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Madison Czopek
By Madison Czopek February 27, 2020

Obama never ordered CIA to train members of ISIS

If Your Time is short

• President Barack Obama authorized a CIA program that trained and armed Syrian rebels who opposed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.  

• Some CIA-provided weapons were stolen and sold on the black market.

• A declassified Defense Intelligence Agency document warned about the dangers of the situation in Syria “unraveling.”

A blog post from five years ago that claims President Barack Obama ordered the CIA to train members of ISIS continues to circulate on the internet, despite the fact that it severely mischaracterizes the intent and outcome of a CIA operation.

In 2013, the CIA operated a program that both trained and armed Syrian rebels in an attempt to support stronger opposition to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The program had some unintended consequences — at times, weapons intended for Syrian rebels were stolen and sold on the black market, for example — but it was never designed to "train ISIS Jihadists," as the post claims.

"Obama ordered CIA to train ISIS Jihadists," reads the over-the-top headline.

The blog post bases its claims primarily on a once-classified Defense Intelligence Agency document obtained by Judicial Watch, a conservative legal group.

On top of falsely alleging that Obama ordered the CIA to intentionally train members of ISIS, the post claims the released document confirms the United States and its partners "actually facilitated the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) as an effective adversary against the government of the Syrian dictator President Bashar al-Assad."

The post also says that the DIA document "declared that President Barack Obama and his counterparts within the coalition considered the establishment of a Salafist organization in eastern Syria in order to further downfall of the Assad regime."

The reality is not that simple.

The training program

Despite what the post’s headline says, Obama never ordered the CIA to train members of ISIS. In fact, the New York Times reported that Obama only "reluctantly agreed" to the training program to train and arm some Syrian rebels opposing Assad’s government forces.

The program, code named Timber Sycamore, was a joint effort primarily between the CIA and other Arab intelligence agencies. 

The program and its details are still largely classified. Most of what we know comes from media reports. The New York Times, for example, reported that the program trained thousands of fighters and was going well until Russian military aid forced the rebels to retreat. But there were other problems. In October 2015, the BBC reported that American officials admitted only four or five of the program’s trainees "had actually returned to the battle."

Further, an Al Jazeera and New York Times investigation revealed that millions of dollars in weapons the CIA meant to provide Syrian rebels had actually been systematically stolen and sold on the black market. From there, the weapons could fall into the wrong hands. Once, stolen CIA-supplied weapons were used in a shooting in Amman, Jordan, that killed five people, including two Americans.

The declassified document

The document obtained by Judicial Watch said Salafi-jihadists — fundamentalists who believe in the return to traditional Islam practices — the Muslim Brotherhood and al-Qaida in Iraq were "the major forces driving the insurgency in Syria."

While the document does not say anything about Obama, it seemed to explore some of the CIA training program’s potential effects on Iraq. 

"If the situation unravels there is the possibility of establishing a declared or undeclared Salafist principality in Eastern Syria," reads the document. "And this is exactly what the supporting powers to the opposition want, in order to isolate the Syrian Regime, which is considered the strategic depth of the Shia expansion (Iraq and Iran)."

Essentially, the document seems to say that the groups it identified as the "major forces" in the region supporting Syrian rebels hoped to establish a Salafist state in Eastern Syria. The document did not say the United States considered supporting this outcome, however.

Our ruling

The headline said, "Obama ordered CIA to train ISIS Jihadists."

Obama authorized a program in 2013 that trained and armed Syrian opposition forces. The program had its flaws, including that CIA-provided weapons were systematically stolen and sold on the black market, ending up in enemy hands. However, the declassified DIA document contained nothing that suggested the United States or its allies intentionally "facilitated" the rise of ISIS in their efforts to oppose Assad.

Further, there was no evidence the program ever trained known members of ISIS. That was never ordered by Obama.

We rate this claim False.

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