Debate about the origins of the Islamic State (IS) has largely oscillated between two extreme perspectives. One blames the West. IS is nothing more than a predictable reaction to the occupation of Iraq, yet another result of Western foreign policy blowback. The other attributes IS’s emergence purely to the historic or cultural barbarism of the Muslim world, whose backward medieval beliefs and values are a natural incubator for such violent extremism.
The biggest elephant in the room as this banal debate drones on is material infrastructure. Anyone can have bad, horrific, disgusting ideas. But they can only be fantasies unless we find a way to manifest them materially in the world around us.
So to understand how the ideology that animates IS has managed to garner the material resources to conquer an area bigger than the United Kingdom, we need to inspect its material context more closely.
Follow the money
The foundations for al-Qaeda’s ideology were born in the 1970s. Abdullah Azzam, Osama bin Laden‘s Palestinian mentor, formulated a new theory justifying continuous, low-intensity war by dispersed mujahideen cells for a pan-Islamist state. Azzam’s violent Islamist doctrines were popularised in the context of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
As is well-known, the Afghan mujahideen networks were trained and financed under the supervision of the CIA, MI6 and the Pentagon. The Gulf states provided huge sums of money, while Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) liaised on the ground with the militant networks being coordinated by Azzam, bin Laden, and others.
The Reagan administration, for instance, provided $2 billion to the Afghan mujahideen, which was matched by another $2 billion from Saudi Arabia.
In Afghanistan, USAID invested millions of dollars to supply schoolchildren with “textbooks filled with violent images and militant Islamic teachings”, according to the Washington Post. Theology justifying violent jihad was interspersed with “drawings of guns, bullets, soldiers and mines”. The textbooks even extolled the heavenly rewards if children were to “pluck out the eyes of the Soviet enemy and cut off his legs”.
The conventional wisdom is that this disastrous configuration of Western-Muslim world collaboration in financing Islamist extremists ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union. As I said in Congressional testimony a year after the release of the 9/11 Commission Report, the conventional wisdom is false.
A classified US intelligence report revealed by journalist Gerald Posner confirmed that the US was fully aware of a secret deal struck in April 1991 between Saudi Arabia and bin Laden, then under house arrest. Under the deal, bin Laden could leave the kingdom with his funding and supporters, and continue to receive financial support from the Saudi royal family, on one condition: that he refrain from targeting and destabilising the Saudi kingdom itself.
Far from being a distant observer of this covert agreement, the US and Britain were active participants.
Saudi Arabia’s massive oil supply underpins the health and growth of the global economy. We could not afford it to be destabilised. It was pro quid pro: to protect the kingdom, allow it to fund bin Laden outside the kingdom.
As British historian Mark Curtis documents meticulously in his sensational book, Secret Affairs: Britain’s Collusion with Radical Islam, the US and UK government continued to covertly support al-Qaeda-affiliated networks in Central Asia and the Balkans after the Cold War, for much the same reasons as before – countering Russian, and now Chinese, influence to extend US hegemony over the global capitalist economy. Saudi Arabia, the world’s leading oil hub, remained the conduit for this short-sighted Anglo-American strategy.
A year after the 1993 World Trade Center (WTC) bombing, Curtis reports, Osama bin Laden opened an office in Wembley, London, under the name of the Advice and Reformation Committee, from which he coordinated worldwide extremist activity.
Around the same time, the Pentagon was airlifting thousands of al-Qaeda mujahideen from Central Asia into Bosnia, in violation of the UN’s arms embargo, according to Dutch intelligence files. They were accompanied by US special forces. The “Blind Sheikh”, convicted of the WTC bombing, had been deeply involved in recruiting and dispatching al-Qaeda fighters into Bosnia.
From around 1994, all the way until 9/11, US military intelligence along with Britain, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, covertly supplied arms and funds to the al-Qaeda-harbouring Taliban.
In 1997, Amnesty International complained about “close political links” between the incumbent Taliban militia, who had recently conquered Kabul, and the US. The human rights group referred to credible “accounts of the madrasas (religious schools) which the Taleban attended in Pakistan,” indicating that “these links may have been established at the very inception of the Taleban movement.”
One such account, reported Amnesty, came from the late Benazir Bhutto – then Pakistan’s Prime Minister – who “affirmed that the madrasas had been set up by Britain, the United States, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan during the Jihad, the Islamic resistance against Soviet occupation of Afghanistan”. Under US tutelage, Saudi Arabia was still funding those madrasas.
US government-drafted textbooks designed to indoctrinate Afghan children into violent jihad during the Cold War, now approved by the Taliban, became part of the Afghan school system’s core curriculum, and were used extensively in militant madrasas in Pakistan being funded by Saudi Arabia and the Pakistani ISI with US support.
Both the Clinton and Bush administrations were hoping to use the Taliban to establish a proxy client regime in the country similar to its Saudi benefactor. The vain hope, clearly ill-conceived, was that a Taliban government would provide the stability necessary to install a Trans-Afghan pipeline (TAPI) supplying Central Asian gas to South Asia, while side-lining Russia, China and Iran.
Those hopes were dashed three months before 9/11 when the Taliban rejected US proposals. The TAPI project was subsequently stalled due to the Taliban’s intransigent control of Kandahar and Quetta, but has been shepherded along by the Obama administration and is now being finalised.
NATO continued to sponsor al-Qaeda-affiliated networks in Kosovo by the late 1990s, reports Mark Curtis, when US and British special forces supplied arms and training to Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) rebels who included mujahideen recruits. Among them was a rebel cell headed by Muhammad al-Zawahiri, the brother of bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman, who now leads al-Qaeda.
In the same period, Osama and Ayman coordinated the 1998 US embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania from bin Laden’s office in London.
There was some good news, though: NATO’s interventions in the Balkans, accompanied by the disintegration of socialist Yugoslavia, paved the way to integrate the region into Western Europe, privatise local markets, and establish new regimes supportive of the Trans-Balkan pipeline to transport oil and gas from Central Asia to the West.
The Middle East redirection
Even after 9/11 and 7/7, US and British addiction to cheap fossil fuels to sustain global capitalist expansion led us to deepen our alliance with extremists.
Around the middle of the last decade, Anglo-American military intelligence began supervising Gulf state financing, once again led by Saudi Arabia, to Islamist extremist networks across the Middle East and Central Asia, to counter Iranian Shiite influence in the region. Beneficiaries of this enterprise included al-Qaeda-affiliated militant and extremist groups from Iraq to Syria to Lebanon – a veritable arc of Islamist terror.
Once again, Islamist militants would be unwittingly fostered as an agent of US hegemony in the face of rising geopolitical rivals.
As Seymour Hersh revealed in the New Yorker in 2007, this “redirection” of policy was about weakening not just Iran, but also Syria – where US and Saudi largess went to support the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, among other opposition groups. Both Iran and Syria, of course, were closely aligned with Russia and China.
In 2011, NATO’s military intervention to topple the Gaddafi regime followed hot on the heels of extensive support to Libyan mercenaries who were, in fact, members of al-Qaeda’s official branch in Libya. France had been reportedly offered 35 percent control of Libya’s oil in exchange for French support to insurgents.
After the intervention, European, British and American oil giants were “perfectly poised to take advantage” of “commercial opportunities”, according to Professor David Anderson of Oxford University. Lucrative deals with NATO members could “release Western Europe from the stranglehold of high-pricing Russia producers who currently dominate their gas supply”.
Secret intelligence reports showed that NATO-backed rebels had strong ties to al-Qaeda. The CIA also used Libya’s Islamists militants to funnel heavy weapons to rebels in Syria.
A Canadian intelligence report from 2009 described the rebel stronghold of eastern Libya as an “epicentre of Islamist extremism”, from which “extremist cells” operated in the region – the same region, according to David Pugliese in the Ottawa Citizen, that was being “defended by a Canadian-led NATO coalition”. Pugliese reported that the intelligence report confirmed “several Islamist insurgent groups” were based in eastern Libya, many of whom were also “urging followers to fight in Iraq”. Canadian pilots even joked privately that they were part of al-Qaeda’s air force, “since their bombing runs helped to pave the way for rebels aligned with the terrorist group”.
According to Pugliese, Canadian intelligence specialists sent a prescient briefing report dated 15 March 2011 to NATO senior officers just days before the intervention began. “There is the increasing possibility that the situation in Libya will transform into a long-term tribal/civil war,” they wrote. “This is particularly probable if opposition forces receive military assistance from foreign militaries.”
As we know, the intervention went ahead regardless.
For nearly the last half-decade at least, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE, Jordan and Turkey have all provided extensive financial and military support primarily to al-Qaeda-linked Islamist militant networks that spawned today’s “Islamic State”. This support has been provided in the context of an accelerating anti-Assad strategy led by the United States.
Competition to dominate potential regional pipeline routes involving Syria, as well as untapped fossil fuel resources in Syria and the eastern Mediterranean – at the expense of Russia and China – have played a central role in motivating this strategy.
Former French foreign minister Roland Dumas revealed that in 2009, British Foreign Office officials told him that UK forces were already active in Syria attempting to foment rebellion.
The ongoing operation has been closely supervised under an on-going covert programme coordinated jointly by American, British, French and Israeli military intelligence. Evidence in the public record confirms that US support alone to anti-Assad fighters totalled about $2 billion as of the end of 2014.
While the conventional wisdom insists that this support to Islamist extremists was mistaken, the facts speak for themselves. Classified CIA assessments showed that US intelligence knew how US-led support to anti-Assad rebels through its Middle East allies consistently ended up in the hands of the most virulent extremists. But it continued.
Pentagon officials were also aware in the year before IS launched its campaign of conquest inside Iraq, that the vast majority of “moderate” Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels were, in fact, Islamist militants. It was, officials admitted, increasingly impossible to draw fixed lines between “moderate” rebels and extremists linked to al-Qaeda or IS, due to the fluid interactions between them.
Increasingly, frustrated FSA fighters have joined the ranks of Islamist militants in Syria, not for ideological reasons, but simply due to their superior military capabilities. So far, almost all “moderate” rebel groups recently trained and armed by the US are disbanding and continuously defecting to al-Qaeda and IS to fight Assad.
The US is now coordinating the continued supply of military aid to “moderate” rebels to fight IS, through a new arrangement with Turkey. Yet it is an open secret that Turkey, throughout this entire period, has been directly sponsoring al-Qaeda and IS as part of a geopolitical gambit to crush Kurdish opposition groups and bring down Assad.
Much has been made of Turkey’s “lax” efforts to curb foreign fighters crossing its territory to join IS in Syria. Turkey has recently responded by announcing that it has stopped thousands.
Both claims are mythical: Turkey has deliberately harboured and funnelled support to IS and al-Qaeda in Syria.
Last summer, Turkish journalist Denis Kahraman interviewed an IS fighter receiving medical treatment in Turkey, who told him: “Turkey paved the way for us. Had Turkey not shown such understanding for us, the Islamic State would not be in its current place. It [Turkey] showed us affection. Large number of our mujahedeen [jihadis] received medical treatment in Turkey.”
Earlier this year, authenticated official documents of the Turkish military (the Gendarmerie General Command) were leaked online, showing that Turkey’s intelligence services (MIT) had been caught in Adana by military officers transporting missiles, mortars and anti-aircraft ammunition via truck “to the al-Qaeda terror organisation” in Syria.
“Moderate” FSA rebels are involved in the MIT-sponsored Turkish-Islamist support network. One told the Telegraph that he “now runs safe houses in Turkey for foreign fighters looking to join Jabhat al-Nusra and Isil [Islamic State].”
Some officials have spoken up about this, but to no avail. Last year, Claudia Roth, deputy speaker of the German parliament, expressed shock that NATO is allowing Turkey to harbour an IS camp in Istanbul, facilitate weapons transfers to Islamist militants through its borders, and tacitly support IS oil sales. Nothing happened.
The US-led anti-IS coalition is funding IS
The US and Britain have not only remained strangely silent about the complicity of their coalition partner in sponsoring the enemy. They have tightened up the partnership with Turkey, and are working avidly with the same state-sponsor of IS to train “moderate” rebels to fight IS.
It is not just Turkey. Last year, US Vice President Joe Biden told a White House press conference that Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Turkey among others, were pouring “hundreds of millions of dollars and tens, thousands of tons, of weapons” into “al-Nusra and al-Qaeda and the extremist elements of jihadis” as part of a “proxy Sunni-Shia war”. He added that, for all intents and purposes, it is not possible to identify “moderate” rebels in Syria.
There is no indication that this funding has dried up. As late as September 2014, even as the US began coordinating airstrikes against IS, Pentagon officials revealed that they knew their own coalition allies were still funding IS.
That month, Gen. Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was asked by Senator Lindsay Graham during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing whether he knew of “any major Arab ally that embraces Isil [IS]?” He said: “I know major Arab allies who fund them.”
Despite this knowledge, the US government has not merely refused to sanction these allies, but rewarded them by including them in the coalition that is supposed to fight the very extremist entity they are funding. Worse, the same allies continue to be granted ample leeway to select fighters to receive training.
Key members of our anti-IS coalition are bombing IS from the air while sponsoring them behind the scenes – with the knowledge of the Pentagon.