‘How Hillary Clinton created the Islamic State’ — a new Mideast conspiracy theory

August 12, 2014

Former secretary of state Hillary Clinton attends a recent signing event for her memoir "Hard Choices" in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. (Mike Groll/Associated Press)

For the past few weeks, a number of Arabic-language social media users have been sharing screenshots and excerpts of a Hillary Clinton autobiography called "Password 360." Many are shocked by one particular passage, in which the former secretary of state appears to concede that the United States, with the help of the Muslim Brotherhood, helped engineer the Islamic State extremist group.

That would be a startling admission — if it were true. Clinton's new memoir contains no such passage. In fact, it isn't even called "Password 360" — it's called "Hard Choices." Direct U.S. involvement in the rise of the Islamic State is a conspiracy theory at best.

Unfortunately, it's a powerful one. The BBC's Suzanne Kianpour reports that the idea appears to hold sway in Lebanon. According to Kianpour, the Lebanese Foreign Ministry summoned U.S. Ambassador David Hale to explain the rumor, and the U.S. Embassy in Beirut wrote on Facebook that any stories of American involvement in the creation of the Islamic State were "pure fabrication."

The rumors have been around for quite some time, too: On Aug. 3, the online magazine 7iber published an article debunking the story, which it noted had been picked up by at least one major Jordanian media outlet. Lina Ejeilat, editor in chief of 7iber, says the story appears to have begun on obscure Egyptian Web sites before being picked up on more mainstream news sites and spreading through the Arab world. Although it initially talked specifically about the creation of an "Islamic state" in Egypt's Sinai region, it appears to have evolved to also include the supposed U.S. creation of the Islamic State militia currently creating havoc in Syria and Iraq.

Ejeilat says the spread of the rumor on social media was remarkable. "Many people just wanted to believe it," she explains in an e-mail. However, Ejeilat also notes that many others have recognized the theory as absurd and clearly fake: Twitter users have been using a satirical hashtag ("#مذكرات_هيلاري_كلينتون" or "Hillary Clinton's Memoirs") to mock the fake excerpts by making up their own, even sillier excerpts.

The rumors about the Islamic State and Clinton are a new variation on an old theme: that the United States supports the interests of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Middle East. That theory has unified supporters of Egypt's post-coup government, Shiite Muslims suspicious of the reach of Sunni groups such as the Brotherhood, and even America's right wing. Clinton has been singled out in these theories for some time. In 2012, for example, Rep. Michele Bachmann suggested that a close Clinton aide, Huma Abedin, had infiltrated the U.S. government for the Muslim Brotherhood. Bachmann's comments led to a scathing editorial from The Post. When Clinton visited Cairo not long after, she was greeted by placards that said things such as "Clinton is the supreme guide of the Muslim Brotherhood."

The Middle East is home to its fair share of conspiracy theories. To some degree, it is understandable, of course. There are plenty of historical examples of the West involved in secret dealings in the Middle East with disastrous results, and it is certainly true that the United States has a long, complicated history with the Muslim Brotherhood. Besides, the sudden, terrible rise of the Islamic State is difficult to comprehend for anyone, anywhere.

The reality of Clinton's view on the U.S. role in the rise of the Islamic State is less conspiratorial but still damning. In an interview with the Atlantic, Clinton criticized President Obama for not arming Syrian rebels in the early days of the rebellion against Bashar al-Assad's regime. She said this decision "left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled.” Clinton herself acknowledged that she can never know whether arming the rebels would really have made a difference, and some, such as the Monkey Cage's Marc Lynch, have argued that she is wrong. Perhaps it is a better representation of recent U.S. policy toward the Middle East: hard choices, and plenty of regrets.

Adam Taylor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. Originally from London, he studied at the University of Manchester and Columbia University.
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