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, is fully deserving of all the loathing and disgust that it receives. But that doesn’t mean you should say stupid things 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.’
Take away the word ‘strategic’ and Dempsey’s description evokes an Islamic version of the Branch Dravidians with more firepower, or Niall Ferguson’s description of Iran as a suicidal state bent on killing itself in order to get its population to heaven. IS may be brutal and horrendous, but that doesn’t mean it has eschatalogical intentions. On the contrary, all its actions suggest an organization with a clear political project, namely to destroy the Middle East state system imposed after WWI and replaced it with its notion of a ‘caliphate’ that will have all the trappings of an Islamic superstate.
After all, 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 and that Islam is the answer and that Malcolm X thought so too.
Depicting IS as a mysterious eruption of irrational evil intent on the end of the world obscures its strategic intentions and the strategic 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 Souad Mekhennet describes in that esteemed organ 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 that
‘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 cheerfully told his interviewer ‘ 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 was equally cheerful when he 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 is 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 deliberately cultivated the most reactionary political and social forces in Afghanistan for the simple reason that they believed they would fight the Soviets more effectively.
In Libya and Syria, it is 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 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 really 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..