The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A short history of conspiracy theories about the U.S. military in the Middle East

Iraqi forces supported by U.S.-led coalition airstrikes advance their position during clashes with Islamic State group in the western suburbs of Ramadi, the capital of Iraq’s Anbar province, 70 miles west of Baghdad. (AP Photo/Osama Sami)

How could anyone believe this? That seems to be a common — and understandable — reaction to Wednesday’s Washington Post report on the rumors, widespread in some quarters in Iraq, that the United States is secretly collaborating with the Islamic State, the terrorist group it is bombing in both that country and in neighboring Syria.

To veterans with experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, however, the conspiracy theory may be less surprising. It is far from the first outlandish rumor that U.S. troops in those countries have had to contend with.

The Islamic State rumor seems to have twin foundations. One is an active effort to spread it by officials and operatives aligned with Iran, which competes with the United States for influence in Iraq. The other is a widespread belief in the power of American technology: the U.S. military’s weapons and spying gear are so good, the idea goes, that if the United States really wanted to destroy the Islamic State, it could do so at the drop of a hat. Hence, the Islamic State’s continued existence is proof of American collaboration with it. That vein of reasoning has long been grist for the rumor mill in Iraq.

Some of the conspiracy theories U.S. forces have run up against sound outlandish. From their earliest days in Iraq, for instance, U.S. troops struggled to discourage reports that their night-vision goggles and even their bulky protective sunglasses, or “eye-pro,” afforded them X-ray vision. In a vain effort to dispel that rumor, one commander south of Mosul invited Iraqis onto his unit’s forward operating base to peer through the goggles and glasses themselves.

Others were more solidly grounded in reality. In Baghdad at one point during the eight-and-a-half-year U.S. occupation, stories about the capabilities of tethered aerial surveillance balloons called Aerostats were rampant, said then-Col. Jeffrey Bannister in a 2008 interview. Bannister, whose infantry brigade oversaw a quadrant of the city in 2006-2007, said some East Baghdad parents kept their children indoors when the Aerostats were down for servicing, knowing that insurgents would likely take the opportunity to plant roadside bombs. He said some mothers cast the balloons in the role of bogeymen: misbehave, they told their children, and the balloons will see you.

When large, carnivorous honey badgers appeared near the southern Iraqi city of Basra in 2007, killing livestock and frightening people, Basrawis pointed the finger at Britain, whose troops were based in the area. “We can categorically state that we have not released man-eating badgers into the area,” a bemused British military spokesmen told the BBC. Honey badgers are in fact native to southern Iraq; a Basra veterinarian who dismissed the rumored British connection suggested they might have been edging closer to populated areas after a long absence because of the re-flooding of marshes that Saddam Hussein’s regime had drained.

A few months later, when a fisherman in nearby Nasiryah caught a large shark in his net, the rumor mill was quick to assign human blame for the estuarine predator’s unusual appearance 160 miles from the Persian Gulf. Bull sharks have long been known to travel upriver in Iraq and Iran. A specimen now housed at the London Museum of Natural History was captured in Baghdad, more than twice as far from the sea as Nasiriyah, in 1924. But as Reuters reported, locals suspected the hidden hand of the United States. “This is very frightening for us,” another fisherman told a journalist. “I believe that America is behind this matter.” A Nasiriyah schoolteacher put the chances of American involvement in the shark affair at 75 percent. What purpose they thought sharks might serve, the concerned citizens did not say.

The most common faunal conspiracy theories in the Middle East have to do with birds, and they implicate not only the United States but, at least as often, Israel. There is even a Wikipedia entry for “Israel-related animal conspiracy theories,” with bullets for pigs, rats, and a variety of bird species including griffon vultures, kestrels, and European bee-eaters. In most (probably all) cases, birds suspected of spying have turned out merely to be the bearers of transmitting devices used to track bird migration patterns by Israeli and other university researchers. In perhaps the most notable bird incident, noted by the Washington Post’s Jackson Diehl in 2011, local media reported the “arrest” of a vulture that strayed into Saudi Arabia while wearing a Tel Aviv University leg bracelet.

That birds could be spying for the U.S. or Israeli militaries may sound like a bizarre hypothesis, but in an age of ever-smaller and ever-more-sophisticated aerial drones, it is easy enough to see how the idea could take off. Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and elsewhere have long been laboring to build small drones that mimic the way birds fly, and in 2009, Shiite insurgents in southern Iraq captured a small, unmarked drone with the profile of a bird, down to the articulated wings. Another drone of a similar model crashed two years later in Pakistan.

The U.S. government never admitted ownership of those drones, and they could have belonged to another government. But in 2013, U.S. special operations units began fielding a small prototype drone that looked even more avian, down to a texture meant to resemble feathers. “There was a Special Operations requirement for a plane that had a natural, biological look,” an executive at the robotics company that manufactured the prototype told Wired.

Whatever their provenance, the conspiracy theories that have emerged from modern battlefields may sound amusing. But as with today’s Islamic State rumors, which are hindering Iraqi-American cooperation against the militant group, even the most head-scratching popular hypotheses can have serious consequences.

Followed to their logical conclusion, for instance, the X-ray sunglasses rumors suggested that U.S. troops could use their ocular augmentation to look through Iraqi women’s clothes. That wasn’t true, of course, but plenty of people believed it — a serious issue in a counterinsurgency campaign where popular support was critical.  “It makes me angry. We are afraid to take our families out on the street,” a Baghdad engineering student told CNN of the supposed high-tech peeping-tom capability. That was in 2003; intimations of the sunglasses’ sinister capabilities persisted as long as American troops stayed in Iraq, just one symptom among many of widespread Iraqi distrust of the United States.

U.S. forces in Afghanistan have often been plagued by wild rumors, too. “They live in a world of gossip,” a U.S. State Department representative attached to a military unit in 2004 noted in a government interview, adding that it was important to stay abreast of that gossip, no matter how outrageous, and counter it. “It may not be true, but if people believe it’s true and they act on it, then it has a reality all its own,” he explained. “It may not be true that we’re building a biological warfare lab on the firebase in Asadabad, but if people believe it we could have a problem.”

Dismissing conspiracy theories as too ridiculous to warrant a response—which is basically the approach U.S. military spokesmen took Wednesday with the Islamic State cooperation rumors—may not be as effective as addressing and denying them, as the British spokesman did during the Basra honey badger scare of 2007.

It might also be wise, when judging Iraqis by conspiracy theories only some of them believe, to think about what far-fetched notions Americans are prone to. Quite a lot of Texans took to the Internet and to town halls earlier this year to voice their fears that a U.S. special operations training exercise was a cover for an imposition of martial law ordered by the White House. (Surprise: the exercise ended without any such takeover.) There are also the many Americans who think that the United States never really killed Osama bin Laden – a theory not too far removed from the rumors circulating in Iraq of U.S. collusion with the al-Qaeda-inspired Islamic State. How many people believe this? Six percent of those asked, if one 2013 national poll is be trusted.

And let’s not even talk about the lizard people.