Questions about ISIS’s origins spark conspiracy theories
Dubai - The rise of the Islamic State (ISIS) has spawned vexing questions about its origins and the circumstances from which it was born. Despite ISIS’s global notoriety, how exactly it emerged remains unclear. Was ISIS an inevitability of violent sectarian conflicts in Iraq and Syria or is it part of an elaborate plan by covert international forces?
Various explanations on ISIS’s origins exist but the most pervasive theory is that behind the rise of ISIS is a ploy by an American-Israeli nexus to destabilise Arab states and remove any remaining military challenges to Israel. Eventually, this line of thought goes, Israel will expand its borders by taking direct control of new Arab territories as states on its periphery, such as Syria, disintegrate into weakly controlled tribal enclaves.
Israeli complicity with ISIS is said to be proven by its soft line towards the group — ISIS has never faced the Israeli fire Hezbollah is accustomed to. On the contrary, ISIS fighters, like al-Qaeda’s, have received emergency treatment from Israeli medics, which do not vet their patients, on both sides of the Israeli- Syrian border.
The United States, on the other hand, allegedly hopes to deepen its regional influence and domination as ISIS produces social fissures in Arab societies and engineers an environment of persistent conflict. The United States will prolong the conflicts to consolidate its control of Middle Eastern resources and geostrategic dominance, perhaps muddy the march of China to superpower status.
American complicity is said to be similarly subtle and understated. US leaders are yet to task their drones with taking out Abu Bakr al- Baghdadi — the leader of ISIS, kept in US military detention for years in Iraq — in the way it has hunted down al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Yemen. American resistance to take the fight to ISIS on the ground also puzzles. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey and indeed many voices in NATO are convinced ground forces are the only way to defeat ISIS.
Many regional states have made public their willingness to deploy with US forces for an anti-ISIS mission. Instead, the United States seems to remain keener on fighting ISIS through arming and training an alliance of anti-Turkish Kurdish militias hoping to establish an independent Kurdish state. The Turks, of course, have long suspected the United States of cooking up Kurdish separatism.
A survey on religion and politics in North Africa by Konrad Adenauer Stiftung and Sigma Conseil released in May showed that half of all respondents from Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria and Libya say that the United States is behind the establishment of ISIS — and almost one-in-five say Israel is the main financier alongside them.
In short, ambiguous US Middle East policy has had the dangerous unintended consequences of fuelling suspicions among Arab societies and implicated them by aligning ISIS to the needs of their perceived agenda.
Great powers — whether British, French or the Americans — have shaped regional political discourses and trajectories extraordinarily for centuries. T.E. Lawrence described the Arab revolt a century ago as “a side-show of a side-show”. The rise of ISIS and the Syrian civil war today appears to be little different.
ISIS has violated the political aspirations, social cohesion and religious beliefs of Arabs to the extent it can only be comprehended by them as a creation of non-Arab enemies, traditionally represented by Israelis and American friends of Israel.
In reality, however, ISIS is not so alien to the Arab world — in its origins and in the elements that continue to drive its existence.
First, ISIS aims to derive its legitimacy from religious validations. Its puritan fundamentalism has roots in the same Salafi school of religious thought that is followed by large numbers of Muslims around the world but brings new meaning to the interpretation of religious texts with their extreme takfiri nature with fanatical emphasis on jihad.
From a sociological perspective, ISIS is perhaps a predictable consequence of the sectarian conflict ignited by the US-led invasion of Iraq and exasperated when the “Arab spring” arrived in Syria to open a new front in Sunni-Shia conflict. ISIS is not easily categorised — it is a ruthless insurgency that adopted the most accommodating ideology it could retrieve, a hard-line trans-regional religious movement and terrorist group all at once.
As such, depending on the level of analysis applied, ISIS can have different meanings and those meanings can be traced to different starting points at macro-, micro-and meso-levels.
At the broadest level, the Syrian war that provides ISIS its core operational theatre and global headquarters is a ground for superpower competition between the United States and Russia. Both desperately need ISIS to frame their regional policy and serve their agendas for the moment.
Similarly, without ISIS the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad and Iran would have run out of cards to play — both have benefited from the effect ISIS has had on international concerns of a post- Assad Syria.
At the micro-level, regional Sunni states, the Americans and even the Israelis have supported the arming of Sunni tribes or militias in Syria and Iraq. Even if it has never received direct support from Sunni states and other international players, ISIS is part of the spectrum of Syrian rebel groups that continues to evoke sympathy in Sunni communities outside Syria and it has arguably developed a stronger international brand following among those rebel groups.
The meso-level reveals another set of uncomfortable realities. Putting aside the competitive roles and agendas of regional and extra-regional forces, the foot soldiers, executioners and ISIS suicide bombers are undeniably products of different Arab societies — and their convictions that associating with ISIS will lead them to paradise were not put there by Americans or Israelis.