Forgetting Why Al-Qaeda Spread

Exclusive: Al-Qaeda extremism is resurgent across the Middle East with its affiliates seizing territory in western Iraq and in neighboring Syria. But the neocons are whitewashing their role in spreading this extremism via George W. Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq, reports Robert Parry.

By Robert Parry

President George W. Bush and Official Washington’s neocons are gifts that keep on giving, at least to America’s terrorist enemies. The Shiite-Sunni sectarian conflict that Bush and his neocon advisers stirred up by invading Iraq in 2003 has now engulfed the entire region and has given al-Qaeda and its affiliates footholds in countries where they hadn’t existed before the Iraq War.

But the Washington Post’s neocon editorial page, which served as the bullhorn for the Iraq War’s advocates, has figured out who’s to blame for the deepening mess in the Middle East: President Barack Obama for not continuing the U.S. military occupation of Iraq and not intervening more aggressively in Syria to help overthrow President Bashar al-Assad.

President George W. Bush announcing the start of his invasion of Iraq on March 19, 2003.

President George W. Bush announcing the start of his invasion of Iraq on March 19, 2003.

The Post’s version of history as expressed in a lead editorial on Sunday follows the neocon narrative that begins in 2007 with President Bush’s supposed “victory” in Iraq, which President Obama then allegedly squandered by completing the withdrawal of U.S. troops in 2011. According to this neocon narrative, Bush’s “surge” had defeated al-Qaeda forces in Iraq before the feckless Obama threw all that hard-won success away.

Left out of the Post’s narrative is the fact that al-Qaeda didn’t exist in Iraq (or in many other places outside of a few remote areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan) until Bush with the enthusiastic support of the Post’s editorial page invaded Iraq in 2003 and destroyed the delicate balance between Sunni and Shiite sectarian interests across the Middle East. Before and during the war, the Post also helped spread a lot of lies to the American people.

To rile up the American public still traumatized by the 9/11 attacks, Bush and the neocons had pretended that al-Qaeda was in league with Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein who was planning to give the terrorists some of his vast stores of WMD. Thanks to the complicity of the Post and other major U.S. news outlets, the public heard almost no dissent to this false narrative. Not only was the secular Hussein a fierce enemy of al-Qaeda’s brand of Sunni extremism but he had long ago destroyed his WMD stockpiles.

But Bush and the neocons got their invasion of Iraq nonetheless. They ousted Hussein, a Sunni, and replaced him with another authoritarian regime led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite. The sectarian power shift in Baghdad and the U.S. military occupation transformed the Sunni-dominated territories of western Iraq into fertile ground for al-Qaeda, which also understood that keeping American forces tied down in Iraq would keep attention away from the surviving al-Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden, holed up in Pakistan.

Through Bush’s last five years in office amid intense anti-Americanism over the Guantanamo Bay prison and exacerbated by the U.S. invasion of Iraq al-Qaeda affiliates began popping up in other Sunni countries, including Yemen and Libya, while retaining a foothold in Iraq despite many Sunni tribes joining in the fight against the extremists in 2006.

Much like how Saudi national Osama bin Laden got his start in the 1980s in Afghanistan, this spreading Sunni extremism was largely financed by Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf sheikdoms. (The section of the 9/11 Commission’s report about Saudi assistance to al-Qaeda remains classified to this day.)

In recent years, Saudi Arabia again saw the value of supporting militant Sunni factions as a way to counter the growing influence of Shiite-ruled Iran, which had developed close ties with the Maliki government in Iraq and thus had extended the Shiite Crescent from Tehran through Baghdad and Damascus to Beirut, Lebanon.

The Saudi-Israel Tandem

The Saudis also began a behind-the-scenes collaboration with Israel despite historic animosities between the two countries. Increasingly, Saudi Arabia and Israel shared a strategic outlook that saw Iran as their principal enemy and favored covert means for shattering the Shiite Crescent, including Saudi assistance to Sunni jihadist forces seeking to overthrow Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, who is an Alawite, a branch of Shiite Islam.

Last September, Israel’s Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren embraced Saudi Arabia’s violent strategy in Syria when he announced that Israel would prefer to see the Saudi-backed jihadists prevail in Syria over the continuation of the Iran-backed Assad regime.

“The greatest danger to Israel is by the strategic arc that extends from Tehran, to Damascus to Beirut. And we saw the Assad regime as the keystone in that arc,” Oren told the Jerusalem Post in an interview. “We always wanted Bashar Assad to go, we always preferred the bad guys who weren’t backed by Iran to the bad guys who were backed by Iran.” He said this was the case even if the other “bad guys” were affiliated with al-Qaeda.

So, one could view the mess in the Middle East through the prism of Bush’s rash invasion of Iraq and the neocons’ reckless meddling that had destabilized the region. But the Post’s editors chose to start their narrative’s clock much later, all the better to absolve themselves and shift the blame to Obama for not toeing the neocon line and engaging in more military interventions over the past five years.

In the editorial on Sunday, entitled “A slow-motion conflagration,” the Post’s editors wrote that “Across the region, al-Qaeda is surging. At the time of the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, the Sunni jihadist movement had been all but extinguished, thanks to the collaboration of U.S. and Iraqi forces. Now it controls a wide swath of territory in eastern Syria that adjoins Iraq’s Anbar province, where Fallujah and Ramadi are located.

“In Lebanon, too, an al-Qaeda-linked force called the Abdullah Azzam Brigades is believed responsible for multiple attacks, including twin bombings outside the Iranian embassy in November. According to a study by an Israeli think tank released Thursday, the vast majority of the 6,000 to 7,000 militants to infiltrate the area have joined al-Qaeda-linked groups, including more than 1,000 from Western countries.

“For Mr. Obama, the presence of al-Qaeda has been a reason to withhold U.S. aid to rebels fighting the Assad regime and to reject more forceful measures to bring the war to an end. That policy has left his administration without a strategy for preventing the terrorists from consolidating a safe haven in Syria and extending their influence to Lebanon and Iraq, where the gains painfully won by U.S. troops are being reversed.

“The administration has supplied some arms and intelligence to Iraqi government forces fighting al-Qaeda, but that is little more than a palliative. Sooner or later the United States will have to face the threat to its vital interests emerging across the Levant.”

In other words, the Post’s editors reflecting Official Washington’s continuing neocon hubris don’t see any need for self-criticism over the invasion of Iraq or for doubts about the wisdom of other U.S. interventions. The editorial contained not a single word about how the Post and the neocons helped light the match which touched off this “slow-motion conflagration.”

Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his new book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and For a limited time, you also can order Robert Parry’s trilogy on the Bush Family and its connections to various right-wing operatives for only $34. The trilogy includes America’s Stolen Narrative. For details on this offer, click here.

16 comments for “Forgetting Why Al-Qaeda Spread

  1. January 12, 2014 at 16:39

    Thank you Robert Parry for repeatedly reminding us that the claim Reagan was a great President is false. However when it comes to the younger Bush. I think your “US Foreign Policy — If Obama Had Lost” might remind us that the younger Bush was being pushed very hard to do wrong which he resisted a little though not as much as Kennedy, Eisenhower or Obama is. Bush’s father and Reagan before him were real goons.

  2. bobzz
    January 7, 2014 at 10:38

    As I recall, the Israelies wanted to sell anti-rpg equipment to us. It was very effective and worked at 360. From wherever those RPG’s were coming, they were knocked out. We used one excuse after another to not by buy the equipment. The real excuse was that we were waiting on Raytheon to come up with the solution. So, much for the, “Do you support the troops”? question.

  3. January 7, 2014 at 08:47

    The strongest opponent of Al Quaeda was Saddam Hussein who would not stand for any challenge to his authority by any group. “Great Job, Brownie”. Oops I meant Bush/Cheney. There is no doubt that the Bush administration, a ratpack of liars, will go down as the worst administration in the history of this nation.
    “We have IRREFUTABLE PROOF of Iraq’s wmds that the handpicked Bush wmd inspectors did not find.
    Iraqi oil will pay for the war.
    “It will be a cakewalk”
    And the gem of all gems Rums response to a liutenant’s question of why his men had to scavenge through Iraqi dumps to uparmor their vehicles, and I quote verbatim Rum’s response. “When you go to war, you go with the army you got, not the one you want” Rums seems to have forgotten this was a preemptive war. We attacked a paper tiger nation that was of no danger to us first. If Rums didn’t have the army he wanted, why not wait until he got that army. I would assume preemptively attacking a nation without the army you need is gross incompetence and those that pushed for the immediate preemptive attack be brought to justice.

  4. Amanda Matthews
    January 6, 2014 at 23:01

    Possibly because we keep giving the people of the Middle East reasons to despise us?

    Afghans describe relatives’ deaths in recent U.S. drone strike
    Residents of a village in eastern Afghanistan’s Kunar province say a Sept. 7 attack killed 14 civilians, most of them their relatives. The U.S. says 11 were killed, mostly Taliban fighters.
    December 01, 2013|By David Zucchino



    Abdul Ghafar, left, and Rahmat Gul, who both lost relatives in a U.S. drone attack in their Afghan village Sept. 7, watch as a U.S. drone flies over the city of Jalalabad.

    Abdul Ghafar, left, and Rahmat Gul, who both lost relatives in a U.S. drone… (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles…)

    JALALABAD, Afghanistan — Miya Jan was filling potholes on the rutted trail that leads to his village in rugged eastern Afghanistan when he heard the whine of a drone aircraft overhead.

    The sunburned 28-year-old farmer looked up and saw a gray, narrow-winged drone circling the village. A few minutes later, he said, it fired a missile that landed with a tremendous thud across a stony ridge line.

    Jan ran to the explosion site and recognized the burning frame of his cousin’s blue pickup truck. Inside, he said, he saw blackened shapes — people whose torsos had been sheared off. He recognized the smoking remains of his brother, his brother’s wife and their 18-month-old son. Jan and other villagers say 14 people were killed in the attack; U.S. and Afghan officials place the toll at 11.

    “There were pieces of my family all over the road,” said Jan, recalling the deadly Sept. 7 late afternoon incident in an interview last week. “I picked up those pieces from the road and from the truck and wrapped them in a sheet to bury them.

    “Do the American people want to spend their money this way, on drones that kill our women and children?” he asked.

    Report: Former drone operator shares his inner torment

    After the Hellfire missile fired from the drone struck the three men, Bryant watched the aftermath on his infrared display.

    “The smoke clears, and there’s pieces of the two guys around the crater. And there’s this guy over here, and he’s missing his right leg above his knee,” he says in the article in the November issue of GQ.

    “He’s holding it, and he’s rolling around, and the blood is squirting out of his leg, and it’s hitting the ground, and it’s hot. His blood is hot,” Bryant says. “But when it hits the ground, it starts to cool off; the pool cools fast. It took him a long time to die. I just watched him. I watched him become the same color as the ground he was lying on.”

    Hardly a way to win ‘friends and influence people’.

  5. January 6, 2014 at 01:41

    A little real historical review. The US aided fanatics against the USSR in Afghanistan. No it started centuries later when England aided fanatics who wanted to breakaway from the Ottoman Empire. Fast forward, bin Laden was proud that he felt personally responsible for the collapse of the USSR. Especially by bankrupting it. Later mad that US troops defiled sacred Saudi land. Succeeded with 9//11 to get Bush to bring the troops out, but attacked the private contractors who replaced them.

    Al Qaeda is trying to bankrupt the US and is sicking us on other Muslims not that this doesn’t fit in somewhat what the neocons and some others want. Creating a one, two, three punch.

    Muslims in Afghanistan and Russia rightly fear for their lives if they criticize this extremism too much, some speaking out anyway and were killed. While far more safe Americans complain Muslims don’t criticize al Qaeda enough

    Today the US is a big elephant the biggest one in the one in the circus bangs into other circus animals as it tries to stamp on some rabid mice and dangerously bangs into the economic poles of the circus tent as it charges at the mice.

    Bush with his attack on Saddam is just a small part of everything going wrong

  6. bobzz
    January 6, 2014 at 00:44

    You all saw this coming didn’t you? I told my wife it won’t take long for the neocons to begin blaming Obama for the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld debacle. I am surprised it did not begin sooner.

  7. John
    January 5, 2014 at 20:17

    The story of US support for Al Qaeda via Pakistan during its opposition to the USSR in Afghanistan may be just as discrediting to the neocons, and is similarly buried by the mass media. They were given billions in SAMs and other missile and arms, and promoted by Reagan as “freedom fighters.” But the USSR probably offered the only hope for moderation of sectarianism in central Asia and the Mideast, under its ideology economic egalitarian, and we have seen now that this would have led to greater openness and democracy almost before the cultures there were ready for it. If we had let the USSR go ahead there they would have borne the burden we failed to bear, not necessarily with success, but with greater benefit to the people there. Our opposition appears to be the secret project of our right wing militarists angry about Vietnam, once again defeating US interests and everyone else’s with their mindless bullying and secret wars..

    • Amanda Matthews
      January 6, 2014 at 23:11

      There was no way we could let the USSR do the heavy work in Afghanistan. What if they would have succeeded?

      There were 1) a pipeline; 2) rare earths; and, 3) huge amounts of natural gas to think of.

      Always follow the ‘money’.

  8. angryspittle
    January 5, 2014 at 16:39

    George W. Bush, the King with the fecal touch.

  9. Jay
    January 5, 2014 at 15:30

    And here’s an “article” in today’s NYTimes reflecting on growing instability in the region without any mention of the US invasion of Iraq causing the well predicted civil war.

    Same article acts as if the US bears no responsibility for starting and continuing the civil war in Syria.

    • Jay
      January 5, 2014 at 19:30

      I’m wrong the Times article does mention the invasion and Iraq civil war, but the Times is still acting like the editorial page of the WaPost as if the US bears near no responsibility for region wide trouble and war today in early 2014.

      • Amanda Matthews
        January 6, 2014 at 22:41

        Of course not. We destroyed a sovereign nation with a 5000 year history behind it.

        Shock and Awe was the signature on the contract between the bush**/cheney administration, KBR/Halliburton and the petroluem and natural gas industries.

  10. Randal Marlin
    January 5, 2014 at 14:14

    In a report I saw this morning from Associated Press, carried by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, the killing and stringing up of four U.S. military contractors in Fallujah was mentioned, with no reference to the subsequent flattening of the city by U.S. forces. The latter fact might help explain how the remaining population in Fallujah might welcome any force opposed to a U.S.-friendly government in Iraq.

  11. murray dobson
    January 5, 2014 at 13:32

    George W Bush has been out of office for 5 years but his disastrous legacy will blight us all for the rest of our lives.

    • Amanda Matthews
      January 6, 2014 at 22:28

      Most definitely the neo-cons and the bush** administration gave al Quaeda new life. And Israel and the Saudis (the real villains of 911) are stirring up trouble as fast as they can.

      But silly me, I cannot help but wonder how much of this is also because of Obama’s drone program. In case no one noticed, you gain no friends or credibility when you’re blowing up chiidren, grandmas, and wedding parties.

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