CIA roots of Islamist fundamentalism
Did outrage caused by the provocations of an irreverent magazine provoke the Paris attacks? Yassamine Mather looks beyond this simplistic myth
On Sunday January 11, according to France’s ministry of interior, at least 3.7 million people marched across France to support the freedom of the press. As many on the left have pointed out, the demonstration in Paris was led by some of the most appalling political leaders in the world - some of them war criminals, others responsible for a long list of crimes against humanity, others authors of legislation against freedom of speech in their own country. But all were apparently united by their desire to defend freedom of the press, following last week’s horrific attacks in Paris.
No-one in their right mind can believe that that the attacks were simply the result of Islamists’ reaction to the cartoons printed by the Charlie Hebdo authors, yet the bourgeois media have done such a good job of manipulating the headlines that millions of people throughout the world, including many on the ‘left’, are under the impression this was simply an issue of ‘freedom of the press’. Rarely in recent years have we seen such oversimplification and indeed misrepresentation of facts, leading to mass hysteria.
Don’t get me wrong: there was no conspiracy here. The misrepresentation was an inevitable consequence of the way the bourgeois media simplify complicated stories, using attention-grabbing headlines, which may be glanced at on mobile devices and social media by people who do not read the full story.
There were exceptions to this rule and, as Robert Fisk reflected in The Independent,
Maybe all newspaper and television reports should carry a ‘history corner’, a little reminder that nothing - absolutely zilch - happens without a past. Massacres, bloodletting, fury, sorrow, police hunts (‘widening’ or ‘narrowing’, as sub-editors wish) take the headlines. Always it’s the ‘who’ and the ‘how’ - but rarely the ‘why’. In this case the situation was worse - the why wasn’t what the headlines wanted us to believe.1
Of course, no-one is claiming that “the why” should be used to justify these horrific murders, but in this particular case the media’s version - shootings caused by cartoons disrespectful of Mohammed - is just plain wrong. In fact, had they paid any attention to “the who”, they would have found better answers in regard to “the why”. We now know the event had everything to do with previous and current wars in north Africa and the Middle East. The gunmen had military training, they were associated with one or more al Qa’eda group in Algeria and Yemen, they also had connections with Islamic State and/or al Qa’eda in Syria.
A video released on January 11 shows Amedy Coulibaly, the gunman who seized hostages in the kosher supermarket, pledging allegiance to IS. He says he was working with Saïd and Chérif Kouachi, those responsible for the Charlie Hebdo outrage: “We have split our team into two ... to increase the impact of our actions.”2 These claims were repeated in an interview Coulibaly gave to an affiliate channel of CNN during the siege. There is some confusion about this, because the Kouachi brothers said they were sent by al Qa’eda in Yemen, otherwise known as al Qa’eda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which has now claimed responsibility for the Paris attacks. In his own, separate interview with BFM TV, Chérif Kouachi also explained that he had been in contact with Anwar al Awlaki, an AQAP cleric.3
As Frank Gardner points out in BBC online,
Despite sharing a violent, west-hating jihadist ideology, the two organisations have largely been in competition. In Syria this has sometimes erupted into open warfare, as their respective followers jockey for territory, while their leaders jockey for global influence ...
So is it possible that leaders of the two most dangerous jihadist organisations have agreed to bury their differences and cooperate in a joint attack on France? It is not inconceivable, but it is unlikely. Far more plausible is the idea that, with or without the tacit blessings of both al Qa’eda and IS, the three attackers decided to pool their resources and form a plan on their own.4
The brothers had allegedly attended a mosque in a northern suburb of Paris, where they came under the influence of a radical imam called Farid Benyettou and through him came into contact with Boubaker al-Hakim, a militant linked to al Qa’eda in Iraq, according to Middle East expert Jean-Pierre Filiu. Hakim had recruited jihadists to fight in Fallujah in the mid-2000s.5
Moreover, the brothers were not ‘radicalised’ because of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons: they were politicised by the wars in the Middle East. So why did they choose the offices of a satirical magazine as a target? Because it was a soft target and was very convenient. For them it was a military operation - this was confirmed by comments made to hostages they took in both the Charlie Hebdo offices and the print works where they later took refuge. The two brothers told a salesman that they did not kill civilians! According to an interview given by the manager of the print works, “I brought them the coffee and they were very respectful, calling me monsieur, like gentlemen.”
For all their barbarism all three believed themselves to be soldiers of Islam. The younger brother, Chérif, had a long history of jihadism and anti-Semitism, according to documents obtained by CNN. In a 400-page court record, he is described as wanting to go to Iraq through Syria “to fight the Americans ... I was ready to go and die in battle,” he said in a deposition. “I got this idea when I saw the injustices shown by television ... I am speaking about the torture that the Americans have inflicted on the Iraqis.”6
In France, as elsewhere in Europe, the preferred target of the jihadists was the US embassy. However, the three knew that they would get nowhere near the well fortified US building in Paris. To a lesser extent the same argument is valid in terms of targeting major government ministries and offices - although, as many leftwing commentators have pointed out, why target a government whose agencies had until recently supported Islamic groups? France was promoting the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi of Libya, long before the United States got involved and supported anyone who fought Bashar al-Assad in Syria (both are countries with a history of French colonial intervention). So the jihadists were looking for an easy target - a building where there was no security, easy to access and easy to escape from.
The brothers had military training in Yemen: they were volunteering and recruiting others for jihad in Iraq and later in Syria, while in their youth they had had a life very similar to many second-generation immigrants before they changed. Tariq Ali in the London Review of Books summarises this well:
The circumstances that attract young men and women to these groups are creations of the western world that they inhabit - which is itself a result of long years of colonial rule in the countries of their forebears. We know that the Parisian brothers, Chérif and Saïd Kouachi, were long-haired inhalers of marijuana and other substances until (like the July 7 bombers in this country) they saw footage of the Iraq war and, in particular, of the torture taking place in Abu Ghraib and the cold-blooded killings of Iraqi citizens in Fallujah.
They sought comfort in the mosque. Here they were radicalised by waiting hardliners, for whom the west’s war on terror had become a golden opportunity to recruit and hegemonise the young, both in the Muslim world and in the ghettoes of Europe and North America. Sent first to Iraq to kill Americans and more recently to Syria (with the connivance of the French state?) to topple Assad, such young men were taught how to use weapons effectively. Back home they got ready to deploy this knowledge against those who they believed were tormenting them in difficult times. They were the persecuted. Charlie Hebdo represented their persecutors. The horror should not blind us to this reality.7
The Kouachi brothers were indeed politicised by the war in Iraq, by atrocities in Abu Ghraib, by the carpet bombing of Fallujah. At a time when anti-war movements had fizzled out or been rendered useless by soft politics, and in the absence of a revolutionary left, they signed up to the Islamists. Nothing justifies the horrific crimes committed in Paris last week, but the ‘international community’ and to a certain extent we on the international left must take a share of the blame. Where were the demonstrations when Fallujah and other Iraqi cities were being bombed? What have we done about war crimes in Iraq? In Afghanistan? So far only the whistleblowers - those who exposed the torture - are in jail, while war criminals from Bush and Blair to the CIA directors in charge of that torture remain at large. There is no justice for the victims of Abu Ghraib or for the survivors of Fallujah.
Rabbi Michael Lerner, writing in the Huffington Post, sums it up:
And when the horrific assassinations of 12 media people and the wounding of another 12 media workers resulted in justifiable outrage around the world, did you ever wonder why there wasn’t an equal outrage at the tens of thousands of innocent civilians killed by the American intervention in Iraq or the over a million civilians killed by the US in Vietnam, or why president Obama refused to bring to justice the CIA torturers of mostly Muslim prisoners, thereby de facto giving future torturers the message that they need not even be sorry for their deeds (indeed, former vice-president Cheney boldly asserted he would order that kind of torture again without thinking twice)?
So don’t be surprised if people around the world, while condemning the despicable acts of the murderers in Paris and grieving for their families and friends, remain a bit cynical about the media circus surrounding this particular outrage, while the western media quickly forgets the equally despicable acts of systematic murder and torture that western countries have been involved in. Or perhaps a bit less convinced that western societies are really the best hope for civilisation
…. the violence is an inevitable consequence of a world which systematically dehumanizes so many people who are made to feel powerless and despairing and deeply depressed about the possibility of finding the milk of human kindness anywhere.8
The reality is that capitalism has created this atomised world, where the life of a European or American is valued more than that of hundreds of victims of the war on terror in the Middle East, Afghanistan and north Africa.
A significant contributor to this situation is the mass media and the way they report war, terrorism and murder, which has a crucial role in the subsequent mobilisation of public opinion. Early in the Iraq adventure, the BBC tried to express a slightly more balanced view of Tony Blair’s reasons for wanting to go to war, by exposing the ‘dodgy dossier’ prepared by Alistair Campbell - let us remember what happened to that exercise. The director general of the BBC was forced to resign, the broadcasters involved were replaced, the journalists sidelined. The Hutton enquiry legitimised this novel way of dealing with the issue of freedom of the press. No wonder we no longer see and hear any investigative journalism from that quarter. As I have often told Iranian comrades, in the west there is no need for censorship of the media: the prevalent unconscious self-censorship guarantees their compliance with the status quo.
Of course, in the Middle East the official and unofficial media have their own problems of state and religious censorship and, in the absence of a media outlet trusted by the majority of the population, exaggerated news of massacres and torture found on social media or jihadi websites substitute for facts. Whatever the number of those killed in Fallujah, most Iraqis, Egyptians, Jordanians, etc believe it to be 10 times more. Most of us have had to look away when the horrific images from Abu Ghraib torture chambers have appeared. However, none of those images equal the Photoshopped versions that went viral in social media and unofficial websites in the Middle East. Whoever was circulating that particular video was intent on creating as much disgust as possible so as to incite a reaction. While barbaric wars are sanitised for western audiences, citizens of Middle Eastern and north African countries are exposed to exaggerated and at times false reporting of their horrors. This has contributed to the irrational response to capitalist barbarism by the jihadists.
The email sent to his staff by Al Jazeera English editor and executive producer Salah-Aldeen Khadr has been circulating on the web: “Please accept this note in the spirit it is intended - to make our coverage the best it can be. We are Al Jazeera!” he gave his “suggestions” as to how the Qatar-based news outlet should cover the story. “Khadr urged his employees to ask if this was ‘really an attack on free speech’, discuss whether ‘I am Charlie’ is an ‘alienating slogan’, caution viewers against ‘making this a free speech aka European values’ under attack binary [sic]’ and portray the attack as ‘a clash of extremist fringes’.9
Of course, Al Jazeera is in an unenviable position - caught between, on the one hand, the sensitivities of Qatari rulers, who have contributed or at least turned a blind eye to funds sent to IS, and, on the other, a loyal audience gained through better representation of the Arab world than what western-based media feed us. In fact for all its many faults, the channel remains one of the more reliable sources of information about the Middle East.
Islam and violence
The events in Paris, as well as the well publicised beheading of western prisoners by IS, have initiated a debate about the inherently violent nature of Islam. If you read recent comments on this subject, including some from Iranian ‘lefts’, you might come to the conclusion that violence is a genetic characteristic among Muslims, irrespective of their nationality.
As a lifelong communist opponent of the Islamic Republic in Iran, I have no sympathy with political Islam. However, it would be a mistake to claim that Islam is more violent than other religions. It is wrong to talk about the recent violent attacks by Islamists without looking at contemporary precedents. One can easily trace al Qa’eda violence, later taken up by IS, to the Afghan war of the 1980s and in this respect there is no more authoritative commentator than Hillary Clinton, who in December 2011 admitted that that the US government created and funded Al Qa’eda in order to fight the Soviet Union.10
According to Joe Stephens and David Ottaway, CIA-supplied school books depicting violent images have played an important part in promoting jihadist violence. Writing in the Washington Post, they say:
The United States spent millions of dollars to supply Afghan schoolchildren with textbooks filled with violent images and militant Islamic teachings - part of covert attempts to spur resistance to the Soviet occupation. The primers, which were filled with talk of jihad and featured drawings of guns, bullets, soldiers and mines, have served since then as the Afghan school system’s core curriculum. Even the Taliban used the American-produced books, though the radical movement scratched out human faces in keeping with its strict fundamentalist code.
One page from the texts of that period shows a resistance fighter with a bandolier and a Kalashnikov slung from his shoulder. The soldier’s head is missing. Above the soldier is a verse from the Koran. Below is a Pashtu tribute to the mujahedin, who are described as obedient to Allah. Such men will sacrifice their wealth and life itself to impose Islamic law on the government, the text says.11
The CIA was also concerned about tribal and regional factionalism in Afghanistan and decided that Arab zealots who joined the jihad were more reliable and easier to train than the rivalry-ridden Pashtouns, Daris, etc. So Osama bin Laden, along with a small groups of militants from Pakistan, Egypt, Lebanon and Syria, became the agency’s allies in the war against Moscow.
According to veteran journalist Robert Dreyfuss,
For half a century the United States and many of its allies saw what I call the ‘Islamic right’ as convenient partners in the cold war. In the decades before 9/11, hard-core activists and organisations among Muslim fundamentalists on the far right were often viewed as allies for two reasons: because they were seen as fierce anti-communists and because they opposed secular nationalists, such as Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, Iran’s Mohammad Mossadegh.12
That was not all. After the coming to power of the first major Islamic state in the Middle East, Iran’s Islamic Republic, for all the anti-Iran rhetoric we heard from the US and its western allies, they took a very ‘pragmatic’ line towards the violence meted out by that regime against its leftwing opponents. In the early 1980s, and later in 1987, Tehran executed large numbers of communists and socialists - the figures are unreliable, but conservative estimates would be that at least around 8,000 were killed by the Shia regime. Did the western media sympathise with them? No, that violence was not considered a problem. In the same period, Alan Clark, Margaret Thatcher’s close advisor, boasted about selling arms to both Iran and Iraq, in a war where half a million people lost their lives. Ronald Reagan and Oliver North were involved in the arms trade with Iran under the auspices of Irangate.
Iran’s violence against its own citizens continued into the 2000s . In the autumn of 2001, ‘rogue’ elements from Iran’s ministry of intelligence executed a number of secular/leftwing writers in what became known on the Iranian left as serial political murders. This was an unprecedentedly violent campaign against innocent individuals.
In December 2001, I received a recording of secret interrogations held by Iran’s ministry of intelligence. With help from the National Union of Journalists we showed those DVDs at a press conference in the union’s headquarters in London. They show forced confessions, how some of the agents of the ministry of intelligence, including the wife of prime suspect Saeed Emami, were beaten, flogged and humiliated until they confessed that they worked for foreign powers, including the US and Israel. The NUJ and various Iranian leftwing groups had sent invitations to the media to attend the press conference, but the only British reporter present, apart from the representative from BBC Persian service, was from Indymedia. No-one from the major media outlets seemed concerned that Iranian writers were being executed on the streets of Tehran by religious zealots. Iran’s president, Mohammad Khatami, was then considered an ally, so no-one cared about those writers in Tehran, or about press freedom in Iran.
It is incidents such as this that makes me very cynical about the outpouring of sentiment over Charlie Hebdo.
Islam and tolerance
Zealots in every religion hate ridicule directed against their deities, but the current consensus is that Muslims are more intolerant than others. But, just like jihadi violence, such intolerance is yet another gift from the CIA guidebooks of the 1980s. In order to whip up anger, the jihadists were encouraged to react to any infringement of Islam by secular governments in Afghanistan with violence. Intolerance of others, as propagated by political Islam, is a modern phenomenon.
During my childhood , one of my mother’s best loved books was Twenty-three years: a study of the prophetic career of Mohammed. The author, Ali Dashti, disproves through rational argument the miracles of the prophet Mohammed - events that are central to the Islamic faith. He argues against the commonly held Islamic myth that the Quran was the work of god, a divine inspiration sent to an illiterate Mohammed. Dashti also points out that the stories in the Quran are all identical or slightly varied versions of those in the Bible or the Torah, that Mohammed had heard these stories during trade trips he made to what is now Syria. More damaging than that, Dashti claims Mohammed married a rich old widow, Khadija, in order to gain financial advantage and subsequently married a number of younger women, including a very young girl who was supposed to have been his daughter-in-law. Dashti’s book could be found in many Iranian households, and even religious Shias had no problem discussing its contents.
My uncle, who was a practising Shia, kept a copy of Maxim Rodinson’s 1961 book Mohammed on his bookshelf. Rodinson, a Marxist and professor of oriental languages, wrote this biography of the prophet’s life from a sociological point of view - it was clearly blasphemous, as far as believers are concerned.
So how did today’s Islamic intolerance begin? We can trace its beginnings to the infamous CIA guidebooks for jihadists, written by Saudi/Wahhabi fundamentalists, with the purpose of inciting hatred against leftwing forces.
Yet, irrespective of this history, we have to say there can be no exceptions, as far as freedom of expression is concerned. There is no reason why Islam should be a special case in this regard. In fact to call on publications not to make derogatory remarks about Mohammed, as opposed to Jesus or Moses, is to admit Muslims are less tolerant than other believers. Such an attitude would pave the way to further discrimination against Muslims.
11. ‘The ABCs of jihad in Afghanistan’ Washington Post March 23 2002.