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Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is the man who founded ISIS

In an image made from video originally posted April 25, 2006 on the Internet showing Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
IntelCenter | AP
In an image made from video originally posted April 25, 2006 on the Internet showing Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

Donald Trump's assertion that President Barack Obama is the "founder" of ISIS runs counter to reality.

"He was the founder of ISIS, absolutely," Trump told CNBC on Thursday, a day after he repeatedly made the claim.

The terror quasi-state that is variously called Islamic State, ISIS, ISIL or Daesh was founded by a bloodthirsty religious zealot named Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in 2004. The native Jordanian moved to Iraq, along with thousands of other insurgent volunteers, to fight the American and British forces that had invaded that country in 2003.

At the time, Barack Obama was serving as a state senator for the 13th District of Illinois, spending most of his time shuttling between Chicago and Springfield.

The United States smashed the Iraqi military in March 2003 and took over the country. On May 23, 2003, under the orders of the Bush administration's designated administrator for Iraq, L. Paul Bremer, the United States disbanded the Iraqi Army and fired thousands of other government workers. As a result, many thousands of Iraqis were put out of a job within a country with a wrecked infrastructure and an economy that had ground to a near-total halt.

Al-Zarqawi entered Iraq either during the invasion or just after it, with funding from Al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden, whom the United States had already tried kill in Afghanistan. Al-Zarqawi started funneling foreign fighters into the country through Syria. He also had little difficulty attracting fighters from disaffected Sunni tribes in Iraq, most of whom had little money or means of acquiring it, but many of whom had arms they had either stolen or bought from the collapsed national army.

A U.S. soldier at a press conference in Baghdad, Iraq looks across at a photo purporting to show the body of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, June 8, 2006.
Khalid Mohammed | AP
A U.S. soldier at a press conference in Baghdad, Iraq looks across at a photo purporting to show the body of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, June 8, 2006.

On June 6, 2003, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld mistakenly identified the fighters as "pockets of dead-enders" who were loyal to Saddam Hussein. A month later, President George W. Bush said, "Bring 'em on." The fighters turned out not to be Saddam loyalists, and they did keep coming on throughout 2003, in greater and greater numbers. The insurgency was on.

By the spring of 2004, the United States finally admitted that it had a full-blown insurgency on its hands that was neither loyal to Saddam nor for the most part even composed of Iraqis. In October 2004, Al-Zarqawi declared himself the "emir" of Al-Qaeda in Iraq. His group used techniques that were unprecedented in the region for centuries, including terror tactics like the mass beheadings of noncombatant civilians.

That same group — the direct followers of al-Zarqawi, along with new fighters from both inside and outside Iraq and Syria — broke from al-Qaeda and renamed itself the Islamic State of Iraq in late 2006, about four months after al-Zarqawi was killed by a targeted American airstrike.

Islamic State grew steadily stronger over the next eight years, drawing Sunni Muslim fighters from across the Middle East and Europe who wanted to fight the Americans and to kill Shiite Muslims generally. ISIS has been fighting the West, Shiites and any religious and ethnic minority that happen to be in its way ever since.

Obama assumed the office of the president of the United States in January 2009.

On Thursday, Trump appeared to try to nuance the position he took the day before by saying Obama's withdrawal of troops from Iraq constituted "founding."

"The way he removed our troops," Trump said, apparently referring to Obama's decision to draw down the U.S. troop level in Iraq. "I, you — we shouldn't have gone in. I was against the war in Iraq."

Later in the same interview with CNBC, Trump modified his position to call Obama the "co-founder" of ISIS, along with Hillary Clinton.

—CNBC's Ted Kemp is the co-author, with retired Marine Lt. Col. Michael Zacchea, of "The Ragged Edge: A Marine's Account of Leading the Iraqi Army Fifth Battalion," coming in April 2017 from Chicago Review Press.