How China Colluded with the West in the Rise of Osama Bin Laden

Roger Hardy

  • 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.

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