Since 1980, the United States has intervened in the affairs of fourteen Muslim countries, at worst invading or bombing them. They are (in chronological order) Iran, Libya, Lebanon, Kuwait, Iraq, Somalia, Bosnia, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Sudan, Kosovo, Yemen, Pakistan, and now Syria. Latterly these efforts have been in the name of the War on Terror and the attempt to curb Islamic extremism.
Yet for centuries Western countries have sought to harness the power of radical Islam to serve the interests of their own foreign policy. In the case of Britain, this dates back to the days of the Ottoman Empire; in more recent times, the US/UK alliance first courted, then turned against, Islamists in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria. In my view, the policies of the United States and Britain—which see them supporting and arming a variety of groups for short-term military, political, or diplomatic advantage—have directly contributed to the rise of IS.
Supporting the Caliphate
The Turkish Ottoman Empire was, for centuries, the largest Muslim political entity the world has ever known, encompassing much of North Africa, southeastern Europe, and the Middle East. From the sixteenth century onwards, Britain not only championed the Ottoman Empire but also supported and endorsed the institution of the caliphate and the Sultan’s claim to be the caliph and leader of the ummah (the Muslim world).
Britain’s support for the Ottoman Caliph—a policy known as the Eastern Question—was entirely motivated by self-interest. Initially this was so the Ottoman lands would act as a buffer against its regional imperial rivals, France and Russia; subsequently, following the colonization of India, the Ottoman territories acted to protect Britain’s eastward trade routes. This support was not merely diplomatic; it translated into military action. In the Crimean War (1854–56), Britain fought with the Ottoman Empire against Russia and won.
It was only with the onset of the First World War in 1914 that this 400-year-old regional paradigm unraveled. When Mehmed V sided with the Germans, Britain was reluctantly excluded from dealing with the caliphate’s catchment of over 15 million Muslims, reasoning that “whoever controlled the person of the Caliph, controlled Sunni Islam.” London decided that an Arab uprising to unseat Mehmed would enable them to reassign the role of caliph to a trusted and more malleable ally: Hussein bin Ali Hussein, the sherif of Mecca and a direct descendant, it is claimed, of the Prophet Muhammad. The British employed racism to garner support for the uprising, appealing to the Arabs’ sense of ownership over Islam, which had originated in Mecca and Medina, not among the Turks of Constantinople. A 1914 British proclamation declared, “There is no nation among the Muslims which is now capable of upholding the Islamic Caliphate except the Arab nation.” A letter was dispatched to Sherif Hussein, fomenting his ambition and suggesting, “It may be that an Arab of true race will assume the Caliphate at Mecca or Medina” (Medina being the seat of the first caliphate after the death of the Prophet). Again, the British were prepared to defend the caliphate with the sword, promising to “guarantee the Holy Places against all external aggression.” It is a strange thought that, just 100 years ago, the prosecutors of today’s War on Terror were promising to restore the Islamic caliphate to the Arab world and defend it militarily.
The Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire, fomented by the British, got underway in 1916, the same year that the infamous Sykes-Picot Agreement was made in secret, carving up between the British and French the very lands Sherif Hussein had been promised. Betrayal, manipulation, and self-interest were, and remain, the name of the game when it comes to Western meddling in the Middle East. The revolt would last two years and was a major factor in the fall of the Ottoman Empire. At the same time, the British Army and allied forces, including the Arab Irregulars, were fighting the Ottomans on the battlefields of the First World War. A key figure in these battles was T. E. Lawrence, who became known as Lawrence of Arabia because of the loyalty he engendered in the hearts of Sherif Hussein and his son, Emir Faisal. He was given the status of honorary son by the former, and he fought under the command of the latter in many battles, later becoming Faisal’s advisor. When the Ottomans put a £15,000 reward on Lawrence’s head, no Arab was tempted to betray him.
Sadly this honorable behavior and respect were not reciprocated. In a memo to British intelligence in 1916, Lawrence described the hidden agenda behind the Arab uprising: “The Arabs are even less stable than the Turks. If properly handled they would remain in a state of political mosaic, a tissue of small jealous principalities, incapable of cohesion . . . incapable of co-ordinated action against us.” In a subsequent missive he explained, “When war broke out, an urgent need to divide Islam was added. . . . Hussein was ultimately chosen because of the rift he would create in Islam. In other words, divide and rule.”
Oil Security and Western Foreign Policy
Let us fast-forward to the 1950s and ’60s, by which time oil had become a major factor in the West’s foreign policy agenda. Again, the principle of “divide and rule” was put to work: a 1958 British cabinet memo noted, “Our interest lies . . . in keeping the four principal oil-producing areas [Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iran, and Iraq] under separate political control.” The results of this policy saw the West arming both sides in the Iran-Iraq war—which brought both powers to the brink of total destruction in the 1980s—and then intervening militarily with a force of almost 700,000 men in the First Gulf War (to prevent Iraq annexing Kuwait) in 1990–91.
The United States, UK, and European powers were also deeply troubled by the cohesive potential of Arab Nationalism, a hugely popular movement led by Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser and his (at that time) mighty allies in Iraq and Syria. The idea of these three huge, left-leaning regional powers becoming politically and militarily united was unacceptable in the Cold War context and remained so after the fall of the Soviet Empire because of the regional threat to Israel. To counteract the rise of pan-Arabism, the West began to support Islamist tendencies within each country—mostly branches of the Muslim Brotherhood—and also worked hard in the diplomatic field to create strong and binding relationships with Islamic, pro-Western monarchies in Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, and Jordan. These relationships endure to this day.
The most extreme manifestation of radical Sunni Islam was Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabism, which it had started to disseminate via a string of international organizations and its self-designated Global Islamic Mission. In 1962, Saudi Arabia oversaw the establishment of The Muslim World League, which was largely staffed by exiled members of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. The Muslim Brotherhood’s relationship with the West (and with the Gulf monarchies) has always been inconsistent and entirely selfish. In the run-up to, during, and after, the 2011 “Arab Spring” revolution against Hosni Mubarak, the United States and UK were actively supporting the Muslim Brotherhood as the most credible (or only) experienced political entity. In 2014, both countries came under pressure from the Saudis to declare the Muslim Brotherhood a terror group: though neither has yet gone that far, the UK duly launched an official investigation into the group, headed by UK Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Sir John Jenkins, while in the United States a bill was introduced in Congress, the Muslim Brotherhood Terrorist Designation Act of 2014.
The House of Saud itself feared an “Arab Spring” revolution and encouraged and applauded the June 2013 coup that deposed the Brotherhood’s legitimately elected President Morsi; Saudi King Abdullah phoned coup leader al-Sisi (now the Egyptian president) within hours to congratulate him on his success. Egypt under al-Sisi would prove a better friend to Israel and, like Saudi Arabia, would brutally extinguish any new uprisings, giving the kingdom moral support in its own battle for survival. Saudi political pragmatism (or, as some might frame it, hypocrisy) has been progressively informed by its close relationship with the United States and UK— and is now one of the most significant drivers of the Middle East’s present chaos, including the emergence of ISIS.
Communism: The First Public Enemy Number One
From the 1950s on, the Muslim Brotherhood was supported and funded by the CIA. When Nasser decided to stamp out the movement in Egypt, the CIA helped its leaders migrate to Saudi Arabia, where they were assimilated into the Wahhabi kingdom’s own particular brand of fundamentalism, many rising to positions of great influence. While Saudi Arabia actively prevented the formation of a home-grown branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, it encouraged and financed the movement abroad in other Arab countries. One of the most prominent leaders of the Western-backed Afghan Jihad (1979–89) was a Cairo-educated Muslim Brotherhood member: Burhanuddin Rabbani, head of Jamaat-i-Islami ( JI).
America and, to a lesser extent, Britain fretted about the rise of communism, which was perceived and portrayed as the “enemy of freedom”—a term that would later be applied to the Islamic extremists. In geopolitical terms, by the end of the Second World War, the Soviet Union comprised one-sixth of the world’s land mass and was a superpower capable of mounting a devastating challenge to the United States. The White House was also concerned about the future alignment of China, where the Chinese Communist Party had seized power in 1949. Communism was enthusiastically embraced by millions of idealistic post-war Americans and Europeans, posing a perceived domestic political threat. Meanwhile the West observed with horror the increasing popularity of communism and socialism in the Middle East; revolutionary, pro-Soviet, Arab regimes would create an enormous strategic disadvantage and threaten oil security.
For the West, radical Islam represented the best way to counter the encroachment of Arab nationalism communism.
Following the Six-Day War in 1967, US and UK governmental planners noted with satisfaction that Arab unity and sense of a shared cause were finding expression in a revival of Islamic fundamentalism and widespread calls for the implementation of Sharia law. This revival continued through the 1970s and, by the end of the decade, produced the pan-Arab mujahideen that would battle the Soviet armies in Afghanistan for the next ten years.
As in Syria and Iraq, the Sunni jihadists were not alone in the insurgency. There were seven major Sunni groups, armed and funded (to the tune of $6 billion) by the United States and Saudi Arabia, as well as the UK, Pakistan, and China. Abdullah Azzam’s Maktab al-Khidamat (the Services Office), which included bin Laden and from which al Qaeda would emerge, was at this point only a sub-group of one of these, the Gulbuddin faction (founded in 1977 by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar). Often overlooked in retelling the story of this particular Afghan war is the fact that the insurgency was pan-Islamic: there were eight Shi‘i groups, trained and funded by Iran.
Of the Sunni entities it was backing, the CIA preferred the Afghan-Arabs (as the foreign fighters from Arab countries came to be known) because they found them “easier to read” than their indigenous counterparts. In 2003, Australian-British journalist John Pilger conducted research and concluded, “More than 100,000 Islamic militants were trained in Pakistan between 1986 and 1992, in camps overseen by the CIA and MI6, with the SAS training future al Qaeda and Taliban fighters in bomb-making and other black arts. Their leaders were trained at a CIA camp in Virginia.” That Western interference in Afghanistan actually precedes the Soviet invasion by several months is rarely acknowledged. In the context of this book it is worth tracing the motives and methods employed by foreign powers to further their own ends in that territory, as these have been repeated and modified in Iraq and Syria.
Afghanistan’s location and long borders with Iran and Pakistan make it a strategic prize, and rival powers have often fought to control it. A coup in 1978 (the third in five years) brought the pro-Soviet Muhammad Taraki to power, setting off alarm bells in Islamabad, Washington, London, and Riyadh. The Pakistani ISI first tried to foment an Islamist uprising, but this failed owing to lack of popular support. Next, five months before the Soviet invasion, President Jimmy Carter sent covert aid to Islamist opposition groups with the help of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Carter’s National Security Advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, wrote in a memo to his boss that if the Islamists rose up it would “induce a Soviet military intervention, likely to fail, and give the USSR its own Vietnam.” Another coup in September 1979 brought Deputy Prime Minister Hafizullah Amin to power; Moscow invaded in December, killing Amin and replacing him with its own man, Babrak Karmal. Brzezinski then sent Carter a memo outlining his advised strategy: “We should concert with Islamic countries both a propaganda campaign and a covert action campaign to help the rebels.”
On December 18, 1979, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher enthusiastically endorsed Washington’s approach at a meeting of the Foreign Policy Association in New York, even praising the Iranian Revolution and concluding, “The Middle East is an area where we have much at stake. . . . It is in our own interest that they build on their own deep, religious traditions. We do not wish to see them succumb to the fraudulent appeal of imported Marxism.”
Because IS is a product of Western interference in Iraq and Syria, none of the powers that backed the Afghan mujahideen anticipated the emergence of alQaeda, with its vehemently anti-Western agenda and ambition to re-establish the caliphate. Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf wrote in his autobiography, “Neither Pakistan nor the US realized what Osama bin Laden would do with the organization we had all allowed him to establish.”
Defining Extremism: The Western Dilemma
In the course of the 1990s, radical political Islam became more extremist—a shift that was encouraged and funded by Saudi Arabia. The star of the Muslim Brotherhood began to wane as its leaders were castigated for being too “moderate” and for participating in the democratic process in Egypt; standing as “independents” (since the Muslim Brotherhood was banned), its candidates fared well, becoming the main opposition force to President Hosni Mubarak. There was another reason for the Muslim Brotherhood falling out of favor with Riyadh—it had supported Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait. The House of Saud now linked its survival with the rise of the Salafi-jihadist tendency, which was consistent with its own custom-fit Wahhabi ideology.
The West viewed this shift into a more radical gear with some alarm as the Salafists’ battle became international: Arab jihadists traveled to Eastern Europe to fight with the Bosnian Muslims from 1992; New York’s World Trade Center was first bombed by radical Islamists in 1993; and in 1995, North African jihadists from the al Qaeda–linked GIA (Armed Islamic Group, Algeria) planted bombs on the Paris Metro, killing 8 and injuring more than 100.
The United States and UK adopted a remarkably laid-back approach to this new wave of radical Islam. The UK government and security services did not consider that the extremists presented a real danger, allowing the establishment of what the media labeled “Londonistan” through the 1990s. It could be argued that this was a successful arrangement in that, in return for being allowed to live in the British capital and go about their business in peace, the jihadists did not commit any act of violence on British streets. The Syrian jihadist Abu Musab al-Suri (aka Setmariam Nasar) was a leading light among the Londonistan jihadist community, which also included Osama bin Laden’s so-called ambassador to London, Khalid al-Fawwaz. Al-Suri confirmed to me that a tacit covenant was in place between M16 and the extremists.
Saudi entities and individuals funded al Qaeda and other violent Salafist groups to the tune of $300 million through the 1990s, and the United States and UK remained stalwartly supportive. A year after Margaret Thatcher left parliament for good, she told a 1993 meeting of the Chatham House international affairs think tank, “The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a strong force for moderation and stability on the world stage.” When challenged on Riyadh’s appalling human rights record—which included (and still includes) public executions, floggings, stonings, oppression of women, the incarceration of peaceful dissidents, and violent dispersal of any kind of demonstration—she retorted, “I have no intention of meddling in its internal affairs.” Later, Tony Blair would talk of the Middle East’s Axis of Moderation, meaning Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, Turkey, the Palestinian Authority, and Israel.
The First Gulf War brought two changes into play. The first was that Saudi Arabia now became completely dependent, militarily, on the United States for its survival. The second was that, in an attempt to weaken Saddam Hussein, the CIA encouraged Shi‘i groups in southern Iraq to rebel, resulting in thousands of Shi‘a being slaughtered by regime helicopter fire. George H. W. Bush spent $40 million on clandestine operations in Iraq, flying Shi‘i and Kurdish leaders to Saudi Arabia for training, and creating and funding two opposition groups: the Iraqi National Accord, led by Iyad Alawi (who would collaborate in a failed coup plotted by the CIA’s Iraq Operations Group in 1996) and the Iraqi National Congress, led by Ahmad Chalabi (who was close to Dick Cheney when he was Defense Secretary). And yet, for the next twelve years, Saddam Hussein remained in power despite the punitive sanctions regime.
Washington and London continued to believe that an alliance with “moderate” Islam was key to defeating the extremists. A 2004 Whitehall paper by former UK Ambassador to Damascus Basil Eastwood and Richard Murphy, who had been assistant secretary of state under Reagan, noted: “In the Arab Middle East, the awkward truth is that the most significant movements which enjoy popular support are those associated with political Islam.” For the first time, they identified two distinct groups within the political Islamists: those “who seek change but do not advocate violence to overthrow regimes, and the Jihadists . . . who do.”
This new paradigm gained traction. In 2006, Tony Blair made it clear that the coming fight in the Middle East would be between the moderate Islamists and the extremists. The West, he told an audience in the World Affairs Council in Los Angeles, should seek to “empower” the moderates. “We want moderate, mainstream Islam to triumph over reactionary Islam.” Blair enlarged on the economic benefits this would accrue to the large transnational enterprises and organizations he championed: “A victory for the moderates means an Islam that is open: open to globalization.”
The West continues to behave as if Saudi Arabia can deliver the world from the menace of extremism. Yet the kingdom has spent $50 billion promoting Wahhabism around the world, and most of the funding for al Qaeda—amounting to billions of dollars—still comes from private individuals and organizations in Saudi Arabia. The Sinjar Records (documents captured in Iraq by coalition forces in 2007) provided a clear picture of where foreign jihadists were coming from: Saudi nationals accounted for 45 percent of foreign fighters in Iraq. They swell the ranks of IS today.
The Arab revolutions muddied the waters even more, particularly in Libya and Syria, making it almost impossible to distinguish between moderates and extremists. In Libya the West’s intervention strengthened the radicals and liberated stockpiles of Gaddafi’s sophisticated weapons, which were immediately spirited away by the truckload to jihadist strongholds. In the light of that error, President Obama dithered in Syria, much to the fury of his Saudi allies, allowing the most radical of the extremists to prevail: Islamic State.