Introduction & Overview
The Army of the Men of the Naqshbandi Order (Jaysh Rajal al-Tariqah al-Naqshbandia, JRTN) is an Iraqi insurgent group that has been active since 2006. While the group ostensibly follows the doctrine of the Islamic Sufi order of the Naqshbandi, these religious beliefs are also eclectically mixed with elements of Neo-Baathist ideology. The explicit aim with which the JRTN was founded was the expulsion of Coalition forces from Iraq and the re-establishment of a Baathist state (1). History & Foundations The Army of the Men of the Naqshbandi Order was founded in 2006, in response to the execution of former Iraqi dictator and leader of the Iraqi branch of the Baath party, Saddam Hussein (2). Hussein’s former right-hand man Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri became the leader of JRTN and had also joined the Naqshbandi order during his long record of service under Saddam Hussein. This is after he had allowed them to prosper in Baathist Iraq, while also becoming a sheikh of the order himself (3). Several Iraqi military families joined as well (4).
In the 1990s, the Baathist regime initiated a so-called “Faith campaign”, which intended to publicly Islamize the regime to bolster its domestic support. Al-Douri had already been tasked with religious propaganda in the 1980s, and his role further increased with the new policy of the regime (5). Henceforth, he started to publicly speak in favour of Sufi Islam and its values (6). In part, Sufi Islam was seen by the regime as the perfect ‘middle way’ to increase the legitimacy of Baathist Iraq as an Islamic country, while also fighting religious extremists (such as Salafists) (7). Amid the increasing threat of foreign aggression, in 2003 one of Saddam Hussein’s last top secret orders included guidelines to prepare the country for an anti-American insurgency, which listed as priorities the destruction of fundamental infrastructure, as well as the association of insurgents with Islamic parties and values and the elimination of hostile or non-cooperating Islamic scholars and imams (8). Al-Douri, who went underground amid the collapse of the Baathist regime in 2003 following the US-led invasion of the country, exploited Saddam’s hanging to publicly announce the formation of the JRTN in 2006 (9). The former Republican Guard cadre assumed most command positions of the JRTN and imprinted the group with military discipline and operational procedures (10). As such, the group became a unique mix of Baathist military and political figures, and of Sufi Islamic militants.
JRTN has their powerbase in northern Iraq, and it is possible that al-Douri, who was never apprehended after he went underground and reportedly passed away in 2020, may have remained hidden precisely in that area (11).
In 2003, insurgent cells that would go on to found JRTN masterminded and carried out a series of bombings, including an attack in Baghdad’s Green Zone while the then-US deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz was present (12). In the last few years, however, the group has not engaged in any notable action, and the group is currently believed to be dormant, or inactive (13). Nevertheless, it seems that propaganda articles, videos, and images of JRTN continue to circulate and be uploaded on the internet, which may hint at underground activity or perhaps an ideological survival. This video here is an example of the JRTN's online propaganda campaign:
Ideology & Objectives The Naqshbandi Order is one of the major Sufi orders of Sunni Islam, which itself is a doctrine which emphasizes the exoteric and esoteric teachings to receive God’s grace in this life. The Naqshbandi, in particular, trace back their origin through the prophet Mahomet and emphasize eleven principles to live life in accordance to what they perceive to be ‘divine will’.
JRTN was founded as an Arab nationalist and Sunni-oriented group, even if the allegiance to the Naqshbandi order is at times disputed, insofar as its opponents claim that Sufism is inherently pacifistic (14). The peculiar relationship between Iraqi Baathism and Islam has long been a matter of interest in academic studies, especially focussing on the so-called “Faith campaign”, which led to a renewed repression of Salafist and Wahabi elements in Iraq (15).
After Coalition forces withdrew from Iraq in 2011, the focus shifted to overthrowing the Iraqi government and state, believing that “unbelievers-occupiers” must be eliminated (16). The predominant role of Shia Iraqis in the current Iraqi government is believed to be an aggravating factor that may have influenced this shift (17). JRTN publications claim that no political process in Iraq is valid and legal due to the country’s occupation (18). Political & Military Abilities The group has been variously estimated to consist of between 1500 and 5000 fighters, though, more modern figures are not available (19). Their earlier publications, while discussing Sufi doctrine, also included precise analyses of the situation of the Iraqi insurgency and specifics of an effective guerrilla war (20). The JRTN has repeatedly attacked Coalition and US forces using asymmetric warfare techniques, such as hit-and-run attacks, IED explosions, and ambushes (21). Furthermore, the JRTN leadership was often the mastermind of attacks on Coalition forces and coordinated attacks carried out by other militant groups as well, namely those united under the “General Military Council of for Iraq’s Revolutionaries” umbrella group (22). In general, JRTN is also most popular amongst Iraqi Sunnis, due to their evident reclaiming of Arab nationalist, Neo-Baathist, and anti-Shia rhetoric (23).
International Relations & Alliances JRTN had a troubled relationship with the Islamic State, at times cooperating with them but finally declaring them “barbarians” by 2014 (24). The two groups further clashed in 2015, after which the JRTN leadership denounced the IS and condemned their indiscriminate attacks against Yazidis and the deportation of Christians (25).
Works Cited (Chicago-style)
(1) - Cfr. AA. VV. Jaysh Rijal al-Tariq al-Naqshabandia. In: Mapping Militant Organizations, Stanford University. Available at: https://cisac.fsi.stanford.edu/mappingmilitants/profiles/jrtn
(2) - Cfr. Bakier, H. A. Ex-Baathists Turn to Naqshbandi Sufis to Legitimize Insurgency. In: Terrorism Focus, 5, 1, The Jamestown Foundation, 2008. Available at: https://jamestown.org/brief/ex-baathists-turn-to-naqshbandi-sufis-to-legitimize-insurgency/
(3) - Cfr. Knights, M. Saddam Hussein's Faithful Friend, the King of Clubs, Might Be the Key to Saving Iraq. In: The New Republic, 24.06.2014. Available at: https://newrepublic.com/article/118356/izzat-ibrahim-al-douri-saddam-husseins-pal-key-stopping-isis
(4) - Ibidem.
(5) - Cfr. Jordan, D. A History of Baʿthist Politicsand the Revival of Sufism in Iraq. In: Hamburg University Dissertations, 2018. pp. 271-273. Available at: https://ediss.sub.uni-hamburg.de/bitstream/ediss/9089/1/Jordan%20PhD%20-%202018%20-%20A%20History%20of%20Baathist%20Politics%20and%20the%20Revival%20of%20Sufism%20in%20Iraq_Onlinepublikation.pdf
(6) - Ibidem, p.273-274.
(7) - Ibidem, pp. 306-307.
(8) - Ibidem, pp. 269.
(9) - Ibidem.
(10) - Ibidem.
(11) - Cfr. AA. VV. Saddam Hussein's aide Izzat Al-Douri dies in Iraq. In: Middle East Monitor, 26.10.2020. Available at: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20201026-saddam-husseins-aide-izzat-al-douri-dies-in-iraq/
(12) - AA. VV. Mapping Militant Organisations: Jaysh Rijal al-Tariqa al-Naqshbandia. In: Stanford University, 3/12/2013. Available at: https://web.archive.org/web/20131203000658/http://www.stanford.edu/group/mappingmilitants/cgi-bin/groups/view/75
(13) - Cfr. AA. VV. Jaysh Rijal al-Tariq al-Naqshabandia. In: Mapping Militant Organizations, Stanford University. Available at: https://cisac.fsi.stanford.edu/mappingmilitants/profiles/jrtn
(14) - AA. VV. Mapping Militant Organisations: Jaysh Rijal al-Tariqa al-Naqshbandia. In: Stanford University, 3/12/2013. Available at: https://web.archive.org/web/20131203000658/http://www.stanford.edu/group/mappingmilitants/cgi-bin/groups/view/75
(15) - Jordan, D. A History of Baʿthist Politicsand the Revival of Sufism in Iraq. In: Hamburg University Dissertations, 2018. pp. 265. Available at: https://ediss.sub.uni-hamburg.de/bitstream/ediss/9089/1/Jordan%20PhD%20-%202018%20-%20A%20History%20of%20Baathist%20Politics%20and%20the%20Revival%20of%20Sufism%20in%20Iraq_Onlinepublikation.pdf
(16) - Ibidem.
(17) - Ibidem.
(18) - Cfr. Who is the Naqshbandi Army? من هو جيش رجال الطريقة النقشبندية. Available at: https://youtu.be/3zHfpCHTgJI
(19) - Gibbons-Neff, T. ISIS: Not alone in their conquest of Iraq. In: The Washington Post, 20.06.2014. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/checkpoint/wp/2014/06/19/isis-not-alone-in-their-conquest-of-iraq/
(20) - Cfr. Bakier, H. A. Ex-Baathists Turn to Naqshbandi Sufis to Legitimize Insurgency. Cit.
(21) - Cfr. AA. VV. Jaysh Rijal al-Tariq al-Naqshabandia. In: Mapping Militant Organizations, Stanford University. Available at: https://cisac.fsi.stanford.edu/mappingmilitants/profiles/jrtn
(22) - Ibidem.
(23) - Ibidem.
(24) - Cfr. Knights, M. Saddam Hussein's Faithful Friend, the King of Clubs, Might Be the Key to Saving Iraq. Cit.
(25) - Cfr. AA. VV. Jaysh Rijal al-Tariq al-Naqshabandia. Cit.
The piece below is another example of a propaganda documentary circulated online by the JRTN. Viewer discretion is advised.