In the historic city of Isfahan in Iran yesterday, several thousand protesters gathered in front of the judiciary building and shouted slogans against assailants who have thrown acid on a number of women in recent weeks. Even though a spokesman for the Iranian judiciary announced Monday that four attackers had been arrested and that the harshest possible punishment will be handed out, the protesters appeared to feel that not enough is being done.
The Guardian describes the situation that led to the protests:
Assailants riding on motorbikes, in a similar sequence of events, have thrown acid in the face of at least eight women who were driving in the street with their windows pulled down. Local media say the number of victims could be higher. The attacks have so far claimed one life, an opposition website said.
Many Iranians believe that victims were targeted because they were women wearing clothes that could be deemed inappropriate in the eyes of hardliners – a claim vehemently denied by the authorities.
Isfahani citizens, horrified by the scale of vicious assaults, gathered in front of the city’s justice department on Wednesday, calling on the authorities to put an end to the crimes which has highlighted the striking challenges women face in Iran, where hijab is obligatory.
A number of protesters in Isfahan chanted slogans that described the attackers as Iran’s own version of Isis, the extremist group that has committed many atrocities in Iraq and Syria.
Somehow, I suspect that these opposition groups will be very unhappy with Thomas Erdbrink’s coverage of the protest, though. Erdbrink notes that the protest appears to have been organized through social media, which may be a hint that he thinks the opposition groups helped to organize it. The opposition groups would go along with Erdbrink’s coverage of a proposed new law at the heart of the controversy:
The acid attacks have prompted a heightened resistance to the new law, which Parliament passed on Sunday. The law is aimed at protecting citizens who feel compelled to correct those who, in their view, do not adhere to Iran’s strict social laws. The details of the law, which would officially empower the government and private citizens to give verbal or written statements on social mores, have yet to be completed.
While strict rules on dress, alcohol, sexual relations and much more are not new, the law is aimed at defining crimes against propriety or decency, which in the past would often be corrected informally. In Iran, where most people live in cities and many are highly educated, conservatives are trying to avert changes in attitudes by enforcing traditions.
But Erdbrink points out that Hassan Rouhani spoke out very forcefully against the law, providing a stark contrast to the image the opposition paints of him going along with harsh punishment meted out by conservatives:
President Hassan Rouhani strongly criticized the new law on Wednesday, saying that he feared it would divide society because, as many observers have pointed out, in reality it offers the country’s small but influential faction of hard-liners more power.
“The sacred call to virtue is not the right of a select group of people, a handful taking the moral high ground and acting as guardians,” Mr. Rouhani said during a trip to the provincial city of Zanjan. “It is upon all Muslims to exhort love, respect for others and human dignity.”
“May such a day never come that some lead our society down the path to insecurity, sow discord and cause divisions, all under the flag of Islam,” he said, his voice shaking with emotion.
What a powerful statement. Imagine if Barack Obama said “May such a day never come that some lead our society down the path to insecurity, sow discord and cause divisions, all under the flag of Christianity”. And imagine if he said it with a voice shaking with emotion.
Sadly, both Iran and the United States have already reached that point where religious conservatives have caused insecurity, sown discord and caused divisions. And that is what makes Rouhani’s statement so dangerously courageous and prevents Obama from ever contemplating doing the same.
Back on Thursday, I noted that Iran claimed the right to enter Pakistani territory to chase terrorists that it blames for a series of border incidents that have killed a number of Iranian border guards. Iran wasted no time following up on that threat, as on Thursday night Iranian shelling killed one Pakistani soldier. Iran followed that up with border guards entering Pakistani territory on Friday to interrogate a number of villagers. It appears that Iran confiscated a vehicle and other items during the incursion. Diplomatic posturing ensued.
Interestingly, Pakistan claims that the Frontier Corpsman who was killed by Iran was in the process of chasing “miscreants” when the soldiers came under fire:
“The FC personnel were chasing miscreants when they came under attack by Iranian forces. It was a targeted attack on Pakistani forces,” the spokesperson added. One FC vehicle was completely destroyed due to intense firing by Iranian forces.
Iranian border guards continued firing for six hours. However, Pakistani forces did not retaliate to the offensive of the neighbouring country.
The big question is whether Iran feels that Pakistan’s Frontiers Corps is aiding the groups that cross into Iran or whether the Pakistani forces came under fire in this case through a mistake when they were chasing the same “miscreants” Iran presumably wished to target.
There was a small amount of additional cross-border shelling on Saturday that appeared to have no effect.
For their part, Iran does not seem to have addressed the events Thursday night through Saturday, although they did put out a statement today praising their strong security in the border region and comparing the terrorist attacks to “mosquito bites”. Iran blamed trans-regional enemies (the Americans and Zionists) as well as unnamed regional enemies for the attacks.
In an analysis of the flare-ups in Dawn, we see mention of the Jaish al-Adl group, Iranian concerns about development of the port at Gwadar and the tension caused by the border putting an artificial barrier through the heart of the regional home of the Baloch people.
But returning to the point above, it is hard to reconcile the statement from Pakistan that the Frontier Corpsmen who came under fire by Iran while chasing “miscreants” were intentionally targeted. While Iran sees Sunni extremists at the heart of their cross-border attack problems, there would seem to be significant overlap between those groups and the Baloch militants that the Frontiers Corps has long been subject to criticism for human rights abuses while trying to quash said militancy.
If Pakistan is indeed serving as a “regional enemy” of Iran in this case and supporting or providing refuge to some of the groups involved in the attacks on Iranian border posts, then Iran would seem to be justified in attacking the FC personnel. The fact that the FC did not return fire would seem to fit that scenario and serve as a tacit admission that they had been caught doing wrong. However, if the FC were chasing a group that intended a cross-border attack, then Iran would be the ones responsible for needless escalation.
As I noted in discussing the first reports of the explosion at Parchin, early September saw a larger than usual incident along the Iran-Pakistan border, with a force of over 70 militants and a truck packed with over 1000 pounds of explosives attacking an Iranian border station. Thomas Erdbrink then noted last week that two separate incidents along the border resulted in the deaths of “a senior officer” and “three police officers” in two separate incidents in the same region.
Iran is quite upset by these events and no less than the second in command of the IRGC is speaking out today, warning Pakistan that if they can’t control the terrorists in the border region, then Iran will have no alternative but to chase them, even in Pakistani territory:
Iran will step in to contain terrorists if Pakistan refuses to take measures in order to secure its borders to keep terrorists from slipping into the Islamic Republic, a senior Iranian military commander says.
“We believe that every country should respect its commitments vis-à-vis its own internal security as well as that of neighboring countries. Border security is a common and pressing need for neighboring countries. We are, in principle, against intervening in the affairs of any country, but if they fail to abide by their obligations we will have [no choice but] to act,” the second-in-command of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC), Brigadier General Hossein Salami, said on Thursday.
“Terrorists, wherever they may be, even on the soil of neighboring countries, we will find them, and if they do not give up acts of terrorism, we will deal with them without reservation,” the senior commander added.
Gosh, maybe the US should go to the UN or the ICC to complain about such a blatant violation of Pakistani sovereignty if such an attack takes place. Just as soon as the US stops violating Pakistani sovereignty with drones, that is.
The article goes on to quote Salami that Iran has very good intelligence on the terrorist groups in the border region and then notes that “Iranian security forces have apprehended a number of perpetrators behind the recent killings” regarding the incidents described in the Erdbrink report.
Gosh, with intelligence that good on the border zone terrorists, maybe Iran will start using drones in Pakistan, too. I can only imagine the chaos that would sow among the chattering classes inside the Beltway.
Mark Mazzetti reports that in 2012 and 2013, CIA did a study that one of its favorite means of covert intervention — arming rebels — pretty much doesn’t work.
An internal C.I.A. study has found that it rarely works.
The still-classified review, one of several C.I.A. studies commissioned in 2012 and 2013 in the midst of the Obama administration’s protracted debate about whether to wade into the Syrian civil war, concluded that many past attempts by the agency to arm foreign forces covertly had a minimal impact on the long-term outcome of a conflict. They were even less effective, the report found, when the militias fought without any direct American support on the ground.
The findings of the study, described in recent weeks by current and former American government officials, were presented in the White House Situation Room and led to deep skepticism among some senior Obama administration officials about the wisdom of arming and training members of a fractured Syrian opposition.
But in April 2013, President Obama authorized the C.I.A. to begin a program to arm the rebels at a base in Jordan, and more recently the administration decided to expand the training mission with a larger parallel Pentagon program in Saudi Arabia to train “vetted” rebels to battle fighters of the Islamic State, with the aim of training approximately 5,000 rebel troops per year.
The only “success” CIA could find was the mujahadeen ousting the Russians in Afghanistan.
I’m particularly interested in the timing of all this.
Mazzetti says there were multiple studies done in 2012 — at which point David Petraeus was CIA Director, and was pushing to arm rebels in Syria — and 2013 — by which point John Brennan had replaced Petraeus.
So the timing looks something like this:
2012: CIA starts doing studies on how crappy their covert ops have been
2012: Hillary and Petraus both push Obama to arm Syrians
2012: Benghazi attack targets CIA officers ostensibly working to reclaim weapons used to oust Qaddafi but reportedly to send them on to Syria
2012: Petraeus ousted for reasons that probably aren’t primarily that he fucked his biographer
2013: John Brennan nominated to serve as CIA Director. As part of his confirmation process, the follow exchange takes place (Bark Mikulski asked a similar question in the hearing itself).
Question 7: What role do you see for the CIA in paramilitary-style intelligence activities or covert action?
The CIA, a successor to the Office of Strategic Services, has a long history of carrying out paramilitary-style intelligence activities and must continue to be able to provide the President with this option should he want to employ it to accomplish critical national security objectives.
Question 8: What are you views on what some have described as the increased “militarization” of the CIA mission following the September 11, 2001 attacks?
In my view, the CIA is the nation’s premier “intelligence” agency, and needs to remain so. While CIA needs to maintain a paramilitary capability to be able to carry out covert action as directed by the President, the CIA should not be used, in my view, to carry out traditional military activities.
April 2013: Obama signs finding authorizing an op CIA knew wouldn’t work
June 2013: Covert op begins, per Chuck Hagel confirmation of it in August
As Mazzetti explains, the amazing discovery that CIA’s covert ops are often useless was one reason Obama delayed so long before he authorized one anyway (and his close confidante Brennan implemented it).
But I think two other things are likely (in addition to Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons in both April and August 2013). One, it wasn’t so much Obama was opposed to such an op; he was just opposed to the way Petraeus (who oversaw the latter part of the Libya op) and Hillary implemented it. (Note, Mazzetti specifically notes both Hillary and Leon Panetta’s claims they warned Obama to respond earlier in Syria, so Mazzetti’s piece may be a response to that.) And just as likely, the Saudi-tied rising strength in ISIL forced our hand, requiring us to be able to offer a legitimate competitor to their paid terrorists.
Particularly given the mujadadeen “success” apparently cited in the CIA study, I find that rather ominous.
For 5 years, Ibrahim al-Asiri has been the chief boogeyman in US efforts to scare Americans about terrorism from AQAP (and to justify huge outlays for dumb machines TSA can use). Almost yearly, the CIA leaks to ABC News that Asiri has mastered yet another new scary feat, such as surgically implanting bombs in someone’s stomach cavity. More recently, the story has been that Asiri trained some of the western terror recruits in Syria (never mind McClatchy’s report the real threat stems from a French defector).
Which is why I’m surprised that the Rewards for Justice announcement including him yesterday only offered $5 million for his capture (as compared to Nasir al-Wuhayshi — though admittedly Wuhayshi is actually the leader of AQAP, contrary to what the press implies).
Just as interesting is the description the Rewards for Justice announcement and an earlier terrorist designation uses for Asiri. Both make absolutely no mention of the UndieBomb 1.0, toner cartridge, or UndieBomb 2.0 plots in which Asiri has always been claimed to be a central figure.
Instead, State mentions only Asiri’s alleged attempt to kill our chief Saudi intelligence partner, Mohammed bin Nayef, with a bomb hidden in his brother’s rectum. Or maybe underwear. Details, as they always are with Asiri, are fuzzy.
The Secretary of State has designated al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) operative and bomb maker Ibrahim Hassan Tali al-Asiri under E.O. 13224, which targets terrorists and their supporters. This action will help stem the flow of finances to al-Asiri by blocking all property subject to U.S. jurisdiction in which al-Asiri has an interest and prohibiting all transactions by U.S. persons with al-Asiri. AQAP has previously been designated by the United States under Executive Order 13224 and as a Foreign Terrorist Organization.
Al-Asiri is an AQAP operative and serves as the terrorist organization’s primary bomb maker. Before joining AQAP, al-Asiri was part of an al-Qa’ida affiliated terrorist cell in Saudi Arabia and was involved in planned bombings of oil facilities in the Kingdom.
Al-Asiri gained particular notoriety for the recruitment of his younger brother as a suicide bomber in a failed assassination attempt of Saudi Prince Muhammed bin Nayif. Although the assassination attempt failed, the brutality, novelty and sophistication of the plot is illustrative of the threat posed by al-Asiri. Al-Asiri is credited with designing the remotely detonated device, which contained one pound of explosives concealed inside his brother’s body.
Al-Asiri is currently wanted by the Government of Saudi Arabia. In addition, Interpol has published an Orange Notice warning the public about the threat posed by him.
Remember, even by the time Asiri was designated as a terrorist in 2011, US prosecutors were well on their way to prosecuting Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab in his attempt to take down a Detroit-bound jet; Abdulmutallab was charged with conspiracy, and FBI allegedly found Asiri’s fingerprint on the bomb. Plus, they had Abdulmutallab’s confession implicating Asiri.
And yet … not a mention of these things in State’s descriptions of Asiri.
Zacarias Moussaoui sent a letter to the judge presiding over a lawsuit against Jordanian Arab Bank, offering to testify against that bank and several Saudi banks that he says supported 9/11.
I want to testify against financial institutions such as Arab Bank, Saudi American Bank, the National Commercial Bank of Saudi Arabia for their support and financing of Usama bin Laden and Al Qaeda from the time of the Eastern Africa embassy bombing, U.S.S. Cole bombing and 9/11.
As Alison Frankel — who broke this story — noted, Moussaoui’s testimony would be inappropriate in the case in question, which found that Arab Bank funded Hamas.
But that’s not the most interesting part of her report (and Moussaoui’s letter). He claims the lawyers for the 9/11 victims have tried to meet with him in the SuperMax at Florence, CO, and also claims he sent a letter to the judge presiding over that case, where his testimony would be on point.
Moussaoui said that plaintiffs’ lawyers representing victims of the Sept. 11 attacks have requested permission to meet with him but that prison officials have denied the request. Moussaoui also claimed that he has previously offered to testify about al Qaeda financing in letters to the judge overseeing the Sept. 11 victims’ consolidated litigation, U.S. District Judge George Daniels of Manhattan, but that he does not know if the prison has mailed them. The docket in that case does not show any communications from Moussaoui, who was once named as a defendant by Sept. 11 victims.
The implication is that the Special Administrative Measures to which Moussaoui is subject may be preventing his letters from getting out or plaintiffs lawyers from being able to meet with him.
I’m not convinced Moussaoui would really have known about the financing of the 9/11 attack; from reports, al Qaeda kept the operation much better compartmented than that, and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed reportedly had real questions about the competence of Moussaoui (which is why he got others for the mission). Plus, Moussaoui’s been in solitary so long, it’s unclear how cogent he can be (though his letter sounds more cogent than some of what he sent during his own trial).
Still, I am curious whether the government has been using the SAMs imposed on Moussaoui as yet another way to bury larger Saudi complicity in the attacks.
Detailed information is not yet available, but by all accounts there was a very large explosion east of Tehran Sunday night, around 11:15 local time. Many believe that the explosion took place at Parchin, the military site that has been at the center of controversy raised by those who accuse Iran of carrying out work there to develop an explosive trigger for a nuclear bomb. Some of the most detailed information comes from Thomas Erdbrink of the New York Times:
A mysterious explosion at or near an important military complex rocked the Iranian capital on Sunday, lighting up the skies over the city.
Iranian official sources denied the explosion had taken place at the complex, the expansive Parchin military site east of the city, where international monitors suspect Iran once tested triggers for potential nuclear weapons. But the enormous orange flash that illuminated Tehran around 11:15 p.m. local time clearly came from that direction, several witnesses said.
Officials at Iran’s Defense Industries Organization, though also denying that the explosion took place at Parchin, confirmed that two people were missing after “an ordinary fire” caused by “chemical reactions of flammable material” at an unspecified production unit, according to the semiofficial Iranian Students’ News Agency. There was no word on the location of the fire.
Witnesses in the east of Tehran said that windows had been shattered in the vicinity of the military complex and that all trees in a hundred-yard radius of two villages, Changi and Hammamak, had been burned. The villages are on the outskirts of the military site.
The map below shows the area in question:
As seen on the map, Changi is very close to Parchin, but Hammamak is on the other side of Parchin and the two villages are over three miles from one another. A blast fireball that scorched trees over three miles apart must have been quite spectacular.
Many factors go into calculating the strength of blasts, including the type of explosive and what type of containment might have been present. However, FEMA provides (pdf) this rough guideline (via DTRA) of the radius over which various types of damage might be expected to occur as a function of the amount of explosive material used:
Because it relates to assessing damage from terrorist bombs, the FEMA figure breaks the amounts of explosives down into the amounts that can be carried by cars, vans and large trucks. The Times story doesn’t report on how far away from the complex windows were shattered, but the effect of burned trees in villages over three miles from one another suggests that such damage would reach quite a ways. At the very least, it would appear that the blast had the equivalent of more than 10,000 pounds of TNT, and perhaps significantly more than that.
Last Wednesday, Oregon District judge Garr King sentenced Mohamed Osman Mohamud to 30 years in prison for pressing a button FBI undercover officers had led him to believe would bomb Portland’s Christmas tree-lighting ceremony. Mohamud’s attorneys argued that in the almost-four years since his arrest Mohamud has shown a great deal of remorse. Prosecutors suggested that by contesting his conviction by claiming he was entrapped, Mohamud showed no remorse.
So 5 years after Mohamud’s father called the FBI, asking them to help divert his son from his interest in Islamic extremism, the government put Mohamud away for the better part of the rest of his life. Even assuming Mohamud only serves two-thirds of his sentence and pretending inflation doesn’t exist, taxpayers will pay $678,600 to incarcerate Mohamud, on top of the money spent on his 4-year prosecution and the at-least 18 months of informants and undercover officers pursuing the then-teenager.
Meanwhile, as the prosecution of a young man whose father reached out for help and whom the FBI prevented from spending a summer working in Alaska draws to a close, the Administration has been rolling out — for at least the third time (2010, 2011, 2014) — an effort to “counter violent extremism.” While the government has always been squishy about what gets included in “violent extremism,” in practice it has always been an effort to work with Muslim and only Muslim communities to … well, it’s not clear what the point is, whether it’s just a renewed effort to get communities to narc out their own, or whether it’s an effort to provide alternatives to an ideology that has proven attractive to young men in such communities.
The roll-out isn’t going very well.
At a hearing in OH, DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson got an earful from community leaders asking why they should trust the government.
But when Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson showed up recently at the Noor Islamic Cultural Center here to offer a sympathetic ear and federal assistance, he faced a litany of grievances from a group of mostly Muslim leaders and advocates.
They complained of humiliating border inspections by brusque federal agents, F.B.I. sting operations that wrongly targeted Muslim citizens as terrorists and a foreign policy that leaves President Bashar al-Assad of Syria in place as a magnet for extremists.
“Our relationship has to be built on trust, but the U.S. government hasn’t given us very many reasons to build up that trust,” said Omar Saqr, 25, the cultural center’s youth coordinator.
And Linda Sarsour — whose organization serving Arab immigrations was targeted by NYPD’s spying program — asks how they can trust a government that spies on them.
Muslim advocates say there is deep suspicion that, despite all the meetings and the talk of outreach, the government’s main goal is to recruit informants to root out suspected terrorists.
“I don’t know how we can have a partnership with the same government that spies on you,” said Linda Sarsour, advocacy director for the National Network for Arab American Communities.
Perhaps most telling, however, in one of NYT’s several attempts describing what CVE is, it describes spying, not community.
Among its efforts, the Department of Homeland Security provides training to help state and local law enforcement officials in identifying and countering the threat, including indicators of violent extremism and “lone wolf” attacks.
The department awarded the International Association of Chiefs of Police a $700,000 grant last year to develop training on how to prevent, respond to and recover from acts of terrorism.
DHS is going to give a police organization as much to train to spy as it’ll take to incarcerate Mohamud.
Ultimately, no matter how efficient your spying-and-sting-industry, you’re still spending around $1 million to catch and warehouse men because you’re losing an ideological battle. And the spying and stings, and the obvious bias of it, surely sets the US back in its ideological battle.
If the US can’t imagine a better response when a father calls for help but to spend 18 months catching his son a sting, we can roll out CVE programs every other month and we’re not going to earn trust among the communities we need to.
That’s in large part because the government considers any unexplained travel to a place known for its terrorist training enough to treat you as a Suspected Terrorist.
[T]he government considers traveling to an area of terrorist activity to be reasonable suspicion that someone is a known or suspected terrorist. The watchlist guidelines list just that as one behavioral indicator for being watchlisted as a known or suspected terrorist (see page 35).
3.9.4 Travel for no known lawful or legitimate purpose to a locus of TERRORIST ACTIVITY.
This means that any Americans who have traveled to Syria or Iraq are likely classified, by default, as terrorists. And many of those may have traveled for entirely different reasons (like freelance journalism).
Given the realities of travel to Syria, this must (and has, among people indicted for attempted material support) extend to people who make one-way travel plans to Turkey, from whence recruits often walk across the border.
Yesterday, Spencer Ackerman got a Senior Official to make the same point I’ve been making — the 100 alleged fighters include a lot of people who are not fighters but instead got swept up because the terror watchlisting process is way too dysfunctional.
The US government believes there are 20 to 30 Americans currently fighting in Syria for the panoply of jihadist groups there, according to a senior official.
The estimate is less than an earlier and much-quoted assessment of approximately 100 Americans taking part in Syria’s civil war and the spillover violence in neighboring Iraq, where the Islamic State militant group (Isis) has launched a war of conquest.
A senior administration official, speaking to the Guardian on condition of anonymity, said that the estimate of roughly 100 represented all Americans who have travelled to Syria or attempted to travel to Syria over the past 18 months, a qualification that US government spokespeople have typically not provided.
Not all of the 20 to 30 Americans went to Syria to join Isis. Some fight with rebel groups resisting the regime of dictator Bashar al-Assad or rival jihadist groups.
Nor have all the 100-odd Americans who have travelled or attempted to travel to Syria in the past year and a half gone to fight. The estimate also includes humanitarian aid workers and others attempting to alleviate the Middle East’s most brutal conflict, the official said.
If you want to see how ridiculous this is in practice (or, perhaps, how ironically appropriate) consider the plight of Stephen Hayes, Dick Cheney’s mouthpiece and all-around torture apologist. He recently got put on the Selectee list because — he believes — he made a one way trip to Istanbul for what was actually a cruise but if you do lots of mindless dragnettery might appear like a trip to join Jabhat al-Nusra. (I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s two degrees from some suspect, given how broadly those things get defined and how many international acquaintances he has.)
Hayes, who spoke to POLITICO by phone on Tuesday, suspects that the decision stems from U.S. concerns over Syria. Hayes and his wife recently booked a one-way trip to Istanbul for a cruise, and returned to the States, a few weeks later, via Athens.
It turns out Hayes is finding out the same thing I learned when my white northern European over-educated spouse went through the immigration process. Even for people who have resources and perfect English, making the bureaucracy work the way it is supposed to can be daunting.
At the time of our conversation, Hayes was on the DHS website trying to fill out forms to get his name cleared. It wasn’t going well.
“Not surprisingly, it’s confusing,” Hayes said. “The first time I did it, the whole site froze. Now it’s asking me for my passport number and a bunch of other information. Then I think I’m supposed to submit an actual copy of my passport, which I obviously can’t do electronically.”
Yes, I admit some glee that some like Hayes got swept up in the mindless dragnettery his boss championed. But even Hayes — whose life will soon be back to normal, I imagine — does not deserve this pointless harassment.
Consider how much worse this accidental terror-tourism is for Muslims who can’t run to the press which will mock their plight?
Stephen Hayes may be, by many measures, a horrible human being, arguably even a material supporter of war crimes. But his cruise out of Turkey does not make him a terrorist, no matter what the National Counterterrorism Center claims.
Over the weekend, the NYT had a story reporting the “conspiracy theory” popular among Iraqis that the US is behind ISIS.
The United States has conducted an escalating campaign of deadly airstrikes against the extremists of the Islamic State for more than a month. But that appears to have done little to tamp down the conspiracy theories still circulating from the streets of Baghdad to the highest levels of Iraqi government that the C.I.A. is secretly behind the same extremists that it is now attacking.
“We know about who made Daesh,” said Bahaa al-Araji, a deputy prime minister, using an Arabic shorthand for the Islamic State on Saturday at a demonstration called by the Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr to warn against the possible deployment of American ground troops. Mr. Sadr publicly blamed the C.I.A. for creating the Islamic State in a speech last week, and interviews suggested that most of the few thousand people at the demonstration, including dozens of members of Parliament, subscribed to the same theory.
The prevalence of the theory in the streets underscored the deep suspicions of the American military’s return to Iraq more than a decade after its invasion, in 2003. The casual endorsement by a senior official, though, was also a pointed reminder that the new Iraqi government may be an awkward partner for the American-led campaign to drive out the extremists.
It suggests the theory arises from lingering suspicions tied to our occupation of Iraq.
But, given the publicly available facts, is the theory so crazy?
Let me clear: I am not saying the US currently backs ISIS, as the NYT’s headline but not story suggests is the conspiracy theory. Nor am I saying the US willingly built a terrorist state that would go on to found a caliphate in Iraq.
But it is a fact that the US has had a covert op since at least June 2013 funding Syrian opposition groups, many of them foreign fighters, in an effort to overthrow Bashar al-Assad. Chuck Hagel confirmed as much in Senate testimony on September 3, 2013 (the NYT subsequently reported that President Obama signed the finding authorizing the op in April 2013, but did not implement it right away). We relied on our Saudi and Qatari partners as go-betweens in that op and therefore relied on them to vet the recipient groups.
At least as Steve Clemons tells it, in addition to the more “moderate” liver-eaters in the Free Syrian Army, the Qataris were (are?) funding Jabhat al-Nusra, whereas Saudi prince Bandar bin Sultan gets credit for empowering ISIS — which is one of the reasons King Abdullah took the Syria portfolio away from him.
McCain was praising Prince Bandar bin Sultan, then the head of Saudi Arabia’s intelligence services and a former ambassador to the United States, for supporting forces fighting Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria. McCain and Senator Lindsey Graham had previously met with Bandar to encourage the Saudis to arm Syrian rebel forces.
But shortly after McCain’s Munich comments, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah relieved Bandar of his Syrian covert-action portfolio, which was then transferred to Saudi Interior Minister Prince Mohammed bin Nayef. By mid-April, just two weeks after President Obama met with King Abdullah on March 28, Bandar had also been removed from his position as head of Saudi intelligence—according to official government statements, at “his own request.” Sources close to the royal court told me that, in fact, the king fired Bandar over his handling of the kingdom’s Syria policy and other simmering tensions, after initially refusing to accept Bandar’s offers to resign.
ISIS, in fact, may have been a major part of Bandar’s covert-ops strategy in Syria. The Saudi government, for its part, has denied allegations, including claims made by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, that it has directly supported ISIS. But there are also signs that the kingdom recently shifted its assistance—whether direct or indirect—away from extremist factions in Syria and toward more moderate opposition groups.
The worry at the time, punctuated by a February meeting between U.S. National Security Adviser Susan Rice and the intelligence chiefs of Turkey, Qatar, Jordan, and others in the region, was that ISIS and al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra had emerged as the preeminent rebel forces in Syria. The governments who took part reportedly committed to cut off ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, and support the FSA instead. But while official support from Qatar and Saudi Arabia appears to have dried up, non-governmental military and financial support may still be flowing from these countries to Islamist groups.
Thus, to the extent that we worked with Bandar on a covert op to create an opposition force to overthrow Assad, we may well have had an indirect hand in its creation. That doesn’t mean we wanted to create ISIS. It means we are led by the nose by the Saudis generally and were by Bandar specifically, in part because we are so reliant on them for our HUMINT in such matters. Particularly given Saudi support for Sunnis during our Iraq occupation, can you fault Iraqis for finding our tendency to get snookered by the Saudis suspect?
Moreover, our ongoing actions feed such suspicions. Consider the way the Administration is asking for Congressional sanction (at least in the form of funding) for an escalated engagement in the region, without first briefing Congress on the stupid things it has been doing covertly for the last 18 months?