follow the teachings of a famous Sufi mystic, ‘Abd al-Qadir al-Gilani (1077-1166), who moved from his native Caspian village to Baghdad when he was 18. In 1127, he began to preach and his order steadily expanded in Iraq. Al-Gilani’s teachings stayed close to orthodox interpretations of Islam but featured some mystical interpretations of the Quran. He attacked materialism and instead stressed charity and humanitarianism.

The Battalions of Sheikh ‘Abd al-Qadir al-Gilani is led by Sheikh Muhammad al-Qadiri. The group had previously rejected violence against the coalition and in fact cooperated with U.S. forces upon their entry in Iraq in 2003. Yet on August 26, guerrillas holed up in the Abdul Qadir al-Gilani mosque in Ramadi attacked U.S. troops. They fired small arms, machine guns and rocket propelled grenades, according to U.S. coalition statements. Coalition troops returned fire and the mosque suffered serious structural damage as a result. It is unclear whether it was members of the Battalions of Sheikh ‘Abd al-Qadir al-Gilani or other insurgents who were allowed sanctuary in the mosque who carried out the attacks.

Little is known about how many fighters belong to the group or exactly which other insurgent groups they cooperate with. It is believed that they are cooperating with indigenous Iraqi Salafi-Jihadi insurgents in the al-Anbar and Baghdad areas. The rising sectarian violence played a prominent role in the Sufi group’s decision to take up arms and join the insurgency. Ahmed al-Soffi, a Sufi leader in Fallujah, told the media in August, “We will not wait for the Mahdi Army and the Badr Brigade to enter our houses and kill us. We will fight the Americans and the Shiites who are against us.”

In January, guerrillas fired mortar rounds at the Sheikh ‘Abd al-Qadir al-Gilani mosque in Baghdad. It is unknown whether this attack was perpetrated by Shiite militias or Salafi-Jihadi Sunnis. It is speculated that the attack was done by Salafi-Jihadis who hoped that Shiites would be blamed for the attack (al-Zaman, January 6). If that is the case, the strategy seems to be working as Sufi orders are aligning themselves closer to Sunni Salafi-Jihadi insurgents against the Shiite-led government despite the fact that they have been the target of Salafi-Jihadi attacks in the past. Historically, Sufis as a minority sect within Islam have been frequently targeted, but mostly by Salafis and Wahhabis, not Shiites (al-Jazeera, June 30, 2005).

There would seem to be enough tension between Salafi and Sufi strains within Islam to keep either group from entering into an alliance. Yet, perhaps because the Qadiri sect does not deviate too much from orthodox interpretations of Islam that they are acceptable to Salafi-Jihadis. For their part, the Sufi insurgents feel marginalized enough by the dominant Shiite presence that they are willing to put aside their more peaceful tendencies when they feel threatened.

Uncertain of the coalition’s ability and the Iraqi government’s willingness to protect their population against the incursion of Shiite militias who are operating freely and conducting reprisal killings, Sunnis, and their Sufi subset, are pushed toward the insurgency. For this particular Sufi group, it is more of a matter of self defense against sectarian violence than it is opposition to the U.S.-led military intervention.

The Battalion is not the only Sufi militant group to form in Iraq. In April 2005, the Sufi Jihadi Squadrons of Sheikh ‘Abd al-Qadir al-Gilani announced their formation and the beginning of their military operations against U.S. coalition troops. The founding statement by the Sufi Jihadi Squadrons reads:

“With the blessings of God the exalted it has been announced in the capital of Harun ar-Rashid [Baghdad] today that the Jihadi Sufi Squadrons of Sheikh ‘Abd al-Qadir al-Gilani have been formed to join the rest of their brothers on the fields of combat…Your brothers in the Squadron of ‘Abd al-Qadir al-Gilani have seized the day today to announce themselves as a combat force against the American occupation in Iraq, having previously limited ourselves to prayer and seeking guidance.”

The formation of this second Sufi group to join the insurgency is a troubling development for coalition and Iraqi policymakers who thought that they could count on Sufis to remain apolitical and peaceful. Perhaps because of this thinking, the coalition did not do much to reach out to Sufis in Iraq. Instead, Sufi orders have aligned themselves with their more militant Salafi-Jihadi counterparts. This alliance is not as incompatible as once thought.