As night follows day, a violent catastrophe is followed by a conspiracy theory. How do they begin and why do they spread so quickly?
The first factor is simple market economics. Conspiracy theorist David Icke can make an estimated £300,000 per night for a speech. According to Forbes magazine, Alex Jones, host of the occasionally brilliant but mainly crackpot InfoWars and PrisonPlanet online TV stations, rakes in up to $1.5m per year; reporters at Salon put the figure as high as $2.7m.
Why do people listen to people like Jones and Icke? According to one expert view, usually big, shocking and seemingly random events demand explanations; believers or evangelists of conspiracy theories simply want to retain a sense of control over the world around them. Explanations provide this comfort.
And so it is with the expansion of ISIS last summer, when we had the same phenomenon. Half the Arab world immediately blamed Mossad, as they usually do. Radical Westerners thought it was the CIA.
The last week has seen these theories boosted by a new report from Dr Nafeez Ahmed, an investigative reporter and international security scholar. Ahmed is no Jones or Icke in intellectual inability; he has a PhD from a respectable British university and is a well-read author.
According to Ahmed’s apparently shocking report, the Pentagon “knowingly sponsored” ISIS. I’m open to anything, so I read on. Sadly, this bunker-busting claim was not matched by bunker-hard evidence. It was based on a single document; a recently declassified Pentagon assessment which Ahmed quoted:
“…there is the possibility of establishing a declared or undeclared Salafist Principality in eastern Syria (Hasaka and Der Zor), and this is exactly what the supporting powers to the [Syrian] opposition want, in order to isolate the Syrian regime, which is considered the strategic depth of the Shia expansion (Iraq and Iran).”
Ahmed took “supporting powers,” to include the United States and, from there, inferred that the Americans had “sponsored” ISIS, with Washington seeing the group as “a strategic opportunity to isolate [Syrian President Bashar] Assad.”
In fact, those (probably) few readers who clicked through to the original document, would have found that, in context, it was fairly clear that “supporting powers” refers to regional supporting powers like Turkey and the Gulf monarchies. Crucially, not the United States.
The Pentagon report also warns that if an Islamic emirate was formed, it would have “dire consequences” and “create grave danger in regards to unifying Iraq and the protection of its territory.” This is hardly “sponsoring” ISIS, although Ahmed argued strenuously that the Pentagon’s writing of the report and then ignoring its contents constituted a clear conspiracy to create ISIS.
Instead, all the Pentagon analysts were doing was observing, with some skill, events in Iraq and Syria, and making some rational predictions. The document was marked “Secret”, a middle-ranking classification which is far too lowly to contain details of anything really controversial, and had in any case been knowingly declassified. There may yet still be found evidence that the United States created ISIS, but this document certainly isn’t it.
Last month, Dr Ahmed re-published another dubious claim. In an article for Middle East Eye, he claimed to have discovered evidence of a Pentagon plan “to divide and rule the Muslim world.” Again, it sounded intriguing, so I read on.
After a long introduction, Ahmed told his readers that “divide and rule” was a US Army-sanctioned strategy to deliberately pit Sunni against Shia in Yemen. Though billed as an “Exclusive” this was actually a re-hash of an article he had published in the Guardiana year previously, arguing the same point about Iraq and ISIS.
Ahmed’s much hyped document, which forms the bedrock of both the Guardian and MEE articles, turned out to be an analysis from the RAND defence think tank, sponsored by the US government, and available to anyone, for free, online.
As anyone who read the original document found out, RAND analysts, way back in 2008, had outlined eight potential strategies for the United States in the Middle East as part of its “war on terror”, just one of which was what Ahmed had selected to tell his readers about: “Divide and Rule”.
Again, it’s possible that “Divide and Rule” may have been chosen eventually, but this document didn’t show that. RAND produces a lot of material each month; it’s unclear who actually read the report. Ahmed’s articles, however, did not reflect this crucial nuance. He couldn’t find any military or intelligence sources to speak to him on the record about it. It’s actually unclear whether he even tried, or has access to such people.
Ahmed’s theories are thus just that, theories. They are quite possible, even probable, but despite their enthusiastic presentation, they have little basis in hard evidence.
The key mistake is the assumption of competence on the part of the US foreign policy agencies as well as clear co-ordination between them all. And then the unpredictable but powerful wildcards, namely the US Congress and the White House.
Let’s be clear, since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and particularly since 2011, Washington has been in near constant fire-fighting mode in the Middle East. There has been and is no strategy. In Iraq, America has lost comprehensively to Iran. In Libya, it was in-out, leave the Europeans to sort it out. In Syria, the US has had no idea what to do about Assad from day one, let alone now that ISIS is in the picture.
It is highly likely that ISIS personnel could have been trained by Western assets, as part of a covert anti-Assad campaign that has probably been running for many years. This, though, is not because the United States wanted ISIS to grow, as Ahmed believes, but because American officials just weren’t smart enough to figure out which fighters were the good guys, and which were the crazies. Incompetence is, overall, usually a better explanation than conspiracy.
More worryingly, Ahmed continues to believe that Arab people simply cannot organise themselves into a cohesive fighting force without outside interference. There is more than a smack of Orientalist racism in this approach. He also argues consistently that “moderate rebels” in Syria don’t exist, doing huge disservice to the Free Syrian Army, which is fighting on all fronts, and the moderate Islamists doing likewise. To his mind, like the neo-conservative establishment that he likes to criticise, they’re all just “jihadists”. It’s a simplistic and patronising point of view.
Not only that, but his work also detracts from a crucial new reality that most of the media is yet to recognise, and which should fundamentally change the way we look at ISIS.
Last month, Der Spiegelpublished documents obtained not from Google search, but from ISIS itself. A team of reporters took months to piece the story together painstakingly. They went to Iraq and did the legwork talking to real people. These documents, and the interviews they compiled, offer a simple and far more credible explanation, for the rise of ISIS; a group of bitter and highly capable ex-Baathists seeking to retake control of their former domain, using a religious organisation as the face. Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi is revealed by Der Spiegel to be not an Islamist, but a nationalist.
The findings have profound ramifications for how we “deal with” ISIS, both at home and abroad. It’s a simple, credible and excellently-evidenced explanation, so I’m going with that, not the conspiracy theories.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.