A contemporary history of the Muslim world, part 15: The ‘Afghan Arabs’ : foreign fighters in Afghanistan

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We have already looked in previous posts at the war in Afghanistan from its beginnings in 1979, beyond the Soviet pullout and into its civil war phase, up to the Taliban’s conquest over much of the country in 1996. This gives us, in a fair amount of detail, a good understanding of the heterogenous groups first fighting the Soviets in a loose coalition, and then each other, providing the background for the story we have to tell here, of another group which assisted in the jihad of the 1980s, those who volunteered from other countries throughout the Muslim world to help their Afghan brethren defeat the invaders. While these ‘Afghan Arabs’ (yes, the term belies the fact that these were not Afghans and sometimes not Arabs either, but it’s the term people use) were a small minority of those who fought the Soviet Union, and the importance of their contribution is debated (even bin Laden acknowledged that the war was won by ‘poor, barefoot Afghans’) their status and reputation was legendary among Muslims. There is another reason why they are a focus of interest, and that is in the widespread perception that Afghanistan provided the breeding/training ground for the internationalist strand of jihadism that would emerge in the 1990s, often (clumsily, I will argue) lumped together under the label of al-Qaeda.

This post will be an attempt to trace the participation of these non-Afghan fighters in the Afghan war, then look at their evolution as the war was winding down into something else, which will turn against the sole remaining superpower which had helped in the jihad against the Russians. Essentially, we will try and trace the roots of al-Qaeda, but it should be noted at the outset that looking into the genesis of al-Qaeda is a minefield. You quickly realise there are numerous different accounts of its early years, different opinions as to when it was ‘founded’ (if this word even has any real meaning here) and what we even mean when we use the term al-Qaeda (a word meaning, the ‘base’ or ‘foundation’ in Arabic). Rather than favour any single one of these accounts, I am going to try and synthesise what seem to me the more reputable of them, and by necessity keep things somewhat vague where there is absolutely no consensus on an issue.

So there is going to be a lot of ‘in the late 1980s’ and so forth in what follows, at least up until 1998, and the aftermath of the US embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, when something called al-Qaeda begins to emerge from the mists of obscurity in contemporary documents. I think it’s interesting, for a multinational organisation that some claim had existed from the late 1980s onwards, that I can find not a single reference to the name al-Qaeda in any of the major western newspapers until 1998, and the American president Clinton continued to use the term ‘bin Laden network’ for the group even after 1998. This is worth bearing in mind. If anyone out there has fluent Arabic and can do a text search of some database with all the major Arabic-language newspapers and journals, I would be very interested in seeing what the earliest reference to the ‘organisation’ they can find.

Before we get to al-Qaeda, however, it is important to remember that such an organisation did not exist during the war against the Soviet Union. The main organisation for funneling Muslim recruits and money into the country from outside was the Maktab al-Khidamat (MAK), usually known in English as the Afghan Services Bureau. This was basically a guest house in Peshawar where Muslims from outside could stay on their way to the battlefield, receive training and indoctrination. It also acted as a publishing centre for theological works, primarily those written by the founder of the MAK, Abdullah Azzam, a Jordanian-Palestinian scholar and jihadist who was the ideological driving force behind the development of an internationalist and militant Islamist movement towards the end of the war, anxious that the momentum should not be lost and the foreign fighters disbanded.

Although bin Laden is often represented as the mastermind behind these developments, in many ways this is anachronistic, a result of the prominent role bin Laden assumed in the 1990s. In fact, it was Azzam (below) who was bin-Laden’s elder mentor for much of the 1980s and some even credit him as coming up with the term al-qaeda al-sulbah (the solid base) in a magazine article he wrote, to refer to the revolutionary vanguard he argued was necessary to lead the Muslim world into rejuvenation and a resurrection of the Caliphate. While this might be an accurate explanation of the origin of the term al-Qaeda, this sounds a little bit too neat to me. Bin Laden himself is supposed to have said the name came about more or less by accident as a result of the term ‘base’ being used to refer to the Salafist training camps in Afghanistan, from which the name stuck. Either way, perhaps the best way to explain the evolution of this movement is to look a bit at the personal histories of the three figures so instrumental in its foundation and development: Azzam, bin-Laden, and Ayman al-Zawahiri, whom we have already met in part two of this blog.

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Abdullah Azzam was born in what is now the West Bank, Palestine, in 1941. The 1967 war forced him and his family to flee to Jordan when he was twenty-five years old. He secured a job as a teacher in Jordan (he had already begun his life-long study of Islamic jurisprudence) but abandoned what might have been a relatively-secure (given the circumstances) existence to join the Fedayeen fighters against Israel. While, as we have seen in previous posts, the Palestinian resistance to Israel, led by the PLO was overwhelmingly secular (Hamas would not be founded until 1987), Azzam was unusual in that he combined his attempts to liberate his homeland with membership of the Muslim Brotherhood, at the same time developing militant ideas about reviving Islam that were at odds with the Brotherhood and had more in common with Salafist ideologies. Indeed Azzam found himself at odds with the PLO and was reportedly once brought before a tribunal, accused of insulting Che Guevara, to which he replied that Islam was his religion, and Che Guevara under his foot.

At this stage in the early 1970s, the left-wing umbrella-organisation, the PLO, was the only show on the road as regards resistance to Israel and, feeling such groups dishonoured Islam and neglected the broader cause of Islam in pursuit of Palestinian goals (although these should be central to a wider struggle), Azzam abandoned the fight and returned to his academic work in Egypt and Jordan. Having been fired for his continuing political activism in Jordan, he moved to a university position in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia in 1981. It was not long before Azzam, who seems to have been a somewhat restless figure, began to feel disenchanted with those around him who, while they may have agreed on much ideologically, did little or nothing to put their ideas into action. The perfect opportunity was arising far to the east, however, where the war in Afghanistan was intensifying, and he perceived clearly that, while Palestine would always been the more important long-term goal for him, Afghanistan was the more immediate and pressing business at hand. He managed to get himself transferred to a university in Islamabad, Pakistan, from which he began to regularly visit Peshawar, the gateway for foreign jihadists into the Afghan war, a city he often referred to (here’s that term again) as al-qaeda al-sulbah.

He met Osama bin Laden (below) on one of his many return visits to Jeddah in 1984. Bin Laden’s family owned the guest house where Azzam would stay, preaching and raising money for the cause in Afghanistan and the younger bin Laden was profoundly influenced by Azzam. At this stage, the jihad had the full support of the Saudi state, and Azzam’s call for an influx of Muslim fighters into Afghanistan had been endorsed by the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, effectively the seal of approval from the king himself.

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Bin Laden in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

Osama bin Laden was born in 1957, one of over fifty children of the Yemeni construction magnate Mohammed bin Awad bin Laden who died in 1967 in an airplane crash. His mother was a Syrian of Yemeni descent, Hamida al-Attas, who divorced Mohammed soon after Osama’s birth. It is sometimes claimed that she belonged to the Alawite sect, and even that she wasn’t really married to Mohammed bin Laden, being merely his concubine or ‘slave wife’, but this seems to be a fairly crude attempt to denigrate Osama bin Laden himself, and there is no evidence he was treated as a ‘lesser’ member of the  extended family, which he surely would have been if this was the case.

Although there is no direct evidence for it, bin Laden’s first meeting with Azzam may have been in the late 1970s, as he attended the University of Jeddah to study business, and probably received religious instruction at the same time Azzam was working there. Most accounts of bin Laden in these years describe a hard-working, conscientious young man, modest almost to the point of shyness, and dedicated to his family, its construction business, and his religious faith. He worked for his father’s company, and not just in the token way the kids of rich people sometimes work, but actually worked on the sites, operating machinery, eating with the workers and earning a reputation for quiet generosity and for helping those less fortunate than himself while, although insanely wealthy, living a markedly austere lifestyle himself. There is no reason to doubt any of the many positive descriptions of bin Laden’s character that come down to us from those who knew him, especially those who have no ideological reason to eulogise him, and indeed have come under significant pressure to disparage and condemn him. There must, after all, be some reason for the tremendous personal loyalty he inspired in those around him, and we don’t need to buy into the simplistic image of an irredeemable monster that is peddled by the tabloid media. The overwhelming evidence is, unsurprisingly, that he had some admirable qualities, and this  does not imply sympathy for his ideas or actions.

Another notable aspect of bin Laden’s character was the synthesis of word and deed. Like Azzam, bin Laden knew his theology and, like Azzam,  knew that book learning alone was worthless unless acted upon. Conversely, he had tremendous respect for religious scholars, recognising that action without the wisdom to guide action alone was worthless too. If Azzam had been the kind of stay-at-home religious scholar that bin Laden would later criticise for not travelling to Afghanistan and joining the fight, their relationship would not have been as profound as it was, but his equal dedication to lecturing, writing and to fighting on the battlefield was one of the reasons the younger man admired him so much.

Although the precise date of his arrival in Afghanistan is debated, Osama bin Laden traveled to the war zone within months, perhaps weeks (some even say days but this is probably an exaggeration) of the war’s outbreak in December 1979. In these first few years. he acted mainly a conduit through which money passed from Saudi supporters to the Afghan Mujahideen. He recognised that his family’s financial resources, and those of other Saudis, were the greatest gift he could bestow on the cause at this juncture, and spent his time fundraising among his fellow Saudis and managing the disbursal of these resources back in Afghanistan-Pakistan. As time went on, however, he gradually assumed a more hands-on role as he developed a network of contacts, with the help of Azzam, and honed his military and organisational skills, taking a more and more prominent role in the operations of the MAK. For most of the 1980s, the Saudi government worked hand in glove with bin Laden and the Afghan fighters. Bin Laden’s main point of contact with the Saudi state was Turki al-Faisal, the son of King Faisal (see part 12), the head of its intelligence service, the Al Mukhabarat Al A’amah (General Intelligence Directorate) from 1979 to 2001. This is he in 2002 (for such an important dude, he seems to have been surprisingly camera-shy throughout the 1980s-1990s; I can find no images of him in that period whatsoever):

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Bin Laden’s deteriorating relationship with the Saudi state in the early 1990s will be key to understanding his evolution from a jihadist against the communist enemy in Afghanistan, to declaring war on those governments in Muslim countries who he saw as inimical to Islam, and their chief enabler: the United States. Throughout the 1980s, however, he and the Saudi regime were rock solid in their support of the Afghans. You might want to return and look at part ten to refresh your memory as to the various factions fighting the war. Most of the resources from bin Laden and the Saudis were funneled into the factions of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, that is, those with the most fundamentalist and intolerant vision of Islam (and that is saying something, given the competition they were up against). Sayyaf, who had the closest links of all with Saudi Arabia, was the main facilitator in bin Laden building his ‘Afghan Arab’ unit, an objective which indicates something of a rift growing between bin Laden and Azzam from around 1987 onwards, as the two men began to grow apart on these subtle ideological differences.

Azzam had always a champion of promoting unity among the Ummah (the community of all Muslims) and wanted to disperse the non-Afghan volunteers out among the various Afghan groups as a way of fostering this. Bin Laden, however, was keen to found a separate unit of foreign fighters, believing this would better prepare them to return to their own countries after the war and wage war against the secular authorities there. There was also a perception that the ‘Afghan Arabs’ were being used by Afghan commanders as cannon fodder, although I have conversely read in places that there was an opposite concern, that the Afghans were treating the foreign volunteers as guests and refusing to put them in danger, depriving them of valuable combat experience. There was also a concern among Afghan commanders that the foreign volunteers were overzealous in seeking martyrdom, disrupting Afghan units with their recklessness. While prepared to die for the cause if necessary, Afghans were fighting a war to liberate their country and trying not to get themselves killed.

Another potentially-more troublesome rift was that Azzam championed Massoud (whom he described as the best Mujahideen commander) and this led to tensions with bin Laden and his allies. Perhaps the word ‘allies’ is putting it a bit too strongly. We should not exaggerate the differences he had with Azzam. Both men were concerned with preserving the unity of the Afghan forces and tried to avoid taking sides. Bin Laden would continue this attempt during the collapse into inter-factional fighting that followed the defeat of the communists.  Azzam and bin Laden remained friends and comrades, and there is certainly no evidence to suggest that bin Laden was involved in the conspiracies that grew up among Azzam’s enemies and eventually led to his assassination in November 1989, only months after the Soviet withdrawal, but before the Afghan communist regime had been defeated.

But before we get to Azzam’s death, however, there is one more faction among the ‘Afghan Arabs’ that we should examine, that led by the Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri.

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Zawahiri at some point in the mid 1990s.

We have already briefly examined the early career of al-Zawahiri way back in part two when he was among the hundreds of Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ) members rounded up and arrested in the aftermath of Sadat’s assassination in 1981. Following this, he was imprisoned and tortured in Mubarak’s prisons for three years, leaving Egypt upon his release in 1984, first for Saudi Arabia and then to Pakistan and Afghanistan, where he had already worked as a relief worker prior to his arrest in Egypt. It was here that he met Azzam and bin Laden. Al-Zawahiri was one of many members of EIJ who left Egypt during the years after Mubarak’s crackdown, as hopes for a religiously-inspired uprising of the people in their country were disappointed.

A potted history of EIJ might be in order here, seeing as they are going to be folded into the broader story of Salafi jihadism as it evolves in the 1990s. For the background to the Egypt of the 1970s in which EIJ had it roots, see part two. As we have seen, al-Zawahiri had already been involved in underground Islamist activity since the death of Sayyd Qutb in 1966. The individual who provided the catalyst for the formation of a jihadist organisation, however, was Muhammad abd-al-Salam Faraj (below left), an engineer and university administrator who wrote a widely-read pamphlet entitled The Neglected Obligation (in English sometimes translated as the ‘The Neglected Duty’, the ‘Forgotten Duty’ or variations thereof), which argued that, not only did the defense of Islam justify the taking up of arms against unjust rulers who were hostile to it, but that this was in fact a duty of all true Muslims. It was a key text in the development of modern jihadism and Faraj further argued that the ‘near-enemy’ (that is, hostile secular regimes in their own countries) were the enemy to be prioritised. An engaging speaker, Faraj soon attracted a cadre of followers recruited from his sermons in mosques. They included al-Zawahiri and, as fate would have it, an army lieutenant named Khalid Islambouli (below right).

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Muhammad abd-al-Salam Faraj (left) and Khalid Islambouli (right), on trial for the killing of Sadat.

Islambouli told Faraj about a military parade planned for 6 October 1981 which President Anwar Sadat would be attending. Hated by the Islamists for the oppressive secular regime he ran, this hatred had intensified since the 1979 peace treaty with Israel. Islambouli and other sympathetic army officers attacked Sadat on the appointed day, killing the president but failing to kill vice-president Mubarak, who would go on to rule the country for three decades. The ensuing trial gave Faraj and Islambouli an opportunity to promote their ideology from the dock, following which they were executed, no doubt satisfying a desire for martyrdom in the process.

As previously mentioned, many members of EIJ were imprisoned and rounded up in the period following the assassination, al-Zawahiri among them, but EIJ was not the only jihadist organisation active in Egypt at the time. Another branch (no doubt there was some overlap) developed in the 1970s called al-Jama’a al-Islamiyya (‘the Islamic Group’) particularly among students. Such Islamic groups had initially been tolerated, even encouraged, by Sadat as a counterweight to his enemies on the left. When he perceived that he had let the religious genie out of the bottle and turned on them, they hated him all the more for it. Some (including al-Jama’a itself) have claimed that they were responsible for Sadat’s killing, and personally I cannot conclusively say who did it. Both EIJ and al-Jama’a were inspired by the teachings of a blind religious scholar, Omar Abdel-Rahman (below), who would become particularly associated with al-Jama’a, and was considered by many to be its leader, perhaps more of a spiritual leader after his arrest and imprisonment in the United States in 1993, implicated in a supporting role for the bombing of the World Trade Centre in February of that year, but that is a story for another post.

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Omar Abdel-Rahman in 1988

The 1980s were a decade of dispersal and defeat for the Egyptian jihadists. Bearing in mind this is something of a simplification, many in the EIJ went to Afghanistan while al-Jama’a, once it had regrouped, became more synonymous with the war at home against the Mubarak regime. Loosely organised in the towns and villages among the poorest sections of society, the al-Jama’a was extremely difficult for the Egyptian state to prosecute. Having spent some time in jail after Sadat’s killing, Omar Abdel-Rahman was released in the mid-1980s and provided a talisman for the movement, even after he left for the United States in 1990. They set in motion a cycle of violence in which they provoked the Egyptian state (always happy to oblige) into more and more repressive measures, thus acting (hopefully) as a recruiting tool for their movement. In the early 1990s, hundreds of those considered blasphemous or hostile to their project were assassinated, the most famous example being the writer and critic of armed jihad, Farag Foda in 1992.

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al-Jama’a al-Islamiyya

The armed campaign within Egypt began to have counter-productive results, however. While repressive measures may have alienated some towards the government, on the whole al-Jama’a‘s actions merely alienated the population towards it. In 1993, a bomb attack blamed on them killed seven and wounded twenty in a poor suburb of Cairo, an area supposed to be their natural constituency. Attacks on tourists damaged the heavily tourist-dependent economy, the most notorious of which was the killing of sixty-two people (all but four of which were tourists) at Luxor, which may have been carried out  by a faction within al-Jama’a who wished to scupper attempts by others within the movement to declare a renunciation of violence.

The reason some within al-Jama’a were prepared to do this was because the movement had already been battered hard by the state, thousands of its members having been thrown in jail and the public mood turning against them. The Luxor massacre only intensified this revulsion, which in turn allowed the government to enact much harsher measures against them, which really went into overdrive following a failed assassination attempt on Mubarak in Ethiopia in June 1995. Responsibility for this attempts was also claimed by EIJ, and even bin Laden may have been involved. By this time, al-Zawahiri and bin Laden were in Sudan, and known to be funding and assisting EIJ members who had been exiled. What had happened in the interim to al-Zawahiri and his fellow Egyptians? According to Faraj’s creed, having killed Sadat, the people were supposed to rise up spontaneously and topple the existing order, replacing it with an Islamic state and the imposition of shari’a. When things didn’t pan out this way, and after having spent a few years in prison, many Islamists went to Afghanistan, al-Zawahiri among them. Here, they linked up with the foreign fighters’ being organised by Azzam and bin Laden, al-Zawahiri becoming a sort of counter-influence with bin Laden and no doubt a factor in his shifting away from his mentor and taking his own initiatives.

The Egyptians, many of whom were well-educated (doctors, lawyers, teachers, etc.) became known as the ‘brains’ of the operation and quickly rose to prominent positions in the non-Afghan units. As al-Zawahiri’s importance as an advisor to bin Laden grew, so the ideological fissures in the jihadist movement as a whole become more acute. Azzam had been a great proponent of Muslim unity, to the point that he disapproved of wars against other Muslims, even those regimes in Egypt and Algeria who had shown themselves hostile to Islamists. Azzam’s priority was the building of a new Islamic society based on Koranic models and the worldwide revival of Islam through defensive jihad. So, while in the long term they no doubt looked forward to a distant time when the whole world would convert to Islam, in practice they were not interested in aggressively spreading the religion, merely recovering to the fold of true Islam what they saw as areas that belonged rightly within it. It should be noted that although scholars call this ‘defensive’, it meant to people like Azzam and bin Laden, places like Andalucia in Spain and Mindanao in the Philippines.

In the question of who should constitute the enemy, the influence of Qutb was therefore far less marked in Azzam and, by extension, bin Laden, than in the case of al-Zawahiri and the other Egyptians, who vied for influence over bin Laden (who was, after all, the one holding the purse strings) as the Afghan war grew to a close. This contest culminated in a series of bitter disputes in 1989, as the al-Zawahiri faction accused Azzam of various misdemeanours, ranging from the specific (misappropriating funds) to the outlandish (that he was working for the CIA). Resentment at his support for Massoud and his closeness to bin Laden no doubt played a role too. Warned that his life was in danger in Peshawar and that he should leave town, Azzam ignored this advice and was killed (along with his two sons) by a roadside bomb on the 24 November 1989. Although the context in which I place this event here might suggest al-Zawahiri’s faction had him snuffed out, really pretty much anyone could have done it: al-Zawahiri, Mossad, the Iranians, the Pakistani ISI, the Afghan or Jordanian secret secrvices, you name it, they’re all suspects, and I’m not in a position to determine which of these claims is the more credible. I really do want to try and avoid flirting with conspiracy theories on this blog, so I will leave it at that. He was killed. We don’t really know who did it because the Pakistani authorities didn’t release any of the forensic evidence.

With Azzam gone, you might imagine that the way would now be clear for al-Zawahiri and the Egyptians to exert more complete control over bin Laden and his money, but by now, the Saudi had matured and was very much his own man. Although he would show influences of the Egyptian doctor in his thinking over the coming years, in many respects he would keep alive the ideological legacy of Azzam, especially in concentrating his mind, long-term, on the ‘far enemy’ and the transnational jihad which would be necessary to confront it. The Egyptians, on the other hand, may have fled abroad, but that does not mean they had given up the struggle against the ‘near enemy’ at home. This would be evinced by the 1995 bombing of the Egyptian embassy in Islamabad by EIJ, of which bin Laden reportedly disapproved. As already noted, there was the attempt to assassinate Mubarak in this year too, and in the early 1990s, an observer might be forgiven for thinking that the future of jihad lay in these localised national struggles in Egypt, Algeria, Chechnya, Bosnia, etc. and the attempt to build an Islamic state piece by piece.

We will look at some of these struggles in subsequent posts, because they are absolutely vital (although few in the west appreciate how important they were) to shaping militant Islam in the last few decades. As a general observation, the psychological effect of victory against the Soviet Union should be grasped. Bin Laden’s generation of Muslims was one that had grown up in the shadow of multiple defeats to Israel, the gloss had gone off Nasser’s secular nationalism and the idea that the Muslim world might regenerate itself by adopting the technological innovations of the west and imitating its culture. The pessimism that replaced these hopes had been deep-seated, but the Mujahideen‘s victory in Afghanistan was transformational, seeming to affirm the belief of young men like bin Laden that, instead of trying to copy the west, the way to regenerate the Ummah was to return to the fundamentals of Islam and the example of the prophet Muhammad.

Fighters came home from the glory of victory with their defeatism dispelled and full of hope for the struggle back in their own countries, and the expectation that the oppressed masses (and make no mistake, they were oppressed) would rise up against their corrupt secular rulers. But, as we have seen, in Egypt and elsewhere, this didn’t happen, and disappointment led some to turn towards the ‘far enemy’ or turn towards the civilian population in their own countries in bitterness (we will see a textbook example of this with the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) in Algeria). As popular Islamist uprisings failed to occur, and resurgent secular states turned the screw on the jihadists, it began to appear that Azzam and bin Laden had been right after all: transnational jihad against the ‘far enemy’, the sponsor of their repressive regimes, was the real solution, to confront the real threat to Islam at its source: the United States.

Whether al-Zawahiri and his allies were really thinking along these lines is debatable, however. It was likely pragmatic concerns as much as anything else that dictated they bend to bin Laden’s will as the 1990s went by. Desperately lacking funds, and in the aftermath of increasingly-successful repression by Mubarak’s regime, EIJ deemed it politic to hitch a ride on bin Laden’s project of building up a base for transnational jihad instead of everyone fighting their own individual battles against their respective secular enemies. In 1992, both bin Laden and al-Zawahiri were in Sudan, where they had been given sanctuary by the regime of Omar al-Bashir and the influential Islamic leader Hassan al-Turabi, who was responsible for inviting bin Laden and many other jihadists into the country, both for ideological reasons, and in the hope that some of the wealthier Arabs, mostly Saudis, would invest in the country, which was relatively poor (this was before the discovery of significant qualtities of oil in the late 1990s). We will discuss Sudan in a separate post, but just to note here that many regard al-Turabi as having been not entirely honourable in his dealings with bin Laden (Michael Scheuer, for example, who is very knowledgeable about bin Laden, although I would not always concur with his interpretations), accusing him of draining the Saudi’s bank account and then allowing him to be expelled from the country under pressure from the Americans, having spent a great deal of money to little or no purpose in the country.

What al-Zawahiri was running away from in Sudan is obvious. Not only was Egypt no longer safe for EIJ members, but Mubarak’s security services had their tentacles in all sorts of other countries too, and were getting increasingly effective help from the CIA now that the Americans no longer needed the jihadists to fight the communists on their behalf. Al-Zawahiri’s movements in the early 1990s are a bit mysterious. He traveled around a lot on forged passports. At one point he was arrested in Russia in 1996 and held in prison for six months, but they didn’t know who he really was and released him. Bin Laden’s whereabouts between the end of the Afghan war and Sudan are less mysterious. He had returned to Saudi Arabia a hero, his legend only being burnished by an injury he received at the Battle of Jalalabad in March 1989. He still enjoyed the stamp of approval from the regime and, for his part, appears to have been still been a loyal Saudi subject at this stage.

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Bin Laden’s passport photograph from this period

Tensions soon emerged with the Saudi regime in several areas. First of all, there was their meddling among the Islamist factions in Afghanistan. While bin Laden had tried to use his prestigious position to bring the various groups together in order to prevent a civil war (which would happen anyway) between Rabbani-Massoud on the one hand and Hekmatyar-Sayyaf etc. on the other. Turki al-Faisal, however, strove on behalf of the latter alone, thus perpetuating divisions and hastening the slide to war. Then there was South Yemen where, as we saw in the last posts, the Islamists were emerging as a force to be reckoned with, fighting against the attempts of the southern Marxists to reassert their independence. Bin Laden and other jihadists in Saudi Arabia saw this as a more-or-less identical cause to the one they had fought in Afghanistan: atheistic communists, and camped in the Arabian peninsula of all places. They therefore threw themselves wholeheartedly into fighting them, participating in numerous attacks and assassinations of socialist leaders in the 1990-94 period. To the horror of bin Laden and his followers, however, their own government supported the Yemeni socialists, because they were seeking to undermine Yemeni unity and weaken the northern regime of Ali Abdullah Saleh. For the first time, bin Laden came up against the realpolitick of the Saudi regime when they asked him to stop fighting the socialists in South Yemen. Appalled by this failure to fulfill their religious duty to expel the infidel, he carried on regardless.

But worse was to come, far worse.

On 2 August 1990, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq invaded Kuwait. There followed a six-month long standoff in which the United States and its allies (among them Saudi Arabia) demanded that Iraq withdraw or face an international coalition, which would indeed expel the Iraqis from Kuwait in January. The Iraqis let it be known that they would attack Saudi Arabia if they were attacked (which they eventually did) and the kingdom was on high alert, aware that its existing defense forces would be no match for Iraq’s. This was before Iraq was destroyed by two wars and a decade of sanctions; at this time, Saddam Hussein had built its army into a formidable military power, regionally at least. Bin Laden had been warning, both in letters and public talks, about the threat posed by Hussein (whom he regarded as a monstrous secularist) and these warnings had gone largely unheeded. His continuing loyalty to the House of Saud is evinced by his offers to use his family’s resources to construct defensive fortifications and raise a force of veteran jihadists from the Afghan war to man it.

The Saudi government rejected his proposal and, most shocking of all, requested the United States send a force to help defend the kingdom. This is an absolutely crucial moment in understanding the rest of Osama bin Laden’s life and career. Here was the Saudi rulers bringing infidels, armed ones at that, into the land of the holiest sites in Islam, which were supposed to be defended by faithful Muslims alone. Among the Saudi king’s titles is ‘Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques’. This was an egregious violation of everything bin Laden and his fellow fundamentalists held dear, and a shocking betrayal by those whose duty he saw it to uphold the strict Wahhabist conception of Islam he believed in. On top of all this, King Fahd secured theological justification for his decision from the Grand Mufti (the same one who had blessed the foreign fighter’s intervention in Afghanistan), Abdul Aziz bin Baz (below) for the move.

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Up to this point, bin Laden had always deferred to religious scholars, even when their dictates seemed to be guided by the interests of preserving the House of Saud rather than the sanctity of Islam. This critique was implicit in the Islamic Awakening (Sahwa) movement, which bin Laden supported when he returned to Saudi Arabia. This was a peaceful activist group which sought to bring the regime into full compliance with Islamic law and curb its more excessive material excesses. To even suggest that the monarchy isn’t already in complete compliance with Islamic law is, however, deeply subversive in Saudi Arabia, and the movement was met by a mobilisation of theologians and scholars by the state. The establishment of American troops in the kingdom was the straw that broke the donkey’s back as far as bin Laden and his companions were concerned, but it should be remembered that it was only with the utmost reluctance that he ‘went rogue’. Henceforth, he publicly denounced these state-sponsored scholars as corrupt propagandists and his farm was raided by the security services, who disarmed his followers.

Bin Laden became an increasingly dissident figure in Saudi society, dangerous from the point of view of the state because of the respect he enjoyed from his leadership in Afghanistan. It would certainly have been tremendously destabilising to have imprisoned or executed him. It is sometimes claimed that they banished bin Laden in 1991, or even that they let him go on condition that he not direct his activities against them. The most plausible story seems to me, however, is that he escaped. Having had his passport taken from him, he managed to get one of his brothers to acquire a ‘one-time’ passport for him to wrap up some business in Pakistan, after which he promised to return. He never did. In 1994, he would be stripped of his citizenship and disowned by his family. After a brief period in Pakistan, he moved to Sudan where, as noted above, by the time he was finished he had lost a fortune in unprofitable business ventures and payments to the regime in exchange for the sanctuary he gave them.

By 1996, the only country to which he could turn for refuge was Afghanistan, by now coming under the rule of the Taliban (see part eleven), who were soon busy forcing women to stay home, banning music, blowing up Buddhist statues and generally cutting the country off from the outside world. The idea that the Taliban and bin Laden and his movement shared the same goals and ideology, however, is very mistaken (although seems to be widespread). While they gave bin Laden and his followers refuge, for reasons which we will examine in a future post on Afghanistan after their takeover, the Taliban had little interest in transnational jihad and were in fact concerned about the kind of trouble bin Laden’s activities might bring upon them. Rightly so, as it would turn out.

In 1996, Afghanistan seemed the only country where the dream of an Islam, assertive in the face of what it saw as an expansionist and hostile west, could be kept alive, but it was only barely kept alive. This is important when we come to the late 1990s and the beginnings of al-Qaeda and its attacks on the United States: the jihadists were in crisis, weakened and harried, their project having run out of steam after the failure to overthrow regimes in Egypt, Algeria and elsewhere. It is all-too-often forgotten in the wake of 9-11 and the blowing up of the al-Qaeda threat out of all proportion, that what was still being referred to as the ‘bin Laden’ network was in pretty desperate straits, hiding out in the wilds of Afghanistan in one of the few places were it might still have a chance of hiding from the U.S. war machine. Of course, this is not to say that they could not inflict damage on property and life. As the 1998 embassy bombings and 9-11 indicate, they certainly had the financial means, the manpower and the will to do this, but none of this mitigates the fact that militant political Islam, that sought to establish regimes based on shari’a, as a movement, was largely a spent force.

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Bin Laden, photographed by Robert Fisk in Afghanistan, 1996.

Knowing this, men like bin Laden and Zawahiri knew that only by somehow provoking the west into some serious atrocities against the Muslim civilian population could they breath some life back into their failed project. The only way to do this was to commit some atrocity of their own, big enough to get the American’s attention and ignite the kind of apocalyptic ‘Clash of Civilisations’ that they (in common with American neo-Conservatives) were hoping for. It is round about here that we have to start giving consideration to the ‘organisation’ we now call al-Qaeda which would attempt to ignite such a conflict. I place the word ‘organisation’ between inverted commas because some accounts give the impression that a group of that name, with an explicit and definable hierarchical structure, was founded around 1988 when Azzam was still alive, along with bin Laden and Zawahiri, and straightaway began to prepare the Afghan veterans for a coming battle with the United States. Things are far from being that straightforward.

Certainly, as we have already seen, Azzam was talking about something called al-Qaeda or ‘the base/foundation’ in the years prior to his death. It doesn’t necessarily mean that this was an organisation though, at least not from this early stage. You will sometimes see numbered amongst bin Laden’s early attacks on the United States, the bombing of two hotels in Aden, Yemen, where American soldiers were staying on their way to Somalia. There is, however, very little evidence for his involvement. It is likewise with the bombing of the World Trade Centre in 1993, in which his role was at most limited to a distant and tangential financial support for some of those involved, possibly. In the early 1990s, there is nothing resembling a structured international network of jihadists directed from a centralised leadership. That does not mean that the idea of creating such an organisation did not exist. It seems overwhelmingly likely that it did, and that the term al-Qaeda was meant to suggest this aspiration, the base, foundation or basis on which a real movement which could realistically take on the west might one day emerge. The name can be seen as a recognition that this was more of an aspiration or long-term project.

Exactly how long term is difficult to say. Fawaz Gerges, for example, argues that al-Qaeda in the late 1980s and early 1990s meant only a series of maxims, not an actual organisation. This is perhaps an exaggeration, but there is very little evidence it amounted to much more than that. One of the best assessments is that of Jason Burke, who I think has done the most authoritative work (in English at least) on this. By the late 1990s, he argues that:

…bin Laden and his partners were able to create a structure in Afghanistan that attracted new recruits and forged links among preexisting Islamic militant groups…

but…

…they never created a coherent terrorist network in the way commonly conceived. Instead, al Qaeda functioned like a venture capital firm—providing funding, contacts, and expert advice to many different militant groups and individuals from all over the Islamic world.

Jason Burke, Foreign Policy, No. 142 (2004), p.18.

So, basically, rather than resembling a limited company with a board of directors and a CEO, by the late 1990s al-Qaeda was more like a franchise, McDonalds or KFC, with a certain amount of financial and logistic support given to those jihadists who wanted to perform a deed regarded as faithful to their cause. At times, indeed, it would seem as if certain groups and individuals were acting independently and simply using the name al-Qaeda (and the same is true more recently of ISIS) to lend gravity to what are basically  lone-wolf actions. In this sense, al-Qaeda and ISIS have borne more similarity to the Animal Liberation Front than any conventional paramilitary group, in that anyone can carry out an action (there is no leadership) in the name of the ALF as long as they follow some basic guidelines, among which it must be mentioned to their credit is that no-one should be harmed, and indeed the ALF have never killed anyone.

As I suggested at the start of this post, I am sceptical of claims that al-Qaeda existed in any meaningful sense before, at very least, the late 1990s. The bombing of American embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam on 7 August 1998 is a crucial turning point in this respect. It is only after these that the security services and the media start talking about something called al-Qaeda. This doesn’t even mean that the people who carried out the bombings thought of themselves as members of an organisation of that name, even at this stage. One of the bombers, Khalfan Khamis Mohamed, denied having even heard of anything  called al-Qaeda. The most plausible explanation for al-Qaeda‘s sudden emergence (it seems pretty weird, after all, that you go from nobody talking about them to them being this international network of highly-competent militants, practically overnight) is given once again by Burke:

It was the FBI, during investigation of the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombing in East Africa, which dubbed the loosely-linked group of activists that Osama bin Laden and his aides had formed as “al Qaeda.” This decision was partly due to institutional conservatism and partly because the FBI had to apply conventional antiterrorism laws to an adversary that was in no sense a traditional terrorist or criminal organization.

Jason Burke, Foreign Policy, No. 142 (2004), p.18.

That is, in order to have any realistic chance of indicting and convicting bin Laden and other instigators of these acts, the FBI needed to work within existing laws regarding criminal conspiracy. These necessitated the prosecutors providing evidence of the existence of an organization, in order to prosecute its leader, even if that person could not be linked directly to the ‘crime’. Of course, they needed witnesses for this, to testify that bin Laden was indeed the one pulling the strings from his hideout in Afghanistan. Enter an obscure figure called Jamal al-Fadl. He is so obscure that this is the best picture I could find of him:

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This is a court picture from the trial which began in February 2001 of those who had carried out the embassy bombings, and (in absentia) bin Laden, al-Zawahiri and others who had financed them. Al-Fadl was a Sudanese jihadist who had joined bin Laden’s network in Afghanistan in the late 1980s. He was apparently a senior member of the ‘organisation’ in the following years but grew resentful of receiving a smaller salary than others and embezzled around $110,000 from them. Having been caught, he then went around to various security agencies hoping to be given refuge and a reward for offering them information. Finally the American embassy in Eritrea took him up on his offer and he went to the United States in 1996. It was a case of being in the right place at the right time for al-Fadl. When, two years later, the FBI badly needed someone who could join the dots for them and help construct a picture of al-Qaeda as a complex and tightly-structured organisation, al-Fadl was ready and waiting to do the job for them.

He gave them exactly what they wanted, because he had every reason to exaggerate the complexity and scope of al-Qaeda. The same was true of L’Houssaine Kherchtou, a Moroccan who was involved in the embassy bombings and gave detailed evidence of the ‘organisation’ in return for immunity from prosecution and witness protection. This is pretty much ‘the evidence’ for the existence of an international terrorist organisation called ‘al-Qaeda’ having existed since the late 1980s, and it is deeply flawed. In the aftermath of the 1998 bombings, and even more so after 9 September 2001, the exigency of building a prosecution against bin Laden and co. had become a more important priority than the actual truth of what al-Qaeda was and how long it had been around. The problem is that the flimsiness of the evidence it was based on was forgotten and subsequent accounts have reported the findings of the trial as if it was solid primary evidence.

Once again, none of this is to deny the fact that some kind of a network clearly existed prior to 1998 (and likely for some years) that had as its aim the extension of the war to the United States. Bin Laden made this clear in a public declaration of war on the United States in August 1996, published in the London-based newspaper Al-Quds al-Arabi, making clear that he had shifted his focus on corrupt regimes like Saudi Arabia, to their main sponsor. There was also the well-attested creation of the ‘World Islamic Front’ in February 1998, a union of al-Zawahiri’s Egyptian faction of EIJ and bin Laden’s network (whether we wish to refer to it as al-Qaeda at this stage or not) along with a few smaller jihadist groups. The fatwa in question contained sentences like: ‘The ruling to kill the Americans and their allies — civilians and military — is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it…’ You get the drift: the kind of thing you would imagine a formidable anti-American jihadist organisation to declare.

Six months before the embassy bombings, however, these grand declarations were greeted in the west with the semi-indifference they probably deserved at the time. Even afterwards, in 2000, Fawaz Gerges, an expert in this field was writing:

Despite Washington’s exaggerated rhetoric about the threat to Western interests still represented by Bin Ladin [. . .] his organization, Al-Qa‘ida, is by now a shadow of its former self. Shunned by the vast majority of Middle Eastern governments, with a $5 million US bounty on his head, Bin Ladin, has in practice been confined to Afghanistan, constantly on the run from US, Egyptian, and Saudi Arabian intelligence services. Furthermore, consumed by internecine rivalry on the one hand, and hemmed in by the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt on the other, Bin Ladin’s resources are depleting rapidly. Washington plays into his hands by inflating his importance. Bin Ladin is exceptionally isolated, and is preoccupied mainly with survival, not attacking American targets. Since the blasts in Africa, not a single American life has been lost to al-Qa’ida.

Fawaz Gerges, ‘The end of the Islamist insurgency in Egypt?: Costs and prospects’, in The Middle East Journal, 54:4 (2000) 597-8.

Writing a year before 9-11, Gerges would appear to have been spectacularly wrong. But if you think about it a little more, it seems to me that he was essentially correct in all but one (dramatically important) respect. He failed to note that even a relatively small and battered group like this could still carry out an attack like 9-11, and rely on the reaction of the United States to spark off a decades-long war. The terrifying fact of the matter is that any dedicated small group with a pile of cash could have carried out 9-11: the ALF, ETA, the IRA, any of these paramilitary groups could, if they put their minds to it and weren’t bothered by mass civilian casualties. This was certainly true at that time, before the stricter security protocols that 9-11 brought about were introduced.

Nothing about 9-11 changed the fundamental geopolitical situation, but so traumatic was the event to Americans that they felt the need to believe that it ‘changed everything’. This compounded the tragedy. The American government’s response made sure it ‘changed everything’, not the attack itself, and this is exactly what bin Laden and his allies had been hoping for. Ironically, by declaring a ‘War on Terror’ against an amorphous network of desperadoes as if it was a coherent ‘army’, sophisticated and hierarchical, there is a good argument to be made that the United States brought such an organisation closer to actually existing. After 9-11, many jihadist groups started calling themselves ‘al-Qaeda in the something or other’. A glance through some of the names of these groups claiming to be branches of al-Qaeda (below) suggests they are actually more-or-less independent organisations seeking to claim some of the street cred which bin-Laden’s group acquired among jihadists from the exaggerated threat they were presented as after 9-11. Again, bin Laden was only to happy to be blamed, and presented as some kind of omnipotent and mercurial Bond villain.

Al-Qaeda in Iraq (2004)
Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (2007)
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (2009)
Al-Qaeda in Somalia (2010)
Al-Qaeda in the Levant (2012)
Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (2014)

If al-Qaeda was a franchise, the American state department drummed up some great business for them.

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It might be asked why they did this? To analyse the American military-industrial complex is beyond the scope of this post, but it’s pretty obvious to any impartial observer that the military, security services and large swathes of the political classes have a vested interest in keeping the public in a heightened state of fear from an external threat. Adam Curtis’ fantastic series The Power of Nightmares suggests that, with the apparent failure of ideology and dreams of a better future to inspire people politically, politicians have found a useable replacement in fear of a vague, implacable and irrational enemy, who ‘hate us for our freedoms‘. It should also be noted that the threat from Islam and Muslims begins to come to the fore just as the communist bloc is collapsing and they could no longer use that particular bogeyman.

Besides, this there is the extremely lucrative arms industry, which would collapse without a good war to keep it going (even better, one with a vaguely-defined and shifting enemy and no obvious objectives, just like the ‘War on Terror’, which can be extended indefinitely). This is worth $1.69 trillion a year (2016), a quarter of which ends up in the Middle East or North Africa. The US, the UK and France are responsible for around 70% of all exports of major conventional weapons to the Middle East. You can read more fun facts here. There are literally armies of people whose very livelihoods depend on the existence of something like al-Qaeda or ISIS. This included not only actual military or law-enforcement personnel, but a legion of academics (whose numbers have swelled since 9-11) who follow the money when it comes to the many postgraduates programmes and postdoctural fellowships which abound in the subject of terrorism and security. These, the very people we look to for authoritative answers about this subject, are institutionally disinclined to offer an alternative narrative to the one we were stuck with, even though it is highly dubious. They are no more likely to question it than a member of the theology department is likely to question the value of studying the bible, or someone in a business school is likely to critique capitalism.

Given all this, if we ask ourselves whether the world’s most powerful intelligence-gathering agencies misunderstood the nature of al-Qaeda or whether they deliberately distorted the picture to create an organisation where one hardly existed, the ‘exaggeration’ thesis seems more plausible than the idea that they got it wrong. This is not to say that there was no threat (clearly there was) or that these intelligence agencies knew about 9-11 beforehand or anything. Simply that the nature of the threat was manipulated in order to justify attacks on entire countries that had little or nothing to do with the atrocities bin Laden sponsored. Where, you might ask, does exaggeration shade into outright lying? Round about here:

 

Rather than go into the attacks on the World Trade Centre in 1993 and 2001, or the embassy bombings of 1998, I will examine them in some detail in a future post. Before we do that, however, we have to look at some of the conflicts that have been alluded to in this post, where the fight was taken up by jihadists in the 1990s to the ‘near enemy’ in Algeria, Chechnya and Bosnia, discrete national stories that have been forgotten in the haste to paint a picture of all-encompassing global conflict between ‘the west’ and ‘the Muslims’, but which, if anything, are more significant.

 

Featured image above: Eyes of Osama Bin Laden.

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A contemporary history of the Muslim world, part 15: The ‘Afghan Arabs’ : foreign fighters in Afghanistan

A contemporary history of the Muslim world, part 14: Yemen #2

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This second part of our focus on Yemen will cover the period from the emergence of two independent states in the 1960s (not without a fight) to the end of the 1990s, when a formally-united country was anything but united if you cared to scratch beneath the surface. As we saw last time, North Yemen emerged in 1962 as a republic which had to fight for its existence against the monarchy which had controlled the country for decades. Having secured its existence through some compromises with the royalist faction, the civil war was over by 1970 and the foreign armies who had intervened in the northern war (Egypt, Saudi Arabia, British-backed mercenaries) gone. In the south, an insurgency based around the British-controlled port of Aden had emerged victorious in 1967, but the newly-independent People’s Republic of South Yemen did not avoid some teething troubles of its own. These revolved around the clash between different branches of the ruling party, some more left wing than others. A tension had already been present during the fight with the British, as the more centrist FLOSY (who had held off joining the fight for a long time in the expectation that the British would negotiate) and the more left-wing NLF fought for control over the newly-independent state, a fight won decisively by the NLF pretty rapidly. Once in power, the NLF set to work fighting with each other over the direction the new state would take, a struggle in which the more radical left-wing members won in 1969 when they ousted president al-Shaabi (see previous part) in what was known as the ‘corrective move’ and set the country on a more explicitly Marxist path, renaming it the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen.

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The new government looked eagerly to the Soviet Union for economic and military support and the Soviets for their part found one of the world’s greatest natural harbours fall right into its sphere of influence without even having to fight for it. The new government sought to build a Marxist state out of distinctly unpromising raw material (although I guess you could have said about Russia in 1917 as well). It is not just that southern Yemen bore no resemblance to the kind of industrialised society with a proletariat that doctrinaire Marxists might claim is necessary to build a successful communist society. It was also South Yemen’s specific circumstances: it was much smaller in population than North Yemen, but much larger in area, only 1% of which was arable. The south had no significant natural resources to speak of and, perhaps worst of all, its greatest asset, Aden, was a far-less significant port after the 1967 war closed the Suez Canal until 1975.

The government did not help matters by locking up or expelling a large proportion of the small proportion of its population that had an education, distrusting them as subversives and a threat to the tightly-controlled authoritiarian state they felt was necessary to keep the fragile country together. This control was facilitated by a secret police trained by the East German Stasi itself. The external threat represented by the rival Yemen to their north and west was also a drain on resources; spending on the army was gobbling up half the state budget by 1971. Credit where credit’s due though: like many socialist states, great advances were made in education and healthcare and to some extent in the status of women. Attempts were made to curtail the influence of religious leaders and tribalism, but of course corruption and tribalism remained, and would play a role in South Yemen’s demise. Its three main leaders stand side by side in this picture, taken in 1977 (from left to right): Salim Rubai Ali, Abdul Fattah Ismail and Ali Nasir Muhammad.

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Rubai Ali became president of South Yemen at the time of al-Shaabi’s removal in 1969, but we are not taking about an centralised, autocratic ruler; power was really distributed throughout a number of top posts within the administration, awkwardly as it would turn out. Rubai Ali was more Maoist and oriented towards China, and found himself in conflict with Abdul Fattah Ismail, who was closer to the Soviets and an eager promoter of international left-wing armed groups like the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the German Red Army Faction, and gave a South Yemen passport to Carlos the Jackal. When in power in South Yemen, he also secured backing for the insurgents in neighbouring Oman during the Dhofar rebellion in south-western Oman (which we will no doubt get to in this blog someday). Ismail was more of an idealistic doctrinaire Marxist and internationalist than the others, and occupied the important position of General Secretary of the Yemeni Socialist Party (YSP) which he played a leading role in creating in 1978 as the party of consensus among South Yemen’s political classes, in order to occupy the position of ‘one party’ in the one-party state they were designing.

The third of these pals, Ali Nasir Muhammad, was less ideologically-committed to the ruling socialist ideology and, his enemies would claim, more committed to his political career and using his position to serve himself and his clients. Because he had less principled obstacles in the way of his politics, Ali Nasir Muhammad was in a much better position to compromise with South Yemen’s enemies, and was viewed by North Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Oman as the much more preferable of the alternatives, whereas Ismail sponsored liberation movements and encouraged the oppressed masses to rise up there. Most of South Yemen’s fairly short existence would be characterised by these three guys plotting against each other. Rubai Ali was the first skittle to fall. He was also more amenable to improved relations with Yemen’s non-socialist neighbours, and Abdul Fattah Ismail’s faction distrusted his attempts to do so. Someone (although it remains unclear precisely who) put a bomb in a briefcase which killed the president of North Yemen, Ahmad al-Ghashmi (we’ll get to him below). The recriminations down south, with both Rubai Ali and Ismail’s factions blaming each other, led to a short, sharp contest of arms in which Rubai Ali lost, was tried and executed in 1978.

But if Abdul Fattah Ismail thought he had won, it was no more than a pyrrhic victory; the alienation of many that followed the removal of Rubai Ali, and growing impatience at Ismail’s dogmatism (even the Soviets found him too inflexible) led to his removal as party leader in 1980 and his removal to Moscow ‘for health reasons’. Ali Nasir Muhammad now appeared to be undisputed leader, and a period of loosening-up, of improved foreign relations with South Yemen’s erstwhile enemies followed. While the Soviets were only too happy to see this (they had no wish to see South Yemen drag them into some kind of costly unnecessary war in Arabia) the pragmatic Ali Nasir began to stray too far from the path of socialism for everyone’s comfort, inviting private enterprise and investment, oil prospecting, foreign companies, building hotels and living it up in the lap of luxury with the other top brass in the YSP.

But not everyone, because Ismail back in Moscow still had his supporters and he returned in late 1984 and attempted to carry out another ‘corrective move’. The two leaders’ forces sought to secure support for themselves within the army, and people tended to take sides along tribal lines. Ali Nasir got the South Yemen Civil War rolling, (colloquially referred to as The Events of 1986) on the 13 January when he sent one of his bodyguards into a politburo meeting with a machine gun and attempted to have all of his opponents shot. While some were killed, Ismail escaped, only to be killed in the shelling of a tank later that day (probably; his body was incinerated and never found), this incident sparked off an eleven-day orgy of killing by both sides of the YSP in which over 5,000 people were killed. While Ali Nasir might have initially seemed to have the upper hand, the division of the army with the tanks went over to the Ismail faction and that basically decided things. Ali Nasir fled to North Yemen, with whom he already had cosy relations (although not cosy enough to help when he begged them to send troops to help keep him in power), and power was taken by the Ismail-allied Ali Salem al Beidh (below), who had been in the meeting-room when the bodyguard opened fire but threw himself on the floor and pretended to be dead, which pretty much sums up what it took to get ahead in South Yemen politics.

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The country limped on for a few more years, fatally undermined by the bloodletting that had taken place, not to mention its chronic economic problems. The death-blow came with the collapse of the eastern bloc and the withdrawal of Soviet support. By 1990, unification with the north was suddenly a welcome prospect for the al-Beidh regime, but what kind of country were they going to be unifying with?

Unlike the south, North Yemen didn’t fit easily into the Cold War jigsaw puzzle. The great controlling influence was the oil-rich Saudi state to the north, and by extension that would place them in the American camp in the east-west dichotomy. Except for the fact that they received Soviet arms as well, and as a general rule, North Yemen diplomacy was characterised by making deals with whoever gave the most and asked for least in return. As we noted last week, the northern civil war had ended with a kind of deal by which the republicans kept their republic, shed its more left-wing elements and replaced its military rule with a civilian president, Abdul Rahman  (1967-1974) (below). In return, the royal family agreed to stay out of politics but some of the royalist camp were given a role in the new regime. Furthermore, a great deal of power was still accessible by the northern tribes, who were guaranteed posts in the administration and lucrative stipends as a part of the peace deal that ended the war. This was storing up trouble for the future, as it constituted a great check on the ability of the state to expend resources on development and constrained the independence of the president and other political leaders to serve the countries best interests as a whole.

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An example of this institutional weakness was the outbreak of war between the two Yemens in 1972, little more than a series of border skirmishes, which took place largely against the will of the political leadership and at the behest of the military, goaded by the Saudis, who were fiercely hostile to South Yemen, who in turn seemed to seriously entertain the prospect of conquering the north by force, as unlikely as that sounds. Seeing the forces arrayed against him, and the growing Saudi displeasure towards his soft approach towards the south, al-Iryani, while abroad in Syria in 1974 decided to stay away. North Yemen’s first (and only) civilian leader died in exile in Damascus twenty-four years later. The country was then ruled by military leaders for the best part of a decade. Initially, this was not as bad as it sounds. The first of these, Ibrahim al-Hamdi (1974-77) is generally well-remembered as a constructive, conciliatory figure who made attempts to deal with corruption and ease tensions with the south. He ruled during a period of economic growth for the country as many young Yemenis from the north went to work in Saudi Arabia (basically, the oil crisis was a bonanza for those in oil while the rest of the world’s economy went down the toilet) and sent home remittances. North Yemen also managed to secure for itself a great deal of aid from western governments anxious to lure them securely into its camp in the Cold War.

Al-Hamdi’s talk of tackling corruption made him enemies among the powerful northern sheikhs whose privileges he threatened by carrying out a rationalisation of the state apparatus. The Saudis were likewise not happy with his talk of building bridges with the south because they feared nothing more than a united Yemen. They may have been involved in his assassination, although evidence is inconclusive. The main suspect was his successor, Ahmad al-Ghashmi who, as we noted above, was assassinated by southern agents only eight months later. Hopes can not have been high that his successor, a lieutenant-Colonel named Ali Abdullah Saleh (below right), would last much longer, but Saleh enjoyed family connections among the powerful northern tribes and the support of the leader of the powerful Hashid tribal confederation, Abdullah al-Ahmar (the dude standing to his left below). Saleh was to prove himself adept at balancing, and ultimately mastering, the numerous forces that vied for power in the country. Far from being assassinated after a few months, he would reign as president of first the north, and from 1990 on, a united Yemen, for an astonishing thirty-four years.

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One of Saleh’s first challenges was another war with the south in 1979, fallout from the assassinations of both countries’ presidents. With troops massed on the border and South Yemen arming insurgents in the north, it was harder not to have a war than have one. These insurgents, the National Democratic Front (NDF), were basically those elements of the left in North Yemen who had been shunted off the political stage as a result of the compromises inherent in ending the civil war. Denied a role in public life, they took up arms after the series of assassinations of presidents, seeing the increasingly consolidation of a conservative political elite in the country through strong-arm tactics. The war did not appear to be going well for the north. While the south was smaller in population and resources, it was given resolute military backing by other communist states. The real possibility of the north’s defeat spurred the Arab League into diplomatic action and the crisis passed as peace was mediated with these and the support of the superpowers; basically, things were tense enough in the world without the US and USSR going to war over Yemen.

The peaceful resolution of the conflict, and accompanying declarations of the intention to somehow unify the two states someday, also meant Saleh was able to confront his opponents within the country more effectively. The NDF insurgency fizzled out with a lessening of southern aggression, especially after Ali Nasir Muhammad took over there. An early sign that Saleh really meant business was his purging of elements in the army hostile to him and his execution of thirty officers who were accused of plotting to overthrow him. In the years that followed, he built up a system in North Yemen that buttressed his power by compromising with the powerful tribal leaders, offering them the spoils of power, while still strengthening the state apparatus and maintaining his popularity with the army, who were also generously funded. In many ways, Saleh used his power to not only keep them at bay, but to control the sheikhs through the granting or withholding of largesse and lucrative contracts at his pleasure. It might be argued that much of this took place at the expense of the average Yemeni citizen, but this was deemed a minor inconvenience. It is not for nothing that the country was described at this time by Robert Burrowes as ‘a kleptocracy, government of, by and for the thieves’.

The increased opportunities for investment in North Yemen, not to mention the discovery of commercial quantities of oil in 1984, brought about a certain degree of economic growth (or at least the appearance of it). Certainly the north began to pull ahead of its southern neighbour to some extent, especially as Soviet aid to the latter became more parsimonious. This is reflected in Sana’a’s overtaking of Aden as the largest city in the country(ies). In the immediate aftermath of the crazy events of 1986 in the south, relations were not particularly good between the two Yemens. More border skirmishes took place in 1988 and yet within two years, the two countries were unified. What happened? Well, behind a lot of the sudden enthusiasm for unification was the fact that oil was found in the border region, and in order to extract as much as possible, co-operation made far more sense than fighting. Indeed, the last round of border fighting had led to the creation of a demilitarised zone in order to assist oil extraction.

Both the Saleh and Beidh regimes saw advantages in joining with the other. South Yemen had been cut loose now that the USSR was collapsing, and Saleh had his own problems in North Yemen, where the growing prospects of oil wealth also created the problems of tribes feuding over access to it. He also came under pressure to pursue unity from Saddam Hussein, who was at the height of his influence and power in the Arab world at this time, and who saw a united Yemen as a potential ally in a showdown he wanted to engineer with Saudi Arabia. The leadership of the south were initially less enthusiastic of merging their much smaller (demographically) country with the north, but were won over by promises of disproportionate influence within the ministries of the new country and the illusion that the YSP would win subsequent elections. A certain personal chemistry between the two presidents seems to have played a part, and al-Beidh in particular became a decisive advocate of unity. By no means were all convinced, as one member of the southern government threatened to have everyone else shot if they agreed to the plan.

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Friends forever! Beidh (left) and Saleh (right) at the announcement of unification

But agree they did, with what some might describe as undue haste, likely in order to forestall their opponents’ attempts to rally opposition, and on 22 May 1990 the new Republic of Yemen was declared. If you look closely at the picture above, where unity was declared, you can divine more about what lies ahead from the expression on the soldier’s face in the background than either of the politicians.

This was never going to be a union of equals any more than England and Scotland will ever be a union of equals (let’s not kid ourselves!), and it didn’t take long before this became apparent. Flowery rhetoric about taking the best of each country’s systems and amalgamating them into one improved state were not followed through by practice. Instead, ministries were not really integrated in anything more than a superficial sense and officials continued to think of themselves as northerners and southerners. Oil was found in the south later that year, fueling regret among some in the south that they had agreed to the union so hastily, now that they had to share the profits. Timing wasn’t great either. Only two months after unity, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait (yes, this blog is well overdue a post on Iraq) and Saleh was placed in an awkward predicament. It has already been seen how he enjoyed fairly close relations with Hussein (although they look like they’re squaring up for a fight in the image below) and he probably would have preferred to avoid taking Iraq’s side against the entire western hemisphere at this juncture. Popular revulsion at Saudi Arabia’s welcoming American troops into the land of Islam’s holy sites, however, pushed him to side with Iraq, the only other Arab state to do so.

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Yemen’s refusal to get on board with the First Gulf War cost them dearly in economic terms; the Saudis kicked out the almost one million Yemenis working there, who had been keeping the economy afloat with remittances. When they came home, unemployment skyrocketed. The Americans were livid that their Secretary of State, James Baker, had been publicly defied by Saleh when he visited the country in late 1990 to basically order the Yemenis to toe the line. In retaliation, the U.S. withdrew $70 billion dollars of aid to the country.

All of this boded ill for the country and for prospects of a successful union, but oddly enough it did not bode particularly ill for Saleh’s regime in itself. New oil finds meant new wealth to distribute to his supporters, the first unity elections held in 1993 were a triumph for his General People’s Congress (GPC) who won 123 seats in parliament, and a massive disappointment for the YSP who had expected to do so well but ended up with only 56. They were even surpassed by a moderate Islamist party called al-Islah (reform) led by the above-mentioned sheikh Abdullah al-Ahmar, which is a sign of the growing sympathy for political Islam in the early 1990s, as we will see in subsequent posts. Southerners’ frustration at being dominated instead of treated as equals grew and Beidh retreated to Aden, fearing for his life in Sana’a. One of the many institutions which had been no more than superficially amalgamated was the army, and brigades from north and south respectively began to mass along what had been the border in early 1994.

Fighting had already started by the time Beidh announced the rebirth of South Yemen in May, but this ephemeral state hardly existed outside Aden and Mukalla, notwithstanding the fact that Saudi Arabia now, ironically, supported the ‘godless Marxists’ because they were espousing the breakup of Yemen. Perhaps surprisingly, the United States did not back up the Saudis for once and, forgiving his lack of support against Iraq, backed Saleh. Islamists within the country also sided with the North Yemen president, who made deft use of this combined appeal to religion and national unity to garner popular support to his side. It was all over within six weeks, northern forces rolling into Aden while Beidh and his supporters fled by boat to Yemen. The army proceeded to loot the city as conquerors, and from here on in unification comes to resemble conquest of the south by the north more and more. It’s telling that Beidh and other YSP leaders were airbrushed out of pictures celebrating unification, leaving Saleh along, unchallenged as ‘the leader’ of a united (whether it wanted to be or not) country. This was reflected in the results of the first presidential election, held in 1999, in which Saleh won with 96.2% of the vote. Popular guy eh?

But for all his supposed popularity, Saleh was about to be challenged not by a rival from the conventional political spectrum, but by a force he had helped unleash in Yemen. Among the soldiers from the north who sacked Aden in 1994 were many jihadist veterans who had fought with the Mujahideen in Afghanistan, whose support Saleh had been happy to harness for the cause of defeating the south. They also often came from families who had their roots in the south, but had been expelled by the Marxists back in the 1960s and lived in exile in Saudi Arabia ever since, and saw themselves as taking back what was rightfully theirs. Of course Islam was not new to Yemeni politics, but the context in which it was appearing now was innovatory. Unlike earlier brands of moderate reformist Islamists, more akin to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt or Syria, many of these younger activists embodied a more combative, crusading mission; there were reports, for example, of them destroying alcohol and trying to impose sharia in Aden when they took part in the assault.

These were uncompromising zealots who would not be co-opted or bought off by the president but who, on the contrary, would push him aside if he did not share their vision. As Saleh came to enjoy warmer relations with the United States, it became increasingly clear that he did not share their vision, but few in the United States could even find Yemen on a map, let alone have any idea it was becoming a hub of Islamism and anti-American sentiment towards the end of the 1990s. In Aden harbour six years after the civil war, they signaled even more dramatically their intentions of taking jihad to the infidel by detonating 300kg of explosives in a small boat against the hull of the USS Cole docked there, briefly grabbing the Americans’ attention before it (transient at the best of times) was diverted to Afghanistan and Iraq in the aftermath of 9-11. But something was stirring in Yemen, a movement that would see Islamic-inspired insurgents challenge the state’s authority from north to south. It would be in the north among the Zaydi that one of the most successful of these organisations, Ansar Allah (the supporters of Allah) would emerge. Colloquially known as the Houthis, after their leader Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi (below), they would go from being a relatively apolitical religious revival movement to being forced into confrontation with the government on their home ground in 2004, to become a formidable military force that had taken the capital San’a itself in 2014. But the manner in which they achieved this really merits another post.

Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi

 

 

Featured image above: Ali Salem al Beidh (left) and Ali Abdullah Saleh (right) at the announcement of unification.

A contemporary history of the Muslim world, part 14: Yemen #2

A contemporary history of the Muslim world, part 13: Yemen #1

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This seems to be as good a juncture as any to look at Yemen, partly because we touched on it in the last post, and partly because it is so topical. One of the most shameful man-made humanitarian catastrophes is taking place right now (May 2018) in this country as a result of the civil war which has been raging since March 2015, in what was already the Arab world’s poorest country. Now, over 8 million people are facing the immediate threat of famine, 50,000 children alone died last year of starvation and a cholera outbreak, probably the worst the world has ever seen, has killed over 2000, with a million suspected cases up to the end of 2017. One of the world’s richest countries, Saudi Arabia, is bombing one of the world’s poorest, with the implicit approval of not only the United States, but also the United Kingdom, France and Canada, who all sell arms to them.

What’s going on right now does not, of course, take place in a vacuum but in the context of a power struggle between the Houthis and the government, which itself had taken power after a series of popular protests in 2011 had forced the president of 33 years to step down. In the spirit in which this blog is intended, therefore, it behooves us to examine the historical context in which all this took place, and to show that the tragic events that have taken place in Yemen over the last few years are not a bolt from the blue, nor are they the kind of incomprehensible, ‘tribal’ or religious war they are sometimes portrayed in the media, but the result of long-festering political tensions and power struggles between actors both inside and outside Yemen.

First of all, some basic facts about Yemen: it’s a country of 27 million people, a bit bigger than Spain, takes up most of the southern part of the Arabian peninsula. As can be seen from the map below, it consists of a highland area to the west (confusingly called the north, which we’ll get to in a minute) and a much less-densely populated desert lowlands in the eastern part of the country, a region called Hadhramaut.

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The frequent division of Yemen into North and South (they were separate countries until 1990) is because the west of the country is far more densely populated than the east. When people refer to ‘south’ Yemen therefore, they mean the bit around Aden, south of Sana’a, although as you can see from this map, parts (mostly empty parts though) of the former South Yemen were further north than parts of North Yemen.

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This western part of Yemen is (or at least has been historically) pretty fertile by Arabian standards, and the frequently-cited fact that Yemen is the poorest Arab country has not always been the case. Once upon a time, this was one of the richest corners of Arabia, and was known to the Romans as Arabia Felix (happy Arabia) as opposed to the rest of the peninsula, which is mostly inhospitable desert. The Yemenis (who seem to have thought of themselves as a distinct people since the seventh century at least) once had a monopoly (which they closely guarded) over coffee, although Europeans eventually succeeded in stealing the plant and began to grow it cheaper elsewhere with slave labour. Yemen’s wealth and geographically important location (at a vital point on the sea lanes between European and India) also meant Yemen was the subject of interest from several imperial powers. The Ottomans dominated a great deal of their history until the twentieth century.

It is the immediate aftermath of the First World War, and the collapse of the Ottoman empire, which we took as the chronological outset of this blog, and for good reason: so many modern Arab nations have their genesis at this moment when they escaped the dominion of the Turks only to fall into the clutches of the French and British, in the case of Palestine, Lebanon, Syria for example (see part one). Such was not the case of Yemen, however, at least not the northern part. The Ottomans had never really established a strong hold over the country, and when they abandoned any pretensions to doing so, neither the French nor British were in a position to move into their place. The south, around the port of Aden (one of the world’s greatest natural harbours) was a different story. The British had been there since the 1830s, when they purchased the port, recognising its massive potential as a refueling point for their steamships on the way from Europe to India. Aden was integrated as a Province of British India and remained so until 1937, when it became a crown colony.

What emerged from the Ottoman collapse in the north of Yemen was an independent kingdom, led by a dynasty of Imam-Kings from the northern highlands, a region which has historically produced formidable fighters and is home to a brand of Shia Islam more or less unique to Yemen: the Zaydi. The Zaydi are a group within Shia Islam whose followers, in the eighth century, recognised a younger son, Zayd, of the fourth Shia Imam as their leader instead of the eldest son, recognised by other Shia. Yemen is pretty much the only country with significant numbers, and the rulers who founded and ruled the Mutawakkilite Kingdom of Yemen (1918-1962) were both political leaders and religious ones, who kept a tight rein on the country, jealously guarding absolute rule for themselves and, for the most part, attempting to keep their kingdom cut off from the threatening influence of the outside world.

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Flag of the Mutawakkilite Kingdom from 1927.

Imam Yahya had already been Imam of the Zaydi since 1904 when he became king in 1918. He proved himself a canny and ruthless ruler in the three decades he presided over the kingdom, recognising the importance of the clans and tribes in the highlands, whose frequent interventions in the politics of the region in the centuries of sporadic Ottoman rule had shown how they could make or break a ruler. Imam Yahya micromanaged Yemen to an extraordinary degree, trusting no-one to make any decision of consequence besides himself and running things according to a kind of medieval petitioning-system whereby people had to come and petition him personally if they wanted anything done. He was also notoriously jealous of foreign interest in his country’s resources and (probably wisely, as it happens) rebuffed attempts by oil companies to prospect there and by other western corporations to open up the country to their products by trying to give him lavish gifts. His rejection of such offers and the austere lifestyle he lived despite his great wealth won Yahya a great deal of respect among Yemenis as befitting a man who was their spiritual as well as temporal leader.

The same could not be said for his son, Ahmad, who took power after the assassination of the king in 1948. Yahya became more and more unpopular towards the end of his reign, as his heavy-handed repression of those who called for fairly modest reforms provoked a more radical opposition movement. Their killing of the king might have led to a toppling of the regime, but for the fact that Ahmad acted quickly when he heard of his father’s killing, heading north to the northern tribes loaded with as much gold as he could carry to win them over to his side in the coming struggle. Within a few months, he had wiped out his enemies and installed himself in power, a position he would hold onto for fourteen bizarre years of decadence of madness. Ahmad (below) is the kind of figure whose excesses presage the downfall of a monarchy. While his father had been ruthless but perceived as fair, Ahmad was ruthless but petty and unpredictable, gratuitously cruel at times, preoccupied with his own aggrandisement and the acquisition of technological marvels such as cars and telephones from abroad for his own personal enjoyment, while continuing the policy of keeping the country isolated from outside influence. A few vignettes from his reign that give some impression of the vibe: he had a gigantic portrait of himself erected in the public square outside his palace, he drowned his court jester dwarf, he collected hundreds of bottles of aftershave and liked to personally attend public beheadings and play with electric trains.

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Although clearly a conservative figure who would have liked to keep Yemen in a perpetual middle-ages with himself as the divinely-appointed ruler, Ahmad nevertheless made alliances and sought aid from whoever was willing to give it with the least strings attached. This made for some unlikely alliances with, for example, the Soviet Union and Maoist China. His foreign policy was largely dictated by fear of domination by Yemen’s large neighbour, Saudi Arabia, which was beginning to flex its muscles and exploit its oil wealth towards the end of his reign. While he and his father had been pretty successful in cutting Yemen off from the outside world, by the 1950s the cult of Nasser could not be kept out, the contagion of Arab nationalism, republicanism and secularism. It is no surprise that plots were laid against him, and yet, despite his eccentricities, Ahmad also seems to have had a cat’s nine lives, surviving an astonishing number of attempts to depose him. The most amazing was when he was sick in hospital in 1961 and some plotters shot him three times at point blank range; he survived by rolling onto the floor and pretending to be dead, although he was injured and lived only a year longer in a morphine-induced haze. He died in September 1962, against all the odds, peacefully.

His son was duly appointed but this was the end of the road for the Mutawakkilite monarchy. In many ways, it is amazing they soldiered on for as long as they did, and even the last king, Muhammad al-Badr, made a decent fist of fighting to take back the throne from the republican army officers who deposed him after only a week in power. Such a coup had been on the cards for some time, led by a cadre of officers who Imam Ahmad had taken the risk of sending to Iraq for training, risky because since 1958 that country had been a republic, having overthrown the Hashemite monarchy. The transfer of power from father to son was the window of opportunity these officers needed to seize control of Sana’a with little opposition and declare the Yemen Arab Republic, what is usually referred to as North Yemen. The republicans were led by Abdullah al-Salla, a forty-five year old colonel who was among those who had trained in Iraq. Here he is with his pals at a military display the year after taking power.

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The seizure of power was initially fairly efficient. The usual massacre of ministers and royal allies took place in the main square. The monarchy might have fallen then and there if it wasn’t for two factors: firstly, Imam Badr escaped, fleeing north for the traditional rallying of northern tribes to fight for him (well, for money really) and secondly he received outside help. The second is probably by far the most important, as most accounts suggest that the Imam-king did not inspire a huge amount of loyalty or love from his subjects, but that they fought for him because he could pay them handsomely, and because he commanded the support of the Saudis. Here is Imam Badr with some of his fighters during the civil war which followed:

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It was really only over the border in Saudi Arabia that any prospect of a counter-attack against the new republic became realistic, but of course  the monarchists were not alone in receiving outside help. We alluded in the last post to Yemen, and this war, as ‘Egypt’s Vietnam’, and indeed the North Yemen civil war (1962–1970), when it is remembered, is usually primarily remembered as a proxy war between Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The Egyptians staked far more in North Yemen than the Saudis. By the time of the Six-Day War against Israel in 1967 (when they really could have done with extra troops) roughly half of Egypt’s forces were bogged down in North Yemen and the war consumed over 20,000 in casualties by the time they were finished. While they ultimately managed to prevent the king’s return to power, it would be hard to argue that the Egyptians ‘won’ the war in any meaningful way.

In many ways the country exasperated Nasser and his officers, who found Yemeni fighters (both their allies and enemies) untrustworthy and indifferent to ideology, simply fighting for whoever would pay them the most. A Soviet journalist reported on the shocking amiability between supposed enemy tribesmen when gathering for negotiations near the Saudi border: ‘They hugged each other like old friends, kissed each others’ hands, and, once the initial greetings were over, spent a good while strolling around the enclosure hand in hand, as is the local custom.’ (cited from Victoria Clark’s excellent Yemen : Dancing on the Heads of Snakes, Yale University Press, 2010). Nasser reportedly introduced al-Sallal to Nikita Khrushchev, remarking, ‘I just wanted you to see what I have to put up with.’ For all its fine republican rhetoric, the Egyptian campaign was distinctly unheroic and can be seen, along with the Six-Day war, as one of the turning-points at which Arab secular nationalism lost its way. Yemeni villages were bombed, chemical warfare was used, the kind of torture methods alluded to in part 2 as common in Egyptian prisoners were exported to Yemen. This is not the way to win converts to your cause, and in the end, the Egyptians were seen by many Yemenis as just another invader. Again, parallels with the United States (whose invasion of Vietnam was masked in rhetoric about not being like the old European colonial powers) abound.

Another foreign power that intervened in the North Yemen civil war was Britain, although they were not honest enough to do it openly and to this day, in all the coverage of the current Yemen crisis, it is hardly ever talked about. Of course, the British backed the fedual despotic monarchy but before we look at their clandestine intervention in North Yemen, lets get up to date with what was happening in the south, where there was nothing clandestine about the British presence whatsoever. As noted above, the British had obtained the port of Aden back in the nineteenth century and, while not entirely unwelcome to many of the Indian and Jewish merchants who lived in the port town, the Arabs and surrounding tribes put up sporadic resistance to the British presence. Aden was something of a backwater in the British colonies, hot and uninviting, it was perceived as one of the less desirable places you could be sent as a soldier or administrator. This changed somewhat when the Suez Canal opened in 1869 and Aden became more prosperous as a result of the increased importance of the Red Sea route to the east.

Although it became an economically more attractive location, and could be said to have thrived in some respects, the Yemenis continued to resent the British occupation of their best port and largest urban centre. In order to deal with the surrounding animosity, the British made more and more treaties with shiekhdoms in southern and eastern Yemen, seeking to buy off local rulers with arms and money, to convince them to leave them in peaceful possession of Aden in return for which they were largely left to their own devices. It was much cheaper than filling the country with soldiers and trying to pacify it, which the British were smart enough to realise (from looking at what had happened to the Turks, and would happen to the Egyptians) was pointless. Another cheap expedient was using the RAF to punish disobedient tribes and villages from the 1920s onwards, a technology to which the Yemeni tribesmen (like the Iraqis bombed by British aircraft in the revolt of 1920) had no answer.

The application of this in Yemen is described by a retired colonial official in this 1985 episode of a TV series, End of Empire, around 7m24s in:

What the old dude is describing in the clip sounds a lot like terrorism but the narrator of the programme seems to accept the whole thing as perfectly acceptable, referring to it without the bat of an eyelid as ‘air policing’!

The political arrangements of the British with southern Yemeni tribes evolved into the Aden protectorate, subdivided for administrative purposes into eastern and western divisions. When an independent kingdom emerged in northern Yemen, the Imams there claimed to be rightful rulers of the whole land, providing weapons to anyone within the British areas who would back up their claims. The British, for their part, filled the region with weapons given to anyone who would support their claims, which became more and more important to defend as Britain’s empire began to fragment and disintegrate in the period after the Second World War. This corresponded with the growing importance of Aden as both a maritime (it was the third-busiest port in the world) and aviation hub (the busiest RAF base in the world) at this time, not to mention the fact that BP had built a huge oil refinery there. Retention of Aden, especially after the Suez crisis, therefore became the concern to which everything else was subordinated in British planning.

The port’s success, however, was linked to growing hostility towards British rule in that the increasingly-powerful merchant community and the growing number of industrial port workers began to demand rights associated with an urban bourgeoisie and proletariat. In the post-war period, a kind of legislative assembly for Aden was granted (for which few could vote), and workers began to organise trade unions. Political astute Arabs were almost inevitably influenced by the Arab nationalism that was proving an inspiration all over the Middle East in the 1950s, and the inevitability of independence was recognised by the early 1960s by everyone, including the British, who hoped to manage this ‘independence’ in their own interests by creating a state called the Federation of South Arabia, which was to consist of sixteen of the more westerly sultanates over which the British had exercised a protectorate, wedded (somewhat reluctantly) to Aden. The remaining territories in the east (see the .gif above) would remain outside the federation as the ‘Protectorate of South Arabia’.

But history had run ahead of the British, and the offer represented by the federation was too little, too late for Yemenis, who now wanted full independence like their northern counterparts, and were prepared to fight for it. The proposed state would exclude most Yemenis from participation in political life and in any case offered them no real self-determination, especially not over Aden. The fact that the British designated the place the ‘permanent’ headquarters of their Middle East Command in 1962 would suggest they were not planning on giving it up any time soon. The federation also gave undue power to the rulers of the various small states at the expense of Aden, against which the British had long been playing the rural hinterland as a means of divide-and-rule, and which now wanted no part of this proposed puppet state. It did have quite a nice flag though:

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The opposition to British rule had, by the time the monarchy fell in North Yemen, morphed into an effective movement for full independence in the south, which received assistance from the republicans in Sana’a and Egypt. The National Liberation Front (NLF) was the name of this group and attracted broad support because it recruited not only among port workers but also among rural tribesmen. Led by Qahtan Muhammad al-Shaabi (below), a British-trained agricultural officer who had come under the influence of Nasserist ideas in Egyptian exile, the NLF perceived nothing less than direct armed action would induce the British to leave, and initially waged a guerilla war in the Radfan area north of Aden. The British, whose intelligence on the freedom fighters appears to have been dreadful, dismissed the NLF as primitive tribal forces, seemingly missing the fact that these were being armed and trained by professional Egyptian soldiers from just over the border in North Yemen. Failing to take them seriously at first, it was far too late by the time they realised they commanded widespread support from the population and collaboration from the British-trained Arab police and military that carried out much of the day-to-day policing in the protectorate. Aden and the surrounding area drifted into all-out war towards the end of 1963.

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The NLF’s instruction manual encouraged its activists to engage in relatively-innocuous actions like breaking the colonists’ air-conditioning and pouring sugar in their petrol tanks, but it wasn’t long before the things turned distinctly ugly: hand grenades were hurled at parties of British soldiers and their families (whom they persisted in bringing over with them as if nothing was amiss) and the British in turn responded with the torture of civilians in custody and summary collective punishment in the streets.

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You might think it would improve things, but the coming to power of the Labour Party in October 1964 if anything only made things worse. As centre-left governments often come under suspicion of not being tough enough militarily, they often feel compelled to dispel these doubts about their resolve by being even more pigheaded and aggressive than their right-wing counteparts. Harold Wilson’s party in opposition had criticised the federation plan for not giving any representation in power to the people of Yemen, but merely handing some power over to autocratic sultans. Once in power, however, they came under American pressure behind the scenes to dig their heels in and stick to the Conservatives plan. The Americans were concerned (rightly, as it happened) about southern Yemen falling into the Soviet sphere of influence if the British lost it. They, therefore, continued the policy of imposing the British settlement by force. They also lost the support of the Arab contingent associated with the labour movement in Aden, led by Abdullah al Asnag (below) which up until now had been campaigning peacefully for democratic rights for the inhabitants of Aden, and felt deeply betrayed by the Labour Party when they failed to support them.

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Coming to the conclusion that full independence and a military campaign to achieve this was now the only option, they formed the Front for the Liberation of Occupied South Yemen (FLOSY) in early 1966. It was less Marxist in its outlook than the NLF and would soon be fighting them for control over the independent state which was to emerge in South Yemen. By this juncture, Wilson’s government had decided to throw in the towel and declared their intention to depart by 1968. What with the speed of political developments in the Middle East (the Six-Day War) and the rapidly deteriorating situation in Aden, they were compelled to leave even earlier, in November 1967, leaving their erstwhile allies, the sultans and shiekhs whom they had tried to install as rulers of the federation, completely high and dry and without protection after independence.

The period between announcing their intention of leaving and actually leaving saw, oddly enough, an escalation of violence, as embittered British troops and Arabs engaged in tit-for-tat killings which escalated as the British-trained local army and police forces came out openly on the side of the freedom fighters. June 1967 saw the occupation of the Crater district of Aden by these forces, who killed twenty-two British soldiers in one day. The area was reoccupied the following month by a force (they marched back in playing bagpipes) led by one Colin Mitchell, nicknamed ‘Mad Mitch’ in the British media which, smarting from the injury to their imperial pride, built him up into a folk hero, who would later be elected an MP on the basis of his celebrity. Dubbed ‘the last battle of the British empire’, in reality, Mitchell’s forces engaged in looting, sniping at civilians from the rooftops and pointless gratuitous violence in the final few months of British occupation.

The fact that this episode was perceived by sections of the British public as a victory of some kind says a great deal about the continuing emotional draw of empire and the reluctance (which continues to this day) to see it for what it was. Episodes like Aden were the bully’s last petulant punch before withdrawing in a huff, and (like Cyprus, Kenya, Northern Ireland) are far more representative of the vicious way in which the empire was relinquished than the much better-remembered and celebrated withdrawal from India. It’s also telling that the British to this day refuse to refer to it as a ‘war’, persisting in calling it the Aden ’emergency’ (just like Kenya, Cyprus, Malaysia, the ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland), they seem reluctant to describe them as wars. I wonder why.

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The NLF meanwhile was moving more and more to the left and under Soviet influence. The Egyptians switched support to the more centrist (and more malleable) FLOSY and it may well have been Nasser’s support that induced the departing British to recognise the rival NLF as its successors to power as they were leaving. The latter crushed the former more or less at the same time as the British left and the People’s Republic of South Yemen was declared on the 30 November 1967 with Qahtan Muhammad al-Shaabi as its first president. This would quickly become an avowedly-Marxist state, renamed the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen three years later, when al-Shaabi was removed from power by the more hardline communists, and we will look at its history up to unification with the north (1990) in the next post.

Returning to North Yemen, Britain’s intervention there was far more hush-hush and not widely acknowledged to this day. After the takeover by the republican government backed by Egypt, the British were keen to see the Imams regain their kingdom, being against whatever was Nasser was for and for the same reason they backed the tribal rulers in the south. One of their more well-informed officials in the country, Christopher Gandy, described what they were defending as ‘an arbitrary autocracy’ and recommended recognising the republic who were ‘much more open to contact and reasoned argument’. He was overruled by British leaders, however, who at the same time recognised the embarrassing inconvenience of standing up for reactionary despotic regimes, but for whom Britain’s imperial interests (fading as they were) were always prioritised over everything else.

The spread of modern republicanism and democracy was perceived as a direct threat to these interests, and so had to be combated, not only in Yemen, but everywhere in the Middle East where Britain continued to have a finger in the imperial pie. Indeed, some of the more die-hard imperialists saw no shame in what they were doing and again, we have the bigotry of one of their number for a fairly frank account of what was going on here. Aviation minister Julian Amery commented in 1963:

The prosperity of Britain rests on the oil of the Persian Gulf, the rubber and tin of Malaya, and the precious metals of south and central Africa. As long as we have access to these, as long as we can realize the assets we have there, as long as we can trade with this part of the world, we [the people of the United Kingdom] will be prosperous. If the communists were to take them over we would lose the lot. Governments like Colonel Nasser’s in Egypt are just as dangerous.

This can be seen around 11:50 in a documentary made by the wonderful Adam Curtis back in 1999.

The obvious contradiction between all of this reactionary conniving and the progressive, democracy-loving image the British wished to convey was becoming obvious to the more intelligent of their own population, so they had to do it all covertly. The man for the job was the subject of the above documentary, David Stirling (below), who had founded the SAS during the Second World War and, in the 1960s, was among those active in the corridors of power (Amery was a personal friend) resentful of Britain’s declining imperial role in the world and looking for ways to exert it again. He agreed with Amery and another Conservative MP, Billy McLean, to recruit mercenaries from among his SAS comrades and in France for a clandestine operation in North Yemen, funded largely by the Saudis and Jordan. The SAS couldn’t be committed officially (but were in all but name) but enough plausible deniability was created to distance the government from their actions.

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The purpose of Britain’s covert operation was less to win the war than make life hard for the Egyptians and in the (as we have seen, ultimately vain) hope of preventing the war in North Yemen from upsetting their rule over Aden. As Mark Curtis has noted (see Unpeople: Britain’s Secret Human Rights Abuses) the British recognised in private that their clients had no chance of winning the war but, as Prime Minister Harold Macmillan told President Kennedy ‘it would not suit us too badly if the new Yemeni regime were occupied with their own internal affairs during the next few years’. An internal memo at the time noted that ‘the present stalemate in the Yemen, with the Republicans and Royalists fighting each other and therefore having no time or energy left over to make trouble for us in Aden, suits our own interests very well’. Mines were lain, railways blown up. Again, it’s hard to avoid the impression that, if all of this had been orchestrated by Colonel Gaddafi or Iran, they would call it terrorism, but there you go.

The British operation in North Yemen no doubt made a contribution to Egypt’s military disaster there, and although they pulled out in 1967, the royalists did not retake power (the Saudis had also withdrawn their far-less extensive military presence). Once the foreign armies left them to it, the Yemenis eventually came to realise that neither side was likely to achieve outright victory and, when al-Sallal was removed and replaced by a civilian leader, Abdul Rahman Al-Iryani, things began to move towards a compromise. By 1970 it was agreed that the republic would stay, but many of the royalist figures would be offered influential roles in government, with the exception of the royal family itself. Muhammad al-Badr went into exile in Britain and died in London in 1996.

In the next post, we will follow the paths of these two Yemens, North and South, from the early 1970s on to unification in 1990 and beyond. While the south pursued a doctrinaire Marxist line until the collapse of their Soviet sponsor, the north occupied an ambiguous position in the late Cold War years, dominated by president (1978-2011) Ali Abdullah Saleh and preferring to take help from whoever would give it with least strings attached. While the northern Zaydis had failed to restore their Imam to the throne, they remained an important factor in the north’s politics, re-emerging in another form and another name, the Houthis, in the mid 1990s.

Featured image above: Sana’a skyline.

A contemporary history of the Muslim world, part 13: Yemen #1

A contemporary history of the Muslim world, part 12: Saudi Arabia and the ‘Arab Cold War’

nasserfaisalAfter the previous posts on the Afghan war, my intention was originally to examine the participation of foreign fighters in that war and their subsequent attempts to launch jihad in various other countries in the 1990s. I will defer this story for another post, however, as I wish first to backtrack somewhat to where we were after part two of this series, that is, back in the Arab world, and back in the 1960s, looking at the demise of the secularist Arab nationalist movement, personified by Egypt’s president Gamel Abdel Nasser. What left the story somewhat incomplete at that stage was the existence of an opposing movement in the Arab world at the same time that Nasser and his allies were espousing a modern, technologically-driven rebirth of society that would stand up against western imperialism. This was a conservative, theocratic vision centered around the traditional monarchies of the region, led by Saudi Arabia, which in the 1960s would become the standard-bearer and chief rival of Nasser’s Egypt in what scholar Malcolm Kerr termed the ‘Arab Cold War’.

I wouldn’t push this analogy between the US-Soviet Union Cold War and the Egypt-Saudi Arabia one too far. It certainly isn’t universally accepted and differs in profound ways. One similarity is that it did not develop into direct military confrontation, but involved proxy conflicts fought between the two regional powers in other countries, namely Yemen, which sadly is back in the news (although not enough in the news) on account of outside interference. In any case, this rivalry, and the wider battle for the soul of the Muslim world, between conservative Islam and secular nationalism, is crucial for understanding what lies ahead. The notion of an Arab Cold War is also a useful framework within which to prepare the ground for future posts I want to write on Iraq, Libya and Yemen, although a lot will be said about Yemen in this post as well. In part two, I took a fairly detailed look at what was happening in Egypt up to the assassination of Sadat. In part one, I also covered the beginnings of Saudi power in Arabia, and its emergence as a power after world war two, when it positioned itself as a firm partisan of (and oil supplier to) the United States in the Cold War.

To comprehend the weirdness of Saudi Arabia, it really has to be understood how rapid was the transformation from a feudal (probably a clumsy use of that word, sorry) society, tribal in structure and desperately poor, to a modern petro-state, one of the richest in the world with the military capacity of the world’s preeminent superpower at its disposal, and yet underpinned by a conservative religious ideology that sought to reinstate an imagined ‘purer’ Islam, using tremendously-enhanced resources, acquired by linking its economic fate inextricably with the modern world, while at the same time trying to keep that world at bay. Contradictions such as this about in Saudi Arabia. While a bastion of traditionalism, there is nothing traditional about the kingdom. It is a thoroughly modern creation, dating as we saw in part one, to the 1920s-30s. The name literally means the country conquered and ruled over by the Saud dynasty. I can’t think of any other country whose name reflects its rulers in this way; it’s as if ‘Putin’s Russia’ or ‘Elizabeth’s England’ were the actual official title of those respective countries.

We have already seen, in brief outline, how Ibn Saud came to power by warring on his rivals in the decades prior to ‘independence’ in 1932. What we haven’t really examined, however, is how the kingdom he established came to be a functioning coherent state, as opposed to a loosely-allied group of warlords under the umbrella of one uber-warlord. And this is where the American oil companies came in, for it was they who initially built the infrastructure which would tie together the new state and lay the foundations of its power. At the time of independence, little of this existed. Ibn Saud consolidated his power by personal alliances, marriages, suppressing possible rivals (especially within his own huge dynasty) and lavish hospitality. All this left him with huge debts, which the Standard Oil company of California, SOCAL (a predecessor of today’s Chevron Corporation) offered to help him with if he would let them prospect for oil in his territory.

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It is interesting to note that Ibn Saud took the trouble to consult the religious authorities, the ulema, on the wisdom of consorting with infidels in this matter, not so much because they said it was acceptable, but because the were hardly likely to say otherwise. The fact is that the Saudi king had already co-opted them to a large extent, consulting them publicly on the compatibility with Islam of other innovations such as the car and telephone, to none of which they offered any serious challenge. It was a formality, but nonetheless it is notable that he felt the need to keep up the pretense. This was because, despite the acquiescence of the religious establishment in his project, Ibn Saud still faced opposition from Islamic traditionalists in other corners of Saudi society. At the time the first foreigners were arriving to look for oil, anecdotes tell of the imam of the mosque in Riyadh giving a sermon to a congregation of which Ibn Saud was a part about the sinfulness of co-operating with infidels. The king is said to have interrupted angrily and countered with another sura from the Qur’an, suggesting such co-operation was permitted. This tension, between the Saudi government-sanctioned form of the faith, and those who felt the integrity of Wahhabist doctrine had been compromised, will be a constant underlying theme throughout the whole of Saudi history, and once we’ve had a look at the kind of state Ibn Saud and his sons created, we will backtrack a bit and examine the various undercurrents of dissent that existed in the country and how they were dealt with (spoiler alert: it ain’t pretty).

Oil was of course found, in large quantities, in 1938 at Damman on the Persian Gulf in the east of the country and things moved quickly from there. Although the disruptions caused by Second World War in some ways slowed early development, the post-war reconstruction and alliance with the United States no doubt made up for this. A subsidiary of SOCAL, the California-Arabian Standard Oil Company, took care of business in Saudi Arabia, and in 1944 its name was changed to the Arabian-American Oil Company (ARAMCO). It might be argued that ARAMCO is as important a factor in the story of Saudi Arabia as the Saud family itself. In these first decades after the war, ARAMCO basically performed the functions of a state which the Saud family didn’t initially have the resources to: building infrastructure (much of it in the early years at least, primarily for the use of the royal family) such as roads, railroads, a communications network, schools, hospitals, you name it: ARAMCO took care of it, for a hefty fee of course.

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Still from Aramco publicity film, 1950

Riyadh’s population exploded in these years, from around 50,000 at the end of the war to 150,000 in 1960 and over 500,000 in 1970. The capital was connected by railway (built of course by ARAMCO) to Damman in 1951. The country was basically a construction site, much of this work (not to mention the drilling) supervised by infidels the conservative elements in Saudi society had been so reluctant to allow in-mostly Americans but also some Dutch, British, Italians, etc. While the years after oil-extraction commenced saw an explosion in the numbers of non-Muslims in Saudi Arabia (before this, they had probably numbered fewer than fifty), this does not mean that they wandered around the country at will, freely interacting with the locals. On the contrary, ARAMCO’s workers lived in a weird, cloistered world shut off from Saudi society in vast compounds in which they attempted to recreate as much as possible the conditions of suburban America which they had left behind. At the Dhahran compound near Damman, a regime of racial segregation was imposed in which the foreign workers lived in luxurious, air-conditioned quarters surrounded by barbed wire fences, while their Arab colleagues lived right next door in an unfenced compound that, in the early days, lacked basic services such as electricity, water and plumbing.

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Images from Aramco compound, Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, 1950s

The Saudi workers in these oil-fields were people who, for the most part, had been almost entirely cut off from the outside world, living a sedentary or nomadic life within the desert that had changed little in centuries. This world was suddenly turned upside down, exposed to the influence, not only of the westerners which both ARAMCO and the Saudi government attempted (but never completely managed) to confine within the compounds, but also of Arabs who came from other parts of the middle east to work in the industry. Palestinians, for example, came and told their fellow Arabs of their travails and the Nakba; ideas of pan-Arab nationalism begin to foment within Saudi Arabia, even secularism; workers came under the influence of socialist ideas and attempted to organise. Another potentially destabilising factor was the fact that in the early years, most of the functioning oil wells were in the eastern province of the country where most of the country’s Shia live, a minority (about 10%) with which the Saudi rulers have not always enjoyed smooth relations, especially after the revolution of 1979 in nearby Iran. In the mid-1950s, about 60% of ARAMCO’s native workforce were Shia.

This propaganda video gives an idea of the kind of hybrid world being built in the desert in the 1950s:

These revolutionary social developments began to see political consequences in the 1950s, for all the government’s (and the Americans’) efforts to maintain the status quo. The deplorable conditions in workers’ camps led to strikes among the ARAMCO workforce in 1953 and 1956 that obtained some improvement of conditions. The authorities’ tactic seems to have been to take the edge off this dissent by making material concessions, but conceding nothing in the way of political rights, and certainly not allowing the labour movement any opportunity to organise itself into anything resembling an opposition. The most prominent of these opposition figures was Nasir al-Sa’id, a worker from Ha’il in the northern interior of the country. While offering improved wages and camp conditions, people like al-Sa’id were imprisoned. When released, he left the country and led a kind of opposition in exile from Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Egypt. While not regarded as a huge threat by the Saudis for most of the 1960s-1970s, in the period following the seizure of the Grand Mosque of Mecca in late 1979, which he claimed was part of a people’s revolution, al-Sa’id was kidnapped from his home in Beirut and never seen again, the widespread suspicion (never confirmed) being that the Saudis got hold of him.

What happened to al-Sa’id—exile, possibly execution, attempts to excise him from public memory (he doesn’t even have a wikipedia page as far as I can tell, nor can I find a picture of him anywhere) is typical of those who have stood up to the Saudi regime, which has this strange double face: on the one hand presiding over dramatic changes in the social and material fabric of the country, while simultaneously trying (largely successfully) to maintain an unchanging political hegemony. Just as all these dramatic changes were taking off, the country’s founder Abdulaziz Ibn Saud died in 1953, and power passed to the first in a series of sons which, to this day, have ruled the kingdom in succession. Saud (one of forty-five sons) came to the throne at the age of 51. He had been groomed to inherit his father’s kingdom from an early age, after the death of his older brother of flu in 1919. Here he is, posing with two of his favourite  butlers in 1957:

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Saud was a dud, which became clear over the following decade. He spent lavishly on palaces and stuff for himself and his dynasty while the country’s debt spiraled out of control. While the oil business was booming, but it wasn’t that booming, and huge debts (much of which he had inherited from his father) meant that cuts had to come somewhere, given the refusal of ARAMCO banks to extend. Under Saud, these cuts generally came from public works projects. Given that the ‘public sphere’ in Saudi Arabia was more or less limited to the royal family, opposition to Saud coalesced around two focal points: his brother Faysal, with whom he had been vying for power since before their father died, and a much younger brother, Talal. But Faysal first:

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Faysal, king from 1964 to 1975

Both Saud and Faysal had received extensive training in expectation that they would succeed to positions of power in the kingdom. This training seems to have impressed itself upon the mind of Faysal more profoundly than Saud. He had been minister for foreign affairs since 1930 and prime minister since the time of Saud’s accession, when the post had been created, along with a Council of Ministers, as a gesture on Saud’s part towards sharing power with his relatives. This council would instead become a battleground, as Saud used it to promote his adherents and immediate family members. Government ministries became pawns controlled by the king as he sought to scheme against what he (rightly) suspected was his brother’s scheming against him and filled posts with allies, some from the royal family, others from less-prominent collateral branches or people he trusted. This alienated those in the family who felt shut out, who rallied around Faysal. One of the most important of these was the ‘Sudairi Seven’, so called because they were all sons of Abdulaziz Ibn Saud with Hussa bint Ahmed Al Sudairi, and two of whom have succeeded as king. Instead of getting bogged down with all their names for the moment, just to note that these were a powerful ally for Faysal as the Saud regime’s financial situation deteriorated and the king’s incompetence more and more apparent to those in the know.

Relations began to deteriorate between the two brothers in the early sixties and Saud was less successful than Faysal in maintaining a power-base. Saud’s assumed for himself the powers of prime minister in 1960 and at this point his rival was merely waiting for his opportunity to act. This came in 1962 when Saud went abroad for medical treatment. Forming a cabinet in his brother’s absence, Faysal, with the support of the ‘Sudairi Seven’ and other allies, announced a program of reforms that included the creation of a basic law, the abolition of slavery (yep, they still had that) and the establishment of a judicial council. Having secured the support of the ulema (Islamic religious scholars), it was a done deal by the time Saud came home. Although there was a short period in which he was allowed to remain as a figurehead, it wasn’t long before Faysal had him removed from this capacity as well, and Saud left the country, dying in Greece in 1969.

And yet in many ways, his predecessor was the least of Faysal’s worries. Saud was yesterday’s man. The threats facing the Saudi regime going forward came from other sources, some within, some without. As we have already seen, politics in Saudi Arabia was essentially something practices only by the extended family of the king. Everyone else was a bystander, if they were even observing public events. Among those in the inner circle were younger sons of Ibn Saud, especially Talal bin Abdulaziz Al Saud (below) whose mother was Armenian, and who Ibn Saud had doted over in his old age. Talal and some other younger brothers formed a faction that oscillated in their loyalty between Saud and Faysal, and when Saud failed to listen to their proposals for some modest liberalisations of the autocratic regime, Talal and some of his allies moved abroad in 1961, forming an opposition in exile in Lebanon and Egypt and heavily influenced by the vibe behind Gamal Abdel Nasser, hence the moniker they gave themselves: the ‘Free princes’ (cf. the ‘Free Officers Movement’ in Egypt).

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Although influenced by Nasser, the Free Princes did not go as far as proposing the deposition of the king, merely its transformation into a constitutional monarchy. Although their movement was clothed in the revolutionary-sounding language of nationalism and socialism, in reality it was liberal and rather modest in its vision for Saudi Arabia. It basically envisaged the Saudi kingdom making the leap that France had made in the 1790s. Notwithstanding these ideological differences (although Nasser’s ideology is somewhat opaque also), the Free Princes Movement became closely associated with the charismatic Egyptian leader, who enjoyed a god-like status in the Arab world in the early 1960s. Nasser had not always been at loggerheads with the Saudis. Initially, they had been allied in common enmity towards the Hashemite regimes (see part one) of Jordan and Iraq. Nasser visited Saudi Arabia in 1956 and was greeted with popular enthusiasm, something worrying to the Saudi authorities. Don’t forget this was an era when monarchies were being overthrown all over the place (Egypt: 1952, Iraq: 1958, Yemen: 1962 and Libya: 1969). The image of solidarity was shattered when it emerged in 1958 (following the short-lived union of Egypt and Syria) that Saud had hired a hitman to assassinate Nasser.

By the time the Free Princes Movement emerged, therefore, relations between Egypt and Saudi Arabia had soured, and this rivalry for leadership in the Arab world is what is sometimes dubbed the ‘Arab Cold War’, a rivalry between two states that were merely emblematic of a deeper rivalry between two visions for the future of the Arab world: one secular, modernising, left-leaning and the other monarchical, conservative, informed by a three-centuries-old religious orthodoxy. When Faysal came to power in 1964, he defined more sharply Saudi Arabia’s role as a counterweight to secular nationalist regimes like Egypt and Syria. You would probably think, standing at the vantage-point of 1964, that a contest between these two visions would inevitably lead to the triumph of the modernising, forward-looking vision. You’d be wrong.

The ‘Free Princes’ were reconciled with the Saudi regime when Faysal came to power. It might be asked why. They achieved none of their aims really. Their return to the fold had less to do with improved relations with the dynasty back home than a worsening of relations with Nasser, and this had a lot to do with the ‘Cold War’ between Egypt and Saudi Arabia which had become distinctly hot. This actual war took place in one of those corners of the Earth where ‘great powers’ like to wage their proxy wars: Yemen.

Rather than treating Yemen as an aside in another story (which is the way it often gets treated) I want to go into it in a more detailed post of its own) so let’s not dwell here on the circumstances surrounding the civil war that started in 1962 when republicans took power from the king and imam, Muhammad al-Badr, who had only been in power a week. This transformed the Mutawakkilite Kingdom of Yemen (what is today the western part of Yemen, often confusingly referred to as ‘North Yemen’) into the Yemen Arab Republic. The king fled north and got help from the Saudis, the republicans got help from Egypt. This set the scene for a proxy war between the two Arab heavyweights on Yemeni soil (sound familiar?), the Saudis being freaked out by the sudden presence of 20,000 Egyptian soldiers on their southern borders, not to mention the first republican government on the Arabian peninsula.

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A quick Yemen gif

While Nasser’s commitment to the republicans in Yemen was wholehearted, Saudi support for the royalists was less spectacular, reflecting the fact that, while the country was an economic powerhouse, politically, militarily, Saudi Arabia remained a fairly minor player in the Middle East. To change this was one of Faysal’s main objectives. The Yemen war, however, was something of a shambles; some Saudi pilots even flew their planes off to Egypt to defect. Saudi Arabia got some half-hearted help from the Americans, but under Kennedy, they themselves were going through a period of attempting to win Nasser over from the Communist side, so they weren’t going to do too much to help; indeed, the United States recognised the Yemen republic in late 1962 to the dismay of the Saudis. Saudi and Egyptian involvement in the Yemen war would come to an end in 1967. They had already agreed behind the scenes that it was mutually destructive and in any case they had bigger fish to fry in dealing with Israel in the Six Day War. Incidentally, the Yemenis themselves worked out a compromise that ended the civil war in 1970, but more of that in a separate Yemen post.

While the Saudis did not achieve their objective of restoring the king in Yemen, it could not be said that Egypt emerged from the war with the spoils of victory. Yemen is sometimes referred to as ‘Egypt’s Vietnam’ and, in the years that followed, Faysal would implement a series of administrative and fiscal reforms, coupled with a series of diplomatic manoeuvres which would place Saudi Arabia in a more commanding position within the Arab world. Crucially important was Arab defeat in the Six Day War, which damaged the reputation of Nasser, and after which the Saudis pledged a great deal of petrol-dollars to the Palestinians’ struggle. Perhaps even more important were the events which followed the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War in 1973. At the same time, Faysal brought the country into greater alignment with Israel’s greatest ally, the United States. In order to flex its muscles more effectively in the world at large, Faysal took advantage of the only asset Saudi Arabia had: oil.

After the outbreak of another war with Israel in 1973, the Saudis will lead an attempt to punish Israel’s western allies, especially the United States, for its steadfast support for the occupation of Palestine. This oil embargo on a select group of countries is epoch-making, not so much for the impact it had on the Israel-Palestine conflict (very little as it happens) but as heralding in a new era of Saudi power and the increased centrality of oil to geopolitics, not to mention contributing greatly to  a severe recession which would have huge knock-on effects, both political and social, which we arguably live with to this day. It is worth backtracking a bit to look at the evolution of Saudi oil policy and the creation of OPEC, the organisation through which this embargo was effected.

Handing over the exploitation of your oil to someone else, in return for a cut of the profits, makes some sense when you don’t have the expertise or resources to get it out of the ground, refine it and transport it around the world. What happens over time, though, is usually that the resources derived from oil-wealth are partly spent on developing indigenous resources and infrastructure, educating and training indigenous technicians and administrators, until the day comes when the reasons for handing over your resources to the oil companies no longer apply. The original disadvantageous agreement comes to be seen as an unfair constraint on the country with the natural resources, and the desire to reassert control over them becomes irresistible. We have already seen what happened in Iran when Mohammad Mosaddegh attempted to nationalise Iran’s oil and take it back from the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (BP to you and me). In Saudi Arabia, taking over control of the oil did not have such destabilising consequences. ARAMCO remained an American-owned company until the 1970s, when the Saudi state began to buy it out, a process complete by 1980.

From the 1960s on, one of the most important figures in Saudi politics was the head of the Ministry of Petroleum and Mineral Resources. The first of these was Abdullah Tariki (below), who had gained an education abroad patronage of the state in geology and was made first minister for oil in 1960. That year, he was instrumental in founding OPEC (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) along with his Venezuelan counterpart. They did this (Iran, Iraq and Kuwait also joined) in the hope of exerting more control over the price and volume of oil produced, which at that time was controlled by the a cartel of multinational oil companies with little regard for the countries from whom they had obtained concessions. Particularly resented was the oil companies attempts to keep prices low as new sources of oil glutted the market in the post-war decades.

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In its early years, OPEC wasn’t hugely successful in its objectives. Much of the oil was still in the hands of western multinationals, not the states in question, but as states like Saudi Arabia acquired more and more control over its own resources (another long-term strategic goal of OPEC) their leverage gradually increased, as did the prospect of them using oil prices to exert influence over politics, especially as they concerned Israel-Palestine. To those in the west who are happy to guzzle petrol like there is no tomorrow, but pay little attention to where it comes from (i.e. most people) the measures taken by the Arab OPEC countries in response to the west’s support for Israel in the 1973 war came as a big shock. It shouldn’t have (OPEC had, only months before the war, raised the price of oil by nearly 12%) but it did, and I think if we are honest, there has always been a sense among many in the west that the petroleum under the ground in foreign lands, even if they are no longer colonies in a formal sense, is somehow the birthright of white people living in Europe and America.

In October 1973 then, OPEC cut production by at least 5% (and some countries like Saudi Arabia by more) and increased prices by an initial 17% (in the following months, this would result in a 70% increase in the price of oil internationally), but most spectacularly of all, announced a complete oil embargo against Israel’s main western allies: the United States, Canada, Japan, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. Tariki had been replaced by this stage by Ahmed Zaki Yamani (below), who in many ways was the face of this effort to deter the west’s support for Israel.

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To show the long-term effects of the ‘oil crisis’ of the 1970s is beyond the scope of this post. Just one observation: it can be seen as a crucial nail in the coffin of the post-war economic boom and the social-stability afforded by the accommodation between business and organised labour, resulting in rising living standards, the welfare state, etc. All of this entered a period of crisis in the 1970s, which was taken advantage of by neoliberals like Reagan and Thatcher at the end of the decade.

But for Saudi Arabia, the results of this period were more mixed. Israel emerged triumphant from the Yom Kippur War and the embargo was lifted in March 1974 having failed to achieve its political objectives. The increase in oil prices that following during the series of oil shocks of the 1970s brought a huge increase in revenue to Saudi Arabia, from about 22.5 billion SR (Saudi Riyals) in 1970 to 163.6 billion SR in 1975, to 546.6 billion in 1980, an astonishing increase of 2329% in just a decade. An image in the west of underhand practices, of oil being used as a kind of blackmail, and underhand manipulation of the oil markets became widespread in the west at this time, which is kind of hypocritical when you consider that multinational oil companies had been doing this for decades. Their cartel had been informally known as the ‘Seven Sisters’ and while there isn’t space to go into it here, this Al Jazeera series on the subject is well worth a watch:

 

This is the time when an image of the ‘greedy sheikh’ emerges in the west, and a growth in anti-Arab feeling in some quarters, a resentment towards the Arabs for using their oil-wealth which follows logically from the idea that this is really the property of western nations. The 1970s can be pinpointed as the beginnings of what will become a widespread Islamophobia in the west. It is worth reflecting that it emerges at the same time that the oil-producing nations began to assert control over their own natural resources. Just a thought.

Faysal was able to use these huge financial resources to invest in infrastructure, to both improve living conditions for Saudi citizens and consolidate his control over them, not to mention purchasing ARAMCO from the Americans. His stance in at least offering symbolic support for the Palestinians bolstered his country’s standing in the Arab world, at least temporarily, and in flexing its economic muscles and provoking conflict with the United States, Saudi Arabia actual found itself in a more favourable relationship in the aftermath, having demonstrated how indispensable they were as an ally. Faysal was not to enjoy the fruits of all this for long though, as he was assassinated in March 1975 by one of his nephews, ostensibly as an act of private revenge for the killing of the assassin’s brother ten years earlier (although conspiracy theories abound).

Faysal’s trusted oil minister Yamani was standing next to him when he was shot and, in December (he had a hell of a year) he and several other oil ministers were taken hostage at the OPEC headquarters in Vienna by a team led by Carlos the Jackal who hoped to promote the Palestinian cause. The plan was to ransom all the oil ministers with the exception of Yamani and his Iranian counterpart, Jamshid Amuzegar. A plane was provided which brought the kidnappers to Algeria, where they had hoped to fly on to South Yemen. In the event, pressure from the Algerian government, which was revolutionary but not that revolutionary, secured the release of the oil ministers, although they did allow Carlos and his associates to walk free.

When all this smoke had cleared, the tensions between Saudi and American interests appeared to have been resolved. The old deal stood firm: Saudi Arabia would supply cheap oil to the United States and Europe and in return, the United States guarantee Saudi Arabia’s  (or rather the Saudi dynasty’s) security, both internal and external. But there was always (and still is) a glaring paradox to both parties allegiance to the other: Saudi Arabia’s closest ally just happened to be the main sponsor of Israel; later on, when American claims to be combating Islamic fundamentalism will be starkly contradicted by their close alliance with the Saudis. Another problem was that the explosion in oil-wealth had produced a materialism in Saudi society, as well as a growing reliance on American military technology, which was frowned upon by the hardline Wahhabists and others who questioned the Saudi monarchy’s claim to be the legitimate interpreters of what constituted the ‘true’ path.

It is interesting to reflect that the Saudi monarchy has always tried to legitimise itself by stressing its religious credentials and its adherence to the Wahhabist doctrine of returning to a ‘purer’ Islam and shedding it of idolatrous and erroneous practices that it has allegedly accumulated over the centuries. At the same time, the measures that it has taken to maintain its grip on power and accumulate its massive wealth have involved what many would argue have taken the country in the opposite direction. While always careful to get the establishment ullema onside, not everyone has been convinced, and it hasn’t always been easy for the Saudi monarchy to put the genie of religious fundamentalism back in the bottle once out. An early and dramatic example of this came in November 1979 (only months after the revolution in Iran) when the Grand Mosque in Mecca, the Masjid al-Hara, was seized by al-Ikhwan, armed followers of a religious figure they claimed to be the Mahdi, or redeemer who many Muslims believe will appear shortly before the end days and rid the world of evil. Many of those who participated in the seizure of the Masjid al-Hara were indoctrinated by the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood who had fled Nasser’s repression and been offered sanctuary by Faysal in the 1960s and early 1970s. Their military leader was Juhayman al-Otaybi (below), who was the son of one of the original Ikhwan, who had fought for Ibn Saud in his conquest of the country in the 1920s. When Saud won independence and recognition from the British, and began to collaborate with westerners to consolidate his rule, the Ikhwan, who had been told that all foreigners were infidels and wanted to keep fighting, revolted against Saudi rule in 1928 and were brutally suppressed in the following years.

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The complaints of the 1979 Ikhwan bear certain resemblances to their forefathers’ criticisms of the Saudi regime (by now, Khalid was king: 1975-1982), that they had betrayed Islam by their pursuit of profit and adoption of western decadence; also subject to criticism were the ulema for rubber-stamping all this. Al-Otaybi railed against any concessions to a public role for women, immodest dress, television, and currency with an image of the King on it. The mosque seizure lasted two weeks and was ended when Saudi troops, with Pakistani and French assistance, stormed the area and captured most of the Ikhwan, beheading al-Otaybi and sixty-two others the following month at eight locations around the country.

But this, as you no doubt know, was far from the end of Salafist militancy in Saudi Arabia. Much of its energies would be channeled into fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan during the 1980s, a cause the Saudi government heartily supported, providing them with funds and training and packing them off on their merry way. The cause of the Mujahideen Afghanistan was also helped by private donors, the more ardent of which even traveled to the country itself to see what could be done on the ground. Among these was the seventeenth son of fifty-two children born to a construction magnate named Mohammed bin Awad bin Laden, who had come from Yemen with practically nothing and become one of Saudi Arabia’s richest men by founding a construction company which undertook a large number of infrastructure projects for the monarchy. Mohammed, a close associate of Faysal in particular, was also deeply religious and before his death in a plane crash in 1967, imbued in his children a deep respect for the austerity and orthodoxy of Wahhabite traditions, despite the temptations offered by their enormous wealth. Here are some of his kids on a visit to Falun, Sweden in 1971, while one of the brothers conducted business with Volvo. See if you can spot the most famous child, Osama, aged sixteen.

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But this story will be the subject of a future post on foreign fighters in the Afghan war and the development of the Salafist movement generally in the 1980s and 1990s. Whether this will be the next post or the one after that I am not sure yet. I would like to set things up for a proper assessment of political Islam as it becomes a major geopolitical factor in the nineties. This involves taking a close look at places like Algeria, Bosnia, Chechnya, not to mention giving Yemen some detailed attention. In summary to this post though, we have seen in the 1960s and 1970s, the eclipse of the left-leaning, Nasserite vision in the Arab world by a conservative Islamic monarchist one, American-allied and fiercely anti-communist. Even in Egypt, as we saw in part two, the regime after Nasser’s death will begin to move away from the Soviet sphere of influence and towards the Americans, flirting with political Islam as it did so, although Sadat would pay dearly from his drawing back from this alliance when he perceived that it was a force that he might have trouble controlling.

If there was a winner of the ‘Arab Cold War’, it was the religious conservative establishment, personified by the Saudi monarchy, a triumph that seemed to be consolidated as the Soviet Union and the eastern bloc tottered and fell in the 1980s. But although they used religion to legitimise their rule, and the Americans were happy to see Islamic fundamentalism as a stick to beat the Russians with, they had opened up a Pandora’s box and unleashed a political ideology they would lose control of in the very moment when the ‘end of history‘ seemed to have arrived. Of course, it might also be argued that the west simply needed a new bogeyman once the communist one had been vanquished, and the Islamists fit the bill perfectly.

 

Featured image above: Nasser and Faisal of Saudi Arabia, 1960s.

 

 

P.S. Osama bin Laden is second from the right.

A contemporary history of the Muslim world, part 12: Saudi Arabia and the ‘Arab Cold War’

Update

I have been contacted by a few people who have been following the blog and asked if it will continue, and when. The answer to this is: yes, and I don’t know for sure. Due to other academic commitments (check out my new book, if the seventeenth-century colonisation of Ulster and North America interests you) I have to curtail my activities here, as much as I have enjoyed writing this. I do intend taking it up again at some future date in the next year or so hopefully. Many thanks to those of you who have shown an interest!

Gerard Farrell, Dublin, 1 November 2017

Update

A contemporary history of the Muslim world, part 11. Afghanistan #3 : Enter the Taliban

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Whereas the Mujahideen’s war against the communist government and their Soviet backers was one largely fought for control of the countryside, the civil war which followed from 1992 onwards was fought for control over the cities, primarily the capital Kabul, which had hardly been contested during the earlier period. Now it was all about Kabul. At the end of the last post I briefly described attempts by the various groups in April 1992 to reach an accord that would enable them to form some kind of interim power-sharing government. The plan was for the relatively-conciliatory figure of Mojaddedi (for an explanation of who all these dudes are, please see the last part) to become president for two months, and then Rabbani for four months, after which a council would be formed to stage elections. Each of the Mujahideen factions was offered a ministry: defense would go to Massoud and the Jamiat, Gailani’s group would get foreign affairs; Hekmatyar was offered the post of prime minster. The latter, however, backed to the hilt by Pakistan, had no interest in sharing power. Unhappy with offer of prime minister, he set out to wreck the agreement, denouncing the deal as ‘communist’.

Some of Hekmatyar’s Hezb-e Islami had already made their way into parts of Kabul, but several factors told against them. Massoud had taken the surrender (and confiscated weapons) of government forces. He also had the backing of all the other major factions for the Peshawar accords’ power-sharing agreement; particularly important was the powerful Junbish-i-Milli of Abdul Rashid Dostum, who joined him in the push to expel Hekmatyar’s forces from the capital. Assisted by the Ittehad-e Islami of Sayyaf and the Hazara Hizb-e Wahdat led by Mazari, these groups took most of the key positions in the city and drove Hekmatyar’s forces out of Kabul by the end of April, but not so far away that they could not use their artillery to mercilessly shell the city, killing untold thousands of civilians. This horror went on throughout the remainder of 1992. It was complicated by the fact that it wasn’t just Hekmatyar against everyone else. In the summer, fighting between the Sunni Ittehad-e Islami and the Shia Hizb-e Wahdat descended into all-out war, with Hazara’s faction eventually going over to Hekmatyar’s side and abandoning the ‘Islamic State of Afghanistan’ which was the nominal state which the Peshawar accords had founded. Several horrific massacres of innocent civilians would follow. Especially vulnerable were the minority Shia Hazara in the capital. In February 1993, about 700 were killed in cold blood by either Massoud or Sayyaf’s forces. Responsibility is disputed to this day. Mass rape no doubt took place, although numbers are very difficult to come by, partly because the shame attached to the women meant that they often didn’t report what was done to them.

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Kabul street scene, c.1992

A major problem was that there were too many actors involved who had no interest in seeing state institutions develop from the anarchy. This is true not just of Hekmatyar but Dostum, who wanted to rule an independent fiefdom in the north; the Hezb-i-Wahdat certainly didn’t want to see the emergence of a strong state dominated by Sunnis. Wars within wars. Having seen the Soviets withdraw, the outside world was now indifferent to what was going on in Afghanistan. Pakistan’s method of distributing aid to the Mujahideen groups contributed to the disunity; instead of encouraging a unified movement, the ISI preferred to finance the groups separately, keep them fighting each other. On top of all this, the humanitarian disaster was worsened by the return of roughly 1.5 million refugees, who were being sent back to the country on the understanding that war was over and the reconstruction would soon begin. Sadly, nothing could have been further from the truth.

The new state negotiated a truce, brokered by Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, with its enemies in March 1993. By this, Massoud agreed to relinquish the post of defence minister in order to get Hekmatyar onboard. This agreement broke down within a few months, however, and everyone went back to the way they were. It proved impossible to hold elections, and Rabbani extended his presidency beyond its initial term, leaving himself open to accusations of abusing power. Even worse was to follow for the government’s forces when, in early 1994, Dostum’s faction abandoned the coalition and went over to Hekmatyar’s side. The reasons for this appear to be as much to do with a power-struggle between Dostum and Massoud as anything else. Along with the Hazaras of Hezb-i-Wahdat, this coalition now appeared to pose a considerable threat to the newly-established Islamic State. Even the UN pulled out most of their staff: always a sign a government’s days are numbered. Once again, however, Massoud’s enemies underestimated his military genius, and by the summer, he had expelled Dostum’s forces from large areas of Kabul. This did not mean the government was saved. This year, 1994, saw the emergence of a new force in the south of the country who will very soon render this conflict between Massoud and Hekmatyar’s allies irrelevant and eventually drive them both out of Kabul. They were called the Taliban.

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The word ‘Taliban’ means a religious student, applied to the movement on account of the origins of many of its members in the religious madrasas run by the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam over the border in Pakistan. This group, a more conservative, clerical-aligned rival of the Jamaat-e-Islami discussed in part 9, were inspired by the Deobandi movement of Sunni Islam, stressing orthodoxy and adherence to a strict Islamic legal code as interpreted by religious scholars. The Taliban took this fundamentalism a step further, however, and developed an idiosyncratic interpretation of sharia law that essentially sought to return Afghanistan to a state approximating the way the world looked at the time of Islam’s beginnings. These Deobandi madrasas had been around for decades, but their numbers really exploded in Balochistan and the Northwest Frontier Province (today named Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) with the influx of refugees from Afghanistan. By 1988, there were approximately 8,000 schools receiving government funding and, even more significantly, around 25,000 unregistered ones. Operating with little outside oversight, these madrasas  picked up the slack left by the inadequate state education system and were free to mould young men however they saw fit. Many of the teachers were themselves poorly-educated and taught a creed which deviated strongly from Deobandi orthodoxy in many ways. The ethos imbibed by the young Taliban, indeed, had as much to do with the collection of social mores and practices known as Pashtunwali, operating from time immemorial among the Pasthun and particularly strong in the conservative rural areas-as any set of religious precepts.

Religious schools alone, however, do not churn out fanatically-committed military movements who can conquer a country in little more than two years. The fact that a huge number of Taliban fighters were fairly young men, often orphans, who had passed through these religious schools, is, I think, key. These were Afghan refugee children in Pakistan who had never known peace. It is worth imagining for a moment what it must be like to grow up in a country like Afghanistan, which has basically been at war now (2017) for almost 40 years. An entire generation has lived and died without ever knowing anything but fighting. The brutalising effect this has on people is profound. These children, whose only education came from these madrasas, were often completely unsocialised in other ways, lacking, in their refugee camps, any semblance of a traditional social order from which to imbibe values and norms of behaviour. This heady mixture of religious fundamentalism and omnipresent violence lie at the heart of the Taliban’s story. But while they may have given the movement an edge and, even more importantly, a sense of mission, these factors alone do not account for the Taliban’s extraordinarily rapid progress across the country when they burst on the scene in 1994.

To understand how this initially small and poorly-armed group became so powerful so quickly, it must first be remembered the state of the country, and particularly the south of the country, at this time. After the failure of the Peshawar Accords, the Islamic state failed to make its writ run in large areas of the national territory. There were few means for any centralised government, even if they had been able to agree on one, to take back power. If you look back at the map near the end of the last post, you will notice that much of the country is coloured white, meaning no particular faction had control, neither government nor Mujahideen. By 1994, then, huge swathes of territory were under the control not of actors in the civil war, but warlords with their own private armies, who had little or no pretense of ideological commitment other than enriching themselves and bolstering their power. This was medieval-style anarchy. The warlords ostensibly took over many functions of the state, collecting taxes from their areas, providing rudimentary and arbitrary policing and social services. Mostly, there was fighting, and rape and death and no overarching authority to appeal to for help or justice.

This was particularly true of the south: Kandahar province, for example, where the Taliban would first emerge, led by an enigmatic Mullah (a term loosely describing an Islamic cleric or mosque leader versed in Quranic law) named Mohammed Omar. Omar had fought with the Hezb-e Islami of Maulawi Khalis during the war against the Soviet Union. Towards the end of the 1980s he was seriously injured, losing an eye, and he reportedly played little part in the civil war which followed, retreating to his village in Kandahar to focus on religious instruction. The brutality of the warlords and the exploitation (often sexual) of the local population, enraged him and his followers, and they decided to do something about it. Initially, this small armed group concentrated on protecting civilians from the criminal gangs who were employed by the warlords, who had hitherto acted with impunity. There are a number of stories of their valorous deeds doing the rounds which I won’t go into the details of, mainly because I’m not sure how authentic they are. The broad outlines of the story, however: that the Taliban won support because they offered protection from the lawlessness and random violence of the warlords, seems plausible.

It is often forgotten now, in the light of their later unpopularity, but many at the time welcomed the Taliban as better than the alternative of Hobbes’ ‘war of all against all‘. People in the west often talk about countries like Afghanistan as if the people are free agents with compete control over their destiny. This is profoundly mistaken. The choices of the civilian population in Afghanistan, like that of unarmed civilian populations everywhere in wartime, were severely circumscribed. For women, who were to suffer most under their rule, it is not dramatising too much to say that the alternatives on offer can be boiled down to a choice between being raped or forced to wear the burqa. For my part, I know which I would choose. For all that can be said about the Taliban, as they fanned out across the country conquering territory, practically no rape and little looting took place. This was in marked contrast to their adversaries conduct.

As their reputation grew throughout 1994, thousands more Taliban flooded in from the schools in Pakistan, swelling the numbers of the group. It also attracted members of the Harakat-i-Inqilab-i-Islami of Mohammad Nabi Mohammadi (see previous post) which had been powerful in the south and was now to be eclipsed by the new, more radical movement. It would appear likely the Taliban were already receiving some support from the ISI at this stage. The movement’s credibility was boosted further when a group of Taliban protected a Pakistani trade convoy on its way through the country in autumn of that year. This is a crucial moment, and gives the clearest indication of what it was that would make the Taliban such an attractive proxy force for Pakistan in Afghanistan, soon to replace Hekmatyar’s Hezb-i as the recipient of their king-making patronage. This was, let us remember, not long after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the independence of a number of central-Asian republics bordering Afghanistan, namely: Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan (see the map in part 8). It was also a time when Russia under Yeltsin was in turmoil and fairly weak compared to what it had been, and what it is nowadays under Putin. Pakistan sought, therefore, to increase its influence in central Asia, both economically and otherwise, and Afghanistan was central to these plans.

First and foremost, trade (and the improved transport and communications which facilitate it) would be impossible without some degree of stability and maintenance of infrastructure, which at that moment was entirely lacking. The Taliban’s assistance in getting a trade convoy through the country gave some indication of their potential utility to the Pakistanis. But why, you might ask, not just turn to the already-established government in Kabul to perform this function? Well, they had been backing Hekmatyar for years against the government, and saw the state run by Rabbani and Massoud as inconveniently independent and, moreover, dominated by Tajiks and Uzbeks rather than the Pashtuns. While the Taliban was clearly a Pashtun movement, moreover, its focus was overwhelmingly religious rather than national, so they showed little interest in Pashtun nationalism and a potential ‘Pashtunistan’ straddling the Durand line, something which further endeared them to Pakistan. As usual, Pakistan’s internal politics played a decisive role in what happened in Afghanistan. The Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI) had not been hitherto very influential in the corridors of power, especially since the Islamist regime of Zia had been replaced by Benazir Bhutto (see last post) in 1988 and, after further elections, a more conservative government led by Nawaz Sharif. In 1993, however, another election was held in which Bhutto was re-elected.

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Bhutto campaigns in Punjab Province, October 1993. Credit: A. Abbas/Magnum Photos

Seeking to expand her power base, Bhutto had been obliged to reach out beyond the PPP’s traditional support of proletariat and left-intellectuals, to build bridges with more conservative Islamic elements in the country. Among these was the JUI, who lent their support to her campaign and were rewarded with influential positions within her government after 1993. They were therefore well placed to push the interests of the Taliban educated in their schools at the very time it was becoming more and more apparent that Hekmatyar’s Hezb-e Islami was not going to fulfill the hopes Pakistan had placed in it. A key figure in increasing aid to the Taliban was Naseerullah Babar (below), who had been a long-time supporter of the Bhuttos and involved in training the original generation of Mujahideen in the 1970s as a general in the army under Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. He was rewarded for his loyalty by Benazir with the post of minister of the interior in 1993. Throughout 1994-5, as the Taliban conquered Kandahar and made rapid progress through the south of the country, Pakistan gradually devoted more and more resources to the movement, and began to withdraw support for Hekmatyar.

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There is something of an irony in the fact that it was a female leader who played a role in facilitating the rise of the Taliban, who became so notorious for their treatment of women, but we should not fall prey to exaggeration here. I have read accounts of how Benazir Bhutto ‘created’ the Taliban, and stuff like that, which is clearly overemphasising the extent of her influence in this respect. This being Pakistan, you have to question how much control the civilian leader really had over the military/intelligence establishment, and what scope she would actually have had to prevent the ISI and the army aiding the Taliban. Likely none. She would probably have ended up like her father if she had attempted it.

Anyway, back to the war.

Another factor that played into the Taliban’s hands was timing. It was just at the moment they were emerging that Massoud was defeating the forces of Hekmatyar, Dostum and Mazari ranged against him. Having already been driven from Kabul, Hekmatyar found himself in February 1995 on the outskirts of the city with the Taliban fast approaching from behind. He fled, and that, essentially, was the end of him as a viable alternative to the Islamic state. He had, however, left his artillery behind, which the Taliban used to start shelling Kabul themselves. To some it seemed that the Taliban were poised to overrun the Islamic State but at this point, the government rallied. Already involved in bitter battles with the Hizb-e Wahdat, the latter, who were now without their ally Hekmatyar, negotiated an ad-hoc alliance with the Taliban so they could escape Massoud’s clutches. The government’s forces inflicted a heavy defeat on both the Hizb-e Wahdat and the Taliban, however: the movement’s first serious setback. Suspecting they had been betrayed by the Hizb-e Wahdat’s leader Mazari, incidentally, the Taliban had him tortured and killed shortly after this.

March to October 1995 was an interlude of relative peace, as the government appeared to have shrugged off the threat of the Taliban and many outside observers concluded they were a spent force. Indeed, many of the Taliban’s military advances had been made not in the heat of battle but against jaded warlords who submitted without a shot being fired, recognising the way the wind was blowing. That the Taliban had been defeated by the first serious opposition they encountered was said to be indicative that they had appeared more formidable than they actually were. In the west, however, the Taliban showed they were no mere flash in the pan. A second major front was opened up against the forces of powerful Jamiat warlord Ismail Khan, aimed at advancing north towards Herat. Fierce fighting took place, as Khan received increased aid from Iran, who were concerned at the growing power of the Taliban, whose Sunni fervour could only be bad news for Afghanistan’s Shia population. By May, the Taliban had been pushed back to Helmand province, but in the months that followed, a breakdown in negotiations between the government and Dostum left Massoud hampered in his efforts to assist Khan in the west. The latter’s forces were decisively defeated attempting to defend the airbase at Shindand and Herat fell to the Taliban on September 5.

The winter of 1995-6 belied expectations that the Taliban was finished. In fact, it became increasingly clear that the movement had little or no interest in reaching accommodation with any of the extant forces fighting in the country, and would not stop until they had taken control of the entire country. The way they ran Herat after they took over gave some idea, for the first time, of what kind of regime they would establish, shattering the illusions of many Afghans that they would act as a relatively benign kind of peacekeeping force to bring stability. In Herat, the Pashtun Taliban almost immediately went into action imposing their own interpretation of sharia law, heavily influenced by Pashtun custom, upon the mostly non-Pashtun, Persian-speaking population. It became abundantly clear that the Taliban just didn’t do compromise. Part 4 of the John Simpson reports below (about 5:00 in) gives some idea of the shock of Taliban conservatism and fundamentalism upon relatively-cosmopolitan Herat. Women were suddenly told to stop coming to work and stay at home, or if they did leave the house, to cover themselves up from head to toe. Men had to wear beards, and a range of activities, from playing music to flying kites, was suddenly forbidden by edict.

A kind of panic can be detected in all quarters during the spring and summer of 1996, as a resurgent Taliban once again began to advance on Kabul, with the help of resurgent Pakistani support. Aware of this, protesters attacked the Pakistani embassy in Kabul in retaliation for the takeover of Herat. In October 1995, the Taliban had once again returned to the outskirts of the capital and started shelling it. The following film was shot during this period, possibly the lowest point in Kabul’s bitter experience of civil war, having been without electricity for three years and facing a Taliban bombardment as indiscriminate as anything Hekmatyar ever launched on the city.

In April 1996, Mullah Omar was declared the Amir, or leader of all Muslims everywhere, and a holy war was declared on the Kabul government. To mark the solemnity of the event in Kandahar, Omar got up on a building and displayed the cloak of Mohammad to his gathered supporters. The cloak is an object of veneration in Islam that is usually kept hidden in a mosque in the city, only being revealed at times of national crisis. This was the first time it had been shown publicly in 60 years. The title given to this image of the rare event: ‘Mullah Omar reveals the prophet’s cloak’, does indeed sound like something out of Game of Thrones.

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Suddenly foreign governments like India, Russia, Ukraine started to take an interest in preserving Rabbani’s government and send serious aid to the government. It was all too little, too late. The desperation is palpable in the agreement made by Rabbani to bring Hekmatyar into the government as prime minister in June 1996. Bad idea. While Rabbani may have thought it would broaden his base of support, Hekmatyar was widely hated because of the carnage he had previously unleashed on Kabul. When he arrived he started issuing fundamentalist decrees about women’s dress etc. that pissed even more people off. On the whole, these efforts to co-opt the dwindling support of the Hezb-e actually damaged Rabbani’s reputation.

There was also the fact that many of Hekmatyar’s troops could not be trusted, many of them being Pashtun and sympathetic to the Taliban. These botched efforts by Rabbani to out-Taliban the Taliban are illustrated well in the botched public hanging which appears near the end of part one of the John Simpson films here. These are a series of reports Simpson made in 1996 when the Taliban were on the verge of taking power, and really give a good sense of what life was like for ordinary Afghans in that terrifying period. In our own time, an era of ’embedded’ journalists, the majority of whom are little more than ‘stenographers to power’, it is instructive to remember what real journalism looks like: someone taking the trouble to go to the centre of the action independently and really try and understand the country in its own terms. Here are the three films broadcast on Newsnight at the time, spread out awkwardly over 6 youtube clips for some reason:

Following Mullah Omar’s dramatic declaration at Kandahar, the Taliban advance once again gathered strength. Government-led attempts to re-take Herat failed, as well as efforts to push them away from Kabul’s southern suburbs. Increasingly clear that the Taliban was being provided with sophisticated arms and training by Pakistan, Massoud, who led attempts to defend the government in Kabul, realised that its capitulation was inevitable and his forces bound to be encircled if he did not take action. In the event, Taliban victory came swiftly and with little actual fighting. Jalalabad was taken on the 11 September 1996 and on the afternoon of the 26th Massoud ordered the evacuation of the capital. The Taliban took possession of the city on the following day. The first thing they did when they got there wraps up the story of Mohammad Najibullah, the ex-president who had been hiding out in the UN compound since the Mujahideen took Kabul in 1992. Rabbani’s regime, while it would have liked to put him on trial, did not dare to abduct him from UN property for fear of alienating foreign public opinion. The Taliban make it clear from the very start of their reign that they couldn’t care less about such diplomatic niceties. They entered the property and took Najibullah and his brother to the nearest traffic island where they were unceremoniously lynched.

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Massoud, as well as Dostum and some other leaders, managed to escape from the Taliban’s clutches and retreat to the north of the country. In both cases, they were pursued northwards and in both cases they kept the Taliban at bay by destroying the entrance to the Panjshir Valley in Massoud’s case, and the Salang Tunnel in Dostum’s. These groups, who would in time come to form an anti-Taliban front known as the ‘Northern Alliance’ therefore survived to fight another day, and the share of territories in the country ended up something like this in the aftermath of Taliban victory in 1996:

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And so begins the five-year rule of the Taliban in (most of) Afghanistan. It is the nature of this rule, and the very specific interpretation of sharia law which the Taliban enforced, which they are best known for. For good reason. What is often missed when discussions of the Taliban are folded into broader discussions of modern political Islam is just how anomalous the Taliban were in relation to other Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood or the Shia revolutionaries in Iran. While modern political Islam is infused with radical political ideas and the aspiration to further Islam through the apparatus of a modern state and technology, the Taliban saw this as a corruption of the purity of Islam in the time of the prophet. The Taliban, in fact, wanted to have as little to do with politics as possible. Their vision was religious, and their goal to bring Afghanistan back to some imagined utopia of the past, free of televisions and recorded music, although it must be said the animus towards technology did not extend to giving up their modern weapons. The Taliban made Saudi Arabia seem positively liberal. There is a tendency among many westerners to think of conservative groups like the Taliban as somehow representative of Islam. It cannot be stressed enough how mistaken this is. The Taliban were at this time a very idiosyncratic sect within Islam, and to see them as representative of that religion on the whole is, quite frankly, as mad as thinking the Westboro Baptist Church somehow represent Christianity.

Neither were the Taliban internationalists in the sense that other Islamist groups were. Their offer of sanctuary to Osama Bin Laden and his followers is often interpreted as a sign that the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (as the state was officially known under the Taliban) was a hub of international jihad. The presence of Bin Laden, however, had as much to do with a feeling of commitment to someone who was believed to have played a key role in defeating the Russians, as anything else. There was also the much-needed funds that the wealthy Bin Laden also brought into the country. The presence of Bin Laden, and other foreign fighters in the Mujahideen, will be discussed in greater detail in another part. It was only, ultimately, the presence of foreign jihadists on Afghan soil, and their attacks on Nairobi, Dar es Salaam and New York, which prompted the west to move against the Taliban.

As Simpson noted in his reports, nobody in the west gave a toss about Afghanistan by 1996. If the country had continued tearing itself apart without American or European lives being lost, there is every reason to believe the outside world would have been content to leave them to it. In likelihood, a complete Taliban victory would have been welcomed by the Americans for the stability and economic opportunities it would offer. Not only were the Taliban financed and trained by Pakistan, but it could be argued that the United States by extension also assisted their rise to power. This is unsurprising, given that the Taliban was from the start seen as anti-Iran, which the US was primarily interested in opposing. There are good reasons for believing that American diplomats saw the Taliban as a nascent version of the Wahhabists who they had helped install in Saudi Arabia. A number of quotations from the US state department from around the time the Taliban seized power are instructive here:

‘The Taliban will probably develop like the Saudis. There will be Aramco, pipelines, an emir, no parliament, and lots of sharia law. We can live with that’.

Cited in Ahmed Rashid, Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil, and Fundamentalism in Central Asia (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2000), p.179.

‘The United States finds nothing objectionable in the policy statements of the new government, including its move to impose Islamic law’.

State Department spokesman, Glyn Davies, Voice of America , 27 September 1996.

‘We have no quarrel with the Taliban in terms of their political legitimacy or lack thereof’.

Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia Robin Raphel, BBC Newshour , 3 October 1996.

Given such statements, therefore, it is somewhat ironic that the Americans later reinvented themselves as the Taliban’s arch-enemy.

The Aramco mentioned in the first quote above, incidentally, is the main Saudi oil company. Between 1994 and 1998, multinational fuel concerns were actively pursuing collaboration with the Taliban, with assistance from the US government, seeking to develop Afghanistan for the transportation of natural gas through the country from Turkmenistan to Pakistan. Unocal (now owned by Chevron) announced in 1997 they were investing heavily in such a project, as did an Argentinian company called Bridas. The visit of a Taliban delegation to the United States in 1997, in which the plight of women or the Afghan population in general appears to have been conspicuously ignored, must be seen in the light of these negotiations. Claims that later interventions were motivated by such considerations should therefore be taken with a hefty pinch of salt.

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Abdul Salam Zaeef (seated) ambassador of Afghanistan to Pakistan, and some other Taliban members

There is an elephant in the room which I have largely ignored here, because I will devote an entire post to the subject. This is the other major factor which gave the Taliban an edge against its enemies within the country, but which would ultimately lead to their downfall. I speak of course of Osama bin Laden and his followers. To understand him, we have to go back to the 1980s and explore the whole issue of foreign, predominantly Arab, fighters in the country during the jihad against the Soviet Union.

Featured image above: Eyes of Mullah Mohammed Omar.

A contemporary history of the Muslim world, part 11. Afghanistan #3 : Enter the Taliban

A contemporary history of the Muslim world: contents

 

Part 1: The post WW1 carve-up, Arab nationalism in Egypt and Syria

Part 2: Palestine-Israel, political Islam in Egypt and Syria

3. Iran: Revolution #1

4. Iran: Revolution #2

5: The Lebanese civil war #1

6: The Lebanese civil war #2

7: The Lebanese civil war #3

8: Afghanistan #1

9: Pakistan to 1979

10: Afghanistan (and Pakistan) #2

11: Afghanistan #3 : Enter the Taliban

12: Saudi Arabia and the ‘Arab Cold War’

13: Yemen #1

14: Yemen #2

15: The ‘Afghan Arabs’ : foreign fighters in Afghanistan

afghans

A contemporary history of the Muslim world: contents