Letter from Washington — From the January 2016 issue

A Special Relationship

The United States is teaming up with Al Qaeda, again

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The reality was otherwise. The United States was intimately involved in the enlistment of these volunteers — indeed, many of them were signed up through a network of recruiting offices in this country. The guiding light in this effort was a charismatic Palestinian cleric, Abdullah Azzam, who founded Maktab al-Khidamat (MAK), also known as the Afghan Services Bureau, in 1984, to raise money and recruits for jihad. He was assisted by a wealthy young Saudi, Osama bin Laden. The headquarters for the U.S. arm of the operation was in Brooklyn, at the Al-Kifah Refugee Center on Atlantic Avenue, which Azzam invariably visited when touring mosques and universities across the country.

“You have to put it in context,” argued Ali Soufan, a former FBI agent and counterterrorism expert who has done much to expose the CIA’s post-9/11 torture program. “Throughout most of the 1980s, the jihad in Afghanistan was something supported by this country. The recruitment among Muslims here in America was in the open. Azzam officially visited the United States, and he went from mosque to mosque — they recruited many people to fight in Afghanistan under that banner.”

The view through the scope of a weapon that belongs to a member of Ahrar al-Sham, Idlib, Syria, March 2015 © Khalil Ashawi/Reuters

The view through the scope of a weapon that belongs to a member of Ahrar al-Sham, Idlib, Syria, March 2015 © Khalil Ashawi/Reuters

American involvement with Azzam’s organization went well beyond laissez-faire indulgence. “We encouraged the recruitment of not only Saudis but Palestinians and Lebanese and a great variety of combatants, who would basically go to Afghanistan to perform jihad,” McWilliams insisted. “This was part of the CIA plan. This was part of the game.”

The Saudis, of course, had been an integral part of the anti-Soviet campaign from the beginning. According to one former CIA official closely involved in the Afghanistan operation, Saudi Arabia supplied 40 percent of the budget for the rebels. The official said that William Casey, who ran the CIA under Ronald Reagan, “would fly to Riyadh every year for what he called his ‘annual hajj’ to ask for the money. Eventually, after a lot of talk, the king would say okay, but then we would have to sit and listen politely to all their incredibly stupid ideas about how to fight the war.”

Despite such comments, it would seem that the U.S. and Saudi strategies did not differ all that much, especially when it came to routing money to the most extreme fundamentalist factions. Fighting the Soviets was only part of the ultimate goal. The Egyptian preacher Abu Hamza, now serving a life sentence on terrorism charges, visited Saudi Arabia in 1986, and later recalled the constant public injunctions to join the jihad: “You have to go, you have to join, leave your schools, leave your family.” The whole Afghanistan enterprise, he explained, “was meant to actually divert people from the problems in their own country.” It was “like a pressure-cooker vent. If you keep [the cooker] all sealed up, it will blow up in your face, so you have to design a vent, and this Afghan jihad was the vent.”

Soufan agreed with this analysis. “I think it’s not fair to only blame the CIA,” he told me. “Egypt was happy to get rid of a lot of these guys and have them go to Afghanistan. Saudi Arabia was very happy to do that, too.” As he pointed out, Islamic fundamentalists were already striking these regimes at home: in November 1979, for example, Wahhabi extremists had stormed the Grand Mosque in Mecca. The subsequent siege left hundreds dead.

Within a few short years, however, the sponsoring governments began to recognize a flaw in the scheme: the vent was two-way. I heard this point most vividly expressed in 1994, at a dinner party on a yacht cruising down the Nile. The wealthy host had deemed it safer to be waterborne owing to a vigorous terror campaign by Egyptian jihadists. At the party, this defensive tactic elicited a vehement comment from Osama El-Baz, a senior security adviser to Hosni Mubarak. “It’s all the fault of those stupid bastards at the CIA,” he said, as the lights of Cairo drifted by. “They trained these people, kept them in being after the Russians left, and now we get this.”

According to El-Baz, MAK had been maintained after the Afghan conflict for future deployment against Iran. Its funding, he insisted, came from the Saudis and the CIA. A portion of that money had been parked at the Al-Kifah office in Brooklyn, under the supervision of one of Azzam’s acolytes — until the custodian was himself murdered, possibly by adherents of a rival jihadi. (Soufan confirmed the murder story, stating that the sum in question was about $100,000.)*

* Azzam was assassinated in 1989 in Peshawar, Pakistan, by a sophisticated car bomb. Though there was a wide range of credible suspects, his widow was convinced that the CIA had commissioned the killing.

A year before my conversation with El-Baz, in fact, the United States had already been confronted with the two-way vent. In 1993, a bomb in the basement of one of the World Trade Center towers killed six people. (The bombers had hoped to bring down both structures and kill many thousands.) A leading member of the plot was Mahmud Abouhalima, an Afghanistan veteran who had worked for years at the recruiting center in Brooklyn. Another of Azzam’s disciples, however, proved to be a much bigger problem: Osama bin Laden, who now commanded the loyalty of the Arab mujahedeen recruited by his mentor.

In 1996, the CIA set up a special unit to track down bin Laden, led by the counterterrorism expert Michael Scheuer. Now settled in Afghanistan, the Al Qaeda chief had at least theoretically fallen out with the Saudi regime that once supported him and other anti-Soviet jihadis. Nevertheless, bin Laden seemed to have maintained links with his homeland — and some in the CIA were sensitive to that fact. When I interviewed Scheuer in 2014 for my book Kill Chain, he told me that one of his first requests to the Saudis was for routine information about his quarry: birth certificate, financial records, and so forth. There was no response. Repeated requests produced nothing. Ultimately, a message arrived from the CIA station chief in Riyadh, John Brennan, who ordered the requests to stop — they were “upsetting the Saudis.”

Five years later, Al Qaeda, employing a largely Saudi suicide squad, destroyed the World Trade Center. In a sane world, this disaster might have permanently ended Washington’s long-standing taste for mixing Islam with politics. But old habits die hard.

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is the Washington editor of Harper’s Magazine and the author, most recently, of Kill Chain: The Rise of the High-Tech Assassins.

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