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Politifact June 15, 2016

Donald Trump suggests Barack Obama supported ISIS, but that's a conspiracy theory

By Louis Jacobson

In a series of comments designed to cast doubt on former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump has charged that the Obama administration has actively supported the Islamic extremist group that became ISIS.

In this fact-check, we’ll begin by recapping what Trump said. Then we’ll look at whether he has any evidence to support the allegation. (The Trump campaign did not respond to an inquiry.)

What Trump said

It all began with a June 13 interview with Fox & Friends, when Trump said, "Look, we're led by a man that either is not tough, not smart, or he's got something else in mind. And the something else in mind — you know, people can't believe it. People cannot, they cannot believe that President Obama is acting the way he acts and can't even mention the words 'radical Islamic terrorism.' There's something going on. It's inconceivable."

Trump, as we have previously detailed, declined to clarify what he meant in a subsequent interview on NBC’s Today show. He said, "Well, there are a lot of people that think maybe he doesn't want to get it. A lot of people think maybe he doesn't want to know about it. I happen to think that he just doesn't know what he's doing, but there are many people that think maybe he doesn't want to get it. He doesn't want to see what's really happening. And that could be."

Then, on June 14, Trump told the Associated Press that Obama "claims to know our enemy, and yet he continues to prioritize our enemy over our allies, and for that matter, the American people."

A day later, Trump tweeted, "An: Media fell all over themselves criticizing what DonaldTrump "may have insinuated about @POTUS." But he's right." The tweet then linked to a Breitbart story that began, "Hillary Clinton received a classified intelligence report stating that the Obama administration was actively supporting Al Qaeda in Iraq, the terrorist group that became the Islamic State."

Finally, later that day, Trump posted on Facebook, "Hillary Clinton --- is CROOKED! Hillary Clinton received a classified intelligence report stating that the Obama administration was actively supporting Al Qaeda in Iraq, the terrorist group that became the Islamic State." This post also linked to the Breitbart article.

The 2012 intelligence memo

The story on the conservative website Breitbart was based on a classified and partially redacted U.S. intelligence document written in August 2012 and released last year as a result of a lawsuit by the group Judicial Watch.

The document outlines what is known about "the general situation" on the ground in Syria and Iraq after the rebellion against the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad. In that context, the document refers, among other groups, to al-Qaida in Iraq, or AQI, which eventually morphed into ISIS, sometimes called the Islamic State or ISIL. The document calls AQI one of a few "major forces driving the insurgency in Syria."

Specifically, it said, "AQI supported the Syrian opposition from the beginning, both ideologically and through the media. AQI declared its opposition (to) Assad’s government because it considered it a sectarian regime targeting Sunnis." (As background, AQI and ISIS are part of the Sunni branch of Islam, which is often in conflict with the Shia branch.)

Meanwhile, the document said that "the West, Gulf countries and Turkey support the opposition, while Russia, China and Iran support the regime."

The significance of the memo

Trump sees the memo as the smoking gun that demonstrates U.S. support for ISIS or its predecessor group. But that’s not the case.

Rather, experts say it means that the United States shared an overarching goal with the opposition -- namely, countering Assad -- without actively supporting all elements of that opposition. In the byzantine world of the Syrian opposition, the United States sought to support moderate elements while opposing extremists such as AQI and, later, ISIS.

The White House firmly rejected the notion that the United States actively supported either AQI or ISIS, noting the number of terrorists the administration has killed, including major leadership figures.

"We, in conjunction with our Iraqi partners, relentlessly pursued and ultimately degraded AQI with every tool in our arsenal -- including military force," said Ned Price, a spokesman for the White House’s National Security Council. "And, of course, the fact that we eliminated AQI's leader, Abu Ayyub al-Masri in a joint U.S.-Iraqi raid leaves no doubt about our determination to rid Iraq of this group."

Independent experts agreed with the White House.

"The United States has never backed AQI and has never backed ISIS," said Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a terrorism expert at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. "It was never part of the opposition that the United States supported, full stop."

Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, agreed. "It has never been the policy or stated goal of the Obama administration to arm or assist al-Qaida," he said.

"I would say it's another unsupportable conspiracy theory," said John Limbert, an international affairs professor at the U.S. Naval Academy who previously served as a foreign service officer in post-war Iraq and as deputy coordinator for counterterrorism in the State Department.

John Pike, the director of globalsecurity.org, said it would be putting it "mildly" to call it a conspiracy theory. And Gartenstein-Ross also used that term, tweeting that Trump’s effort to make this argument was a "transparently fallacious conspiracy theory."

A point Trump could have made, but didn’t

Ironically, experts say, Trump could have made a different point against the Obama administration's Syria policy.

Gartenstein-Ross has written about the perils of the administration’s attempts to identify and support potential allies from the motley ranks of the opposition. The effort, he wrote, ended up "benefiting the very jihadist groups the U.S. has been fighting for the past 15 years."

Specifically, the policy of arming and promoting Sunni rebel groups fighting the Assad regime ended up indirectly helping the al Nusra Front, an al-Qaida affiliate in Syria, Landis said.

Al Nusra was "allied with many of the leaders that the U.S. did arm or assist," Landis said. And other rebel groups were overrun by al Nusra, he added, even having to surrender their U.S.-provided arms to the al-Qaida affiliate on occasion.

The difference with what Trump said is that these developments were unintended -- and unwanted -- side effects of the United States’ policy, not a goal of it.

"I think our policy has been both foolish and tragic, but it doesn’t make the argument from Breitbart true," Gartenstein-Ross said.

Our ruling

Trump said "the Obama administration was actively supporting Al Qaeda in Iraq, the terrorist group that became the Islamic State."

U.S. efforts to court "moderate" opponents of Assad may have benefited other Islamic extremist groups such as al Nusra, but any such benefits were an unintended consequence of U.S. policy, not a goal of that policy itself.

That’s different from the argument made by Trump -- that the U.S. was actively supporting ISIS or its predecessors. In fact, experts say that assertion is flat wrong. The implication that the Obama administration was actively helping the United States' enemies is ridiculous. It has always been U.S. policy to oppose AQI and ISIS, and the United States has aggressively fought the group for years. We rate Trump’s assertion Pants on Fire.

Copyright 2016, Tampa Bay Times