ISIS is Born in Iraq
The origins of ISIS are buried beneath the rubble of the US occupation.
It was out of this crucible of war and invasion that the original grievances were born, leading analysts to conclude that “the basic causes of the birth of ISIS” were the United States’ “destructive interventions in the Middle East and the war in Iraq.”1
The framework underlying this being the exacerbation of Sunni-Shia tensions in the aftermath of the invasion, which previously have been inflamed through various other foreign interferences. These were highlighted by the sectarian brutality of the post-invasion Iraqi government, which then continued under Maliki later on. Given this, some have concluded that Saddam had simply been replaced by another “repressive and murderous authoritarian state, albeit under a more representative sectarian set up.”2
Out of this sectarian nexus, a man known by the name of al-Zarqawi was able to bring together various groups of jihadists under the umbrella of “al-Qaeda in Iraq” and lay the foundations for a sort of governmental structure which could evolve into an eventual Islamic state. A veteran of the jihad in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union in the 1980s, Zarqawi had reportedly obtained sanctuary in Iran where he accumulated weapons and equipment before later returning to Iraq to oppose the US occupation.4
Following al-Zarqawi’s death at the hands of a US airstrike, a new federation of jihadists then established the “Islamic State in Iraq” by the end of 2006, although it was at first marked by widespread defections as the Sunni insurgency was then losing momentum. However, evidence reveals that Syria’s Bashar al-Assad had helped the insurgents by facilitating the flow of jihadists into Iraq, in an apparent attempt to jeopardize the US occupation and thereby prevent against a similar US attack against Syria.5
Yet what really allowed ISI to expand its influence were the abuses and violence perpetrated by the US military.6 Rising to power during his imprisonment in the infamous Camp Bucca, the group was rejuvenated under the enhanced leadership of the mysterious to-be-named al-Baghdadi.
However, it is widely accepted that the Camp Bucca prison served as a sort of training ground or “jihadist university” from which the eventual Islamic State was born. The networks Baghdadi established there going on to form the upper echelons of the groups top leadership. Indeed, without such military detentions “it would have been impossible for so many like minded jihadists and insurgents to have met together safely in Iraq at that time without such a protective atmosphere as Bucca.” In this sense, a former inmate explains that the US did “a great favor” for the mujahideen, having “provided us with a secure atmosphere, a bed and food, and also allowed books giving us a great opportunity to feed our knowledge with the ideas of al-Maqdisi and the jihadist ideology.”7
Yet the round-ups conducted by the US army were indiscriminate and civilians were targeted wholesale, estimates from 2006 confirming that only 15% of detainees were true adherents of any kind of extremist ideology.8 Yet now jihadists leaders like Baghdadi were given an opportunity to further radicalize others, prisoners explaining how “under the watchful eye of the US soldiers”, “new recruits were prepared so that when they were freed they were ticking time bombs”, not the least of which due to the extensively documented abuses and torture that took place there as well.9
Concurrent with this was a covert attempt by the US military to defeat al-Qaeda in Iraq by fostering alliances with other al-Qaeda-affiliated Sunnis. Spelled out and confirmed by an army-commissioned Rand report, the strategy was to utilize groups like ISI, who, although having fought against the US military, could be counted on to “sow divisions in the jihadist camp” by fighting against al-Qaeda, and thereby the US could exploit “the common threat that al-Qaeda now poses to both parties.”
Mass releases from Bucca were therefore orchestrated in an attempt to augment the strategy with manpower and engender support from the local Sunni tribes. And while the strategy in a sense succeeded, at the same time, it also emboldened another segment of disgruntled Sunnis, when the original causes of their resentments were continuing under the anti-Sunni repression of the US-backed government. The resulting sectarian violence pushed other Sunnis into supporting ISI as the lesser of the two evils, further entrenching the groups foothold in the country.10 Yet this was only half of the story.
By this time influential policy planners were already thinking up other strategic uses which could be gleaned from supporting these disgruntled Sunni radicals.
The accelerated relationship then forming between Maliki and Iran had greatly distressed the White House. Fearing an Iranian-dominated Iraq more so than a resurgence of al-Qaeda, in the context of a “redirection” of US policy against Iran, it was thought that “ties between the US and moderate or even radical Sunnis could put fear into the government of Prime Minister Maliki.” The reasoning was that an alliance with Sunni extremists would be useful as it would “make [Maliki] worry that the Sunnis could actually win the civil war there”, and thus encourage him to cooperate with the US.11 Therefore, in order to remedy the Iranian influence spreading throughout the Maliki government, clandestine operations were adopted, the byproduct of which being the “bolstering of Sunni extremist groups that espouse a militant vision of Islam and are hostile to America and sympathetic to Al Qaeda.”12
The Fake Arab Spring
With the eruption of the crisis in Syria and the subsequent lack of state authority that came with it, ISI was able to exploit the power vacuum and expand its grasp beyond Iraqi borders, changing its name to the “Islamic state in Iraq and al-Sham/the Levant” or ISIS/ISIL to reflect this greater reach.13
The Syrian crisis itself represents just one part in a much larger strategy by the Western powers aimed at manipulating the trajectory of the Arab Spring uprisings to ensure that they ultimately serve the regional agenda of the West. Having successfully thwarted the threats faced from the self-determination and pro-democracy uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen, similar but smaller protests in Syria and Libya were covertly redirected into a pretext for attacking uncooperative regimes which had historically proven antagonistic to Western interests.14
The uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen all threatened to wrestle away the status-quo systems of control that the Western powers had exerted in these countries for almost half a century. This had ensured that foreign corporations maintained easy access to valuable markets and resources and that profits flowed primarily to Western investors.15
This framework of neoliberal reform began to be implemented during the 1970’s when Arab republics were struggling amidst the impacts of global economic downturns and began to institute policies largely directed from above by international finance institutions (IFIs) such as the IMF and World Bank. Given that the IFIs had been increasingly dominated by Western governments, they primarily represented the interests of the financial elite from wealthy Western countries. Therefore, the models they suggested were of rapid economic liberalization and denationalization which on the one hand gave Arab administrations immediate financial relief, yet at the same time, made their economies increasingly vulnerable to exploitation by Western multinational corporations and financial institutions.16 As some have described, such policies had the effect of “massively restricting the ability of [these] governments to promote policies in their own national interests”, as they promoted rules which the UN explained “reflect an agenda that serves only to promote dominant corporate interests”, while at the same time rejecting the kind of policies that historically have been shown to achieve developmental success, such as import controls, taxes on foreign corporations, and state interference in the private sector.17
These policies resulted in the emergence of a growing state-bourgeoisie which was able to enrich itself in a nepotistic fashion through its proximity to influential players within the state sector, allowing connected persons and groups primary access to newly privatized assets which they were able to monopolize and monetize.18 These local elites served the function of clients of the Western powers which insured that the vast bulk of the country’s wealth would flow outwards and into the hands of foreign investors, resulting in a system of modern day neo-colonialism from which the United States and other previously colonial regimes were able to maintain effective control of the region and its resources.19
Apart from the liberalization of resources the prescriptions adopted from the IFIs included the removal of labor rights, the weakening of trade unions, increases in worker instability, tax advantages for foreign corporations, and the privatization of welfare systems.20 This lead to massive increases in inequality, large concentration of wealth, and an erosion of the previous Cold War-era social contract which had traded economic security for political quiescence to authoritarian political structures.21
As these policies advanced these states were increasingly unable to meet the basic needs of their citizens, and the compounding socio-economic pressures led to the rediscovery of long-suppressed notions of Arab dignity and self-determination which became personified within the Arab Spring protests. In this way, the Arab Spring was primarily a result of “people being drawn to the streets by the pressing economic grievances and uneven development that are the result of more than thirty years of neo-liberal policies.”22
Such movements were naturally a major threat to the established systems of power, primarily being centered around social justice and the rebuilding of domestic welfare states that threatened to unseat supplicant and compliant regimes with more assertive and indigenously representative administrations.23 Too much of a challenge for the Western powers to bear, externally-directed counterrevolutions were conducted to insure that such movements would be co-opted and redirected so that the governments which resulted would maintain as much of the previous order as possible, thereby insuring that the threatening ambitions for democracy and self-governance were effectively crushed.24
However, for states which at the same time sat astride coveted natural resources and had long frustrated the ambitions of Western powers to gain greater access, local protests represented a golden opportunity to overturn non-compliant regimes under the pretext of Arab Spring humanitarian and democratic concerns.25 The idea was, as Durham University’s Christopher Davidson explains, to give “ostensibly similar but evidently much smaller-scale protest movements in Libya and Syria the sort of outside helping hand they needed to become full-blown and state-threatening insurgencies.”26 Thus, those Western states which had insured the failure of progressive Arab Spring movements throughout the region, “soon took the concurrent role of funding and weaponizing a fraudulent and more violent Western-sponsored version of the Arab Spring” in both Libya and Syria.27 The cause of such bloody crisis therefore, being a result of these states having been “deliberately targeted in a calculated and sustained manner by external actors who saw a strategic use in supporting and boosting the ambitions of local oppositionists.”28
The “fake Arab Spring” and subsequent civil wars that resulted from these externally-directed and Western-backed insurgencies nevertheless were successful at insuring the failure of the protesters ambitions while as well providing the perfect environment for radicalized extremist organizations to expand their reach and control over territory.29 Such a situation was further encouraged and facilitated by the Western powers who, as previously explained, saw such groups as strategically beneficial foot-soldiers which could be utilized and directed against their enemies.
The “Moderate” Jihad in Syria
Syria was externally targeted because the US and its allies saw it as strategically beneficial to organize and foster an armed insurgency which could eventually become capable of overturning the government. The most prominent aspect of this being the attempt to create a “Free Syrian Army” of opposition fighters which could be displayed as the respectable and indigenous face of the insurgency and help sell the intervention to the Western public.
Helping to hide the foreign hand behind the militants, the rebel arming program was only officially announced in 2013, yet in reality began almost two years prior, at least as early as October 2011 after the fall of Gaddafi in Libya, but likely even much earlier.1 Also dispelling the illusion that these FSA groups were solely a native development, it was revealed in late 2011 that US Special Operations Forces were on the ground and privately discussing to themselves how “there isn’t much of a Free Syrian Army to train right now”, the groups only later gaining prominence as a result of the foreign interference.2
Indeed, by this time knowledgeable academics such as Columbia University’s Joseph Massad were writing that the “[Arab] League and imperial powers have taken over the Syrian uprising in order to remove the al-Assad regime”, while the West’s best journalists would later characterize the program by saying “the impression one gets is of a movement wholly controlled by Arab and Western intelligence agencies.”3 Corroborating much of this, a former rebel explained to the Wall Street Journal how the insurgency was largely being directed from abroad, saying that “decisions weren’t always being made at the local level.” Instead, it was “the Salafists from Gulf nations… and the Muslim Brotherhood in Turkey” who would “send money to certain groups and then orchestrate attacks from afar.”4
Concurrently, great efforts were made to portray the FSA as an entirely independent outfit and to separate Western involvement from the extremist groups that were beginning to form. However, apart from whatever the rebels would tell the Western press, the reality on the ground was that there was never any division between the FSA and groups like al-Qaeda, the Islamists having been welcomed from the very start.5 For instance, the founder of the FSA, Syrian army defector Riad el-Asaad, described al-Qaeda as “our brothers in Islam”, while another rebel commander, a main recipients of US aid, admitted that his organizations was very much alike al-Qaeda and that the two groups fought alongside each other. Al-Qaeda did not, he said, “exhibit any abnormal behavior, which is different from that of the FSA.”6 So while US officials maintained that they only supported “moderates”, journalist Patrick Cockburn gets much closer to the truth, explaining that “it is here that there was a real intention to deceive”, because “in reality, there is no dividing wall between them [ISIS and al-Qaeda] and America’s supposedly moderate opposition allies.”7
Also troubling for the oppositions’ image, the “moderate” nature of the US vetted groups soon began to unravel, the FSA consistently being described as even worse than the groups who are commonly associated with extremism. While Department of Defense officials were aware that the “vast majority of moderate Free Syrian Army rebels were in fact, Islamist militants”, counterterrorism specialists explained that the “undisciplined and brutal behavior of the FSA stood in contrast to the much more disciplined Jabhat Al-Nusra.” Indeed, the British press described this brutal behavior in terms of their “looting and banditry”, explaining that “the FSA has now become a largely criminal enterprise” as they have been primarily focused on “profiteering, gun-running, and the extracting of tolls from road checkpoints.”8
Also quite troubling, being enmeshed with the other fighters the FSA had soon assumed the de-facto function of serving as a weapons conduit to the extremists. While it was later confirmed that at least half of all supplies given to the “moderates” were duly handed over to al-Qaeda,9 multiple court cases earlier revealed that arms shipments received by the FSA would be unloaded and distributed quite indiscriminately to whoever was fighting nearby. Helping to explain this, former MI6 agent Alastair Crooke pointed out that “the West does not actually hand the weapons to al-Qaeda, let alone ISIS… but the system that they have constructed leads precisely to that end.” This is because the weapons shipments given to the FSA “have been understood to be a sort of ‘Wal Mart’ from which the more radical groups would be able to take their weapons and pursue the jihad”, as weapons always migrated “along the line to the more radical elements.”10
This wasn’t something that the Western backers of the opposition just turned a blind eye to, instead such cooperation with jihadists was explicitly ordered by them on multiple occasions, usually when the extremists were needed to win battlefield victories. In 2014, for example, a CIA-backed commander explained that “if the people who support us [the US and its allies] tell us to send weapons to another group, we send them. They asked us a month ago to send weapons to [hard-line Islamists] in Yabroud so we sent a lot of weapons there.”
On a separate occasion, US-led operations rooms “specifically encouraged a closer cooperation with Islamists commanding frontline operations” during the conquest of Idlib, the supervision given by US military intelligence operatives being “instrumental in facilitating their [Islamists’] involvement.”11
Enter the Proxies
Having successfully kept most of this hidden from view, focus on the FSA program helped to distract from the wider reality that the US and its allies were supporting the entire opposition indiscriminately.
It has long been known that states like Qatar had been supporting both al-Qaeda and ISIS,12 their own deputy foreign minister openly stating “I am very much against excluding anyone at this stage, or bracketing them as terrorists, or bracketing them as al-Qaeda given Qatar’s perceived necessity of removing al-Assad at all costs.” As well, al-Qaeda’s Syria franchise themselves admitted that they “get money from the Gulf” with their “great name.”13 Also widely known is that Saudi Arabia and Turkey both had intimate ties with al-Qaeda, ISIS, and the rest of the other radical jihadists. Far from trying to hide these connections, both countries had in fact openly supported a rebel coalition that was dominated by al-Qaeda.14 Yet in reality this was all undertaken in cooperation with the United States or with their implicit blessing.
Getting to the heart of the matter, an extensive investigation by Foreign Policy’s Elizabeth Dickenson uncovered that not only had Qatar gotten “such freedom to run its network for the last three years because Washington was looking the other way,” but that “in fact, in 2011, the US gave Doha de facto free rein to do what it wasn’t willing to do.”15 White House officials explained that “Syria is [Qatar’s] backyard”, while academics similarly concluded “there is no chance that Qatar is doing this alone.”16
Indeed, the weapons shipments coming from Qatar had been conducted in conjunction with the CIA, who US officials confirm acted in a “consultant role.“17 In the case of Saudi Arabia, whose former foreign minister himself admitted that it was the Saudi monarchy who created ISIS, stating “Daesh [ISIS] is our [Sunni] response to your support for the Da’wa [Iran-aligned Shia ruling party of Iraq]”,18 their involvement was also conducted jointly with the US. The terms of this arrangement, revealed by The New York Times, was that the Saudis would provide large sums of money and weapons and in exchange would be granted a seat at the table and have a say as to which groups would be supported, while the CIA would coordinate such shipments and help train the fighters.19 Seemingly finding no objections from their US partners, we now know that they and other Gulf allies were the ones “who fund [ISIS]”, as was revealed by then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in congressional testimony.20 Similarly, while it was revealed that Turkey’s intimate coordination with IS