Five Myths About the Islamic State

As the United States widens its battle in Iraq against the Islamic State and contemplates strikes against it in Syria, the policy debate at home surrounding the intervention is heating up. Here are five myths circulating in the media that are clouding the discussion.

1. The Islamic State was never al Qaeda.

Recently, Andrew Sullivan has been flogging the idea that the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS or now just “The Islamic State”) was never subordinate to al Qaeda based on the short essay, “A Closer Look at ISIS in Iraq,” by Evan Perkoski and Alec Worsnop. The authors claim ISIS pledged its loyalty to al Qaeda but retained its autonomy “at all times.” It was never “directly a part of AQ” (al Qaeda). Aside from the obvious contradiction between pledging one’s loyalty and doing whatever one wants, there are two problems with the authors’ claim. First, ISIS itself asserts it never pledged loyalty to al Qaeda. Second, al Qaeda disputes ISIS’s claim, contending ISIS had privately pledged its allegiance. It is a complicated issue that will eventually be settled when captured al Qaeda documents or U.S. intelligence on the group come to light. In the meantime, Aaron Zelin, a fellow with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, has compiled what we know about the issue from publicly-available sources. And chew on this: why would Zawahiri issue a direct order to the head of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and Baghdadi so loudly refuse to follow it if there was never any organizational tie between the groups?

2. International relations scholars agree arming the Syrian rebels is a bad idea.

In response to Hillary Clinton’s argument that the United States should have armed the Syrian rebels to thwart the rise of the Islamic State, Marc Lynch wrote a thoughtful essay explaining why the policy was always a bad idea. In making his case, Marc appeals to the academic literature, which “is not encouraging.” But read the literature itself and you’ll find that it doesn’t lead to an obvious policy conclusion. Want proof? Afshon Ostovar, a Middle East analyst at CNA Strategic Studies, and I read the same literature in early 2013 and came to the opposite policy conclusion.

3. Qatar funds the Islamic State.

Qatar is everyone’s favorite boogeyman these days, responsible for all the Islamist ills facing America’s allies in the Middle East. There is some ground for the gripes given that Qatar gives safe haven and help to the Muslim Brothers, including the U.S.-designated terrorist group Hamas, and backs Salafi militias in Syria that either work with al Qaeda’s Nusra Front or include al Qaeda members. Some of Qatar’s citizens have also funded U.S.-designated terrorist groups. But the recent (and later walked-back) charge by a German minister that the state of Qatar directly funds the Islamic State has no foundation based on publicly-available knowledge. Until the U.S. intelligence community says otherwise, criticism of Qatar for funding Islamists should exclude the Islamic State.

4. The so-called Caliphate was established in June.

The self-declared Caliph Ibrahim may have officially declared the reestablishment of the caliphate in June 2014, but the group has hinted since its 2006 founding of the Islamic State in Iraq that the caliphate was already established. Because the group knew its claim would be controversial in the jihadi community at the time, it chose the ambiguous name of “The Islamic State in Iraq” to communicate its intent while maintaining plausible deniability. The term “dawla,” translated as “state” today, is also the name of Islam’s greatest caliphate, the Dawla `Abbasiyya. The Islamic State was “in” Iraq but not “of” Iraq, indicating the state was not contiguous with Iraq and would not always confine itself to the country of that name.

5. There is an easy, obvious and quick solution to the Islamic State problem.

As Brian Fishman, a fellow at the New America Foundation, wonderfully gripes in his profanity-laced “cri de cœur” last week, the pro- and anti- intervention camps in the United States have used simplistic and uninformed arguments to support their favorite policies in Syria and now Iraq. But even those who offer complex and informed policy analysis like Brian can’t come up with a clear policy recommendation. Disagree with Obama’s Syria policy (I do) but don’t pretend the alternatives are obvious or would necessarily work better.