Iraq and Syria Didn’t Create ISIS — We Did

Professor Bülent Gökay
Professor of International Relations – SPIRE

With the recent capture of Salah Abdeslam, thought to be the only remaining planner of the Paris massacre, the Western media has again focused on the threat of terrorist attack in Western capitals by so-called Islamic State, ISIS. This morning’s tragic events in Brussels airport and metro shocked the world and created a heightened sense of insecurity, in a similar way how it was after last year’s Charlie Hebdo terror attack in January and later Paris attacks in November by ISIS. But then, after Paris attacks, the focus of media shifted hastily elsewhere and ISIS became yesterday’s story, as if the terrorist movement had ceased to exist or disappeared in far lands not able to affect our lives any more.

In reality, ISIS has never stopped killing people brutally in large numbers since the slaughter in Paris in November last year.  It has kept murdering innocent civilians in large numbers, but not in Europe. Just last month in late February, two ISIS suicide bombers blew themselves up in an outdoor mobile phone market in Sadr City, Iraq, killing 73 people and injuring more than 100. On the same day, hundreds of ISIS fighters coordinated a massive attack in Abu Ghraib, on the western outskirts of Baghdad. This was just one day’s news in Iraq.  Almost every day in Iraq, Libya and Syria there are terrorist attacks, suicide bombs, and tens, if not hundreds, of civilians murdered, around-the-clock. Almost certainly many more are being murdered right now, as we’re watching the news from Brussels airport with fear.

Our part of the world, the Western world scarcely notice many of these bloody events because they seem to be part of the natural order in those faraway, and somewhat exotic, lands– Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen. There is a disconnect in the Western minds between the wars in the Middle East and North Africa and terrorist attacks in Western capitals. Apart from the psychological help one gets from feeling that many of those scary events are happening in those far-off places, safely away from us, to separate the two is also very much in the interests of Western political leaders. Because in this way, they stop their public to recognise that miscalculated and extremely disastrous policies of the US government and its allies in Europe contributed to create the conditions for the rise of terrorist gangs like ISIS to which Salah Abdeslam belonged.

Fabrice Balanche, a leading French expert on Syria who now works for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says in an interview with Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in January 2015:

‘In 2011–2012, we suffered a type of intellectual McCarthyism on the Syrian question: if you said that Assad was not about to fall within three months, you would be suspected of being paid by the Syrian regime. And with the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs having taken up the cause of the Syrian opposition, it would have been in bad taste to contradict its communiqués…. By taking up the cause of the Syrian and Libyan opposition and destroying the Syrian and Libyan states, France and Britain opened the door to ISIS and should share in the blame for the rise of ISIS and terrorism in Europe.’ (

Even some American military leaders now openly express their views that recent terrorist violence in the West is an understandable and predictable response to all the violence and mismanaged interventions delivered by our governments in the Middle East during the last two decades.  ‘The Iraq War may turn out to be the greatest strategic disaster in American history.  In a mere 18 months we went from unprecedented levels of support after being one of the most hated countries…’, said Lt. General William Odom, former National Security Agency Director. (

To acknowledge this in no way justifies what happened in Paris in 2015 and Brussels today. Terrorist attacks against civilians are, without any doubt, crimes against humanity whenever and wherever they happen.  At the same time, to pretend that Western actions since the early 1990s in the Middle East have nothing to do with the current problem of terrorist attacks against Western targets is to disregard the obvious and burying our heads in the sand.  The emergence of terrorist groups such as the Islamic State or al-Qaeda is an unfortunate but predictable result of decade’s long Western military interference in the Middle East, which caused the death of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Afghanis, Iraqis, Syrians and Libyans.  The West now faces a Frankenstein’s monster, as the violence of IS is increasingly threatening not only the Middle East but Europe’s internal security.

Edit: This post was also published on Open Democracy.


Professor Bülent Gökay is a leading expert on contemporary social and political history, and on the political economy of resources in Eurasia. His current work has focused on the changing balance of global power. He has published widely in these areas. He is a regular commentator in the media,and has also written articles for sources such as Open Democracy. Professor Gökay is a founder and editor for Global Faultlines, an online magazine of global political economy, politics and culture, and is a senior academic consultant for Iraq Body Count


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