One of the gravest obstacles Jeb Bush will have to face as he embarks on a run for president is shaking the ghost of his brother’s legacy. That was most apparent Wednesday in a town hall style meeting in Reno, Nevada when a college student told the former Florida governor, “Your brother created ISIS.”
The emergence of the Islamic State, also referred to as ISIS or ISIL, is ultimately more complex and the culmination of many factors. The radical Islamist movement currently inflicting its brutal rule of law over parts of Syria and Iraq emanated from poor American policy in the region paired with the conditions laid out over decades of authoritarian rule by brutal despots.
Following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1978, the CIA coordinated closely and covertly with Pakistani intelligence and with Saudi funding to train Islamist militants. This period — well documented in books like Steve Coll’s Ghost Wars – is where leaders of future radical Islamist organizations got their start, including Osama bin Laden and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
A barely literate, former gang member, al-Zarqawi traveled to Afghanistan to fight against the Soviets in the 1989. Three months after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, he traveled to Sunni Muslim-dominated regions of the country. A year later, al-Zarqawi formed al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and enacted a violent philosophy that included beheadings, mass slaughter of different sects (mainly Shiite Muslims), and attacking mosques. Al-Zarqawi was killed in June 2006 by a U.S. drone strike. In October of that same year, AQI merged with other Islamist factions to create the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI).
Meanwhile, a cauldron of dangerous events was unfolding that would later set the stage for what is happening today. While the U.S. was busy with the de-Baathification of the Iraqi military, Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad was busy funneling radical Islamists – many with experience fighting against the Soviets in Afghanistan – through Syria and into neighboring Iraq.
“Debaathification stripped the country of capable men who inevitably resented the U.S. for forcing them out of jobs,” Shane Farrell, a security risk consultant based in Istanbul, told ThinkProgress. This is one of the many critiques levelled at the Bush administration’s policies in Iraq. “Military strategy was absent of any ‘day after’ plan. They quickly lost ‘hearts and minds’,” said Farrell.
Expelled from participation in the military and left to rot at home, many Baathists began looking for ways to insert themselves back into Iraqi political life. One of these former Baathists was Samir Abd Muhammad al-Khlifawi but better known as Haji Bakr. According to the German newspaper Der Spiegel, Haji Bakr was “the strategic head of the group calling itself ‘Islamic State’ (IS).”