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.

The United States and Pakistan were the main powers behind the ‘anti-Soviet jihad’ but China also joined in, not only helping arm the Mujahidin but letting the Americans build two electronic listening-posts in the province of Xinjiang, near the Afghan border, a fact kept secret until some years later. They were manned by Chinese personnel trained by American intelligence experts, and their tasks included monitoring Soviet missile tests and communications. Throughout the 1980s, Cooley writes, they provided the United States with ‘a unique opportunity to eavesdrop on Soviet Central Asia’.

A great deal of Chinese weaponry reached Peshawar, the Pakistani base of the Mujahidin, including assault rifles, heavy machine guns, mortars and artillery. ‘The surviving inhabitants of Kabul, a capital ruined by the jihad and the internecine wars between the Afghan factions,’ Cooley comments, ‘can attest to the terror and devastation spread by the repeated torrents of heavy rockets, mainly of Chinese origin, which the various factions ... rained on the city.’

This aspect of China’s role was known at the time. Cooley alleges another – the extent of the training it gave to Muslim volunteers, including members of its own Uighur Muslim minority in Xinjiang. If Cooley is right (and some experts have challenged him) this proved a serious mistake, as some of the volunteers returned home to lead an Uighur insurgency. China may have trained as many as 55,000 Muslim volunteers, Uighur and non-Uighur. Soviet officials claimed their training was paid for the by the CIA at a cost of $400 million, an estimate Cooley thinks cannot be far from the mark.

Margaret Thatcher rivalled Ronald Reagan in her enthusiasm for the jihad. She was especially well-disposed towards the CIA chief William Casey after the Falklands War, at one memorable moment of which US officials delivered much-coveted Stinger missiles – secretly and (under US law) illegally – to a group of waiting British diplomats in a parking lot in Washington. These were used to great effect against Argentine aircraft.

In return, Casey sought British help in the Afghan adventure. London was not just an important link in the world arms trade but also a recruitment centre for mercenaries. Cooley provides details of Britain’s involvement in Mujahidin training and intelligence, and of the role of companies, such as Control Risks and Saladin Security, which were well connected with the Conservative Government and happy to pick up contracts for training Afghan fighters, often using SAS veterans.

Some of Washington’s key Arab allies had particular roles assigned to them. These included the Saudis and, in Egypt, President Sadat and his officials, who, as Cooley puts it, ‘became, for a time, virtual recruiting sergeants and quartermasters to the secret army of zealots being mustered to fight the Soviets in South and Central Asia’. 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.

The Afghan conflict was a defining moment in the Cold War. When Gorbachev arrived in the Kremlin in 1985 one of his priorities was to extricate Soviet forces from what was a costly and unwinnable war. There were still plenty of sceptics in the West even when, a couple of years later, he started to speak of a Soviet withdrawal. At this time I occasionally wrote about Afghanistan for the BBC World Service and I can still remember the emphatic tone with which a senior colleague told me there would never be a Soviet withdrawal. He implied that if I believed otherwise I was an innocent Western liberal duped by Soviet propaganda.

Finally, in 1989, after ten terrible years in the Afghan ‘bear trap’, Soviet forces were withdrawn. Gorbachev’s decision was courageous. This was, after all, a humiliating defeat not only for the Soviet Army but for the Brezhnev doctrine (of solidarity between socialist allies) which had landed it there in the first place. But the victors interpreted the Soviet defeat in startlingly different ways. For Reagan and Thatcher, it was the vindication of their hard-line approach to the Cold War. For their Mujahidin allies, it was the victory of Islam over atheistic Communism – and, as such, a harbinger of the revival of Islam as a global force, and a spur to fresh jihads.

Cooley’s argument, amply documented, is that virtually everyone involved in the Afghan affair paid an extortionate price. Afghanistan itself lay in ruins. The Afghan debacle hastened the end of the Soviet empire. Thousands of embittered war veterans returned to a humiliated Russia; many of them had become drug addicts. China faced an aggravated Muslim insurgency. And America and its Middle East allies also paid a heavy price – this is Cooley’s real theme – when Arabs like Bin Laden who had fought alongside the Mujahidin returned home to make trouble. These so-called ‘Arab Afghans’, battle-hardened and highly motivated, often retained the networks of support and money they had built up in the 1980s.

Their ‘unholy wars’ have been waged in the Middle East, in Bosnia, in the Philippines. ‘Arab Afghans’ took up leading positions in militant groups such as the GIA, the most ruthless of the armed Islamic groups fighting against the military-backed regime in Algeria. Other war veterans returned to Egypt to work with two extremist groups, Jihad and Gamaat Islamiya, which have targeted tourists and Coptic Christians as well as members of the security forces and Government ministers. Palestinians who fought in the Afghan jihad have joined the ranks of Hamas. These and other groups are opposed to Arab regimes they regard as anti-Islamic and puppets of the West; the hated ‘Zionist entity’ which, they believe, has usurped the holy places of Jerusalem; the superpower which had been their ally and patron during the Afghan war.

Americans began to wake up to the danger (though not necessarily its causes) when the World Trade Center in New York was bombed in February 1993. In August 1998, the threat was reinforced by the bombings of American embassies in East Africa. Bin Laden was the chief suspect. President Clinton ordered Cruise missile attacks on three of his bases in Afghanistan and, ill-advisedly, on a factory in Sudan which he claimed made chemical weapons, but which the Sudanese maintained, then and since, produced only pharmaceuticals. The American media by and large failed to note that the three camps had originally been built by Bin Laden in the early 1980s under the direction of the CIA and the Pakistani ISI, at a time when he had been one of their star pupils.

Since Clinton elevated him to the status of super-terrorist, Bin Laden’s reputation has soared. It has become common for Muslims in Pakistan’s North-West Frontier province to name their new-born sons, and even their factories, after him. The CIA and the FBI have meanwhile been conducting one of the biggest manhunts in their history. Hundreds of agents have been deployed, at a cost of millions of dollars, in an effort to capture Bin Laden and his associates and close down their complex networks of support and finance. There have been some early successes, with dozens of arrests of Islamic militants in several continents. But there has also been a constant fear that Bin Laden is planning fresh attacks.

Bin Laden is now something of an icon: the Che Guevara of global Islam. But who is he? Cooley has some fascinating detail about his relations with senior Saudi policy-makers. His friendship with Prince Turki al-Faisal, the head of Intelligence, apparently goes back to their student days. When the common enemy was the godless Soviet Union, the two seem to have got on famously. But later, after Bin Laden announced his jihad against America and began to support Saudi dissidents abroad (including Muhammad Massari in London), he became an acute embarrassment. Prince Turki made repeated efforts to get his old friend to change course – and, when that failed, to persuade the Taliban to deny him sanctuary in Afghanistan – but to no avail. Senior Saudis are anxious, Cooley suggests, that the US should not discover the full extent of their relationship over the years with their troublesome compatriot.

There has been other fall-out from the Afghan affair. The CIA had quietly encouraged opium production in Afghanistan, as a means of funding the war. The Drug Enforcement Administration wrung its hands; but the CIA was the senior agency and so could overrule it. Some of the drugs found their way to Western cities; some ended up in Russian hands. The CIA deliberately fed the addiction of Russian troops in Afghanistan. (This was apparently the bright idea of the French spymaster, Count Alexandre de Marenches, who passed it on to Ronald Reagan.)

Cooley must feel his thesis has been vindicated by recent events. After bombs destroyed apartment blocks in Moscow and other Russian cities last September, Russian officials were quick to assert that they, like the West, faced the threat of ‘Islamic terrorism’. They pinned the blame on the Chechen Muslims, even though there was no firm evidence to back the charge and a widespread suspicion that the bombings were linked to Moscow’s political infighting. Whether or not Russia has a Muslim problem in its heartland, it certainly has one in its deep South, the legacy partly of its old feud with the Chechens and partly of its entanglement in Afghanistan. In the Caucasus, as in the Middle East, veterans of the Afghan war – including the shadowy ‘Khattab’, a ruthless young Arab fighter in Chechnya who may be linked to the Bin Laden network and hence to Saudi money – have played their part in the post-Soviet turmoil. Before and during the recent offensive in Chechnya, there was a surge of crude ‘Islamophobia’ of the kind that has become familiar in the West, with the local term ‘Wahhabism’ standing in for the ‘fundamentalism’ so often invoked (with equal imprecision) in the Western media.

‘The world will continue to experience this blowback from the Afghanistan war of 1979-89,’ Cooley warns, ‘well into the new century.’ He might not have had an asylum-hijack and an enraged Home Secretary in mind, but they only serve to prove his point. He is too seasoned a Middle East hand to claim that the Cold War policymakers of the late 1970s caused, rather than merely fuelled, the Islamic zealotry of the following decades. Yet of all the factors behind the Islamic revival of the last quarter-century – the Iranian Revolution; the perceived failure of secular ideologies (nationalism, liberalism, Marxism); the role of the West in backing Israel and often corrupt and repressive regimes in the Muslim world; the disorienting effects of rapid modernisation – the Cold War is perhaps the one which has been most neglected. There are those who remain unrepentant (Zbigniew Brzezinski is one); but Cooley hints that a number of highly placed Americans did not welcome his research. Clearly they, and others, want to sweep the whole affair under an oriental carpet.