Eli Wallach, JHU:
The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is getting a lot of press these days. Amidst a series of gruesome executions including that of Japanese journalist Kenji Goto and Jordanian air force pilot Mouath al-Kasaesbeh, it seems the whole world is uniting in collective fear and disapproval of ISIS’s terror-inflicting tactics.
Thus, it may come as a surprise to Americans that some people in Iraq, where ISIS controls large swaths of territory, believe that the CIA has a role in the origins of the aggressive terrorist group. As the New York Times reported this past September, suspicions that the CIA started ISIS are held across many levels of Iraqi society, from Shiite clerics and high-level government officials to everyday citizens.
Considering that the US government spends $300,000 an hour to fight ISIS, this allegation or “conspiracy theory” is seemingly offensive to us Americans. Why would we start something that we spend so much money to end? But as the President and congress take extra steps to evaluate their approach to fighting ISIS, it is increasingly important to reconsider why this suspicion exists, a question that forces us to look at the harsh realities of previous US foreign policy in the Middle East.
ISIS is a radical Sunni pseudo-state. It preys on sectarianism in Iraq, and chaos in Syria, attracting Iraq’s minority Sunni population in a common contempt for Shiites. The funny thing is that this fervent sectarianism did not exist in Iraq until after 2003, when the US invaded.
Furthermore, according to the Washington Post, ISIS’s founder is Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. However, al-Zarqawi was killed in a US airstrike in 2006, while ISIS did not appear on the world stage until 2014.
So, who was al-Zarqawi?
Al-Zarqawi was born in Jordan. Both of his parents died when he was 18, which resulted in a downward spiral in which he dropped out of school and ended up in prison with drug-possession and sexual assault charges. Upon release, al-Zarqawi made way to Afghanistan to fight Soviet forces. However, according to a biographical piece in The Atlantic, al-Zarqawi was not very religious during this time and instead was influenced to go to Afghanistan by Muslim missionary group Tablighi Jamaat. For Al-Zarqawi, who had 37 criminal charges against him, this was a chance to start anew and travel out of Jordan for the first time.
In Afghanistan, Al-Zarqawi was introduced to doctrinaire Islamists from around the world, many of whom had been brought to fight against the Soviet Union by the CIA. The suggestion that the US Government funded Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan is not a conspiracy theory, however. In fact, Hillary Clinton testified to its authenticity in 2007.
[Hilary Clinton talking about funding Al Qaeda here] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dqn0bm4E9yw
But al-Zarqawi did not become a player in Iraq until after the US invaded and deposed infamous Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein, when he founded Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) in 2003. While Hussein’s rule was flawed in many ways, he was in charge of a functional state. Upon US invasion, however, the political climate in Iraq turned into a state of turmoil. In the midst of this political vacuum, anti-American resistance groups composed of the former military and other supporters of the previous regime formed. Al-Zarqawi became a prominent figure in this resistance movement responsible for 10% of the attacks in Iraq, many of which aimed to engage in a civil war against Iraq’s Shiite population.
Al-Zarqawi tactics, including viral beheadings and massacres of Shiites, were so repulsive that even Osama Bin-Ladin disapproved. After an airstrike killed Al-Zarqawi in 2006, AQI rebranded itself under Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and changed its name to what we now know as ISIS.
So, as one can see, our arming of militants in Afghanistan in the 1980s and our unlawful invasion of Iraq in 2003 really set the roots for the creation of the Frankenstein state that is ISIS.
Why would the foreign policy of the world’s most powerful country be so negligent to the effects it would likely ensue? Well, there is a case for the argument that the US foreign policy was badly misinformed. There is also the possibility that the US was so embroiled in the proxy war with the Soviet Union that it was shortsighted regarding the potential consequences of it’s actions. Furthermore, there is also the possibility made known by conspiracy theorists, that this was all propagated as a means to create justification for 21st century imperialism.
Whatever the reason, the United States must grapple with the harsh reality that it had a major role to play in the creation of ISIS. But more importantly, the United States must actively learn from its past mistakes. Respecting sovereignty and self-autonomy in the Middle East is a start.