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 Syrian war, which has to date killed upwards of 200,000 people, grew out of peaceful protests in March 2011, a time when similar movements were sweeping other Arab countries. For the Obama Administration, the tumultuous upsurge was welcome. It appeared to represent the final defeat of Al Qaeda and radical jihadism, a view duly reflected in a New York Times headline from that February: as regimes fall in arab world, al qaeda sees history fly by. The president viewed the killing of Osama bin Laden in May 2011 as his crowning victory. Peter Bergen, CNN’s terrorism pundit, concurred, certifying the Arab Spring and the death of bin Laden as the “final bookends” of the global war on terror.

Al Qaeda, on the other hand, had a different interpretation of the Arab Spring, hailing it as entirely positive for the jihadist cause. Far from obsessing about his own safety, as Obama had suggested, Zawahiri was brimful of optimism. The “tyrants” supported by the United States, he crowed from his unknown headquarters, were seeing their thrones crumble at the same time as “their master” was being defeated. “The Islamic project,” declared Hamid bin Abdullah al-Ali, a Kuwait-based Al Qaeda fund-raiser, would be “the greatest beneficiary from the environment of freedom.”

While the revolutions were ongoing, the Obama Administration settled on “moderate Islam” as the most suitable political option for the emerging Arab democracies — and concluded that the Muslim Brotherhood fitted the bill. This venerable Islamist organization had originally been fostered by the British as a means of countering leftist and nationalist movements in the empire. As British power waned, others, including the CIA and the Saudis, were happy to sponsor the group for the same purpose, unmindful of its long-term agenda. (The Saudis, however, always took care to prevent it from operating within their kingdom.)

The Brotherhood was in fact the ideological ancestor of the most violent Islamist movements of the modern era. Sayyid Qutb, the organization’s moving spirit until he was hanged in Egypt in 1966, served as an inspiration to the young Zawahiri as he embarked on his career in terrorism. Extremists have followed Qutb’s lead in calling for a resurrected caliphate across the Muslim world, along with a return to the premodern customs prescribed by the Prophet.

None of which stopped the Obama Administration from viewing the Brotherhood as a relatively benign purveyor of moderate Islam, not so different from the type on display in Turkey, where the Brotherhood-linked AKP party had presided over what seemed to be a flourishing democracy and a buoyant economy, even if the country’s secular tradition was being rolled back. As Mubarak’s autocracy crumbled in Egypt, American officials actively promoted the local Brotherhood; the U.S. ambassador, Anne Patterson, reportedly held regular meetings with the group’s leadership. “The administration was motivated to show that the U.S. would deal with Islamists,” the former White House official told me, “even though the downside of the Brotherhood was pretty well understood.”

At the same time that it was being cautiously courted by the United States, the Brotherhood enjoyed a firm bond with the stupendously rich ruling clique in Qatar. The tiny country was ever eager to assert its independence in a neighborhood dominated by Saudi Arabia and Iran. While hosting the American military at the vast Al Udeid Air Base outside Doha, the Qataris put decisive financial weight behind what they viewed as the coming force in Arab politics. They were certain, the former White House official told me, “that the future really lay in the hands of the Islamists,” and saw themselves “on the right side of history.”

The Syrian opposition seemed like an ideal candidate for such assistance, especially since Assad had been in the U.S. crosshairs for some time. (The country’s first and only democratically elected government was overthrown by a CIA-instigated coup in 1949 at the behest of American oil interests irked at Syria’s request for better terms on a pipeline deal.) In December 2006, William Roebuck, the political counselor at the American Embassy in Damascus, sent a classified cable to Washington, later released by WikiLeaks, proposing “actions, statements, and signals” that could help destabilize Assad’s regime. Among other recommended initiatives was a campaign, coordinated with the Egyptian and Saudi governments, to pump up existing alarm among Syrian Sunnis about Iranian influence in the country.

Roebuck could count on a receptive audience. A month earlier, Condoleezza Rice, the secretary of state, testified on Capitol Hill that there was a “new strategic alignment” in the Middle East, separating “extremists” (Iran and Syria) and “reformers” (Saudi Arabia and other Sunni states). Undergirding these diplomatic euphemisms was something more fundamental. Prince Bandar bin Sultan, who returned to Riyadh in 2005 after many years as Saudi ambassador in Washington, had put it bluntly in an earlier conversation with Richard Dearlove, the longtime head of Britain’s MI6. “The time is not far off in the Middle East,” Bandar said, “when it will be literally God help the Shia. More than a billion Sunnis have simply had enough.” The implications were clear. Bandar was talking about destroying the Shiite states of Iran and Iraq, as well as the Alawite (which is to say, Shia-derived) leadership in Syria.

Yet the Saudi rulers were acutely aware of their exposure to reverse-vent syndrome. Their corruption and other irreligious practices repelled the jihadis, who had more than once declared their eagerness to clean house back home. Such fears were obvious to Dearlove when he visited Riyadh with Tony Blair soon after 9/11. As he later recalled, the head of Saudi intelligence shouted at him that the recent attacks in Manhattan and Washington were a “mere pinprick” compared with the havoc the extremists planned to unleash in their own region: “What these terrorists want is to destroy the House of Saud and to remake the Middle East!”

From these statements, Dearlove discerned two powerful (and complementary) impulses in the thinking of the Saudi leadership. First, there could be “no legitimate or admissible challenge to the Islamic purity of their Wahhabi credentials as guardians of Islam’s holiest shrines.” (Their record on head-chopping and the oppression of women was, after all, second to none.) In addition, they were “deeply attracted toward any militancy which can effectively challenge Shia-dom.” Responding to both impulses, Saudi Arabia would reopen the vent. This time, however, the jihad would no longer be against godless Communists but against fellow Muslims, in Syria.

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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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