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Reverend
Franklin Graham, the pugnacious preacher who delivered the prayer at President
George W. Bush’s 2001 inauguration, might have a bone to pick with the Central
Intelligence Agency (CIA). When Franklin branded Islam “a very evil and wicked
religion” after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, he had no idea that American spies
were once eager to promote a Muslim leader in the Middle East modeled after his
own father, the famous evangelist Billy Graham.


The CIA often
works in mysterious ways – and so it was with this little-known
cloak-and-dagger caper that set the stage for extensive collaboration between
US intelligence and Islamic extremists. The genesis of this ill-starred
alliance dates back to Egypt in the mid-1950s, when the CIA made discrete
overtures to the Muslim Brotherhood, the influential Sunni fundamentalist
movement that fostered Islamic militancy throughout the Middle East. What
started as a quiet American flirtation with political Islam became a Cold War
love affair on the sly – an affair that would turn out disastrously for the
United States. Nearly all of today’s radical Islamic groups, including
al-Qaeda, trace their lineage to the Brotherhood.


“The Muslim
Brothers are at the root of a lot of our troubles,” says Col. W. Patrick Lang,
one of several US intelligence veterans interviewed for this article . Formerly
a high-ranking Middle East expert at the Defense Intelligence Agency Lang
considers al-Qaeda to be “a descendent of the Brotherhood.


For many
years, the American espionage establishment had operated on the assumption that
Islam was inherently anti-communist and there fore could be harnessed to
facilitate US objectives. American officials viewed the Muslim Brotherhood as
“a secret weapon” in the shadow war against the Soviet Union and it’s Arab
allies, according to Robert Baer, a retired CIA case officer who was right in
the thick of things in the Middle East and Central Asia during his 21 year
career as a spy. In Sleeping with the Devil, a book he wrote after quitting the
CIA Baer explains how the United States “made common cause with the Brothers”
and used them “to do our dirty work in Yemen, Afghanistan and plenty of other
places”. This covert relationship; unraveled when the Cold War ended, whereupon
an Islamic Frankenstein named Osama bin Laden lurched into existence.


Described by
ex-CIA analyst Graham Fuller as “the preeminent international Islamist
organization,” the Muslim Brotherhood currently has a huge following with
autonomous branches, all in close contact, spread across the Arab world.


But it is
banned in several countries, including Egypt, it’s birthplace, for being an
alleged front for terrorists – a claim its supporters adamantly deny even
though bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders had close personal ties to the
Brotherhood prior to September 11, 2001


To understand
what happened on that fateful day when terrorist strikes leveled the World
Trade Center and damaged the Pentagon, one must revisit the turbulent changes
that took place a half century earlier in the land of the sphinx. After seizing
power in a 1952 military coup Egyptian Col. Gamal Abdul Nasser quickly threw
prominent Communists in jail. This raised eyebrows among US cloak-and-dagger
operatives who were eager to oblige when Nasser requested help in upgrading
Egypt’s ineffectual secret service. But the US government “found it highly
impolitic to help him directly,” the late CIA agent Miles Copeland acknowledged
in his memoirs, The Game of Nations , so the CIA subcontracted more than a
hundred German Third Reich vets, who specialized in Nazi security and
interrogation techniques, to do the job.


Before long,
however, US officials grew wary of Nasser, who seemed like a loose cannon on
the deck of Middle Eastern politics. A fervent pan-Arab nationalist, he
rebuffed American appeals to join a neutralist coalition of Third World nations
that favored an independent stance during the Cold War. Non-alignment in the
East-West conflict was an abomination to CIA director Allen Dulles and he
bristled at Nasser’s growing stature as a charismatic leader who could
galvanize Arabs and Muslims far beyond Egypt, “If that colonel of yours pushes
us too far, we will break him in half,” Dulles admonished Copeland, the CIA’s
man-on-the-spot in Cairo.


Copeland
pondered ways to knock the pesky Nasser off his pedestal. One scheme called for
slipping the Egyptian president a surreptitious dose of LSD to induce bizarre
public behavior that would discredit him and tarnish his heroic image. But this
wasn’t feasible. Instead of an acid hit, American spies opted for pushing “the
opiate of the masses,” as Karl Marx sp famously described religion.


There were
notable precedents for marshaling religious sentiment to advance America” Cold
War agenda . In 1948, the fledging CIA enlisted the cooperation of the Vatican
and Catholic Action, the largest Catholic lay organization in Italy, in a
successful campaign to deliver the vote and vanquish left-wing parties in a
hotly contested Italian election. Although Muslims have no pope or
authoritative religious hierarchy, CIA strategists figured they could win over
Arab hearts and minds by manipulating Islamic piety. Copeland recounts in The
Game of Nations how the CIA engaged in black propaganda operations in Egypt
that sought to demonstrate “Soviet ungodliness” by circulating anti-Islamic
literature – including books with titles like Against the Veil and Mohammed
Never Existed – while attributing its distribution to the Soviet embassy.


But cutting
Nasser down to size was a much taller order than making the Soviets look like
atheists. What the CIA really needed, according to Copeland was a “religious
spellbinder” to alter Arab opinion and “divert the growing stream of
anti-American hostility” . As Copeland recalled, “I wanted to find and groom a
messiah who would start out in Egypt, and then spread his word to Africans and
perhaps other Third World peoples. Our Chosen One would immunize them against
false prophets,” I.e., Nasser and other non-aligned nationalist leaders.


Miles knew
“from what was happening in America that a religious movement didn’t have to
make sense in order to attract adherents,” as he put it. He was referring to
Billy Graham’s sick gospel and salvation road show, which drew huge crowds
across the USA in the early 1950’s. The meteoric transformation of this
dime-a-dozen, Protestant Bible-thumper into a big time celebrity evangelist
evidently made quite an impression on Copeland, who came up with the bright
idea to sponsor “a Moslem Billy Graham.


Copeland was
off and running. He visited several Egyptian mosques in search of an Islamic
preacher who could sway the Arab masses in a manner most congenial to US
interests. Although Copeland never found the CIA’s messiah, his furtive
machinations were not without impact. While on the prowl for a Muslim Billy
Graham, Copeland reached out to leaders of the religious revival movement known
as the Ikhwan, or Muslim Brotherhood, which sought to build an Islamic society
from the bottom up. The seeds of a clandestine relationship between the CIA and
the Ikhwan were planted by Copeland, who surmised that the Muslim Brothers, by
virtue of their strong antipathy to Arab nationalism as well as Communism,
might be a viable counterweight to Nasser in the years ahead, US intelligence
would become a defacto partner of the Brotherhood as it evolved from a
mass-based social reform organization into the wellspring of Islamic terrorism.


“Any contact
Miles had with the Muslim Brotherhood was not official policy,” insists retired
CIA officer Raymond Close, a colleague of Copeland in the Middle East. “It was
strictly solo work on his part. There were an awful lot of things that Miles
did that were totally off the board.”


Whether
Copeland’s efforts were “off the board” or otherwise, the Muslim Brotherhood
was certainly a force to be reckoned with. Since its inception in 1928, the
Society of the Muslim Brothers sought to restore Islamic law and values in the
face of growing Western influence. Launched as a social welfare association, it
became a focal point of resistance to British colonial rule. The Special Order
Group, a secret paramilitary wing set up by the Brotherhood, carried out
guerrilla raids in Egypt during the 1940′s, bombing British installations and
killing British soldiers and civilians. By the time Brotherhood founder Hassan
al-Banna was assassinated in 1949, the fast-growing Ikhwan, with its
distinctive green flag crossed with white swords and a red Koran, had a half
million Egyptian members and affiliates in several other countries.


When a group
of young Egyptian army officers led by Col. Nasser toppled the pro-British
monarchy, the Muslim Brotherhood gave them full support. But the Brothers soon
had a falling out with Nasser when it became apparent that he did not intend to
establish an Islamic state. Egypt’s secular strongman cracked down hard on the
Muslim Brethren, which comprised the largest organized popular force in the
country and the last obstacle to his autocratic leadership. Nasser’s aim was
not to banish religious expression from the political domain, but to prohibit
any religious expression that was not government controlled.


In the wake of
failed assassination attempt against Nasser in October 1954, Egyptian
authorities outlawed the Muslim Brotherhood, jailed and tortured thousands of
its members and killed several of its leaders. Some went underground or fled
the country to escape successive waves of brutal repression aimed at smashing
the Brethren.


Saudi Arabia
became a magnet for many persecuted Islamist refugees not only from Egypt but
also from Syria, Iraq, Libya and other Arab states where the Muslim Brothers
were perceived as a threat to the secular, nationalist order. Ikgwani
expatriates were welcomed by the oil-rich Saudi monarchy, which became the
principal patron of the Brotherhood on the Arabian Peninsula and elsewhere. A
strategic US ally, the Saudi royal family was so hostile to godless Communism
that it did not even maintain diplomatic relations with Moscow.


American
intelligence formed a three-way tryst with the Saudis and the Muslim Brothers,
according to Robert Baer, the former case officer in the CIA’s Directorate of
Operations, With the CIA’s implicit approval, the Saudi royals channeled funds
to the Brothers, who joined a US-backed anti-Nasser insurgency in Yemen in
1962. “Like any other truly effective covert action, this one was strictly off
the books,” explains Baer “There was no CIA finding, no memorandum of
notification to Congress. Not a penny came out of the Treasury to fund it. All
the White House had to do was give a wink and a nod to countries harboring the
Brothers”


Yemen was just
a warm up. To give a boost to Islamic proselytizing the Saudis with CIA
encouragement, founded the Muslim World League in 1962. Underwritten initially
by several donors including the Saudi-based Aramco oil consortium (then a CIA
collaboration, the League established a formidable international presence with
representatives in 120 countries. Members of the Muslim Brotherhood occupied
key staff positions at the League while it disseminated anti-communist
religious propaganda and sponsored the construction of mosques and Islamic
center’s around the world.


Exiled Ikhwani
were also employed as teachers and imams in Saudi mosques, schools and
government agencies, where they promoted the extremist doctrine of Sayyid Qutb,
the Brotherhood’s leading scribe and theorist. Executed in 1966 after 10 years
of confinement in Egyptian torture chambers, Qutb is arguably the most
influential religious scholar in modern Islam. He fashioned a lethal variant of
political Islam that provided a Koranic justification for violence as the only
way to rid the Muslim world of corrupting Western influences. Qutb’s hostility
toward the West, in general, and the United States, in particular, was born
during two years of study at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley in
the late 1940′s. He returned to Egypt mortified by decadent, sex-crazed
America, which he likened to a brothel.


The Muslim
Brotherhood underwent a significant shift with the radicalization of Qutb in
prison. What had been essentially a reformist organization in its formative
phase veered off in a dangerous new direction. In addition to intro ducting a
harsh anti-American perspective to the Brethren, Qutb called for the formation
of a revolutionary Islamic vanguard to spearhead the violent overthrow of
secular Arab regimes. Qutb’s martyrdom bestowed instant credibility upon his
message, which posthumously filled the ideological void left by the huge Arab
defeat in the 1967 Six Day War with Israel, a defeat that shamed Nasser and
discredited the Arab nationalist cause.


Qutb’s
inflammatory writings would decisively influence a generation of young
militants, including the future spear-carriers of al-Qaeda. Osama bin Laden,
the tall, handsome scion of a wealthy Persian Gulf family, was first exposed to
Qutb’s nostrums while attending King Abdul-Aziz University in Jeddah. One of
bin Laden’s instructors in religious studies was Egyptian Professor Muhammed
Qutb, the exiled brother of Sayyid Qutb, who taught classes on the imperatives
and nuances of Islamic jhad.


After Nasser
died in 1970, the Muslim Brethren, buoyed by Saudi petrodollars, resurfaced in
Egypt. The newly emboldened Ikhwani were wooed by President Anwaar Sadat,
Nasser’s successor, who freed Islamic activists from jail, lifted some
restrictions on the Brothers, and turned them loose against the Nasserite
die-hards and leftist student groups who disapproved of Sadat’s decision to
make amends with the United States. Sadat’s courtship of the Brotherhood
elicited more winks and nods from US intelligence. Right under the CIA’s nose,
the officially-banned by semi-tolerated Muslim Brotherhood was going through a
momentous transformation in its country of origin.


French scholar
Gilles Kepel, the author of Jhad: The Trail of Political Islam, describes how
Qutb’s theories found a receptive audience at Egyptian university campuses,
giving rise to a potent radical wing with in the Islamist movement. When the
older leaders of the Ikhwan, chastened by years of repression, repudiated armed
confrontation in favor of gradual efforts to reform the system, renegade
Brothers created several violent splinter groups and vowed to wage holy war
against an authoritarian Egyptian regime, which they saw as corrupt,
anti-Islamic, and a US puppet. The heads of two Brotherhood breakaway factions
– the Egyptian Islamic Jhad of Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri and the Islamic Group of
Sheik Omar Abdei Rahman – were among those implicated in the 1981 assassination
of President Sadat.


Today Rahman,
a blind Egyptian cleric, is serving a life sentence in the United States for
plotting to blow up the United Nations, Manhattan’s FBI building, the George
Washington Bridge and other New York City landmarks, while Dr. al-Zawahiri, a
squat, bespectacled zealot with a round head and owlish face, appears in
post-9/11 video footage sitting on the right-hand side of Osama bin Laden.
Dubbed “the brains behind al-Qaeda,” al-Zawahiri became bin Laden’s top deputy
after the Egyptian physician had matriculated through the ranks of the Muslim
Brothers.


Muslim
Brotherhood veterans have played a prominent role during every phase of bin
Laden’s terrorist odyssey. As a college student he was mentored by Abdullah
Azzam, a Palestinian Brother, who convinced the young Saudi to join the
anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan, a cause embraced by Islamists worldwide,
moderates and radicals alike, after the Red Army invaded in 1979. That same
year, Islamists Shiite revolutionaries led by the Ayatollah Khomeini overthrew
America’s longtime partner, the Shah of Iran. These tumultuous events
underscored the geopolitical importance of the Saudi connection to unnerved US
officials. Henceforth, Saudi Arabia would serve as a Sunni Muslim bulwark
against Shiite extremism, while also matching the United States dollar for
dollar in support of the Afghan mujahedin guerillas who were fighting against
the Soviets.


In 1984, Azzam
and bin Laden jointly set up the Service Bureay, based in Peshawar, which
played a pivotal role in organizing Islamic militants from 43 countries,
including the United States, who flocked to Pakistan’s North-West Frontier
territory to join the anti-communist jihad. With contacts spread across North
Africa and the Middle East the Muslim Brotherhood was instrumental in
recruiting many of these foreign Islamic volunteers. Jane’s Defence Weekly estimates
that 14,000 of the so-called “Afghan Arabs” (though none were Afghans and many
were not Arabs) trained in guerrilla camps, where paramilitary drills were
infused with radical Islamic teachings. Some of these outside agitators fought
along side CIA-backed mujahedin units during clashes with the Red Army.


Once again, an
off-the-shelf approach to nation-tampering was deemed preferable by US
intelligence as the Afghanistan operation grew by leaps and bounds during the
1980’s. It became the largest covert intervention in the CIA’s history, with
Washington’s funneling more than $3 billion worth of aid and military equipment
to the mujahedin through Pakistan military intelligence, which served as a
conduit for American and Saudi largesse. In Ghost Wars, a compelling narrative
history of the CIA’s Afghan imbroglio Steve Coll discusses how this cut-out
arrangement provided US intelligence with a layer of deniability while its
Pakistan proxy pushed aside traditional Afghan mujahedin organizations lacking
the requitsite fundamentalist ardor and boosted the four mujahedin groups led
by militants aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood. The CIA, according to Cole,
never pressed Pakistan to back the more moderate, nationalist-oriented
mujahedin rebels instead of the radical Islamic Afghan leaders who touted the
writings of Sayyid Qutb, which were translated into local Afghan dialects.


A well-known
figure among the Muslim Brotherhood-linked Afghan factions, bin Laden also
collaborated with top Saudi and Pakistani espionage officers. Although bin
Laden had no official contact with the CIA, his efforts to create an Islamic
foreign legion were generally looked upon with favor by US intelligence. The
more anti-communist forces in the fray the better, they figured. The going assumption
was that these bearded extremists could be revved up and covertly deployed when
Washington needed “a cheap no-American-casualties way to fight the Soviet
Union,” as Baer put it.


Some of Baer’s
colleagues at the CIA thought the foreign legion contingent should be formally
endorsed and expanded. “The CIA examined ways to increase their participation…
but nothing came of it,” then-CIA deputy director Robert Gates said of the
Islamic volunteers, who, if nothing else, were useful from a public relations
perspective. The burgeoning international brigade was touted as proof that the
entire Muslim world stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the Afghan mujahedin
against the Evil Empire. No one at the CIA reckoned that the foreign
legionnaires had their own agenda.


Even before
the Red Army withdrew the last of its regiments from Afghanistan in 1989, bin
Laden was already hatching ambitious plans to wage a worldwide jihad. The
Soviet pull out prompted a wholesale scattering of foreign volunteers, who
retruned to their respective countries imbued witht eh spirit of Islamic
revolution and ready to carry on the struggle. About 1000 militants remained in
Afghanistan, many of these men could not go home because they were wanted for
crimes against the state. This self-selecting stay-behind network formed the
core of al-Qaeda, which became even leaner and meaner when bin Laden
transferred his base of operations to the Sudan in 1991.


For the next
five years, bin Laden and his inner circle were holed up in Khartoum courtesy
of Sheikh Hassan al-Turabi, the Sorbonne-educated head of the Muslim
Brotherhood’s Sudanese branch. Dubbed the “black pope”, Turabi came to power on
the heels of a military coup and immediately announced that Islamic law would
be strictly enforced in his country. He was hin Laden’s protector during this
crucial period of exile, together they hosted strategic powwow’s with
representatives from several Islamic terrorist organizations, including Hamas,
a Palestinian offshoot of the Brotherhood. There was considerable debate among
jihadists over whether to target the “near enemy” (apostate regimes in the
Muslim world or the “far enemy ,” (the Western powers thwarting the
implementation of Islamic rule.) More militants parted ways with al-Qaeda when
it’s leadership dominated by Egyptian veterans of the Muslim Brotherhood ,
decided to go after “the head of the snake, “ which is how they described the
United States.


By a process
of elimination, only the hardest of the hardcore stayed with bin Laden when he
and 150 border-hopping Islamic radicals and their families moved back to
Afghanistan in 1996. Shortly thereafter, according to the official September 11
Commission, Khalid Shekh Mohammed, a tubby young engineer, approached bin Laden
and pitched an outlandish idea to hijack jets and fly them into buildings in
New York and Washington. This was the origin of the collective muder-suicide
assaults that killed nearly 3000 people on September 11, 2001. Mohammed, the
self-described mastermind of the 9/11 operation who had cut his teeth with the
Kuwaiti chapter of the Muslim Brotherhood, is now in US custody.


The emergence
of anti-American terrorist cadres from the bowels of the CIA’s proxy war in
Afghanistan took US spymasters by surprise. It was blunder as colossal as the
CIA’s inability to predict the collapse of Soviet Bloc Communism. ”Conceptually
we failed,” admits Baer, “ We didn’t consider Sunni Islam to be a threat to the
West…We didn’t want to see it.” While CIA operatives fixated on Shiite Iran as
the fount of religiously motivated terrorism, a stateless network of Muslim
Brotherhood-inspired zealots morphed into a worldwide insurgency. “The militant
wing of the Muslim Brotherhood is essentially what we’re facing today.” asserts
Baer.


Perhaps Col.
W. Patrick Lang, formerly with the Defense Intelligence Agency, summed it up
best by nothing the similarities between the Brotherhood and the Irish
Republican Army (IRA). “There is the main IRA, whick=h eschews violence, and
the “Provisional IRA, the armed wing. And there’s also the ‘Real IRA’, a more
extreme spin-off from the Provisionals …These groups tend to fracture as they
develop almost theological – and in the xcase of the Muslim Brothers actual
theological – differences. They find each other’s projected courses of action
to be insufficiently zealous or earnest or pure enough. And in Islam, of
course, there’s no hierarchy to settle ideological disputes.


And so it
continues as al-Qaeda chieftains criticize the Muslim Brotherhood for its
accommodating stance toward secular rulers in Egypt and Jordan, where several
Ikhwani sit in parliament. At the same time, moderate Brotherhood leaders – the
Islamist movement’s elder establishment – have condemned terrorist attacks by
bin Laden as “a grave sin,” Pursuant to their long-term strategy of using
peaceful means to turn Egypt into an Islamic republic, the Muslim Brotherhood
have taken over numerous trade unions and professional associations, while
operating banks, businesses, health clinics, schools, and legal services that
often outperform shabby government institutions. With more than two million
members divided into several thousand semi-clandestine cells throughout the
country, the Brothers are still subjected to episodic police raids,
incarceration and torture. But these measures have failed to stifle popular
support for a mainstream movement that, for a better or worse, expresses the
concerns, aspirations and legitimate grievances of Muslims from all social
strata.


America’s
invasion of Iraq – “an avaricious, premeditated unprovoked was against a foe
who posed no immediate threat,” as one CIA agent scathingly put it – has
energized the entire spectrum of Islamist groups. While they give voice to
anti-US passions and pervasive feelings of the injustice in Muslim communities,
moderate Islamist also risk losing followers to fanatical jihad cults spawned
by the Brotherhood. (The opiate of the masses turns out to be a gateway drug,
as well.) According to a recent report by the London-based International
Institute for Strategic Studies, Iraq is now a fertile breeding ground for new
recruits that have swelled al-Qaeda’s ranks to more than 18,000 potential
terrorists.


In response to
a plethora of social and economic ills that bedevil the Muslim world, the
answer from every Brotherhood chapter and affiliate has always been the same:
Islam is the solution,” Ironically, US spymasters also once saw Islam as the
solution to America’s problems in the Middle East. Fifty years ago, a CIA cad
dreamed of an Arab messiah, “a Moslem Billy Graham,” who would plunk for US
priorities in Egypt and beyond. That’s how it all began. And now, ironically,
it’s onward Christian soldiers with Rev. Franklin Graham, Billy’s prodigal son,
denigrating Islam and trumpeting the clash of civilizations as he dispatches American
missionaries to save souls in US-occupied Iraq. Aself-fulfilling prophet,
Franklin carries on like God’s gift to bin Laden, who must be laughing
somewhere in his cave or his grave.


Martin A.Lee

RAZOR Magazine

September 2004


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