How China Colluded with the West in the Rise of Osama Bin Laden
- Unholy Wars: Afghanistan, America and International Terrorism by John Cooley
Pluto, 276 pp, £20.00, June 1999, ISBN 0 7453 1328 0
I was in Saudi Arabia when American and British planes pounded Iraq for four successive nights in December 1998. Or rather, I was there for three of the four nights – the Saudis had thoughtfully timed my visa to expire at the onset of Ramadan. Those nights and days in the heat of Jeddah were tense and uncomfortable, but revealing. Saudis, supposedly among America’s best friends in the Middle East, were furious at what they saw as the gesture politics of Bill Clinton and his adjutant Tony Blair. Most Saudis despise Saddam Hussein, but this does not automatically translate – as many in Washington seem to believe – into an uncritical pro-Americanism.
On the contrary, Saudi Arabia, characterised by deep-rooted Islamic conservatism, is painfully ambivalent about the United States. The House of Saud is still living with the consequences of its decision, in the summer of 1990, to invite half a million American troops onto Saudi soil, so turning the country into a base for the huge American-led operation to eject Saddam’s forces from Kuwait. Most of the troops went home after the war, but five thousand stayed behind, mainly to enforce a no-fly zone over southern Iraq. Many Saudis, inside and outside the kingdom, deeply resent the continuing American presence. In this, they agree with the wealthy Saudi dissident Osama Bin Laden, who from the fastnesses of the Afghan mountains, where he is a ‘guest’ of the Taliban, has declared an anti-American jihad; one of his avowed aims is to drive the Americans out of Arabia.
Few Saudis are inclined to kill American soldiers or civilians, as Bin Laden exhorts all Muslims to do. Moreover, since the Gulf War the Saudi rulers have squeezed out overt Islamist dissent by means of bribery and repression. But some Saudis regard Bin Laden as a folk-hero, a sincere Muslim who actively supports Islamic causes around the world (Palestine, Kashmir, Bosnia, Kosovo) and who is prepared to stand up to the remaining superpower bully, the principal enemy of Islam.
John Cooley is a veteran Middle East hand who has covered the region for the Christian Science Monitor and, more recently, for ABC television. His thesis is that the US – together with some of its closest allies, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Pakistan – has inadvertently helped to create the networks of violent Islamic groups now waging ‘unholy wars’ in many parts of the world.
The new jihad has emerged from what Cooley calls ‘a strange love affair which went disastrously wrong’ – a love affair between America and militant Islam which dates back to the late Seventies, when Western strategists dreamt up the idea of co-opting Islam to fight Communism. The turning-point was 1979 – the annus terribilis when America ‘lost’ Iran and the Soviet Union blundered into Afghanistan. First Jimmy Carter, and then Ronald Reagan, hailed the Mujahidin as freedom fighters and encouraged the CIA and its Pakistani counterpart, the ISI, to spend millions of dollars arming and training them to fight the Soviet occupiers. One of the curious side-effects was that US foreign policy implicitly divided the Muslim world into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Muslims. Anti-American Iranian Shi‘ite Muslims were self-evidently bad; anti-Communist Sunni Muslims self-evidently good.
Vol. 22 No. 7 · 30 March 2000
In his review of John Cooley’s Unholy Wars: Afghanistan, America and International Terrorism (LRB, 2 March), Roger Hardy states: ‘an incongruous member of the alliance was Israel, which helped arm and train the Muslim militants but was more successful than others in keeping its involvement secret.’ According to Hardy, Israel, with China, America, America’s key Arab allies and Pakistan, helped to create violent Islamic groups now waging wars in many parts of the world. Most previous claims of Israeli involvement were based on the subsequently refuted statements of an Israeli called Ari Ben-Menashe. An on-line search on Israel’s involvement in Afghanistan turned up remarks from unnamed Pakistani intelligence sources and the Minister of Foreign Affairs in the pro-Soviet Afghanistan Government of the 1980s. Since none of these sources is dependable, can Hardy make known what evidence he has from reliable sources to support his claim?
Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America
Vol. 22 No. 8 · 13 April 2000
Myron Kaplan (Letters, 30 March) asks what evidence there is that Israel helped to arm and train the Afghan Mujahidin in the 1980s. Instead of trawling the Internet (the modern but lazy way of looking for information) he should go to a good library. Several of the standard works on the Afghan conflict of 1979-89 tell us that some of the weaponry captured by Israel in the course of the Arab-Israeli wars was recycled to the Mujahidin, via the CIA. See, for example, Barnett Rubin’s The Fragmentation of Afghanistan (1995) and The Bear Trap by Mohammad Yousaf and Mark Adkin (1992). The Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz ran the story on 29 November 1984, citing the New York Times as its source. At the time, such activity fitted in naturally with Israeli co-operation with the CIA. The fuller context is provided by an Israeli academic, Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi, in The Israeli Connection (1987). But he, like the Ha’aretz journalist, was a whistle-blower and Kaplan may disapprove of him. In Unholy Wars John Cooley writes that there was ‘possibly only a token Israeli role – which no Israeli government official would want to acknowledge, now that Islamists around the world have turned so strongly against the Jewish state and against the US-initiated Middle East peace negotiations’.
Vol. 22 No. 11 · 1 June 2000
I challenged Roger Hardy to substantiate his charge – in his review of John Cooley’s Unholy Wars – that Israel ‘helped arm and train’ the Afghan Mujahidin. In his response (Letters, 13 April), Hardy muddies the water by offering no proof of his original charge but instead substantiating a radically different claim: that weaponry originally captured by Israel and turned over to the CIA was later recycled by the CIA to the Mujahidin. Hardy was also careless in his assumption that the online search I conducted was a ‘trawling of the Internet’, which he characterises as ‘lazy’. The search was of the professional news database Nexis and in fact made no use of Internet search engines or even the Internet itself.
Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America
Vol. 22 No. 13 · 6 July 2000
Myron Kaplan tries hard (Letters, 1 June). But I did not say, as he alleges, that ‘weaponry originally captured by Israel and turned over to the CIA was later recycled by the CIA to the Mujahidin.’ That misleading little word ‘later’ implies that the recycling was a purely American matter and nothing to do with Israel. The sources I cited give us no reason to suppose any such thing. The true allegation and its Cold War context are clearly set out in one of the sources I mentioned, The Israeli Connection (1987) by Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi:
The CIA and the Mossad have been collaborating on a scheme to deliver Soviet weapons (of which Israel has considerable stocks, captured in the Middle East over three decades) to groups that are fighting forces equipped with Soviet weapons … Five groups enjoying Soviet weapons delivered by Israel, and paid for by the CIA, are the Mujahidin in Afghanistan, the Contras in Central America, the Unita forces in Angola, the Habre forces in Chad, and the MNR forces in Mozambique.
There is no hint, here or anywhere else, that Israel and the CIA were acting independently of one another. Or is Kaplan seriously suggesting that the CIA led Mossad by the nose? Now there’s a novel thought.