History takes no prisoners. It shows, with absolute lucidity, that the Islamic extremism ravaging the world today was borne out of the Western foreign policy of yesteryear.
Gore Vidal famously referred to the USA as the United States of Amnesia. The late Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai put it a little more delicately, quipping, “One of the delightful things about Americans is that they have absolutely no historical memory.”
In order to understand the rise of militant Salafi groups like ISIS and al-Qaida; in order to wrap our minds around their heinous, abominable attacks on civilians in the U.S., France, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Nigeria, Turkey, Yemen, Afghanistan and many, many more countries, we must rekindle this historical memory.
Where did violent Islamic extremism come from? In the wake of the horrific Paris attacks on Friday, November the 13, this is the question no one is asking — yet it is the most important one of all. If one doesn’t know why a problem emerged, if one cannot find its root, one will never be able to solve and uproot it.
Where did militant Salafi groups like ISIS and al-Qaida come from? The answer is not as complicated as many make it out to be — but, to understand, we must delve into the history of the Cold War, the historical period lied about in the West perhaps more than any other.
How the West cultivated Osama bin Laden
We needn’t reach back far into history, just a few decades.
A much-circulated photo of an article published in British newspaper the Independent in 1993 exemplifies the West’s twisted hypocrisy. Titled “Anti-Soviet warrior puts his army on the road to peace,” it features a large photo of Osama bin Laden, who, at the time, was a Western ally.
The newspaper noted that bin Laden organized a militia of thousands of foreign fighters from throughout the Middle East and North Africa, and “supported them with weapons and his own construction equipment” in their fight against the USSR in the 1980s. “We beat the Soviet Union,” bin Laden boasted.
The mujahedin, the Islamic militias bankrolled by bin Laden, along with Maktab al-Khidamat — the organization bin Laden created to recruit and fund foreign Islamist fighters — are what eventually morphed into both al-Qaida and the Taliban.
“When the history of the Afghan resistance movement is written,” the Independent wrote, “Mr Bin Laden’s own contribution to the mujahedin… may turn out to be a turning point in the recent history of militant fundamentalism.”
Portraying bin Laden in a positive light, less than eight years before he would help mastermind the largest terrorist attack on American soil in decades, the British publication claimed that the “Saudi businessman who recruited mujahedin now uses them for large-scale building projects in Sudan.” In reality, bin Laden was setting the stages for what would be become al-Qaida.
In Greek mythology, Cassandra was blessed with the power of prophecy, but cursed in that no one would ever heed her warnings. Eqbal Ahmad, the late political scientist, historian and expert in the study of terrorism, was a modern-day Cassandra.
“In Islamic history, jihad as an international violent phenomenon had disappeared in the last 400 years, for all practical purposes. It was revived suddenly with American help in the 1980s. When the Soviet Union intervened in Afghanistan, Zia ul-Haq, the [U.S.-backed] military dictator of Pakistan, which borders on Afghanistan, saw an opportunity and launched a jihad there against godless communism. The U.S. saw a God-sent opportunity to mobilize one billion Muslims against what Reagan called the ‘Evil Empire.’
“Money started pouring in. CIA agents starting going all over the Muslim world recruiting people to fight in the great jihad. Bin Laden was one of the early prize recruits. He was not only an Arab. He was also a Saudi. He was not only a Saudi. He was also a multimillionaire, willing to put his own money into the matter. Bin Laden went around recruiting people for the jihad against communism.
“I first met him in 1986. He was recommended to me by an American official of whom I do not know whether he was or was not an agent. I was talking to him and said, ‘Who are the Arabs here who would be very interesting?’ By here I meant in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He said, ‘You must meet Osama.’ I went to see Osama. There he was, rich, bringing in recruits from Algeria, from Sudan, from Egypt, just like Sheikh Abdul Rahman. This fellow was an ally. He remained an ally.
“He turns at a particular moment. In 1990, the U.S. goes into Saudi Arabia with forces. Saudi Arabia is the holy place of Muslims, Mecca, and Medina. There had never been foreign troops there. In 1990, during the Gulf War, they went in, in the name of helping Saudi Arabia defeat Saddam Hussein. Osama Bin Laden remained quiet.
“Saddam was defeated, but the American troops stayed on in the land of the Ka’aba [the most sacred site of Islam, in Mecca], foreign troops. He wrote letter after letter saying, ‘Why are you here? Get out! You came to help but you have stayed on.’ Finally he started a jihad against the other occupiers. His mission is to get American troops out of Saudi Arabia. His earlier mission was to get Russian troops out of Afghanistan.”
For bin Laden, Ahmad added, “America has broken its word. The loyal friend has betrayed. The one to whom you swore blood loyalty has betrayed you.”
“They’re going to go for you. They’re going to do a lot more,” Ahmad warned, three years before the 9/11 attacks. “These are the chickens of the Afghanistan war coming home to roost.”
We now know that Ahmad was right. But, like Cassandra, the powerful ignored his sagacious admonition, and suffered the horrific consequences.
Extremist “freedom fighters”
In the 1950s and ’60s, Afghanistan was a somewhat secular country in which women were granted relatively equal rights. What turned Afghanistan into the hotbed for extremism it is today? Decades of Western meddling.
Throughout the 1980s, the CIA, through the Pakistani government — more specifically Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) — supported and armed the mujahedin in Afghanistan in their fight against the Soviet Union, in what was dubbed Operation Cyclone. President Ronald Reagan famously met with the mujahedin in the Oval Office in 1983. “To watch the courageous Afghan freedom fighters battle modern arsenals with simple hand-held weapons is an inspiration to those who love freedom,” Reagan declared.
Those “freedom fighters” are the forefathers of ISIS and al-Qaida. When the last Soviet troops were withdrawn in 1989, the mujahedin did not simply leave; a civil war of sorts followed, with various Islamist militant groups fighting for control in the power vacuum. The Taliban came out on top, and established a medieval theocratic regime to replace the former “godless” socialist government.
There are extremists in every religion, but they tend to be few in number, weak and isolated. Salafism, in its modern militarized form, has its origins in the 1920s, and even before. For decades, this movement remained weak and isolated. Yet, in the 1970s and ’80s, Western capitalist governments, particularly the U.S., came up with a new Cold War strategy: supporting these fringe Islamic extremist groups as a bulwark against socialism.
The U.S. was by no means the only one to pursue such a strategy. Echoing the U.S. policy in Afghanistan, Israel in fact supported Hamas — now its sworn arch-enemy — when the Islamist group was first forming in the 1980s. Israel backed Hamas’ militant founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin in order to undermine the secular socialist resistance of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).
“Hamas, to my great regret, is Israel’s creation,” a former Israeli government official told the Wall Street Journal in a 2009 article titled “How Israel Helped to Spawn Hamas.”
This Cold War strategy ended up being successful: After the fall of the USSR, the secular socialist groups that dominated the resistance movements of the Middle East were replaced by Islamic extremists ones that had previously been supported by the West.
It is not a coincidence that most of the secular countries in the history of the Middle East have been socialist of some sort. In contrast, the most reactionary countries — the countries where women are not granted equal rights and where the rule of law is based on Sharia — have frequently tended to be close Western allies. Why? The West was much, much more interested in preserving capitalism than it was in allowing secularism, gender equality and relative economic equality to flourish under socialism.
Many pundits, including liberals, have argued that the Middle East, North Africa and Muslim-majority parts of South Asia are presently going through their parallel to the West’s Dark Age, a bloody period of religious extremism. They blame the rise of extremist groups like ISIS and al-Qaida on Islam itself, or on the Middle East’s supposedly “backward” culture, yet conveniently gloss over their own countries’ sordid histories and policies.