One of the gravest obstacles Jeb Bush will have to face as he embarks on a run for president is shaking the ghost of his brother’s legacy. That was most apparent Wednesday in a town hall style meeting in Reno, Nevada when a college student told the former Florida governor, “Your brother created ISIS.”
The emergence of the Islamic State, also referred to as ISIS or ISIL, is ultimately more complex and the culmination of many factors. The radical Islamist movement currently inflicting its brutal rule of law over parts of Syria and Iraq emanated from poor American policy in the region paired with the conditions laid out over decades of authoritarian rule by brutal despots.
Following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1978, the CIA coordinated closely and covertly with Pakistani intelligence and with Saudi funding to train Islamist militants. This period — well documented in books like Steve Coll’s Ghost Wars — is where leaders of future radical Islamist organizations got their start, including Osama bin Laden and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
A barely literate, former gang member, al-Zarqawi traveled to Afghanistan to fight against the Soviets in the 1989. Three months after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, he traveled to Sunni Muslim-dominated regions of the country. A year later, al-Zarqawi formed al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and enacted a violent philosophy that included beheadings, mass slaughter of different sects (mainly Shiite Muslims), and attacking mosques. Al-Zarqawi was killed in June 2006 by a U.S. drone strike. In October of that same year, AQI merged with other Islamist factions to create the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI).
Meanwhile, a cauldron of dangerous events was unfolding that would later set the stage for what is happening today. While the U.S. was busy with the de-Baathification of the Iraqi military, Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad was busy funneling radical Islamists — many with experience fighting against the Soviets in Afghanistan — through Syria and into neighboring Iraq.
“Debaathification stripped the country of capable men who inevitably resented the U.S. for forcing them out of jobs,” Shane Farrell, a security risk consultant based in Istanbul, told ThinkProgress. This is one of the many critiques levelled at the Bush administration’s policies in Iraq. “Military strategy was absent of any ‘day after’ plan. They quickly lost ‘hearts and minds’,” said Farrell.
Expelled from participation in the military and left to rot at home, many Baathists began looking for ways to insert themselves back into Iraqi political life. One of these former Baathists was Samir Abd Muhammad al-Khlifawi but better known as Haji Bakr. According to the German newspaper Der Spiegel, Haji Bakr was “the strategic head of the group calling itself ‘Islamic State’ (IS).”
Haji Bakr was also one of many figures held in the now infamous, U.S.-ran Camp Bucca that would later go on to fill the Islamic State’s positions of power. Another such figure was Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State since 2010 and its self-appointed caliph (the spiritual leader of Islam). Holding a number of dangerous militants together in a setting where they could interact and build a stronger network proved crucial to the group.
“For us it [Camp Bucca] was an academy,” a high-ranking member of the Islamic State who goes by the nom-de-guerre Abu Ahmed told the Guardian last year, “but for them” — the senior leaders — “it was a management school. There wasn’t a void at all, because so many people had been mentored in prison.”
“There were mistakes made by U.S. policy makers and Iraqi leaders,” said Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress who has spent time in Iraq. Katulis said that the way Iraqi security forces were dealt with and the imprisoning of certain Iraqis are all “a number of short sighted moves that some way contributed” to the current atmosphere where the Islamic State has thrived.
In 2011, protests in Syria against a dictatorial regime unraveled into a bloody civil war. While the original cause of the protests were political, the conflict quickly turned sectarian as radical Islamists entered the fray. Some came from abroad under the guise of fighting an oppressive non-Sunni Muslim (Assad is a member of the Alawite faith) while others were released from prison by the Syrian regime. Critics say he did so to justify claims that the opposition was full of terrorists and extremists.
A few months into the uprising, and while the protests were still predominately free of violence, al-Baghdadi sent an associate named Abu Mohammad al-Jolani and seven others to Syria. Al-Jolani was under strict orders not to reveal any ties to al-Qaeda. Instead, the group called itself Jabhat al-Nusra (or the Victory Front).
As the situation in Syria degenerated into armed conflict, Nusra quickly established itself as a formidable fighting force against the Assad regime. Less than a year after Nusra announced its arrival on the Syrian scene, the U.S. discovered their links to al-Qaeda and designated them a terrorist organization.
In April 2013, al-Baghdadi revealed the link between Nusra and ISI. “Baghdadi’s speech was a bombshell. He not only announced that his outfit had spawned Jabhat al-Nusra, but that he was now merging them into one entity — ISIL [the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant] — under his command,” journalist Rania Abouzeid wrote in Politico last year.
Al-Jolani rejected the link and swore direct allegiance to al-Qaeda Chief Ayman al-Zawahiri, who later asked al-Baghdadi to renege his announcement. But al-Baghdadi rejected the request and in late June 2014, after a summer military campaign that saw the group take over large parts of Iraq, declared himself the caliph of the Islamic State.
Iraq’s president at that time was Nouri al-Maliki, a member of the country’s Shiite majority. Years of deposed dictator Saddam Hussein’s rule had left the Sunnis used to power and al-Maliki’s discriminatory policies that left many Sunnis disenfranchised set the ground for what was to come. “They exploited the sectarian power balance,” said Katulis.
When al-Baghdadi’s lightning offensive swept through Iraq, angry Sunni tribes fought side by side with them against an Iraqi security force they viewed as oppressive.
“Backing of Maliki was ill-conceived and fomented pro-Shia [Shiite] sectarianism,” said Farrell. This was a policy that both the Bush and Obama administration followed.
“Hindsight is 20/20, but there were clear flaws in Bush/Cheney’s strategy,” Farrell added. But while the Bush administration may have laid part of the groundwork for the Islamic State’s advent, the Obama administration is far from faultless.
“Obama is also to blame,” said Farrell. “While Bush was too hard, Obama was too soft.”
From a report in the New York Times last August:
That fact has led American lawmakers and political figures, including former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, to accuse President Obama of aiding ISIS’ rise in two ways: first by completely withdrawing American troops from Iraq in 2011, then by hesitating to arm more moderate Syrian opposition groups early in that conflict.
Obama’s legacy in Iraq and Syria will likely be decided after his term comes to an end in 2016. The notion that arming Syria’s rebels would have made a positive difference has been debated by experts (here, here and here). And the notion that the U.S. withdrew too early from Iraq has been widely advocated by some analysts and dismissed by others.
The responsibility of who fomented the rise of the Islamic State therefore falls on the shoulders of many actors, both American and Middle Eastern. Accusing Jeb Bush’s brother of “creating ISIS” is, according to Katulis, is “obviously an oversimplification of what’s been happening for years.”