Salafists Gaining Ground


The main impact of US intervention in the Middle East has been to destabilize, polarize, and radicalize the region. Especially, it has fomented a vast, multi-country, new sectarian civil war between Sunni and Shiite Muslims. On each side, the most sectarian forces have gained from the conflict. And benefiting the most have been fanatically intolerant and murderous Salafist groups like Al Qaeda and the Islamic State. Recent events show this pattern continuing apace.

In Iraq, the town of Ramadi, capital of Anbar Province, fell to the Islamic State in mid-May.

In Syria, the last government-held town in Idlib province fell to that country’s branch of Al Qaeda (Jabhat al-Nusra) on Friday.

In Libya, the town of Misurata, plus the bombed-out Gardabya air base, were abandoned to the Islamic State after a deadly suicide bombing, as it was revealed on Sunday.

In Yemen, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) seized an airport and an oil refinery in April.

Even in Saudi Arabia, the Islamic State suicide bombed a Shiite mosque on Friday (the second such deadly attack in recent weeks).

It is important to remember how we got to this point.

The 2003 US invasion of Iraq and complete dismantling of the Iraqi government completely destabilized the country, leading to a civil war between the Sunnis and Shiites. The US entirely took the Shiite side, and in particular backed the most sectarian and pro-Iran Shiite factions, which were then installed as the new government, following the ethnic cleansing of Sunnis in Baghdad.

The war raised the prestige and expanded the operations of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s organization, which later became Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), and ultimately the Islamic State. The Sunni tribes were only willing to ally with AQI because the brutal US forces and the virulently anti-Sunni Shiite brigades had proven to be an even worse threat. However, in 2006 the Sunni tribes turned on AQI, which then became marginalized.

However, the very next year the US, the Saudis, and their regional allies launched the “Redirection,” a strategic shift toward Sunni insurgents to counter the perceived “Shia Crescent” stretching from Iran to Syria that the US-installed Shiite government in Baghdad had filled in. This was largely at the behest of the Sunni Saudis and Israel, both of whom hate Iran.

After the Arab Spring emerged in 2011, the Redirection chiefly meant backing the revolutionaries then seeking to overthrow the secular government of Bashar al-Assad (a member of the Shiite Alawite sect) in Syria. The chief fighters in that insurgency were fanatic Salafist groups like Jabhat al-Nusra (Syrian Al Qaeda) and AQI/Islamic State. Backing the rebellion meant empowering those groups. As Justin Raimondo recently wrote:

“The policy of the Obama administration, and particularly Hillary Clinton’s State Department, was — and still is — regime change in Syria. This overrode all other considerations. We armedtrained, and “vetted” the Syrian rebels, even as we looked the other way while the Saudis and the Gulf sheikdoms funded groups like al-Nusra and al-Qaeda affiliates who wouldn’t pass muster. And our “moderates” quickly passed into the ranks of the outfront terrorists, complete with the weapons we’d provided.”

As a recently surfaced Defense Intelligence Agency report shows, the US government was fully aware of these realities even while it was pursuing this policy.

All this is what led to the expansion of Syrian Al Qaeda we are seeing now.

The US also co-opted the Arab Spring in Libya by backing the revolution there against Moammar Gadhafi with military aid and airstrikes in 2011. Here too, the insurgency was rife with Islamist mujahideen, and here too they were empowered by US support.

Another DIA report has confirmed that a rat line of arms shipments to the Syrian rebels was running out of the Libyan city of Benghazi, watched over (if not directed) by the CIA. This ended around the time the US embassy in that city was sacked in 2012 and the US Ambassador was killed by the very Islamists Washington had been backing, many of whom were later photographed enjoying the embassy swimming pool. Since then, Libya has been mired in a many-sided civil war.

All this is what led to the expansion of the Islamic State in Libya we are seeing now.

Eventually, the support for the Syrian insurgency made AQI/ISIS strong enough to stage a conquest of Sunni Iraq in 2014. This was combined with territory already conquered in Syria to form the Islamic State’s “Caliphate.” By this point, the US-backed sectarian Shiite government in Baghdad had alienated the Sunni tribes so much that they put up little resistance to coming under the rule of the Salafists.

The first DIA document mentioned above also reveals that the US government saw the establishment of a “Salafist principality” in Syria and the return of AQI/Islamic State to Iraq as probable consequences of foreign support for the Syrian rebellion. Yet, it continued down this mad path nonetheless.

All this is what led to the expansion of the Islamic State in Iraq we are seeing now.

The US has been long radicalizing Yemen with its drone warfare, leading to the rise of AQAP in that country. Then the US hijacked the Arab Spring in Yemen as well, setting up a phony election in 2012 through which one American-backed dictator was replaced by another.

The new ruler was recently overthrown by the Shiite Houthis, who had been long persecuted by the US-armed Yemeni government. The Saudis, with US support, are now bombing the Houthis (and anyone in their vicinity), justifying it as part of their proxy war against Iran and the Shiite Crescent. This has been to the great benefit of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, as the Houthis are AQAP’s chief nemesis. The Saudis recently bombed the Houthi-controlled international airport to enforce their baby-killing blockade of Yemen, but have left Al Qaeda’s airport untouched.

All this is what led to the expansion of Al Qaeda in Yemen we are seeing now.

The US has been arming Al Qaeda and the Islamic State (America’s alleged “mortal enemies” in the Global War on Terror) six ways from Sunday. The weapons it delivered to Gaddafi when he was a US ally ended up in the hands of Al Qaeda-linked rebels in Libya, and then in the hands of Syrian rebels via the Benghazi rat line. These and other weapons delivered (whether directly or laundered through its regional allies) to its “moderate rebels” ended up being passed on to Syrian Al Qaeda or the Islamic State, through mergers, defections, or combat. For example, Syrian Al Qaeda fighters have been video-recorded using US-supplied anti-tank TOW missiles. And the heavy weapons and gear the US has been providing to the Iraqi military are generally abandoned every time the Islamic State conquers a town. The recent fall of Ramadi, for example, netted them 2,300 Humvees.

What further consequences could all this lead to? Could things get worse? Much worse, unfortunately.

The Islamic State in Saudi Arabia followed up its suicide bombings with a call for “purifying” the Arabian Peninsula of Shiite “filth.” The US Military has announced it is not worried about this at all. However, the land on which the Arabian Shiites live contains most of the country’s oil, although they see very little of the revenue it generates. This manifest injustice, combined with Sunni persecution and terrorism against the Shiites could send that country spiraling into civil war as well. Imagine what would happen to the price of oil and the world economy in that case. The Islamic State could also win the loyalties of the Sunni population (whose Wahhabi doctrine is similar to Salafism) away from the House of Saud.

In an interview last Wednesday, the leader of al-Nusra also gave a foreboding indication of what the fate of religious minorities (including many Christians) would be in Syria if Assad’s government were to fall to the American-backed rebels. There is a severe risk that a massive wave of pogroms and ethnic cleansing could sweep through Syria should the secular Baathist regime fall.

Also, the US could get drawn into re-invading the region with ground troops, or into attacking Iran (a country far larger and more populous than Iraq), causing even more death, destruction, and chaos. The cauldron could boil over into Israel, and perhaps even cause that neurotic regime to freak out and adopt its nuclear Samson Option.

Whether by warring against them or against their chief enemies, US intervention has only helped Al Qaeda, the Islamic State, and similar groups grow stronger and stronger. As Scott Horton has said, “War is the health of the Islamic State.” The only way the region can gradually reverse the destabilization, polarization, radicalization, and havoc already wreaked is if the US stops distorting power relations and flooding the region with weapons and blood. Only then will the fanatics again be marginalized, and only then can the various sects and factions again develop a basically peaceful and sustainable modus vivendi.

For the sake of the millions of victims in the region, and for our own security, Americans need to loudly demand: US out of the Middle East now.

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Related Essays by Dan Sanchez

The Cauldron Doctrine: Some Men Just Want to Watch the World Boil

Frankensteinian Hubris: Bush’s “Redirection” and the Rise of ISIS

Thank you for reading. I work at the Mises Institute where I run the Mises Academy, an e-learning program for Austrian economics and libertarian political philosophy. I am a columnist for and my essays have appeared at, The Ron Paul Institute, and David Stockman’s Contra Corner. I have given lectures and conducted interviews for the Mises Institute and appeared on The Scott Horton Show and The Tom Woods Show. You can find all of my essays, lectures, and interviews at, you can follow me via TwitterFacebook, TinyLetter, and Medium, and you can email me at