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This is how the Islamic State was founded

Barack Obama did not "found ISIS", as Donald Trump has said. Neither did Hillary Clinton. A Jordanian named Abu Musab al-Zarqawi did.
Forze irachene con una bandiera di IS catturata a Hajj Ali, in Iraq, il 9 agosto 2016. (AP Photo/Alice Martins)

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump repeated on Thursday his claim that President Barack Obama founded ISIS, and that Hillary Clinton co-founded the radical Islamist group best known for keeping sex slaves and cutting off its prisoners' heads.

"You know they honor President Obama. He is the founder of ISIS. And I would say the co-founder is Crooked Hillary Clinton," Trump said at a campaign event in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.


He began his remarks talking about his opposition to the invasion of Iraq, and then turned his scorn on the withdrawal from Iraq.

"We should have never gotten out the way we got out. And then Obama came in, and normally you want to clean up. He made such a mess of it. And then you had Hillary with Libya," he said.

And yet none of his statements about the founding of ISIS are backed up by facts. It may be true that the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the alienation of Sunnis by both the US occupation in the initial years of the war, and the Iraqi government in the wake of the US withdrawal, created the conditions that gave rise to the Islamic State. But the Iraqi insurgency and the rise of the Islamic State are far more complicated than Trump would lead his supporters to believe.

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is the real founder of the Islamic State. The Jordanian convict and violent Islamist extremist came to Iraq after the US invasion, to wage holy war on the occupation forces, the United Nations, and Shiite Muslims, whom he viewed as apostates. He had founded the group Jama'at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad in Jordan in 1999, which means "The group of Monotheism and Jihad."

The group conducted a number of bombings and attacks, and in October 2004 pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda, and renamed the group "al-Qaeda in the land of the two rivers." The US military referred to it by a shorter acronym: AQI, or al-Qaeda in Iraq.


AQI was responsible for kidnappings, executions, and suicide bomb attacks in Baghdad, Anbar province, and other areas of Iraq. It was one of the main targets of the US storming of Fallujah in November 2004.

Zarqawi was killed in an American airstrike in June 2006, and later that year the group changed its name to the Islamic State in Iraq, or ISI.

During the US "surge" of troops into Iraq in 2007 and 2008, ISI lost much of its power and by the end of the US occupation, many of its leaders and operatives had been hunted down and killed.

During this time, Nouri al-Maliki, a Shite, was elected prime minister and alienated many of Iraq's Sunnis, who had been the backbone of the violent insurgency and some of whom had joined ISI. Maliki targeted Sunni political leaders, and the Sunni groups that had worked alongside US troops to evict ISI from much of Iraq. (The Obama administration's backing of Maliki during this time is one discussion that could be had about whether a different policy approach would have put pressure on the Iraqi prime minister to stop alienating the Sunnis and thus indirectly facilitating the rise of islamic State).

The current leader of the group, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, took control of ISI in 2010. His organization didn't receive much attention for a few years, until the Syrian civil war erupted, and the group expanded its operations into Syria, and put the country into its name, thus becoming ISIS.


A feud in 2013 with al-Qaeda's wing in Syria, Nusra Front, led Baghdadi to sever ties with al-Qaeda in 2014. The group renamed itself simply "The Islamic State," and in 2014 swept back into Iraq, this time as a potent ground force with battle-hardened troops. That force overran the corrupt and weakened Iraqi security forces, capturing Fallujah in January, and one of Iraq's largest city's, Mosul, in June.

President Obama ordered airstrikes on June 15 against Islamic State, and thus began Operation Inherent Resolve, the US-led military operation that targets IS in Syria and Iraq.

Related: The US could send its new F-35 to fight the Islamic State

On July 5 of 2014, Baghdadi proclaimed himself Caliph of the new "Islamic State," and called on Muslims around the world to follow him. The group's sophisticated media operation regularly targets Obama and other world leaders whose countries are involved in the fight against the Islamic State.

As for Trump's crude equating of the US withdrawal of troops from Iraq to Obama having "founded" the Islamic State: the US troop withdrawal from Iraq in December 2011 was an agreement reached with the Iraqis by President George W. Bush's administration in 2008. Under this "Status of Forces" agreement with the Iraqi government, any US troops remaining in the country and not given diplomatic immunity by their association with the US embassy in Baghdad after December 31 of 2011 would have been subject to Iraqi law. No US military commander would have tolerated that.

It's interesting that, in addition to failing to mention Obama's backing of Maliki as he pissed off Iraq's Sunnis, that Trump didn't mention another Obama policy decision that Middle East and Islamic State experts say may have helped give the Islamic State so much power: the administration's position on the Syria war. Some argue that, had Obama intervened in the conflict more forcefully, earlier in the conflict, the Islamic State would not have had the opportunity to take territory, establish bases, attract fighters, and mount operations in Iraq and further afield.

Follow Benjamin Gilbert on Twitter: @benrgilbert