Islamic fundamentalist militants are the enemies of Israel and Western governments, right? Think again.
Once upon a time, the CIA trained, financed and supported Osama bin Laden and his mujahidin networks in Afghanistan to repel the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. After the end of the Cold War, bin Laden turned against the West and we no longer had any use for him. His persistent terrorist attacks against us for more than a decade, culminating in 9/11, provoked our own response, in the form of the ‘War on Terror’. This is the official narrative. And it’s false. Not only did Western intelligence services continue to foster Islamist extremist and terrorist groups connected to al-Qaeda after the Cold War; they continued to do so even after 9/11.
The CIA’s jihad
The story begins in the summer of 1979, six months before the Soviet invasion, when the CIA had already begun financing elements of an emerging Islamist mujahidin force inside Afghanistan. The idea, according to former US National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski and former CIA Director Robert Gates, was to increase the probability of a Soviet invasion, and entrap ‘the Soviets into a Vietnamese quagmire’.1
Osama bin Laden arrived in the country later that year, sent by then-Saudi intelligence chief Prince Turki bin Faisal, where he set up the Maktab al-Khidamat (MAK) which helped finance, recruit and train mujahidin fighters.2 Bin Laden, the MAK, and the Afghan mujahidin in total received about half a billion dollars a year from the CIA, and roughly the same from the Saudis, funnelled through Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI).3
By around 1988, as Jane’s Defence Weekly reports, ‘with US knowledge, Bin Laden created al-Qaeda (The Base): a conglomerate of quasi-independent Islamic terrorist cells spread across at least 26 countries’.4 US and Western intelligence agencies facilitated this process, seeing rightwing Islamist movements as a counterweight to Communist, leftwing and nationalist political trends. They supported the Saudis and other Gulf states, as well as Pakistan, Turkey and Azerbaijan among others, in proliferating Islamist extremist institutions in far-flung countries such as Algeria, Yemen, Indonesia, and the Philippines. Funding for these activities was intertwined with the establishment of organized criminal financial centres in Malaysia, Madagascar, South Africa, Nigeria, Latin America, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, Turkestan, and elsewhere.5
Islamism and the CIA’s destabilization doctrine
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, and in particular in 1991 when the Saudis accepted the stationing of 300,000 US troops in the country due to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, Osama bin Laden reportedly turned against his former masters in Riyadh and Washington. Since then, bin Laden and his al-Qaeda terrorist network became our enemy, targeting Western citizens and interests throughout the 1990s, culminating in the most devastating strike of all in the form of the 9/11 atrocities in the US.
Unfortunately, this is where the official story begins to break down. Because after 1991, Islamists affiliated to bin Laden and al-Qaeda continued to receive selective support from Western intelligence services. The policy was alluded to by Graham Fuller, former Deputy Director of the CIA’s National Council on Intelligence, when he stated: ‘The policy of guiding the evolution of Islam and of helping them against our adversaries worked marvellously well in Afghanistan against the Red Army. The same doctrines can still be used to destabilize what remains of Russian power, and especially to counter the Chinese influence in Central Asia.’6
Afghanistan, Big Oil and the Taliban
Throughout the 1990s, the selective US intelligence sponsorship of Islamist extremist networks was linked not simply to destabilizing potential Russian and Chinese influence, but further to securing US-led Western control over strategic energy reserves. When bin Laden moved from Sudan to Afghanistan in June 1996, the State Department warned that the move ‘could prove more dangerous to US interests’, granting him ‘the capability to support individuals and groups who have the motive and wherewithal to attack US interests almost worldwide’.7 He had been offered protection by Pakistan in May on condition that he align his mujahidin forces with the Taliban. The new al-Qaeda-Taliban alliance was reportedly blessed by the Saudis.8
Yet as the respected Pakistani correspondent Ahmed Rashid reported, US intelligence supported the Taliban as a vehicle of regional influence at least between 1994 and 1998. This policy continued up to the year 2000, despite growing cautions. Thus, when the Taliban conquered Kabul in 1996, a State Department spokesperson explained that the US found ‘nothing objectionable’ in the event. One year later, a US diplomat commented: ‘The Taliban will probably develop like the Saudis… There will be Aramco (consortium of oil companies controlling Saudi oil), pipelines, an emir, no parliament and lots of Sharia law. We can live with that.’9
Continued US sponsorship of the al-Qaeda-Taliban nexus in Afghanistan was confirmed as late as 2000 in Congressional hearings. Testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on South Asia, Congressman Dana Rohrabacher – former White House Special Assistant to President Reagan and now Senior Member of the House International Relations Committee – declared that ‘this administration has a covert policy that has empowered the Taliban and enabled this brutal movement to hold on to power’. The assumption is that ‘the Taliban would bring stability to Afghanistan and permit the building of oil pipelines from Central Asia through Afghanistan to Pakistan’.10 US companies involved in the project included UNOCAL and ENRON. As early as May 1996, UNOCAL had officially announced plans to build a pipeline to transport natural gas from Turkmenistan to Pakistan through western Afghanistan.
US officials held several meetings with the Taliban from 2000 to summer 2001, in an effort to get the Taliban to agree to a joint federal government with their local enemies, the Northern Alliance, promising financial aid and international legitimacy if the deal was struck. By then, US policymakers had belatedly concluded that the Taliban would never bring the stability needed for the pipeline project. According to Pakistani Foreign Minister Niaz Naik, who was present at the meetings, US officials threatened the Taliban with military action if they failed to comply with the federalization plan. Even the date of threatened military action, October 2001, was proposed. Needless to say, the Taliban rejected the plan.11 So months before the 9/11 terrorist attacks, a war on Afghanistan was already on the table. Jean-Charles Brisard, a former French intelligence officer, thus speculates that 9/11 may have been a pre-emptive attack by al-Qaeda to head off the declared US military invasion of Afghanistan.12
There is still keen interest in the pipeline. ‘Since the US-led offensive that ousted the Taliban from power,’ reported Forbes in 2005, ‘the project has been revived and drawn strong US support’ as it would allow the Central Asian republics to export energy to Western markets ‘without relying on Russian routes’. Then-US Ambassador to Turkmenistan Ann Jacobsen noted that: ‘We are seriously looking at the project, and it is quite possible that American companies will join it.’13 The problem remains that the southern section of the proposed pipeline runs through territory still de facto controlled by Taliban forces.
Mega Oil and mujahidin from the Balkans to the Caucasus
Unfortunately, we now know that US flirtations with the al-Qaeda-Taliban nexus in Afghanistan throughout the 1990s were only one moment in a much wider covert US geostrategy to secure control over strategic energy resources across the Eurasian continent, by co-opting Islamist networks affiliated with bin Laden.
In 1991, the first Bush Administration wanted an oil pipeline from Azerbaijan, across the Caucasus, to Turkey. That year, three US Air Force officers, Richard Secord (a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs), Heinie Aderholt and Ed Dearborn, landed in Baku, and set up a front company, ‘MEGA Oil’. They were veterans of previous CIA covert operations in Laos and later with Lt. Col. Oliver North’s Contra scandal. In Azerbaijan, they setup an airline to secretly fly hundreds of al-Qaeda mujahidin from Afghanistan into Azerbaijan. By 1993, MEGA Oil had recruited and armed 2,000 mujahidin, converting Baku into a base for regional jihadi operations.14
The covert operation contributed to the military coup that toppled elected president Abulfaz Elchibey that year, and installed US puppet Heidar Aliyev. A secret Turkish intelligence report leaked to the Sunday Times confirmed that ‘two petrol giants, BP and Amoco, British and American respectively, which together form the AIOC (Azerbaijan International Oil Consortium), are behind the coup d’état.15
From 1992 to 1995, the Pentagon flew thousands of al-Qaeda mujahidin from Central Asia into Europe, to fight alongside Bosnian Muslims against the Serbs. The mujahidin were ‘accompanied by US Special Forces equipped with high-tech communications equipment,’ according to intelligence sources. Bin Laden’s mercenaries were used as shock troops by the Pentagon ‘to coordinate and support Bosnian Muslim offensives’.16
The pattern continued in Kosovo, where ethnic violence broke out between Albanians and Serbs. In 1998, the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) was listed by the State Department as a terrorist organization financed by bin Laden and the heroin trade. Bin Laden had sent a senior lieutenant, Muhammed al-Zawahiri (brother of al-Qaeda deputy leader Ayman al-Zawahiri), to lead an élite KLA unit during the Kosovo conflict. He had direct radio contact with NATO leadership. Indeed, British SAS and American Delta Force instructors were training KLA fighters as early as 1996. The CIA supplied military assistance up to and during the 1999 bombing campaign, including military training manuals and field advice, under the cover of OSCE (Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe) ceasefire monitors.17
After the Kosovo War, when the KLA switched operations to Macedonia under the banner of the National Liberation Army (NLA), its links with al-Qaeda were as strong as ever according to US, Macedonian, Albanian and Yugoslav intelligence sources. Yet by 2001, Canadian military correspondent Scott Taylor reported after a visit to Tetovo that ‘there is no denying the massive amount of material and expertise supplied by NATO to the guerrillas’.18
So why the Balkans? Gen. Sir Mike Jackson, then-commander of NATO troops in the region, summed it up in 1999: ‘We will certainly stay here for a long time in order to guarantee the safety of the energy corridors which cross Macedonia.’ The General was talking about the Trans-Balkan pipeline passing through Bulgaria, Macedonia and Albania, planned to be a primary route to the West for Central Asian oil and gas.19
Around the same time, US intelligence stepped up sponsorship of al-Qaeda mujahidin in Chechnya. Chechnya is traditionally a predominantly Sufi society, yet the increasing encroachment of US-sponsored mujahidin operatives linked to Osama bin Laden transformed the character of the Chechen resistance movement, empowering al-Qaeda’s hardline Islamist ideology. US intelligence ties had been established in the early 1990s in Baku under Dick Secord’s operation, where mujahidin activities had quickly extended into Dagestan and Chechnya, turning Baku into a shipping point for Afghan heroin to the Chechen mafia.20
From the mid-1990s, bin Laden funded Chechen guerrilla leaders Shamil Basayev and Omar ibn al-Khattab to the tune of several millions of dollars per month, sidelining the moderate Chechen majority.21 US intelligence remained deeply involved until the end of the decade. According to Yossef Bodanksy, then-Director of the US Congressional Task Force on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare, Washington was actively involved in ‘yet another anti-Russian jihad, ‘seeking to support and empower the most virulent anti-Western Islamist forces’. US Government officials participated in ‘a formal meeting in Azerbaijan’ in December 1999 ‘in which specific programmes for the training and equipping of mujahidin from the Caucasus, Central/South Asia and the Arab world were discussed and agreed upon’, culminating in ‘Washington’s tacit encouragement of both Muslim allies (mainly Turkey, Jordan and Saudi Arabia) and US “private security companies”... to assist the Chechens and their Islamist allies to surge in the spring of 2000 and sustain the ensuing jihad for a long time.’ The US saw the sponsorship of ‘Islamist jihad in the Caucasus’ as a way to ‘deprive Russia of a viable pipeline route through spiralling violence and terrorism’.22
Algeria – state terrorism in disguise
Parallel covert operations were deployed in the same period in Algeria, where the army cancelled national democratic elections in 1992 that would have brought the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) to power in a landslide victory. Tens of thousands of FIS voters were rounded up into detention camps in the Sahara, while the FIS and other Islamist political parties were banned. Not long after the coup, hundreds of civilians were being mysteriously massacred by an unknown terrorist group, identified by the Algerian junta as a radical offshoot of the FIS calling itself the Armed Islamic Group (GIA). The GIA was formed largely of Algerian veterans of bin Laden’s mujahidin forces in Afghanistan who had returned in the late 1980s.23 To date, the total death toll from the massacres by the GIA is an estimated 150,000 civilians.24
Yet in the late 1990s, evidence began to emerge from dissident Algerian Government and intelligence sources that the GIA atrocities were in fact perpetrated by the state. ‘Yussuf-Joseph’, a career secret agent in Algeria’s sécurité militaire for 14 years, defected to Britain in 1997 and told the Guardian that civilian massacres in Algeria, blamed on the GIA, were ‘the work of secret police and army death squads… not Islamic extremists’. GIA terrorism was ‘orchestrated’ by ‘Mohammed Mediane, head of the Algerian secret service’, and ‘General Smain Lamari’, head of ‘the counter intelligence agency’. According to Joseph: ‘The GIA is a pure product of Smain’s secret service. I used to read all the secret telexes. I know that the GIA has been infiltrated and manipulated by the Government. The GIA has been completely turned by the Government… In 1992 Smain created a special group, L’Escadron de la Mort (the Squadron of Death)... The death squads organize the massacres... The FIS aren’t doing the massacres.’
Joseph also confirmed that Algerian intelligence agents organized ‘at least’ two of the bombs in Paris in summer 1995. ‘The operation was run by Colonel Souames Mahmoud, alias Habib, head of the secret service at the Algerian embassy in Paris.’ Joseph’s testimony has been corroborated by numerous defectors from the Algerian secret services.25
Western intelligence agencies are implicated. Secret British Foreign Office documents revealed in a terrorist trial in 2000 showed that ‘British intelligence believed the Algerian Government was involved in atrocities, contradicting the view the Government was claiming in public’. The documents referred to the ‘manipulation of the GIA being used as a cover to carry out their own operations’, and that ‘there was no evidence to link 1995 Paris bombings to Algerian militants’.26
Algeria has the fifth largest reserves of natural gas in the world, and is the second largest gas exporter, with 130 trillion proven natural gas reserves. It ranks fourteenth for oil reserves, with official estimates at 9.2 billion barrels. Approximately 90 per cent of Algeria’s crude oil exports go to Western Europe, including Britain, France, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, and Spain. Algeria’s major trading partners are Italy, France, the United States, Germany, and Spain.
Currently, the militant Algerian splinter group, the al-Qaeda Organization in the Islamic Maghreb – formerly known as the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) – plays a predominant role in regional terrorist violence. Yet in a series of extensive analyses for the Review of African Political Economy, social anthropologist Dr Jeremy Keenan – Director of Sahara Studies at the University of East Anglia – documents ‘an increasing amount of evidence to suggest that the alleged spread of terrorist activities across much of the Sahelian Sahara, has indeed been an elaborate deception on the part of US and Algerian military intelligence services’. He discusses evidence that an al-Qaeda hostage-taking of European tourists in early 2003 ‘was initiated and orchestrated by elements within the Algerian military establishment’, an operation ‘condoned by the US’, and that al-Qaeda leader Ammar Saifi (also known as Abderazzak El Para, or ‘the Maghreb’s bin Laden’) ‘was “turned” by the Algerian security forces in January 2003’.27
Energy hegemony is a key priority. Reported al-Qaeda activity in North Africa has focused on oil-rich nations, particularly the Niger Delta, Nigeria, and Chad. Thus, in July 2003, Keenan reports, under US auspices Algeria, Chad, Niger and Nigeria ‘signed a co-operation agreement on counter-terrorism that effectively joined the two oil-rich sides of the Sahara together in a complex of security arrangements whose architecture is American’. This has now evolved into the $500 million Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Initiative, in which Algeria plays a pivotal role in US plans for future regional military deployment. The region-wide security arrangement coincides with the inauguration of a $6 billion World Bank project, the Chad-Cameroon oil pipeline.28
Islamist extremism and the Israeli connection
Curiously, Israel has played a key role in some of these policies, starting with the involvement of Congressman Charlie Wilson, who used his position in the House Select Committee on Intelligence, gained with the support of then Senator Dick Cheney, to ramp up billions of dollars’ worth of support for both Israel and the Afghan mujahidin.29 Gust Avracotos, the CIA’s Station Chief in Islamabad, commented that Wilson brought ‘the Israelis into the CIA’s Muslim jihad’, opening opportunities for Mossad penetration of the ISI and al-Qaeda and securing Israeli arms contracts and intelligence ties with Pakistan.30
Closer to home, Israel played a very similar game in its ambiguous relationship to Hamas. US Government and intelligence sources confirm that Israel provided direct and indirect financial aid to Hamas in the late 1970s as a counterbalance to the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO).31 According to the Israeli military affairs experts Ze’ev Schiff and Ehud Ya’ari, at the time of the first Intifadah, Fatah ‘suspected the Israelis of a plot first to let Hamas gather strength and then to unleash it against the PLO, turning the uprising into a civil war... many Israeli staff officers believed that the rise of fundamentalism in Gaza could be exploited to weaken the power of the PLO’.32
Israeli support for Hamas reportedly continued even after the signing of the Oslo accords in 1993, during the period of some of the worst suicide bombings.33 Even the late Palestinian Authority (PA) President Yassir Arafat said in 2001 that Hamas ‘continued to benefit from permits and authorizations, while we have been limited, even [for permits] to build a tomato factory... Some collaborationists of Israel are involved in these [terrorist] attacks.’34
Indeed, there are indications that the Israeli assassination of Hamas leader Abu Hanoud in November 2001 was a ploy to provoke more terror bombings. Three months earlier, the Israeli Insider reported Ariel Sharon’s plan for an all-out attack on the PA to permanently destroy its infrastructure, noting that the plan would only ‘be launched immediately following the next high-casualty suicide bombing’ – which was later provoked by Israel’s extrajudicial killing of Hanoud. As Israeli military security analyst Alex Fishman noted: ‘Whoever gave a green light to this act of liquidation knew full well that he was thereby shattering in one blow the gentleman’s agreement between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority. Under that agreement, Hamas was to avoid in the near future suicide bombings inside the Green Line (pre-1967 border), having come to the understanding that it would be better not to play into Israel’s hands by mass attacks on its population centres. This understanding was, however, shattered by the assassination the day before yesterday – and whoever decided upon the liquidation of Abu knew in advance that that would be the price. The subject had been extensively discussed both by the military and the political echelon, before it was decided to carry out the liquidation.’35
Elements of the Israeli far-right, including senior cabinet officials, recognized that the plan to destroy the PA would facilitate the rise of Hamas. In an Israeli Cabinet meeting in December 2001, for instance, one minister declared: ‘Between Hamas and Arafat, I prefer Hamas.’ He added that Arafat is a ‘terrorist in a diplomat’s suit, while Hamas can be hit unmercifully… there won’t be any international protests’.36
Ties with terror
Islamist terrorism cannot be understood without acknowledging the extent to which its networks are being used by Western military intelligence services, both to control strategic energy resources and to counter their geopolitical rivals. Even now, nearly a decade after 9/11, covert sponsorship of al-Qaeda networks continues. In recent dispatches for the New Yorker, investigative journalist Seymour Hersh cites US Government and intelligence officials’ confirmation that the CIA and the Pentagon have funnelled millions of dollars via Saudi Arabia to al-Qaeda affiliated Sunni extremist groups, across the Middle East and Central Asia. The policy, which Hersh says began in 2003, has spilled over into regions like Iraq and Lebanon, fuelling Sunni-Shi’a sectarian conflict.37 The programme is part of a drive to counter Iranian Shi’a influence in the region. In early 2008, a US Presidential Finding to Congress corroborated Hersh’s reporting, affirming CIA funding worth $400 million to diverse anti-Shi’a extremist and terrorist groups. This was not contested by any Democratic members of the House.38 Now, President Obama has retained Bush’s Defense Secretary, Robert Gates, as his own. Yet Gates was the architect of the covert strategy against Iran. To date, Obama has given no indication that this strategy will change. The history outlined here throws into doubt our entire understanding of the ‘war on terror’. How can we fight a war against an enemy that our own governments are covertly financing for short-sighted geopolitical interests?
If the ‘war on terror’ is to end, it won’t be won by fighting the next futile oil war. It will be won at home by holding the secretive structures of government to account and prosecuting officials for aiding and abetting terrorism – whether knowingly or by criminal negligence. Ultimately only this will rein in the ‘security’ agencies that foster the ‘enemy’ we are supposed to be fighting.This is an extended version of the article which appeared in the October 2009 issue of NI, Islam in Power.