Questions about ISIS’s origins spark conspiracy theories

Sunday 26/06/2016
Iraqi fighters hold an image of the Islamic State flag after clashes with ISIS militants in Saqlawiya, north of Falluja, Iraq, on June 4th.

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.