The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war?

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The Greeks tell a story against themselves about their tendency to believe in conspiracy theories. They relate how God decided that he would give every nation as a gift a special national characteristic. On the appointed day, representatives of the nations of the world entered the divine presence and were handed their gifts. The Americans received optimism, the French elegance, the British stoicism, the Russians courage, the Iranians cunning, and so on.

The Greek delegation was delayed and arrived late just as the other nations were leaving. God apologised and explained to them that he was sorry but he had already given away the most desirable characteristics and there were none left. The Greeks were enraged and protested furiously, shouting "so you too, God, have joined the plot against us as we always expected you would. Go on, tell us who is paying you and why do you conspire against us?" Angered in turn, God said: "Very well, you Greeks will have a gift in keeping with your accusations. In future, it will be part of your national character to always believe in conspiracy to explain everything that happens to you."

I was first told this story by a Greek Cypriot historian in 1975, a year after the Turkish invasion and part occupation of Cyprus. His point was that one reason for the disaster was that the Greeks and Greek Cypriots had been too prone to see politics in terms of plots and conspiracies and forgot the over-riding strategic fact that Cyprus is 600 miles from Athens and 40 miles from Turkey.

Conspiracy theories are damaging because they enable individuals, communities and governments to divert attention from their real problems and shift the blame for their failures elsewhere. Within hours of the shooting down of the Malaysian airliner over Ukraine, such theories were swirling around about who exactly shot it down and why commercial airliners were being routed over a war zone where two military aircraft had recently been destroyed by missiles.

Go back a month and look at the capture of much of northern Iraq by a few thousand fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis) and its allies in June. This was one of the most shameful and unnecessary defeats in history and happened because the Iraqi army and state was rotted by sectarianism and corruption.

Nevertheless, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki blamed the great defeat on a conspiracy and has identified the Kurds as being the hidden hand behind the disintegration of the army. He claims that the Kurdish capital Erbil "is a headquarters for Isis, Baathists, al-Qa'ida and terrorists." His purpose is to persuade the Shia majority that he and they have been stabbed in the back by the treacherous Kurds. Ominously, he finds many believers in his own Shia community (going by the Facebook pages of vocal Shia) saying that a failing of Saddam Hussein was that he did not finish with the Kurds entirely.

Video: 2011: Conspiracy theories ten years on from attack

Conspiracy theories often stem from joining up dots that are really quite separate. This is done by asking "cui bono?" or "who benefits" from an event and then assuming that the beneficiary must be secretly behind whatever has happened. A good example of this is the growth of Isis and other jihadi movements in Syria and Iraq which was to the advantage of President Bashar al-Assad because, however much they may dislike him, many Syrians and outside powers prefer Assad to al-Qa'ida type jihadis.

Predictably, the western media, diplomats and the "moderate" Syrian opposition claimed that Assad not only benefited from the existence of Isis and Jabhat al-Nusra but was secretly in league with them. "Notice Isis doesn't attack government forces," people would say with shallow cynicism in Beirut, though Isis was responsible for the capture of Minnigh military air base north of Aleppo, one of the few rebel victories last year.

Politics is largely about taking advantage of the mistakes and opportunities made by an opponent. It is scarcely surprising that Assad, having denounced all who protested against his rule as "terrorists" should have an incentive to highlight the predominance of the jihadis in rebel-held areas. Why should Assad attack Isis when it was fighting a civil war with the rest of the opposition? But it has always been an absurd exaggeration to imagine, as your true-born conspiracy theorist would hold, that Isis and al-Nusra were the creation of the government in Damascus.

Conspiracy theories may be at their most elaborate and virulent in the Middle East but there is plenty of competition in the rest of the world. Consider the demented scenarios claiming that the White House was secretly behind the 9/11 destruction of the twin towers. In so far as this has a sub-stratum of reason, it is because the attack was to the political advantage of the Bush administration, enabling it to pose as defender of the nation, thereby persuading some that it must be complicit in the al-Qa'ida plot. This nonsense masked the fact, culpably concealed or played down by the White House, that there was strong evidence linking 9/11 to supporters and sympathisers in Saudi Arabia.

Purveyors of conspiracy theories have at least four other powerful motives: a natural human delight in complicating matters and telling a good story; proving that an enemy is not only bad but demonically cunning; making money – think of all those profitable articles, books and films about the Kennedy assassination that could not have been sold if the official version of the shooting was correct.

A fourth reason why conspiracy theories have such currency is that a proportion of them are true. This is particularly the case in Iraq and Syria with their long traditions of Baathist governments which came to power through military conspiracies and were always seeking to detect similar plots against their own rule.

I was speaking last week to a Syrian Kurd asking him about the current Isis offensive which is taking over eastern Syria, capturing oil-rich Deir Ezzor province and assaulting the Kurdish enclaves in the north. We agreed that, given the international furore in the three weeks after Isis captured Mosul on 10 June, there was astonishingly little reaction to or publicity about Isis's successful new offensive in Syria. The reason for this is that this time international attention is focused on the Israeli bombardment of Gaza.

"Do you think it possible," asked my Syrian friend tentatively, "that Isis might have arranged to have the three Israeli teenagers killed – it certainly has militant cells on the West Bank – knowing that this would provoke an Israeli assault on Gaza and divert attention from its own operations?" I pooh-poohed the idea at the time as one more conspiracy theory based on no real evidence, but thinking it over I am not so sure.

I remember how in June 1982 the Israeli ambassador Shlomo Argov was critically wounded in London by three assassins working for the Abu Nidal movement directed by Iraqi intelligence. The aim, successfully accomplished, was to provoke the Israelis to invade Lebanon and become engaged in a war with Syria which was allied with Iran in the Iran-Iraq war and a hated enemy of Saddam Hussein. Israel knew Iraq was behind the assassination attempt but even so used it as an excuse to invade Lebanon to crush the PLO.

Could somebody in Isis, reputedly filled with former cadres of Saddam's regime, have hatched a somewhat similar plot? For all those ludicrous theories, there are real conspiracies out there.

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