Friday, October 24th, 2014

Fact-checking the latest claims about the Islamic State

President Barack Obama addressed the nation on Sept. 10, 2014. (AP Photo)
President Barack Obama addressed the nation on Sept. 10, 2014. (AP Photo)

President Barack Obama addressed the nation on Wednesday night about his plans for stopping the Islamic State, a violent terrorist group that has made brutal advances through Iraq this summer. The group is widely considered responsible for the slaughter of religious minorities and soldiers, and for the video-recorded beheadings of two American journalists.

How the United States should respond has been a ripe topic for pundits and politicians. Obama's speech outlined plans for airstrikes, more military advisers and coordinating with allies to deal with the threat also known as ISIS or ISIL.

Feeling lost in the chaotic developments? Here’s a roundup of claims about the group that we have tested so far.

Islamic State was too extreme for al-Qaida

Obama said in his speech that the group's members were "unique in their brutality" and "a terrorist organization, pure and simple."

Others have noted that Islamic State is considered a particularly brutal group. In his final turn moderating NBC’s Meet the Press, David Gregory explored that issue..

"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.

Are Westerners fighting with Islamic state? 

Obama also mentioned that many Americans and Europeans have joined the fight on the side of extremists in Iraq and Syria. We fact-checked a similar claim from U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., who said back in June, "We have thousands of Westerners and Americans in both the eastern Syria and Iraq who have Western passports."

We rated his statement Mostly True. The highest estimates we found put the figure between 2,000 and 3,000, which would make his statement technically accurate, but somewhat exaggerated, at "thousands." A March estimate from the U.S. government said there were about 1,000 Westerners in Syria. Only a few dozen of them are from the United States, though, and you might not get that impression from Rogers’ comment.

So Rogers may have amplified the numbers a bit, but he did not overstate the threat. Experts we spoke with, along with U.S. and Western governments, have expressed legitimate concerns about this issue. 

What Obama said about Islamic State being a "JV team"

Meet the Press’ new host Chuck Todd interviewed Obama on Sept. 7 and noted that Obama’s thoughts on the group were a "long way from when you described them as a JV team."

"Was that bad intelligence or your misjudgment?" Todd asked.

"Keep in mind I wasn’t specifically referring to (Islamic State)," Obama replied. "I've said that, regionally, there were a whole series of organizations that were focused primarily locally, weren’t focused on homeland, because I think a lot of us, when we think about terrorism, the model is Osama bin Laden and 9/11."

Obama’s comments about the Islamic State go back to an interview Obama gave to the New Yorker in January. We rated Obama’s claim that he "wasn’t specifically referring to them" as False.

We looked at the magazine article and a transcript of the actual interview first published in the Washington Post, and we contacted David Remnick, the New Yorker editor who interviewed Obama.

At the time, Islamic State was not a household name. It was often referred to as an al-Qaida-linked group in press reports. But reports from the time clearly indicate that the group was responsible for taking over Fallujah.

The New Yorker published Remnick’s profile on Jan. 27, 2014. In it, he wrote, "In the 2012 campaign, Obama spoke not only of killing Osama bin Laden; he also said that Al Qaeda had been ‘decimated.’ I pointed out that the flag of Al Qaeda is now flying in Fallujah, in Iraq, and among various rebel factions in Syria; Al Qaeda has asserted a presence in parts of Africa, too."

Obama responded: "The analogy we use around here sometimes, and I think is accurate, is if a jayvee team puts on Lakers uniforms that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant."

So when Remnick referenced an al-Qaida group taking over Fallujah, it’s clear whom he was talking about.

Is Islamic State literally crucifying Christians?

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, told a reporter for a Texas television station that Islamic State is "right now crucifying Christians in Iraq, literally nailing Christians to trees." PolitiFact Texas hadn’t heard this detail, so we decided to look into it for a report.

It’s true that Islamic State has killed religious minorities, but we found no confirmation of them specifically crucifying Christians. Because there isn’t evidence to support Cruz’s claim, we rated it False.

Jeffrey White, a defense fellow at the Washington Institute specializing in the military and security affairs of the Levant and Iran, told us he monitors videos from Iraq and Syria and is familiar with the ISIS practice in Syria of hanging a body from a post after a killing. (That’s not a crucifixion as that act is commonly defined.)

But, White said, he hasn’t seen videos of anyone nailed to a tree -- in Iraq or elsewhere. Cruz’s claim "doesn’t accord with what I’ve seen," White said. Several other experts who spoke with us said much the same.

Did Obama go against allies when he abandoned airstrikes against Syria last year?

Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., said on CBS’ Face the Nation on Aug. 31 that Obama had waited too  long to deal with the Islamic State’s activities in Iraq and Syria.

"It was a year ago this all started," King said. "I remember being in the White House with (White House Chief of Staff) Denis McDonough talking about the importance of air attacks in Syria, and we had allies lined up and then the president pulled the rug out. And those allies are going to be very hard now to get back into a coalition."

His statement is partially accurate but leaves out important details, so we rated it Half True.

We found that a handful of allies "lined up" for air strikes. We counted France, Turkey and Saudi Arabia as countries that were supportive.  But there were many countries against the strikes, including key allies like the United Kingdom, Germany and Italy. The Arab League and the United Nations also balked.

Overall, there was widespread hesitance to intervene among the international community from the start. And what support that was there faded after Russia helped broker a diplomatic process in which Syria agreed to give up its chemical weapons.

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.

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."

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story was first published Sept. 2, 2014.