The CIA created the Islamic State? Not so fast.

Image from Flickr

Image from Flickr

There’s little doubt that the rise of the Islamic State has been the most pressing concern for Western counter-terrorist and intelligence agencies over the past few years. Indeed, it was their shockingly fast rise to infamy and capture of numerous Iraqi cities in mid-2014 that prompted the United States and her allies to take military action against the terrorist group. Since then, the conflict has become even more complicated and the Islamic State is still a force to be reckoned with. In much the same way that the U.S. Military’s inability to defeat the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army in the 1960s and 70s was hard for many people to understand, so too is the reality that the Islamic State is still in existence despite being opposed by many of the world’s most powerful and technologically advanced military forces. This has prompted many media outlets to claim that, rather than being an enemy force, the Islamic State was actually created by the Central Intelligence Agency and that it receives orders from the American government. When I first started reading these reports, my bullshit detector immediately went off and I decided to investigate. In the much the same way that I investigated claims that marijuana cures cancer, I will show that this CIA creation theory is based on existing facts that have been blown out of proportion and/or come from notoriously unreliable sources.

To begin with, it is not difficult to find sources that argue that the Islamic State is a puppet of the CIA. There are also many variations on this argument. A radical publication called Hang The Bankers claims that the Islamic State’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is actually working for not just the Americans, but also the British and the Israelis. There are also sources that explain how and why this happened, such as the Canadian-based Centre for Research on Globalization. In one of their articles, they use former CIA contractor Steven Kelly as a source claiming that the Americans are using the Islamic State to keep the Middle East in a perpetual state of war. That same publication claims that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (the Islamic State’s leader) received military training from Mossad and was also educated in theology and speech-giving. The online news source Press TV makes a slightly different claim. Rather than being trained by the Americans and the Israelis, al-Baghdadi was subject to mind control while he was being held captive by the Americans and as a result, is being given subliminal orders. Finally, the Australian National Reviews states that “…documents obtained through a federal lawsuit confirmed suspicion that ISIS members were initially trained by the Central Intelligence Agency’s members and contractors at facilities in Jordan in 2012. ” That article then goes on to say that the Islamic State’s rise has been directly controlled by the CIA.

On the surface, these articles seem to provide damning evidence that the CIA are in fact the masterminds behind the Islamic State’s ascent to power. However, all it takes is a little bit of digging to see how unfounded these reports are. To begin with, Hang The Bankers cites several dubious sources. One of them is Infowars, a website run by radio personality Alex Jones which has been described by Skeptoid as “…a grab bag of links, opinion, ads and goofiness.” Infowars has also been described as part of “a rise of “truth” oriented websites that are actually profit-based machines with no regard for the truth or progress.” When describing al-Baghdadi’s training at the hands of Mossad, Global Research uses an English-language Middle Eastern source called the Gulf News Daily. How reliable is it? Particularly on issues that involve Israel and the West, not at all. For example, in 2010, Gulf News Daily wrote a hyperbolic and fearmongering article claiming that Israel was about to launch airstrikes against Tehran. In fact, pretty much every article written about Israel is highly critical of her. So, what of the claim that al-Baghdadi is a sort of Middle Eastern Manchurian candidate? This is made by Press TV, a news website which basically functions as an Iranian propaganda broadcaster. One clear example of this is their description of Wikipedia as “a tool of the Zionist wing of the CIA”. When quoting former CIA contractor Steven Kelly, Global Research used Press TV as its source. Though his quote may seem like convincing evidence, it should be noted that, when Press TV isn’t allowing 9/11 truthers and holocaust deniers to talk on their show, they are known for putting words in their interviewees’ mouths to suit their own anti-Western agenda.

But what of the Australian National Review’s article about CIA involvement in the Islamic State’s rise to power? I’ve left that one until last because this article’s fallacy doesn’t come from outright lies, but from misinterpretations of the facts. Certainly, the CIA and other western government agencies took measures that backfired horribly, but this does not mean at all they they deliberately created the Islamic State. To understand this, one must be familiar with the history of the group from its earliest beginnings.

As with pretty much the entire situation in Syria at the moment, the origins of the Islamic State can be traced back to the American-led occupation of Iraq. In 2006, the head of Al Qaeda in Iraq Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed. After his death, the group changed its name to the Islamic State of Iraq. The height of this group’s power from between 2006 and 2007, with scores of successful attacks being carried out against U.S. and Iraqi forces and installations. However, this power then waned between 2007 and 2011 as a result of two factors. The first was the U.S. troop surge in Iraq. The second was the establishment of ‘awakening councils’. These were groups of Sunni tribesmen who, as a result of opposing the radical Islamic groups, received funding and support from the Americans. In 2010, the group received another major blow when two of its leaders, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi (not to be confused with current leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi) and Abu Hamza al-Muhajir were killed in a joint US-Iraqi operation. Even though ISI’s ability to wage insurgent warfare in Iraq was waning, another war across the border would provide the opportunity for the group of revive itself.

After the deaths of al-Baghdadi and al-Muhajir, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi took control of ISI. One prominent tactic that he continued from his predecessors was the targeting of Shia civilians in order to fuel a sectarian war. However, even though he also targeted police and military installations, he was also able to recruit many former police and military officers into ISI. As luck would have it, in 2011 two things happened that would turn the tide in ISI’s favour. First, the U.S. military officially withdrew from Iraq. With the U.S. military gone, the Iraqi government under Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki reduced funding to the awakening councils as he saw them as a threat rather than an asset. This in turn alienated the councils which caused many of their members to side with ISI. The second was the start of the Syrian Civil War. Baghdadi saw this as an opportunity and sent his fighters into Syria to wage war against the al-Assad regime. His reason for doing this was that al-Assad and his senior commanders were Alawites. The Alawites are a sub-sect of the Shiites, the same group of people who the Sunni ISI were fighting in Iraq. In Syria, Baghdadi’s forces gained a reputation as some of the best fighters on the ground. Unlike most of the secular anti-Assad groups, ISI’s ranks were filled with combat veterans from the Iran-Iraq War, the Gulf Wars and operations against Iraqi uprisings. As a result, these veterans performed much better than most other fighters on the battlefield.

During their Syrian campaign, ISI helped found the al-Nusra Front. This group was al-Qaeda’s official group in Syria. However, despite their ties, al-Qaeda’s senior leadership in Pakistan told al-Baghdadi to leave al-Nusra alone. Not wanting to take direct orders from al-Qaeda, Baghdadi had much bigger plans of his own. As the group was receiving large amounts of money from his backers in the gulf states as well as reaping the financial rewards of oil and people smuggling, they prepared to launch an offensive in their home country of Iraq. January 2014, Baghdadi’s forces captured the Iraqi cities of Fallujah and Ramadi. After gaining a foothold in that state, ISI then launched a major offensive, resulting in the capture of Mosul (Iraq’s second-largest city). It was around this time that al-Baghdadi changed the name of his group to The Islamic State and declared himself to be its Emir.

U.S. Navy F/A-18E Super Hornets after refuelling over northern Iraq, September 2014. Image courtesy of Wikimedia.

U.S. Navy F/A-18E Super Hornets after refuelling over northern Iraq, September 2014. Image courtesy of Wikimedia.

Though US-led military action against the Islamic State officially began on the 8th of August in the form of airstikes against artillery positions, the US and other western states had been contributing to the war effort in Syria for several years beforehand. As far back as June 2012, the media was aware that the CIA officers in southern Turkey were supplying assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and anti-tank weapons to anti-Assad forces. These weapons were largely being provided by Turkey and were being funded by Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Of course, this was a covert campaign that officials at the time were reluctant to comment on. Not only was the CIA providing weapons to the Syrian opposition, but 700 Special Forces soldiers were sent to Jordan to train the anti-Assad fighters. In September 2014, The US Senate passed a bill that officially authorized the providing of weapons and training to Syrian opposition groups (referred to by the Americans at ‘brigades’). However, this now officially sanctioned support didn’t last for long. In January 2015, the US started to cut back its support of Syrian opposition brigades and by October, the $500 million program was scrapped entirely. Poor combat performance was often cited as the reason for this. However, another problem lies in the nature of these brigades. Contrary to rhetoric from the US government, there isn’t really a unified Syrian ‘opposition’. Some brigades are opposed to al-Assad, some are opposed to the Islamic State and some are opposed to the al-Nusra Front. Indeed, these brigades often switch their allegiances. A good example of this situation the Hazzm Movement. This brigade was considered to be a “favourite son” of the Americans and as a result, they received a large amount of weapons and funding. However, this made the other brigades jealous. When al-Nusra attacked the Hazzm Movement, only one other brigade, Jabhat al-Shamiyyah, came to their aid. This wasn’t enough to beat back the al-Qaeda affiliated fighters who quickly defeated the Hazzm Movement.

Certainly, the Islamic State would not be in existence in its current form today if it were not for mistakes made the US and other western powers. Indeed, US Vice-President Joe Biden has even acknowledged that there would be no al-Qaeda in Iraq if that country had not been invaded back in 2003. To begin with, the American-led coalition supported a puppet government in Iraq which was actively trying to fuel sectarian conflict. This in turn radicalised more Iraqis who joined groups like al-Qaeda and subsequently the Islamic State. When the Syrian Civil War began in 2011, the US wrongly thought that it could topple the al-Assad regime just by supporting opposition fighters. What they failed to understand was that the incredibly complicated nature of the Syrian ‘opposition’ brigades and their shifting loyalties. It should also be noted that supporting the Syrian opposition brigades is just the most recent in a long line of similar operations that have caused trouble for the Americans including the Bay of Pigs, the Nicaraguan Contras and the Afghan Mujihadeen. Indeed, to some extent, the CIA at one point welcomed the idea of a “Salafist principality”, though this was long before the Islamic State began its offensive into Iraq. This just proves how the CIA wrongly believed that any group would be preferable to have control over Syria than the al-Assad regime.

So, how does this all tie in with the myth that the Islamic State is a puppet of the Americans and other western powers? As Marc Simms writing for Rebel News says “As always, when something bad is happening in the world, there is a small but vocal contingent who are convinced that the CIA had a hand in it.” As I have proven above, the CIA certainly did make many critical errors that allowed the Islamic State to flourish, but this does not mean that they intentionally created the group. The equipment and training that Islamic State fighters received from the Americans was not direct. Rather, it came from fighters who defected from brigades that the CIA once supported due to their supposed ‘moderate’ status. Going back even further, the US-supported Iraqi government under Nouri al-Maliki created conditions in that country that radicalised much of the Sunni population and turned them to groups such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. Again, while this was certainly a mistake, it doesn’t mean that the CIA was directly responsible for fuelling the Iraqi sectarian conflict. This is simply an all-too-common case of reporters jumping to conclusions without doing proper background research.

Finally, the majority of the articles that ‘prove’ a direct link between the CIA and the Islamic State can only be described as examples of bad journalism. In any field of journalism, giving credit to sources that are unreliable and treating them as though they are the undeniable truth should be avoided completely. However, this is how many publications have spun their CIA-Islamic State argument. While it is important to report on the US Government’s inexcusably bad policy decisions (especially when they result in hundreds of thousands of dead civilians), embellishing biased and unreliable sources to suit one’s anti-American and anti-western agenda is just as counter-productive as reporting that everything the government says is the absolute truth.



About alexcarrette

University of Queensland graduate (Bachelor of Journalism and Arts with majors in History and International Relations), rock/metal musician, amateur photographer, and massive military history nerd.
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