The US, IS and the conspiracy theory sweeping Lebanon

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Is America behind the creation of the Islamic State? The BBC's Suzanne Kianpour, in Beirut, looks at the latest conspiracy theory doing the rounds in Lebanon.

"In the Middle East, conspiracy theories are in our blood," one former Lebanese official said over lunch in a restaurant in central Beirut.

He was referring to the latest talk of the town: the United States is behind the creation of the Islamic State group (formerly known as Isis, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) and Hillary Clinton admitted it in her book "Hard Choices".

As Islamic State (IS) militants advanced into Lebanon last week - spreading terror into the village of Arsal, bordering Syria, and driving hundreds out of their homes - whispers pinned the blame for their actions on the US.

Horrific videos of IS atrocities against Lebanese Armed Forces circulated on the internet. So did the theory that America is behind the existence and emboldening of the group.

To back up their claim, conspiracy theorists online pointed to a powerful piece of "proof": the word of Hillary Clinton - the former US secretary of state widely expected to make a bid for the presidency.

Dispelling rumours

Screenshots of supposed "excerpts" from her book spread far and wide on social media in Lebanon, claiming the US created IS to instil instability in the region for American gain.

The rumour even prompted the Lebanese foreign ministry to summon US Ambassador to Lebanon David Hale.

Furthermore, to try and quash the gossip, the US embassy in Beirut issued a statement on Facebook:

image copyrightAP
image captionConspiracy theorists in Lebanon refer to Hillary Clinton's book to push their argument that the US created IS

"Any suggestion that the United States ever considered recognising the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant as anything other than a terrorist organization, or had any role in its creation, is patently false. Allegations circulating in Lebanon to the contrary are a fabrication."

Instead, what Hillary Clinton has said is that the failure to help Syrian rebels led to the rise of IS.

It's not completely shocking that such a theory may have started, given America's history of supporting militant and guerrilla groups; the mujahideen in Afghanistan, from which al-Qaeda emerged, quickly comes to mind. The fact that US allies in the Gulf are accused of supporting IS also doesn't help their case.

"Such theories abound, largely because Washington has shown a propensity for outsourcing regime change. Support for insurgent groups in that context is certainly not a new practice and, as of late, has not been a particularly effective one," says Octavius Pinkard, a Brussels-based specialist in foreign policy analysis and Middle East politics, who has been conducting fieldwork in Beirut.

Tarnished image

Rumours like these risk harming US interests in Lebanon - a nation where they have a keen interest in maintaining soft power. Symbolic confrontation and proxy battles for clout with another group also seeking to win over the Lebanese people, Hezbollah, are nothing new.

But a theory that America is to blame for beheadings and the barbaric acts attributed to IS can be severely damaging to the US image - leaving them at risk of losing support and the tide turning against them.

image captionLebanon has felt the knock-on effects of the conflict in neighbouring Syria, with a rise in sectarian tension

Recently, the narrative on the streets of Beirut has increasingly been that Hezbollah won't let IS get to the Lebanese capital, not "America will help us."

"Most people here believe the US and Saudi are one and when it comes strictly down to oil money, the ultimate benefactor from the whole IS debacle is Saudi/the US. As history has taught us, it is usually the benefactors who are the instigators," says Amer Murad, a native of Beirut.

"An important development that we have seen is the collaboration between the Lebanese Army and Hezbollah in their efforts to protect Lebanon from threats posed by the Syrian civil war spilling over into Lebanese territory," Octavius Pinkard says.

As the conflict in Syria/Lebanon evolves, so does the perception of Washington. And it appears the Hezbollah/Damascus/Tehran trio is winning the propaganda battle.

However, when Obama announced airstrikes against IS in Iraq on Thursday, love for the US returned to Facebook.

"I've never been happier for American intervention," one Lebanese user posted.

Perhaps it may be too soon to say if US popularity in Lebanon might recover based on their progress in Iraq, but at the moment, America appears to be suffering a PR crisis among the people normally supportive of it.

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