America’s Devil’s Game with Extremist Islam

A Timeline of US-Cold War Politics and the Rise of Militant Islamism

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It is often difficult to trace the history of the United States’ involvement with—and responsibility for—the evolution of radical Islamism around the world; many of the CIA’s activities in support of Islamist groups were often covert, and a great deal of misinformation exists. Robert Dreyfuss’ new book, Devil’s Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam, is an attempt at a comprehensive overview of this story, recounting how the CIA, guided by the belief that radical Islamist forces could act as a bulwark against communism, helped fuel the rise of political Islam and militant fundamentalism in the Middle East and Central Asia. Below is a timeline of major events in the U.S. government’s 70-year flirtation with and support for the militant forces that would, in the late 1990s and on September 11, 2001, come back to haunt the United States.

1933 – Saudi Arabia grants oil exploration rights to the United States, and the two countries enter into a profit-sharing ownership of the Arabian-American Oil Company, which discovers the first commercial oil well in Saudi Arabia in 1938.

Feb. 18, 1943 – President Franklin D. Roosevelt declares the defense of Saudi Arabia of vital interest to the United States and makes the country eligible for Lend-Lease assistance.

1945 – The United States and Saudi Arabia sign an agreement that establishes an American military base in Dhahran, which houses American troops until April of 2003. The Saudis also give the United States permission to conduct a thorough survey of the Arabian Peninsula—which recommended establishing an air base.

Feb. 14, 1945 – Roosevelt meets with King Abdel Aziz ibn Saud, the first meeting of an American President with a Saudi monarch.

1951 – An accord between the two countries allows the United States to establish a permanent military training mission in Saudi Arabia.

1951 – The CIA sets up Radio Liberty to broadcast anti-communist programs around the world. In Central Asia, the station is used to incite local groups, many of them Islamic, against the Soviet Union.

1952 – The Saudi-American oil company, Aramco, pays for the printing of religious propaganda in Riyadh.

1952 – In Iran, the CIA offers money to Ayatollah Abol-Ghassem Kashani, who had formerly opposed foreign influences in Iran, to encourage Kashani to split from Mohammed Mossadeq’s National Front. Kashani was the mentor of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the future leader of the Islamic Revolution, who in the meantime would become a leader of the Devotees of Islam, an Iranian terrorist group.

Aug. 19, 1953 – The CIA and the British intelligence agency MI6 direct a coup against Iran’s democratically-elected prime minister, Mohammed Mossadeq and restore the pro-Western Shah to power. Mossadeq’s nationalization of Anglo-Persian Oil, along with his alliance with the Soviets, had threatened Western interests in Iran.

Sept. 1953 – President Dwight D. Eisenhower dines at the White House with Said Ramadan, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, the popular Islamist group which since the late 1940s has been notorious for its extensive ties to fanatics, assassins, and terrorists in the Middle East.

Oct. 26, 1954– A member of a secret wing of the Muslim Brotherhood attempts to assassinate Gamal Abdel Nasser, the leader of a 1952 military coup against King Farouk. The group is officially banned in Egypt, forcing it underground.

June 23, 1956 – Nasser officially becomes President of Egypt. Nasser’s left-leaning ideology alarmed U.S. officials who worried that Egypt would be lost to Soviet control.

Jan. 1957 – The “Eisenhower Doctrine” is laid out in a speech to Congress. President Eisenhower declared that the United States would provide military and financial assistance in the Middle East to protect against Communist aggression in the region. Under the doctrine, Saudi Arabia became the primary beneficiary of American aid.

June, 1967 – The Six-Day War is fought between Israel and its Arab neighbors Egypt, Jordan, and Syria. Israel’s victory leads most Arab nations to close their American embassies, leaving Saudi Arabia as the Arab world’s primary liaison with the United States.

1970s – Alongside the traditional Islamic fundamentalist movement, a more radical strain of Islam begins to develop in the Middle East, including: the Islamic Community in Egypt, and later the Egyptian Islamic Jihad led by Ayman al-Zawahiri; militant Shiite fundamentalism in Iran; and Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia.

Oct. 1970 – In Egypt, Nasser dies and is succeeded by Anwar Sadat, who promises that sharia will be implemented as the law of the land. Political Islam begins to emerge in Egypt, and an Islamic banking system is created, both of which would become essential in assisting militant, radical Islamic movements.

May 1971 – Sadat consolidates his power, purging government of Nasserites and freeing Muslim Brotherhood prisoners.

1972 – The CIA founds the Asia Foundation to fund leaders of the Afghan Islamist movement at Kabul University. Beneficiaries include Rabbani Sayyaf and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, two Afghans who would cultivate ties with Osama bin Laden. The two run a secret group that infiltrates the Afghan armed forces and will later lead jihad forces against the Soviet Union in the 1980s.

1972 – A secret military cell is created within the Organization of Muslim Youth, a student group in Afghanistan. The organization requests covert aid from the CIA for its anti-communist activities, including the killing of four “leftists.” Although the entreaty is denied, the CIA offers its sympathy to the OMY.

Jul. 17, 1973 – Afghanistan’s Soviet-friendly prime minister, Sardar Daoud, overthrows the Afghan royalty, establishes a democratic republic, and becomes President. The United States quickly begins funding Afghan dissidents and supporting the radical Islamic Party against Daoud.

Oct. 1973 – Israel fights and eventually wins the Yom Kippur War against Egypt, Syria after a surprise attack by the latter two nations. In response to U.S. support for Israel, OPEC reduces oil production. Oil prices will eventually quadruple, enriching the Saudi Arabian government, which uses the profits to foster Wahhabism in the 1970s and 1980s.

Sept. 1973 – The CIA partners with Iranian and Pakistani intelligence—the latter of which is loosely associated with fundamentalist Islamic Afghan groups—to run raids in Afghanistan and stage a failed coup against President Sardar Daoud. The effort is repeated in December of 1973 and June 1974.

1974 – In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood issues an official statement ordering members to support the economic reforms carried out by Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, in partnership with the International Monetary Fund. Throughout the 1970s, at the behest of the United States, the IMF will require countries in the region to adopt a variety of pro-market reforms as a condition of receiving loans—reforms which will often help destabilize Middle Eastern politics and society.

1975 – A State Department analysis identifies members of the Muslim Brotherhood as leaders of an insurgency against Afghan President Sardar Daoud. After the rebellion failed, Brotherhood leaders, including Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Sayyaf, flee to Pakistan and find support from ISI, the Pakistani Intelligence Service.

1975-76 – Under pressure from the United States, Pakistan, and Iran, Daoud begins purging and assassinating leftists and communists from the Afghan government.

1976 – The Faisal Islamic Bank of Egypt (FIBE) is established to fund activities of the Muslim Brotherhood. In the 1970s, the Islamic banking system, funded by Saudi Arabia and often aided by western banks and governments, will spread throughout Egypt, becoming the financial backbone for militant Islamist groups. In 2001, US Department of Treasury will designate several of these Muslim banks “terrorist financiers.”

Nov. 19, 1977 – Egyptian President Anwar Sadat visits Jerusalem and begins negotiations with Israel that lead to the Camp David agreement between the two countries. Egypt also breaks its ties with the USSR, quickly becoming one of the United States’ foremost allies by 1980.

1978 – Israel backs the Islamic Association, a militant group led by Ahmed Yassin—later the spiritual leader of Hamas—as a bulwark against the Palestinian Liberation Organization. The United States turns a blind eye as Israel provides military training to terrorist groups.

1978-79 – The United States becomes fully aware that it was backing the Muslim Brotherhood by supporting various anti-communist organizations in Afghanistan. This knowledge was recorded by many State Department and embassy memos, including one from CENTO that directly warned that the Muslim Brotherhood was a rebellious threat to new regimes.

Late-1978 – Secretary of State Zbigniew Brzezinski presses his “arc of crisis” thesis, which argues that the United States can reassert its power in the Middle East by encouraging political Islam as a counter to Soviet and Arab nationalist movements.

Jan.-Feb. 1979 – Islamists, led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, overthrow the Shah and install a theocratic dictatorship in Iran. The Iranian Revolution is seen as a threat to American interests, not least by depriving the United States of one of its staunchest allies in the Middle East, but also threatened the Soviet Union by disrupting the economic alliance between the two countries and provoking irredentist forces near the Soviet border.

Jul. 3, 1979 – President Carter issues the first secret directive that formally authorizes the CIA give direct aid to the Afghan muhjadeen, opponents of the pro-Soviet Afghan regime. The Soviet invasion invades Afghanistan in December.

Nov. 1979 – Ayatollah Khomeini coordinates the forced seizure of the American Embassy in Tehran, precipitating the Iranian hostage crisis.

Jan. 23, 1980 – The Carter Doctrine states that the United States will use military force in the Persian Gulf to protect its interests if necessary, although at this time it is mostly an empty threat, since the US lacks sufficient forces in the region.

Jan. 1980 – Secretary of State Zbigniew Brzezinski visits Egypt to gather Arab support for the Afghan war. Within weeks Egyptian President Anwar Sadat mobilizes arms and recruits fighters from the Muslim Brotherhood, and allows the US to station its air force base in Egypt. U.S. Special Forces train Islamist militants in bomb making, sabotage, arson and guerilla warfare. Many of the Islamist Arab recruits, including Osama bin Laden, who were trained as fighters by Green Berets and Navy Seals for the Afghan War, would go on to form the backbone of Al-Qaeda.

Mar. 1980 – As a deterrent to the Soviet threat, Carter establishes RDF, a military force for rapid deployment into the Persian Gulf in a crisis. Regan later expands RDF into Centcom, the first peacetime joint headquarters for military combat operations, which later serves as the American base of operations in the 1990 Persian Gulf War, the 2001 war in Afghanistan, and the 2003 Iraq war.

Oct. 6, 1981 – Egyptian President Sadat is assassinated by radical Muslim fundamentalists who view the Camp David peace accord with Israel as a betrayal of Islam.

1984 – Osama bin Laden and Abdullah Assam—who was central to US recruit efforts for the Afghan War—together establish the Services Bureau (MAK), a nascent incarnation of Al-Qaeda in Pakistan that coordinated Islamist jihad-fighters to foreign wars. As American goals evolve from draining Soviet resources to winning the Afghan war, CIA funding to Afghan militants increases rapidly, which is matched, dollar for dollar, by funds from Saudi Arabia.

1987 – Hamas is founded, growing out of radical elements of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. U.S. intelligence reports show that the Israeli secret service is giving covert support to Hamas—as a counterpoint to Palestinian nationalism—but the US turns a blind eye.

1989 – The Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) is established in Algeria as a new political party, out of elements of the American-supported Islamist movement in the 1980s. FIS includes many Muslim Brotherhood members and Afghan fighters, among them Abdallad Anas, who joined the proto-Al Qaeda organization, MAK.

1992 – In Algeria, FIS wins the parliamentary elections in a landslide but is prevented from taking power by the ruling FLN party, which uses the military to arrest FIS leaders, precipitating a FIS terrorist campaign. This culminates in the Algerian civil war (which lasts until 1999), and provokes the United States to review of its policy towards political Islam.

Feb. 26, 1993 – Following the bombing of the New York World Trade Center, Omar Abdul Rahman, a co-founder of the Faisal Islamic Bank of Egypt who helped the CIA recruit militants for the anti-communist crusade in the Afghanistan war, was convicted in 1995 involvement in conspiracy.

1994-1998 – The US maintains a cooperative relationship with the Taliban, who are increasingly dependent on Osama bin Laden’s financial support.

1996 – The Taliban provides refuge to Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan, after he is exiled from Sudan.

1997 and 1999 – Members of the Taliban vacation in Nebraska, where they visit Thomas Gouttierre, a CIA-funded propagandist who produces children’s textbooks stocked with Islamic fundamentalist and jihadist rhetoric for supposed State Department educational programs in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Aug. 7, 1998 – Islamic terrorist groups bomb the Kenyan and Tanzanian US embassies.

Oct. 12, 2000 – Islamic terrorist groups attacks the USS Cole off the coast of Yemen.

Sept. 11, 2001 – Al-Qaeda terrorists attack the World Trade Center and the Pentagon with suicide bombers.


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