It is ostensibly a militant Sufi Muslim organisation named for the Naqshbandi Sufi Order and the JRTN's ideology has been described as "a mix of Islamic and pan-Arab nationalistic ideas", with Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, a former chief advisor to Saddam Hussein. being described as "the hidden sheikh of the Men of the Naqshbandi"
The precise details about the emergence of the JRTN are unclear, although it is generally assumed that the group was established in the summer of 2003 to fight coalition forces and to restore the old order under Ba'athist Ideology.
Although JRTN would only emerge as a group in 2006, JRTN members had been involved in anti-coalition actions earlier in the war, such as the 2003 attack on the Al Rasheed Baghdad Hotel, and the 2004 First Battle of Fallujah, where several Naqshbandia clerics associated with the JRTN were among the casualties.
JRTN originally emerged as a group in December 2006, following the execution of Saddam Hussein. The group's original focus was on protecting Naqshbandis in Iraq from the oppression they were facing from radical Sunni Islamist insurgent groups, particularly al-Qaeda in Iraq, whose tactics, especially the targeting Iraqis and Sunnis, were opposed by JRTN's Sufi ideology.
On April 25, 2013, insurgents from the Naqshbandi Army completely captured the town of Sulaiman Bek, about 170 km north of Baghdad, after heavy fighting with security forces, only to relinquish control of it a day later, while escaping with weapons and vehicles.
Following the Hawija clashes, JRTN units in Ninewa began to mobilize, emerging as a force that could potentially play a role in a new low-level Sunni led uprising. Immediately after the Hawija clashes JRTN units were able to take temporary control of a neighborhood in the 17 July neighborhood in western Mosul.
On January 18, 2014, Reuters reported that after the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and its tribal allies overran Falluja and parts of the nearby city Ramadi on January 1, the Army of the Men of the Naqshbandi Order was one of the rebel groups also present in the city.
The group operates in Kirkuk and other parts of northern Iraq, and is linked to Saddam Hussein's former aide Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, an adherent of the Naqshbandi order, and is thought to be the largest militant group that consists of former Baathists. Outside of Kirkuk, the group has carried out operations in Baghdad, Anbar, Ninawa, Diyala and Salah al-Din provinces.
The Army of the Men of the Naqshbandi Order frequently filmed and distributed footage of themselves on their websites showing the group attacking American depots and ambushing Iraqi and American forces with mortars and homemade missiles as well as fighting with light machine guns and sniper rifles.
The group avoided direct confrontation with US Forces in Iraq, relying instead on guerrilla tactics. The group's main focus was on a two-pronged strategy. The first phase was focused on defense, where the group attacked soft targets while focusing building up its power whilst training and cooperating with other groups to widen the armed opposition. Local Emirs, each responsible for 7–10 fighters, were set up in every province. The Emirs were in turn led by an Emir al-Jihad; a Grand Sheikh of al-Naqshbandia. The group was dedicated to secrecy in the carrying out of operations.
The group's links to both Sufism and its embrace of violence is controversial, as many Sufi followers believe Sufism to be strongly opposed to violence. Sufism had been tolerated under the Ba'athist government of Saddam Hussein due to its peaceful and relatively apolitical nature. Government tolerance for Sufism even resulted in its adoption by several members of the ruling Ba'ath party. However, despite its roots in a desire to protect Sufis, the group has declared itself to be fighting to maintain Iraq's unity along with its Arab and Islamic character. As such, the group can be seen as pursuing a nationalistic as opposed to the religious line. The group's main desire is to return the former Ba'ath Party to power in part due to the many freedoms Naqashbandis enjoyed under the Ba'ath party. Others have accused the group of merely acquiring the Naqashbandi name in order to increase its popularity. Although the group recognizes a direct return to Baathist control is impossible, they focus instead on infiltrating former Ba'athists into positions of power to hopefully dominate a future nationalist government. The group then wishes to portray itself and the wider Baath party as a technocratic alternative to a currently incompetent Shia Islamist government that is incapable of delivering services. Maintaining chaos in Iraq is a key part of this plan as the JRTN must ensure living standards do not improve under the current government so as to make the group appear more attractive.
The group was strongly anti-Coalition and supported the targeting of Coalition forces in Iraq, believing that coalition forces including individuals, equipment and supplies, were legitimate targets at any time or place in Iraq. Iraqis are not considered valid targets unless fighting with Coalition forces. The group is opposed to fighting other insurgent groups and will cooperate if they are committed to the same agenda.
People such as Ibrahim al-Sumadaie of the Iraqi Constitutional Party fear that JRTN could become increasingly attractive to Sunnis either aggrieved by a Shiite-dominated government or those such as the Awakening Councils who left the insurgency and switched sides to the Coalition forces to fight al Qaeda who now feel abandoned. Security officials contend that thousands of Sunni insurgents who are upset by Maliki's failure to absorb them into the military are being recruited by JRTN and will pose a threat to stability. This is in turn helped by the fact that JRTN survived as the popularity of more fundamentalist groups such as Al Qaeda in Iraq waned, leaving them as one of the last few major opposition groups. The JRTN platform is attractive to Sunnis due less to an explicitly Baathist or Arab nationalist socialist platform than to the idea of the creation of an area where Sunnis can be Sunnis.
According to a US intelligence officer, members of JRTN can often be respected figures within local government or influential figures within their communities. These figures don't necessarily act violently, allowing them to blend in and making it difficult to obtain warrants issued by the Iraqi court to arrest them. JRTN cells have also been characterized as a familial organization, with members often being part of the same family or tied to the Sheikh Maqsud sub-tribe of the Al-Douris, meaning that at its most fundamental level, JRTN is an Al-Douri family business. The group also relies on tribal loyalties of Sunni Arabs for support in Kirkuk province, where many Sunni Arabs were located to from Tikrit during Saddam Hussein's tenure.