Root #1: A Thousand Years of Islamic Preeminence
In the seventh century the Arabs burst out of the Arabian Peninsula and conquered territory stretching from Spain and Morocco in the west to the edges of India in the east, from steppe Central Asia and the Caucasus in the north to the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean in the south. It was, in many ways, an unprecedented conquest, both in scope and speed.
For millions of Muslims, the success of that initial effort stands as clear evidence of the approbation of God. History was on the side of the faith revealed by Muhammad to the Arabs.
For six hundred years, the Islamic world represented the pinnacle of civilization, surpassing virtually every other contemporary society in terms of military might, territorial reach, and cultural richness. Islamic societies during this period produced the world’s best medicine, greatest scientists, most-read philosophers, and best-educated theologians. Its cities—especially Baghdad, the gleaming capital of the Abbasids—were the most cosmopolitan in the world (and possibly the most populous). This was indeed a golden age for Islam. History (likened by Karen Armstrong as a sort of Muslim “sacrament”) demonstrated correctness of the faith and the faith of its people.
The Rashidun, Umayyad, and Abbasid caliphates continued to rule over these vast swathes of Planet Earth right up until the 1200s, when the Mongols swept through (Genghis called himself the “scourge of God”) and destroyed much, leveling cities, building pyramids of skulls, depopulating whole countries, and leaving the blood of millions in their wake.
Something had gone terribly wrong. This wasn’t supposed to happen.
But the Islamic world rose again. Indeed, the Mongols who remained as rulers over the Middle East and much of Central Asia converted to Islam, and eventually three mighty empires—that of the Mughals in India and Afghanistan, the Safavids in Persia, and the Ottomons in North Africa, West Asia, and southeastern Europe—once again dominated the great crossroads of Afro-Eurasia. Whatever qualms individual Muslims might have against their rulers, generally speaking Muslims could look around and see that Islamdom was mighty; once again, God was surely on their side, else how to explain their supremacy?
The very fact of a Muslim “golden age”—six hundred years when only counting the pre-Mongol period, a full thousand years or more if the great early modern Islamic empires are included—is absolutely, positively a major root of ISIS. That great stretch of time, of dominance, of preeminence, actually happened. It was a sign of God’s approval—history moving along the proper path.
In recent times, Muslims must have gone astray; this is the only explanation for the current interruption in Muslims’ historical military, political, and cultural dominance.
Root #2: The Shi’a-Sunni Split
After the death of Muhammad, the question arose: who shall succeed the Prophet? Of course, no one could claim to be a Prophet after the Seal, but who might be his viceroy? Who might channel his charisma?
One faction, the Shi’ites, claimed Ali—Muhammad’s nephew and son-in-law—was the rightful heir, as a member of the Prophet’s family and thus a carrier of his charisma and a portion of his authority. Later on, this would be developed further, claiming that this special line had been given an esoteric ability to interpret the Qur’an, ruling by divine right, infallible.
The other faction, who would come to be called Sunnis, claimed that the most pious in the community, someone wise, preferably someone who had been close to the Prophet and known him well, should be his viceroy, or “caliph.” In the end, this send group won out. The first three caliphs after Muhammad’s death were not family members but pious older men.
Finally, as fourth caliph, Ali was chosen. But his reign was a troubled one. There were those who, under the rule of the third caliph—who seemed to practice an inordinate amount of (very Arab) nepotism—had been busy building power bases of their own. One of these was Muawiyya, who’d built a base for himself in Damascus and who refused to vacate when the Ali-chosen replacement arrived. It even came to war, ending in stalemate.
In the end, Ali was killed by an assassin (like his two most recent predecessors). But the Shi’ites had hopes for his two sons, through whose veins the authority to lead flowed. But it wasn’t to be. Hasan was bought off by Muawiyya, and Husayn was killed by him at Karbala.
Though both sects—the Sunnis, who revered each of the first four caliphs, and the Shi’ites, who revered only Ali and rejected the rest—would splinter into a whole host of -isms and -ites, the greatest schism in the Muslim world had been born. Thus, right from the beginning, the blood flowed freely over this issue, and it has been so, off-and-on, ever since.
This schism, more than any other in the Islamic world, would “necessitate” from time to time a cleansing of the faith, a purging, a massacre, a holy war. When “Muslim” politico-military fortunes waned, who else to blame for the community’s impurity than that other great -ism? In more recent times, Saddam had brutally kept a lid on the conflict for decades in his Iraq, until the U.S. invasion blew it open. Hit squads, political chaos, and mass murder was and is the result. It could be argued that the Islamic State’s main target is not the West but non-puritan Sunni and, especially, the Shi’i.
Root #3: European Imperialism
As Europe began to outpace the Islamic world in virtually every sphere, it quickly became evident that something had gone terribly, historically wrong. This wasn’t the way it was supposed to turn out. (The same attitudes had arisen after the Mongol destruction). Indeed, by the early twentieth century, one could survey the entire Muslim world, from westernmost north Africa to far-away Indonesia, and find that almost all of it had come under some form of foreign, non-Muslim domination.
Virtually all of it.
Morocco had been haggled over by Germany, Spain, and France, and by 1912 was mostly French-controlled. Algeria had been warred over by France in the 1830s (look up what caused this; it would be laughable if it weren’t true!) and then literally fused into the French state—as an “integral” part—by 1848. Tunisia saw Britain, Italy, and France vie for power there; by 1881 it was mostly French. Libya was invaded and taken by the Italians (you can watch clips of the invasion on YouTube) in 1911. To collect on their investments, both the French and the British had meddled in Egyptian affairs for decades before Britain seized it as a protectorate in the 1880s. Most of these areas, on paper, made up part of the Ottoman Empire. Lebanon—supposedly another slice of the Ottoman Empire—was virtually autonomous, ruled by a Christian governor installed by Europeans. The Ottoman government had long ago begun to cower before the economic demands of the European powers, and Western ideas were creeping into Ottoman society and politics. Ottoman officials were sent to Europe to learn Western ways. Modernist (read: westernization) movements cropped up among these relative elites, much to the chagrin of much of the populous and, especially, the clerical class. Eventually the secular, Western “Young Turks” would seize power.
In Sudan, the desperately revivalist Mahdist state of Muhammad Ahmad managed to establish itself for about twenty years before the British arrived and destroyed it.
In Central Asia, Russia was the superpower, having encroached into the region long ago. One result of the Bear’s imperialism amidst these vast tracts was their incorporation later into the oppressive Soviet system.
By the turn of the twentieth century Persia had been the scene of a constant struggle between Russia and Britain—part of Kipling’s “Great Game” and eventually was basically cut up into sections by the two powers: one where the Russians could dominate, one where the British could dominate, and one that was to remain neutral. India, a quarter of whose massive population was Muslim, was entirely under British dominance. East Turkestan (what the Chinese call “Xinjiang”) had been conquered by the Qing dynasty and a policy of population transfer begun. The future Malaysia was actually ruled by a British “Resident,” Sarawak was ruled by the lineage of James Brook (the “White Rajas”) and then made a British “protectorate,” and Indonesia had been under the brutal Dutch thumb for centuries.
Again, virtually the entire Muslim world was under non-Muslim control of some kind. Quite a contrast from the previous thousand years.
The experiences of many Muslims in the face of this multi-continental colonialist-imperialist reality—alienation, the loss of power, humiliation, forced social change, broken promises, and the shedding of blood—would give birth to an image of the West, still alive and well among many Muslims, as brutal, invasive, exploitative, plotting, untrustworthy, two-faced, arrogant, and self-absorbed.
Truly, something had happened. Something had changed. What was to be done?
Root #4: Islamic Revivalism
The responses to this new reality were many. One response, somewhat popular among elites, was to Westernize. This was the new world, and to keep up, Islamdom (and even Islam) must adapt accordingly. Some called for modernization but in an “Islamic” way, formulating ways and means to carry out such reform, but at heart the reforms still meant imitating the West’s institutions.
For many Muslims, this only further demonstrated the West’s meddling, domineering ways.
Another response was what scholars call “Islamic revivalism.” The idea here is that Islamic political and military power—signs of God’s approbation—only follow when the Muslim community, or umma, is pure. Impurity, faithlessness, idolatry, blasphemy, paganism, apostasy—such things were like a cancer, a rot, threatening to significantly weaken God’s people from the inside out and throw history off-track. If Muslims were worried about foreign, non-Muslim dominance, the answer, said the revivalists, was an inner cleansing. The umma must be made pure, must right itself—and the old preeminence would follow. One preceded the other.
And the perfect example for pious Muslims to emulate: the Medinan oasis state and the rule of the Rashidun. This was the most golden of golden ages. Until that sort of purity could be recaptured, that sort of dominance couldn’t be re-attained either.
There were and are many different kinds of Islamic revivalists. Some were milder. One of the great Islamic revivalists of all time was named Shah Waliullah, from Delhi. As a young man he was trained in the great theological schools in Mecca and Medina, then back in India he developed a theory to explain the waning of Muslim power there. Essentially, he argued, the umma had gone astray, had lost focus, had accumulated accretions from other traditions, refused to go back to the foundational sources. His answer: education and accessibility. He translated the Quran in Persian so that more people could read it—a somewhat radical thing to do at the time. His sons would go on to translate it into Urdu.
But there were other revivalists who weren’t as mild. One was named Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab. He had studied in Mecca and Medina at around the same time as Shah Waliullah—they may even have been classmates—but the theories he ultimately espoused were much more radical, even violent. According to Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, whom I’ll call Sheikh Muhammad from here on out, a true Muslim is a pure monotheist. No prayers to anyone but God. No intercession with God through any man. Nothing that smacks at all of polytheism. But mere belief wasn’t enough; a true believer is active in his rejection of all forms of blasphemy, unbelief, and apostasy. Just as in Muhammad’s day it was rightful for the Muslims to raid non-Muslims, Sheikh Muhammad preached that all true believers could and should do the same against the non-believers of his day. The crucial difference here, though, was that Sheikh Muhammad believed that all Muslims who didn’t conform to his definition of pure monotheism were themselves unbelievers. The unbeliever had one of three choices: conform to the Wahhabi puritanical view, refuse to conform but submit to Wahhabi rule and pay a tax, or die.
Sheikh Muhammad eventually found an ally in the house of Saud. In 1744, the alliance was formalized, centered in the oasis of Diriyah, and later Riyadh. Wahhabi crusaderism was, like the early Medinan oasis state, expansionist by nature, as conquered groups were incorporated into the umma and thus became off-limits for raiders. The Wahhabis destroyed tombs and graves, conquered Mecca and Medina then restricted pilgrimage there, and raided Shi’ite strongholds in Iraq, killing thousands, plundering, and destroying Husayn’s tomb.
Eventually the first Saudi state was brought down by the Ottomans and the Egyptians, then a second Saudi state fell due to the rise of another great family, the Rashidis, who eventually triumphed over the Saudis. But the Saudis returned a third time, under the leadership of Ibn Saud, and in the end the Kingdom he was able to establish on the Arabian peninsula, with the help of his jihadi “ikhwan” army and his religious legitimizers in the Wahhabi line. By the 1930s, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was firmly established.
Once petrodollars began to pour in a few decades later, the House of Saud was in a position to finance the export of this most puritan of Islamic sects to the rest of the Muslim world. Preachers by the tens of thousands, funded by the state, propagate the ideology through the building of thousands of Wahhabi schools, the building of shiny new Wahhabi mosques, and its very active publishing wing.
It must pointed out that most of the Muslim world rejects Wahhabism, despite its lavish financing. Virtually every Muslim I ever interviewed in India and Pakistan during the course of my research had no love for the puritanical (and often violent and destructive) Wahhabis. But the ideology does exist, with means. Its success outside of Saudi Arabia, however, typically requires outside assistance. Dropping bombs, or full-scale invasions, or non-believer boots on the ground in Muslim lands—these things help.
Root #5: The Crusades
The Crusades are often portrayed, in comic-book fashion, as a Christian-vs.-Muslim (even good guy-vs.-bad guy) affair. Studying them quickly rids one of such third-grade thinking. The Crusaders were, in fact, a highly complicated series of events and developments that saw Muslims and Christians fighting on both sides, Muslims fighting Muslims and Christians fighting Christians, Shi’ite Fatimids in Egypt actively seeking alliance with Christian Byzantium against Seljuk Sunnis, Christian Byzantine emperors in secret alliance with Saladin against Christian knights, and mercenaries of all stripes active on all fronts. It saw crusaders who seemed genuinely interested in protecting pilgrimage routes or reconquering the holy land from infidels, but also adventurists, power-seekers, and whole merchant fleets eager to establish control over trade routes.
It all began after the Seljuk Turks—Sunni Muslims—swept across Central and West Asia and, according to Christian pilgrims, began disrupting the pilgrimage routes. They also happened to be gobbling up Byzantine lands in Anatolia and even threatening Constantinople. So The Byzantine Emperor called on the West for help, despite his misgivings. What he wanted was money. What he got was men.
The first crusade was mostly a success, with thousands of European knights establishing a number of “Crusader states” along the coast of the eastern Mediterranean. They were helped by the fact that the Muslim world itself was so fragmented. Eventually unity did come in the form of Zangi (thus was born the Second Crusade), then his son Nur al-Din, and finally his lieutenant-turned-sultan, Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi, or Saladin, who managed to win back Jerusalem. The Third Crusade, certainly the most famous (this is the Crusade that included Richard the Lion-Hearted), was meant to win it back, but failed. The Fourth Crusade saw Catholic Christians conquering and looting Eastern Orthodox Christian Constantinople—and that’s all. There were Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Crusades, mostly failures or aborted adventures, but in the end the slave soldiers, or Mamluks, of Saladin’s Ayyubid Dynasty rose up, took Egypt, then drove the Crusaders out.
For most of the Muslim world, the Crusades—if they were known of at all—were a minor nuisance on the fringe of the Islamic world. For those who were involved, they seemed to solidify in the minds of many that the Europeans, the Christians, were a dirty and barbaric and bloodthirsty lot who had designs upon their land. The image would survive for centuries.
But in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the Crusades were rediscovered, especially by Europeans, whose spies and students were poking around in the Middle East and writing dissertations on Crusader castles. The comic-book Crusader narrative was one result, and it still lives with us.
This is powerful stuff, after all. The idea of a clash of civilizations, East vs. West, Muslim vs. Christian—these are heady images. A few days after September 11th, George Bush made waves when he seemed to employ Crusader terminology: “We haven’t seen this kind of barbarism in a long period of time. No one could have conceivably imagined suicide bombers burrowing into our society and then emerging all in the same day to fly their aircraft—fly U.S. aircraft into buildings full of innocent people—and show no remorse. This is a new kind of—a new kind of evil. And we understand. And the American people are beginning to understand. This crusade, this war on terrorism is going to take a while.”
His enemy, Osama bin Laden, had no problem drawing Crusader connections: “The masses which moved in the East and West have not done so for the sake of Osama. Rather, they moved for the sake of their religion. This is because they know that they are right and that they resist the most ferocious, serious, and violent Crusade campaign against Islam ever since the message was revealed to Muhammad, may God’s peace and blessings be upon. After this has become clear, the Muslim must know and learn where he is standing vis-a-vis this war… After the US politicians spoke and after the US newspapers and television channels became full of clear crusading hatred in this campaign that aims at mobilizing the West against Islam and Muslims, Bush left no room for doubts or the opinions of journalists, but he openly and clearly said that this war is a crusader war. He said this before the whole world to emphasize this fact. Anyone who lines up behind Bush in this campaign has committed one of the 10 actions that sully one’s Islam… There is no power but in God. Let us investigate whether this war against Afghanistan that broke out a few days ago is a single and unique one or if it is a link to a long series of crusader wars against the Islamic world. Following World War I, which ended more than 83 years ago, the whole Islamic world fell under the crusader banner – under the British, French, and Italian governments. They divided the whole world, and Palestine was occupied by the British…”
Even in the last few days, the memory of the Crusades—or at least the reimagined memory of the Crusades—has permeated statements related to the Paris attacks. Francoise Hollande described ISIS, for example as “a terrorist army…a jihadist army, against France, against the values that we defend everywhere in the world, against what we are: a free country that means something to the whole planet.” France “will be merciless toward the barbarians in Islamic State group” and will “act by all means anywhere, inside or outside the country.” The alleged ISIS response was couched in language thick with Crusader references: Paris is “the carrier of the banner of the Cross in Europe… Let France and those who walk in its path know that they will remain on the top of the list of targets of the IS and that the smell of death will never leave their noses as long as they lead the convoy of the Crusader campaign.”
This sort of dumbed-down version of events—which completely ignores the complexity and nuance involved—serves the interests of both the ISIS-types and the interventionists. Plus, it makes for much easier (and more sophomorically passionate) public consumption.
Root #6: World War I
World War I witnessed the offering of three contradictory promises by the British in the Middle East.
First, Britain’s promise to the Arabs. In return for leading an “Arab Revolt” against the Turks, the British promised the Arabs, ostensibly led by the Sharif of Mecca, a state of their own—a large, unified Arab country. There were some caveats—some of coastal Syria was to be reserved for the French, and some of Iraq for the British, and nothing was really said of Palestine—but these issues could be shelved until the war ended.
Second, Britain promise vis-a-vis France. According to the Sykes-Picot agreement, which was drawn up months before the Arab Revolt even began, much of what the Arabs had been told would be their unified Arab state would in fact be divided between Britain and France, with France dominant in Syria and southern Turkey and Britain in southern Iraq. Palestine would be separate, with Jerusalem under some form of joint international administration.
Third, Britain’s promise to the Zionists. According to the Balfour Declaration, the British government was in “sympathy with Jewish Zionist aspirations” and viewed “with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people…” The declaration stopped short of supporting an actual Jewish state.
Needless to say, there was no way Britain could keep all three promises. In the end, the promise with the French was the one that held sway. After the war, no grand unified Arab state was created. Instead, the Sharif of Mecca became, simply, the King of the Hijaz. His sons were given kingdoms, too—one, named Feisal, in Syria; the other, named Abdullah, in Iraq.
The WWI victors tried to cut up Turkey, too, but Mustafa Kemal’s army of nationalists thwarted their plans and created the Turkey that we know today. Ironically, the promise of self-determination that had been held out as one of the points of WWI—the “why we fight” for millions—was ultimately gained by the Turks—losers in the great conflict—but denied the Arabs, who had actually fought on the winning side.
Indeed, the French were the dominant power in Syria. Faisal had traveled to Paris after WWI to represent Arab interests, and had even suggested that a commission be sent to the Middle East to ask the locals what they wanted politically. Only the Americans complied, sending the “King-Crane Commission.” What they found was that, overwhelmingly, the locals did not want a French presence. Slightly more tolerable would be a British presence, but this was also undesirable. If there had to be a foreign presence, the locals said, let it be an American one. This is important. In the 1930s and on into the 1950s, the United States was actually popular in the Middle East. This is because the U.S. had shown no desire to meddle in Middle Eastern affairs, no desire to conquer territory, had made and broken no promises. But none of the European powers paid attention to the King-Crane Commission.
When Feisal returned and tried to organize elections in Syria, the French attempted to thwart his efforts. A constituent assembly created a constitution, but the French scrapped it. A Syrian Congress declared Syria’s independence and the Syrians proceeded to push the French out, but France reconquered Syria and Faisal was forced to flee to Britain.
Eventually Feisal was installed by the British as king of Iraq and Abdullah was moved to Transjordan as king. The British were literally kingmakers.
Under French domination, Lebanon was enlarged at Syria’s expense and at one point the French gifted Turkey a large strip of Syrian land (one that Syria still claims). Instead of accepting a Syrian-created constitution, France wrote one up itself and foisted it upon the Syrians.
In Iraq (which had been created out of three former Ottoman provinces and shoved together into one great unnatural state), even after “independence” in 1932, the British presence remained. Indeed, Britain was still in control of Iraqi defense and communications; the Iraq Petroleum Company must be protected, after all. Parliamentary democracy never took root here. No genuine political parties formed. Autocracy developed instead, especially after the 1933 death of Feisal. Several military coups later, the pro-British Nuri al-Said is placed in power, where he’d remain for the next twenty years.
This history is important. The people remember. There will be consequences.
Root #7: World War II
World War II, another war that was supposed to be about freedom, the stamping out of tyranny, etc., brought more betrayal to the Middle East.
Iran, though proclaiming neutrality, was invaded and occupied by the British and the Soviets (and later the Americans, too).
Egypt was largely controlled by the British and turned into one big military base for the Brits, the Aussies, the Indians, etc. Anti-British feeling at the highest levels of government resulted in the British installation of a pro-British regime in 1942. Censorship and martial law were the order of the day.
Secretly, most Iraqi leaders were happy to see Britain and France suffering. An Iraqi regime hostile to Britain came to power, so the Brits landed a force in southern Iraq and engaged with the Iraq army with help from pro-British forces from Transjordan. In the end, the British destroyed the Iraq air force, British troops occupied Baghdad, the Iraqi government fled the country, and good old Nuri al-Said was restored to power. Many nationalists were executed. The army was purged. Iraq was turned into an oil supplier for the British and Soviet war effort as well as a stationing ground for British and American troops. By war’s end, Iraq was still under British control.
France fell early to the Germans in World War II. An influx of Germans into Syria followed. But as the war neared its end, Syria and Lebanon formed their own nationalist governments and proclaimed independence. After the war, though, France returned, determined to win back some control in the region, by force if necessary—somewhat incredible considering what France had just been through. Riots and strikes followed, and eventually France was forced to back down.
Root #8: Cold War Games
Root #9: The CIA in the Muslim World
The Second World War resulted in a dramatic global geo-political shake-up. The new Great Powers were the United States and the Soviet Union. Would the United States fill the imperial void left by previous empires (notably the British and, to a lesser extent, the French) or would it return to its more traditional non-interventionist foreign policy of years past?
With the rise of the perceived communist threat and the adoption of the Kennan-crafted policy of “containment,” the answer was clear: the U.S. would fill the void, with momentous consequences for the American people. This was all new territory for the United States, which wasn’t used to such international intrigue and overseas adventurism.
A quick survey:
- In 1946, the U.S. demanded the Soviets withdraw from Iran, where they’d left their troops after the war ended. Under U.S. pressure the Iranians then went on to reject an oil deal with the Soviet Union.
- In 1947, the “Truman Doctrine” was born when hundreds of millions in U.S. aid was sent to Turkey (and Greece) to fight communism. The “domino theory” was born here; if Turkey fell to communism, it was argued, then Iran would fall, then Afghanistan and Pakistan all the way to India!
- In 1949 the U.S. encouraged and possibly actively participated in a coup in Syria that brought down the al-Quwatli regime (he’d tolerated a strong Communist Party, blocked a U.S.-desired oil pipeline, and refused to sign an armistice with Israel). The coup set in motion twenty years of political chaos in Syria, including more coups and, ultimately, the Assad regime.
- In 1952, Turkey joined U.S.-dominated NATO.
- In 1953, at the behest of the British, the U.S. helped bring down the democratically elected Prime Minister of Iran via orchestrated coup; the Prime Minister had nationalized Iran’s oil industry, which Britain had, of course, opposed. Restored to power was the Shah of Iran, on whom more later.
- From 1953 on, the Soviet Union began more fully siding with the Arabs in their struggle against Israel. Eventually this would result in a full-fledged anti-Semitic propaganda campaign aimed at the Muslim world, ironically resurrecting many old Nazi claims about the Jews and Zionism.
- In 1955, the U.S. installed a radar system in Turkey; later actual nuclear weapon aimed at the USSR were added. That same year, the Soviets conducted a major arms deal with Egypt. Meanwhile, the U.S. was building an alliance system in the Middle East called the Baghdad Pact that included Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Pakistan, with Britain and the U.S. as “Associate Members.”
- In 1956, the U.S. and the Soviet Union together intervened in the Suez Crisis.
- In 1957, the “Eisenhower Doctrine” was issued, stating that Middle Eastern countries could call upon the United States for military assistance in the face of outside aggression (meaning communist aggression). That same year, the U.S. replaced Britain as Jordan’s prime military supporter, and the next year, the U.S. actually sent troops to Lebanon to save a teetering pro-Western government there.
- By the mid-1950s, Soviet funding of socialist/communist elements in Syria had the U.S. worried. The U.S. response, again, is to attempt to bring about a coup there. In 1956, Operation Straggle is aborted thanks to the bigger Suez Crisis. In 1957, Operation Wappen fails when the Syrian officers bribed by the Americans to carry out their coup turn the money over to the Syrian government and reveal U.S. machinations. This is a public relations disaster for the United States. Widespread anti-American protests break out for the first time across the Muslim world. The U.S. tries to deny its involvement. The U.S. responds to the crisis by giving money to Syria’s neighbors in return for support (including troop mobilizations along the Syrian border), deploying American ships to the eastern Mediterranean, and by making false claims about Soviet military support for Syria. Eventually the drama de-escalates, but the P.R. damage is done. The CIA would go on to plan assassination attempts on Syrian leaders and even plan to create chaos in Syria by arming the Muslim Brotherhood and other like-minded groups there, then use said chaos as a pretext for invasion from Iraq. This idea was only aborted after Egypt began directly supporting Syria (though the model would be tried in Muslim Indonesia…).
- Still, enough Syrian unrest resulted from all of this that coups followed anyway—in 1963, again in 1966 (supported by the USSR), and then, finally, by the Assad regime in 1970.
- Meanwhile, the Saudis flip-flopped between the Americans and the Soviets, but ultimately settled on maintaining the U.S. relationship when JFK sent warplanes to assist the Kingdom in a fight against the Egyptians.
- And in Iraq, the pro-Western Nuri al-Said was murdered in 1958, along with the Hashemite royal family that had been installed by the British after WWI. The new power in Iraq: Abd al-Qasim, who cozied up to the Soviets, withdrew from the Baghdad Pact, and allowed the Iraqi Communist Party to form. The CIA planned to assassinate Qasim, of course, possibly with a handkerchief, but the plan wasn’t successful.
- In 1963, a Baathist coup brought down the Qasim government (we’ll mention the Baathists later). The U.S. didn’t actively support the Baathists, but was in communication with its leaders and may have even provided them with lists of communists, whom the new government then hunted down house-to-house (killing around 350). This set the stage for another Baathist coup in 1968, which brought Hassan al-Bakr to power, along with a man named Saddam Hussein. Documents recovered during these years in Iraq proved that the CIA had, on its payroll, many of the Middle East’s heads-of-state; anti-American sentiment grew.
- Soviet lies to the Syrians helped spark the 1967 “Six-Day War” with Israel (about which more later), but in some ways the ploy worked, as the U.S., a chief supplier of arms to Israel in the years leading up to the war, emerged from the conflict as perhaps the most distrusted player in the Middle East.
And player the United States truly was–the newest on the Middle Eastern imperial chessboard. But such thorough interventions in the politics and problems of the region don’t occur without blowback.
(Simply reverse the history in order to apply it to you, America: had, say, the Chinese or the Russians intervened in like manner here in the United States, would these governments not have incurred the wrath of millions, too? Many of these American millions would protest. Some of these American millions would employ violence in their resistance–a few in truly terrible ways.)
Root #10: Creation of Israel
Consistent among the grievances of groups like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State: the creation of Israel and its support by the United States.
After World War II, when 608,000 Jewish people lived in Palestine amongst 1,269,000 Palestinian Arabs, the newly created U.N. produced a partition plan for the region. It should be remembered that the Arabs had received assurance time and time again, mostly from the British, that a Jewish state in Palestine was off the table. As such, immigration was allowed to continue, albeit with intermittent opposition. Now, it seemed, a Jewish state might be created after all. It didn’t help that the U.N. plan gave 56% of the country to the Jews, with 43% left for the Palestinians. The result? Bloodshed. When Israel proclaimed itself a sovereign state in 1948, the surrounding Arab states invaded.
But the Arabs were divided (more on this later). In the end, Israel not only held off the Arab invasion but actually won additional territory, including western Jerusalem. Thus, the U.N.-created partition never materialized; instead, an enlarged Israel emerged from the First Arab-Israeli War. Seven hundred thousand Palestinian refugees poured out of Israel, most likely coerced into leaving.
The loss was humiliating for the Arabs, and a breach of a whole host of promises. Israel appeared foisted upon them by the West. This only seemed confirmed when Britain and France were able to convince Israel to invade Egypt in 1956 after Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal. Israel humiliated the Egyptian forces before American and Soviet pressure forced Israel back home.
The 1967 “Six-Day War” was even more humiliating for the Arab regimes than the 1948 war. Israel’s preemptive attack destroyed the air forces of both Syria and Egypt—and defeated Jordan to boot. To make matters worse, Israel went ahead and took East Jerusalem—and captured the West Bank from Jordan, the Gaza Strip and the Sinai from Egypt, and the Golan Heights from Syria. Four hundred thousand more Palestinians were turned into refugees as they fled these areas. Eventually Israel withdrew from the Sinai but the state held on to virtually everything else, establishing a repressive military administration over the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Hundreds of Jewish settlements were now established in the West Bank.
War came again in 1973—the “Yom Kippur War”—when Egypt and Syria staged a surprise attack on Israel; Israel still held the formerly Syrian-controlled Golan Heights, and still held the Egyptian Sinai. Early Arab victories signaled a possible wind change; perhaps this was the war that would finally right Arab grievances? Sudden U.S. support for Israel dashed those hopes, and Israel won the day, again. Though Israel agreed (in a U.S.-brokered deal) to withdraw from both the Golan and the Sinai, it only withdrew from the Sinai; for the most part, it kept the Golan Heights.
Despite Palestinian “Intifadas” and foreign attempts to mediate, the Palestinian issue continues to color Muslim attitudes worldwide toward the West. The expansion of Jewish settlement-building, the second-class status of Arab Muslims, the building of walls, and the restriction of access to basic resources, and the ever-rising Palestinian body-count, among other grievances, continue to worsen the open sore that is the Palestinian-Israeli issue. The fact that the U.S. remains Israel’s #1 supporter inextricably connects the United States to everything that Israel does in the region.
Root #11: Arab Nationalism
The allure of Islamic radicalism that so many of this generation are used to seeing wasn’t an inevitability. For millions of Muslims in the Arab world, especially after World War II, much hope was placed not in the militant Islamic option but in an anti-Western, anti-imperialist, yet quasi-Marxist mostly secular Arab nationalism.
At first, high hopes were placed in the Arab League (formed in 1944), but internal squabbles—perhaps rooted in the fact that several of member state heads personally hated one another—doomed the group’s effectiveness. The one thing they could all agree upon was a mutual hatred for Israel. In 1948, it was the League that declared war on Israel, but instead of working together, each supported its own Palestinian client groups and each harbored its own ambitions for the conflict. Defeat led to bitter feuding, not to mention the problems associated with hundreds of thousands of unwanted Palestinian refugees.
These early Arab states were constantly interfering in one another’s affairs. Coups, wars, revolutions, revolts—nothing was off the table. The loss to Israel ultimately led to the setting up of new regimes (notably in Egypt, Iraq, and Syria)—regimes that were willing to actually confront the West. Arabs were tired of being pushed around and dictated to. Perhaps the new Arab nationalism was the answer.
In 1952, Nasser came to power in Egypt, emerging as the wannabe champion of Arab nationalism. The Suez Crisis, the Non-Aligned Movement, the United Arab Republic—these were all exercises in Arab nationalist muscle-building. Eventually Nasser’s United Arab Republic (an attempt to create a single Syrian-Egyptian state) fell apart, and Nasser’s star faded.
The other major Arab nationalist option could be found in the Baath Party, Baath meaning “resurrection.” The Baathists were Soviet-funded and most popular in Syria and Iraq. Indeed, in Syria, by the early 1960s, the Baath Party dominated the political scene, culminating in the regime of Hafez al-Assad; Assad went on to develop a cult of personality for himself in Syria. In Iraq, the Baath Party took over, too; by 1979, Saddam was in charge and remained in power until the Americans invaded in 2003.
Much of the initial hope that Arab nationalism offered proved illusory. Dictatorial regimes that seemed more interested in Westernization, militarism, and maintaining power created much resentment. Besides, secular Arab nationalism had been unable to stand up even to tiny Israel. True “resurrection,” then, would have to come from some other source.
Root #12: Oil in the Middle East
The mere fact that two-thirds of known world oil reserves are located in the Middle East, combined with the fact that, relatively speaking, it is so easy to get out of the ground, could be described as possibly one of the thickest “roots” of the ISIS tree. When people speak of becoming independent of Middle Eastern oil by drilling in the United States, it must be remembered that it’s not just the presence of oil there but also the cost of production that makes Middle Eastern oil uniquely appealing. It’s ten to twenty times cheaper to produce a barrel of oil in the Middle East as it is in, say, Alaska.
After WWI, the major oil companies of the world formed a cartel in an attempt to control production and prices, but other—mainly American—smaller competitors thwarted the plan by offering better prices. Some even showed up in the Middle East, poking around in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait and Bahrain in the search for oil. Oil was actually struck in Bahrain in 1932. The British made life difficult for these guys, until after WWII, when the British were no longer in a position to prevent the activities of these American companies. The most significant of them all was ARAMCO (The Arabian American Oil Company, today the world’s most valuable company) in Saudi Arabia. We’ll come back to these companies in a second.
In 1945, FDR met with Ibn Saud aboard the USS Quincy, where a very significant deal was struck—and a very momentous relationship established. Essentially, the deal meant that Saudi Arabia would provide a secure source of oil to world markets, and in return the United States would provide protection and security to the Kingdom. In accordance with the Quincy deal, the Americans set up an airbase on the peninsula at Dhahran.
This was the new imperialism. Old-style imperialism just wasn’t palatable anymore. Now, instead of directly controlling and protecting oil fields (like the British had done), the U.S. would protect client states. Suddenly U.S. companies were finding oil virtually everywhere they drilled. Huge reserves existed here.
Most oil-producing states received 12.5% of all oil profits. That was the deal. But in 1945, oil-rich Venezuela worked out a 50-50 arrangement with oil companies operating there, and by the 1950s Middle Eastern states had followed suit, resulting in a tenfold increase in revenue for these governments between 1948 and 1960. Tenfold. The key to such negotiations was to threaten nationalization; faced with losing everything or just a chuck of their profits, the oil companies took the hit rather than lose it all.
Meanwhile, the only way smaller companies—Getty, Occidental, Amoco—could compete was to cut their prices. The only way the bigger companies could compete was by responding with price-cuts of their own. Price-cuts meant reduced revenue for the oil state governments, since their cut came by percent. As prices dropped, it became harder for American companies to compete at all with Middle Eastern ones.
Eisenhower was worried. He felt the U.S. was too dependent on Middle Eastern oil—and begged the oil companies to voluntarily limit their foreign oil imports to 12%. This didn’t work. So in 1959, mandatory import quotas were enforced. These quotas combined with the price cuts angered the oil states.
Their response? The founding of OPEC as a sort of oil cartel—one that could maintain acceptable prices, among other functions. Then, in the 1970s, the oil-producing states began flat-out nationalizing or buying out the oil companies altogether.
This was Saudi Arabia’s punishment directed at the United States in response to U.S. support for Israel during the Yom Kippur War. In fact, the Arabs were so enraged by U.S.-Israeli cooperation in the war that they initiated an oil embargo against the United States. Prices in the U.S. jumped dramatically.
But rather than being overly concerned by the Arab Oil Embargo, the U.S. government embarked upon a new strategy: convince the oil-rich states to use their new-found wealth to buy U.S. stuff—especially U.S. arms. A weapons pipeline quickly developed between the Persian Gulf and the United States. To this day the Saudis remain the U.S. government’s #1 arms client. All of this could be done in the name of “furnishing military assistance” to America’s friends instead of boots on the ground, in according with the Nixon Doctrine: “First, the United States will keep all of its treaty commitments. Second, we shall provide a shield if a nuclear power threatens the freedom of a nation allied with us or of a nation whose survival we consider vital to our security. Third, in cases involving other types of aggression, we shall furnish military and economic assistance when requested in accordance with our treaty commitments. But we shall look to the nation directly threatened to assume the primary responsibility of providing the manpower for its defense.”
Iran and Saudi Arabia thus became the “twin pillars” of American policy in the region, buoyed up by American arms. The restive populations of the oil-producing states were partially bought off by the massive inflow of petrodollars (most of the region’s autocrats had come to power via conquest or imperial alliance, after all). Meanwhile, the Soviets were supplying the Iraqis with arms as the Cold War games continued.
But not everyone was happy with these relationships. In Arabia, Shi’ites of the east rebelled against the Saudi family. The Grand Mosque in Mecca was taken hostage by puritan Muslims disturbed by the Saudi-American relationship and the royal family’s westernization efforts; dozens were killed.
But the really historically significant reaction to American arms and money took place in Iran.
Root #13: Iranian Revolution
Iran was declared by George W. Bush to be a part of his so-called “axis of evil,” but it’s interesting to look at how it evolved into what it is today. Western-style constitutionalism in Iran dates back to the late 19th century. A Western-style constitution was adopted by the Persians before WWI, but the British and Russian occupation of Persia—which only wanted to be left alone as a neutral state—interrupted those efforts. By 1919 Iran was essentially a British protectorate.
Iranian neutrality, this time under the relatively new Pahlavi regime, was ignored again by the West, and the country was occupied by the British and Russians (now the Soviets) once more. The Shah was forced to abdicate in favor of his son, the more pliant Muhammad Reza. Famously, the Soviets tried to stick around in Iran after the war, but left under pressure of the new kids on the block: the United States, whose government built a strong relationship with the Pahlavi regime as a part-owner of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company.
The control of Iran’s oil by foreigners became a rallying cry for Iranian nationalists. One of them, Muhammad Mossadeq, was elected Prime Minister—and promptly nationalized the oil industry. A couple years later the Americans, at British insistence, carried out Operation Ajax, deposing the democratically elected but increasingly autocratic Mossadeq (he’d die under house arrest) and re-installing the pro-Western Shah in power. This would be remembered by the Iranians, especially since the Shah ruled with an iron fist over the next 25 years, employing his secret police, the U.S.-trained SAVAK, generously and with brutality.
But the United States, which had decided to take up the mantle of empire after World War II, needed the Shah. Indeed, Iran was U.S. Ally #1 in the Middle East, a pillar of U.S. policy in the region (the other great pillar: Saudi Arabia). Besides, Iran was, by far, the number one purchaser of American arms in the Middle East.
In the face of opposition, the Shah tried to win popular support through reforms (notably, the so-called “White Revolution”), but his U.S.-lackey-status was impossible to shake. The opposition, which devolved into riots, continued, and the Shah crushed them.
One cleric in particular, Ruhollah Khomeini, spoke out fearlessly against the Shah, against Israel, and against the United States. Eventually he was exiled (this was in 1964). Intermittent protests continued throughout the 1960s and 1970s. When the government published an anti-Khomeini article in 1978, protests turned to riots. The U.S.-backed regime killed upwards of 10,000 people in that year alone, closed down the universities, closed a quarter-million shops, but the riots continued. In early 1979, the Shah left Iran for a “medical vacation,” and a few days later Khomeini returned triumphant.
A couple months after that, the Islamic Republic of Iran was declared.
The new regime—in part a response to a quarter-century of U.S. machinations in the country—was unwilling to share power. Crackdowns were often so violent that Khomeini himself had to chastise his own people for taking things too far. But the ends, perhaps, justified the means. What were the ends? The establishment of an Islamic government, in the revivalist way. “There is not a single topic of human life for which Islam has not provided instruction and established norms,” Khomeini said. This was Islam as a total religion—combined with the total, modern state. The result was a regime at least as dictatorial as the one it had replaced.
For 444 days, 52 Americans were held hostage by angry Iranian students. Khomeini gave his blessing. Twenty-five years of propping up a dictator after removing a democratically elected Prime Minister can make people mad. To this day the old embassy in Tehran is covered in anti-American murals that would baffle many Americans but make perfect sense to millions of Iranians who lived under the U.S.-backed Shah. It didn’t help that the students who took over the embassy discovered papers that proved deep-rooted American meddling in Iranian politics—then published them for the world to see.
Iran had gone from Ally #1 to Enemy #1 in the region. Meanwhile, further east, the Soviets were invading Afghanistan to prop up a teetering Communist regime there. For Americans, this was nothing short of a crisis, prompting the so-called “Carter Doctrine”: “Let our position be absolutely clear: An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.”
Thus, the Iranian Revolution spurred an American policy shift that was virtually guaranteed to drag U.S. forces physically into the Gulf region.
Next door in Iraq, Saddam Hussein looked on and falsely assumed that the turmoil in Iran meant it was vulnerable (he also wasn’t thrilled that Iran was attacking ships in the Persian Gulf and sending agents into Iraq in the name of exporting the Islamic—Shi’ite—Revolution). So he invaded Iran in 1980, kicking off the long and brutal Iran-Iraq War. It was an ill-advised gamble. Iran pushed back, and by 1982 Saddam was suing for peace. But by this time Khomeini was the one seeking conquest—so he ignored Saddam’s pleas and kept the war going for another six long, bloody years. Ultimately around a million people died in this senseless WWI-like conflict.
During this period, the United States aided both sides, but especially Saddam Hussein, provided him with intelligence (which he used at one point to gas entire communities) and material support. Direct U.S. involvement in the Gulf came in 1986, however, when Kuwait requested American protection (as promised by the Carter Doctrine) from Iranian attacks on its oil tankers. The U.S. responded, allowing Kuwaiti ships to fly the U.S. flag and developing a strong naval presence in the Gulf. Iran and the U.S. exchanged fire here and there; the U.S. sank several Iranian ships; the U.S. damaged some Iranian oil platforms; the U.S. shot down Iran Air Flight 655, killing all 290 on board—then later explained that its forces had mistaken the big passenger plane for an F-14A Tomcat fighter.
By the end of the disastrous Iran-Iraq War, Saddam was deeply in debt (having borrowed heavily from the Gulf States, to their delight), with an economy in shambles. His solution? rebuild Iraq’s oil industry. The problem? The Gulf States want to be paid back now, and it didn’t help that they were dumping their oil on the world market, driving down prices and thus making it even more difficult for Saddam to get his financial house in order.
He asked them to stop selling their excess oil in such large quantities. They refused.
So Saddam invaded Kuwait.
The American response was overwhelming: half a million troops were mobilized to protect Kuwaiti and Saudi oil, driving Saddam back. All of Iraq was then punished throughout the 1990s with crippling sanctions, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of thousands.
The idea here was to keep the region’s “rogue states” from threatening the oil of the Gulf states. This was, in some ways, a form of containment. By 2003, of course, this will evolve into a policy of out-and-out regime change.
Thus the Iranian Revolution had initiated a chain of events that ultimately led to the physical presence of American forces in the region. But the revolution had other ramifications as well. It exacerbated the Shi’a-Sunni conflict, it fired up Islamic groups with the idea—now proven possible as in Iran—that perhaps they could rule. It was the first major (and certainly successful) anti-imperialism/anti-American movement that also employed heavy Islamic tones—a heady fusion that would be imitated by groups throughout the region, whether Shi’ite or Sunni. ISIS’s own language can be traced directly to that of Khomeini.
In the words of Toby Craig Jones, “If oil and American oil policy—rather than the behavior of Saddam Hussein, the politics of the war on terrorism, or a handful of other political factors—are kept in focus, then one can argue that this period constitutes not a series of wars, but a single long war, one in which pursuing regional security and protecting oil and American-friendly oil producers has been the principal strategic rationale. That the permanent shadow of war has settled over the Persian Gulf in the last three decades is largely the direct outcome of the ways that oil has been tied to American national security and the ways that American policy makers linked security to militarization.”
Root #14: September 11th, 2001
But the chain of events set in motion don’t end there. For when Saddam invaded Kuwait, he also threatened the other Gulf states—in particular, Saudi Arabia. One man, a Wahhabi, a proven fighter and national hero with his own army (his name was Osama bin Laden), stepped forward and offered to guard the Kingdom’s border against possible Iraqi invasion, but the Saudis selected a different protector: the United States.
Thus rejected in favor of non-believers whose forces would now be allowed to establish themselves on the Arabian peninsula just a few hundred miles from Mecca itself, bin Laden spoke out against the royal family enough that he got himself exiled.
He moved to Sudan, then, after being stripped of his Saudi citizenship and his income, made his way back to Afghanistan, where he’d originally gained fame fighting alongside (if not with) the Americans against the Russians back in the 1980s (when he’d founded a group called al-Qaeda). The U.S. presence on the peninsula infuriated Osama, along with the deadly sanctions on Iraq and U.S. support for Israel, among other stated grievances going back to the age of European imperialism.
By the late 1990s his group was bombing American embassies in Africa.
By 2001, his group was flying planes into buildings.
The result? A worldwide “War on Terror” and a major uptick in U.S. global military operations. Most importantly, the event led directly to a U.S. invasion of Afghanistan (and the toppling of its government) and, a couple years later, to the invasion of Iraq.
Root #15: U.S. Invasion of Iraq
When the U.S. invaded Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, again, the justification presented to the world revolved around weapons of mass destruction—and the proof that the U.S. government possessed (but couldn’t fully share!) of their existence. The image was one of a mushroom cloud over an American city, caused by a weapon that originated in Iraq. Other reasons were floated, too—that Saddam was a brutal, Hitler-like dictator who had to go (he’d gassed his own people, after all, albeit with American help!); that the Baghdad regime had ties to al-Qaeda (which it didn’t); that the country would embrace freedom and democracy (which it didn’t). There were policy-makers—imperial chessmen—who had bigger plans, too, less discussed out in the open, a grand strategy for the region that began with the ousting of Saddam (the “urgent threat,” they called him), but didn’t stop there; the “Shi’a Crescent” would follow, including Syria and Iran. This may have been what retired 4-star general Wesley Clark was famously alluding to when he told one interviewer that the plan was to “take out seven countries in five years, starting with Iraq, and then Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and, finishing off, Iran.”
Whatever the reason—revenge for surviving Gulf War I, oil, grand strategy, WMDs, freedom and democracy—it almost doesn’t even matter. The results were (and are) catastrophic. Hundreds of thousands of deaths, possibly over a million. Iraq’s infrastructure in shambles. Economic opportunity drastically reduced. Educational opportunity drastically reduced. Millions displaced from their homes. Ridiculously high unemployment for years. And a sectarian power struggle, Sunni versus Shi’a, that has been characterized by the “cleansing” of whole Baghdadi neighborhoods by either Shi’ite or Sunni militias.
Burnt-out, desperate Iraq drew jihadists from all over the world to do battle with the American invaders. Between 2003 and 2006, the Wahhabist, al-Zarqawi-led group known eventually known as “al-Qaeda in Iraq” was active; keep in mind there was no al-Qaeda presence in Iraq before the American invasion. Its goals were simple, sustained by several roots we’ve already discussed: the establishment of a caliphate by (1) pushing out the foreign invaders, or “crusader occupiers”; (2) eliminating Shi’a power, or “ridding Sunnis from the oppression of the rejectionists”; (3) toppling the secular states of the Islamic world, or “making Allah’s word supreme in the world”; and (4) destroying Israel. This was a violent revivalism, but revivalism certainly; the end game was the “restoration of the glory of Islam.”
By 2006, al-Zarqawi had been killed and succeeded by al-Masri, who in that same year proclaimed the “Islamic State of Iraq,” or ISI. He himself became the new “state’s” War Minister, while its amir was one Abu Omar al-Baghdadi.
For four more years, the ISI attempted to carve out a functioning Islamic state in Iraq, with mixed success at best, until, in 2010, both al-Masri and Abu Omar al-Baghdadi were killed. It appeared that the ISI was teetering. But a new leader emerged: Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who reinvigorated the ISI via an influx of former U.S. prisoners (many certainly seething from their time spent in American cages) and a group of former Baathist soldiers (some of whom took up commander positions almost immediately).
The U.S. invasion and devastation of Iraq, whatever its original intentions, had created enough death and destruction, enough chaos, enough homelessness, enough sectarian violence, enough anger and bitterness and victimhood and hatred, that an otherwise fringe group like the ISI, literally spawned amidst all of this devastation, could rise and feel justified in its victimhood, in its classification of the Americans and their allies as Crusaders, in its desire to restore Islam to its former greatness. Iraq’s smoking shell, added to by the humiliating presence of non-Muslim armies, provided the ideal field of recruitment. For embittered and disconsolate and radicalized Muslims everywhere, Iraq, like Afghanistan before it, became the battlefield, the great microcosm of a much broader struggle against the twin enemies of puritan Islam—the Crusaders and the heretics.
Root #16: “Arab Spring”
In December of 2010, the so-called “Arab Spring” broke out in Tunisia. It appeared that the people were sick and tired of autocratic regimes. The “Spring” quickly spread to other countries across the Middle East. Those other countries included Libya and Syria.
Root #17: U.S. Bombing of Libya
In March, 2011, NATO-led airstrikes bombarded Libya ostensibly to keep the “Arab Spring” alive there in the face of local government oppression. The results of this dubious policy included the death of a U.S. Ambassador (and three other Americans), the complete destabilization of Libya (currently being fought over by numerous factions, often with U.S.-provided weaponry), the strengthening of radical Islamic groups (including al-Qaeda’s local affiliates), and a spilling-over of the bloodshed into neighboring countries. Libya today is a quagmire, just like Iraq. It’s highly likely that many of the U.S.-provided weapons in Libya have made their way over to Syria. It’s highly likely that many of the U.S.-armed militants in Libya are now fighting for the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. Today, one of the strongest militant outfits in Libya is the local Islamic State-affiliated organization.
Root #18: Syrian Civil War
In March of 2011, the same month Libya was bombed into chaos, the “Arab Spring” hit Syria. Protests and the government backlash escalated by the next year into all-out civil war, with various rebel groups, many supplied by state actors, fighting amongst themselves and with the Assad regime over territory and the right to rule.
Thus, by 2012, both Iraq and Syria—neighbors—were in shambles.
With the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War, al-Baghdadi (remember, the head of the Islamic State of Iraq) sent one of his fighters, named al-Julani, over the border to create an anti-Assad unit there. The result? The al-Nusra Front, one of the most successful of the “rebel groups” in Syria. Eventually al-Baghdadi wanted to merge the al-Nusra Front with the ISI—since 2013 now officially called the “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant,” or ISIL, but there was dissent in the ranks; al-Julani refused to merge the two. Al-Qaeda leader al-Zawahiri even weighed in on the matter in an attempt to mediate between the two groups, but to no avail; al-Baghdadi refused to take orders from al-Zawahiri—and as a result, al-Qaeda broke from ISIL.
But ISIL continued to grow in strength and territory. In 2014, even with other rebels fighting against it and the Assad regime, ISIL grew. The U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army, al-Nusra, the Islamic Front—all of these battled ISIL as well as Assad, but this only resulted in more dissent among themselves and mass defections to ISIL’s ranks. After all, ISIL was winning, and was well-stocked with U.S. weapons captured in Iraq, handed over by U.S.-backed fighters in Syria, or possibly funneled from U.S.-armed rebels in Libya. ISIL was also well-funded as a result of the vast oil-producing territory it controlled, to the tune of millions of dollars a day, purchased by the six million people it controlled, or on the black market by surrounding states and smuggled out through Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and Jordan.
2014, too, was the year the U.S. began bombing ISIL. Bombing had helped create ISIL in the first place. Now bombing was supposed to be the solution.
This year—2015—al-Baghdadi began referring to his “state” as, simply, the “Islamic State,” and has proclaimed himself caliph of all Muslims. The Islamic State has a presence, either directly, via affiliated groups, or via outfits that have sworn allegiance to the IS, in many countries and on multiple continents. The revivalism attracts. So does the anti-Western, especially anti-American, crusader-speak.
Dumbing down ISIS, or al-Qaeda, or the Taliban, or any other “radical Islamic” movement to a sort of over-simplistic, third-grade comic-book-style narrative helps no one. The roots of such a movement are complicated, stretching back a millennia-and-a-half, and involve phenomena as seemingly disconnected as Richard the Lion-Hearted in Jerusalem or Nasserism in Egypt or Wahhabi revivalism or Saudi oil or covert ops in Iran or the collapse of the World Trade Center. ISIS did not grow up in a vacuum. And though it draws strength from a puritanical Islamic ideology that most Muslims detest, it can only prosper in the wake of devastating foreign intervention and crisis. It can only proper during a Crusade.
Remove the intervention and groups like ISIS become fringe movements with no activating mechanism, like ships on a windless sea. Right now, at this moment in history, we—or, more correctly, our government and its government partners around the world—are the wind. We aren’t the ship—that’s existed for a long time—but we are the wind.