New York City activist

April 9, 2008

U.S. government sponsorship of Islamist terror

A topic I’ve been reading up on lately is the history of U.S. government sponsorship of Islamist terror.

I highly recommend the Cooperative Research site’s pages on The use of Islamist militants by American and Israeli militarists. (See especially the more recent stuff on page 2.) One caveat: Some items here are well-sourced, others aren’t. However, even if one confines one’s attention to the better-sourced items, the picture that emerges is still quite disturbing.

As is well-known, the CIA backed Osama bin Laden’s “Afghan Arabs” in their fight against the Soviet Union back in the 1980’s. What’s less well-known is that the relationship continued since then. For example: 1992-1995: Pentagon Helps Bring Islamic Militants to Fight with Bosnians Against Serbs. Another example: May 21-July 7, 1994: North Yemen, Backed by US and Bin Laden, Wins Yemen Civil War.

Supposedly the U.S. government’s attitude toward Osama bin Laden changed in the early 1990’s, after Al-Qaeda started attacking U.S. targets. However, even in the late 1990’s, the U.S. backed the Kosovo Liberation Army, which had strong ties to Osama bin Laden. (See page 2 of the Cooperative Research site’s timeline on Al-Qaeda in the Balkans.)

Is it conceivable that high officials of the U.S. government could still regard militant Islamic fundamentalism as a useful tool, rather than an enemy, even after 9/11? Apparently so. See Late 2006: US Policy Shift in Iraq Aimed at Rolling Back Growing Iranian Influence:

Concerned that the balance of power in the Middle East has tilted in favor of Shiite-dominated Iran, the Bush administration implements a major shift in its policy toward the region. According to a number of current and former high-level government officials interviewed by reporter Seymour Hersh, the focus of the new policy is to roll back Iran’s growing influence in Iraq. The administration’s top concern is that the failure of its policy in Iraq has empowered Iran. To undermine Iranian influence, the Bush administration begins supporting clandestine operations in Lebanon, Iran, and Syria. The administration avoids disclosing these operations to Congress by skirting congressional reporting requirements and by running them through the Saudis. The White House is also turning a blind eye to Saudi support for religious schools and charities linked to Islamic extremists. “A by-product of these activities has been the bolstering of Sunni extremist groups that espouse a militant vision of Islam and are hostile to America and sympathetic to al-Qaeda,” Hersh notes. One former senior intelligence official explains to Hersh, “We are in a program to enhance the Sunni capability to resist Shiite influence, and we’re spreading the money around as much as we can.” The official adds that the money “always gets in more pockets than you think it will. In this process, we’re financing a lot of bad guys with some serious potential unintended consequences. We don’t have the ability to determine and get pay vouchers signed by the people we like and avoid the people we don’t like.” Much of the money used to finance these activities became available as a result of the budgetary chaos in Iraq, where billions of dollars are unaccounted for. A Pentagon consultant tells Hersh, “There are many, many pots of black money, scattered in many places and used all over the world on a variety of missions.” Hersh reports that according to his sources, the US is providing large sums of cash to the Sunni government of Lebanon, which in turn is being funneled to emerging Sunni radical groups in northern Lebanon, the Bekaa Valley, and around Palestinian refugee camps in the south. “These groups, though small, are seen as a buffer to Hezbollah; at the same time, their ideological ties are with al-Qaeda,” Hersh writes. Another group receiving support is the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, a radical Sunni group that is an avowed enemy of the US and Israel. The “Redirection” is reportedly being led by Vice President Dick Cheney, Deputy National Security Adviser Elliott Abrams, former Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad, and Saudi Arabia National Security Adviser Prince Bandar bin Sultan. The clandestine activities are said to be guided by Cheney. Critics of the White House’s new policy compare it to other times Western state-powers have backed Islamic militants, such as when the CIA supported the mujahedeen against the Soviets in Afghanistan during the 1980s (see 1986-1992). The “blowback” from that policy included the creation of al-Qaeda. Vali Nasr, a senior fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations, notes another instance: “The last time Iran was a threat, the Saudis were able to mobilize the worst kinds of Islamic radicals. Once you get them out of the box, you can’t put them back.”

(Sources include, among others, Investigative Reporter Seymour Hersh: US Indirectly Funding Al-Qaeda Linked Sunni Groups in Move to Counter Iran by Seymour M. Hersh, The New Yorker, March 5, 2007, and The Redirection: Is the Administration’s new policy benefitting our enemies in the war on terrorism? on Democracy Now, February 28, 2007.)

Seymour Hersh writes as if the strengthening of Iran was an unexpected consequence of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Personally, I have a hard time believing that anyone in the U.S. foreign policy establishment could possibly have been so dumb as to have failed to realize that de-stabilizing Iraq would strengthen Iran. That should have been obvious to anyone who knows the difference between Sunni and Shi’ite. Personally, I suspect that the strengthening of Iran was a deliberately intended outcome, to generate a boogeyman (Iran) against whom the U.S. could then “protect” various other countries in the Middle East. Another possibie motive for strengthening Iran is simply to play balance-of-power politics in the Muslim world, playing off the Shi’ites against the Sunnis, which would require strengthening the Shi’ites because the Shi’ites are the less popular faction.

Anyhow, what is the relationship between Al Qaeda and the government of Saudi Arabia? Officially they are opposed to each other, but there are many reasons to doubt that official claim. See the Cooperative Research site’s page on Saudi Arabia.

Yet there are also a lot of cozy ties between various U.S. officials and the Saudi royal family. And, apparently, both the FBI and the CIA had an informal policy of not looking very closely at anything pertaining to Saudi Arabia. Why this coziness? Oil interests no doubt have a lot to do with this. There also seem to be personal friendships between the Bush family and members of both the Saudi royal family and the bin Laden family.

The important question is this: Have the Saudi royals been double-crossing their U.S. friends, or have high officials of the U.S. government been deliberately complicit in Al Qaeda terrorism, including even 9/11? If indeed the Saudi royals been double-crossing their U.S. friends for lo these many years, why doesn’t anyone in the Bush administration seem to realize this by now?

Furthermore, it seems to me that U.S. intelligence agencies had no good excuse not to be aware that a 9-11-like plot was brewing. (See Key Warnings on the Cooperative Research site.) So, it seems to me that at least a few high officials of the U.S. government are guilty of at least criminal negligence, and possibly worse.


  1. > As is well-known, the CIA backed Osama bin Laden’s “Afghan Arabs” in their fight against the Soviet Union back in the 1980’s.

    That much is disputed by Peter Bergen in THE OSAMA BIN LADEN I KNOW. Here’s Bergen’s statement from pages 60-1:

    Allow me to take a quick detour here to discuss the question of the CIA’s complicity, or rather lack thereof, in the rise of bin Laden and the Afghan Arabs. The agency directed around three billion dollars to the Afghan mujahideen during the war against the Soviets, but there is no evidence that any of that money went to the Afghan Arabs, nor is there any evidence of CIA personnel meeting with bin Laden or anyone in his circle. However, the notion that bin Laden is a CIA creation, and that the 9/11 attacks were some form of “blowback” from the CIA operation during the Afghan jihad is a boilerplate analysis among leftists and conspiracy theorists around the world.

    The Indian novelist Arundhati Roy, for instance, has written that bin Laden was “among the jihadis who moved to Afghanistan in 1979 when the CIA commenced its operations there. Bin Laden has the distinction of being created by the CIA.” The American filmmaker-author-blowhard Michael Moore similarly believes, “WE created the monster known as Osama bin Laden! Where did he go to terrorist school? At the CIA!” The theory that bin Laden was created by the CIA is invariably advanced as an axiom with no supporting evidence. The real problem is not that the CIA helped bin Laden during the 1980s, but that the Agency simply had no idea of his possible significance until the bin Laden unit was set up within the CIA in January 1996.

    Since 9/11 al Qaeda insiders have responded to the erroneous assertions that the CIA had some kind of relationship with bin Laden.

    Actually I find Bergen’s description of events to be compatible with the “blowback” view, but conflicting with the conspiracy perspective. To accept a “blowback” argument we may allow that many events unforeseen came out of the Afghan war. To argue for a conspiracy by invoking connections between the CIA and Afghan Arabs we really should be careful that we have a clear direct connection. It should be kept in mind that the Afghan Arabs were really a very small phenomenon on the relative scale of the Afghan war and that their main significance was as a political development within the Arab world without otherwise having much effect on the Afghan war. Too often people have simply drawn a straight line from the CIA’s interest in keeping the Afghan war running to the interest of the Afghan Arabs in the war, so as to imply a close relationship between the CIA and the Afghan Arabs. That’s a bit of a logical leap which at least requires more factual data to support.

    Comment by patricksmcnally — April 11, 2008 @ 1:34 am | Reply

  2. Indeed it’s not accurate to say that bin Laden is merely a creation of the CIA. However, the CIA did actively promote the recruitment of Afghan Arabs. See the following items on the Cooperative Research site, especially the last two:

    1982: Pakistani ISI Begins Recruiting Arab Fundamentalists to Fight in Afghanistan
    1983-1987: CIA Assets in Afghanistan Push Agency’s Interests within ISI
    1984-1994: CIA Funds Militant Textbooks for Afghanistan
    October 1984: CIA Afghan Covert Operations Budget Increases
    Late 1984: Bin Laden and His Mentor Azzam Set Up Precursor Organization to Al-Qaeda
    1980-1989: $600 Million for Afghan War Passes through Bin Laden Charity Fronts
    1984 and After: CIA Allegedly Funds Bin Laden’s Main Charity Front
    Mid-1980s: US Officials Allegedly Meet Directly with Bin Laden
    1985-1989: Precursor to Al-Qaeda Puts Down US Roots
    1985-1986 CIA Becomes Unhappy with Afghan Fighters, Begins Supporting Islamist Volunteers from Other Countries
    1985-1989: Bin Laden’s Mentor Azzam Recruits Fighters All Over World with Apparent CIA Support

    It is highly unlikely that the CIA would have been unaware of Osama bin Laden’s presence.

    Anyhow, my current main reason to suspect that 9/11 was more than just “blowback” is the following combination of facts:

    1) Saudi Arabia’s less than wholehearted cooperation with the U.S. government’s attempts to investigate the hijackers.
    2) The Bush family’s continued friendship with the Saudi royal family, despite #1.
    3) The continuing close alliance between the U.S. government and Saudi Arabia, despite #1.
    4) The evidence that Osama bin Laden still maintained ties with both his own family and the Saudi royal family, contrary to officially-stated policy.
    5) The FBI’s and CIA’s informal policies of avoiding investigations that might embarrass the Saudis (and other U.S. allies such as Pakistan and Israel), both before and after 9/11/2001.

    For documentation of the above five points, see the Cooperative Research site’s page on Saudi Arabia.

    By the way, I would prefer that you use a term like “knowing complicity” rather than “conspiracy,” given the propagandistic use of the latter term.

    Comment by Diane — April 11, 2008 @ 3:58 am | Reply

  3. The CIA met with Osama the summer before 911. As in met with, as in talked to face to face during one of his hospital stop offs. Lets not forget how close the Bush family is to the Bin Ladens- very tight…and Osama was at one of his son’s weddings in 2001 so this idea that he is a black sheep is also a fairy tale. Let’s not forget the jets that took the Bin Ladens out of the country immediately after 911 without real FBI interviews…absolutely indefensible and shady.

    And this word blowback is just plain silly. Only Americans (I’m American) would come up with a special term to identify retaliation for their own century of worldwide fascist puppet regime installation, overt military presence, covert operations that spark wider conflict, food/trade sanction facilitation and the constant will to spread democracy when and only when it coincides with business interests. This blowback thing is ludicrous, as if there needs to be a new concept for people to try to understand what is happening…’it’s blowback’ Give me a break, people hate us and want to strike back- and there is of course a reason.

    We already have many English words that describe the notion of retaliation, revenge and common sense expected anger reactions. If we take Bin Laden for his word, he described exactly why there was and will be aggression toward the USA. Hundreds of thousands of dead/starving(sanctions) Iraqi children had a lot to do with it, military bases in the holy land had a lot to do with it…the list goes on and if people REALLY need to call it ‘blowback’ to further remove/distance themselves from accepting blame for our heinous foreign policy…I call foul.

    Comment by realitydesign — April 11, 2008 @ 4:41 pm | Reply

  4. “Blowback” isn’t just a synonym for “revenge.” Looking up that word in an online dictionary, I find three meanings, of which the most relevant one is: “The effect caused by recirculation into the source country of disinformation previously planted abroad by that country’s intelligence service in an effort to mislead the government of another country.”

    In the current context, I think it means that the U.S.A. was harmed by the same extremist Islamist ideology which the CIA had made a point of encouraging abroad.

    Anyhow, it’s good to see you here again.

    P.S. The “Wikipedia” article on “blowback” uses the term more generally, to refer to unintended consequences of covert operations. Apparently the term was coined by people in the CIA.

    Further P.S.: Looking around on the web, I also see people using the term “blowback” in the sense in which you’ve interpreted it, as a synonym for retaliation.

    Comment by Diane — April 11, 2008 @ 10:55 pm | Reply

  5. Yeah, I was certainly referring to the mainstream meaning/use of the word. Especially as it relates to 911. The first definition you posted- that is certainly a concept that is justifiable in needing its own word. But I still think the ‘harm’ came/comes to the USA (abroad and domestically) for very simple reasons- not complicated derivative reasons- even though we had a hand in exploiting these groups when it suited us.

    Anyway, back to the idea of the CIA creating/aiding in the rise of these groups, just in terms of the main character there seems to be so many discrepancies between the various Osama Bin Ladens. There is the one that denied the 911 attacks…

    The one who looks sickly and pale, underweight, clad in camo…left handed…who on the FBI’s website is NOT wanted in connection for 911 but older attacks- because as they said they have ‘ NO hard evidence’ connecting him to 911.

    Then there is the healthy, robust, right-handed, wide-faced, slightly darker Bin laden from the November ‘confession’ video found in a ‘house’ in Jalalabad.

    Then there is the one that the CIA meets with as he hits up hospitals throughout the middle east for dialysis…I’ll tell you I’m lost at this point….

    Comment by realitydesign — April 12, 2008 @ 5:53 am | Reply

  6. Earlier, Patrick S. McNally asked for documentation of a direct link between the CIA and Al-Qaeda. Here it is: 1986-1993: CIA and Bin Laden Both Closely Tied to Recruiting and Fund-raising Office for Afghanistan.

    Comment by Diane — April 14, 2008 @ 3:38 am | Reply

  7. I think that this piece illustrates my point very well. If the article is read with a clear eye, it doesn’t really establish any clear working alliance between Osama and the CIA. What it does is it discusses a front organization in Pakistan and asserts that both Osama and the CIA did at times work through this office. That’s quite believable. The CIA was funding an Afghan war through Pakistan and Arabs seeking to particpate in the Afghan war went to Pakistan. This is not equivalent to the assertion that “the CIA created bin Laden!” The implications are much weaker than that. It only indicates that the CIA may have had some opportunities to gather intelligence about bin Laden at an earlier time when he was involved in a war which the CIA was also a part of. But whether or not that would or should have seemed like an important priority at the time is not as clear as some would like to be.

    The piece on Coooperative Research would work very well for making a Blowback argument, showing that the CIA’s willingness to fund wars brings it into contact with a variety of shady characters. But it doesn’t really support the “knowing complicity” view as much as people wish it did. It functions better as argument for staying out of dirty wars than as evidence of pre-knowledge on the specifics of 911.

    Comment by patricksmcnally — April 14, 2008 @ 10:19 am | Reply

  8. To Patrick S. McNally:

    Please re-read what I wrote. You speak as if there are just two possibilities: (1) “the CIA created bin Laden” and (2) pure “blowback” without any kind of knowing complicity or foreknowledge of 9/11. I take an intermediate stance.

    I DON’T claim that the CIA “created” bin Laden (who had plenty of money of his own, plus lots more money from other Saudi billionnaires).

    However, what I do claim is that the U.S. government knowingly allied with and worked with al-Qaeda for many years (not just in Afghanistan but also in the Balkans through the 1990’s), and, while doing so, had plenty of opportunities to spy on al-Qaeda too, which indeed it did. Thus the U.S. government had no good excuse not to know in advance about the 9/11 plot.

    By the way, here’s another example of the U.S. government allying with and working with al-Qaeda: 1992-1995: Pentagon Helps Bring Islamic Militants to Fight with Bosnians Against Serbs.

    Comment by Diane — April 14, 2008 @ 10:51 am | Reply

  9. Maybe this is a key-phrase:

    > the CIA backed Osama bin Laden’s “Afghan Arabs”

    I usually tend to interpret the word “backed” when used in such a fashion as indicating a sort of vertical relationship, with the higher party “backing up” the lower party. My sense at the moment of any relations between the CIA and Afghan Arabs in the context of the Afghan war suggests a more horizontal relationship. Pakistan seeks to promote a war in Afghanistan. The CIA brings resources to Pakistan to support that war. The Afghan Arabs all go to Pakistan to join this war. In the process the different ventures sometimes cross and intersect, but neither is exactly “backed” by the other. That’s an impression which I currently get.

    Comment by patricksmcnally — April 14, 2008 @ 7:18 pm | Reply

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