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Trump's claim that Obama is 'founder' of ISIS: An interview with Joby Warrick

By Glenn Kessler

August 11, 2016 at 12:31 PM

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Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump accused President Obama of being the "founder" of the Islamic State militant group. Speaking at a rally August 10, Trump also said Hillary Clinton was the group's "co-founder." (Reuters)

"ISIS is honoring President Obama. He's the founder of ISIS. He founded ISIS. I would say the co-founder would be Crooked Hillary Clinton."

— Donald Trump, remarks at a rally in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Aug. 10, 2016

Rather than yet another fact check of yet another bizarre claim by Donald Trump, we decided to take another approach. We had previously fact-checked former Florida governor Jeb Bush when he wrongly asserted that the Islamic State — also known as ISIS, ISIL and Daesh — did not exist when his brother, George W. Bush, was president. So it did not seem worth plowing over the same ground. (Bush earned Four Pinocchios, by the way.)

But The Washington Post has an inside expert on the rise of the Islamic State — our colleague Joby Warrick. His best-selling book, "Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS," won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction. So here's an interview with Joby, conducted by telephone, about Trump's statement.

Is Obama the founder of ISIS?
Absolutely not. It's like saying that Ronald Reagan is the founder of al-Qaeda because the arms he sent to the mujahideen in Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion led to the creation of al-Qaeda. It's a ludicrous claim.

So who founded ISIS?
It was started by a Jordanian terrorist named Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. It did not initially start out calling itself ISIS; it was called al-Qaeda in Iraq.

So what did Obama have to do with the rise of ISIS?
That goes back to my earlier point. ISIS arose in response to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Zarqawi moved into Iraq in advance of the invasion in anticipation of leading a Sunni insurgency. That's really the origin of ISIS from a U.S. policy standpoint. [Note: Trump supported the invasion of Iraq.]

But why did ISIS suddenly seem to grow rapidly during the Obama administration?
The civil war in Syria breathed new life into what had become a moribund organization. The conflict in Syria created a perfect vacuum in terms of governance, and so the civil war became an opportunity for the restoration of the organization. You could fault the White House for not intervening into the Syrian conflict. But there are all kinds of questions about whether any actions taken by the United States would make a difference. Also, given Russian opposition at the United Nations, it's pretty unlikely the United States could have gotten international backing for an intervention.

Some people have also criticized Obama for pulling troops out of Iraq.
There are two different issues. ISIS rebounded within the space created in the Syrian conflict. ISIS then saw opportunity to rebound in Iraq. One factor was the withdrawal of U.S. troops. But there was also rampant mismanagement by the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, which greatly degraded the Iraqi military and exacerbated tensions between Sunnis and Shiites.

Trump also claims Hillary Clinton was a "co-founder" of ISIS. Does that make sense?
No. Within the administration, Clinton was one of the loudest forces for keeping a residual force in Iraq and for intervening in Syria, such as arming the rebels. So the criticism especially does not apply to her, since she advocated a more hawkish policy than was undertaken by Obama.

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Glenn Kessler has reported on domestic and foreign policy for more than three decades. He would like your help in keeping an eye on public figures. Send him statements to fact check by emailing him, tweeting at him, or sending him a message on Facebook.

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