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Vol. 14, No. 3, 2015
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on our westerm watch



Gary Olson chairs the Political Science Department at Moravian College in Bethlehem, PA.

The self-proclaimed Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, is a savage, heinous entity whose origins remain largely unknown to Americans. I suspect this can be clarified by linking ISIS to policies adopted by Saudi Arabia and United States.

First, why have elements within Saudi Arabia's ruling elite provided financial backing to ISIS?

Alastair Crooke, a British expert on political Islam, believes part of the answer is that ISIS ideology is virtually identical to the worldview embraced by many Saudis. In 1741, the Ibn Saud clan joined forces with Abd al-Wahhab, the founder of an especially fanatical version of Islam. Together, they brutally gained control over most of the Arabian Peninsula and judged all non-Wahhabist Muslims as apostates. In 1932, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia declared itself a nation with Wahhabist Islam as the state religion. Today, Saudi sources spend over $100 billion promoting the Wahhabist brand within the Islamic world.

An additional motive for helping to bankroll ISIS is fear. According to Crooke, ISIS is convinced that the modern Saudi Kingdom has strayed far from its original path of "an armed, proselytizing Islamic vanguard movement . . . " and has abandoned jihad. ISIS is also enraged that Gulf oil oligarchies are flagrantly corrupt, engage in opulent indulgence and welcome decadent westernization. Therefore, it's plausible to assume that some anxious members of the House of Saud (net worth $1.4 trillion) and other private donors are paying a sort of ransom in exchange for ISIS staying out of their countries. Reliable estimates indicate that 100,000 ISIS fighters receive $350 to $500.00 per month from various sources.

Does this mean that movements like ISIS are inherent within Islam? Princeton scholar Bernard Haykel, a world-renowned expert on ISIS, is unequivocal in his response: "No . . . ISIS is a product of very contingent, contextual factors. There is nothing predetermined in Islam that would lead to ISIS." Among these factors I would argue that ISIS is largely the product of conditions generated by the "shock and awe," U.S. attack on Iraq in 2003. A series of terribly ill-advised occupation decisions followed which totally shattered the country, creating a power vacuum. Al Qaeda in Iraq quickly morphed into ISIS and eagerly filled this void.

In Syria, the CIA midwifed the ‘Free Syrian Army’ (FSA) into existence which immediately attracted a flood of radical Muslim fighters from al-Qaeda and soon, from ISIS itself. CIA military assistance to the FSA fell into ISIS hands and readers may recall recent photos of smiling ISIS soldiers perched on U.S. military hummus, brandishing rocket launchers and M-16 assault rifles.

More recently, Washington helped overthrow Col. Muammar Gaddafi's secular government, thus pushing Libya onto the list of failed states. President Obama supplied $1 billion in weapons, funds and air strikes to militant Islamists and Libya is now a magnet for jihadists. There was no ISIS presence under Gaddafi but local militias have begun declaring their fealty to a now flourishing ISIS franchise. Incredibly, Obama actions have actually made the hated, repressive Gaddafi look better in hindsight.

What to do? ISIS true believers won't be bought off but other potential joiners need to see viable alternatives. As Prof. Haykel suggests, marginalized, disenfranchised, humiliated young Muslim men (and now, women and professionals) find in ISIS "a ready-made ideology and packaged movement to express [their] sense of rage." And even if ISIS were to disappear " . . . .the underlying causes that produce ISIS would not disappear." The solution, if one exists, lies in economic security, peace, personal safety, jobs and hope.

That our government opts for fomenting chaos, drone killings of civilians and supporting barbarous regimes only provides ISIS with recruiting posters. And this behaviour raises troubling questions: Is current policy, as political analyst Tom Engelhardt asserts, less about U.S. "national security" and more about offering a pretext for protecting the "security" of the military-industrial complex? Is it about the need for a terrorist threat du jour to justify increased domestic surveillance? Finally, has any of this been morally justified, made us any safer or been worth a single pair of boots on the ground in the past or in the future?


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John Butler
Thank you America. You gave us shock and awe, which created a favourable atmosphere for jihad, you refused to intervene at all against Assad in Syria, which might have deprived ISIL of a cause, and now you have failed to defeat them with air strikes. You allow Israel to continue building settlements in Palestine by doing nothing except lip-flapping, and you continue to support corrupt regimes in order to satisfy your desire for more and more oil. You kill civilians with drones, and you perpetuate the profits of arms dealers. Expect more of this, whoever wins the next US election, and expect Canada to continue its lap-dog role, especially if Harper is returned. He might even supply free cement for those settlements.






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