The Isis conspiracy theory

By Glenn Kessler, Adam Taylor

By linking Obama to group, Trump is repeating a claim often made in the Middle East, writes Adam Taylor.
Isis has seen the area it controls shrink but still has supporters in Iraq and Syria. Picture / AP
Isis has seen the area it controls shrink but still has supporters in Iraq and Syria. Picture / AP

At a campaign rally outside Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on Thursday, presidential hopeful Donald Trump repeatedly suggested that there were deep links between President Barack Obama and the extremist organisation Isis (Islamic State).

"In many respects, you know, they honour President Obama. He is the founder of Isis," Trump said at one point, using an acronym to refer to the group.

Later, Trump added that his rival candidate in November's election, whom he referred to as "crooked Hillary Clinton", was the co-founder of Isis.

Then yesterday, Trump again repeatedly accused Obama of founding Isis, refusing to take back a patently false allegation even when questioned about the logic of his position.

The Republican presidential nominee brushed off conservative radio commentator Hugh Hewitt's attempt to reframe his observation as one that said Obama's foreign policy created the conditions in Iraq and Syria that allowed Isis to thrive.

"No, I meant he's the founder of Isis. I do," Trump said.

Hewitt asked Trump if he would acknowledge that Obama hates Isis, noting that the President is "trying to kill them". Over the past two years Obama has organised a broad coalition of countries and launched more than 10,000 US airstrikes in an effort to defeat Isis.

"I don't care," the billionaire businessman replied. "He was the founder. The way he got out of Iraq - that was the founding of Isis, OK?"

Trump has long been accused of using innuendo to not-so-subtly hint at conspiracy theories. And conspiracy theories about US backing Isis play into a complicated real world situation - not just among Trump's American audience, but also in the Middle East itself, where the fight against Isis is actually taking place.

Theories that the US was somehow backing Isis have long been widespread in Iraq, with a large number of videos online alleging to show "proof" of the relationship. "It is not in doubt," a Shia militia commander named Mustafa Saadi told the Washington Post last year. Saadi claims that his friend saw US helicopters delivering bottled water to Isis positions.

This US support was all that stood between Isis and defeat, he explained. "They are weak," Saadi said. "If only America would stop supporting them, we could defeat them in days."

At the same time, rumours about the details of Obama's Muslim heritage are still a matter of debate in the Middle East. But while some view Obama as a Sunni Muslim who supports the Muslim Brotherhood (and perhaps, by some extrapolation, Isis), a prominent and contradictory theory is that Obama is actually a Shia Muslim, bent on supporting Iranian domination of the Middle East.

In reality, Obama is a practising Christian and he has said that his estranged Muslim Kenyan father became an atheist later in life.

Trump is not the first to single out Clinton, a former Secretary of State, as an alleged "co-founder" of Isis either. In 2014, a number of Arabic-language social media users shared screenshots and excerpts of a Hillary Clinton "autobiography" they called Password 360. In one passage, Clinton appears to write that the United States, with the help of the Muslim Brotherhood, helped create Isis.

The thing is, there is no Password 360. Clinton's memoir is called Hard Choices and it does not contain the passage that was being shared. The hoax appears to have begun on obscure Egyptian websites before spreading to more mainstream outlets: The Lebanese Foreign Ministry even summoned the US ambassador to explain the rumour, prompting the US Embassy in Beirut to release a statement calling it a "pure fabrication".

There are plenty in the Middle East who downplay these rumours or mock them. The response to the allegations of Clinton's involvement in the creation of Isis was telling; Arabic-speaking social media users began their own satirical Twitter hashtag to share their own absurd excerpts from fake Clinton memoirs. The Middle East is fertile ground for conspiracy theories and people are used to batting them away.

But even if not everyone believes in these theories, they muddy the water for US involvement in the fight against Isis.

"What influence can we have if they think we are supporting the terrorists?" Kirk Sowell, an analyst based in Jordan who publishes the newsletter Inside Iraqi Politics, told the Washington Post last year.

The focus on conspiracy theories in the Middle East comes from a troubling history of real conspiracies, conspiracies in which the West was often complicit.

However, the US involvement in the creation of Isis is both more complicated and more mundane. Many analysts would still argue that the Iraq invasion in 2003 was a key catalyst for events that eventually led to the creation of Isis.

And despite repeated attempts to assert the opposite, records show that Trump did not oppose that invasion. Obama did.

Is Obama the founder of Isis? Let's ask an expert

Over the past two years Obama has organised a broad coalition of countries and launched more than 10,000 US airstrikes in an effort to defeat Isis.
Over the past two years Obama has organised a broad coalition of countries and launched more than 10,000 US airstrikes in an effort to defeat Isis.

The Washington Post has an inside expert on the rise of Isis - our colleague Joby Warrick. His best-selling book, Black Flags: The Rise of Isis, won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for general non-fiction. So here's an interview with Warrick about Donald Trump's statements about Barack Obama.

Is Obama the founder of Isis?

Absolutely not. It's like saying that Ronald Reagan is the founder of al-Qaeda because the arms he sent to the mujahideen in Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion led to the creation of al-Qaeda. It's a ludicrous claim.

So who founded Isis?

It was started by a Jordanian terrorist named Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. It did not initially start out calling itself Isis; it was called al-Qaeda in Iraq.

So what did Obama have to do with the rise of Isis?

That goes back to my earlier point. Isis arose in response to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. Zarqawi moved into Iraq in advance of the invasion in anticipation of leading a Sunni insurgency. That's really the origin of Isis from a US policy standpoint. (Note: Trump supported the invasion of Iraq.)

But why did Isis seem to grow during the Obama Administration?

The civil war in Syria breathed new life into what had become a moribund organisation. The conflict in Syria created a perfect vacuum in terms of governance, and so the civil war became an opportunity for the restoration of the organisation. You could fault the White House for not intervening into the Syrian conflict. But there are all kinds of questions about whether any actions taken by the United States would make a difference. Also, given Russian opposition at the United Nations, it's pretty unlikely the United States could have gotten international backing for an intervention.

Some people have also criticised Obama for pulling troops out of Iraq.

There are two different issues. Isis rebounded within the space created in the Syrian conflict. Isis then saw opportunity to rebound in Iraq. One factor was the withdrawal of US troops. But there was also rampant mismanagement by the Government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, which greatly degraded the Iraqi military and exacerbated tensions between Sunnis and Shia.

Trump also claims Hillary Clinton was a "co-founder" of Isis. Does that make sense?

No. Within the Administration, Clinton was one of the loudest forces for keeping a residual force in Iraq and for intervening in Syria, such as arming the rebels. So the criticism especially does not apply to her, since she advocated a more hawkish policy than was undertaken by Obama.

- Washington Post

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