By Mayssoun Sukarieh
The story of how Britain has, for decades, consistently undermined secular forces in the Arab world and colluded with radical forces to maintain its place in the global financial order.
Egypt’s future is uncertain after the death or fall of Mubarak and, whether there is a revolution or not, the Brotherhood could play a role in government or in the transition…. Britain is the largest foreign investor in the country, amounting to around $20 billion. British elites want to be in a better position than after the fall of the Shah of Iran in 1979, and cultivating the Islamists is likely regarded as critical.
Britain likely sees the Brotherhood—as it did from the 1950s to the 1970s—as counter to the secular, nationalist forces opposition in Egypt and the region….
Pages 308-9, Secret Affairs.
PUBLISHED a year before the Egyptian revolution, Mark Curtis’ Secret Affairs predicted an alliance between the global elites and the Muslim Brotherhood. This prediction was based on a historical analysis Curtis provides in the book on the cooperation or, more precisely, collusion between the British political elites and radical Islam. He argues that this relationship is not merely historical but affects the social and political landscapes of the world even today and seems to be affecting the new landscapes of the region after the Arab uprising.
Geopolitics and high strategy are specialist areas, subject to infinite shifts, changing alliances, and differing judgments, but Secret Affairs unearths some coherent policies towards Islamism. In the post-Great War West Asia, Britain, the manager of “‘protectorates” such as Palestine and Iraq, pursued such a complicated strategic course that there will never be a consensus about its course. With the creation of the state of Israel at the end of the Second World War, “there remains disagreement as to whose ‘side’ Britain was really on”(Page 41). One theme, however, did emerge, as Curtis notes: “it was during this period that British officials began to regard Islamists, of various stripes, as ‘bulwarks’ against communism” (page 43).
The book argues that both Labour and Conservative British governments have “colluded for decades with radical Islamic forces, including terrorist organisations”. “They have connived with them, worked alongside them and sometimes trained and financed them.” This collusion helps promote Britain’s two main foreign policy objectives —“influence and control over key energy resources” and “maintaining Britain’s place within a pro-Western global financial order”. Whether it is working with major state sponsors of Islamist terrorism such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan or non-state actors such as the Muslim Brotherhood and the Taliban, Britain has consistently attempted to undermine secular, nationalist forces in the Arab world and South Asia.
Radical Islamic forces have been seen as useful to Whitehall in five specific ways: (1) As a global counter-force to the ideologies of secular nationalism and Soviet communism; (2) in the cases of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, the major champions of radical Islam, as “‘conservative muscle” within the countries to undermine secular nationalists and bolster pro-Western regimes; (3) as “shock troops” to destabilise or overthrow governments; (4) as proxy military forces to fight wars; and (5) as “political tools” to leverage change from governments.
When it comes to broader foreign policy, the declassified files are very clear—the two basic goals are to maintain Britain’s power status in the world and to ensure that the global economy functions in the interests of British and other Western corporations. These two goals are sometimes referred to as “national” interests but this is of course misleading—they are the interests of a commercial and political elite. Britain (including under New Labour) has for decades been arguably the world’s leading champion of global trade liberalisation and financial deregulation, precisely to benefit its corporations, and has kept hundreds of millions of people in poverty. The aim has been to ensure the withdrawal of states/governments around the world from public services—thus economic nationalism has been seen as an enemy much like political nationalism. Curtis states that the structure of British foreign policy, and its key alliances, is very largely the product of these interests. Curtis argues that one of the major reasons for London’s special relationship with Washington even when the United States became the leading capitalist state in the world is the huge British financial investment in the U.S., and vice versa, involving various sectors and including arms. (BAE Systems, Britain’s largest arms company, has become increasingly dependent on U.S. military orders and benefits significantly from the U.S.’ military-industrial complex and military adventurism abroad.)
THE HINDU ARCHIVES
Communist rebels rounded up in central Java in 1965. The Indonesian Army had launched a drive against the Indonesian Communist Party, which it believed was behind the attempted coup on October 1, 1965. An estimated 5,00,000 people were killed in the cleansing that followed.
Alongside maintaining its power status and ensuring energy security, Britain also worked to make sure that oil-producing countries invested their petro-dollars in London to shore up the city’s global financial position. To do so, Britain needed to maintain its status as a power broker and to curry favour with regimes, regardless of the means. One example of this is the “fabricated invasion” of Kuwait by Iraq in 1958, during which Britain intervened to protect its newly independent former colony against a threat that they had themselves concocted, as British files explicitly show. “Britain wanted to exaggerate the threat to Kuwait so [Britain] would continue its protection and Kuwait would keep investing revenues in the British banking system,” says Curtis.
Hence, the collusion is an elites’ project; The war in Malaya in the 1950s was partly a war to defend British rubber interests in the country; the 1953 coup in Iran was undertaken to promote the Anglo-Iranian Oil Corporation (the forerunner of BP); and the big British push in Central Asia in the early 1990s was at the behest of oil and gas companies. This collusion has also been dictated by utility. Beyond the special relationships with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan—which are deep strategic alliances —Britain’s policy has been a matter of ad hoc opportunism, though it should be said that this has been rather regular. Time and again, declassified documents reveal that British officials were perfectly aware that their collaborators were anti-Western and anti-imperialist and devoid of liberal social values, or were actually terrorists. Whitehall worked with these forces not because it agreed with them but simply because they were useful at specific moments. Islamist groups appear to have collaborated with Britain for the same reasons of expediency and because they shared the same hatred of popular nationalism as the British. “In [my] analysis of British foreign policy, it is not all down to economics,” says Curtis. “The collaboration with Islamist groups in the Middle East [West Asia] has been about power status, to not be relegated to a bit player on the fringes. It has seen those groups as essential allies in a region where Britain has often lacked dependable allies. In a lot of the episodes where Britain collaborated with Islamic groups, it was essentially to do the dirty work that the U.S. couldn’t do due to Congressional oversight and the fear of being found out.” The dirty deeds include assassination attempts (for example, on Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, Libya’s Muammar al-Qaddafi, and Lebanon’s late Ayatollah Mohammad Fadlallah), military assistance and the dissemination of propaganda tools, such as Korans and Islamic literature. British operatives also orchestrated “false flag” operations, such as the one in Iran in 1953 when mosques and public figures were attacked by agents and paid supporters appearing to be members of the communist Tudeh Party. British intelligence also worked in collaboration with Ayatollah Kashani, the mentor of Ayatollah Khomeini, to stir up sentiment against the nationalist Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq.
The arguments in the book are based on a historical reading of a hundred years of declassified documents from the archives of the British government, all scrupulously referenced in the over 60 pages of footnotes at the back. However, because of the “thirty year rule”, the more recent chapters on Britain’s involvement with radical Islam during the wars in the Balkans rely mainly on newspapers and on drawing together information from an array of publicly available sources. The picture is, therefore, far from complete, and Curtis seems less sure of the terrain. However, there is no doubt that the claim of “humanitarian intervention” in Kosovo in 1999 is seriously undermined by the fact that Britain trained the Kosovo Liberation Army, an outfit that worked closely with Al Qaeda and was openly described as a terrorist organisation by British Ministers at the time. Government files housed at the National Archives are meant to be declassified after 30 years, but the reality is that many remain classified (at the whim of the government department) and some, for example those for MI5 and MI6, are completely closed. Still, the book is important for exposing Britain’s historical alliances with state Islamist sponsors and with Islamist groups themselves.
State Islamist sponsors
The thread tying together Secret Affairs is the account of Britain’s relations with “the two most significant sponsors of radical Islam” —Pakistan, which promoted “the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, the terrorist cause in Kashmir and its surge in Central Asia” and Saudi Arabia, “the largest financier of the Islamist cause worldwide” (page 223-4).
Pakistan, Curtis argues, was the state in which this whole policy started. He takes us back to Britain’s colonial empire and its mid-20th century dissolution. The Raj was, he alleges (on the balance of evidence), kept in control by a strategy of divide and rule, between different groups in the subcontinent. In the 19th century, “promoting communal divisions” was deliberate policy (page 5). Religious identities, all kinds of “multiculturalist” separate developments, were promoted. From its 19th century origins in the Aligraph movement, the British looked favourably on the party that drove the demand for Partition and the formation of Pakistan, the Muslim League. The “Muslim card” was used against the Indian National Congress. After Indian independence, the Pakistani glacis was a “strategic asset” for the Anglo-Americans. “Narenda Sarila notes that ‘the successful use of religion by the British to fulfil political and strategic objectives in India was replicated by the Americans in building up the Islamic jehadis in Afghanistan’” (Page 34). Hence, “Many of the roots of Islamic terrorism sweeping the world today lie buried in the partition of India.” Eager to retain a strategic foothold in South Asia—in Churchill’s words, to “keep a bit of India” after 1947—Britain was instrumental in the creation of Pakistan, an artificial state with little to hold it together except its identity as a Muslim nation.
Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of Iran's Islamic republic. Khomeini's mentor, Ayatollah Kashani, was propped up by the U.K. and the U.S. to counter the elected government of Mohammed Mossadeq, which was overthrown in a coup in 1953.
Closer still has been the British relationship with Saudi Arabia, whose modern form Britain also helped shape, at the close of the colonial era. Seeking to position itself as the leader of the Muslim world, the Saudi state spent, since the 1970s and up to 2007, an estimated $50 billion promoting its fundamentalist brand of “Wahabism” around the globe, in what one U.S. think tank describes as the “largest worldwide propaganda campaign ever mounted”. Saudi Arabia’s sponsorship of a galaxy of anti-communist causes (including those of the international Far-Right, and outright anti-Semitism), in tandem with its promotion of the “global Islamic mission” has been given free reign from the Cold War onwards. In positioning the United Kingdom as a favoured trading partner for Saudi oil, arms and, latterly, financial investments, Labour and Conservative governments alike have systematically played down the true character of the regime and its links to global terror. The files show that Britain struck several investment deals with the Saudis in 1973 (around the oil price crisis) and basically appended the British economy to Saudi Arabia’s at this time, from which Britain has never recovered.
During the Cold War, the overwhelming concern of the Foreign Office to maintain the balance of power produced many secret alliances with Islamist groups as Britain sought to prevent or destabilise nationalist movements in a variety of countries. For example, the U.K., by forging links with the Muslim Brotherhood, an organisation involved in terrorism, attempted to combat the “virus of Arab nationalism”, after Nasser came to power in Egypt and nationalised the Suez Canal. But the alliance goes back to the 1940s, when the U.K. funded it. The following decade Britain was conniving with the organisation to kill Nasser (and also to overthrow the nationalist government in Syria). The reason for supporting Islamist organisations in the early post-War period was to counter popular nationalism, and Whitehall regularly sided with the Muslim Brotherhood throughout West Asia. Back in the 1960s, Islamism was also opposed to a far greater perceived threat: Arab nationalism. This is a tangled tale, with the British sometimes trying to use the Muslim Brotherhood against pan-Arabism, yet often being repulsed by the organisation’s ingrained hostility to the “Crusaders”. The pro-Western Egyptian President Anwar Sadat went with the grain in using Islamists to smash his country’s Marxist and nationalist student groups. Islamist parties and groups attracted the “urban poor” and, more significantly, “the devout bourgeoisie, a class hitherto excluded from political power” (page 108). Encouraging Islamisation turned out to be a double-edged sword. Sadat’s peace treaty with Israel further pushed them towards maximalism; he ended up assassinated by Al-Jihad in 1981.
And like in Egypt, and as part of the Cold War, Curtis describes Indonesia’s Western-endorsed massacre of up to a million “communists” in 1966. “Islamist groups, trained and equipped by the Indonesian army, played a critical role in the slaughter” (page 97). And in 1982, the Khomeini regime was brutally repressing the Left, and executing thousands of its members. The British obtained a list of members of the Tudeh (Iranian Communist Party) from a Soviet defector, Vladimir Kuzichkin. MI6 and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) jointly decided to pass on this list to Tehran. Dozens of alleged agents were executed and more than a thousand arrested, while the party was banned. There were show trials of a 100 members (some of whom were sentenced to death). The British operated “in pursuit of specific common interests—the repression of the Left—even though Iran was by now considered a strategic threat and overall anti-Western force” (page 130).
When Iran’s last democratically elected Prime Minister, Mohammed Mossadeq, set about nationalising the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, Britain, along with the U.S., sought to replace him with a “dictator”—in the words of the then Ambassador to Tehran—who would “settle the oil question on reasonable terms”. In the process, the Foreign Office actively supported a man they saw as “a complete political reactionary”, Ayatollah Seyyed Kashani, whose hard-line followers organised the large-scale protests that preceded the 1953 coup, which installed the arch-conservative but pro-Western Shah. Kashani went on to mentor Ruhollah Khomeini, who, in 1979, overthrew the Shah and installed the repressive theocracy that continues in power today.
Turning to the present conflict in Afghanistan, Curtis notes that Britain is now fighting Islamist forces it had previously supported in the 1980s against the Soviet Union in what he calls “Whitehall’s most extensive covert operation since the second War”. The media have followed the government’s lead, consigning to the memory hole inconvenient facts like the brutal insurgent leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s visit to London in 1988. Or, as one former literary editor of Tribune famously wrote: “Officially the change of partners had never happened. Oceania was at war with Eurasia: therefore Oceania had always been at war with Eurasia. The enemy of the moment always represented absolute evil, and it followed that any past or future agreement with him was impossible.” Curtis points out that two of the most active Islamist commanders carrying out attacks in Afghanistan, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Jalalludin Haqqani, had particularly close contacts with the U.K. in the past. Hekmatyar met Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in Downing Street when he was a favourite of MI6 and the CIA in the war against the Russians. Haqqani, while not the “Taliban’s overall military commander fighting the British”, as Curtis says (he runs his own network parallel to the Taliban), was viewed as a highly useful tool in that conflict.
The Western use of the Mujahideen as proxy fighters is well documented. It resulted in the spawning of Al Qaeda, the spread of international terrorism, and the empowering of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the Pakistani intelligence agency, who became their sponsors. Curtis examines the lesser known by-products of this jehad: the dispatch of Afghan Islamist veterans, with the connivance of Britain and the U.S., to the wars in the Balkans and the former Soviet republics in Central Asia, and the ethnic Muslim areas of China. Vast sums of money from the West’s great ally, Saudi Arabia, helped fund the Reagan administration’s clandestine war in support of repressive military juntas in Latin America while buttressing the aggressive Wahabi faith embraced by many terrorist groups.
As for Pakistan’s continuing support for the Taliban, highlighted by the recently leaked Afghan War Logs, he simply says: “The situation is truly absurd: in order to defeat the forces of the Taliban, Britain is dependent on their main ally.” The author argues that Britain has “long connived with Islamist forces and their Pakistani state sponsors” (page 293). He cites Martin Bright: “It is depressing that so few of the Left have been prepared to engage with the issue of the Foreign Office appeasement of radical Islam except to minimise its significance” (page 307). He comments that this is not so much appeasement, as an effort to “achieve key British foreign policy goals” (page 307).
The “war on terror” has clearly been a war on targets specially designated by London and Washington, not a war on terrorism. After 9/11, the objective case for bombing Riyadh and Islamabad was as strong as bombing Kabul and infinitely stronger than bombing Baghdad.
Former Afghan Prime Minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar(left) and the Haqqani network's founder Jalaluddin Haqqani. Both men had the active support of Britain in the 1980s and 1990s.
The fact that Britain’s allies have been at the centre of global terrorism for at least three decades is simply a fact, and is rarely mentioned in the mainstream. The U.S. and British “war” has left many of the real sources of terrorism in the world untouched. In my view, there is a strong argument for promoting a war on terrorism (although I don’t like the word war), but if taken seriously, it would focus on some interesting places, including London.
As impressive as these sections are, by far the most remarkable but also enraging elements of Secret Affairs are the parts that deal with the state’s relationship with so-called Islamic fundamentalist groups and individuals across the world, but especially in what Curtis refers to as “Londonistan”. In Londonistan, the state provides “welfare to Islamic extremists on the unspoken assumption that if we give them a safe haven here they will not attack us on these shores”. Clearly, since 7/7 that attitude is changing, but not as rapidly as you might think.
Up to date, comprehensive and clearly written, Secret Affairs is a masterly work of great importance and sobering conclusions. The book is not the first that tracks British Foreign Policy: it is preceded by his 1995 book The Ambiguities of Power: British Foreign Policy Since 1945. Bypassing the establishment-friendly analysis of mainstream media and academia, Curtis argues: “The basic fact is that Britain is a major, systematic contributor to much of the world’s suffering and horrors”, carrying out brutal military interventions, large-scale human rights abuses and opposing economic development that benefits the poor. Previously the Director of the World Development Movement and a Research Fellow at Chatham House, Curtis has continued his evidence-based critique of U.K’s foreign policy with 2003’s Web of Deceit and, more recently, Unpeople, in which he maintains Britain “bears significant responsibility” for around 10 million deaths since 1945.
Back to Egypt, Curtis argues that strong parties, notably those like the Muslim Brotherhood, which intend to use the state as a moral actor to enforce Islamisation on people’s private lives, may find some minor advantage in encouraging a radical veneer. Justice, as is often the case with political religions of all faiths, is a slogan that only lightly covers a commitment to free markets. The Brotherhood’s apparent liberal and democratic constitutionalism has made it politically acceptable, and its liberal economic policies has potential partners. Though it has some support from the urban poor, it is its base in the pious bourgeoisie that counts. The Brotherhood plays little role in the social unrest sweeping the working class. It is much more likely that it will return, strengthened by the crises sweeping West Asia, to the high table of global politics, to negotiate, this time openly, with the British and Americans.
The first hundred days of Mohamad Morsy rule have proved that this is the path the Muslim Brotherhood is taking, a path Curtis predicted by closely reading the archives and analysing documents with a critical eye without falling into conspiracy theories. “If it sounds conspiratorial, it is spelled out in the planning files,” says Curtis. “The most obvious is dividing the Middle East after 1918, but throughout the 1950s and 1960s—which I refer to in the book—by keeping oil countries under separate political control so no one can gang up on the West. One should follow the elites’ interest and not resort to conspiracy to understand the situation.”
The book, thus, is a must read not only for those who are interested in this historical account, but also for those who want to analyse the rise to power of the Islamists parties in Egypt and Tunisia despite their cautious participation in the revolutions.
Mayssoun Sukarieh teaches anthropology at the American University of Cairo.