Fact-checking claims about the Islamic State
This story originally appeared on the PunditFact website. Poynter.org is republishing with permission.
The violent terrorist group that calls itself the Islamic State is eliciting fear from all corners of the world after its brutal advances through Iraq this summer, including the slaughter of religious minorities and soldiers and the video-recorded beheading of two American journalists.
How the United States should respond has been a ripe topic for pundits and politicians, with many dogging President Barack Obama for saying "we don’t have a strategy yet" to deal with the threat also known as ISIS.
Feeling lost in the chaotic developments? Here’s a roundup of claims about the group that we have vetted so far.
Islamic State was too extreme for al-Qaida
In his final turn moderating NBC’s Meet the Press, David Gregory explored whether the group’s rapid growth was preventable.
"This is a terror state trying to construct a caliphate, cast off by al-Qaida because this group is considered too extreme," Gregory said Aug. 10. "This is a big, expansive terrorist threat that has amassed on (Obama’s) watch."
His statement is Mostly True.
When top leaders at al-Qaida disowned ISIS in February 2014, their reasons included needlessly brutal tactics, particularly against other Muslims. But other ideological differences with al-Qaida command and in-fighting between other al-Qaida affiliates also contributed to the split, which experts said was in the works for years..
The removal of U.S. troops from Iraq
The Islamic State was not on the radar as Obama heralded the fulfillment of his central campaign promise to pull the U.S. out of Iraq. But the group’s relatively easy takeover of cities in the region has some wondering whether the pull-out was too much, too soon, leaving the region unstable and vulnerable to hostile takeover by Islamic State.
Even Obama, ABC News chief international correspondent Martha Raddatz said, wanted some troops to stay behind to train Iraqi security forces and conduct counterterrorism missions. "They wanted 10,000 troops to remain in Iraq -- not combat troops, but military advisers, special operations forces, to watch the counterterrorism effort," she said on This Week on Aug. 24.
Her claim rates Mostly True. Before Obama took office, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and President George W. Bush finalized a status of forces agreement that spelled out the withdrawal of all American soldiers by Dec. 31, 2011. Even then, the idea was to maintain thousands of advisers and special forces there to make sure the country remained stable.
As the 2011 deadline approached amid reignited terrorist attacks, Defense Department officials recommended about 20,000 such troops stay behind. The White House wouldn’t go for that, but Obama was open -- for a while -- to leaving up to 10,000 troops beyond the end of 2011.
That number shrank before becoming a moot point, as negotiations on a new status of forces agreement broke down over the issue of providing American forces with immunity from prosecution in Iraqi courts.
Snowden-leaked documents show U.S. and Israel created Islamic State
As Obama ordered air strikes against Islamic State targets in early August, bloggers fanned an inflammatory claim connecting Edward Snowden, National Security Agency documents, and the group’s true origins.
Bahrain’s Gulf Daily News reported, for example, that "Edward Snowden has revealed that the British and American intelligence and the Mossad (Israel’s intelligence agency) worked together to create the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)."
Conspiracy theorists, cool down! The claim rates Pants on Fire.
Journalist Glenn Greenwald, one of the few people with access to Snowden’s trove, refuted the hoax. Reporting on the group has shown it started as an offshoot of al-Qaida.
Obama ordered the release of Islamic State leader
Conservative actor James Woods tweeted this Aug. 5 to his 145,000 followers, "The leader of ISIS was imprisoned by American troops and ordered released to Iraq by Obama administration in 2009."
That claim is False.
The leader of Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was held at Camp Bucca in Iraq from early February 2004 to December 2004, the Defense Department said, long before Obama moved into the White House.
He was not recaptured, the department said. The 2009 storyline stems from a Daily Beast interview with Army Col. Kenneth King, the former commander of Camp Bucca, who said he knew Baghdadi at the camp and that he was handed over to Iraqi officials in 2009.
ABC News ran a report questioning King’s story, and King acknowledged he "could be mistaken" but was "99 percent" sure Baghdadi was at the camp before it closed in 2009.
Even if his memory is accurate, it does not make Woods’s claim so. An agreement negotiated by the Bush administration required U.S. forces to give up custody of virtually every detainee, so Obama would have been fulfilling that agreement.
Intelligence leaders predicting attack by Islamic State in the U.S.
One reason some leaders are pressing for a stronger military response to the vicious group: They say Islamic State wants to attack Americans on their home soil.
"Do you really want to let America be attacked?" Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a member of the Armed Services Committee, asked on Fox News Sunday Aug. 10. "What is going on in Washington when the FBI director, when the head of national intelligence, the CIA, the Homeland Security secretary, tells every member of Congress, including the president, we’re about to be attacked in a serious way because (of) the threat emanating from Syria and Iraq?
"If he does not go on the offensive against ISIS, ISIL, whatever you want to call these guys, they are coming here. This is not just about Baghdad. This is not just about Syria. It is about our homeland," Graham said.
His striking claim misses some nuance. It rates Half True.
Graham’s office provided quotes from three of the four officials he mentioned in which they talked about their fears for Syria becoming a training ground for jihadists who may want to launch attacks in America.
But Michael O’Hanlon, a Brooking Institution foreign policy analyst, said Graham’s comment overreaches.
"The ISIS threat is very grave, but attacks are not — and in fact, virtually never are — inevitable," O’Hanlon said. "We have a host of defense mechanisms and shouldn't be fatalistic about protecting ourselves."