Sufi Insurgent Groups in Iraq

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 2

The mystical approach to Islam known as Sufism has deep roots in Iraqi society. Adherents to Sufism normally stress prayer, meditation and the recitation of the various names of God as part of their effort to create a mystical communion between themselves and Allah. Yet at various times and places—such as 19th century Africa or the 19th and 20th century North Caucasus—Sufi orders have formed the core resistance to colonial and imperial occupation efforts. Heavily criticized within Iraq during the first two years of the current U.S. occupation for focusing on spiritual matters rather than resistance, Iraq’s Sufis have begun to take up arms against Coalition forces.

In the early days of Islam, Sufis tended to be lone ascetics known for wearing suf (rough wool garments), but gradually they began to organize around spiritual leaders known as sheikhs, or pirs. One of the greatest Sufi orders, the Qadiria, was founded in Baghdad by Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani, who lived from 1078 to 1166. The second most prominent Sufi order in Iraq is the Naqshbandia, introduced to Iraq from India by Sheikh Khalid Naqshbandi in the early 13th century. Despite the common perception that Sufism is a strictly non-violent form of Sunni Islam, there are at least three insurgent groups in Iraq today that claim to be Sufi:

• Jaysh Rijal al-Tariqa al-Naqshbandia (The Men of the Army of al-Naqshbandia Order, or JRTN) is the largest Sufi insurgent group. The group announced its formation in December 2006, right after the execution of Saddam Hussein.

• Katibat al-Sheikh Abd al-Qadir al-Jilanin Al-Jihadia (The Jihadi Battalion of Sheikh Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani) was announced in August 2006.

• The Sufi Squadron of Sheikh Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani was founded in April 2005.

For hundreds of years the founders and leaders of various tariqas (Sufi orders) developed special rituals, chants and even dances to pursue the spiritual dimension of Islam and praise God and his prophet Muhammad. Sufis have been frequently criticized by Salafist Muslims for syncretism with pre-Islamic religious practices, innovation in methods of worship and the veneration of their sheikhs and their burial places, which tend to become places of pilgrimage.

In Iraq, the Qadiria—both Arab and Kurd—are divided into several branches. The largest branch, the Kasnazania, is headed by Sheikh Muhammad Abd al-Karim al-Kasnazan, who lives in the city of al-Sulaimania. The Naqshbandia is led by Sheikh Abdullah Mustafa al-Naqshbandi, who lives in the city of Erbil. A third important group is the al-Rifa’ia order, whose branches do not acknowledge the leadership of a single sheikh. According to Nehru al-Kasnazan—son of Sheikh Muhammad al-Kasnazan—there are currently three million adherents to the various Sufi orders in Iraq (, August 23, 2005).

The Sufis enjoyed many freedoms when Saddam Hussein was in power. Ezzat Ibrahim al-Douri, his vice-president and the current head of the banned al-Baath party, is a well known Qadiri Sufi. The former sheikh of the Iraqi Qadiria, Muhammad al-Hallab, was strongly criticized by other members of the order for the haste with which he advanced al-Douri through the spiritual teachings of the order without adequate preparation (Mafkarat al-Islam, August 24, 2006).

Reaction to the Collapse of the Baathist Regime

After the fall of the Baathist regime in April 2003 and the development of a large-scale Sunni insurgency, none of the leading Sufi groups called for violence during the first years of the occupation. Sufis watched the insurgency being dominated by their historical opponents, the Salafis. Militant groups affiliated to al-Qaeda have attacked Sufis and their sacred places—including the demolition of tombs of Sufi saints—but on one remarkable occasion Sufis and Salafis fought together in the battles for Fallujah in 2004. The insurgents were under the leadership of Sheikh Abdullah al-Janabi, who is an adherent of a minor Sufi order called al-Nabhania. Al-Janabi was the head of the Mujahideen Shura Council, which controlled the Sunni city until December 2004. The Council was an umbrella organization of Salafi, Sufi and Baathi groups.

With the escalation of Sunni-Shiite sectarian violence in post-invasion Iraq, Sufis started to complain of attacks by Shiite militias. The Kasnazani Qadiris called for civil peace through a fatwa proclaimed on their website, television station and the Mashriq newspaper. Other Qadiris had a different response to the growing violence. In April 2005 the Sufi Squadron of Sheikh Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani announced their formation as an anti-American armed group. According to statements in jihadi websites and forums, the group is especially active in and around the northern city of Mosul, where it is involved in setting road-side improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and sniper attacks against U.S. forces. Statements issued directly by the group are issued by the authority of the “General commanding the jihadi armed forces” and are published by the Baath website,

A few months later the creation of the Jihadi Battalion of Sheikh Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani was announced in the town of al-Haweeja near the northern city of Kirkuk (Mafkarat al-Islam, August 23, 2006). The Qadiri Sufi lodge in Kirkuk has both Kurdish and Arab members. The head of al-Qadiria in Kirkuk, Sheikh Abd al-Rahim al-Qadiri, ordered his followers to suspend their usual Sufi rituals and practices to form a battalion to fight U.S. troops, Iraqi government forces and the Shiite militias of Badr Corps and al-Mahdi Army. Al-Qadiri disappeared several days before the announcement was made, though it is believed that he may have gone underground to lead the combat operations of his followers. Little activity from this group has been observed since their leader’s disappearance, but the area in and around Kirkuk is still one of the most volatile in Iraq.

Formation of the JRTN

On the same day as the hanging of Saddam Hussein on December 30, 2006, the Men of the Army of al-Naqshbandia Order (JRTN) announced their formation. The JRTN is clearly the most organized of the three aforementioned groups. In a sign typical of Baathist and Arab nationalism—but one that contradicts the pan-ethnic nature of Sufism—the main page of the JRTN’s website is headed by a map of the Arab homeland of 22 countries stretching from the Middle East to North Africa. The terminology used on the website also indicates that the JRTN is a Baathist-dominated organization that reflects a growing trend within the party towards Islamism since the early 1990s. This trend is represented today by the wing led by Ezzat Ibrahim al-Douri more than the rival wing led by Muhammad Younis al-Ahmad, which is hosted and sponsored by Syria and its secular Baathist regime.

The target of the JRTN attacks is the Coalition forces, “the unbeliever-occupier” as they are referred to in the group’s doctrine. The following principles form the JRTN canon:

• The individuals, equipment and supplies of the Coalition forces are to be targeted anytime and anywhere in Iraq.

• Iraqis have not been and will not be targeted unless they fight with the Coalition.

• There will be no confrontations with other jihadi groups; the JRTN will cooperate with them as long as they remain committed to “the legitimate constant principles and the national agenda,” which likely means the Baath agenda and policies.

• Funding is accepted from Muslim supporters, but not from any other external resource that might apply conditions.

• Secrecy is a vital principle in planning and implementing operations.

• There will be no participation in the political process in Iraq under the occupation.

The al-Naqshbandia website and the monthly online magazine regularly release videos of the group’s military operations as well as statements outlining their military and political positions (see Terrorism Focus, January 8).

According to the JRTN website, the backbone of the militant formations is the followers and supporters of the Naqshbandia order, who follow operational doctrines formed during the first week of the 2003 invasion by a gathering of Naqshbandia clerics, military men and professionals.

The lightly-equipped JRTN have used guerrilla tactics to launch a long war of attrition against Coalition forces armed with the most developed weapons and communications systems. During the early stages of combat, the fighters arranged themselves in small groups of 7-10 fighters, each with a local Amir (commander). There were commanders in every province, each connected to the “Amir al-jihad,” who was the grand sheikh of al-Naqshbandia. Military staff worked under the sheikh. These jihadi groups used light and medium rifles, road-side bombs and anti-tank RPG-7 grenade launchers in urban warfare against the Coalition. They were involved in the first battle of Fallujah in April 2004, where a number of Naqshbandia clerics were among the JRTN casualties.

Mortar and rocket assault groups were formed to attack Coalition bases at the Baghdad airport and the Green Zone, in addition to air bases in al-Anbar, al-Tameem, Ninawa, Salah al-Din and Diyala provinces. The JRTN also claim responsibility for a series of bombing operations, including the October 2003 attack on the Green Zone’s al-Rasheed hotel by a rocket array during a visit by then Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz. They also claim attacks on the headquarters of the Ministry of Oil and hotels used by foreign companies operating in Baghdad.

After two years of using small-group tactics, the commanders of JRTN formations decided after strategic study to reorganize their units to form a corps based on the standards of the old Iraqi Army. These preparations are being taken to prepare for a coming battle to control Baghdad and eventually the whole of Iraq. This transformation brought the following benefits:

• The range of operations has been expanded with the help of other small local groups.

• It has become possible to implement brigade-size operations, according to plans set by commanders assisted by military staff.

• It has become possible to launch division-wide maneuvers to deploy troops through any sector for support purposes or to implement a joint operation in another sector.

The JRTN also indicates that they have the skilled personnel and workshops needed to maintain, develop and modify different types of weapons and ammunition. The group has lately joined The Supreme Command for Jihad and Liberation, a Baathist umbrella group. On the Supreme Command’s website, the JRTN is listed first of the 22 affiliated insurgent groups.


Joining the insurgency was not the decision of the recognized leaderships of Iraqi Sufi orders. The pressure of attacks by Salafis and Shiite militias appears to have played a major role in convincing Sufis in some areas to defy the non-violent doctrine of their traditional leaders. In response to sectarian violence and military occupation, few of the Sufis turned to Salafist groups like al-Qaeda in Iraq, but those who decided to fight joined the more familiar Baathist-led resistance.

Al-Douri’s wing of the Baath Party continues to wield its traditional influence on the Sufis. Many Sufis were originally Baathists, so it was not difficult for the party to recruit them. In most areas of Iraq, Sufi insurgents are either Baathists or controlled and directed by al-Baath. Efforts to take the Sufis out of the insurgency will have little success without first breaking the bond between the Sufis and Ezzat al-Douri’s organization. Easing the Shiite-Sunni sectarian conflict would be a significant step toward removing the Sufis from the frontlines.