It has been alleged in many online circles that Western powers and their allies created the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which, along with the Khorasan Group (an al-Qaeda cell), a US-led coalition is now reportedly battling in Syria. How accurate is this claim? I seek to determine whether a reasonable case can be made for this theory on the basis of Western mainstream reporting – not because it’s more objective (it often isn’t), but simply because it’s where one normally sees such claims dismissed as mere “conspiracy theories.”
Did Saudi Arabia and Other Arab Countries Fund ISIS?
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In an interview with Deutsche Welle, Charles Lister, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center, noted that “there is no publicly accessible proof that the government of a state has been involved in the creation or financing of ISIS as an organization.”
While this may be true, the key term here is government. Lister’s statement leaves open the possibility that private donors from Arab countries allied to the United States have been financing ISIS, in which case their governments are accomplices in acts of terrorism if there is a proven reluctance on their part to rein in on these financiers. Indeed, as The Daily Beast’s Josh Rogin argued:
A key component of ISIS’s support came from wealthy individuals in the Arab Gulf States of Kuwait, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Sometimes the support came with the tacit nod of approval from those regimes; often, it took advantage of poor money laundering protections in those states . . .
Further, Günter Meyer, the director of the Center for Research into the Arabic World, asserted (in the Deutsche Welle article cited above) that “the most important source of ISIS financing to date has been support coming out of the Gulf states, primarily Saudi Arabia but also Qatar, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates.”
In addition, CBS News cited a cable released by WikiLeaks in which the former US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, noted that “donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide.” Nevertheless, the memo states:
While the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) takes seriously the threat of terrorism within Saudi Arabia, it has been an ongoing challenge to persuade Saudi officials to treat terrorist financing emanating from Saudi Arabia as a strategic priority [emphasis added].
Further Evidence of the Saudi Monarchy Behaving Badly
Not only have Saudi officials apparently turned a blind eye to terrorist financing, but they have also allegedly sent fighters to Syria. Citing the Assyrian International News Agency, USA Today reported on a “top secret memo” from the Saudi Ministry of the Interior, which revealed that the government “sent death-row inmates from several nations to fight against the Syrian government in exchange for commuting their sentences.” To avoid beheading, an international assortment of murderers, rapists and drug smugglers agreed to “fight jihad” against Assad. One can’t estimate how many of these prisoners may have joined ISIS or similar groups, but it’s reasonable to suspect that much of the brutality for which these groups are notorious is partially explicable in terms of the criminal backgrounds of some of these foreign fighters.
Such conduct reflects a worrying pattern that goes back to 9/11. Former Sen. Bob Graham, who chaired the Senate Intelligence Committee, told The Independent how Saudi officials continually obstructed efforts to investigate Saudi links to the 9/11 attacks:
I believe that the failure to shine a full light on Saudi actions and particularly its involvement in 9/11 has contributed to the Saudi ability to continue to engage in actions that are damaging to the US – and in particular their support for ISIS.
Saudi and Western Motivations
But what motivates Riyadh? According to Sir Richard Dearlove, the former head of the British Secret Intelligence Service, “the Saudi government is ‘deeply attracted towards any militancy which effectively challenges Shiadom.'” This antipathy towards Shiite Islam applies to its Alawite offshoot. As Meyer (see above) notes, the motivation for funding groups like ISIS was to support efforts to topple the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who belongs to the small but powerful Alawite minority.
Saudi policy, motivated in part by sectarian animosity, is compatible with, and has influenced the character of, the West’s policy of weakening predominantly Shiite Iran. As Patrick Cockburn concludes in The Independent:
In allying itself with Saudi Arabia, the US automatically plugs itself into an anti-Shia agenda and limits its ability to monitor and take action against Sunni jihadis who are promoted by Riyadh. In Syria this has led to parts of a jihadi-dominated military opposition being relabeled as “moderate.”
This policy dates back to the Bush era, as recounted in Seymour Hersh’s prescient 2007 New Yorker article:
To undermine Iran . . . the Bush Administration has decided, in effect, to reconfigure its priorities in the Middle East. In Lebanon, the Administration has cooperated with Saudi Arabia’s government, which is Sunni, in clandestine operations that are intended to weaken Hezbollah, the Shiite organization that is backed by Iran. The U.S. has also taken part in clandestine operations aimed at Iran and its ally Syria. A by-product of these activities has been the bolstering of Sunni extremist groups that espouse a militant vision of Islam and are hostile to America and sympathetic to Al Qaeda.
Western Ties to ISIS
The foregoing discussion offers one explanation that has been used to account for the West’s alleged links to ISIS. But is there evidence for these links? According to Peter Oborne in The Telegraph, “the West supported [through its Saudi and Qatari allies] militant rebel groups which have since mutated into Isis and other al Qaeda connected militias [of course, it is not clear how this “mutation” took place, if in fact such a transformation even occurred].” Oborne goes on to ask, “How can the West hope to contain the monster it helped to create?”
While the West may have indirectly helped to create ISIS, a plethora of non-mainstream sites allege that it has gone further by knowingly training ISIS fighters. The article that broke this story was originally entitled, “Blowback! US Trained ISIS at Secret Jordan Base” (WorldNetDaily). The title was later changed to “Blowback! US trained Islamists who joined ISIS,” in order to “clarify that the fighters trained in Jordan became members of the ISIS after their training” [emphasis added]. Nevertheless, much of the alternative media citing the original story has apparently failed to adopt this correction. Further, aside from referencing “informed Jordanian officials” (whose identities remain undisclosed), the story doesn’t explain how it was established that these supposed Islamists subsequently became ISIS members.
I’m not suggesting that the West has not consciously trained ISIS and other radical Islamic groups (I believe that there’s a good chance that it has, perhaps under the assumption that these groups would later be controlled once they successfully dislodge Assad from power). I’m merely pointing out that, from an evidential standpoint, the article is weak.
More mainstream outlets, like The Guardian, have also reported that the West trained Syrian rebels in Jordan, but maintain that the purpose of the training was to “strengthen secular elements in the opposition as a bulwark against Islamic extremism.” But if the West has truly restricted military training to moderate, secular fighters, then we could at least conclude that this investment hasn’t paid off. As Dov Zakheim points out, “ISIS is the strongest opposition group in Syria, and it is systematically routing all its Sunni opponents, especially the poorly coordinated, poorly led Free Syrian Army (FSA)” (The National Interest). Surprisingly, even The New York Times has come to question the existence of moderate Syrian rebels:
The truth is there are no armed moderates (or moderate terrorists) in the Arab World – and previous few beyond. The genuine moderates won’t take up arms, and those who do are not truly moderates.
I am in no position to comment on whether or not Western officials have always known this to be the case, as many critics maintain.
To conclude, my brief review of Western mainstream reporting has heightened my suspicion that the West and allies have, indeed, knowingly supported ISIS. But my informed suspicion shouldn’t satisfy anyone seeking direct evidence, of which none has been publicly disclosed (as I far as I can tell). What is more evident, however, is the Saudi government’s role as accomplice in the rise of groups like ISIS, as well as the dangers that Saudi conduct in the region has posed to peace, human rights and our own security.