My heart goes out to the victims of ISIS in the Paris attacks, in the Beirut attacks, and in the bombing of a Russian jet liner filled with over 200 vacationing Russians leaving Egypt. ISIS is indeed a clear and present danger and unrivaled since the 9/11 attacks in terms of its barbarous methods and willingness to kill innocent civilians in terror attacks.

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As tempting and visceral as it is to fight fire with fire in responding to ISIS’ barbarity, it is counter-productive to simply up the ante and bomb more of ISIS’ facilities in Syria and Iraq, or for the U.S. or France or Russia to send ground troops into Syria. We are already seeing predictable reports of civilian casualties from these massive bombardments of Raqqa, a Syrian city of 350,000, by France, Russia and the U.S.

We need a different approach.

We now have a clear record of U.S. and European military ‘solutions’ in the Middle East and Afghanistan in the last decade and a half: 1) we bombed and invaded Afghanistan in 2001 and that country is a mess with the Taliban now surging again; 2) we bombed and invaded Iraq in 2003, taking out Saddam and also countless civilians in the process, creating a power vacuum that allowed Al Qaeda in Iraq to flourish, leaving that country in a mess; 3) we bombed Libya in 2011, taking out Qaddafi and leaving that country in a mess with no viable power structure or functioning economy and we are now seeing ISIS spring up there as well as in nearby Mali; 4) we are now bombing Syria and Iraq (again) and exacerbating the mess that Syria already was in before we began bombing it.

These four countries are now major sources of instability and havens for groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda. Perhaps there’s a lesson here. Maybe military solutions aren’t actually solutions. Perhaps the kneejerk “I’ll hit you harder than you hit me and make you regret ever hitting me” approach isn’t the smart approach when it comes to fighting terrorism.

The hydra was a many-headed sea beast that guarded the entrance to the underworld in ancient Greek mythology. Hercules, the archetypal hero, was tasked with killing the hydra but he found upon cutting off one of its many heads that two heads grew back immediately where there had been one before, frustrating his efforts.

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The moral of the story: be careful how you attack one’s enemies because your tactics may breed more enemies.

The Origins of ISIS

It’s important, if we are to pursue more effective solutions to major problems like ISIS today, to look at how ISIS came into being and not repeat those mistakes. It turns out that we can trace the origins of ISIS directly to many U.S., Saudi, and European over-reaches and in some cases active efforts to support the most radical Islamist elements under the philosophy that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

This is a complex debate, to be sure, but what is pretty clear is that the U.S. and our allies have time and again projected power and given billions of dollars in support without thinking through the consequences of our actions, including the possibility of “blowback”: when our former allies or partners in arms turn their sights on us.

There are three main events that led to ISIS becoming so strong, which I’ll focus on in this column: 1) U.S. support for radical Islamic groups in Afghanistan in the 1970s and 1980s; 2) the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003; and 3) U.S. support for moderate and radical groups in Syria in the last few years. Other key factors that I won’t go into include U.S. support for various Arab dictators in recent decades and the resentment that has caused; the Israeli/Palestinian conflict; and, of course, the ongoing struggle between Shi’a and Sunni branches of Islam.

U.S. Support for Islamic Radicals in Afghanistan Led Directly to Al Qaeda’s Empowerment

It is little known but now widely accepted, based on declassified records and the statements of high-level officials in various administrations, that the U.S. actively supported radical Islamists (“mujahidin,” or those who fight in jihad, holy war) in Afghanistan before and after Russia invaded that country in 1979, under the philosophy that supporting such elements would help to tilt the pro-Soviet Afghan government away from the Soviet sphere of influence and would embroil the Soviets in a Vietnam-like quagmire.

Pres. Carter’s National Security Advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, stated in a 1998 interview published in the French newspaper Le Nouvel Observateur:

According to the official version of history, CIA aid to the Mujahadeen began during 1980, that is to say, after the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan, 24 Dec 1979. But the reality, secretly guarded until now, is completely otherwise. Indeed, it was July 3, 1979, that President Carter signed the first directive for secret aid to the opponents of the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul. And that very day, I wrote a note to the president in which I explained to him that in my opinion this aid was going to induce a Soviet military intervention.

Lo and behold, there was a Soviet military invasion. The interview continued as follows, somewhat shockingly from today’s vantage point of a world in which Al Qaeda and ISIS have made regular headlines over the last 14 years:

Q: When the Soviets justified their intervention by asserting that they intended to fight against a secret involvement of the United States in Afghanistan, people didn’t believe them. However, there was a basis of truth. You don’t regret anything today?

B: Regret what? That secret operation was an excellent idea. It had the effect of drawing the Russians into the Afghan trap and you want me to regret it? The day that the Soviets officially crossed the border, I wrote to President Carter. We now have the opportunity of giving to the USSR its Vietnam war. Indeed, for almost 10 years, Moscow had to carry on a war unsupportable by the government, a conflict that brought about the demoralization and finally the breakup of the Soviet empire.

Q: And neither do you regret having supported the Islamic fundamentalism, having given arms and advice to future terrorists?

B: What is most important to the history of the world? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some stirred-up Moslems or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the cold war?

Q: Some stirred-up Moslems? But it has been said and repeated Islamic fundamentalism represents a world menace today.

B: Nonsense! It is said that the West had a global policy in regard to Islam. That is stupid. There isn’t a global Islam. Look at Islam in a rational manner and without demagoguery or emotion. It is the leading religion of the world with 1.5 billion followers. But what is there in common among Saudi Arabian fundamentalism, moderate Morocco, Pakistan militarism, Egyptian pro-Western or Central Asian secularism? Nothing more than what unites the Christian countries.

The CIA funneled billions of dollars (with a “b”) in aid to mujahidin in Afghanistan, from 1979 to 1989, as part of Operation Cyclone, through its partner, the Pakistani intelligence agency known as the ISI. The U.S. spent about $20 billion in total to fund the mujahadin in Afghanistan and related funding to Pakistan, as part of what came to be known as the Reagan Doctrine: the commitment to fund anti-Soviet groups around the world with little regard for the unintended consequences. This history is detailed in the 2015 book by Michael Springmann, Visas for Al Qaeda: CIA Handouts That Rocked the World: An Insider’s View and Peter Bergen’s 2001 book, Holy War Inc.

Charles G. Cogan, the C.I.A.’s operations chief for the Near East and South Asia from 1979 to 1984, stated in a 1994 interview with the New York Times after the 1993 World Trade Center bombings: “It’s quite a shock. The hypothesis that the mujahedeen would come to the United States and commit terrorist actions did not enter into our universe of thinking at the time. We were totally preoccupied with the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan. It is a significant unintended consequence.”

Part of the U.S. program involved the active training of mujahidin from Afghanistan. Springmann recounts (p. 79) how over 10,000 fighters were trained in U.S. facilities during the decade of support for the most radical elements in Afghanistan. So not only did we provide billions of dollars in funding, we also actively trained mujahidin in the arts of war and insurgency/terrorism.

There is no evidence that Osama Bin Laden received direct funding from the CIA or Pakistan’s ISI during this period, but it is apparent that he benefited directly from U.S. support and training for various mujahidin in Afghanistan during this time. Bin Laden created Al Qaeda, which is Arabic for “the database,” which, according to Robin Cook writing for The Guardian, originally referred to a list of mujahidin that the CIA supported and trained in Afghanistan.

The founder of ISIS, Abu al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian, set up a mujahidin training camp in Afghanistan with Al Qaeda funding in 1999 —a precursor to far more dangerous activities today in Syria and Iraq.

It is clear, then, that we have had a long history of fomenting and supporting radical Islamist efforts, based on the view that the benefits of the mujahidin on our side fighting the Soviets outweighed the potential downsides of such support.

The road from U.S. support of the mujahidin to the creation of Al Qaeda and the 9/11 attacks is fairly straightforward, but not of course the only factor, by far. Saudi Arabia’s support for mujahidin alongside U.S. support was also a large factor.

The U.S. Invasion of Iraq in 2003

The bigger mistake and tragedy was the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq. Former President Bush gave the order to invade Iraq in 2003, a country that had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks. Much of the world strongly opposed the invasion even though over time the coalition of countries, the “coalition of the willing,” involved militarily in Iraq grew to number in the dozens.

tamhunt-solarThe active war period and the toppling of Hussein was fairly brief, but the war to squelch remaining opposition in Iraq and to unite the major factions into a working government took many years. The widely-held view today is that the U.S. won the war but lost the peace by having no coherent plan to replace the power vacuum left by toppling the iron fist that was Hussein—our guy in that part of the world, until he wasn’t.

Many analyses, including records kept by the Pentagon, show that at least hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians were killed in the Iraqi war, and possibly over a million. Half a million Iraqis was at that time about two percent of the population, equivalent to over six million Americans being killed in terms of the equivalent percent of the U.S. population.

Al Qaeda in Iraq didn’t exist before the 2003 invasion. Zarqawi’s new group in Iraq, Monotheism and Jihad, joined Al Qaeda in 2004 and became “Al Qaeda in Iraq” or AQI. The marriage didn’t last long, however, and Zarqawi’s group split from Al Qaeda in 2006, shortly after Zarqawi’s death, due to many differences of opinion over strategy and tactics. This was the beginning of ISIS, the Islamic State. The two groups still communicated regularly, however, from 2006 until 2014, when the split became final, public and personal.

This history is recounted in William McCants’ 2015 book, The ISIS Apocalypse. ISIS distinguished itself in Iraq and Syria by being even more brutal than AQI and, as a consequence, seemed to attract even more eager martyrs to its battles in the Middle East.

It is also clear, then, that the misguided and illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003 was a major factor in the creation and empowerment of ISIS.

Did the U.S. or its Allies Support Creation of the Islamic State in Syria?

The view of many commentators with respect to the situation in Syria is that the U.S. has been slow and cautious in taking action to quell the civil war that has been ongoing for four years now, with large parts of the Syrian population bearing the brunt for our inaction or cautious action. I suggest here that this view is way off. Rather, the U.S. and its allies have been actively involved in the Syrian civil war from the outset and have been supporting many opposition groups, including both moderate groups and radical groups.


The supporting powers are identified in the memo as the U.S., the Gulf States, and Turkey. ISIS, the Islamic State, is of course a Salafist state. Salafism is the hard-line version of Sunni Islam that ISIS follows, also known as Wahhabism, and also the variety of Islam that Saudi Arabia, a major U.S. ally, follows and actively exports where it can.

In an interview with Al Jazeera, Major General Michael Flynn, head of the DIA when this memo was written, stated that the rise of ISIS was, in his opinion, a “willful decision” by the Obama administration:

Hasan: You are basically saying that even in government at the time you knew these groups were around, you saw this analysis, and you were arguing against it, but who wasn’t listening?

Flynn: I think the administration.

Hasan: So the administration turned a blind eye to your analysis?

Flynn: I don’t know that they turned a blind eye, I think it was a decision. I think it was a willful decision.

Hasan: A willful decision to support an insurgency that had Salafists, Al Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood?

Flynn: It was a willful decision to do what they’re doing.

I’ve had an interesting dialogue with Juan Cole, a Middle East expert at the University of Michigan, about what this memo really means. His view is that the U.S. never actually supported ISIS or the creation of a Salafist state, partly because the same memo warns about the consequences of this occurrence in terms of a possible breakup of Iraq. Rather, Cole’s view is that it was primarily a Saudi decision to support the Salafist state that became ISIS.

I agree that the memo is ambiguous and sketchy but it would not have been at all difficult for the memo to make the distinction that Cole believes is the reality about the supporting states’ support for ISIS. If it was mainly Saudi Arabia that supported the Islamic State’s creation as a bulwark against Assad, why wouldn’t the classified memo simply state this and explicitly warn against it?

Anyway, while it’s not clear at this time how much direct or indirect support the U.S. and its allies provided ISIS before it became ISIS, it is clear that at least some U.S. allies supported creation of a Salafist state in Syria as a bulwark against Assad (including in similar arguments put forward this week the neocon John Bolton, who wrote in the New York Times about his recommendations for the creation of a Sunni state in territory currently held by ISIS). That policy has now backfired in spectacular fashion.

These three sets of events—support for radical Islamists in Afghanistan in the 1970s and 1980s, the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and support for moderate and radical Islamists in Syria against Assad—are direct links in the chain that led to the Paris attacks, the Beirut attacks, and the bombing of the Russian jetliner in Egypt.

So before France, the U.S., and Russia go all-in in Syria, guns blazing, perhaps we need to have a larger discussion about how we got to the present mess.

Obama, to his credit, has thus far not given in to the kneejerk reaction to escalate the U.S. war in Syria and Iraq even further. He has resisted calls for boots on the ground and continues to maintain that the bombing campaign and covert actions on the ground are the best way to degrade and defeat ISIS. He said shortly after the Paris attacks: “The strategy that we are putting forward is the strategy that ultimately is going to work. It’s going to take time.”

So What Should We Be Doing?

A few words of caution are due in any attempt to interpret the abundance of information about large-scale world events and trends: one can, of course, find information to support many different stories about the rise of ISIS. I’ve tried to be objective in my analysis here but space prevents me from including the caveats that should accompany almost every conclusion about causal chains, and relevant links in those chains.

That said, my key point is that the U.S. and its allies have pursued a singularly militaristic focus over the last few decades, and at the same time a foolish long-time trend of supporting the most virulent Islamic groups when it was convenient to do so, ignoring the potential for blowback that is now quite predictable from such actions. Many aspects of this history are surely debatable, but this general pattern emerges quite clearly from any objective analysis of these events.

It’s time for a very different approach to combatting terrorism, one that leads with strong defense at home, accurate education about our history in the Middle East, a more humble foreign policy, and active efforts to put fires out rather than to strengthen existing fires in volatile regions of the world.

This means being diligent about security in our homelands, using a scalpel to remove the most dangerous elements in unstable regions like Syria and Iraq rather than massive military force, and doing what we can to slowly reduce and transform the radical ideologies that the U.S. and allies like Saudi Arabia have supported in various ways now for decades.

Hercules finally defeated the hydra not only by cutting off its heads but cauterizing the wounds so that no new heads could grow back. The non-military solutions I’m advocating here are our means for cauterizing the terrorist heads of ISIS and similar groups. And, better yet, we should focus on eliminating the conditions that have allowed extremist Islamic groups to flourish, stopping the hydra from rearing its ugly heads in the first place.

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