If it’s not religion, what’s driving the kind of violent extremism that we’re witnessing today?
Four years ago, when the Arab Spring blossomed, the US, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the al-Qaeda network that dominated the Middle East during the previous decade were forced into retreat and retrenchment.
US President Barack Obama took the backseat and only reacted to the momentous changes in the region between 2011 and 2013. For the Obama administration, the problem wasn’t the positive change taking shape, but rather the discomfort of losing control over events.
The ayatollahs, who repressed Iran’s Green Revolution in 2009, became more isolated with the outbreak of the Arab revolution against dictatorship and autocracy.
Riyadh lost some of its most valuable allies like Hosni Mubarak of Egypt as its Sunni nemesis, the Muslim Brotherhood, began to gain power. And al-Qaeda & affiliates became ever more discredited and isolated, leading many observers to predicted their demise.
Even Israel’s (false) pretensions of being the “only democracy” in the region lost their effect, as its occupying regime was exposed to be integral to the old order; a chronic violator of human rights.
However, two years later, the seasons began to turn as counter-revolutionary forces – the dark forces of the old Arab world – began to organise and conspire against the young voices of freedom and justice, whether in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya or elsewhere.
Washington, Tehran, as well as Tel Aviv and al-Qaeda took advantage of the ensuing chaos to advance their own agendas.
And a year later, they rebounded and began to dominate the region once again under the pretext of the danger of the newly found Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant group and its affiliates.
Meanwhile, Daesh, ISIS, ISIL, IS – or whatever its name – broke away from al-Qaeda to become the definitive regional, and even global threat.
Its pornographic barbarity provided a new bloodier banner for al-Qaeda affiliates throughout the region, with a prime real estate location to erect a whole new caliphate on Syrian and Iraqi soil.
In the process, the rise of ISIL gave a whole new momentum to American and Iranian interventionism in the greater Middle East.
ISIL replaced al-Qaeda as the new pretext for pre-emptive and revenge air strikes, redeployments, war, and occupation.
Thanks to ISIL, the main losers of the Arab Spring emerged as the new hegemons.
Moreover, ISIL became the alibi or the justification for all regional warmongers to carry any atrocities.
Regimes in Syria, Iraq, and Egypt exploited the scourge – or the pretext – of terror to justify repressions and murder on a large scale. Revenge bombings and attacks became the new rule, as international law took the backseat in the Middle East.
The question one must ask is not who's behind the rise and expansion of ISIL, but rather what led to its rise and what helps it withstand the international coalition's bombings and pressures.
And the non-Arab powers took advantage of ISIL to reshape their strategies, redraw maps and even reinvent relationships. As the New York Times put it: US and Iran Both Attack ISIS, but Try Not to Look Like Allies.
Likewise, Israel exploited the world’s preoccupation with ISIL to attack the Gaza Strip, take over more Palestinian lands and deny Palestinians their basic rights with no repercussions, even when it turned its back to Washington.
This strange, even spectacular turn of events led many to question the mystery surrounding ISIL. Who’s behind it and why? Are those benefitting from it, behind it?
Invisible hands behind ISIL?
Iran’s first female vice president, Masoumeh Ebtekar, singled out the United States and the CIA as the progenitor of ISIL. And Iran’s former Iranian minister of intelligence, Heydar Moslehi, went further by arguing that Mossad, MI6, And CIA created ISIL, or Daesh.
Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir agreed. He told Euronews this week that America’s CIA and Israel’s Mossad are behind Boko Haram and ISIL.
“I said CIA and the Mossad stand behind these organisations. There is no Muslim who would carry out such acts,” he said. (Bashir also blames the US and Israel for the ICC’s 2013 warrants accusing him of responsibility for war crimes, crimes against humanity and acts of genocide.)
And so does Fidel Castro. He believes that Israel and certain American elements are behind ISIL.
Others believe the opposite; that it’s actually Iran that’s culpable. Former Syrian National Coalition President Ahmad Jarba insisted that Iran is behind rise of ISIL.
Could “Quds Force be behind the ISIL in Iraq?” asked one observer.
And yet, more than a few argued that the Saudi Arabia stood behind ISIL. Then Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, claimed in a statement last summer that the Saudis were supporting ISIL and “facilitating genocide”.
A former US general, Wesley Clark, reckons it’s all part of an ongoing strategic conflict: “Our friends and allies funded ISIL to destroy Hezbollah.”
For Clark, radical Islam is not the issue per se, as it’s been generally exploited for strategic ends. For example, according to him: “The United States used radical Islam to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. We begged the Saudis to put the money in; they did.”
And the seasoned journalist, Patrick Cockburn, the author of “The Jihadis Return: ISIS and the New Sunni Uprising”, claimed that Saudi Arabia “helped ISIL take over north Iraq”. He cited British intelligence sources that believe the Saudi plan goes back a decade.
Is “the enemy of my enemy my friend” or my enemy? Or could it be both, depending on the level of cynicism involved?
Clearly, those who highlight the savagery of ISIL seem to also be benefitting most from it.
Conspiracy or consequence?
Most of the claims about the responsibility for the rise and spread of ISIL are either ideologically driven, or pure speculation.
It’s not clear how any one of these prime suspects would be willing or able to put an organisation like ISIL together. Money is not nearly enough to sustain or explain its drive.
Even if ISIL proves day-in day-out to be at their service; providing them with pretexts for any policy and every action, it doesn’t prove that any of these players are behind its rise.
In short, benefitting from ISIL’s actions doesn’t necessarily translate into creating it.
The question one must ask is not who’s behind the rise and expansion of ISIL, but rather what led to its rise and what helps it withstand the international coalition’s bombings and pressures.
Obama, as I explained a few days ago, gave his own explanation for the rise of ISIL; one that included dictatorship, sectarianism, alienation and marginalisation of Arabs and Muslims.
Seasoned former UN diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi, who served as special envoy to Afghanistan and Syria, and was somewhat close to the Washington circles, said this week that there was “no doubt that the original sin which led to the emergence of ISIL is the US-led invasion of Iraq. There was no justification for the war in Iraq, and we all suffer the consequences”.
To be clear, Brahimi later clarified: “I don’t mean the US created ISIL, but the conditions following the invasion led al-Qaeda to come to Iraq and for ISIL to gain power.”
To sum it all up, the US occupation of Iraq, the Iranian manipulation of instability in Iraq and Syria, the cruelty and brutality of dictators like Bashar al-Assad, and the sectarian cynicism that followed are certainly to blame.
But there’s more…
Marwan Bishara is the senior political analyst at Al Jazeera.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.