An Alternative History of ISIS: No, Obama didn’t “found” the terrorist group but it thrived because of his policies


With the United States focused on the most darkly comic presidential election in modern history, a far scarier entertainment continues to unfold in Iraq, which is in a process of steady and likely irreversible collapse. Iraq’s looming demise is evident but it’s been obscured here at home by the media’s waning interest and by the periodic drone strikes and Special Operations assaults against ISIS that keep up the fiction that the U.S. military is helping to maintain a unified, viable country.

On a grander scale the Obama administration — whose Iraq policy is to keep it from disintegrating before November to prevent damage to Hillary Clinton’s presidential aspirations — is pressuring the Iraqi army to recapture Mosul, the country’s second largest city. That would be a short term propaganda coup but, if history is any guide, would create an enormous humanitarian disaster.
Late last year, the Iraqi army recaptured Ramadi — a far smaller town than Mosul and where ISIS is less entrenched. The assault triggered a flood of Sunni refugees that poured into makeshift camps in Kurdish areas and led to the destruction of the city’s main hospital, train station, electric grid and thousands of buildings.

Much of the damage was done by the U.S. trained Iraqi Army, which is now essential a Shia force comprised of regular units integrated with paramilitaries. Three brigades recently trained and armed by the United States were quietly incorporated into the Shia militias, a former senior CIA officer who still regularly travels to Iraq recently told me. “Officially we’re not even supposed to be working with these guys, but…Shia militias [are] on the list of available military units at one of the Pentagon’s new joint operation centers,” he said. “We’re training them and giving them uniforms, and then they put on their militia headbands and go to war.”

The problem is that the Iraqi Army is waging war on Sunni civilians  after it captures areas with far more ferocity than it is on ISIS. I recently received photographs of Shia fighters standing next to their victims. One shows the broken corpse of a Sunni civilian thrown from a roof with one rope tied around his neck and another around his foot — a now common means of execution.

Meanwhile, there is still the minor matter of ISIS to deal with. It still controls a notable chunk of Iraq and Syria and has become a true global threat as thousands of its best fighters have drifted off to help the cause in Libya and North Africa, and has periodically launched global terror attacks. The idea that the United States and the Iraqi Army are on path to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS, as President Obama likes to say, is something taken seriously only by credulous members of the Washington chattering class.


One of the more idiotic media moments of the presidential campaign concerns Donald Trump’s recent claim that Obama is the “founder” of ISIS. There’s no question that Trump posed that possibility — and clearly he and his surrogates are dumb enough to believe it or cynical enough to use it as a talking point for their own political purposes — but the whole media furor surrounding his remarks obscures a serious question: How and why did ISIS grew so rapidly.

Even at this late date, few in the foreign policy establishment understand the group’s origins. “None of our analysts, soldiers, diplomats, politicians, or journalists has yet produced an explanation rich enough—even in hindsight—to have predicted the movement’s rise,” said an article in the New York Review of Books last year.

I traveled extensively last year in Iraq, Lebanon, and Jordan, speaking to politicians, tribal leaders, sheikhs, and military and intelligence officials. There’s a general consensus that the endless indulgence of the U.S. government for the corrupt and brutal Shia-led regime’s policies—specifically its ruthless exclusion of Sunnis—created an environment that allowed ISIS to thrive.

By the way, it’s important to note here, and a lot of media accounts don’t, that ISIS morphed out of Al Qaeda in Iraq, which itself emerged in the early years of the post-invasion period, but they are not the same thing. ISIS, which is far less restrained in its use of violence, didn’t even exist in a notable way until a few years ago. The George W. Bush administration’s disastrous neocon orchestrated invasion of 2003 paved the way for the country’s collapse into anarchy, but ISIS is fundamentally a post-Obama phenomenon so the idea that his administration has some responsibility for its rise — which is what Trump may have been trying to say in his own unique and illiterate way — is not as lunatic as it sounds.

And the Obama administration in particular contributed to ISIS’s ascent when it permitted prime minister Nouri al-Maliki’s 8-year-long regime to commit widespread human rights abuses against Sunnis, an act that fanned their hatred for the regime in Baghdad. Beyond that, if American financial and military resources, as delivered to the Iraqi government in massive quantities over many years, had been used as mandated, ISIS would not exist today as we know it and the Kurds and Sunnis might not be keen — the latter less vocally but in growing numbers — to free themselves from Baghdad’s control.

“The government starved Sunni provinces and brutalized the people, and that’s how you ended up with ISIS inside the country,” a former Iraqi senior intelligence official told me. “People had two choices: Leave Maliki alone and watch him seize the country for Iran or let ISIS in. It was the lesser of two evils.”

Nussaibah Younis, a Middle East expert at the Atlantic Council who recently led a 23-member delegation to Iraq, said that there is broad dissatisfaction with the political and economic elite that sweeps across ethnic lines. “The government is spending twice as much on salaries per month than what it brings in in oil revenues,” she said. “The economy has become an existential threat, but the political class has no legitimacy because of the massive corruption and can’t make hard choices without being overthrown.” (I have a piece in the September issue of The New Republic that examines the interrelated matter of how corruption played such a central role in fanning the flames of ISIS.)

Making matters even worse, Younis said, is that the new ruling class are seen as foreigners by their own countrymen because virtually all returned from lengthy exile under the sponsorship of the United States after the invasion. “They didn’t live in the country during the suffering of the Saddam regime and then they came back to suck money out and send it abroad to support their outlandish lifestyles. Most of them have sent their families overseas in Paris, London, and Amman. “Their kids go to private schools while Iraqis send their children to schools with 60 kids in a classroom,” she told me. “They don’t believe in or care about their country enough to have their loved ones there. It’s a double whammy.”


Before ISIS’s near capture of Erbil, the city was bustling with foreign businessmen and tourists from across the Middle East and Asia. But by the time I traveled there last summer, most of the foreigners were gone. Tourist spots like the famous Citadel—which dates to the 5th millennium BCE and is said to be the oldest continuously inhabited town in the world—were virtually empty.

The city was in wretched shape. Children selling cotton candy, balloons, and cheap toys lined major roads. The population of the city’s Christian neighborhood had doubled to around 120,000 people, internal refugees from territory taken by ISIS. Friends took me to a once popular garden restaurant and there was almost no one there. We drank a beer and watched Kurdish patriotic videos shown on the wall that featured terribly brave looking peshmerga fighters getting ready to go to war and their beautiful wives promising to wait for them to come back. A building across the street from the restaurant had been shelled and was occupied by refugees.

Security was tight everywhere in Erbil, but was notably heavy at the Divan, a five-star luxury hotel, where ExxonMobil and Chevron had rented out entire floors for their oil executives. Machine gun-toting guards manned barricades in front of the hotel, a hundred yards from the entrance, and they searched every vehicle carefully with the help of bomb sniffing dogs. One day, I met Dhari al Dolene, a sheikh of one of the biggest Anbar tribes, and Abed Mohammal al Bulamili, one of the few Sunni generals in the Iraqi Army, at the hotels vast salon. They both have homes in Anbar but the security situation there was so dangerous that they offered to come to Erbil in place of my traveling to see them.

As uniformed waiters served us small cups of sweet Turkish coffee and the general and I chain-smoked, the two men laid out their theory of ISIS’s rise. In their view, Syrian leader Bashar al- Assad viewed the U.S.-supported Free Syrian Army as a far greater threat to his regime then ISIS—especially as there was serious talk in Washington as late as 2014 of heavily arming the FSA and even of an invasion to topple him. Saddam and Libya’s Moamar al Qaddafi  had already been dispensed with in the same sort of American-led “nation-building” exercise that the American foreign policy establishment then gleefully discussed as a “solution” for  Syria, so that was an idea that Assad viewed with understandable alarm.

Assad, Dolene said over the twinkling notes of a grand piano across the room, didn’t much care for ISIS, but he viewed it as a hedge against Western forces, a strategic tool to ensure his survival. He actively abetted it financially and logistically because he didn’t believe it represented an existential threat. Even better, the atrocities it committed helped him argue to the United States and other Western powers that he was a better alternative to a radical Islamist led Syria. “All that talk about overthrowing Assad disappeared after ISIS was deemed to be a major international threat,” Dolene noted.

Maliki watched and learned from his Syrian ally. By late 2013 he was scheming for an unconstitutional third term as prime minister, and he tried to convince the Obama administration, unsuccessfully, that he was the only thing that stood between an ISIS take-over of Iraq. Meanwhile, he cut financial and military support to Sunnis, and ordered the Army to seize weapons from Anbar tribal fighters, Bulamili told me.

Then, in December 2013, government security forces killed dozens of people in vicious attacks on demonstrators at encampments in six Sunni provinces—and the Obama administration looked on in silence. Sunnis felt they had no options. They could accept Maliki’s Shia-Iranian regime and lose their sovereignty, or let ISIS in and hope for the best.

Within a month, ISIS had a foothold in Anbar and had taken control of Fallujah. Even if ISIS’s origins can never be fully determined, this is the moment that it became important in Iraq.
Six months later heavily armed Iraqi forces abandoned Mosul to a small band of ISIS fighters and the terrorist group declared its caliphate. “The Iraqi Army didn’t get driven out of Mosul,” a former intelligence official wryly told me. “They drove out.”

At the same time ISIS overran Camp Speicher, a weapons distribution hub, where they executed more than 1,500 Shia Iraqi Air Force cadets. The terrorist group loaded up trucks with hundreds of millions of dollars worth of equipment and drove off with several thousand Humvees — enough weaponry to keep them fighting for five years. Meanwhile, Maliki ordered  Iraqi security forces to withdraw ahead of ISIS’s attack on Kirkuk, which was occupied (and held ever since) by Kurdish forces at the request of desperate citizens who had watched their country’s Army take flight without a shot being fired.

ISIS took over Western Anbar without a fight and at first coexisted easily with the population. It initially brought relative security to the Sunnis, at least compared to their treatment at the hands of the Shia military. “People in Anbar, especially the Western tribes, are very simple, they can live with anyone as long as there is peace,” General Bulamili said. “The local population under ISIS [initially] lived a better quality of life than Sunni refugees in tent camps.” (ISIS soon turned on Sunnis who objected to their bizarre and fanatical interpretation of Islam and began executing tribal chiefs who they viewed as enemies.)

Meanwhile, the Iraqi government—and much of the world—considers the Sunnis be ISIS collaborators. And so Iraqi army and Iranian-backed militias and volunteer forces have sought to destroy anything ISIS hasn’t left standing. Government security forces have been killed far more Sunnis than ISIS and has targeted in particular key political and military leaders, and tribal fighters who the U.S. used to evict Al Qaeda a decade ago.

Dolene and General Bulamili believe that the Iraqi Army’s retreat from Mosul and Kirkuk was ordered by Maliki. He and his Iranian sponsors were happy to let ISIS storm into Sunni areas and wreak violence on the people, because he believed the Shia-led army and paramilitaries could easily defeat ISIS down the road. That proved to be a miscalculation on an epic scale.

Dolene’s and Bulamili’s suggestion that Assad and Maliki helped facilitate ISIS may sound conspiratorial, but I heard a similar if not identical narrative from other experts, including some U.S. academics and think tank analysts.

Younis at the Atlantic Council noted that Assad’s regime put forth a narrative that labeled all of his enemies as terrorists and hence “the emergence of ISIS was a blessing” to him. “He might not have actively cultivated ISIS but there were ties between his regime and the terrorist group, she said, noting that Assad’s government bought oil from ISIS. And from a strategic military standpoint, Assad largely left ISIS alone and focused his forces on the so-called  “moderate” rebels, who were financially backed by the U.S. and generally beloved by the Western media.

Younis said Maliki’s role was trickier to determine, but she agreed that the terrorist group’s arrival on the scene initially served his political interests and he, in the most generous interpretation, mishandled and misjudged the threat. Prior to the group’s emergence in Iraq, Maliki had been trying to squelch the huge and growing Sunni protests against his regime, which had garnered global sympathy. Like Assad, he conveniently labelled all of his  opponents, armed an unarmed, as “terrorists” and “jihadis” and periodically dispatched the Army to assault the demonstration camps, knowing it would radicalize Sunnis.  When scattered protestors began waving ISIS’s black flag Maliki had the pretext he needed to send in troops to wipe out the camps.

As far as Maliki and his Iranian sponsors were concerned, the fall of some Sunni areas to ISIS wasn’t a bad thing because it fomented chaos and destruction. But what Maliki expected, Younis said, was “contained chaos” in a few areas where the Iraqi Army and Iranian Revolutionary Guard could keep things under control. “Maliki didn’t believe ISIS was a serious threat and thought that crushing them would bolster his legitimacy,” she said. “He was wrong. What he got was total chaos and ISIS overrunning a large part of the country and threatening Baghdad.” (Incidentally, Maliki remains the country’s most powerful man and, if he has his way, will be back as prime minister soon.)

There were countless points at which the Obama administration could have checked Maliki and reigned in the Shia regime’s brutality and thievery, but for unknown and baffling reasons it never acted decisively. Meanwhile, the Kurds have been largely cut off by Baghdad, which has refused to pass along a lot of U.S. aid meant for them, and has struggled to raise money to pay for government services and the war against ISIS.

The Sunnis are in even worse shape. Anbar has been obliterated and its inhabitants impoverished because the Shia regime has siphoned off vast resources for Iran and corruption has eaten up billions of dollars in resources that should have gone to the Sunnis. “Eighty percent of the Muslim world is Sunni and it looks to them like we handed the country over to Iran,” a former CIA source said. “We are objectively in bed with Iran when it comes to Iraq. The situation is humiliating to the Sunnis and it’s fanning the flames of ISIS.”

So did Obama “found” ISIS? Obviously not, but it is fair to hold him partly accountable for the group’s emergence into the world’s most lethal terrorist threat.

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