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How Washington Enabled ISIS

[This essay is excerpted from the first chapter of Patrick Cockburn’s new book, The Jihadis Return: ISIS and the New Sunni Uprising [1]with special thanks to his publisher, OR Books [2].  The first section is a new introduction written for TomDispatch [3].]

There are extraordinary elements in the present U.S. policy in Iraq and Syria that are attracting surprisingly little attention. In Iraq, the U.S. is carrying out air strikes and sending in advisers and trainers to help beat back the advance of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (better known as ISIS) on the Kurdish capital, Erbil. The U.S. would presumably do the same if ISIS surrounds or attacks Baghdad. But in Syria, Washington’s policy is the exact opposite: there the main opponent of ISIS is the Syrian government and the Syrian Kurds in their northern enclaves. Both are under attack from ISIS, which has taken about a third of the country, including most of its oil and gas production facilities.

But U.S., Western European, Saudi, and Arab Gulf policy is to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad, which happens to be the policy of ISIS and other jihadis in Syria. If Assad goes, then ISIS will be the beneficiary, since it is either defeating or absorbing the rest of the Syrian armed opposition. There is a pretense in Washington and elsewhere that there exists a “moderate” Syrian opposition being helped by the U.S., Qatar, Turkey, and the Saudis.  It is, however, weak, and getting more so by the day. Soon the new caliphate may stretch from the Iranian border to the Mediterranean and the only force that can possibly stop this from happening is the Syrian army.

The reality of U.S. policy is to support the government of Iraq, but not Syria, against ISIS. But one reason that group has been able to grow so strong in Iraq is that it can draw on its resources and fighters in Syria. Not everything that went wrong in Iraq was the fault of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, as has now become the political and media consensus in the West. Iraqi politicians have been telling me for the last two years that foreign backing for the Sunni revolt in Syria would inevitably destabilize their country as well.  This has now happened.

By continuing these contradictory policies in two countries, the U.S. has ensured that ISIS can reinforce its fighters in Iraq from Syria and vice versa. So far, Washington has been successful in escaping blame for the rise of ISIS by putting all the blame on the Iraqi government. In fact, it has created a situation in which ISIS can survive and may well flourish.

Using the al-Qaeda Label

The sharp increase in the strength and reach of jihadist organizations in Syria and Iraq has generally been unacknowledged until recently by politicians and media in the West. A primary reason for this is that Western governments and their security forces narrowly define the jihadist threat as those forces directly controlled by al-Qaeda central or “core” al-Qaeda. This enables them to present a much more cheerful picture of their successes in the so-called war on terror than the situation on the ground warrants.

In fact, the idea that the only jihadis to be worried about are those with the official blessing of al-Qaeda is naïve and self-deceiving. It ignores the fact, for instance, that ISIS has been criticized by the al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri for its excessive violence and sectarianism. After talking to a range of Syrian jihadi rebels not directly affiliated with al-Qaeda in southeast Turkey earlier this year, a source told me that “without exception they all expressed enthusiasm for the 9/11 attacks and hoped the same thing would happen in Europe as well as the U.S.”

Jihadi groups ideologically close to al-Qaeda have been relabeled as moderate if their actions are deemed supportive of U.S. policy aims. In Syria, the Americans backed a plan by Saudi Arabia to build up a “Southern Front” based in Jordan that would be hostile to the Assad government in Damascus, and simultaneously hostile to al-Qaeda-type rebels in the north and east. The powerful but supposedly moderate Yarmouk Brigade, reportedly the planned recipient of anti-aircraft missiles from Saudi Arabia, was intended to be the leading element in this new formation. But numerous videos show that the Yarmouk Brigade has frequently fought in collaboration with JAN, the official al-Qaeda affiliate. Since it was likely that, in the midst of battle, these two groups would share their munitions, Washington was effectively allowing advanced weaponry to be handed over to its deadliest enemy. Iraqi officials confirm that they have captured sophisticated arms from ISIS fighters in Iraq that were originally supplied by outside powers to forces considered to be anti-al-Qaeda in Syria.

[1]The name al-Qaeda has always been applied flexibly when identifying an enemy. In 2003 and 2004 in Iraq, as armed Iraqi opposition to the American and British-led occupation mounted, U.S. officials attributed most attacks to al-Qaeda, though many were carried out by nationalist and Baathist groups. Propaganda like this helped to persuade nearly 60 percent of U.S. voters prior to the Iraq invasion that there was a connection between Saddam Hussein and those responsible for 9/11, despite the absence of any evidence for this. In Iraq itself, indeed throughout the entire Muslim world, these accusations have benefited al-Qaeda by exaggerating its role in the resistance to the U.S. and British occupation.

Precisely the opposite PR tactics were employed by Western governments in 2011 in Libya, where any similarity between al-Qaeda and the NATO-backed rebels fighting to overthrow the Libyan leader, Muammar Gaddafi, was played down. Only those jihadis who had a direct operational link to the al-Qaeda “core” of Osama bin Laden were deemed to be dangerous. The falsity of the pretense that the anti-Gaddafi jihadis in Libya were less threatening than those in direct contact with al-Qaeda was forcefully, if tragically, exposed when U.S. ambassador Chris Stevens was killed by jihadi fighters in Benghazi in September 2012. These were the same fighters lauded by Western governments and media for their role in the anti-Gaddafi uprising.

Imagining al-Qaeda as the Mafia

Al-Qaeda is an idea rather than an organization, and this has long been the case. For a five-year period after 1996, it did have cadres, resources, and camps in Afghanistan, but these were eliminated after the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001. Subsequently, al-Qaeda’s name became primarily a rallying cry, a set of Islamic beliefs, centering on the creation of an Islamic state, the imposition of sharia, a return to Islamic customs, the subjugation of women, and the waging of holy war against other Muslims, notably the Shia, who are considered heretics worthy of death. At the center of this doctrine for making war is an emphasis on self-sacrifice and martyrdom as a symbol of religious faith and commitment. This has resulted in using untrained but fanatical believers as suicide bombers, to devastating effect.

It has always been in the interest of the U.S. and other governments that al-Qaeda be viewed as having a command-and-control structure like a mini-Pentagon, or like the mafia in America. This is a comforting image for the public because organized groups, however demonic, can be tracked down and eliminated through imprisonment or death. More alarming is the reality of a movement whose adherents are self-recruited and can spring up anywhere.

Osama bin Laden’s gathering of militants, which he did not call al-Qaeda until after 9/11, was just one of many jihadi groups 12 years ago. But today its ideas and methods are predominant among jihadis because of the prestige and publicity it gained through the destruction of the Twin Towers, the war in Iraq, and its demonization by Washington as the source of all anti-American evil. These days, there is a narrowing of differences in the beliefs of jihadis, regardless of whether or not they are formally linked to al-Qaeda central.

Unsurprisingly, governments prefer the fantasy picture of al-Qaeda because it enables them to claim victories when it succeeds in killing its better known members and allies. Often, those eliminated are given quasi-military ranks, such as “head of operations,” to enhance the significance of their demise. The culmination of this heavily publicized but largely irrelevant aspect of the “war on terror” was the killing of bin Laden in Abbottabad in Pakistan in 2011. This enabled President Obama to grandstand before the American public as the man who had presided over the hunting down of al-Qaeda’s leader. In practical terms, however, his death had little impact on al-Qaeda-type jihadi groups, whose greatest expansion has occurred subsequently.

Ignoring the Roles of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan

The key decisions that enabled al-Qaeda to survive, and later to expand, were made in the hours immediately after 9/11. Almost every significant element in the project to crash planes into the Twin Towers and other iconic American buildings led back to Saudi Arabia. Bin Laden was a member of the Saudi elite, and his father had been a close associate of the Saudi monarch. Citing a CIA report from 2002, the official 9/11 report says that al-Qaeda relied for its financing on “a variety of donors and fundraisers, primarily in the Gulf countries and particularly in Saudi Arabia.”

The report’s investigators repeatedly found their access limited or denied when seeking information in Saudi Arabia. Yet President George W. Bush apparently never even considered holding the Saudis responsible for what happened. An exit of senior Saudis, including bin Laden relatives, from the U.S. was facilitated by the U.S. government in the days after 9/11. Most significant, 28 pages of the 9/11 Commission Report about the relationship between the attackers and Saudi Arabia were cut and never published, despite a promise by President Obama to do so, on the grounds of national security.

In 2009, eight years after 9/11, a cable from the U.S. secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, revealed by WikiLeaks, complained that donors in Saudi Arabia constituted the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide. But despite this private admission, the U.S. and Western Europeans continued to remain indifferent to Saudi preachers whose message, spread to millions by satellite TV, YouTube, and Twitter, called for the killing of the Shia as heretics. These calls came as al-Qaeda bombs were slaughtering people in Shia neighborhoods in Iraq. A sub-headline in another State Department cable in the same year reads: “Saudi Arabia: Anti-Shi’ism as Foreign Policy?” Now, five years later, Saudi-supported groups have a record of extreme sectarianism against non-Sunni Muslims.

Pakistan, or rather Pakistani military intelligence in the shape of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), was the other parent of al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and jihadi movements in general. When the Taliban was disintegrating under the weight of U.S. bombing in 2001, its forces in northern Afghanistan were trapped by anti-Taliban forces. Before they surrendered, hundreds of ISI members, military trainers, and advisers were hastily evacuated by air. Despite the clearest evidence of ISI’s sponsorship of the Taliban and jihadis in general, Washington refused to confront Pakistan, and thereby opened the way for the resurgence of the Taliban after 2003, which neither the U.S. nor NATO has been able to reverse.

The “war on terror” has failed because it did not target the jihadi movement as a whole and, above all, was not aimed at Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, the two countries that fostered jihadism as a creed and a movement. The U.S. did not do so because these countries were important American allies whom it did not want to offend. Saudi Arabia is an enormous market for American arms, and the Saudis have cultivated, and on occasion purchased, influential members of the American political establishment. Pakistan is a nuclear power with a population of 180 million and a military with close links to the Pentagon.

The spectacular resurgence of al-Qaeda and its offshoots has happened despite the huge expansion of American and British intelligence services and their budgets after 9/11. Since then, the U.S., closely followed by Britain, has fought wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and adopted procedures normally associated with police states, such as imprisonment without trial, rendition, torture, and domestic espionage. Governments wage the “war on terror” claiming that the rights of individual citizens must be sacrificed to secure the safety of all.

In the face of these controversial security measures, the movements against which they are aimed have not been defeated but rather have grown stronger. At the time of 9/11, al-Qaeda was a small, generally ineffectual organization; by 2014 al-Qaeda-type groups were numerous and powerful.

In other words, the “war on terror,” the waging of which has shaped the political landscape for so much of the world since 2001, has demonstrably failed. Until the fall of Mosul, nobody paid much attention.

Patrick Cockburn is Middle East correspondent for the Independent and worked previously for the Financial Times. He has written three books on Iraq’s recent history as well as a memoir, The Broken Boy [4], and, with his son, a book on schizophrenia, Henry’s Demons [5]. He won the Martha Gellhorn Prize in 2005, the James Cameron Prize in 2006, and the Orwell Prize for Journalism in 2009. His forthcoming book, The Jihadis Return: ISIS and the New Sunni Uprising [1], is now available exclusively from OR Books [2]. This excerpt (with an introductory section written for TomDispatch [3]) is taken from that book.

Copyright 2014 Patrick Cockburn

12 Comments (Open | Close)

12 Comments To "How Washington Enabled ISIS"

#1 Comment By SDS On August 21, 2014 @ 12:05 pm

“After talking to a range of Syrian jihadi rebels not directly affiliated with al-Qaeda in southeast Turkey earlier this year, a source told me that “without exception they all expressed enthusiasm for the 9/11 attacks and hoped the same thing would happen in Europe as well as the U.S.””

“the official 9/11 report says that al-Qaeda relied for its financing on “a variety of donors and fundraisers, primarily in the Gulf countries and particularly in Saudi Arabia”

With “friends” and allies”(NATO; no less!)like this; who needs enemies??

#2 Comment By SDS On August 21, 2014 @ 12:06 pm

What in HELL is the matter with us?

#3 Comment By balconesfault On August 21, 2014 @ 12:08 pm

Excellent. I think Cockburn is correct – and one of the critiques of our era when historians look back will be to note how much the proliferation of terrorist organizations served the interests of the more powerful governments and oligarchs.

#4 Comment By The Wet One On August 21, 2014 @ 12:47 pm

Is there anything in the world the U.S. doesn’t control and is thus responsible for?

I’m just curious.

Setting that aside, this excerpt brings up the question that occurred to me shortly after 9/11.

Namely, how does one kill off an idea? So far, the efforts of the West haven’t been terribly effective and the power of the ideas behind Al Quaeda live on. Is it something simply to be managed or is victory even feasible in any meaningful sense? For example, we defeated Nazism, but Neo-Nazis are essentially everywhere in the West still. They don’t do very much though. Can we get to the same place with the ideas behind Islamism or whatever you call it? I don’t know. If we got there though, it’s be a marked improvement over our present state of affairs and would be victory (or “Mission Accomplished” if you will) enough for me.

#5 Comment By Patrick D On August 21, 2014 @ 2:00 pm

SDS,

“What the HELL is the matter with us?”

The United States wants to play global hegemon.

Being in a position to stop the flow of crude to Asia and Europe is key to that so, in theory, we have to play regional hegemon in the Greater Middle East.

In practice, that means we get sucked into local conflicts and played by local actors over things that have nothing to do with our vital national interests… because who wouldn’t want the resources of a stupid superpower employed in their favor? Saudi Arabia and Israel are the primary culprits currently.

#6 Comment By VincentT On August 21, 2014 @ 5:37 pm

The largest percentage of Raytheon’s foreign business is Saudi Arabia.

#7 Comment By Hassan Dibadj On August 21, 2014 @ 6:17 pm

Great post. I think the West, particularly AngloSaxon, especially USA, suffer from a shallow understanding of the ME counties. They quickly sort out every affair as allies vs. enemies. Allies are the ones with arms deals and lobby. Enemy is the one who doesn’t try to buy American products or politicians. The result in this case has been American support for the enemies of humanity.

#8 Comment By JohnG On August 21, 2014 @ 6:26 pm

Excellent analysis, this simultaneous pyromaniac-firefighter behavior is truly astounding.

It could indeed be that a “blind superpower” is being played by some local interests, showing for the zillionth time that global (or even very large) empires simply cannot function in the long run. But one still has to wonder how these same interests could hijack so many (supposedly free) media outlets at the same time? I am just too skeptical, too many smart people in various think-tanks, media, foreign policy establishment, SOMEONE would have spoken up by now! It will be truly fascinating to read various memoirs 20 years from now, this is all just too weird.

If we invade and suddenly “democratize” a multiethnic state cobbled together by foreign powers and then held together by a strong dictator just WHAT do we expect? Toppling Saddam and trying to do the same with Bashar without ready-to-implement plans to federalize the respective country means that one is either incompetent or one’s goal simply isn’t peace/democracy/prosperity. We are yet to find out which of the two is at work here.

And just what did we expect the Sunnis to do once they were thoroughly cleansed and abused by the Shia and Kurds in large parts of Iraq? Again, it can only be incompetence or some devious agenda to stand by and not provide some constitutional and other safety valves for the Sunnis in Iraq. If you leave such gaping vacuum of course some unsavory force will try to fill it. And, if someone thought that helping the Sunnis of Syria would be seen as a “fair compensation” for the abuse in Iraq they are simply out of their mind, God help us all with everything that’s going on.

Sometimes I wish we could clearly identify the creators of this insane foreign policy and then sue them for malpractice.

#9 Comment By Kurt Gayle On August 22, 2014 @ 10:04 am

Patrick Cockburn writes so many important things – among them:

“Al-Qaeda is an idea rather than an organization, and this has long been the case…[but] it has always been in the interest of the U.S. and other governments that al-Qaeda be viewed as having a command-and-control structure like a mini-Pentagon, or like the mafia in America. This is a comforting image for the public because organized groups, however demonic, can be tracked down and eliminated through imprisonment or death. More alarming is the reality of a movement whose adherents are self-recruited and can spring up anywhere.”

The U.S. invasion and occupation of Afghanistan was a politically motivated operation based upon the political need to “do something” about 9/11. Although the Taliban government agreed (with very minimal face-saving conditions) to eliminate the few al-Qaeda training camps that actually existed in Afghanistan, the Bush administration insisted on pushing ahead with the invasion for political reasons. The subsequent ensnaring of the U.S. military in Aghanistan (the longest war in American history) served to further publicize and enhance the standing of al-Qaeda’s ideas among radicalized Moslem youth worldwide.

Cockburn continues:

“Unsurprisingly, governments prefer the fantasy picture of al-Qaeda because it enables them to claim victories when it succeeds in killing its better known members and allies. Often, those eliminated are given quasi-military ranks, such as ‘head of operations,’ to enhance the significance of their demise. The culmination of this heavily publicized but largely irrelevant aspect of the ‘war on terror’ was the killing of bin Laden in Abbottabad in Pakistan in 2011. This enabled President Obama to grandstand before the American public as the man who had presided over the hunting down of al-Qaeda’s leader.”

More importantly, but negatively for the U.S., the capture and killing of bin Laden served to further publicize and enhance al-Qaeda ideas worldwide.

I’m reminded of Marlon Brando’s words from the 1969 movie “Burn”:

“The man who fights for an idea is a hero. And a hero who is killed becomes a martyr, and a martyr immediately becomes a myth. A myth is more dangerous than a man because you can’t kill a myth.”

Killing the captured bin Laden was a mistake, just as invading Afghanistan was a mistake.

Sometimes when I think about the U.S. foreign policy and political establishments I am reminded of Plato’s allegory of the “ship of fools.” The allegory depicts a ship populated by humans who are either deranged, frivolous, oblivious, or all three. It is a ship without a pilot, and the passengers are seemingly ignorant of their own direction.

It is a ship that appears to be doomed.

#10 Comment By Johann On August 22, 2014 @ 11:34 am

Taliban->Pakistan. Al Qaeda & ISIS -> Saudi Arabia. Classic cases of snakes biting their handlers. And as the article points out, we helped feed the snakes. Its the result of blind obedience to ideologies, not realities. Time to ally with Syria and Iran. Israel can take care of itself now.

#11 Comment By Waz On August 22, 2014 @ 3:00 pm

Does anybody believe that all of these “naive” acting would be possible without direct or indirect support from Israel? Note complete lack of opposition from the very vociferous lobby. On the contrary, they have been very supportive for all policies resulting in destabilization of any country from Pakistan to Algeria. The Israelis have excellent intelligence capabilities in all these countries and the religious/political geography of the terrain is known to them excquisitely well. The operating strategy here is simple and obvious since at least 9/11.
It has two major objectives:

– destabilize the region so no significant alliance of it’s predominantly muslim neighbours can be constructed.

– entangle the western powers (mainly the US) militarily in the ME. Until the end of the century this was carefully avoided or limited to short term intervensions.

So far it’s going as planned, but any grand strategy on that scale in the context of very complex social structures is bound to bring many nasty surprises.

#12 Comment By STJ On August 24, 2014 @ 7:28 pm

@Johann

Must I remind you that Iran and Syria back Hezbollah and to a certain extent Hamas?

There are truly no good actors to support in the Middle East and so to quote Stephen Walt, we should “let it bleed.” It’d be nice if we could figuratively fence off the place and let them fight each other until somebody wins.