The trial of Bherlin Gildo collapsed when it emerged that MI6 had been supporting the same group he was being prosecuted for joining.
In the first of a four-part series, Dan Glazebrook and Sukant Chandan look at the recent spate of revelations about the involvement of British security services in facilitating the flow of fighters into Syria.
Thirteen years ago this month, in March 2003, Britain and the US led an illegal and unprovoked war of aggression against Iraq, a fellow UN member state. Such a war is deemed to be, in the judgement of the Nuremberg trials that followed World War Two, “not only an international crime” but “the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.”
The mainstream narrative surrounding this war, and the endless catastrophes it bequeathed to Iraq, is that it was the result of a series of unfortunate ‘intelligence failures’: the British government had been led to believe that Iraq posed what Tony Blair called a “clear and present danger” to international security by intelligence that subsequently turned out to be false. Blair told us that the Iraqi government had an active nuclear weapons programme, had acquired uranium from Niger, had mobile chemical weapons factories that could evade UN weapons inspectors, and had stocks of chemical weapons able to hit British troops in Cyprus within 45 minutes. All of these claims were false, and all were blamed on ‘intelligence failings’, creating an image of an intelligence service totally incapable of distinguishing between credible information and the deluding ravings of crackpots and fantasists such as the notorious Curveball, the source of many of the various made-up claims later repeated in such grave and reverent tones by the likes of Tony Blair and Colin Powell.
In fact, we now know that sources such as Curveball had already been written off as delusional, compulsive liars by multiple intelligence agencies long before Blair and co got their hands on their outpourings – and the British government was fully aware of this.
The truth is, there were no intelligence failings over the Iraq war. In fact, the intelligence services had been carrying out their job perfectly: on the one hand, making correct assessments of unreliable information, and on the other, providing the government with everything necessary to facilitate its war of aggression. The Iraq war, then, represented a supreme example not of intelligence failure, but intelligence success.
Fast forward to today, and we are again hearing talk of ‘intelligence failings’ and the supposed incompetence of the security services to explain a debilitating Western-sponsored war in the Middle East: this time in Syria.
Earlier this year, British foreign minister Philip Hammond admitted that 800 British citizens had gone to join the anti-government terrorist movement in Syria, with at least 50 known to have been killed fighting for Al Qaeda or ISIS. The British security and intelligence community, we are to believe, were simply unable to stop them. Opportunist political opponents blame such shocking statistics on incompetence, whilst the government and its supporters increasingly weave them into an argument for greater powers and resources for the security services. Both are wrong; and a closer look at some of these so-called ‘intelligence failings’ makes this very clear.
In December 2013, it emerged that MI5 had tried to recruit Michael Adebolajo, one of the killers of fusilier Lee Rigby, just a few weeks before his murder. Adebalajo had been on the radar of both MI5 and MI6 for over ten years. He had been under surveillance in no less than five separate MI5 investigations, including one set up specifically to watch him. He was known to have been in contact with the senior leadership of Al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula, based in Yemen, and he had been arrested in Kenya on a speedboat on the way to Somalia with five other youths, where he was suspected of hoping to join Al Shabaab. The Kenyans were furious when they handed him over to the Brits only for him to be turned loose, presumably to continue with his recruitment activities.
The following month, 17 year old Aseel Muthana left his family home in Cardiff to join rebel fighters in Syria. His brother Nasser had left 3 months earlier, and his family were worried that Aseel would try to join him. So they confiscated his passport, and informed the police of their concerns. The police kept the family under close scrutiny. They even arrived at his house at 5pm the day he left for Syria, to be told he hadn’t been seen since the night before. He boarded a flight at 8.35pm that night, using alternative travel documents issued by the Foreign Office. His family were horrified that he had been allowed to travel, without a passport, despite all their warnings.
A similar case occurred in In June 2015, when 3 sisters from Bradford travelled to Syria – it is thought to join ISIS – taking their nine young children with them. Again, the family had been under intense scrutiny from the police ever since their brother went to join ISIS in Syria earlier that year. And far from being unaware of the risk of their being recruited, counter-terrorist police were apparently, it emerged, deeply complicit in their recruitment. A letter from the family’s lawyers said they were “alarmed” by the police allegedly having been actively promoting and encouraging contact with the brother believed to be fighting in Syria: “It would appear that there has been a reckless disregard as to the consequences of any such contact on the families of those whom we represent,” the lawyers said, and continued: “Plainly, by the NECTU [North East Counter Terrorism Unit] allowing this contact they have been complicit in the grooming and radicalising of the women.”
October 2014 saw the trial of Moazzam Begg, for various terrorism-related offences. Begg had admitted to training British recruits in Syria – but in his defence, he made the incendiary claim that MI5 had explicitly given him the green light for his frequent visits in a meeting they had arranged with him. MI5 admitted it was true, and the trial collapsed.
Six months later, BBC Radio 4 broadcast an interview with Aimen Dean, a founding member of Al Qaeda who was subsequently recruited by MI6 as a spy. Part of his work for MI6, he said, involved encouraging young impressionable Muslims to go and join the ranks of Al Qaeda.
Then in June 2015, Abu Muntasir, known as the godfather of British jihadis, thought to have recruited “thousands” of British Muslims to fight in Afghanistan, Kashmir, Burma, Bosnia and Chechnya, gave an interview to the Guardian, repenting for his actions. He explained that he came back from fighting in Afghanistan to “create the link and clear the paths. I came back [from war] and opened the door and the trickle turned to a flood. I inspired and recruited, I raised funds and bought weapons, not just a one-off but for 15 to 20 years. Why I have never been arrested I don’t know.”
That same month, a second trial collapsed, for much the same reasons as Begg’s. Bherlin Gildo had been arrested in October 2014 on his way from Copenhagen to Manila. He was accused of attending a terrorist training camp and receiving weapons training as well as possessing information likely to be useful to a terrorist. The Guardian reported that the prosecution “collapsed at the Old Bailey after it became clear Britain’s security and intelligence agencies would have been deeply embarrassed had a trial gone ahead”.
In January 2016, it was revealed that Siddharta Dhar travelled to Syria in September 2014 whilst on police bail for terrorism offences – the sixth time he had been arrested for terror-related offences, and not long after MI5 had tried to recruit him. Police had demanded he hand in his passport, but did not follow it up; this was despite the fact that he had revealed – live on BBC morning television no less – that he would “love to live in the Islamic State”. He later posted pictures of himself posing with guns in Raqqa, and is suspected of being the so-called ‘new Jihadi John’, appearing in an ISIS video executing suspected spies. The original ‘Jihadi John’ – British-Kuwaiti Mohammed Emwazi – had also been well known to the British security services, having – just like Adebalajo and Dhar – apparently been offered a job by MI5.
Is this all just a ‘catalogue of blunders’, more ‘intelligence failings’ on a massive scale?
These cases demonstrate a couple of irrefutable points. Firstly, the claim that the security services would have needed more power and resources to have prevented these abscondances is clearly not true. Since 1995, the Home Office has operated what it calls a ‘Warnings Index’: a list of people ‘of interest’ to any branch of government, who will then be ‘flagged up’ should they attempt to leave the country. Given that every single one of these cases was well known to the authorities, the Home Office had, for whatever reason, decided either not to put them on the Warnings Index, or to ignore their attempts to leave the country when they were duly flagged up. That is, the government decided not to use the powers already at its disposal to prevent those at the most extreme risk of joining the Syrian insurgency from doing so.
Secondly, these cases show that British intelligence and security clearly prioritise recruitment of violent so-called Islamists over disruption of their activities. The question is – what exactly are they recruiting them for?
At his trial, Bherlin Gildo’s lawyers provided detailed evidence that the British government itself had been arming and training the very groups that Gildo was being prosecuted for supporting. Indeed, Britain has been one of the most active and vocal supporters of the anti-government insurgency in Syria since its inception, support which continued undiminished even after the sectarian leadership and direction of the insurgency was privately admitted by Western intelligence agencies in 2012. Even today, with ISIS clearly the main beneficiaries of the country’s destabilization, and Al Qaeda increasingly hegemonic over the other anti-government forces, David Cameron continues to openly ally himself with the insurgency.
Is it really such a far-fetched idea that the British state, openly supporting a sectarian war against the Ba’athist government in Syria, might also be willfully facilitating the flow of British fighters to join this war? Britain’s history of collusionwith sectarian paramilitaries as a tool of foreign policy certainly suggests this may be so. This history, in Ireland, Afghanistan and the Arab peninsula, and its role in shaping British policy today, will be the subject of the articles to follow.
The gulf monarchies are the main facilitators of Britain’s support for sectarian death squads in the Middle East. This should be no surprise because Britain brought them to power precisely because of their sectarianism. Part two of Sukant Chandan and Dan Glazebrook’s series on British collusion with sectarian violence.
“What we want is not a united Arabia: but a weak and disunited Arabia split up into little principalities so far as possible under our suzerainty, but incapable of coordinated action against us” – so claimed a memorandum written by the Foreign Department of the British Government of India in 1915. A more succinct summary of British policy towards the Arab world – both then and now – would be hard to find.
As we outlined in the first piece in this series, Britain’s weapon of choice in its attempt to destroy the independent regional powers of West Asia and North Africa in recent years has been its sponsorship of violent sectarianism. Its support for racist death squads in Libya not only achieved the destruction of the Libyan state, but also brought terrorism to every country in the region from Egypt, Tunisia and Algeria to Chad, Nigeria and Cameroon; whilst its training and equipping of death squads in Syria has been directly responsible for the rise of ISIS. These forces, by setting Sunni against Shia, Muslim against Christian, and Arab against Black, are helping to bring about precisely that “weak and disunited Arabia” that the British officials in India dreamed of one hundred years ago.
Alongside the direct support and recruitment provided by British intelligence and the British government, one of the main conduits for arms and fighters has been the gulf monarchies: Qatar and Saudi Arabia in particular. That the Gulf States should play this role should, of course, be no surprise – as they were very largely the creations of the same British Government of India that wrote that memo in the first place.
In 1857, British colonial rule of India was challenged as never before, as what started as a mutiny rapidly spread across the country to become a mass insurgency, the first war of Indian independence. One of the reasons it was so potent is that Hindus and Muslims had joined forces – leading to what became the biggest anti-colonial uprising of the nineteenth century. Britain learned the lessons – and began to cultivate sectarian divisions more assiduously than ever before. As Mark Curtis notes in Secret Affairs: “After 1857 the British promoted communalism, creating separate electorates and job and educational reservations for Muslims. “’Divide et imperia [divide and rule]’ was the old Roman motto,’ declared William Elphinstone, the early nineteenth-century governor of Bombay, ‘and it should be ours’. This view pervaded and became a cornerstone of British rule in India”. Curtis quotes one document after another to demonstrate just how pervasive this view became: one Secretary of State advising the governor general that “we have maintained our power in India by playing off one part against the other and we must continue to do so. Do all you can, therefore, to prevent all having a common feeling”; another informing the Viceroy that “this division of religious feeling is greatly to our advantage”; a senior civil servant writing that “the truth plainly is that the existence side by side of these hostile creeds is one of the strong points in our political position in India. The better clashes of Mohammedans are already a source to us of strength and not of weakness”, and so on, ad nauseam. Yet, Curtis notes, it was not in India but in the Middle East that this divide and rule strategy “reached its apogee”.
The British Government of India began cultivating alliances with family clans in the Arabian peninsula from around the late eighteenth century, formalizing these relationships through official treaties over the course of the next hundred and fifty years. Even before the discovery of oil, the region was deemed strategically important as part of the land route from India, as well for its surrounding sea routes, and the Indian government took steps to ensure that it be placed firmly under British control. By the nineteenth century, Britain was already the pre-eminent naval power in the region, and had become powerful enough to make or break the fortunes of those to whom it lent (or withdrew) its ‘protection’. So it is interesting to note that those families which Britain did choose to turn into ruling classes of the new states that were being carved out – the Al Saud, the Al Thani, the Al Khalifa and others – all seemed to have two things in common: a history of regular warring with their neighbours; and an, at best, shaky control of the territories they claimed to rule. These factors were not coincidental – for what they produced was a dependence on British protection that effectively turned them into little more than vassals of Empire.
The al-Khalifa clan, for example, today’s rulers of Bahrain, originally hailed from Umm Qasr in Iraq, from where they were expelled by the Ottomans due to their regular attacks on trade caravans. They first seized control of Bahrain in 1783 after Persian rule began to crumble, but lost control two decades later falling out with the Wahhabis with whom they were briefly allied. It was only after signing a treaty with the British in 1820 that their rule was consolidated. This treaty, and the others that followed, effectively placed foreign policy in the hands of the British in exchange for Britain propping up the al Khalifa’s rule of the country – an arrangement that has continued, to all intents and purposes, right up to the present day.
Being effectively an alien force in the country, the al Khalifa were permanently at risk from the population they sought to rule, especially given their persecution of the Shia majority. This made British protection that much more important, and increased British leverage accordingly; whenever any particular Khalifa emir began to act too independently, the British would simply replace them. Lieutenant Colonel Trevor, the Deputy Political Agent in Bahrain after the First World War, put it bluntly when, after receiving a series of demands from the new crown prince he noted that ‘The Shaikh forgets that he and his father were made Shaikhs by the British government.” Shortly afterwards, the British sent warships to the gulf to force the Shaikh to sign an agreement ceding all powers to his other son – a British protégé.
Formal independence was granted in 1971, but given that power was being handed over to the same family that had ruled Bahrain on Britain’s behalf for the past century and a half, this changed little. The most notable difference was perhaps the flags on the foreign warships at the country’s naval base, which changed from British to US.
Fast forward to the present day, and it is clear that the essence of the 1820 treaty – Al Khalifa rule propped up by Western armaments, with foreign policy in the hands of the West – is still very much in place. Whilst David Cameron was proclaiming democracy (a euphemism for state collapse) for Libya and Syria, he was in Bahrain selling weapons to the Khalifas to suppress their own ‘Arab Spring’; whilst three years later the US fifth fleet would be firing hellfire missiles into Syria from its Bahraini base.
But British support for the al Khalifas has never been absolute; rather they built up the al-Thani clan as a ‘counterweight’ to the Khalifa in order to guarantee their continued dependence on the British. Up until 1867, Qatar had been essentially a semi-autonomous province of Bahrain, its government effectively ‘sub-contracted’ to the Al Thanis. In that year, however, a war between the Al Thanis and the Al Khalifas broke out; Britain intervened on the side of the Al Thanis, carving out Qatar out as a separate political entity and recognising the Al Thanis as its rulers. The border between the two countries was left devilishly ambiguous, and remained a running sore in Qatari-Bahraini relations right up until 2001; a “weak and disunited Arabia” indeed.
Further agreements were signed with the Al Thanis in 1935, offering them protection against internal and external threats in exchange for oil concessions. Qatar too gained formal independence in 1971, but the deep links forged during the period of the protectorate remain; indeed both the Emirs that have ruled since then were educated at Sandhurst Military Academy, with the current Sheikh educated at elite English private school Sherborne before that.
The relationship between Britain and the ruling families of Bahrain and Qatar continues to follow that same basic principle forged centuries ago, and now also extended to the US: whilst the ruling families act as regional agents of Western imperial policy, their rule is maintained by Western weaponry. Nothing illustrates this more clearly than the events of the so-called ‘Arab Spring’. The protests breaking out across the Arab world in early 2011 soon spread to Bahrain, where angry crowds demanded an end to the monarchy’s policies of discrimination and exclusion against the Shia majority. Cameron’s immediate response was to head to the region to sell the embattled regime the weapons it needed to crush the movement. The following year, the country’s interior minister, Rashid bin Abdulla al-Khalifa, visited the Foreign Office to gather “lessons learnt from our experience in Northern Ireland”, according to a British government statement. This experience was particularly relevant; the problem faced by the British in the North of Ireland was, after all, broadly analogous to that faced by the Bahraini monarchy: how to maintain an oppressive sectarian rule and crush movements calling for equality. The sight of British APCs in the street shooting down demonstrators, now common in the Bahraini capital, will be familiar to Belfast’s nationalist communities; and so too will the latest human rights reports coming out of Bahrain describing “detainees being beaten, deprived of sleep, burned with cigarettes, sexually assaulted, subjected to electric shocks and burnt with an iron”, all common practices in British army barracks in 1970s Ireland. Britain’s Bahraini students are quick learners. The US fifth fleet, based in Bahrain and used to fire missiles into Syria and Libya, is in safe hands.
Qatar, meanwhile, was a lynchpin in not only the militarisation of the ‘Arab Spring’ and its capture by violent sectarian forces, but also its ideological whitewashing. The Al Jazeera TV channel was established by the Qatari government in 1996, effecting to what amounted to a ‘brown-facing’ of the BBC Arabic channel, which was closed down the same year before transferring a large chunk of its staff to the ‘new’ station. Al Jazeera built its credibility across the region – and, indeed, the world – with its critical coverage of Western and Israeli attacks on Iraq and Gaza. But in 2011 it would use this credibility to serve as NATO’s propagandist-in-chief, amplifying and disseminating every lie it could get its hands on – from African mercenaries, to mass rape, to ‘bombing his own people’, to ‘impending massacre’ – in order to demonise Gaddafi and sell the case for war. It would be a war in which Qatar would play a major role.
In the early days of the West’s attack on Libya, anti-Gaddafi rebel forces (led by the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, Al Qaeda’s Libyan franchise), even with NATO air support, proved spectacularly ineffective at capturing and holding territory from the Libyan government. For the first few months, most of the towns they ‘captured’ thanks to NATO incineration of government soldiers would simply be retaken by the Libyan army days later. But NATO countries were wary of risking a domestic political backlash by openly committing too many of their own troops or resources to tip the balance. The solution found was to let Qatar and the Gulf states carry out its dirty work. They played a leading role in training and equipping rebel fighters, allowing NATO to be pretending to observe the arms embargo to which UN resolutions committed them. As the Royal United Services Institute noted, “the UAE established a Special Forces presences in the Zawiyah district and started to supply rebel forces in that area with equipment and provisions by air. Qatar also assumed a very large role; it established training facilities in both Benghazi, and, particularly the Nafusa Mountains on May 9 and acted as a supply route and conduit for French weapons and ammunition supplies to the rebels (notably in June), including by establishing an airstrip at Zintan.” They added that, “Western special forces could have confidence in the training roles undertaken by Qatar and the UAE, because the special forces in those countries have in turn been trained by the UK and France over many years”. In addition to this major training and arming role, Qatari jets also joined NATO in pounding Libya, and the country issued $100million of loans to the rebel groups. But most important was the Qatari ground invasion of Tripoli.
As Horace Campbell has documented in his book “Global NATO and the Catastrophic Failure in Libya”, by the summer of 2011, NATO were nearing a crisis-point: the 60-day period in which the US president could engage in hostilities without Congressional support was over, and the UN mandate for military intervention was to expire in September. Calls were growing within the AU and the UN for a negotiated settlement, and rivalry between militias continued to dog the rebels’ progress. NATO needed to take Tripoli quickly if their regime change operation was not to be stalled in its tracks. So in mid-August, NATO massively stepped up its bombing of Tripoli. Checkpoints, manned by citizens pledged to defend the capital were repeatedly targeted, and Obama sent the last two training drones left in the US to the Libyan frontline. That paved the way for what Campbell called “NATO’s triple assault – by air, land and sea”; not a ‘people’s uprising’ but rather a ground invasion to crush the people who had risen to defend their city. Troops were shipped in and disguised as ‘rebel fighters’, with, according to Le Figaro, five thousand Qatari troops chief amongst them. It was they who, finally, captured Tripoli for NATO, installing Abdul Hakim Bel Haj, now suspected leader of ISIS in Libya, as the new military chief of the conquered city.
Bahrain and Qatar are just two examples of the enduring alliances that the British government has cultivated over centuries as it groomed handpicked ruling families for their anointed role as agents of imperial policy. In exchange for a British guarantee of their absolute power domestically, they have provided military bases and have acted as willing agents for those tasks their patron was either unwilling or unable to carry out itself. Today, that means acting as an ‘arms-length’ distributor of both BBC propaganda and British violence, in far more ways than have been possible to articulate here (Qatar’s role in managing the various Muslim Brotherhood offshoots that have been destabilising Syria, Egypt and elsewhere, for example, would need a full article in its own right). But even more significant than the British alliance with the al Khalifas and al Thanis is that that was established with the al-Saud family, the subject of our next piece. For it is this relationship, forged during the slow decline of the Ottoman Empire, that ultimately created a new multinational fighting force of fighters in the 1980s – the ‘database’ – that has been doing Britain’s bidding in Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria ever since.
This piece was originally published by RT
The oppressive, sectarian and violent nature of the Saudi state and its foreign policy is increasingly coming under the spotlight, even in mainstream Western media. Yet the reality is not, as it is so often portrayed, that ‘civilised’ Britain is somehow sullying itself by ‘supporting’ the Saudi rogues. On the contrary, the Saudis are merely implementing a barbaric policy made in the West.
From Syria to Yemen, wherever there is bloodshed and massacre in the Middle East, Saudi money and guns are never far away. But behind the Saudis lies Anglo-American power. The deal today – as it has been for over a hundred years – is that, in exchange for a Western guarantee of their own security, the Al Sauds effectively cede control of their country’s foreign policy to the West. And the architect of that deal was the British state.
Before their alliance with the British, the Al Sauds were little more than murderous bandits, with little chance of achieving lasting power over any significant portion of the Arab peninsula. Said Aburish, the biographer of the House of Saud, notes that whilst most Arabian tribes were settling or farming, Ibn Saud “was in the business of raiding other tribes to steal their camels, sheep and grain” – after which he typically “murdered all the men of the raided tribe to prevent future retaliation”. As a result, the Al Sauds were reviled by most Arabs and Muslims, their leadership not even totally accepted amongst their own tribe, the Ennezza. This hostility between the Al Sauds and the other Arabs was deepened by their adherence to a particularly sectarian interpretation of Islam, Wahhabi’ism, which rejects as apostates pretty much every Muslim who does not subscribe to their medievalist philosophy.
Yet it was precisely this divisive quality which appealed to British imperialism. The British empire of the nineteenth century – guided by the philosophy of ‘divide and rule’ – was always on the lookout for groups lacking ‘native’ support to back, as they would be eternally dependent on British support and therefore could be reliably trusted to act as imperial agents. Furthermore, such groups would be utterly incapable of uniting their people into any kind of independent polity – always Britain’s worst fear within its colonial dominions. According to the leading historian of the developing Saudi-British relations in this period, Jacob Goldberg, the British elevated Ibn Saud above “people who were religiously, politically and strategically more important”. But this was, of course, the point. For the British, his relative unimportance was his greatest asset, for it left him utterly dependent on the British. Unlike his rivals, such as the Hashemites, he had no other source of power or authority beyond his alliance of convenience with the (Wahabbi’ist) Ikhwan fighters.
Thus, two years after Ibn Saud and his followers conquered Riyadh in 1902 – burning to death 1200 of its inhabitants, and enslaving many of its women as trophies of their victory – the British began paying a stipend to Ibn Saud. The payment was greatly increased in 1911, with Ibn Saud using the money, says Aburish, to “expand and subsidise the loss-making colonies of soldier-saints of the Ikhwan, or ‘brothers’. [These] were fanatics of the Wahhabi sect to which Ibn Saud belonged, who were to provide the backbone of his conquering forces and whose savagery wreaked havoc across Arabia.” Aburish noted that, “traditionally committed to individual freedom and achievement, the rest of the Muslims found the idea of the colonies and the fanaticism they produced totally unacceptable”. Over the next few years, with British aid, arms and advisors, Ibn Saud and his warriors were able to defeat the rival Ibn Rasheeds, and capture the Eastern Province of what is now Saudi Arabia. In 1915, Ibn Saud signed a treaty with the British which “elevated him to the role of a British-sponsored ruler of central and eastern Arabia”. They knighted him the same year.
Ibn Saud’s conquests continued (although, as Aburish put it, “his conquests were no more than raids which, through British support, acquired a permanent nature”), and in 1925 his forces captured the Hijaz, where “as had been feared, Ibn Saud’s Ikhwan followers killed hundreds of males, including children, ransacked an untold number of houses, murdered non-Wahhabi religious leaders who opposed their brutal ways and destroyed whole towns”. The region’s highly developed legal system was scrapped, and its institutions of representative government – complete with senate, cabinet, and party pluralism – were all abolished. Instead, Ibn Saud appointed a council of advisors headed by the British Resident Harry St John Philby – and without a single native Saudi. The “feeling” noted by Sir Arthur Hirtel of the British India Office a year earlier – “that it would be good if Ibn Saud established himself in Mecca” – appeared to have been vindicated. Two years later he had signed a new “friendship and cooperation treaty” with the British which ceded all control of external affairs to them. And he was clearly the right man for implementing ‘divide and rule’, creating border disputes with every one of his neighbours during the 1920s, including Iraq, Jordan, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman, the Yemen and the Trucial states (today’s UAE).
The depth of Ibn Saud’s loyalty to his imperial masters – and the shallowness of his religiosity – was subsequently revealed when in 1929 he turned on his Ikhwan enforcers. They had wanted to expand into Iraq and Kuwait (as their evangelism demanded), but Ibn Saud knew this would be frowned on by the British. So, with British support, he attacked their base in the village of Sabila and massacred them. If the Ikhwan had been his SA, this was his Knight of the Long Knives. As Aburish put it, “Ibn Saud set his relationship with his sponsors above his connection with religious zealots for whom he no longer had any use”. By this time, Ibn Saud’s British stipend had reached £60,000 per year – equivalent to 2/3 of the country’s national income. Three years later, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia – the only country in the world to be named after its ruling family – was officially founded.
As Aburish has concluded: “The simple, undeniable fact behind Ibn Saud’s rise to power was Britain’s interest in finding someone to deputise for it on the eve of the First World War…Ibn Saud, homeless and hungry, was there for the asking, cheap and willing to accommodate any sponsor.” Indeed, Ibn Saud conceived of himself as an agent of the British from the very beginning. Like the Zionists, he sought the sponsorship and protection of an imperial power, any imperial power, and following his rejection by the Ottomans, wrote this to the British resident in the Gulf: “May the eyes of the British government be fixed upon us and may we be considered as your proteges”. Says Aburish, “Rather than acting as a unifier of the Arabs, Ibn Saud afforded an outside power, Britain, the comfort of keeping the Arabs and Muslims divided and protected its commercial and political interests, which opposed an Arab unifier at the helm.” In the process, it is estimated that Britain’s protege had publicly executed 40,000 people and had the limbs amputated of a further 350,000 during his campaign to subdue the peninsula – that is a total of 8% of the population either killed or mutilated in order to realise Britain’s desire that sectarian division should reign.
But for Britain – as, later, for the US – the choice of Ibn Saud as its Middle Eastern deputy has been a shrewd one, with the Saudis being the faithful enforcers of imperial skullduggery ever since.
From the very start, for example, the Saudis have been more than happy to throw the Palestinians under a bus to please the British. Throughout the 1930s, Ibn Saud ignored King Ghazi of Iraq’s call for a common Arab front against the colonisiation of Palestine, and then in 1936, when a 183 day Palestinian national strike was itself putting the British government under serious pressure, Ibn Saud persauded the Palestinian Mufti to call the strike off, promising he would intercede with the British on the Palestinians’ behalf. British Foreign Office documents, however, show no record of this ‘intercession’ ever having taken place. Three years later, in exchange for a £20 million payment, Ibn Saud accepted Britain’s proposal for a Jewish state on colonised Arab land . During the Arab-Israeli war of 1948, Saudi Arabia not only refused to send forces to Palestine, but even tried to prevent fighters from travelling there voluntarily, and ordered its newspapers to tone down their reporting of Palestinian suffering. Today, of course, whilst publicly opposing Israel, the Saudis are perfectly willing to host the enormous Dhahran airbase of Israeli’s biggest military supplier and ally, the US.
In the 1980s, the Saudis encouraged (and financed) the Iraqi attack on Iran, and then kept oil prices low in order to maximise the war’s destructive effect on both countries. When the Iraqis wanted to sue for peace in the mid-1980s, they asked the Saudis to restrict production in order to prod outside powers into bringing the war to an end. Of course, the Saudis refused. Saddam Hussein’s advisor Sa’ad Al Bassas commented later that “We knew they wanted the war to continue, but we were too dependent on them for financial support to complain out loud. They were following an American policy which called for weakening both countries”. In fact, this was precisely the British policy forumlated in 1915, which called for a “weak and divided” Arabia.
In recent decades, the Saudi state has developed an additional niche role in the implementation of Anglo-American imperialism. As revolutionary liberation movements began to threaten the West’s dominion over the third world, especially from the 1970s and 80s onwards, Saudi Arabia became the bankroller and conduit for covert, often illegal, Western policies to terrorise such movements and governments into submission. From the contras in Nicaragua, to the UNITA rebels in Angola, to the fascist Phalangists of Lebanon, to the apartheid regime in South Africa, CIA-backed sectarian terror outfits the world over became the recipients of Saudi largesse. But it was in Afghanistan where this policy reached its apogee.
The Afghan revolution of 1978 brought the socialist PDPA movement to power. The new government immediately implemented a series of popular reforms including land reform and the constitutional recognition of women’s rights for the first time. The US and Britain saw such a movement as a threat to their control and exploitation of the third world, and especially feared its alliance with the Soviet bloc as undermining their global hegemony. Beginning in mid-1979, the CIA began providing weapons to ultra right wing terror groups, who used Islam to justify attacks on the new government, its supporters, and its social infratructure, including an assassination campaign which killed hundreds of teachers and civil servants. This support was designed, admitted Jimmy Carter’s advisor Zbigniew Brzinzski in 1996, not only to undermine the new government, but also to draw in the Soviet Union and bog them down in a demoralising and costly conflict – that is, as he put it, to “give the USSR its Vietnam war”. The strategy worked – by 1980, the Soviet Union had sent troops to support the embattled Afghan government, but as the years went by – and US, British and Saudi support to the ‘rebels’ was stepped up – the Soviets were eventually unable to sustain the massive cost in both lives and wealth, and withdrew in 1989.
In just one three-year period during this time – from 1987 to 1989 – Saudi Arabia had provided $1.8billion in financial support to the anti-government fighters in Afghanistan (around twice the amount it had given to the PLO in the previous 14 years), as well as providing thousands of fighters. But what is intriguing is that this support was not, as is traditionally believed, premised on religious ideology, but was rather driven, once again, by fidelity to the Saudis’ imperial masters. In “Jihad in Saudi Arabia”, Thomas Hegghammer notes that this financial and military support “Clearly… was not an automatic response to the Soviet invasion, because Arabs had not volunteered for other conflict zones in the past and did not to Afghanistan in significant numbers until the mid-to late 1980s”. Indeed, says Hegghammer, there were only 16 Saudi fighters in Afghanistan before 1985, whilst “the permanent Saudi contingent would not exceed 50 people until early 1987”. In fact, initial Saudi support for the insurgency was primarily diplomatic, political and humanitarian, rather than military. Indeed, it was only at the request of the US that the Saudis agreed, in 1981, to match US funding for the militia groups themselves – and it was therefore only when the US ramped up financial support to such groups – the so-called ‘mujahedeen’ in the mid-1980s that the Saudis were obliged to do the same. Furthermore, says Hegghammer, the main opposition to the encouragement of young men to fight in Afghanistan came precisely from the “religious establishment”: “A common misperception in the historiography of the period is to present the Wahhabi religious scholars as prime movers behind the mobilization to Afghanistan. In fact very few, if any, of the scholars in the religious establishment actively promoted the Afghan jihad as an individual duty for Saudis”. Saudi support for the mujahedeen, just like Ibn Saud’s violence 60 years earlier, was driven not by religious idealism, but by an undying commitment to facilitating Western foreign policy – regardless of the cost in human lives. The ongoing consequences of this Afghan policy – the creation of the worldwide Al Qaeda terror network and offshoots such as ISIS – are well known. But, as Brzezinski – currently advisor to President Obama – put it: who cares about “some stirred-up Muslims” when the policy helped bring about the destruction of the Soviet Union?
Hegghammer summed up the various parties involved thus: “In Afghanistan…volunteerism [that is, the insertion of foreign fighters] was sanctioned by the USA, welcomed by the Afghans [fighting the government] and facilitated by the presence of a transit territory, namely Pakistan”. This formula – the foreign fighters, financed by Saudi Arabia, and infiltrated through the willing collaboration of Pakistan – is precisely the one which has been used against Syria in recent years, with Turkey in the Pakistani role. Thus does the British-created Saudi state continue to fulfil the imperial role assigned to it over 100 years ago.
As Aburish put it, “Britain created Ibn Saud to protect its Middle East imperial interests and to eliminate those who threatened them… Without the West there would be no House of Saud. The Saudi people or their neighbours or a combination of both would bring about its end”. Remember that next time a Boris Johnson or a Joe Biden feigns innocence about the role of the ‘dastardly’ Saudis: they are but the conduit for policies hatched in Washington and Whitehall.
This piece was originally published by RT
In his 2009 book “The Next 100 Years”, George Friedman, of intelligence analysts STRATFOR pointed out, at the risk of stating the obvious, that “the United States is, historically, a warlike country”. But the number crunching that followed was particularly revealing. “The United States has been at war for about 10% of its existence” he wrote, adding that this only included major wars, not “minor conflicts like the Spanish-American war or Desert Storm” (the latter ‘minor conflict’ killing over 80,000 Iraqis). He continued: “during the twentieth century, the United States was at war 15% of the time. In the second half of the twentieth century, it was 22% of the time. And since the beginning of the twenty first century, in 2001, the United States has been constantly at war. War is central to the American experience, and its frequency is constantly increasing. It is built into American culture and deeply rooted in American geopolitics.”
The truth of this statement was revealed in a now notorious interview with former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO, General Wesley Clark, by Democracy Now in March 2007. In this interview, Clark revealed, for the first time, the existence of a top-secret memo circulating in the Pentagon, issued by the US Defence Department in the weeks following the 9/11 attacks. This memo, he said, “describes how we’re going to take out seven countries in five years, starting with Iraq, and then Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and, finishing off, Iran.” The 9/11 attack was being used as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to destroy every regional power with the potential to challenge US-British-Israeli hegemony in the entire Middle East/ North African/ Red Sea region.
The West’s war juggernaut has been rolling through this list ever since, though never without resistance. The US suffered over 35,000 casualties in Iraq, according to official figures, including over 4000 fatalities, with the true fallout (including, for example, trauma-related mental problems and suicides) likely to be far, far higher. The military and financial costs of this war, and the backlash it provoked, meant that different methods were adopted for the other targeted nations. The attack on Lebanon, when it came in 2006, was launched by Israel rather than the US – but it, too, did not go as planned. Rather than the hoped-for destruction of Hezbollah, it resulted in a victory for the group and a skyrocketing of its popularity across the entire region. Others on the list, however, have indeed been ‘taken out’. The same year as the Lebanon invasion, Somalia – then on the verge of coming under one single central authority for the first time since 1991 – was destabilised by a US-sponsored Ethiopian invasion, followed five years later by another invasion by British client state Kenya, ensuring the civil war has continued to rage to this day. Then in 2011, after years spent arming the country’s various armed factions, the US oversaw the breakup of Sudan. The new breakaway republic of South Sudan almost immediately collapsed into civil war, and is now undergoing what has been officially declared the world’s first famine in six years. And in 2011, too, the NATO bombardment of Libya, in coordination with Al Qaeda splinter group the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group and the Qatari armed forces, led to the collapse of the Libyan state. Libya, too, remains at war, with the various pro-NATO rebel groups now fighting one another for control.
Indeed, Libya provided the blueprint for what was supposed to take place in Syria – a violent, sectarian insurgency, armed, trained and sponsored by the West and its Gulf allies, overthrowing state authority with NATO air support if necessary. It didn’t turn out this way, of course, and the victory of Syrian government forces in Aleppo last December marks what many now see as the decisive defeat of this latest attempt at ‘regime change’. And this defeat is in no small part down to the final country on that list – Iran.
It was, after all, Iran that provided the experienced, battle-hardened troops which – alongside their proteges, Hezbollah, and the Syrian Arab Army itself – acted as the ground forces against the West’s proxies. As a result, Iran’s influence in Syria has been cemented, as it had already been in Iraq following 2003, and is likely to be even further following the defeat of ISIS in Mosul. As Iranian-Canadian analyst Shahir Shahidsaless has written, “Iran challenges US hegemony in every corner of the region. The fall of Aleppo was a clear manifestation of the decline of American influence in the region and the emergence of a new order in which Iran will play a major role as a regional power.”
For US war planners, this growing influence only pushes Iran even further up the target list. George Friedman, discussing the US invasion of Iraq, wrote that whilst “there is no question” it was “clumsy, graceless and in many ways unsophisticated”, nevertheless “on a broader, more strategic level, that does not matter. So long as the Muslims are fighting each other, the United States has won its war”. However, he adds a warning: the instability engendered by the war “does raise the possibility of a Muslim nation-state taking advantage of the instability, and therefore the weaknesses within other states, to assert itself as a regional power”. In the eyes of many US strategists, this is precisely what Iran has done. Regardless of the fact that Iran’s only Arab ally Syria was, until the NATO-backed insurgency began in 2011, a beacon of stability in the region, and that Iran has been attempting to restore its stability since then, an influential faction within the US is intent on blaming Iran for all the region’s woes. And it is precisely this faction that has just come to power under Trump.
If there is one thing that unites ‘Team Trump’, it is their hostility to Iran, their hatred of the Iran nuclear deal, and their willingness – or even eagerness – to go to war with Iran. Secretary of Defence General Mattis told his Senate confirmation hearing that“Iranian malign influence in the region is growing. Iran is the biggest destabilizing force in the Middle East and its policies are contrary to our interests.” Last April, at a speech in Washington DC, Mattis clearly stated that he would prioritise ‘dealing with’ Iran ahead of tackling Al Qaeda and ISIS: “The Iranian regime, in my mind, is the single most enduring threat to stability and peace in the Middle East,” he said. “For all the talk of ISIS and Al Qaida everywhere right now… they’re a very serious threat. But nothing is as serious in the long term enduring ramifications, in terms of stability and prosperity and some hope for a better future for the young people out there, than Iran.” Indeed, his speech went on to attempt to actually pin the rise of ISIS on Iran. “I consider ISIS nothing more than an excuse for Iran to continue its mischief. Iran is not an enemy of ISIS; they have a lot to gain from the turmoil that ISIS creates.” “What,” he asked, “is the one country in the Middle East that has not been attacked by ISIS? One. And it’s Iran. That is just more than happenstance, I’m sure.” This is a little conspiratorial, even by Trump’s standards. But Mattis’ approach is not untypical of the new administration.
Michael Flynn, Trump’s original National Security Advisor, recently forced to resign over his contacts with Russia, has been a vocal and consistent advocate of ‘regime change’ in Iran. His 2016 book, The Field of Fight, described Iran as the head of “an international alliance of evil countries” which “extends from North Korea and China to Russia, Iran, Syria, Cuba, Bolivia, Venezuela, and Nicaragua”, with Iran itself “the linchpin of this alliance, its centerpiece.” At the time of the 2012 attack on the CIA compound in Benghazi, Flynn was head of the Defence Intelligence Agency. But, according to the New York Times, Flynn’s focus at the time was not on tracking the culprits but instead on obsessively ordering his staff to find a nonexistent ‘Iran connection’ to the attacks. The NYT noted that they found “no evidence of any links” but “the general’s stubborn insistence reminded some officials at the agency of how the Bush administration had once relentlessly sought to connect Saddam Hussein and Iraq to the September 11th 2001, attacks”.
Mike Pompeo, the new CIA director shares Flynn’s views. He has called for “trashing the nuclear agreement”, arguing that it “strengthens Muslim extremists”.
This list goes on. Vice President Mike Pence has called Iran the “leading state sponsor of terrorism” and promised to “rip up the Iran deal” on the campaign trail, going further than even Trump himself had at the time. John Bolton, who advised Trump on foreign policy during the campaign has repeatedlycalled for Iran to be bombed. Other Iran hawks in Trump’s team include Jeff Sessions (Attorney General), Rick Perry (Secretary of Energy), Ben Carson (Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development), Nikki Haley (U.S. Ambassador the United Nations), Tom Price (Health & Human Services Secretary), and Ryan Zinke (Secretary of the Interior).
And their rhetoric is increasingly warlike. Already, following a missile test fully in line with Iran’s commitments under the nuclear deal, Trump’s administration has stepped up sanctions against Iran (a move it called an “initial step”), declaring that the country is now “on notice” and “playing with fire”. As Rasool Nafisi, an Iran expert at Washington DC’s Strayer University, has said, the new US government appear to be “itching for some kind of conflict in the Middle East, and especially against Iran, given all the rhetoric they used during the election campaign.” If the nuclear deal unravels, such a war is far from unlikely – and according to Lieutenant Colonel Vladimir Evseev, a defence analyst at the Commonwealth of Independent States, Trump is pushing for exactly this: “The US can’t block this agreement because it is supported by the corresponding resolution of the UN Security Council and is a multipartite deal. However it will try to create conditions so that the deal cannot be implemented”, he told Sputnik.. And, as Shahir Shahidsaless has convincingly argued, “The collapse of the nuclear deal will inevitably push the Trump administration into conflict with Iran” . This is because whatever act of US belligerence (such as restored sanctions) actually buries the deal will force Iran to take a defiant stand in response, such as, for example, renewing its uranium enrichment programme. To such a move, the US would ultimately respond with force.
This, then, is the direction in which the US is moving: towards an all out confrontation with Iran, the last country on Wesley Clark’s list. But they face a major problem. Russia.
In August 2013, when the US and Britain were declaring that airstrikes against Syrian government targets were imminent, Russia immediately sent three warships to the Mediterranean, stepped up their shipments of powerful anti-aircraft missiles to Syria, and made it very clear that they were standing by the Syrian government. This would not be a repeat of 2011 Libya: NATO planes would be shot down, and body bags would flow back home. In the end, Britain and the US backed down. Just over two years later, in September 2015, Russia launched its own military intervention in Syria, at the request of the Syrian government, giving renewed momentum to the push-back against Western-backed insurgents. The US-British war plan for Syria was in tatters, and the lesson was clear: taking out governments supported by Russia is extremely difficult.
Herein lies the purpose of the much-touted ‘Trump-Putin deal’ that is supposedly in the pipeline. Trump and co know very well that Russian acquiescence will be key to the success of any future attack on Iran. Even without Russian support, a war on Iran will not be easy; with Russian support, Iran, like Syria, may well emerge triumphant. At the very least, the cost, in blood and treasure, of attacking an Iran backed by Russia would make it political suicide. Breaking the alliance between Iran and Russia is therefore crucial to the next phase of the US war. And time is of the essence, as Iran is learning from Russia all the time. As the Institute for the Study of War have noted, “Iranian military cooperation with Russia in Syria is dramatically increasing Tehran’s ability to plan and conduct complex conventional operations. Iranians are learning by seeing and by doing, and are consciously trying to capture lessons-learned in Syria for use throughout their military and para-military forces. Iran is fielding a conventional force capability to complement and in some cases supplant its reliance on asymmetric means of combat. Russia is assisting Iran’s military leadership conduct this effort. It is introducing Iran and its proxies to signature Russian campaign-design concepts such as cauldron battles, multiple simultaneous and successive operations, and frontal aviation in Syria. These concepts are the fruit of almost a century of advanced Soviet and Russian thought and hard-won experience in conventional military operations. This knowledge-transfer can help the Iranian military advance its understanding of conventional war far more rapidly than it might otherwise be able to do. It can help Iran become a formidable conventional military power in the Middle East in relatively short order, permanently changing the balance of power and the security environment in the region…Iranian conventional military capabilities will continue to increase rapidly as long as Russian and Iranian forces continue to operate alongside each other in Syria simply by learning the best practices for developing, deploying, and using such forces in combat. Russia is poised to teach Iran additional methods of warfare as it prepares for the next phase of the pro-regime campaign in Syria.” The report concludes that “The U.S. and its regional partners must recognize that the deep Russo-Iranian military cooperation in Syria is in itself a major threat to the balance of power within the Middle East.”
This, then, is the grand strategy that so many commentators have failed to discern in the Trump administration: to break the Russian-Iranian alliance and effectively buy Russian acquiescence for the forthcoming US/ Israeli/ British attack on Iran.
Of course, such a strategy does, at first, sound absurd. Iran and Russia – as Flynn himself noted in despair – are allies. They have just emerged as triumphant partners in the battle to thwart regime change in Syria, and Russia has already provided Iran with the powerful S-300 anti-aircraft missile system that so put the jitters up NATO when it arrived in Syria in 2013. Moreover, last August, Russia moved the airbases used for its Syria operations from southern Russia to Iran, in what the National Interest called “an expression of Russian solidarity with Iran”.
Yet Trump has a lot to offer Russia in return for its ending this ‘solidarity’. Most obviously, he could lift sanctions. Russia’s economy was plunged into recession in 2015 following the onset of US-EU sanctions the previous year, which coincided with a collapse in the global price of oil, Russia’s major export. Russia has been keen to downplay the impact of sanctions, but even Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev has admitted that they have cost the country tens of billions of dollars. Trump is particularly well placed to offer Russia lucrative deals, especially in the oil sector, should these sanctions be lifted. Trump’s Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, former CEO of Exxon Mobil, already signed a deal with Russian state-owned oil firm Rosneft estimated to be worth up to $500 billion back in 2012. The comprehensive agreement covered Arctic and Black Sea oil exploration and development, as well as providing Rosneft with a 30% share in Exxon projects in Texas and the Gulf of Mexico; it also promised to transfer technology developed in hard-to-access parts of America to western Siberia, to allow Russia to tap into an estimated 1.7billion barrels of light oil currently trapped in non-porous rock. “In terms of its ambitions”, said Russia’s deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin at the time, the project, “exceeds sending man into outer space or flying to the moon”. But US sanctions imposed following the Russian annexation of Crimea put the deal on ice. Lifting them would allow the Exxon-Rosneft project to finally go ahead, potentially reversing Russia’s dwindling economic woes. Tillerson, unsurprisingly, is on record as being opposed to the sanctions. His $218million personal stake in Exxon Mobil would immediately ramp up in value were the 2012 deal to be unfrozen.
Trump has, indeed, already stated that he would be willing to reconsider sanctions if Moscow “was really helping us” to achieve US policy goals.
However, lifting sanctions requires some kind of, at least nominal, resolution of the Ukraine conflict, as this was ostensibly the reason for imposing them in the first place. Interestingly, itemerged this February that two of Trump’s close colleagues – his personal lawyer Michael Cohen and business associate Felix Sater – had discussed a proposal to lift Russian sanctions and recognise Russian sovereignty over Crimea , in exchange for a withdrawal of Russian forces from eastern Ukraine, with an opposition politician in Ukraine last year.
Lifting sanctions and easing tension in Ukraine might well be tempting enough for Putin to consider ditching his Iranian allies. But Trump has much more than this to offer: ending NATO expansion (for example, by persuading Senate Republicans to vote against Montenegrin membership later this year), pulling back NATO forces from Eastern Europe (easily justified following any deal over Ukraine), ending calls for regime change in Syria and even military cooperation there against Al Qaeda and ISIS.
And Trump not only has carrots aplenty – he also has sticks. From this point of view, the supposed split in the administration, between supposedly ‘pro-’ and ‘anti-’ Russian figures actually works to Trump’s advantage, providing him with not only ‘good cops’ like Tillerson, willing to cooperate and negotiate with Russia, but also bad cops (like Russia ‘hawk’ HR McMaster) who illustrate Trump’s willingness to continue with NATO expansion, ramp up sanctions, and push Russia into a crippling arms race should they refuse to play ball.
Ultimately, of course, any Russian decision to sell out its Iranian ally would be utterly self-defeating. China would be next, and ultimately Russia would find itself totally isolated once the US finally set its sights on them. Ultimately, there are no shared interests between the US and Russia – whatever goodies might be dangled beneath their eyes.
This piece was originally published in Counterpunch