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America’s Responsibility for Enabling ISIS, And How to End Blowback Terrorism

| November 19, 2015

isis us responsibility

U.S. soldiers in a training exercise with Iraqi soldiers. (Kim Smith)

Terrorist attacks on civilians, whether the downing over Sinai of a Russian aircraft killing 224 civilian passengers, the horrific Paris massacre claiming 129 innocent lives, or the tragic bombing in Ankara that killed 102 peace activists, are crimes against humanity. Their perpetrators – in this case, the Islamic State (ISIS) – must be stopped. Success will require a clear understanding of the roots of this ruthless network of jihadists.


Painful as it is to admit, the West, especially the United States, bears significant responsibility for creating the conditions in which ISIS has flourished. Only a change in US and European foreign policy vis-à-vis the Middle East can reduce the risk of further terrorism.

The recent attacks should be understood as “blowback terrorism”: a dreadful unintended result of repeated US and European covert and overt military actions throughout the Middle East, North Africa, the Horn of Africa, and Central Asia that aimed to overthrow governments and install regimes compliant with Western interests. These operations have not only destabilized the targeted regions, causing great suffering; they have also put populations in the US, the European Union, Russia, and the Middle East at significant risk of terror.

The public has never really been told the true history of Osama bin Laden, Al Qaeda, or the rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Starting in 1979, the CIA mobilized, recruited, trained, and armed Sunni young men to fight the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. The CIA recruited widely from Muslim populations (including in Europe) to form the Mujahideen, a multinational Sunni fighting force mobilized to oust the Soviet infidel from Afghanistan.

Bin Laden, from a wealthy Saudi family, was brought in to help lead and co-finance the operation. This was typical of CIA operations: relying on improvised funding through a wealthy Saudi family and proceeds from local smuggling and the narcotics trade.

By promoting the core vision of a jihad to defend the lands of Islam (Dar al-Islam) from outsiders, the CIA produced a hardened fighting force of thousands of young men displaced from their homes and stoked for battle. It is this initial fighting force – and the ideology that motivated it – that today still forms the basis of the Sunni jihadist insurgencies, including ISIS. While the jihadists’ original target was the Soviet Union, today the “infidel” includes the US, Europe (notably France and the United Kingdom), and Russia.

At the end of the 1980s, with the Soviet retreat from Afghanistan, some elements of the Mujahideen morphed into Al Qaeda, Arabic for “the base,” which referred to the military facilities and training grounds in Afghanistan built for the Mujahideen by bin Laden and the CIA. After the Soviet withdrawal, the term Al Qaeda shifted meaning from the specific military base to the organizational base of jihadist activities.

Blowback against the US began in 1990 with the first Gulf War, when the US created and expanded its military bases in the Dar al-Islam, most notably in Saudi Arabia, the home of Islam’s founding and holiest sites. This expanded US military presence was anathema to the core jihadist ideology that the CIA had done so much to foster.

America’s unprovoked war on Iraq in 2003 unleashed the demons. Not only was the war itself launched on the basis of CIA lies; it also aimed to create a Shia-led regime subservient to the US and anathema to the Sunni jihadists and the many more Sunni Iraqis who were ready to take up arms. More recently, the US, France, and the UK toppled Muammar el-Qaddafi in Libya, and the US worked with the Egyptian generals who ousted the elected Muslim Brotherhood government. In Syria, following President Bashar al-Assad’s violent suppression of peaceful public protests in 2011, the US, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and other regional allies helped to foment a military insurgency that has pushed the country into a downward spiral of chaos and violence.


America’s unprovoked war on Iraq in 2003 unleashed the demons. We’ve been paying the price.


Such operations have failed – repeatedly and frequently disastrously – to produce legitimate governments or even rudimentary stability. On the contrary, by upending established, albeit authoritarian, governments in Iraq, Libya, and Syria, and destabilizing Sudan and other parts of Africa deemed hostile to the West, they have done much to fuel chaos, bloodshed, and civil war. It is this turmoil that has enabled ISIS to capture and defend territory in Syria, Iraq, and parts of North Africa.

Three steps are needed to defeat ISIS and other violent jihadists. First, US President Barack Obama should pull the plug on CIA covert operations. The use of the CIA as a secret army of destabilization has a long, tragic history of failure, all hidden from public view under the agency’s cloak of secrecy. Ending CIA-caused mayhem would go far to staunch the instability, violence, and anti-Western hatred that fuels today’s terrorism.

Second, the US, Russia, and the other permanent members of the United Nations Security Council should immediately stop their infighting and establish a framework for Syrian peace. They have a shared and urgent stake in confronting ISIS; all are victims of the terror. Moreover, military action against ISIS can succeed only with the legitimacy and backing of the UN Security Council.

The UN framework should include an immediate end to the insurgency against Assad that the US, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey have pursued; a Syrian cease-fire; a UN-mandated military force to confront ISIS; and a political transition in Syria dictated not by the US, but by a UN consensus to support a non-violent political reconstruction.

Finally, the long-term solution to regional instability lies in sustainable development. The entire Middle East is beset not only by wars but also by deepening development failures: intensifying fresh water stress, desertification, high youth unemployment, poor educational systems, and other serious blockages.

More wars – especially CIA-backed, Western-led wars – will solve nothing. By contrast, a surge of investment in education, health, renewable energy, agriculture, and infrastructure, financed both from within the region and globally, is the real key to building a more stable future for the Middle East and the world.

jeffrey sachs project syndicateJeffrey D. Sachs, Professor of Sustainable Development, Professor of Health Policy and Management, and Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, is also Special Adviser to the United Nations Secretary-General on the Millennium Development Goals. His books include “The End of Poverty,” “Common Wealth,” and, most recently, “The Age of Sustainable Development.” © Project Syndicate

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15 Responses for “America’s Responsibility for Enabling ISIS, And How to End Blowback Terrorism”

  1. Joan Whttemore says:

    Thank you for this lesson in history and thoughtful suggestion on where to go from here. This is the first reasonable approach I have heard. My prayer is that we will have the wisdom and courage to follow a path more likely to lead to resolution than another politically motivated fear based reaction that will continue to make matters worse. God Bless.

  2. Veteran says:

    I don’t agree with Mr. Sachs, however the only way to stop ISIS now is kill them all!

  3. confidential says:

    To wholly agree with Mr.Sachs, specially in his next paragraph:
    “By contrast, a surge of investment in education, health, renewable energy, agriculture, and infrastructure, financed both from within the region and globally, is the real key to building a more stable future for the Middle East and the world.”
    But we need to start providing these investments at home first an in our own!

  4. Dean Carpenter says:

    He is correct about the CIA. It was formed to do illegal and unconstitutional things in other countries. Today it is an integral part of the government, directs military efforts and advises the executive branch. No one in the CIA will ever write a book titled “How to Win a War”.
    He is incorrect that the story of the rise of Bin Laden etc has not been told.
    A frame work for peace from the the UN Security Council will not be effective ever because the US and other members may honor it but the regime losing power/position will not. What will work is a policy of no military intervention unless the US people or territory is directly threatened. Going back to the 1990 war Kuwait would not exist today because their leaders chose to not defend the country. Hussein or his predecessor would own more territory and still be a tyrant but we would be going about our lives as usual. It would be interesting to get Sachs educated opinion if the terrorist movements would have formed had we taken this approach.
    As far as investment in education, health, renewable energy, agriculture, and infrastructure. That region has plenty of cash but other priorities. The leaders don'[t believe in trickle down economics or state mandated healthcare but the people left to their own devices have survived. They are real good at growing poppies and distributing them world wide.

  5. confidential says:

    This is why we don’t want muslim refugees here specially from Syria: http://www.cnn.com/2015/11/15/europe/paris-attacks-passports/
    We are compassionate and these refugees should be settle in camps in any of our Arab allied countries instead. Never brought here.

    • Pierre Tristam says:

      Confidential, the Syrian passport has been discredited as fake. Your bigotry alas appears to be authentic. Since all the dead terrorists had French citizenship, should we round up French expats in the US and close our borders to Air France? Also, I speak French. Should I report to the nearest Trump tower and register?

  6. Sherry says:

    Instead of letting the “terrorists” win by our acting out in fear, panic, hatred and terror. . . why don’t we take a moment to take a nice deep breath and think this through.

    FACTS, so far:

    1. The majority of the perpetrators of the attacks in Paris were NOT Syrian. Several of them were citizens of FRANCE/BELGIUM/the EU.

    2. Perhaps ONE traveled to France by traveling with refugees.

    3. Hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of US “citizens” have been radicalized through communications with terrorists over the internet.

    Therefore:

    1. Discriminating against Syrians and Muslims and completely turning our backs on those refugees fleeing for their lives will NOT MAKE US COMPLETELY SAFE! In fact, our display of hatred and our lack of what should be “Christian” compassion, is showing the rest of the world that we are the terrible people and religious culture that the Islamic Terrorists say we are. . . think about it. . .

    2. Since the majority of the savage criminals in Paris were EU citizens, should we really even consider closing our borders to tourists coming from Europe? Consider the terrible economic impact that would have on our entire country. And still, that would NOT MAKE US COMPLETELY SAFE!

    3. Some of our fine “brain trust” members have commented that we should just “kill them all”. . . . REALLY? And, EXACTLY who is “THEM”? ALL Syrians? ALL Muslims? ALL French? ALL Belgians?
    ALL non-“lily white” Christians? And still that would NOT MAKE US COMPLETELY SAFE!

    4. And, what about our own US “citizens”. . . whose lily white ancestors may have come over on the Mayflower. . . What about those who have been radicalized and are just lying in wait with their completely “LEGAL” AK47s and bomb making material? Are they on this list of “THEM” who should be killed? They legally live among us. . . should we just use our “stand your ground” law to take them out, just because they seem suspicious to us? Even that would NOT MAKE US COMPLETELY SAFE!

    Please read this excellent article again. . . and have the courage to act out of reasonable caution and logic in an effort to create peace and love. Let’s all bring forth the love in our hearts to combat evil. That is exactly what Jesus, Mother Teresa, Gandhi, the Pope, et al would do. We should remember that each of us has the potential to to be no less than they.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Isn’t the fact that fake Syrian passports are so easy to get a valid (and obvious) argument in favor of the need for MORE careful vetting of refugees from that part of the world?

  8. confidential says:

    Pierre you accusing me of bigotry, I consider very extreme, as extreme as Trump’s plans against all Muslims and illegals. The French people, Air France or you should not be singled out by anyone because neither of you are terrorist that we are aware. I figured that you being a reporter have more access to detailed facts than we do as you say, that the Paris attackers were French nationals but is also reported that some are Belgium nationals too. That they had fake Syrian ID’s, for the first time I hear from you, as I even saw it reported by Al-Jazeera channel over and over again otherwise, information based in their entry via Greek Islands.
    Unfortunately the western intervention in the Arab Muslim world internal affairs/battles has generated all this hatred against us from extreme factions. The sad reality is that terrorist use the innocent population to infiltrate their attacks. Past experiences warns us over and over again of USA past terror tragedies like in Boston, Virginia Tech, 9/11 and many more. What is wrong to ask our Arab allies to settle these refugees in their lands financed by a world wide humanitarian fund instead…that makes me a bigot..? If so then, you are not different than Trump.

  9. footballen says:

    I once heard a very similar story about the roots and “proud and noble” beginnings to the infamous Ku Klux Klan. Initially they fought for reasons most would find understandable but with just a little bit of time and a whole lot of ignorance and hate it turned into something evil and hideous. At the end of the day it is an evil and hideous organization full of hate and disgusting trash and horrible excuses for human beings just the same as that garbage ISIS. Kill them all and rid the world of this trash!

  10. confidential says:

    Many Muslims are our heroes that make the ultimate sacrifice for us all.
    “Obama recognizes fallen Muslim soldier from Fort Lewis at the White House.
    Army Cpl. Kareem Khan was killed in Iraq four years ago. President Obama today recognized him at a White House dinner.”
    Bronze Star an Purple Heart recipient for his courage in the battle front very honorably deserved. Mr. Kahn is not the only one, many more like him in our armed forces.
    This is why we have to be very clear and careful referring to terrorist, not to hurt most Muslims that have nothing to do with them,

  11. Sherry says:

    AGAIN. . . I ask exactly who is THEM that some commenting here, and Donald Trump, want dead?

    Since ISIS and ALL the other terrorists groups do not wear uniforms and they come from several different countries. . . including many white US citizens. . . just HOW is any US military commander suppose to accurately identify “THEM”? Or. . . are you advocating killing all those who you personally do not approve of?

    May we please have some “intelligent” discussion about this issue. . . is that at all possible in Flagler county?

  12. nomad says:

    “In Syria, following President Bashar al-Assad’s violent suppression of peaceful public protests in 2011, the US, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and other regional allies helped to foment a military insurgency that has pushed the country into a downward spiral of chaos and violence.”

    You neglect to say that Assad’s “violent” suppression of peaceful public protest was in response to US instigated uprisings to destablize Syria over oil and strategic oil pipelines to run through to Russia. And that the sarin gas he used on the population was in fact used by US back insurgents/mercenaries.

    I have serious doubts as to whether the Paris attack was blowback and not a false flag/manufactured crises. Since it well documented that Syria is fighting against ISIS and that ISIS’s base is not in Syria, why is France’s immediate response to attack Syria instead of joining Syria in its fight against ISIS? It is also well documented and established that ISIS is a US/Saudi Arabia & other Gulf States/Israel/Turkey/Britain/France backed operation receiving both funding and training from these countries?

  13. Anonymous says:

    You can’t use the words “intelligent conversation” and Donald Trump in the same sentence.

  14. Sherry says:

    Nomad. . . would you please post links to credible sources for your claims. Seriously, I would like to follow and verify that research. I am always learning.

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