The ISIS Creation Myth

The story of ISIS’s rise is complex, former U.S. officials and Middle East analysts say. Reuters

Updated | In May, Jeb Bush was signing autographs after a town hall meeting in Reno, Nevada, when a 19-year-old college student challenged him. Bush had just blamed the rise of the Islamic State, better known as ISIS, on President Barack Obama's decision to withdraw troops from Iraq. But the student, Ivy Ziedrich, a political science major at the University of Nevada, disagreed, saying the group's evolution began much earlier—with former President George W. Bush's invasion of the country. "Your brother," she said, "created ISIS."

Jeb cut her off. His brother, he argued, implemented the surge that restored stability to Iraq—and it could have continued, if only Obama had left some troops on the ground. "We are in a much more unstable place," he said, "because Americans pulled back."

The testy exchange captured a growing debate among Republicans in the 2016 presidential race: Whose policies led to ISIS? And how would the candidates deal with the world's most notorious jihadi group? After some awkward stumbles, most Republican candidates have settled on a simple, self-serving narrative: Obama is to blame because ISIS's ascent occurred on his watch. Not surprisingly, administration officials disagree; like Ziedrich, they point to President Bush's missteps.

Yet the story of ISIS's rise is far more complex, former U.S. officials and Middle East analysts say. While both Bush and Obama deserve some blame, ISIS could not have become such a battle-hardened, well-funded jihadi group without the help of leaders and sympathizers in Iraq, Syria, Turkey and the Sunni monarchies of the Persian Gulf. Their support for ISIS—over Washington's objections—underscores the limits of American power and influence in the region. As Douglas Ollivant, a former director for Iraq on the National Security Council for both Bush and Obama, puts it: "We Americans are the supporting cast, not the lead actors."

Ending the Occupation

ISIS's precursor, Al-Qaeda in Iraq, emerged in 2004 to resist the American occupation. Led by Abu Musab Zarqawi, a Jordanian, the group consisted of Sunnis, many of them disgruntled former Iraqi soldiers left without paychecks after the Bush administration disbanded the Iraqi army. Using suicide bombers and improvised explosive devices, Zarqawi and his recruits attacked American troops and Shiite mosques in a bid to expel American soldiers, foment a sectarian war and establish an Islamic caliphate in Iraq.

The group suffered some major setbacks early on. In 2006, the U.S. killed Zarqawi in an airstrike. A year later, the American surge began as U.S. troops joined forces with Iraqi Sunnis who had grown disillusioned with Zarqawi's brutal, fundamentalist ideas. By 2008, the surge and the Awakening—as the Iraqi effort is commonly known—had driven Al-Qaeda militants into neighboring Syria, quelling much of the violence in Iraq. Bush then negotiated an agreement, which was approved by the Iraqi parliament, giving U.S. forces permission to remain in the country until 2011, along with immunity from arrest and prosecution.

That approval proved temporary. As the U.S. prepared to send the bulk of its troops home, Obama began negotiating a similar accord. His goal was to leave behind 5,000 soldiers to train the Iraqis and help with counterterrorism. But the negotiations didn't go well. Not only did Muqtada al-Sadr, the fiercely anti-American Shiite cleric, threaten to unleash his militia on any remaining U.S. troops, but the new government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was forced to acknowledge that most Iraqis wanted the occupation to end.

"Having foreign troops in your country is…an unnatural act," says James Jeffrey, who served as Bush's deputy national security adviser and Obama's ambassador to Iraq. "Giving them legal immunity is...even more unnatural. Because Iraq was a now parliamentary democracy, this required parliamentary approval. And parliament was simply not willing to give it."

With time running out, Obama ended the negotiations. By the end of 2011, all American troops were out of Iraq, and the president ran for re-election partly on his pledge to end the Iraq War. Soon afterward, however, al-Maliki, a Shiite, launched a sectarian campaign against Iraqi Sunnis, arresting senior officials for treason, driving others into exile and upending the fragile sectarian balance the U.S. occupation had enforced.

Three years later, al-Maliki had so thoroughly alienated Sunnis that when ISIS fighters began to slip across the border from Syria, they found a receptive ear in some Sunni areas for their anti-Shiite beliefs. Last summer, when ISIS troops swept into the country's northwest, Iraqi soldiers ran away, and Sunnis greeted the militants with the traditional Arab gifts of rice and flowers. "I can't prove that [the sectarian balance of power in Iraq] wouldn't have fallen apart anyway," says Elliott Abrams, Bush's senior Middle East adviser on the National Security Council. "But I think we would have had a much better chance had we left, say, 10,000 troops on the ground."

A residual U.S. force might have produced a better-trained Iraqi army and generated better intelligence on ISIS. But other analysts scoff at the idea—now a Republican campaign mantra—that such a force would have stopped ISIS. "The Iraqi sectarian divides, which ISIS exploited, run deep and were not susceptible to permanent remedy by our troops at their height, let alone by 5,000 trainers under Iraqi restraints," Jeffrey wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed.

Ollivant, now a national security analyst at the New America Foundation, agrees: "Do I wish that President Obama had kept more focus on Iraq? Sure I do. But…these events are largely beyond his ability to shape."

Too Brutal for Al-Qaeda

While some analysts are skeptical of Obama's ability to stop ISIS in Iraq, they do believe he could have done more to stop the jihadi group in Syria. With the exception of Rand Paul, virtually all of the Republican presidential candidates have torn into Obama for "dithering" about Syrian President Bashar Assad. And several former Obama administration officials agree; they say the U.S. should have backed moderate Syrian rebels at the beginning of the war, when ISIS and other Islamist groups were weak. "The ISIS that we know today is a product of Syria," says Jeffrey. "And that's Obama's fault."

Middle East analysts note that the surge and the Awakening weakened Al-Qaeda in Iraq but didn't kill it. Those who fled across the border into Syria joined forces with the Nusra Front, the local Al-Qaeda affiliate. By 2012, both Al-Qaeda groups had begun playing a central role in the war against Assad, which was quickly becoming a bloody stalemate.

Because Assad is supported by Iran, Sunni officials and wealthy patrons in Turkey and the Persian Gulf emirates began funneling money and weapons to the rebels; they saw them as defenders of the Sunni heartland against Iranian Shiite proxies. Before long, the Iraqi militants established an identity separate from Al-Qaeda, calling themselves the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS. And they quickly started using border tolls, extortion and captured oil fields to fund their efforts.

These fighters weren't only among the strongest of the Syrian rebels; they were also the most brutal. So brutal, in fact, that Al-Qaeda's central leadership in Pakistan severed ties with them, citing the group's beheadings of captives along with theological differences. Last year, the group declared a caliphate in the territories it controlled and began a sophisticated social media campaign to recruit members.

Today, despite enduring 10 months of airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, ISIS remains in control of vast swaths of territory, and some say the U.S. bombing campaign has indirectly strengthened Assad by attacking his enemies. Earlier this month, retired General John Allen, the top U.S. envoy to the anti-ISIS coalition, said Iranian-trained Shiite militias will be needed on the ground to recapture territory in Iraq. And Robert Ford, who resigned as ambassador to Syria last year in protest against Obama's Syrian policy, recently warned that such indirect cooperation with Iran will only "play into the Islamic State's narrative and will help its recruitment."

Perhaps. But Obama defenders, such as Phil Gordon, who recently stepped down as his top Middle East adviser on the National Security Council, offer a sobering take on the complicated realities in the Middle East. "[T]he U.S. has no good options," Gordon writes in an essay in Politico Magazine. "Some of the proposed remedies for the region's woes, such as U.S. military intervention in an effort to 'transform' or 'remake' the region or simply to impress our foes, would likely make things worse. This should be clear from the U.S. effort to do so in Iraq just over a decade ago."

Andrew Bacevich, a former Army colonel and now an author and military historian, agrees. As he put it in the recent PBS documentary Obama at War: "When we talk about moral obligations, there's also a moral obligation, it seems to me, to take history seriously, to learn from one's mistakes."

'They Told Him to Fuck Off'

That's a lesson most Republican presidential hopefuls seem to be ignoring. South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham has pledged to send 10,000 troops back to Iraq, while Florida Senator Marco Rubio has proposed deploying U.S. special forces to help defeat the jihadi. Jeb Bush hasn't said how he would handle ISIS, nor has Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton. But virtually no one in the race has embraced Obama's strategy, which calls for up to 450 more military trainers to join the thousands already in Iraq.

Their reluctance to do so flies in the face of public opinion. In 2013, when Obama sought congressional authorization to bomb Syria after Assad used chemical weapons against civilians, the president was unable to summon more than 100 votes in both the House and Senate. "The American people did not want to get involved in the Syrian war," says Ollivant. "And when Obama tried to lead them there, they told him to fuck off."

Little has changed. According to a McClatchy-Marist poll published in March, most Americans support the current, limited air campaign against ISIS, but they're ambivalent about deploying large numbers of U.S. ground troops. Absent another major terrorist attack at home or an Iranian dash for a nuclear bomb, that means Americans may balk at backing another sabre-rattling candidate like George W. Bush—whether it's his brother or anyone else.

"We're still suffering from Iraq shock," says Ollivant. "It's hard to see how a presidential candidate sells another war to the people."