The Covert Operation Undermining US Credibility against ISIS

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?

That’s one of the most striking details from last Wednesday’s Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the Mideast escalation. As I noted in my Salon piece last week, former Associate Counsel to the White House Andy Wright noted, and today Jack Goldsmith and Marty Lederman note, Tom Udall suggested before Congress funds overt training of Syrian opposition groups, maybe they should learn details about how the covert funding of Syrian opposition groups worked out.

Everybody’s well aware there’s been a covert operation, operating in the region to train forces, moderate forces, to go into Syria and to be out there, that we’ve been doing this the last two years. And probably the most true measure of the effectiveness of moderate forces would be, what has been the effectiveness over that last two years of this covert operation, of training 2,000 to 3,000 of these moderates? Are they a growing force? Have they gained ground? How effective are they? What can you tell us about this effort that’s gone on, and has it been a part of the success that you see that you’re presenting this new plan on?

Kerry, who had been sitting right next to Hagel when the Defense Secretary confirmed this covert op a year ago, said he couldn’t provide any details.

I know it’s been written about, in the public domain that there is, quote, a covert operation. But I can’t confirm, deny, whatever.

(At the end of the hearing he suggested he has been pushing to share more information, and that he might be able to arrange for the Chair and Ranking Member to be briefed.)

Shortly thereafter, SFRC Bob Menendez confirmed that his committee was being asked to legislate about a war with no details about the covert op that had laid the groundwork for — and created the urgency behind — that war.

To the core question that you raise, this is a problem that both the Administration, as well as the Senate leadership must be willing to deal with. Because when it comes to questions of being briefed on covert operations this committee does not have access to that information. Yet it is charged with a responsibility of determining whether or not the people of the United States should — through their Representatives — support an Authorization for the Use of Military Force. It is unfathomable to me to understand how this committee is going to get to those conclusions without understanding all of the elements of military engagement both overtly and covertly. … I’ll call it, for lack of a better term, a procedural hurdle we’re going to have to overcome if we want the information to make an informed judgment and get members on board.

How are we supposed to reassure Iraqis we’re not still indirectly in bed with ISIS if the Administration won’t even brief Congress about what’s going on — and, more importantly, what did go on? As Tom Udall says, “everybody’s well aware” we were working with Bandar for months to strengthen the opposition to Assad, but not even Congress is permitted to learn the details of it.

In their piece, Goldsmith and Lederman profess not to know why our previous training cannot now be acknowledged (and their larger piece explains there’s no legal reason preventing it).

It’s hard to imagine why U.S. involvement in the training of Syrian rebels must remain officially unacknowledged even now, in light of Secretary Hagel’s public acknowledgment, and in light of the very public debate and congressional vote that just occurred on this very subject:  After all, going forward there won’t be any secret that the U.S. is training the rebels; so why must the current operation remain unacknowledged?

But there probably is a very good reason why the Administration won’t acknowledge the operation: in part, because we still want to use at least some of the terrorist groups our allies funded to combat Assad. And in even larger part, because acknowledging the actions implemented by Bandar might lead to exposure of our complicity in some pretty appalling things.

So the Obama Administration may once again — as it did with the Awlaki drone killing — be using the fiction of covert status to avoid having to fully reveal all the sordid details of an indefensible operation.

But in this case, our refusal to come clean — and, frankly, to right our dysfunctional relationship with the Saudis — will continue to undermine our efforts to combat ISIS. It may be easy for NYT to mock Moqtada al-Sadr’s “conspiracy theories.” But dismissing them in the NYT is going to do nothing for the very justifiable belief among many in the Middle East that our secret past actions directly conflict with our stated words.

19 replies
  1. RUKidding says:

    You may not go so far as to say that the CIA/USA created ISIS, Marcy, but I will: ISIS is a CIA product. That’s my theory, and I’m sticking to it.

    Even IF the USA is not *directly* involved in creating the Caliphate, we are indirectly via our friends in Saudi or Qatar or via Bandar Bush. IOW, we have so many fingers in so many pies in the ME (and world wide), that it’s nigh on impossible that the CIA’s dirty fingerprints aren’t on this somewhere.

    That, plus the NeoCons had such a giant hard-on to go to War, that it strains credibility that they didn’t make sure that some sort of clusterf*ck happened to make it “necessary” to go to War. It’s a whole lotta money for some folks to make from this. Cha Ching! _Plus booga booga scary Muzlinz goes down a treat with a certain portion of the hapless rubes.

  2. Jim White says:

    The biggest question I have in all of this is just how sincere the action of Bandar “leaving” the government was. I don’t have any evidence for it, but my gut says that the Saudis knew going into the operation to create ISIS that it would get really ugly. So did Bandar “step down” so that he could put it together with deniability for the kingdom? If he manages to come back into the fold in a few years, we will have our answer.

  3. Pitchfork says:

    I don’t know if it’s been covered much here at emptywheel, but it looks more and more clear that the chemical attack last year in Syria came from the rebel side. There has been chatter in particular connecting Prince Bandar to the development of chemical weapons capabilities among the rebels, specifically through elements that were residing part time in Turkey. Given what we now know about the brutality of ISIS, it doesn’t seem unrealistic to consider whether the chemical attack may have been a cynical attempt to enlist the US air force on their side last year. I mean, if you’re willing to murder hundreds of Shia at a time and behead people on a daily basis, what’s stopping you from doing a little false flag chemical attack, even if it means some innocent people are killed?

  4. ess emm says:

    Ew, you left out any mention of the real “conspiracy” part:

    Mr. Jabouri said, “It is obvious to everyone that the Islamic State is a creation of the United States and Israel.

    Doesn’t the colonial/apartheid State seeking to become the regional power figure into your analysis at all?

    In any event, I saw the NYT piece as part of a continuing effort to show how dangerous the Shia militias are to the US and its interests.

  5. Don Bacon says:

    Congress knows what’s going on in Iraq. Anybody with half a brain (that includes Congress-critters especially) knows that Iraq and Syria are allies of Iran and so they must be destroyed. Any displayed ignorance comes as second nature.
    It’s similar in this regard to Benghazi. Nobody in Congress, nor any journalist, asks: Why was Ambassador Stevens in Benghazi at a CIA nest? They all know he was there in Sep 2012 arranging arms shipments to Turkey for anti-Syria forces. They just have to do their political dance.
    As for Bandar, he’s a US tool like many others, and the US has to stay tight with Saudi Arabia because of the petrodollar.

  6. Surrealistodefierros says:

    I think this one sentence out of the article pretty much sums it all up:

    So the Obama Administration may once again — as it did with the Awlaki drone killing — be using the fiction of covert status to avoid having to fully reveal all the sordid details of an indefensible operation.

    Great work Marcy and it is always illuminating to read your thoughts on things.

  7. ouis says:

    ISIS or ISIL was founded on the Sunni insurgency in March 2003, see AQI or Al Qaeda in the Land of Two Rivers. I have written about the history of ISIL and linked to excellent studies. The U.S. has encouraged the travel of jihadist groups from Afghanistan, Libya, Chechnya, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq into the Syrian civil war to overthrow Assad. This has been the neocon plan (yes, Israel included) from the Bush years. In October 2005, NSC Chief Hadley asked Italy for a Bashar replacement. Who was behind the Beirut bombing and death of PM Hariri in 2005? Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan al-Saud has fulfilled the requests of the Kingdom as he did with the mujahideen for Afghanistan (CIA/ISI), same alliance and same poor results. Depends on your point of view of course.

    The fall of the Assad regime didn’t materialize in the matter of weeks president Obama and Ms Clinton had assumed. The coalition to overthrow Assad had two rivals Qatar/Turkey of the Muslim Brotherhood and Saudi Arabia/UAE of the Salafist group in the political NSC. Ms Clinton failed to unite the rivals when she was Secretary of State so any political discourse failed. In the meantime the military battlefield turned into bloody killing fields of the most extreme fighting groups.

    ○ Clinton’s 21st Century Statecraft and the Land of the Two Rivers
    ○ How ISIL Got Oxygen In Syria and Matured in Iraq

  8. TarheelDem says:

    The question i have, given the past sabotage actions of George H. W. Bush of Democratic presidents, is if the trail of Syria and Ukraine leads back to him. And through his good buddy Bandar Bush. Is Jebby prepping in the wings? We got the distinct impression in the 1990s that he was really sore that the Clintons denied him a second term.

    It would not be the first time that domestic politics acted for domestic political reasons to destroy US foreign policy in fundamentally dangerous ways. After all, wasn’t the Iraq War in 2002 just a midterm election stunt to get a Republican Congress? That just happened to be so successful that it became and effective coup d’etat?

    • Don Bacon says:

      Dem, Repub, what’s the difference.
      Some say that US strategy has been guided by Zbigniew Brzezinski more than anyone.
      –from B’s 1998 book:The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy And Its Geostrategic Imperatives, the Amazon blurb:

      The crucial fault lines may seem familiar, but the implosion of the Soviet Union has created new rivalries and new relationships, and Brzezinski maps out the strategic ramifications of the new geopolitical realities. He explains, for example: Why France and Germany will play pivotal geostrategic roles, whereas Britain and Japan will not. Why NATO expansion offers Russia the chance to undo the mistakes of the past, and why Russia cannot afford to toss this opportunity aside. Why the fate of Ukraine and Azerbaijan are so important to America. Why viewing China as a menace is likely to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Why America is not only the first truly global superpower but also the last—and what the implications are for America’s legacy. Brzezinski’s surprising and original conclusions often turn conventional wisdom on its head as he lays the groundwork for a new and compelling vision of America’s vital interests. Once, again, Zbigniew Brzezinski provides our nation with a philosophical and practical guide for maintaining and managing our hard-won global power.

      And some quotes from the book, courtesy of an Amazon reader:
      – “America is now the only global superpower, and Eurasia is the globe’s central arena. Hence, what happens to the distribution of power on the Eurasian continent will be of decisive importance to America’s global primacy and to America’s historical legacy.” (p.194)
      – “That puts a premium on maneuver and manipulation in order to prevent the emergence of a hostile coalition that could eventually seek to challenge America’s primacy…” (p. 198)

      • ess emm says:

        The Grand Chessboard and his recent Strategic Vision are very interesting looks into the minds of those who accept the lawless world of naked power and geopolitics. For example, ZBig is emphatic about how important the Ukraine is to the future of America as a world power—if Ukraine is part of EU then Russia has a choice: either join an American-led EU or be a sullen, isolated country without world power and influence.

  9. wayoutwest says:

    Trying to sort fact from fiction in the ME has become extremely difficult but what is being called Baghdadi Denial Syndrom is as difficult to cure as ebola. Iranian propagandists have been spreading this diversion for their own political reasons and have had some success at conflating the Islamic State with the CIA/Mossad even making the hysterically ludicrous claim that Edward Snowden has verified their assertions.
    The fact that Iraqi politicians are parroting this BS is evidence of how deep Iranian control in Iraq penetrates and is designed to deflect responsibility away from Iranian policies in Iraq that led to the rise of the Islamic State.

    BDS is a coping mechanism that many people in the ME and the West are clinging to because facing the reality of the new paradigm in the ME is just too much for them to comprehend.

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