Obama Is Not the 'Founder' of ISIS – These Guys Are

Terrorist group traces lineage to 2003 Iraq invasion.

ByABC News
August 11, 2016, 1:05 PM

— -- President Barack Obama and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton are not the "founders" of the terrorist organization ISIS, as recently claimed by Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.

That dubious distinction goes to the group's mysterious current leader and to a petty thug turned jihadi killer.

ISIS, in its latest incarnation, was officially founded by the group's current head, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in late June 2014 when a representative for the organization declared it had established an Islamic "caliphate" in Iraq and Syria. A few days later, al-Baghdadi made his only known major public appearance at a mosque in the Iraqi city of Mosul to call on all Muslims to follow him.

"I was cursed with this great endeavor," al-Baghdadi said then. "Obey me in my obedience to God. Disobey me if I disobey God."

An image grab taken from a video released on July 5, 2014 by Al-Furqan Media shows alleged Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi preaching during Friday prayer at a mosque in Mosul.
Al-Furqan Media/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Going back farther, however, the terrorist group can trace its history directly to Iraq in the mid-2000s, according to ISIS experts and analysts.

After the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 under President George W. Bush, Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda announced its allegiance with a local insurgent group and dubbed the organization al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). AQI was led by the infamous thug Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

Nada Bakos, a former CIA analyst who specialized in AQI, said al-Zarqawi's influence can still be seen in ISIS practices today, including the gruesome, on-camera beheadings of perceived enemies, including journalists, and the wanton murder of civilians.

"A majority of [ISIS'] playbook is still based on his initial work," Bakos told ABC News.

PHOTO: An image grab from the Qatari based satellite TV station Al-jazeera, April 25, 2006, shows a man identifying himself as Al-Qaeda's Iraq frontman Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
An image grab from the Qatari based sattelite TV station Al-jazeera, April 25, 2006, shows a man identifying himself as Al-Qaeda's Iraq frontman Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in what would be the first public appearance of one world's most wanted militants in at least three years.
AFP/Getty Images

Al-Zarqawi was killed in an American airstrike in 2006, and beginning in 2007, AQI was greatly weakened by what's known as the Sunni Awakening, in which a large alliance of Iraqi Sunni tribes, supported by the U.S., fought against the jihadist group.

By the time President Obama took office in 2009, AQI had gone through a complex reshuffling, rebranded itself the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), according to ISIS expert J.M. Berger, and had been generally forced underground. That lasted until the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011.

Leadership of the terror group eventually fell to a man named Abu Du'a, better known as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who saw an opening for a comeback. He had been detained by the American military in 2004, but a U.S. official told ABC News he was released by 2006.

Al-Baghdadi moved the group into Syria and, after a falling out with al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, split completely with the patron terrorist group. In 2013 al-Baghdadi changed his organization's name to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), "reflecting its greater regional ambitions," according to the State Department. (The U.S. government refers to the group as ISIL, for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, a different translation of the name.)

Amid the chaos in Syria, ISIS gained followers and territory and in 2014 launched a devastating military assault back into Iraq with the tacit support of some disenfranchised local Sunnis. By the summer, ISIS controlled huge swaths of land, including Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city. Al-Baghdadi changed the group's name again, this time to simply the Islamic State.

"He exploited both the Syrian civil war and a growing sectarian trend in Iraq -- fostered by the Iraqi government -- to rebuild his organization," said Berger, co-author of "ISIS: State of Terror".

The group has since set its sights also on the West, launching a series of horrific terrorist attacks abroad, even as it has lost territory in Iraq.

Critics of the Obama administration have generally focused on three perceived missteps that created a situation in which ISIS was able to rise. First, the initial hesitancy and then utter failure of a program to arm and train moderate rebel groups in Syria, which allowed more extremist groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda to infiltrate and exert more influence over the population.

Second, the administration is accused of underestimating the threat from ISIS early on. In a January 2014 profile in The New Yorker, Obama famously compared al-Qaeda affiliates — apparently including ISIS at the time — to a "jayvee team."

"I think there is a distinction between the capacity and reach of a bin Laden and a network that is actively planning major terrorist plots against the homeland versus jihadists who are engaged in various local power struggles and disputes, often sectarian," he said then.

Third, critics say Obama's moves to withdraw American troops from Iraq — as agreed by the Iraqi government and the Bush administration in 2008 — left chaos there and the Iraqi military ill prepared to deal with ISIS on its own, despite years of U.S. training and assistance.

The administration has pushed back on all these points, and Berger said that there were a "number of missteps by both the Bush and Obama administrations, none of which equate to 'founding' of ISIS."

"While many people have strong feelings about the counterfactual argument -- would things have gone better if we had responded differently -- I am not totally convinced we could have prevented ISIS," Berger said. "American politicians tend to overestimate America's ability to rewrite the script in other countries beset by complicated problems."

In the last 48 hours Trump has repeatedly claimed Obama and Clinton were "founders" of ISIS. Asked in an interview with radio personality Hugh Hewitt if he was referring to Obama's policies that had created a "vacuum" that ISIS filled, Trump responded, "No, I meant he's the founder of ISIS. I do."

But then the Republican candidate said it was about Obama's policies, saying "that's why ISIS came about." "If he would have done things properly, you wouldn't have ISIS," Trump said.

When asked today by ABC News about the characterization of the president as ISIS' "founder", a senior administration official just responded, "Seriously?"

[UPDATE Aug. 12, 2016: Despite his insistence Thursday that he meant what he said, Trump tweeted Friday morning that his comments about Obama and Clinton being the "founders" of ISIS were sarcastic.]

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