Hopefully everyone reading this has at least heard of ISIS. The jihadist militia, an unrecognized Sunni state, has been in the news for the past few months for its meteoric rise to power in Syria and Iraq. In August, President Obama pledged to take military action against ISIS to prevent the ethnic cleansing of the Yazidi, a religious minority, sending America back to war in Iraq. But beyond the people despairing at America reasserting its presence in the area, there are those who believe ISIS itself was manufactured to further destabilize the region and form a pretense for such action.
This isn’t just internet bullshit (though it’s highly possible that it is regular bullshit)—foreign leaders and media are pushing the theory, and it’s a not-unpopular idea among citizens of countries under threat of violence from ISIS and American airstrikes. ISIS’ sophisticated publicity and social media machine, the murky origins of many of its members, and America’s motives in the Middle East have caused a not-quite-irrational belief that America is not only responsible for ISIS’ rise, but the architect of their success.Before we delve into conspiracy theories, the facts of ISIS are honestly horrible. ISIS has presided over beheadings, mass executions, rapes, forced marriages, sexual slavery, violent and deadly intolerance of other religious beliefs. Children are not protected, often subject to the violence, including sexual violence. The state seeks to impose Sharia law within its caliphate, which is now roughly the size of Pennsylvania.
America is historically a well-known supporter of militia and groups that would under other circumstances be decried as terrorists. ISIS in fact rose to power during the civil war against Assad’s Syria last year, which, in addition to striking against the America-unfriendly regime, has killed tens of thousands of civilians and political and religious rivals with material aid from the US. During the height of US involvement in Syria last year, it was reported that the American military was training rebels in anti-tank tactics, an advantage ISIS itself boasts about. To the average observer, ISIS is the toxic byproduct of American foreign policy, but through another lens, the group has received direct support, the purposes of which could easily be anything given America’s indiscretions.
ISIS has publicized three videos of western hostages’ beheadings, and are currently threatening a fourth. All three videos follow the same format, with no cutting or bleeding visible. This is likely for publicity purposes, to make the videos suitable to post on sites like Youtube (though the site has publicly stated it will not host such material). The videos are clearly “staged,” though there’s no credible claim that the hostages weren’t beheaded. However, some conspiracy theorists have latched onto the videos’ rather heavy production and lack of gruesome violence and believe them to be entirely fabricated. “Evidence” of image manipulation can be seen in the following imgur album. *Warning: Very graphic photos that are probably real*
The supposed purpose of faking a beheading video is obvious: to beat war drums. As we have seen, whether the videos are real or not, the country has reacted strongly to the videos, and they’ve been cited by Obama as reason to pursue ISIS. Adding to the suspicion is the US government’s behavior toward Jim Foley’s family, who were threatened with prosecution as they attempted to raise the ransom demanded by ISIS for their son’s life.
“Guided by its strict no-ransom policy, the United States government’s hands-off approach was vastly different from the tack taken by European countries, which quickly negotiated the release of their citizens in exchange for cash.”
So to what end would America be backing ISIS? The Iraq war was hugely unpopular, and America’s military withdrawal, regardless our right to actually be there and attempt to rebuild, was clearly too early to establish a functional state. Now, ISIS controls a large portion of Iraq, threatening to remove our nominal ally from power. With an offensive against ISIS, we could put ourselves in charge once again of securing Iraq and its resources.
Syria hangs in the balance, as well. With America’s proxy defeat in the civil war, its crusade against ISIS may well spill over from Iraq into Syria, especially given America’s penchant for protracted conflict in the Middle East. ISIS’ presence in Syria could allow America to have another go at Assad. In a more abstract sense, strife in the Middle East is simply a desirable condition for many parties. US military contractors, the military itself, construction, resource extraction.
There’s an understandable impulse for America to go back and take care of problems it can be argued to be partially responsible for. The disorder and half-assed state building America left in the wake of its illegal war in Iraq has absolutely allowed ISIS to come to power. As well, its insufficiently targeted support for Syrian rebels in the push to depose Assad. But America doesn’t have such a great track record with this kind of thing. Sometimes, a mistake is something you just have to live with, and fixing it is a destructive fantasy.
After 9/11, America took the opportunity to clamp down on civil liberties, restrict our movement, begin heavy spying, and launch an offensive in Iraq, a country that was pretty much uninvolved in the attacks. This opportunism has led to the prominence of conspiracy theories surrounding the event. Theorists see the country taking advantage and interpret it as the country having engineered the original attack. But it’s not necessary for the attack to be planned. The attack was an excuse; many other events could have led to the same result. These measures were in the pipe. With ISIS, there’s nominal evidence that America contributed to their cause, but what’s really important is how America reacts to such a problem. What will the excuse of ISIS be used for?