By pandering to Saudi Arabia and the Sunni-controlled Gulf states, the U.S. government is playing with fire, allowing the spread of Sunni radicalism to destabilize targeted governments like Syria but unable to control the resulting terrorism, writes Joe Lauria.
By Joe Lauria
African nations were in the forefront of opposing a U.N. Security Council resolution in mid-May that sought to curb the global traffic in small arms because the resolution made no mention of extremist groups obtaining such weapons.
Angola, Chad and Nigeria joined Russia, China and Venezuela in abstaining on the resolution, which barely passed with the minimum 9 votes. Ismael Abraão Gaspar Martins, the Angolan ambassador, told the council that Al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, and Al-Shabaab terrorists benefit from the supply of small arms.
Mahamat Zene Cherif, the ambassador of Chad, said the refusal to add a provision making it illegal to transfer arms to such “non-state actors” was “tantamount to a refusal to prevent conflict and destabilization of a fragile state.”
The insistence of Western countries not to include mention of “non-state actors,” diplomatic speak for terrorists and insurgents, is telling.
“We do not think ill-defined, and practically unenforceable new statements by this council on the subject of ‘non-state actors’ would in any way improve the situation on the ground,” British ambassador Matthew Rycroft said after the vote. But why?
There has long been speculation that Western nations and their Gulf Arab allies have secretly armed and supported extremist and even terrorist groups in the Middle East and Africa to further their strategic goals.
It’s accepted today that the U.S., Saudi Arabia and Pakistan worked together to back mujahedeen rebels who came from across the region to Afghanistan in the 1980s to expel the Soviet Union’s army supporting a leftist and secular regime in Kabul. Out of those groups emerged Al-Qaeda.
The question is, after the Russians left, what happened to the relationship with the Islamist militants? There have been persistent reports that Saudi individuals, if not the government, continued support to jihadists, perhaps in the Balkans, but certainly by 2003 in Iraq and 2011 in Syria.
Then U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in a 2009 classified memo revealed by Wikileaks, wrote: “While the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) takes seriously the threat of terrorism within Saudi Arabia, it has been an ongoing challenge to persuade Saudi officials to treat terrorist financing emanating from Saudi Arabia as a strategic priority.”
But whatever the level of actual U.S. concern about this, there’s no indication Washington has used its considerable leverage with the Saudis to try anything beyond persuasion.
Seymour Hersh, in his seismic piece this month in the London Review of Books on the killing of Osama bin Laden, reported that the Saudis funded bin Laden from 2006 while he was held under house arrest by the Pakistanis. The Saudis insisted the Pakistanis not tell the Americans, Hersh reported.
In a U.S. television interview, Hersh added, “The last thing Saudi Arabia wants is the United States to begin interrogating Osama bin Laden and discover who might have been giving him money, which sheikh, where, in Saudi Arabia in ’01 and ’02, and before or even after.”
After the quiet diplomacy of Clinton’s memo, something changed last year to make the U.S. go public about the need to suddenly rein in terrorist financing: namely, the rapid rise of the uncontrollable Islamic State.
After the U.S. declared war on the Islamic State, Washington pushed through a U.N. Security Council resolution in September that names no state sponsors, but seeks to cut off terrorist funding. President Barak Obama himself chaired the council meeting.
Eight days later U.S. Vice President Joe Biden told a Harvard University audience that, “Our allies poured hundreds of millions of dollars and tens of thousands of tons of weapons into anyone who would fight against [Syrian President Bashar] al-Assad,” including jihadists joining Al-Qaeda. Biden later went on an apology tour of the region, trying to withdraw his remarks.
Was it because the Gulf allies knew something of American complicity? Speculation persists that the West has either been turning a blind eye to Gulf terrorism financing or even actively supporting it, if it dovetails with Western interests. The U.S., Britain and France insist they only support hard-to-find “moderate” Syrian rebels, many of whom defected to the Islamic State, taking their Western equipment with them.
In spite of all this, a smoking gun pinning support for terrorism not only on the Gulf, but also on the West, has been elusive.
Until last week, that is, when a U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency document from August 2012 was declassified and made public after the agency lost a freedom of information request in court. The document says the West, Turkey and Arab Gulf states have supported a Syrian opposition that includes Salafists and al-Nusra, Al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch.
It says this opposition, with support from militants on the Iraqi side of the border, in 2012 was “trying to control the eastern areas [of Syria] adjacent to the Western Iraqi provinces (Mosul and Anbar).”
“Western countries, the Gulf states and Turkey are supporting these efforts” to “prepare safe havens under international sheltering,” the document says.
The documents warned that “if the situation unravels” there is the possibility these safe havens could lead to the establishment of “a declared or undeclared Salafist Principality in eastern Syria.”
Nevertheless, the document says “this is exactly what the supporting powers to the opposition want, in order to isolate the Syrian regime.” The supporting powers are the West, the Gulf Arab States and Turkey.
So this U.S. intelligence document says the West at least up until 2012 was supporting Al-Qaeda and Salafists in Syria in their quest to set up a safe haven to put pressure on Damascus that it correctly predicted would turn into the Islamic State.
U.S. officials were warned. “This creates the ideal atmosphere for [Al-Qaeda in Iraq] to return to its old pockets in Mosul and Ramadi, and will provide a renewed momentum under the presumption of unifying the jihad among Sunni Iraq and Syria,” the document says.
Islamic State of Iraq, as the nascent group was then known, “could also declare an Islamic State through its union with other terrorist organizations in Iraq and Syria,” the document predicts.
It warns that this “will create grave danger in regards to unifying Iraq and the protection of its territory.” Mosul and Ramadi are the two principal Iraqi cities that the Islamic State has taken over.
The document is prescient not only in predicting the rise of the Islamic State, but in warning that it could become a Frankenstein turning on the interests of its backers.
A US official declined to interpret the contents of the document, which he said was raw intelligence. But the document appears to prove that supporting “non-state actors” is a Western, Gulf and Turkish strategy, and that playing with fire will often get you burnt.
Joe Lauria is a veteran foreign-affairs journalist based at the U.N. since 1990. He has written for the Boston Globe, the London Daily Telegraph, the Johannesburg Star, the Montreal Gazette, the Wall Street Journal and other newspapers. He can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter at @unjoe.