In the 1989 film Batman, after the caped crusader rescues a damsel in distress from the Joker using a fancy zipline gun, the clown prince of crime, played by Jack Nicholson, asks in bewilderment:
“Where does he get those wonderful toys?”
Especially upon seeing Batman’s nicest toys — his armored Batmobile and his military-grade Batwing fighter plane, etc — the Joker must have assumed his adversary was financed by some seriously deep pockets. And indeed, hidden behind the cowl was billionaire Bruce Wayne all along.
Similarly, upon seeing real-life fighters also garbed in black masks and jumpsuits, and running around the poverty-stricken Middle East with such “wonderful toys” as TOW anti-tank missiles, up-armored Humvees, M1A1 Abrams tanks, and fleets of gun-mounted Toyota pick-up trucks, any perceptive person must also assume that a wealthy patron lurked in the background.
Indeed where do ISIS and al-Qaeda get those wonderful toys we so often see these days triumphantly bedecked with black flags? The ultimate source of virtually all of the jihadists’ gear are the deep pockets of the United States government and its client states. Uncle Sam is the veritable Bruce Wayne of Jihad. This was basically admitted in a recently disclosed Defense Intelligence Agency report. But anyone who bothered looking into it could have known this long ago, even if restricting one’s self to mainstream sources.
Most support for the jihadists has come by way of the aid the US offers, along with its allies, to the insurgency in Syria battling to overthrow the government of Bashar al-Assad. Washington has given this support even though the Pentagon admitted internally as early as 2012 that extremists including al-Qaeda were, as the DIA report said, “the major forces driving the insurgency in Syria.”
Training and Logistical Support
The Pentagon and the CIA, as well as Britain and France, have been training Syrian rebels in neighboring Jordan since at least October 2012, as reported by The Guardian.
As early as April 2012, the State Department under Hillary Clinton began supplying communications equipment to rebels, according to The Wall Street Journal. In the same article, the Journal also reported that:
“…the Central Intelligence Agency and State Department — working with Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar and other allies — are helping the opposition Free Syrian Army develop logistical routes for moving supplies into Syria and providing communications training.”
This equipment and training provided absolutely vital coordination to the opposition forces. The Journal reported that, as of June 2012, the opposition’s…
“…internal command structure appears more organized and able to communicate to a sprawling mix of insurgent groups operating across the country. (…)
This week, Syrian rebels began to say publicly they are able to intercept government military communications. Rebel commanders also say new, secure communications between their ranks have allowed them to organize larger defections.”
It is likely that, without this crucial early logistical aid from the US, the fractious and power-hungry opposition would have fallen apart, the bloody and ruinous civil war would have ended much earlier, and tens of thousands of violent deaths would have been prevented.
More to the point, the war would have ended before Syrian al-Qaeda (aka the Nusra Front) and ISIS could conquer much of Syria, and before ISIS could use its Syrian foothold to stage its conquest of the northwestern half of Iraq. By prolonging the war, the US gave the extremists the time, the space, and the chaos they needed to expand astonishingly.
As the DIA report revealed, the US government knew such blowback was a highly probable consequence of supporting the insurgency, even forecasting the resulting rise of an extremist Islamic State. (UPDATE: Michael Flynn, the head of the DIA at the time of the report, recently confirmed that the report’s conclusions were widely disseminated throughout the government. Yet it barreled ahead anyway.) Yet it barreled ahead anyway.
Since the spring of 2012, the State Department has also been providing millions of dollars of what it calls “non-lethal aid,” including, “MREs, combat casualty bags, and surgical equipment,” according to Mother Jones magazine, which also reported in 2013 that the US had precious little control over who ultimately received this aid, and whether or not it ended up giving succor to terrorists. Later, this non-lethal aid came to include pick-up trucks. So, perhaps that’s where ISIS got those wonderful Toyotas.
For “Buy American” types whose patriotism is offended by seeing American-backed Islamic extremists driving around in Japanese trucks, there is something you can do about it. Apparently, if you sell your Ford truck in the US of A and it ends up at auction, there’s a chance it might wind up in Syria. Just don’t forget to remove any identifying decals before you sign the title transfer. A Texan made this mistake and sorely regretted it after he starting receiving death threats. As the Huffington Post reported in December 2014:
“A Texas plumber says he has no idea how his company’s work truck ended up in the hands of Islamic extremists in Syria.
The truck, a black Ford F-250 with the logo for Texas City’s Mark-1 Plumbing emblazoned on the door, appeared in a tweet posted Monday by the Ansar al-Deen Front, a jihadist group operating near Aleppo. In the photo, a man fires an anti-aircraft gun mounted to the bed of the truck, presumably where plumbing equipment used to sit.”
“No idea,” huh? Let’s just say it was almost certainly your tax dollars at work.
In 2012, The Wall Street Journal reported that:
“Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia have delivered arms and funds to rebel groups in Syria in a covert alliance since this spring.”
These shipments included automatic rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, ammunition, anti-tank weapons, and roadside bombs.
This deadly delivery service continues to this day. Turkey’s chief role has been to transmit the weapons through its border with Syria. Turkey is a member of the US-power-projection vehicle known as NATO, and it hosts US bases and nuclear weapons.
The chief role of the Saudis and Qataris has been to bankroll the weapons shipments. Both Gulf States are dependent on American arms deliveries worth tens of billions of dollars every year. These deliveries were ramped up to this level in recent years with the express purpose of isolating, countering, and “deterring” Iran: the purported ringleader of the burgeoning “Shia expansion” that the Saudis hate lividly and that has been an enemy target for US foreign policy since 2007. Overthrowing Iran’s ally Assad is seen by both the US and the Gulf States as part of that project.
Turkey and the Gulf States are client regimes, greatly dependent on American support. If Washington really wanted them to stop arming the rebels, a slight tug of the purse strings would quickly do the trick. With major policy questions like this, if Turkey and the Gulf States are doing something big, it is because it is okay with Washington. Even more likely, it is because it is exactly what Washington wants, and the US is simply using its proxies to do its dirty work.
Moreover, the US did not merely green-light the arms shipments. Since at least June 2012, the CIA has been in Turkey actively steering their delivery, as reported by The New York Times.
Yet by October 2012, heat-seeking, shoulder-fired, anti-aircraft missiles were being smuggled into Syria, as reported by The Wall Street Journal. And apparently, by early 2013, they didn’t even need to be smuggled. The Guardian reported in March that:
“Syrian rebels have said that in the past few months there had been a relaxation of the previously strict US rules on what kinds of weapons were allowed across the border, and that portable anti-aircraft missiles had been released from Turkish warehouses where they had been impounded.”
Weapons that can take down a passenger airliner, permitted to pass into the hands of insurgents fighting alongside Syrian al-Qaeda. Thanks for keeping us safe, Government!
We know who delivered them to the rebels and who paid for them. But where did these anti-aircraft missiles come from? According to the 2012 Journal report, mostly from Libya, which itself had recently been shattered into dozens of warring pieces by the US overthrow of its government (which was Hillary Clinton’s pet project). Indeed, in September 2012, The Times (the UK newspaper) reported that it had examined a ship docked in Turkey that held over 400 tons of weapons (including missiles), all of which originated from Benghazi, Libya and were bound for Syria.
The shipment arrived mere days before the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi was sacked, and the US ambassador killed, by yet another group of Sunni jihadists the US had backed (in the recent war there).
As reported by Seymour Hersh in 2014, the CIA had been watching over (and possibly directing) a “rat line” of weapons shipments that ran from jihadist-stricken, failed state Libya, through Turkey, to jihadist-stricken, failed-state-in-the-making Syria. Hillary Clinton played dumb when questioned about it by Rand Paul, but this too was confirmed by the DIA report.
Unsurprisingly, most of these weapons did not remain with the “moderate” Syrian rebels they were allegedly intended for. Already by October 2012, David Sanger was reporting for The New York Times that:
“Most of the arms shipped at the behest of Saudi Arabia and Qatar to supply Syrian rebel groups fighting the government of Bashar al-Assad are going to hard-line Islamic jihadists, and not the more secular opposition groups that the West wants to bolster, according to American officials and Middle Eastern diplomats.”
Even after such an abysmal track record set by its regional partners, the US soon decided it wanted a piece of the “lethal aid” action too. After laying unsubstantiated blame on Assad for a sarin gas attack, the Obama administration came within an inch of starting yet another Western air war on a Muslim country: this in September 2013. Yet, after hearing a resounding “Hell no” from a war-weary public, Obama dared not follow through. As a consolation prize for frustrated bloodlust, the CIA began clandestinely providing lethal aid directly to the Syrian insurgency, as reported by The Washington Post.
Despite Washington’s constant assurances that lethal aid recipients would be carefully vetted, the US-supplied arms ended up in extremist hands just as easily as those supplied by Turkey and the Gulf States did.
In April 2014, reports surfaced of American-made anti-tank TOW missiles showing up in the hands of non-extremist Syrian rebels. At the time Jason Ditz of Antiwar.com wrote:
“In recent weeks the reports have said the US was less and less concerned about the shipments, preferring to see the civil war escalate at any cost, and apparently willing to deal with the inevitable backlash when the weapons start showing up in al-Qaeda’s hands.”
By September, the missiles were in the hands of ISIS. And by December, Syrian al-Qaeda was posting videos of them blowing up government tanks with them. The bin Ladenites showcased their “wonderful toys” again as recently as March of this year.
How do these weapons so quickly end up circulating into extremist hands? It can happen through trades, tribute, poor and/or impossible vetting, surrenders, mergers, defections, etc. It can happen in countless ways. You’re putting two things you want to keep separate in close proximity. And it’s war. Stuff happens. Moreover, stuff is most likely to happen in favor of fanatics and extremists, who tend to be the toughest, most determined, and most aggressive fighters.
The Obama administration had sowed the Syrian wind. And in June of 2014, it reaped the Iraqi whirlwind, as the ISIS Syria war veterans swept through Sunni Iraq in a blitzkrieg campaign of conquest. ISIS then declared a new “Caliphate” state joining its Syrian and Iraqi territory. All this was uncannily predicted by the DIA report, which posited that supporting the Syrian insurgency would create “the ideal atmosphere” for the group now known as ISIS “to return to its old pockets” in Sunni Iraq and also create “the possibility of establishing a declared or undeclared Salafist Principality” in the region. Furthermore, the DIA report goes on to state:
“…this is exactly what the supporting powers to the opposition want, in order to isolate the Syrian regime, which is considered the strategic depth of the Shia expansion (Iraq and Iran).”
As this should make clear, the State is both blundering and diabolical.
Subsequently ISIS posted a series of videos of its members beheading western prisoners. Thanks to this spectacle, enhanced even further by the fear-mongering media, the American “herd” was sufficiently spooked for it to countenance greater intervention. Perversely, this new threat, born of support for the Syrian opposition, provided cover for more support to the Syrian opposition. The empire could now march with it head held high in Syria, and no longer had to furtively operate in the shadows. Lethal aid could come openly from the Pentagon, instead of clandestinely from the CIA. And the Obama administration finally got its airstrikes in Syria, albeit only targeting ISIS and al-Qaeda, and not Assad for the time being.
Yet with this subsequent increase of lethal aid, the US still ended up arming ISIS and al-Qaeda, even while bombing them.
In November 2014, Jason Ditz reported that:
“…the Syrian Revolutionary Front, one of the largest “vetted, moderate” US-backed rebel forces, has been effectively wiped out.
The Revolutionary Front was routed by both ISIS and al-Qaeda’s Jabhat al-Nusra in recent days, and has now surrendered outright after the fall of Deir Sinbal, agreeing to hand over all their weapons and bases to Nusra.
Those weapons, it should be made clear, include US-provided anti-tank missiles and GRAD rockets, and adds to the sizable cache of American weapons now in the hands of US enemies in Syria.”
In March of this year, Syrian al-Qaeda even began trolling the US by tweeting pictures of themselves holding US aid and weapons.
Also in March, Jason Ditz reported:
“The decision to attack al-Qaeda along with ISIS at the start of the war is looking like a serious blunder, as al-Qaeda’s Nusra Front turned on US-armed “moderate” factions, and has routed them almost entirely out of the north.
The Hazm Movement, one of the bigger CIA-armed rebel factions, officially dissolved this past week after losing the last of their bases to Nusra in Aleppo Province.”
In October of last year, the US openly admitted that its attempt to build a viable “moderate” Syrian opposition army had been a complete failure, and announced that it planned to recruit, vet, and arm an entirely new moderate army from scratch. Aren’t these grassroots revolutions against tyranny so inspiring?
Recently, there has even been a desperate attempt to “rebrand” Syrian al-Qaeda as a “moderate” ally against ISIS. Unfortunately for the marketing geniuses who cooked this up, its leader Abu Mohammed al-Golani failed to forswear his allegiance to Osama bin Laden’s successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri in a recent interview, as they hoped he would.
Now it seems the US-led anti-Assad coalition has abandoned all pretense. Turkey and the Gulf States are now coordinating a new “Army of Conquest,” of which Syrian al-Qaeda is an unabashed, leading member. The Obama administration hasn’t made a peep about it, and continues to support the efforts of its regional partners.
The Assad regime is widely seen to be on its last legs; the “new moderate army” that was to be built from scratch is nowhere to be seen; and Syrian al-Qaeda seems poised to lead its Islamist Sunni allies in a triumphal march all the way to the Mediterranean, leaving a trail of Shiite “apostates” and Christian “infidels” in its wake. Mark that one more country “liberated.”
Yet as gushing as the Syria fountain of arms and aid has been for the extremists, it is only one side of the story. The other American font from which ISIS has drunk deeply is in Iraq.
The US spent billions building up and arming the Shiite-dominated Iraqi army. During the Iraq War “Surge,” it also armed Sunni tribal militias. And when the US military withdrew in 2011, it left the Iraqi military much of its own heavy gear.
When ISIS blew back from Syria in 2014, the American-built Iraqi army folded like a piece of cardboard. And the Sunni tribes, having been betrayed and persecuted by the Iraqi government that had promised them inclusion, acquiesced to ISIS’s rule. Being governed by a militia of ruthless and crazy fellow-Sunni sectarians seemed a less-bad prospect than continuing to be hunted by US-backed death squads of ruthless and not-so-crazy Shiite sectarians.
Whenever Sunni militias either willingly joined or were conquered by ISIS, their American gear came along with them. And whenever the Iraqi troops yielded a city to ISIS, they simply up and abandoned their American gear as they fled. This American Humvees (2,300 in Mosul alone) and, yes, Toyota pick-up trucks. So this gives us yet another possible answer for where ISIS got those wonderful Toyotas. Of course in either case, the ultimate source is Uncle Sam.
The march of ISIS not only provided warrant for increased support for the Syrian insurgency, but also for restoring heavy support for the Iraqi military. This included sending still more Humvees, even while bombing the old ones that were now ISIS-mobiles and giant suicide car-bombs.
And, lo and behold, the new military equipment has also been arming the terrorists, as ISIS continued to conquer Iraqi cities, even after the American reengagement. In May, for example, ISIS took Ramadi, and along with it about 100 wheeled vehicles and dozens of tracked vehicles, including tanks, according to the Pentagon.
Such wonderful toys, and such a wonderful racket for the toymakers! And as the decorated USMC Major General Smedley Butler tried to tell America over 8o years ago, war is indeed a racket. This is basically how it works for arms manufacturers:
- Sell gear to send to allies
- Sell other gear to send (indirectly) to enemies
- Watch enemies use step 2 gear to capture step 1 gear
- Sell gear to replace step 1 gear
- Sell still more gear to blow up enemy-held step 1 gear
Worried about a “peace President” drawing down and pulling out? Have no fear; even that will sell gear. Just watch while some of the gear comes home to militarize the police. And then wait a little while for covert intervention to cause blowback, which will induce reengagement. We’re going back! Now, will the cops return their hand-me-down Humvees? Fat chance! No, this calls for selling a brand new arsenal, with all the latest bells and whistles, and even bigger margins. And just like that, you’re selling more than if we had just stayed. Fortunately for you, the President is no peacenik, just a vacillating wimp with no principles.
Are the peons getting sick of this racket? Well, now the cops are armed and armored up and ready to beat them down, so who cares?
But the racket of war is not just about the Military Industrial Complex selling gear, but also about the government selling fear. This is how it works for politicians and bureaucrats:
- Enemies (Osama, Saddam!) help you sell (or monger) fear (Another 9/11; smoking gun could be a mushroom cloud!)
- Fear helps you sell war (To Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Beyond!)
- War creates more enemies (ISIS!)
That is what war is all about: selling gear and mongering fear. Anyone who tells you different is probably in on the racket.
Special thanks to Scott Horton for inspiring the title of this essay with a remark he made on his show.
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 Antiwar.com and my essays have appeared at Mises.org, LewRockwell.com, 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 DanSanchez.me, you can follow me via Twitter, Facebook, TinyLetter, and Medium, and you can email me at dan-at-mises.org.