A stunning new study authored by a former US government intelligence analyst and staff member for official investigations into the 9/11 attacks, concludes that the Islamic State (ISIS) received significant state-sponsorship up to 2016.
The study is corroborated by revelations from two former senior British intelligence officials in exclusive interviews with INSURGE.
The new evidence raises urgent questions about the material context of ISIS’ extraordinarily rapid growth, and its ability to inspire incidents such as the truck attack in New York.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, the peer-reviewed paper published in the Routledge journal Studies in Conflict and Terrorism in July, confirms not only that several regional states deliberately empowered al-Qaeda and ISIS foreign fighters for their geopolitical ends, but that many of these states are ostensibly US allies in the ‘war on terror’: including Turkey, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.
Study author Professor Daniel Byman of Georgetown University’s Security Studies Programme was previously a Middle East analyst for the US intelligence community, and headed up the Center for Middle East Studies at the RAND Corporation — a major US government defence contractor.
He later went on to become a senior staffer at the 9/11 Commission and the Joint 9/11 Inquiry Staff of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees.
‘Non-state’ terror is often state-sponsored
Flying in the face of much conventional wisdom on the ‘non-state’ nature of international Islamist terrorism, the study finds that:
“Some of the most important foreign fighter movements in the world today receive massive and explicit state support, while still others rely on states to tolerate their fund-raising, transit, recruitment, and other core activities.”
The study pinpoints the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad for facilitating the “transit of foreign fighters from its territory to Iraq” and nurturing “various anti-US Sunni groups, including al-Qaeda in Iraq, the Islamic State’s predecessor organization.”
It also lays out the expansion of Iranian power through proxy forces such as the Lebanese Hizballah, as well as Shi’a militias in Iraq.
Of course, the role of the Syrian and Iranian states in facilitating foreign fighters is well-known and widely reported.
Yet Byman’s most explosive allegations are against key US allies, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, which he accuses of “complicity” in supporting ISIS:
“A number of US allies allowed their citizens to send money or volunteer with little interference, at times bordering on regime complicity. When the organization [IS] established itself in Syria a decade later, key US regional partners like Turkey facilitated the flow of fighters and logistical support in the hopes of expediting the overthrow of the Assad regime. Without the relatively permissive environments in these states, the Islamic State would have been far weaker and fighting it much easier.”
Byman’s analysis corroborates my previous reporting on evidence that Turkey, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states have at various times supported Islamist militant groups in Syria, including al-Qaeda in Iraq, which went on to metamorphose into ISIS.
Two years ago, a declassified Pentagon intelligence report from 2012 revealed not only that the US government had been aware of the policy of its allies at the time, but seemed to approve of the strategy despite anticipating that it might culminate in the appearance of an IS-type entity.
In the Byman paper, however, Turkey comes in for the most detailed criticism. Noting that Turkey aggressively targeted al-Qaeda through 2012, the paper observes that “this policy changed as the Syrian civil war heated up and Ankara sought to both overthrow the government in Damascus and prevent the emergence of a strong Kurdish group.”
Byman asserts that Turkey under President Erdogan quite deliberately sponsored Islamist militant groups, including al-Qaeda, in its bid to oust Assad. In the early years of the war, Ankara “sought to bolster forces, including jihadists, seeking [Assad’s] overthrow. Turkey also encouraged jihadists to attack Kurdish forces in Syria.”
Of course, Turkey and other US allies supported a range of opposition fighters, including secular and Islamist groups which ideologically opposed disavowed al-Qaeda and IS. Unfortunately, the pressures of the war meant that these groups frequently ended up coordinating their anti-Assad offensives and sharing weapons.
Insight: Yet amidst this confusing situation, US allies also intentionally directed support to specific jihadist groups, including ISIS.
By 2015, Byman reports, “Turkey allowed foreign fighters to use the country as a logistics base for the war in Syria,” and that also meant “providing sanctuary, arms, and medical care” to jihadist groups. He cites former US Ambassador to Turkey, Francis Ricciardone, who said:
“The Turks frankly worked with groups for a period, including al-Nusra [al-Qaeda’s former affiliate in Syria].”
Another approach was to turn a blind eye to foreign fighters coming into Syria through Turkey:
“Turkish security services ignored jihadists traveling to Syria from Chechnya and nearby areas via Turkey. Meanwhile, volunteers from all over the world would arrive in Turkey, where facilitators would help them get to the war zone.”
Most disturbingly, that policy of ignoring “the growing influx” of foreign fighters, many streaming to join ISIS, continued even after ISIS expanded into Syria in 2013 according to Byman. The Turkish military “even cooperated with the Islamic State, including allowing convoys to travel through Turkey, against one of their mutual enemies: the Kurds.”
It was only from around 2015 to 2016, Byman explains, that Turkey’s toleration for the flow of foreign fighters of all denominations into Syria “diminished considerably”, based on the changing “political calculus” — which included the escalating threat from IS and other jihadist groups to Turkish national security, among other factors.
Insight: Byman’s analysis adds credibility to the detailed allegations of the highest-ranking whistleblower to have ever come on the record with claims of Turkish state-sponsorship of terrorism.
In September 2016, INSURGE ran an exclusive interview with Ahmet Sait Yayla, Chief of the Counter-Terrorism and Operations Division of Turkish National Police between 2010 and 2012, before becoming Chief of the Public Order and Crime Prevention Division until 2014.
Yayla provided a shocking insider account of how he had personally witnessed evidence of high-level Turkish state sponsorship of ISIS during his police career, which eventually led him to resign.
Another government highlighted by the Byman study is Pakistan, described as a key example of how some states — caught between the pull of domestic constituencies and foreign pressures — end up swaying between “limited crackdowns and limited support.”
Despite working regularly with the United States to stop foreign fighters linked to al-Qaeda, Byman observes that Pakistan simultaneously allows “weapons, money, recruits, and other support to go to an array of jihadist groups with foreign ties.”
Insight: Although the Pakistani government cooperates with important arrests of al-Qaeda figures, it also permits powerful domestic groups like Jamaat-e Islami and Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam “to work with various militant groups, often in cooperation with Pakistani intelligence.”
According to Byman, such complicity is endemic at the highest levels:
“Pakistani intelligence works with Islamist groups in Pakistan that run religious schools and, together, raise thousands of recruits, including suicide bombers, to help both the Afghan Taliban in its fight against the US-backed government in Kabul and Lashkar-e-Taiba in its operations against India. The Pakistani government has deliberately afforded its intelligence service a high degree of autonomy, and the service itself gives its operatives considerable flexibility.”
The third state most prominently featured in the Byman paper is the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which stands out as an example of how some “US allies also may have close ties to and depend on institutions that support foreign fighters.”
Insight: In Saudi Arabia’s case, the Kingdom “has long had an agreement with its own religious establishment to bolster its legitimacy,” which has included the practice of “allowing religious figures to raise money to defend Islam” — often by financing foreign fighters — and thus “honoring the contract of support in exchange for legitimacy.”
US intelligence has for some decades been aware that various senior members of the Saudi royal family have channelled hundreds of millions of dollars to extremist groups, many of whom aspire to overthrow the Kingdom itself, as a form of ‘protection money’.
To some extent — notwithstanding the reality of terror incidents inside Saudi Arabia (such as in 2003) — Byman argues that this strategy has succeeded, given that “the vast majority of Saudi foreign fighters embraced jihadist causes overseas but remained loyal, or at least not violently opposed, to the Saudi regime.”
Another dimension of this strategy is to tolerate or sponsor individuals who promote violent ideologies, but stop short of directly advocating violence themselves.
“Saudi Arabia still sponsors religious leaders, mosques, media, and schools that embrace a theological disposition that matches many jihadist teachings,” writes Byman. In Kosovo, for instance, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states “poured money into religious institutions in the country” which promoted violence in the name of protecting Islam, but “did not directly fund travel to Syria”.
While Saudi Arabia has now established more robust counter-terrorism measures to target domestic financing mechanisms, “donors sending money to fighters in Syria often channelled their funds via Kuwait to avoid Saudi countermeasures.”
Yet little has been done to resolve the wider porous nature of Gulf financial institutions, which provides a carte blanche for such covert funding to continue with impunity: “States that adopt this relatively permissive approach often simply deny any form of support is occurring or dismiss it as an aberration.”
While Byman’s paper focuses on the role of regional states in fuelling Islamist militant networks for their own ends, it also raises questions about the strategic rationale behind the US alliance with such states.
Insight: Not a single US ally has received any meaningful coercive pressure to change these activities that support terrorism. For Byman, this is because such pressures might end up damaging alliances with these states in such a way that would “come with significant costs for US national interests.”
In the case of Saudi Arabia, he notes, if the US held the Kingdom “drastically more accountable for its continued toleration of some rhetorical and material support, it would likely either undermine the relationship and risk losing a critical US ally or compromise the stability of the country by forcing the Saudis to challenge pillars of their legitimacy.”
The US has faced similar dilemmas in relation to Turkey and Pakistan. The core dynamic is that as these states can threaten to reduce intelligence sharing and other cooperation, US pressure could lead them to accelerate support for terrorists, “making the problem worse.”
The end result is that some terrorism — namely, the terrorism of its own allies — is effectively deemed as acceptable, based on a dubious cost-benefit calculation:
“Thus, ultimately even the United States is willing to tolerate some other states’ toleration or support for jihadist foreign fighters because there are other more valuable benefits reaped by maintaining close relations.”
Byman’s explanation gives some context to what appears to be official awareness of Gulf state complicity, as evident from a secret memo written by then secretary of state Hillary Clinton in August 2014 to John Podesta, her campaign chairman.
In the memo, Podesta noted — citing Western intelligence sources — that the Saudi and Qatari governments:
“… are providing clandestine financial and logistic support to ISIL [Islamic State] and other radical Sunni groups in the region”.
What Byman does not say, is that by actively maintaining alliances with the very regimes that have sponsored ISIS, US foreign policy itself is undermining the ‘war on terror’, while indirectly aiding and abetting the official enemy.
From the question of moral culpability, does this not also amount to a form of complicity?
But there are other deeper, systemic issues plaguing the post war international system which explain why the Gulf states must be protected at almost any cost:
- their role as ‘guardians’ of a Western-dominated regional petroleum architecture;
- the massive contributions of these oil-rich regimes to the Western arms trade and financial system; and
- the extent to which Western intelligence services have become institutionally, financially and even ideologically dependent on these governments for covert operations.
Controlling the oil order
As British historian Mark Curtis has documented in his book Web of Deceit, citing declassified Foreign Office and State Department files, it’s often all about oil.
Axiom: Control of regional oil reserves has always been most fundamental interest behind US and British relations with the Gulf states. Intelligence issues alone have never been the driving force of these alliances.
In 1947, Curtis points out, British planners described oil as “a vital prize for any power interested in world influence or domination”. US planners similarly acknowledged their “mutual recognition” with Britain that the two countries’ oil policy was based upon “control, at least for the moment, of the great bulk of the free petroleum resources of the world”.
Axiom: A second component of this, writes Curtis, is that the US and Britain expect oil profits to be invested in Western economies, either through the domination of Western companies, or by way of lubricating the wider world economy. Thirdly, and relatedly, Gulf elites are expected to invest substantively in Western arms.
“Repressive Middle Eastern elites understand these priorities, and also that it is their role in this system that helps keep them in power locally,” Curtis observes. “The West could withdraw its support for them if they got any wayward ideas” — which is, arguably, what happened with countries like Iran, once a staunch ally of the US under the brutal reign of the Shah.
This suggests that part of the problem is the fact that the US is convinced of the absolute and unquestionable necessity of maintaining alliances with these regimes, regardless of their sponsorship of terrorism — which appears merely as a sort of regrettable inconvenience, to be nevertheless routinely exploited to justify unmitigated military expansionism.
That in turn is because of a fundamentally flawed foreign policy approach — an approach which privileges the power of the arms and oil industries at the expense of real national security.
The blind eye of convenience
Byman’s analysis is complemented by two former British intelligence officers who spoke exclusively to INSURGE, drawing on their own expertise on how intelligence policies have often systematically undermined national security in the pursuit of narrow geopolitical goals.
Far from merely being caught up in its own unfortunate “dilemma” — being forced to rely on states that support terror to fight terror — they argue that the US policy of tolerating allied “support for jihadist foreign fighters” is due to dubious foreign policy interests.
Insight: According to Charles Shoebridge, a former British Army and Metropolitan Police counter-terrorism intelligence officer, British authorities failed to prevent UK citizens from “joining jihadist groups in Libya and Syria” not because of inadequate security powers, but due to their perceived geopolitical utility at the time.
The ‘blind eye’ policy, Shoebridge told me, was consistent with the UK government position at the time of supporting rebel groups in Libya and Syria in attempting to “topple Gaddafi and Assad.”
This was in spite of the fact that these Britons “made no secret on social media of the fact, even sometimes posting evidence of their participation in acts of terrorism and war crimes.” There was an “obvious risk of terrorism blowback were such trained and experienced extremists to return to Britain.”
It was only after 2013, “when groups such as IS started to harm US and UK interests in Syria and Iraq, and kill US and UK citizens, that any action at all was taken to stop British jihadists from travelling, or arresting and charging those who returned.”
The official defence for this failure is that before 2013, the legislation necessary to tackle travelling jihadists did not exist. Shoebridge dismisses this as nonsense: “First, it’s been illegal to take part in terrorist related activities abroad since 2006 and, second, the new legislation introduced since 2013 has itself barely been used.”
This self-defeating strategy in Libya and Syria went well beyond simply turning a blind eye, however.
Alastair Crooke, a former 30 year senior MI6 officer who dealt with Islamist groups across the Muslim world, told INSURGE that, at the time, the US and Britain actively facilitated their allies’ sponsorship of militants in Syria.
“When the US and British militaries were working with the Turks to train various Syrian rebel groups, many military officers knew that among those we were training was the next round of jihadists,” said Crooke. “But the CIA was fixated on regime change. We knew that even if at any moment ISIS was eventually defeated, these Islamist groups would move against secular and moderate forces.”
This collusion between Western security services and Islamist extremism, Crooke told me, has very long roots in an intelligence culture that went back as far as the 1920s, “when in the attempt to gather control of the Arabian peninsula, King Abdulaziz told us that the key is Wahabism.”
This alliance culminated in the war in Afghanistan in the 1980s, which was “the first clear use of fired-up Islamist radicals to provoke Russia into an invasion. This set the scene ever since. From then, our intelligence services have had a deeply entwined history with Islamist groups based on the belief that Saudi Arabia had the power to turn them on and off at will.”
Insight: Islamist groups have been used by British and American intelligence services, said Crooke, essentially “to control and contain the Middle East” against different forces, Nasserism, nationalists, and more recently Ba’athists.
Outsourcing intelligence to terror sponsors
Perhaps Crooke’s most damning insight was how British intelligence became increasingly dependent on Gulf state intelligence services to conduct regional operations:
“In the 1980s, Saudi began paying for operations with large sums of money — which was considered acceptable in the interests of landing a blow on the USSR’s influence in the region. As a result, though, our intelligence services became increasingly dependent on Saudi funding. If they wanted to avoid Congressional or parliamentary oversight, and to continue expanding difficult and sensitive off-the-books operations, they would go instead to their Gulf partners.”
Insight: In other words, British intelligence services have increasingly outsourced funding for British covert operations to Saudi and Gulf state money. Rather than simply privatising intelligence to fund off-the books operations, they have compartmentalised them under the rubric of foreign repressive regimes.
The impact of this on the integrity of the US and British intelligence community has been devastating:
“The assumption is that this doesn’t affect the integrity of intelligence, but clearly it does. The Gulf states have become paymasters for increasing expenditures on intelligence operations that the security services would prefer not be disclosed.”
The impact of this can be seen in the way the CIA ‘vetted’ rebels in Syria by largely outsourcing the most critical components of the vetting process to the very same allies who have been sponsored extremists, as I reported previously for Middle East Eye.
I asked Crooke what should be done to resolve this problem. “We should start by surfacing these matters into consciousness,” he said. “Only then can we begin the conversations needed to resolve them. We need to understand that the tension between fighting a ‘war on terror’ while at the same time in some ways being in bed with terrorists, has produced a disaster.”
Action: While we may feel overwhelmed by the sheer secrecy and power of this unaccountable national security system, it functions in this unaccountable way precisely because its operations escape public scrutiny. It is the job of journalists, analysts and citizens to pry open these matters so that they become more widely understood and debated.
In this context, whatever its limitations, Byman’s analysis has done a critical public service in bringing some of these matters into the light of day.
US and British regional alliances with various Muslim regimes have functioned systematically to undermine national security. It is long past time to re-evaluate these alliances.