An unfortunate trend has been sweeping social media the last several weeks. This particularly popular conspiracy has been claiming that ISIS is actually a creation of the CIA and Mossad, with Abu Bakr al Baghdadi being an Israeli Mossad agent. Just a small amount of knowledge about international security can tell you that this whole “theory” is fictitious.
This conspiracy has two different origin points. The first alleges that Edward Snowden released documents that detailed the CIA’s and Mossad’s complicity in the creation of ISIS. This by itself should be a signal to people that this theory is completely false. As Time reported, this variation comes from an Iranian newspaper who has attempted to claim that ISIS is a U.S.-Israeli plot to destabilize the Middle East (for an in depth forensic analysis of how this conspiracy has spread, read this fantastic post by Alan Kurtz.) Another variation of this is that in Hillary Clinton admitted that the U.S. created ISIS.
The second variation is easier to disprove by simply reading the book (hint: it’s not there). So let us focus on the Edward Snowden conspiracy. Upon reading, it should be clear to any knowledgeable person of international affairs that this is a fake. Of course there were no documents released by Snowden claiming that the CIA/Mossad had created ISIS. All of the documents that had been released by Snowden has discussed what the NSA had done, not the CIA. All the documents released by Snowden, because they relate to the NSA, all deal with electronic or signal intelligence.
There are still many of the Snowden documents that have not been released. Situations like this can arise for large scale leaks such as this. This occurred during the U.S. diplomatic cable leaks at WikiLeaks when Pakistan tried to spread fake cables to make itself look better. Initially, many newspapers in Pakistan carried these false cables as many people though these were the newest cables to be released from WikiLeaks. It wasn’t until the newspapers that had access to the full database of cables confirmed the falsity of the stories did the Pak newspapers realize their mistake. As with this conspiracy, all those who had access to the Snowden documents have refuted this story.
Why do some people like to believe conspiracies such as these (I have not read enough of the academic literature on this topic to cite here, so most of what I write will be inference)? There are always individuals who are going to believe that the U.S., ‘the Jews’, or some other country are secretly running the world in order to keep certain groups down. While this conspiracy does belong in that corner, it is with some level of confidence that the majority of the initial followers of this conspiracy (many who now recognize that the conspiracy was false) are not some Protocols of the Elders of Zion believers. For many, the case of the U.S. sponsoring a group that went rogue falls in line with the Frankenstein narrative. An arrogant power creates an organization to control and secure U.S. interests, only for the organization to go rogue. Rather than being a deliberate attempt of the U.S. or Israel trying to control the world, the group ISIS is just another form of blowback. After all, this is the narrative that was spread post 9/11 (while the U.S. did sponsor the mujahedeen to fight against the Soviets, the U.S. did not directly sponsor Al Qaeda or the Taliban. The history of U.S. involvement in the country is a bit more complicated than that).
But for many Muslims, they initially embraced this conspiracy as it gave an explanation for why ISIS was committing such horrendous acts in the name of Islam. Despite the insinuations of some people, it’s no secret that the majority of Muslims abhor ISIS and the other who commit acts of violence in the name of their religion. Muslims are like everybody else; many of the beliefs that a Muslim will hold are the same as their neighbors’. Religion is interpreted by the follower. Islam, like Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, and other major religions have followers that range from the liberal to the conservative. Unfortunately, non-Muslim societies have demonized Islam as an inherently violent religion compared to the peaceful Christianity and Hinduism. Random verses, devoid of context, are brought up to prove the violence of the religion, or even false verses are used all the while ignoring the same substance in the commentator’s own religion (as a Hindu, I recognize there are verses in my holy books that can be interpreted or used to justify violence depending on how interprets it. Though also, growing up as a Hindu, my family found it hilarious when Christians would say how violent Islam is when we viewed the two religions as equal in their advocacy of violence).
On top of that, there is also the fact that people don’t like to see extremists act in the name of their religion or see their religion corrupted. While Americans have been quick to label ISIS as Islamic extremists, they have been just as reluctant to call certain groups Christian terrorism. Joseph Kony, whose organization is a mix of Christian fundamentalism and Acholi nationalism, many people just denounced him as a terrorist or as a maniac. Similarly, it is easier for Christian Americans to call ISIS an Islamic terrorist group or the 969 group in Myanmar a Buddhist terrorist group than it is to say that a group like the LRA is a Christian terrorist group. For many Muslims who initially gave credence to the conspiracy theory, this was a justification that those committing those horrendous acts weren’t Muslim. This conspiracy had died down among those who initially believed it with the media providing articles that debunked the theory. The world, regardless of one’s religious affiliation, has come to condemn the barbaric acts of ISIS. Indeed, Muslim leaders (the talking point of how Muslims do not condemn extremism enough or ignore Middle Eastern atrocities except for Israel is pure nonsense) has come out strongly in condemning ISIS. The discussion has now turned on what the U.S. can do to defeat ISIS.
As for the Snowden-ISIS conspiracy, PolitiFact categorized this best with the rating on how bad the lie was: Pants on Fire.