On that ISIS Conspiracy

Maybe Archer created ISIS. From Reddit 

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.

The Security Dilemma and ISIS


The security dilemma (also known as the spiral model) remains one of the most important concepts in international relations and the school of realism today. The basic premise of the security dilemma is that as one state takes measures to increase it’s security (e.g. increasing its military strength, making alliances), another state might take similar measures to make up for the shortfall in power. This will cause both states to continually takes measures to increase their security. This in turn will create tensions between the two states which can escalate into conflict between the two states, even if conflict wasn’t desired. (For influential article on the subject, read this article by Robert Jervis).

Barry Posen decided to apply the security dilemma to the issue of ethnic conflict. As it was the anarchical condition in international affairs that makes security a primary concern for states, according to Posen, the collapse of a central government in some countries created a similar anarchical situation. Instead of being between states, it will be between groups. As Posen argues, there remains two characteristics that will determine how intense the security dilemma will be: whether offense and defensive forces are distinguishable (if similar, it is much more difficult for a state to signal its defensive intentions) and that offense is more effective than defensive. Because of this latter fact, states will chose offensive capabilities if they want to survive. In the case of ethnic conflict, the insecure group will chose offensive capabilities, thus amplifying the security dilemma. The final important theoretical point of Posen’s article involves the ‘groupness’ of the ethnic groups and how people of different ethnicity assess the offensive implications of another group’s intentions. On the latter point, groups will turn to history to gauge the intentions of other ethnic groups. On the former point, ‘groupness’ is inherently offensive, causing an intense security dilemma. While there are other important points of discussion in the article, the ones I highlighted above are those I will focus on in the discussion of the rise of ISIS (also known as ISIL).

While I’m focusing my analysis between the Sunni and Shia groups in Iraq (which are not specifically ethnic groups), I believe the principles of the security dilemma can be used as an explanation for the rise of ISIS. The Maliki government is primarily Shia and its no secret that Maliki has not made any attempts to form an inclusive government. With accusations from the Sunni community of authoritarianism and sectarianism by members of the Maliki government, this has led some Sunni tribes and cities to ally themselves with ISIS fighters (though whether this alliance will last is another issue). Of course, the Saddam Hussein government was secular albeit Sunni dominated and the rise of the Maliki government has led to fears, both real and imaginary, of marginalization of the Sunni Iraqis. Since the fall of the Hussein government, there has been violence between Sunni and Shia forces. In some cases, this fighting has even resulted in the cleansing of different religious groups from Sunni and Shia dominated areas. Sunnis have also tried to various methods to try and fight this marginalization.

So there is a recent history of sectarian violence between the two groups in Iraq along with some added historical interpretations of conflict between Sunnis and Shias in Islamic history (aided by the influence that Iran and Saudi Arabia have in the country). With the rise of Shias in the government, with Iranian and American support to the central government, the balance of power has changed significantly in favor of the Iraqi Shias.

Posen concludes his paper by examining the policy purposes of using the Security Dilemma in relation to ethnic conflict. By using the security dilemma, policy makers should be able to identify the potential breakout of ethnic conflict and enact policies that would help alleviate the ethnic tension. However, he does not discuss what should be done if ethnic conflict has already began.

Currently, analysts believe that Maliki needs to go and be replaced with a unity government that contains a better representation of all minority groups. At the moment, it does not look like this will happen with Iran providing support to the Iraqi government and with other Gulf States providing support to the Sunni factions; helping to solidify their positions instead of compromising. The U.S. bears a large part of the blame for the situation in Iraq (it all starts back to that fateful decision to invade the country). However, one of the few successes the U.S. had was its ability to bring in the Sunni tribes to fight against Al Qaeda in the Anbar Awakening and take part in the political process. The Maliki government did not really take this further instead preferring to use his Shia base to govern. This is continuing with his recent statements of not bending to pressure to form a more inclusive government.

While this is not a traditional application of the security dilemma, it does fit well into explaining the current situation of Iraq, and should be used to try and prevent violence such as what we’re seeing.