The carnage that took place along Nice’s Promenade des Anglais on Bastille Day and, days later, the attack by an ax-wielding teenager on a commuter train in the German city of Wuerzburg (both of which the Islamic State claimed to have inspired) have recently kept ISIS in the media spotlight, while questions about the group’s motivations have regained salience. The story of ISIS is the story of occupation and rebellion, of unpredictable alliances, political turmoil and confusion. From Afghanistan to Saudi Arabia, the quest for the full picture follows the journey of money, ideas and power.

When recounting the Western intervention in the Middle East, it is hard to determine where to start the narration. Should we begin with the arbitrary demarcation lines secretly drawn in 1916 by Sykes and Picot that the Islamic State’s project categorically contests? Should the departure point be the British and French mandates and the repercussions of their vanishing? Should we fast-forward to the launching of Operation Desert Storm?

Let’s jump for a moment to a forth-grade classroom at the Educational Center for Afghanistan. It’s just another day in 1981. The subject is Mathematics. The textbook reads: “The speed of a Kalashnikov bullet is 800 meters per second. If a Russian is at a distance of 3200 meters from a mujahid, and that mujahid aims at the Russian’s head, calculate how many seconds it will take for the bullet to strike the Russian in the forehead.” In “The Genesis of Global Jihad in Afghanistan”, Pervez Goodbhoy explains how, between 1980 and 1994, Afghan mujahideen received these children’s books, designed by the University of Nebraska under a $50 million USAID grant: “US-sponsored textbooks, which exhort Afghan children to pluck out the eyes of their enemies and cut off their legs, are still widely available in Afghanistan and Pakistan, some in their original form.”

Typical classroom in rural Afghanistan. Source: Wikipedia
Typical classroom in rural Afghanistan. Source: Wikipedia

This “adaptation” of the traditional school curriculum was one of many initiatives derived from the United States’ Cold War strategy to “give the USSR its Vietnam War”.  In the early days of 1979, US National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brezinski came up with a master plan: support Afghani militant Islamists’ upsurge against the communist ruling party PDPA, which would spark Soviet intrusion. In July 3, 1979, President Jimmy Carter  secretly signed the first directive to provide aid to the “mujahideen” (resistance fighters). Operation Cyclone was born. (The official version sets the beginning of the cooperation after the Soviet invasion, but Brezinski himself refutes it in this interview with Le Nouvel Observateur.)

The United States summoned their former ally, Pakistan, to coordinate the Operation at ground level. The Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence were in charge the training and recruitment of the fighters. Muslims from all over the world were convoked to Pakistan to fight on behalf of Islam. The far-reaching appeal was delivered through the fatwa (religious proclamation) “Defense of the Muslim Lands”, formulated by the Islamic scholar Abdullah Yusuf Azzam. Dr. Azzam was the precursor of the ideology behind ISIS’ ethos: He envisioned the waging of constant low-intensity war against “external enemies” of Islam in order to attain the formation of a pan-Islamic state, a Caliphate. In his piece about the so-called “Godfather of Jihad” for IACSP, Steve Emerson writes: “It was the United States that seemed to epitomize for Azzam the ongoing Jewish-Christian conspiracy; yet, ironically, it was in the United States that Azzam was able to raise critical amounts of money, enlist new fighters, and most important, provide the political freedom to freely coordinate with other top radical Islamic movements.”

Even if you haven’t heard the name of Abdullah Azzam, you still might have heard about one of the young mujahideen who left his home in Saudi Arabia to fervently obey his plea: Osama bin Laden. Bin Laden devoted his life and fortune to the enforcement of Azzam’s fatwa, only, during the 1980s, he did so on a US paycheck. The Afghan crusade gave Bin Laden the combat experience, the victory against the Soviets gave him resolve. The US presence in his homeland during the First Gulf War triggered his rage and gave him a justification to put al-Qaeda’s killing apparatus in motion. Nevertheless, according to the Dutch intelligence report “Intelligence and the war in Bosnia 1992-1995”, in the years before 9/11 NATO collaborated with al-Qaeda-affiliated networks in Bosnia, Kosovo and Macedonia in covert operations to inflame the region’s ethno-religious cleavages in order to defeat Yugoslavia.

Osama Bin Laden picture on the UK newspaper The Independent in 1993, under the headline “Anti-Soviet warrior puts his army on the road for peace. Source: Salon
Osama Bin Laden picture on the UK newspaper The Independent in 1993, under the headline “Anti-Soviet warrior puts his army on the road for peace. Source: Salon

The aftermath of the 2003 Iraq war provided the ideal scenario for the ascension of ISIS. The conflict plunged the population into a humanitarian crisis. Unemployment hit the Sunni population, that largely occupied the public positions. The main strongholds for secular nationalism were also dismissed as Ba’athist heritage. The US backed the Dawa party and its leader, Nouri al-Maliki, became Iraq’s Prime Minister. The Shiite theocratic party had undergone heavy repression under Sadam Hussein’s rule, and their grievances turned into policies that blatantly discriminated against the Sunnis. Under the name of al-Qaeda in Iraq, the germ of ISIS emerged. The name change came along with a change of strategy to a more territorial and sectarian approach.

Saudi Arabia has been known for funding and supporting Sunni jihadist militias ever since their ally, the United States, demanded the Saudis matched their investment on Afghan freedom fighters in the 1980s. Supporting these groups was a tool to undermine Iran’s standing in the region, tackling the security dilemma that had antagonized both countries after Khomeini came into power in 1979 and established a theocracy in Iran. The Iran-Saudi proxy rapidly showed a sectarian turn (Shia vs. Sunni), but is very rooted in the political regimes’ discord and power dynamics in the region. ISIS’ ideological affiliation to a combination of Wahhabism (purist Islamic doctrine that rejects modernization) and radical pan-Islamic Salafism (extremist faction of the orthodox  practice of Islam promoted by Salafists), orchestrated by Saudi Arabia, attracts many Saudi donors. Saudi Arabian participation in the war against ISIS met reluctance in some sections of its population, as they deemed the organization necessary to protect Sunnis in Syria.

Map of Iran-Saudi Arabia proxy war. Source: The Maghreb and orient courier
Map of Iran-Saudi Arabia proxy war. Source: The Maghreb and orient courier

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict enhances the polarization of these already problematic interactions by:

  1. Putting the US in a predicament, since fighting Sunni extremists may indirectly benefit Shia groups like Hamas or Hezbollah, who are perpetually challenging Israel’s interests.
  2. Boosting ISIS’ outreach, as they constantly advertise their intention to “liberate Jerusalem”.
  3. Deepening the divides in the region, impeding the formation of a resolute multilateral agreement against ISIS.
Map of ISIS’ oil resources. Source: Money Jihad blog

The real ruler of the Middle East is even more whimsical than the rest. Oil has played a central role in all Middle Eastern conflicts since imperial times. How has it fueled ISIS?

  1. The United States’ worries about the stability of its oil supply have driven them to steady military engagement in the area, stiffening the grounds for ISIS.
  2. ISIS has seized control of a number of oil wells throughout Iraq and Syria. It partially sustains its economy on oil revenues, smuggling oil at a discounted price through Kurdish and Turkish dealers. In 2014 it was estimated that the organization obtained around $1.2 million a day from this traffic.
  3. ISIS has ensured an oil dependency from Turkey through competitively low prices and in Syria through the control of the country’s main oilfields.
  4. The sharp drops in oil prices in 2014 harmed Iraq’s economy, fostering discontent and radicalism.

The “hate” discourse that is seeing its heyday in Western countries is the best advocate of ISIS’ “Us vs. Them” rhetoric. Furthermore, the West seems immune to learning from its mistakes: it keeps on financing militias that join the struggle of their enemies and conducting airstrikes that aggravate the conditions that created the conflict in the first place. In a mixture of naivety and political short-sight, it seems that no one understands that the Middle Eastern conflict is bigger than themselves. Or are they simply refusing to pay attention?

Tweet by Anti-Isis activist group Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently after air strikes in Syria killed over 120 civilians

-This is just one angle of the external and internal factors that have materialized into the rise of the Islamic State. Stay posted for Chapter Two!-


3 Quarks Daily:

Al Jazeera:

Al Jazeera:

American Enterprise Institute:

The Daily Beast:

Financial Times:

Foreign Policy Research Institute:

The Guardian:

The Guardian:

The International Association for Counterterrorism and Security Professionals:

“Interview with Zbigniew Brzezinski”. Le Nouvel Observateur. Jan. 15, 1998, p. 76. , transcript found in:

The Journal of American History:

Middle East Eye:

Middle East Policy Council:

NBC News:

The New Yorker:


Stanford University:,%20the%20United%20States.htm#_ftn28

The Spectator:

The Washington Institute:

The Washington Post:–and-lost-iraq/2014/07/03/0dd6a8a4-f7ec-11e3-a606-946fd632f9f1_story.html

World Affairs Journal:

4 thoughts on “Radiography of the Middle East – Part I

  1. Reporting like this is important if we are ever going to find a solution to stop terroristic acts. The old line that “they just want to destroy our way of life” or “they hate freedom” is getting us nowhere. Looking at what circumstances lead to – and can lead to – someone becoming radicalized is an important first step to coming up with a solution.

  2. Looked like a REALLY fascinating article and I got as far as : “NATO collaborated with al-Qaeda … in order to defeat Yugoslavia” and stopped. Why would NATO have wanted to “defeat Yugoslavia” – ffs ?

    1. Thanks for commenting! I found a really short article published during the Balkans war that explains why NATO felt threatened by the escalation of the ethnic conflict in Yugoslavia:,6977637&hl=es
      Please, keep in mind that I’m not saying that the international community should have watched the ethnic cleansing in the Balkans without intervening, I’m just criticizing the covert means by which they brought radical mujahideens in to fight their war!

Leave a Reply