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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.
Graham Fuller, the former Deputy Director of the CIA’s National Council on Intelligence, alluded to the strategy in 1999. ‘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.’
Throughout the 1990s, US intelligence sponsorship of Islamist extremist networks was linked to destabilizing Russian and Chinese influence in Eastern Europe, the Balkans, Central Asia, the Caucasus and North Africa – which contain the world’s largest energy reserves after the Middle East.
Afghanistan – Big Oil and the Taliban
In 1997 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.’
Continued US sponsorship of the al-Qaeda-Taliban nexus in Afghanistan was confirmed as late as 2000. Testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Sub-committee on South Asia, Dana Rohrabacher – former White House Special Assistant to President Reagan and now Senior Member of the House International Relations Committee – declared: ‘This administration has a covert policy that has empowered the Taliban and enabled this brutal movement to hold on to power.’ The assumption was that ‘the Taliban would bring stability to Afghanistan and permit the building of oil pipelines from Central Asia through Afghanistan to Pakistan’. 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 the summer of 2001, in an effort to get the Taliban to agree to a joint federal government with their local enemies, the Northern Alliance. In exchange, they promised the Taliban financial aid and international legitimacy. But eventually US policymakers 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 a date for threatened military action – October 2001 – was proposed. The Taliban rejected the plan. 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.
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.’ The problem remains that the southern section of the proposed pipeline runs through territory still de facto controlled by Taliban forces.
Chechnya – Jihad in the Caucasus
The US flirtation with the al-Qaeda-Taliban nexus in Afghanistan was only part of wider US plan to secure key energy resources.
Chechnya is one victim of this strategy. The encroachment of US-sponsored mujahidin operatives linked to Osama bin Laden transformed the character of the Chechen resistance movement by the late 1990s. Al-Qaeda’s hardline Islamist ideology was empowered, at the expense of Chechnya’s populist Sufi culture and traditions.
Back in 1991, CIA veteran Richard Secord, a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, landed in Baku to set up a front company that would fly hundreds of al-Qaeda mujahidin from Afghanistan into Azerbaijan. By 1993, 2,000 mujahidin were recruited, converting Baku into a base for regional jihadi operations, which quickly extended into Dagestan and Chechnya.
US intelligence remained deeply involved until the end of the 1990s. According to Yossef Bodanksy, then Director of the US Congressional Task Force on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare, 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’. This, he said, culminated 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’.
Algeria – state terrorism in disguise
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. 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. To date, the total death toll from the massacres by the GIA is an estimated 150,000 civilians.
Yet in the late 1990s, evidence emerged 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 securité militaire for 14 years, defected to Britain in 1997. He told the Guardian newspaper: ‘The GIA is a pure product of [the Algerian] secret service. I used to read all the secret telexes. I know that the GIA has been infiltrated and manipulated by the Government. The FIS aren’t doing the massacres.’ Joseph’s testimony has been corroborated by numerous defectors from the Algerian secret services. Secret British Foreign Office documents – revealed for the first time during the 2000 London trial of an alleged Algerian terrorist – referred to the ‘manipulation of the GIA’ by the Algerian Government as a ‘cover to carry out their own operations’.
Currently, the militant Algerian splinter group, the al-Qaeda Organization in the Islamic Maghreb, plays a predominant role in regional terrorist violence. Yet in a series of extensive analyses for the Review of African Political Economy, social anthropologist Jeremy Keenan of Britain’s University of East Anglia has unearthed the role played by Western intelligence agencies. He 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’. Keenan argues 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 ‘the Maghreb’s bin Laden’) ‘was “turned” by the Algerian security forces in January 2003’.
Corroborating Keenan’s findings, a Pentagon adviser told US investigative journalist Seymour Hersh that the Algerian operation was part of a new Pentagon covert operations programme, originally proposed in August 2002 by the Defense Science Board as the ‘Proactive, Pre-emptive Operations Group’. The covert programme would aim to ‘stimulate reactions’ among al-Qaeda terrorists by duping them into undertaking operations through US military penetration of terrorist groups and recruitment of locals to conduct ‘combat operations, or even terrorist activities’. The capture of Ammar Saifi was a pilot for the new programme.
Western interest is easily explained. Algeria has the fifth-largest reserves of natural gas in the world, and is the second-largest gas exporter. 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 and Algeria’s major trading partners are Italy, France, Germany, Spain and the US.
Energy hegemony is a key priority. On the pretext of fighting al-Qaeda in North Africa, the US has pushed through a regional counter-terrorism architecture that has evolved into the $500 million Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Initiative, in which Algeria plays a pivotal role. The initiative coincides with the inauguration of a $6 billion World Bank project, the Chad-Cameroon oil pipeline.
Israel and Hamas – an ambiguous affair
Israel has played a very similar game to the US and Britain in its ambiguous relationship to the Palestinian organization, 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). According to Israeli military affairs experts Ze’ev Schiff and Ehud Ya’ari, at the time of the first intifadah the Palestinian Fatah organization ‘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.’
Israeli support for Hamas reportedly continued even after the signing of the Oslo Peace Accords in 1993 – during the period of some of the worst suicide bombings. Even the late Palestinian Authority President Yasser 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.’
‘Pipelines and lots of sharia law – we can live with that’
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 Palestinian Authority (PA) to destroy permanently 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 in Ha’aretz:
‘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 which] Hamas was to avoid in the near future suicide bombings inside the Green Line... 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.’
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, 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’.
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.
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. 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 article is from
the October 2009 issue
of New Internationalist.
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