When the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (Isis) posted pictures of its fighters with US senator John McCain, there were those who took the images as confirmation of America’s clandestine support for a jihadist group that has swept across Syria and Iraq with medieval levels of brutality.

Taken in May last year during a brief cross-border diplomatic incursion from Turkey into Syria, McCain can be seen smiling and laughing with rebel fighters, some of whom – it is alleged – went on to become members of Isis: now transformed into the Islamic State (IS) since its declaration of a caliphate at the end of June. Included in the photographs was the former chief-of-staff of the Supreme Military Council of the Free Syrian Army, Salim Idris, who said at the time that “we need American help to have change on the ground; we are now in a very critical situation”.

Whether that funding was forthcoming, or indeed whether the US was instrumental in the creation of IS, is the central question mark hanging over conspiracy theories that have emerged over the course of the past few months, all of which essentially assert the same thing: that the CIA are funding and advising IS in order to destabilise the region and protect Israel. As Itamar Marcus, the founder and director of Palestinian Media Watch, said: “They are all based on the claim that ‘the US has a long term goal of controlling the Arab-Muslim states by dividing them through conflict and wars. Isis’s war and other conflicts are all said to be the work of the US.”

These theories have been gaining traction, particularly in Lebanon, where the the US embassy in Beirut was forced to issue a statement on Facebook denying the allegations. “Any suggestion that the United States ever considered recognising the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant as anything other than a terrorist organisation, or had any role in its creation, is patently false,” said the post. “Allegations circulating in Lebanon to the contrary are a fabrication.”

Lebanon, however, is far from the only country where the scent of conspiracy surrounds the US and IS, which has spread like a holocaust across a third of Syria, much of northern Iraq, and now threatens Kurdistan in the east and Lebanon in the west. Caught up in the barbaric tragedy are Christians and Yazidis, both of whom face the choice of conversion or death, and the Shia, who are threatened with nothing but death. “Isis, the perpetrators of atrocities and the groups that hoist the banner of religion seem to be raising their weapons in sync with Washington, and fight the US verbally, but in practice are killing their enemies,” ran an article in the Palestinian newspaper Al-Hayat Al-Jadida on 14 August. “Is this a coincidence, or was it planned ahead of time?”

Evidence or proof, of course, is of little consequence in conspiracy theories, but there are a handful of claims that buttress the accusations. The first is that Edward Snowden, a former employee of the US’s National Security Agency (NSA) and the man behind the biggest intelligence leak in the NSA’s history, revealed that US, British and Israeli intelligence organisations had worked together to create Isis. The claim states that leaked NSA documents refer to the “recent implementation of the ‘hornet’s nest’ to protect the Zionist entity by creating religious and Islamic slogans”. The hornet’s nest being a strategy to create “a terrorist organisation that is able to attract all extremists of the world to one place”. It further asserts that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, IS’s leader and caliph of the self-proclaimed Islamic State, was trained by Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency.

However, a subsequent article in Time magazine said that: “No mention of a ‘hornet’s nest’ plot can be found in Snowden’s leaked trove of US intelligence documents, and even though Snowden has not publicly refuted the claim, it is safe to assume that the quoted interview never took place.” Glenn Greenwald, the journalist who first broke the Snowden story in The Guardian, also wrote on Twitter that: “I’ve never heard him [Snowden] say any such thing, nor have I ever heard any credible source quoting him saying anything like that.”

Another source is that of Nabeel Naiem, a former Al-Qaeda commander who was interviewed on Lebanon-based pan-Arab TV station Al-Mayadeen. In the interview, when asked about the relationship between Ayman al-Zawahiri, Al Qaeda’s current leader, and IS leader al-Baghdadi, he said: “He [al-Zawahiri] asked Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to pledge allegiance to him [as the Emir] but Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, since he’s basically a US agent, told him: ‘We are the people of cause, the cause of liberating Iraq, Syria and so you’re the one who should pledge allegiance to us’. Ayman [al-Zawahiri] refused so there was a dispute and a fight between them.”

How is he an American agent, asked the interviewer? Naiem replied: “It is known that the US released him from prison and he spent 20 to 30 million US dollars to establish these Isis groups and the first Isis camps were established in Jordan, and Jordan doesn’t allow camps for charity. When Jordan establish camps to train terrorist groups, it doesn’t do that out of good will and charity, these camps were supervised by the Marines, and the arming of Isis is all American.”

These accusations, however, should be viewed in the light of IS’s throwing off of the yoke of al-Qaeda’s central command and its usurpation of power.

Nevertheless, it is true that al-Baghdadi was a US prisoner, with some commentators claiming that America may not have directly created or funded IS, but could well have done so indirectly. For example, an article in The New York Times dated 10 August stated that: “The Pentagon says that Mr. Baghdadi, after being arrested in Falluja in early 2004, was released that December with a large group of other prisoners deemed low level. But Hisham al-Hashimi, an Iraqi scholar who has researched Mr. Baghdadi’s life, sometimes on behalf of Iraqi intelligence, said that Mr. Baghdadi had spent five years in an American detention facility where, like many Isis fighters now on the battlefield, he became more radicalised.”

And then there’s Saudi Arabia. In January this year, senator McCain said to CNN’s Candy Crowley: “Thank God for the Saudis and Prince Bandar”. He repeated the praise a month later in Munich, throwing in Qatar for good measure. As Steve Clemons wrote in The Atlantic: “McCain was praising Prince Bandar bin Sultan, then the head of Saudi Arabia’s intelligence services and a former ambassador to the United States, for supporting forces fighting Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria. McCain and Senator Lindsey Graham had previously met with Bandar to encourage the Saudis to arm Syrian rebel forces.”

Clemons continued: “Two of the most successful factions fighting Assad’s forces are Islamist extremist groups: Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the latter of which is now amassing territory in Iraq and threatening to further destabilise the entire region. And that success is in part due to the support they have received from two Persian Gulf countries: Qatar and Saudi Arabia.”

The conspiracy goes, therefore, that US weapons have been flowing to Isis via Saudi Arabia into Iraq and Jordan. However, this is where the script moves away from mere conspiracy to outright accusation, with US senator Rand Paul saying on CNN’s State of the Union that Sunni militants have taken over Iraq because the US armed their group in Syria’. He said: “I think we have to understand first how we got here. We have been arming Isis in Syria.”

“The Saudi government, for its part, has denied allegations, including claims made by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, that it has directly supported Isis,” wrote Clemons. “But there are also signs that the kingdom recently shifted its assistance – whether direct or indirect – away from extremist factions in Syria and toward more moderate opposition groups… But while official support from Qatar and Saudi Arabia appears to have dried up, non-governmental military and financial support may still be flowing from these countries to Islamist groups.”

Whether far fetched or not, these theories are believed. In the Netherlands, for example, a government employee who tweeted her belief that Isis was a Zionist conspiracy was suspended pending further enquiries. But how seriously can they really be taken? Especially when you consider that the US has a track record of supporting militant groups, including the mujahideen in Afghanistan, from which al-Qaeda was formed.

“Most people are averse to introspection, and rarely engage in self-criticism,” said Hisham Melhem, Al Arabiya’s bureau chief in Washington DC. “Arabs are no different. However, the political culture that developed in the Arab World in the last 60 years, particularly in countries ruled by autocratic regimes, shifted blame from their catastrophic failures in governance to other external, sinister forces. For these countries, self-criticism has become next to impossible. Over time, this legacy has created fertile terrain for conspiracy theories, delusions, self-deception, paranoia and xenophobia. If you read an Arab newspaper or many a website in the region, you will invariably encounter some of these symptoms. Admittedly, sometimes they can be entertaining, but in most cases they are downright ugly, reflecting deep pathologies of fear.”

He adds: “Clinging to conspiracy theories, particularly in times of challenge and uncertainty becomes attractive because it relieves the believers of any sense of responsibility for what is taking place in their midst, and apportion it to hidden and powerful forces beyond their control. Denial of reality and/or responsibility is the other side of conspiracy theories. In this manufactured world others, usually conniving, ill-intentioned and cunning are behind our travails and not us.

“The unimaginable brutality of this latest manifestation of Political Islam in the Arab world is too much to bear for many Muslim Arabs. So they either deny the atrocities claiming that Muslims would never commit such heinous acts (even while the perpetrators of the crimes assert that their violence is to spread their puritanical twisted version of Islam) or resort to the easier option and pick one of the many conspiracy theories that are being peddled by intelligence agencies, political groups, journalists, or self-appointed guardians of religious sects and ethnic groups.”

Saudi journalist and columnist Jamal Khashoggi, writing in Al Hayat, added: “There has been an abundance of ‘conspiracies’ ranging from claiming they are an Iranian, American, Syrian or Iraqi creation to claiming that their Khalifah is Jewish who is depicted in pictures with US senator John McCain. Some have even been quoting former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as saying she assisted in creating them. Of course, none of this is true.

“Isis is a furious religious political movement. It is the alternative when we abolish peaceful political interaction. We are, in this case, left with nothing but an angry young man who declares loudly ‘I’ve come to you with slaughter’. Such a young man rejects democracy and peaceful alternation of power; he does not believe in compromises nor does he accept the notion of power sharing. This is a movement that sees itself as the sole embodiment of truth.

“Those to whom Isis belongs deny it and it insists it belongs to them.”

* Published in Emirates Man, September 2014

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