Debate about the origins of the Islamic State (IS) has largely oscillated between two extreme perspectives. One blames the West. IS is nothing more than a predictable reaction to the occupation of Iraq, yet another result of Western foreign policy blowback. The other attributes IS’s emergence purely to the historic or cultural barbarism of the Muslim world, whose backward medieval beliefs and values are a natural incubator for such violent extremism.
The biggest elephant in the room as this banal debate drones on is material infrastructure. Anyone can have bad, horrific, disgusting ideas. But they can only be fantasies unless we find a way to manifest them materially in the world around us.
So to understand how the ideology that animates IS has managed to garner the material resources to conquer an area bigger than the United Kingdom, we need to inspect its material context more closely.
Follow the money
The foundations for al-Qaeda’s ideology were born in the 1970s. Abdullah Azzam, Osama bin Laden‘s Palestinian mentor, formulated a new theory justifying continuous, low-intensity war by dispersed mujahideen cells for a pan-Islamist state. Azzam’s violent Islamist doctrines were popularised in the context of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
As is well-known, the Afghan mujahideen networks were trained and financed under the supervision of the CIA, MI6 and the Pentagon. The Gulf states provided huge sums of money, while Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) liaised on the ground with the militant networks being coordinated by Azzam, bin Laden, and others.
The Reagan administration, for instance, provided $2 billion to the Afghan mujahideen, which was matched by another $2 billion from Saudi Arabia.
In Afghanistan, USAID invested millions of dollars to supply schoolchildren with “textbooks filled with violent images and militant Islamic teachings,” according to the Washington Post. Theology justifying violent jihad was interspersed with “drawings of guns, bullets, soldiers and mines.” The textbooks even extolled the heavenly rewards if children were to “pluck out the eyes of the Soviet enemy and cut off his legs.”
The conventional wisdom is that this disastrous configuration of Western-Muslim world collaboration in financing Islamist extremists ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union. As I said in congressional testimony a year after the release of the 9/11 Commission Report, the conventional wisdom is false.
A classified US intelligence report revealed by journalist Gerald Posner confirmed that the US was fully aware of a secret deal struck in April 1991 between Saudi Arabia and bin Laden, then under house arrest. Under the deal, bin Laden could leave the kingdom with his funding and supporters, and continue to receive financial support from the Saudi royal family, on one condition: that he refrain from targeting and destabilising the Saudi kingdom itself.
Far from being a distant observer of this covert agreement, the US and Britain were active participants.
Saudi Arabia’s massive oil supply underpins the health and growth of the global economy. We could not afford it to be destabilised. It was pro quid pro: to protect the kingdom, allow it to fund bin Laden outside the kingdom.
As British historian Mark Curtis documents meticulously in his sensational book, Secret Affairs: Britain’s Collusion with Radical Islam, the US and UK government continued to covertly support al-Qaeda-affiliated networks in Central Asia and the Balkans after the Cold War, for much the same reasons as before—countering Russian, and now Chinese, influence to extend US hegemony over the global capitalist economy. Saudi Arabia, the world’s leading oil hub, remained the conduit for this short-sighted Anglo-American strategy.
A year after the 1993 World Trade Center (WTC) bombing, Curtis reports, Osama bin Laden opened an office in Wembley, London, under the name of the Advice and Reformation Committee, from which he coordinated worldwide extremist activity.
Around the same time, the Pentagon was airlifting thousands of al-Qaeda mujahideen from Central Asia into Bosnia, in violation of the UN’s arms embargo, according to Dutch intelligence files. They were accompanied by US special forces. The “Blind Sheikh,” convicted of the WTC bombing, had been deeply involved in recruiting and dispatching al-Qaeda fighters into Bosnia.
From around 1994, all the way until 9/11, US military intelligence along with Britain, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, covertly supplied arms and funds to the al-Qaeda-harbouring Taliban.
In 1997, Amnesty International complained about “close political links” between the incumbent Taliban militia, who had recently conquered Kabul, and the US. The human rights group referred to credible “accounts of the madrasas (religious schools) which the Taliban attended in Pakistan,” indicating that “these links may have been established at the very inception of the Taliban movement.”
One such account, reported Amnesty, came from the late Benazir Bhutto—then Pakistan’s Prime Minister—who “affirmed that the madrasas had been set up by Britain, the United States, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan during the Jihad, the Islamic resistance against Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.” Under US tutelage, Saudi Arabia was still funding those madrasas.
US government-drafted textbooks designed to indoctrinate Afghan children into violent jihad during the Cold War, now approved by the Taliban, became part of the Afghan school system’s core curriculum, and were used extensively in militant madrasas in Pakistan being funded by Saudi Arabia and the Pakistani ISI with US support.
Both the Clinton and Bush administrations were hoping to use the Taliban to establish a proxy client regime in the country similar to its Saudi benefactor. The vain hope, clearly ill-conceived, was that a Taliban government would provide the stability necessary to install a Trans-Afghan pipeline (TAPI) supplying Central Asian gas to South Asia, while side-lining Russia, China and Iran.
Those hopes were dashed three months before 9/11 when the Taliban rejected US proposals. The TAPI project was subsequently stalled due to the Taliban’s intransigent control of Kandahar and Quetta, but has been shepherded along by the Obama administration and is now being finalised.
NATO continued to sponsor al-Qaeda-affiliated networks in Kosovo by the late 1990s, reports Mark Curtis, when US and British special forces supplied arms and training to Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) rebels who included mujahideen recruits. Among them was a rebel cell headed by Muhammad al-Zawahiri, the brother of bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman, who now leads al-Qaeda.
In the same period, Osama and Ayman coordinated the 1998 US embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania from bin Laden’s office in London.
There was some good news, though: NATO’s interventions in the Balkans, accompanied by the disintegration of socialist Yugoslavia, paved the way to integrate the region into Western Europe, privatise local markets, and establish new regimes supportive of the Trans-Balkan pipeline to transport oil and gas from Central Asia to the West.
The Middle East redirection
Even after 9/11 and 7/7, US and British addiction to cheap fossil fuels to sustain global capitalist expansion led us to deepen our alliance with extremists.
Around the middle of the last decade, Anglo-American military intelligence began supervising Gulf state financing, once again led by Saudi Arabia, to Islamist extremist networks across the Middle East and Central Asia, to counter Iranian Shiite influence in the region. Beneficiaries of this enterprise included al-Qaeda-affiliated militant and extremist groups from Iraq to Syria to Lebanon—a veritable arc of Islamist terror.
Once again, Islamist militants would be unwittingly fostered as an agent of US hegemony in the face of rising geopolitical rivals.
As Seymour Hersh revealed in the New Yorker in 2007, this “redirection” of policy was about weakening not just Iran, but also Syria—where US and Saudi largess went to support the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, among other opposition groups. Both Iran and Syria, of course, were closely aligned with Russia and China.
In 2011, NATO’s military intervention to topple the Gaddafi regime followed hot on the heels of extensive support to Libyan mercenaries who were, in fact, members of al-Qaeda’s official branch in Libya. France had been reportedly offered 35 percent control of Libya’s oil in exchange for French support to insurgents.
After the intervention, European, British and American oil giants were “perfectly poised to take advantage” of “commercial opportunities,” according to Professor David Anderson of Oxford University. Lucrative deals with NATO members could “release Western Europe from the stranglehold of high-pricing Russia producers who currently dominate their gas supply.”
Secret intelligence reports showed that NATO-backed rebels had strong ties to al-Qaeda. The CIA also used Libya’s Islamists militants to funnel heavy weapons to rebels in Syria.
A Canadian intelligence report from 2009 described the rebel stronghold of eastern Libya as an “epicentre of Islamist extremism,” from which “extremist cells” operated in the region—the same region, according to David Pugliese in the Ottawa Citizen, that was being “defended by a Canadian-led NATO coalition.” Pugliese reported that the intelligence report confirmed “several Islamist insurgent groups” were based in eastern Libya, many of whom were also “urging followers to fight in Iraq.” Canadian pilots even joked privately that they were part of al-Qaeda’s air force, “since their bombing runs helped to pave the way for rebels aligned with the terrorist group.”
According to Pugliese, Canadian intelligence specialists sent a prescient briefing report dated 15 March 2011 to NATO senior officers just days before the intervention began. “There is the increasing possibility that the situation in Libya will transform into a long-term tribal/civil war,” they wrote. “This is particularly probable if opposition forces receive military assistance from foreign militaries.”
As we know, the intervention went ahead regardless.
For nearly the last half-decade at least, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE, Jordan and Turkey have all provided extensive financial and military support primarily to al-Qaeda-linked Islamist militant networks that spawned today’s “Islamic State.” This support has been provided in the context of an accelerating anti-Assad strategy led by the United States.
Competition to dominate potential regional pipeline routes involving Syria, as well as untapped fossil fuel resources in Syria and the eastern Mediterranean—at the expense of Russia and China—have played a central role in motivating this strategy.
Former French foreign minister Roland Dumas revealed that in 2009, British Foreign Office officials told him that UK forces were already active in Syria attempting to foment rebellion.
The ongoing operation has been closely supervised under an on-going covert programme coordinated jointly by American, British, French and Israeli military intelligence. Evidence in the public record confirms that US support alone to anti-Assad fighters totalled about $2 billion as of the end of 2014.
While the conventional wisdom insists that this support to Islamist extremists was mistaken, the facts speak for themselves. Classified CIA assessments showed that US intelligence knew how US-led support to anti-Assad rebels through its Middle East allies consistently ended up in the hands of the most virulent extremists. But it continued.
Pentagon officials were also aware in the year before IS launched its campaign of conquest inside Iraq, that the vast majority of “moderate” Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels were, in fact, Islamist militants. It was, officials admitted, increasingly impossible to draw fixed lines between “moderate” rebels and extremists linked to al-Qaeda or IS, due to the fluid interactions between them.
Increasingly, frustrated FSA fighters have joined the ranks of Islamist militants in Syria, not for ideological reasons, but simply due to their superior military capabilities. So far, almost all “moderate” rebel groups recently trained and armed by the US are disbanding and continuously defecting to al-Qaeda and IS to fight Assad.
The US is now coordinating the continued supply of military aid to “moderate” rebels to fight IS, through a new arrangement with Turkey. Yet it is an open secret that Turkey, throughout this entire period, has been directly sponsoring al-Qaeda and IS as part of a geopolitical gambit to crush Kurdish opposition groups and bring down Assad.
Much has been made of Turkey’s “lax” efforts to curb foreign fighters crossing its territory to join IS in Syria. Turkey has recently responded by announcing that it has stopped thousands.
Both claims are mythical: Turkey has deliberately harboured and funnelled support to IS and al-Qaeda in Syria.
Last summer, Turkish journalist Denis Kahraman interviewed an IS fighter receiving medical treatment in Turkey, who told him: “Turkey paved the way for us. Had Turkey not shown such understanding for us, the Islamic State would not be in its current place. It [Turkey] showed us affection. Large number of our mujahedeen [jihadis] received medical treatment in Turkey.”
Earlier this year, authenticated official documents of the Turkish military (the Gendarmerie General Command) were leaked online, showing that Turkey’s intelligence services (MIT) had been caught in Adana by military officers transporting missiles, mortars and anti-aircraft ammunition via truck “to the al-Qaeda terror organisation” in Syria.
“Moderate” FSA rebels are involved in the MIT-sponsored Turkish-Islamist support network. One told the Telegraph that he “now runs safe houses in Turkey for foreign fighters looking to join Jabhat al-Nusra and Isil [Islamic State].”
Some officials have spoken up about this, but to no avail. Last year, Claudia Roth, deputy speaker of the German parliament, expressed shock that NATO is allowing Turkey to harbour an IS camp in Istanbul, facilitate weapons transfers to Islamist militants through its borders, and tacitly support IS oil sales. Nothing happened.
The US-led anti-IS coalition is funding IS
The US and Britain have not only remained strangely silent about the complicity of their coalition partner in sponsoring the enemy. They have tightened up the partnership with Turkey, and are working avidly with the same state-sponsor of IS to train “moderate” rebels to fight IS.
It is not just Turkey. Last year, US Vice President Joe Biden told a White House press conference that Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Turkey among others, were pouring “hundreds of millions of dollars and tens, thousands of tons, of weapons” into “al-Nusra and al-Qaeda and the extremist elements of jihadis” as part of a “proxy Sunni-Shia war.” He added that, for all intents and purposes, it is not possible to identify “moderate” rebels in Syria.
There is no indication that this funding has dried up. As late as September 2014, even as the US began coordinating airstrikes against IS, Pentagon officials revealed that they knew their own coalition allies were still funding IS.
That month, Gen. Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was asked by Senator Lindsay Graham during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing whether he knew of “any major Arab ally that embraces Isil [IS]?” He said: “I know major Arab allies who fund them.”
Despite this knowledge, the US government has not merely refused to sanction these allies, but rewarded them by including them in the coalition that is supposed to fight the very extremist entity they are funding. Worse, the same allies continue to be granted ample leeway to select fighters to receive training.
Key members of our anti-IS coalition are bombing IS from the air while sponsoring them behind the scenes—with the knowledge of the Pentagon.
The arc of Muslim state-failure
In Iraq and Syria, where IS was born, the devastation of society due to prolonged conflict cannot be underestimated. Western military invasion and occupation of Iraq, replete with torture and indiscriminate violence, played an undeniable role in paving the way for the emergence of extreme reactionary politics. Before Western intervention, al-Qaeda was nowhere to be seen in the country. In Syria, Assad’s brutal war on his own people continues to vindicate IS and attract foreign fighters.
The continual input of vast quantities of money to Islamist extremist networks, hundreds of billions of dollars worth of material resources that no one has yet been able to quantify in its totality—coordinated by the same nexus of Western and Muslim governments—has over the last half century had a deeply destabilising impact. IS is the surreal, post-modern culmination of this sordid history.
The West’s anti-IS coalition in the Muslim world consists of repressive regimes whose domestic policies have widened inequalities, crushed legitimate dissent, tortured peaceful political activists, and stoked deep-seated resentments. They are the same allies that have, and are continuing to fund IS, with the knowledge of Western intelligence agencies.
Yet they are doing so in regional circumstances that can only be described as undergoing, in the last decade, escalating converging crises. As Princeton’s Professor Bernard Haykel said: “I see ISIS as a symptom of a much deeper structural set of problems in the Sunni Arab world . . . [It has] to do with politics. With education, and the lack thereof. With authoritarianism. With foreign intervention. With the curse of oil . . . I think that even if ISIS were to disappear, the underlying causes that produce ISIS would not disappear. And those would have to be addressed with decades of policy and reforms and changes—not just by the West, but also by Arab societies as well.”
Yet as we saw with the Arab Spring, these structural problems have been exacerbated by a perfect storm of interlinked political, economic, energy and environmental crises, all of which are being incubated by a deepening crisis of global capitalism.
With the region suffering from prolonged droughts, failing agriculture, decline in oil revenues due to domestic peak oil, economic corruption and mismanagement compounded by neoliberal austerity, and so on, local states have begun to collapse. From Iraq to Syria, from Egypt to Yemen, the same nexus of climate, energy and economic crises are unravelling incumbent governments.
Alienation in the West
Although the West is far more resilient to these interconnected global crises, entrenched inequalities in the US, Britain and Western Europe—which have a disproportionate effect on ethnic minorities, women and children—are worsening.
In Britain, nearly 70 percent of ethnically South Asian Muslims, and two-thirds of their children, live in poverty. Just under 30 percent of British Muslim young people aged from 16-24 years are unemployed. According to Minority Rights Group International, conditions for British Muslims in terms of “access to education, employment and housing” have deteriorated in recent years, rather than improving. This has been accompanied by a “worrying rise in open hostility” from non-Muslim communities, and a growing propensity for police and security services to target Muslims disproportionately under anti-terror powers. Consistently negative reporting on Muslims by the media, coupled with grievances over justifiable perceptions of an aggressive and deceptive foreign policy in the Muslim world, compound the latter to create a prevailing sense of social exclusion associated with British Muslim identity.
It is the toxic contribution of these factors to general identity formation that is the issue—not each of the factors by themselves. Poverty alone, or discrimination alone, or anti-Muslim reporting alone, and so on, do not necessarily make a person vulnerable to radicalisation. But together these can forge an attachment to an identity that sees itself as alienated, frustrated and locked in a cycle of failure.
The prolongation and interaction of these problems can contribute to the way Muslims in Britain from various walks of life begin to view themselves as a whole. In some cases, it can generate an entrenched sense of separation and alienation from, and disillusionment with wider society. This exclusionary identity, and where it takes a person, will depend on that person’s specific environment, experiences and choices.
Prolonged social crises can lay the groundwork for the rise of toxic, xenophobic ideologies on all sides. Such crises undermine conventional mores of certainty and stability rooted in established notions of identity and belonging.
While vulnerable Muslims might turn to gang culture, or worse, Islamist extremism, vulnerable non-Muslims might adopt their own exclusionary identities linked with extremist groups like the English Defence League, or other far-right extremist networks.
For more powerful elite groups, their sense of crisis may inflame militaristic neoconservative ideologies that sanitise incumbent power structures, justify the status quo, whitewash the broken system that sustains their power, and demonise progressive and minority movements.
In this maelstrom, the supply of countless billions of dollars to Islamist extremist networks in the Middle East with a penchant for violence, empowers groups that previously lacked any local constituency.
As multiple crises converge and intensify, undermining state stability and inflaming grievances, this massive input of resources to Islamist ideologues can pull angry, alienated, vulnerable individuals into their vortex of xenophobic extremism. The end-point of that process is the creation of monsters.
While these factors escalated regional vulnerability to crisis levels, the US and Britain’s lead role after 9/11 in coordinating covert Gulf state financing of extremist Islamist militants across the region has poured gasoline on the flames.
The links these Islamist networks have in the West meant that domestic intelligence agencies have periodically turned blind eyes to their followers and infiltrators at home, allowing them to fester, recruit and send would-be fighters abroad.
This is why the Western component of IS, though much smaller than the number of fighters joining from neighbouring countries, remains largely impervious to meaningful theological debate. They are not driven by theology, but by the insecurity of a fractured identity and psychology.
It is here, in the meticulously calibrated recruitment methods used by IS and its supporting networks in the West, that we can see the role of psychological indoctrination processes fine-tuned through years of training under Western intelligence agencies. These agencies have always been intimately involved in the crafting of violent Islamist indoctrination tools.
In most cases, recruitment into IS is achieved by being exposed to carefully crafted propaganda videos, developed using advanced production methods, the most effective of which are replete with real images of bloodshed inflicted on Iraqi, Afghan and Palestinian civilians by Western firepower, or on Syrian civilians by Assad.
The constant exposure to such horrifying scenes of Western and Syrian atrocities can often have an effect similar to what might happen if these scenes had been experienced directly: that is, a form of psychological trauma that can even result in post-traumatic stress.
Such cult-like propaganda techniques help to invoke overwhelming emotions of shock and anger, which in turn serve to shut down reason and dehumanise the “Other.” The dehumanisation process is brought to fruition using twisted Islamist theology. What matters with this theology is not its authenticity, but its simplicity. This can work wonders on a psyche traumatised by visions of mass death, whose capacity for reason is immobilised with rage.
This is why the reliance on extreme literalism and complete decontextualisation is such a common feature of Islamist extremist teachings: because it seems, to someone credulous and unfamiliar with Islamic scholarship, to be literally true at first glance.
Building on decades of selective misinterpretation of Islamic texts by militant ideologues, sources are carefully mined and cherry-picked to justify the political agenda of the movement: tyrannical rule, arbitrary mass murder, subjugation and enslavement of women, and so on, all of which become integral to the very survival and expansion of the “state.”
As the main function of introducing extreme Islamist theological reasoning is to legitimise violence and sanction war, it is combined with propaganda videos that promise what the vulnerable recruit appears to be missing: glory, brotherhood, honour, and the promise of eternal salvation—no matter what crimes or misdemeanours one may have committed in the past.
Couple this with the promise of power—power over one’s enemies, power over Western institutions that have purportedly suppressed one’s Muslim brothers and sisters, power over women—and the appeal of IS, if its religious garb and claims of Godliness can be made convincing enough, can be irresistible.
What this means is that IS’s ideology, while important to understand and refute, is not the driving factor in its origins, existence and expansion. It is merely the opium of the people that it feeds to itself, and its prospective followers.
Ultimately, IS is a cancer of modern industrial capitalism in meltdown, a fatal by-product of our unwavering addiction to black gold, a parasitical symptom of escalating civilisational crises across both the Muslim and Western worlds. Until the roots of these crises are addressed, IS and its ilk are here to stay.
Nafeez Ahmed PhD is an investigative journalist, international security scholar and bestselling author who tracks what he calls the ‘crisis of civilization.’ He is a winner of the Project Censored Award for Outstanding Investigative Journalism for his Guardian reporting on the intersection of global ecological, energy and economic crises with regional geopolitics and conflicts. He has also written for The Independent, Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, The Scotsman, Foreign Policy, The Atlantic, Quartz, Prospect, New Statesman, Le Monde diplomatique, New Internationalist. His work on the root causes and covert operations linked to international terrorism officially contributed to the 9/11 Commission and the 7/7 Coroner’s Inquest.