Late last year, The Jamestown Foundation reported on a new insurgent group comprised of Qadiri Sufi insurgents calling themselves the Battalions of Sheikh ‘Abd al-Qadir al-Gilani (Terrorism Focus, September 19, 2006). In September 2006, it was somewhat of an anomaly. At the time, it was only the second Sufi insurgent group operating in Iraq, and reports of Sufis joining the insurgency were dismissed by some as either inaccurate or abnormalities (the first group was the Sufi Jihadi Squadrons of Sheikh ‘Abd al-Qadir al-Gilani). In the early years of the Iraq conflict, Sufi orders refused to participate in the violence, causing militant Salafi groups to attack them in retaliation for not participating or as a means to spark greater sectarian violence. Adherents of Sufi orders were perceived as victims, not perpetrators of violence in Iraq. Many cooperated with coalition troops. The ranks of Sufi insurgents, however, now appear to be growing.
Early this month, another Sufi insurgent group declared itself by posting a video on January 17 of what it claimed to be operations against coalition troops. “The Army of the Men of the Naqshbandi Order” released a video that showed operations carried out by the group against coalition forces. The video displayed attacks against humvees and showed insurgents firing off mortar rounds (http://www.islammemo.com/cc, December 30, 2006).
The Naqshbandi order is one of the largest and most influential Sufi Muslim orders. It is named after its founder, Baha al-din Naqshband. It is known as the only Sufi order to trace its spiritual lineage to the Prophet Muhammad through Abu Bakr, the first caliph. Most other orders trace their lineage to Ali ibn Abu Talib, the prophet’s cousin, son-in-law and fourth caliph.
The Army of the Men of the Naqshbandi Order also issued a statement along with the video posting explaining their decision to join the insurgency. Citing growing sectarianism and injustice committed by the “despicable Bush…and the surrogate sectarian government,” the group declared its resolve to fight against the “racist crimes” of the “Safawi” power, a reference to the old Shiite dynasty. They were clear in stating their connection to the wider Iraqi insurgency. Part of their statement reads, “The Army of the Men of the Naqshbandi Order…fights the occupying infidels and their surrogates…in order to prove to the whole world that the mujahideen are different groups of Iraqis and are not, as portrayed by our enemies, foreigners…different formations and groups took shape and increased over time in numbers and equipment contrary to what has been declared by our enemies” (http://www.islammemo.com/cc, December 30, 2006).
They blame the current government for handing Iraq over to the infidels and using the media to manipulate their legitimate resistance as terrorism—all common complaints of Iraqi insurgent groups. They criticize the Iraq Study Group report and lament the execution of Saddam Hussein, who they term as the “great president, our mujahid leader.” They also made clear their nationalist character by stating “our hands never got smeared with Iraqi blood. This army will continue to fight the infidel occupiers…until we expel the last infidel and those sectarian surrogates who assist their Zionist masters in carrying out their plans in attacking Islam and tearing apart our beloved Iraq” (http://www.islammemo.com/cc, December 30, 2006).
Sufi fighters have similar motivations for joining the insurgency as other components of Iraq’s conflict—discrimination, loss of power, status and unemployment, as well as revenge and the suffering of various indecencies such as detentions. In fact, the imam of the Naqshbandi al-Rabat Mosque in Samarra, Sheikh Abaas Fadil, was detained by U.S. forces in March of last year. He was later released, but it was a humiliation for their leader.
Nevertheless, while Sufis may share similar political motivations for joining the insurgency, they do not have the same ideological or religious opposition to the presence of foreign troops and rule by a Shiite majority as do Sunnis. They oppose such circumstances only in so far as they lead to political troubles for their followers. They do not share the same ideological and religious aversion to Shiite rule in Iraq as more religiously motivated Sunnis.
Many Salafi-Jihadis who make up the global Islamist resistance have the same aversion to Sufi strains in Islam as they do Shiism. The precursor to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s group, Ansar al-Islam, had attacked Sufi shrines and tombs of Naqshbandi orders in Kurdistan. It seems, however, that this may be changing. This is certainly the case in Iraq where accomplishing military and political victory over the struggling Iraqi government trumps all else.
Abu Musab al-Suri, a top al-Qaeda strategist now in custody, has Sufi family origins and has displayed no anti-Sufi sentiments. Other militant Islamic thinkers, such as Abu Azzam al-Ansari, in his work “Al-Qaeda is Moving Towards Africa,” published in the no. 7 issue of Sada al-Jihad, writes that “working with Sufis is easier than working with any other trend, such as Shiite or communist.”
There could also be circumstantial reasons for why Sufis have joined in with Sunni and Salafi groups in insurgent cooperation. Former Iraqi Vice President Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, widely regarded as one of the principal organizers behind the insurgency, is himself a practicing member of a Sufi order. A militant branch of the Kasnazani order was involved with al-Duri. It is possible that these connections had something to do with bringing certain Sufi orders into the fold.
Even without this personal factor, members of Sufi orders are participating in the Iraq insurgency in increasing numbers. This is problematic for the country, but it does not mean that Sufis are participating on a significant scale in the worldwide militant Islamic movement, despite the current thinking of some al-Qaeda members on the subject. Even in Iraq, members of Sufi orders have not signed up wholesale. The very group that was associated with al-Duri, the Kasnazani order, is mostly pro-Iraqi government. The mainstream of the Kasnazani order (which is itself part of the larger Qadiri order) and its leadership is involved in legitimate political activity, such as running a political party and a national newspaper. The Iraqi government and coalition troops must take steps to ensure that more Sufi orders participate politically rather than violently, since the latter increasingly seems to be the case.