Notes From the Margins…

Why ISIS Eyes are Smiling

  • August 22, 2014
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You can loathe the Islamic State (IS) all you like, and an organization that beheads prisoners and posts videos boasting about it, rapes women, crucifies Christians and uses its primitive interpretation of Islam as a justification to murder anyone with impunity, deserves all the loathing and disgust that it receives.

But that doesn’t mean you should tell yourself what you want to believe about about it, as General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, did yesterday, when he described ISIS as “an organisation that has an apocalyptic, end-of-days strategic vision.”

Whatever theological aims ISIS may have in the longterm, in the shortterm it is a violent politico-military organization seeking to destroy the Middle East state system imposed after WWI and replace it with a ‘caliphate’ that will have all the trappings of an Islamic superstate.

An ‘apocalyptic’ organization doesn’t issue appeals for doctors, judges and other professionals to help it build the caliphate. It doesn’t send twitter messages to the protesters at Ferguson telling them that they don’t live in a democracy, that Islam is the answer and that Malcolm X thought so too.

Depicting IS as an apocalyptic death cult obscures its strategic intentions and the context in which it emerged, a context that includes the disastrous trajectory of the war on terror, the crisis of the post-colonial authoritarian order in the Arab world, the collapse of the Iraqi state, the Syrian civil war, and the sectarian shift of the Gulf States in their attempts to rollback Iranian influence.

This context also includes the responsibility of the US and its allies for the creation of ISIS, which the author and journalist Souad Mekhennet describes in the Washington Post.     Mekhennet echoes what many others have said for some time, namely that “President Obama, his European friends, and even some Middle Eastern allies, have supported ‘rebel groups’ in Libya and Syria”, and that these efforts have “empowered groups whose members had either begun with anti-American or anti-Western views or found themselves lured to those ideas in the process of fighting.”

According to Mekhennet, these groups include the Islamic State in Iraq, the Al Nusra Front, some Libyan fighters and factions of the Free Syrian Army.   She quotes a ‘senior Arab intelligence official’ who says

“We had, in the early stages, information that radical groups had used the vacuum of the Arab Spring, and that some of the people the U.S. and their allies had trained to fight for ‘democracy’ in Libya and Syria had a jihadist agenda already or later, [when they] joined al Nusra or the Islamic State.”

Mekhennet also quotes a Libyan jihadist called Abu Saleh, who claims to have received training and support in Libya from French, British, and American military and intelligence personnel with a group of fellow-fighters, who later went on to fight in Syria.

Today Abu Saleh is in a Turkish hospital recovering from wounds in Syria and plans to join Islamic State when he recovers, but he  told Mekhennet

“Some of the Syrian people who they trained have joined the Islamic State and others jabhat al Nusra…Sometimes I joke around and say that I am a fighter made by America.”

He isn’t the only who’s smiling.     An Islamic State commander called Abu Yusaf told the  Post that members of the Free Syrian Army had received training from the United States, Turkey and Arab military officers at an American  base in Southern Turkey, and that “now many of the FSA people who the West has trained are actually joining us.”

These reports echo earlier claims of the weapons/training conduits to Syria that have not been officially acknowledged.   They contradict the arguments of Hilary Clinton and others, that the US paved the way for ISIS because it failed to arm ‘moderate’ rebels in Syria.     As Patrick Cockburn has argued,   these distinctions were impossible to maintain, in a fast-moving and chaotic civil war in which weapons inevitably go to the most ruthless and effective military fighters – regardless of their commitment to democratic pluralism.

It’s also arguable whether the states that supplied such training were ever interested in such distinctions, except for public consumption.   When the US and its allies backed the Afghan ‘muj’, they cultivated the most reactionary Islamic social forces in Afghanistan for the simple reason that they believed they would fight the Soviets more effectively.

In Libya and Syria, it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that they did exactly the same thing.   No doubt the governments that provided such training and assistance believed, as in Afghanistan, that they could use jihadist forces for their own strategic purposes, but the puppets clearly had their own agenda, and the US and its allies have helped them to achieve it.

The result is an insane situation in which the US and Britain are now bombing an organization that it once helped in order to fight Assad, in a new war that may well require Assad’s assistance, and American bombs are falling on an organization equipped with American weapons that were once given to the Iraqi army, and which, not surprisingly, IS fighters seem to know how to use.

No wonder ISIS fighters are laughing.   They have weapons, oil, money, a continual flow of fighters from Syria, Iraq and across the world and a territorial reach that Osama bin Laden only dreamed of.

And that outcome ought to make us wonder not just about their ‘apocalyptic’ motives, but about the motives of those who did so much to facilitate their progress..



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  1. Richard Carter

    22nd Aug 2014 - 2:51 pm

    “The result is an insane situation in which the US and Britain are now bombing an organization that it once helped to fight Assad…”

    This is starkly pointed up by a piece in the Torygraph ( – and apologies for once again pointing you to this organ, but it is such a great source of idiocy – which quotes out-of-his-depth Hammond as saying “we” won’t be joining an alliance with Assad (or, he might have added, Iran) to fight IS. Just says again how convoluted and disorganised “our” strategy is on the Middle East….

  2. Richard Carter

    22nd Aug 2014 - 3:04 pm

    And an interesting analysis by Shashank Joshi of RUSI destroys the argument of equally out-of-his-depth Chuck Hagel that IS’s “apocalyptic, end-of-days strategic vision” poses “an imminent threat to every interest we have, whether it’s in Iraq or anywhere else”, and which is “beyond anything that we’ve seen”. (

    • Matt

      22nd Aug 2014 - 8:36 pm

      Yes it is good. I mean knocking down that ‘beyond anything that we’ve seen’ argument is like pushing on an unlocked door, but Joshi does it well. He’s right to point out that ISIS is’a hybrid revolutionary movement with nation-building aspirations and conventional armed forces. This makes them vulnerable.’ ISIS can’t transform itself into a ‘nation’ overnight, and the only way it could do it in the longer term would be by extending its revolutionary momentum into other countries, but I don’t see that it has the capacity to do this. not when these countries marshall their forces against it. Are Turkey, Iran, Jordan, Lebanon and the Gulf States going to allow ISIS to just march in and take them over? I doubt it. Its gains so far have largely been a result of the weakness of its enemies, esp. in Iraq.

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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