The CIA and The Muslim Brotherhood: How the CIA Set The Stage for September 11
Reverend Franklin Graham, the pugnacious preacher who delivered the prayer at President George W. Bush’s 2001 inauguration, might have a bone to pick with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). When Franklin branded Islam “a very evil and wicked religion” after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, he had no idea that American spies were once eager to promote a Muslim leader in the Middle East modeled after his own father, the famous evangelist Billy Graham.
The CIA often works in mysterious ways – and so it was with this little-known cloak-and-dagger caper that set the stage for extensive collaboration between US intelligence and Islamic extremists. The genesis of this ill-starred alliance dates back to Egypt in the mid-1950s, when the CIA made discrete overtures to the Muslim Brotherhood, the influential Sunni fundamentalist movement that fostered Islamic militancy throughout the Middle East. What started as a quiet American flirtation with political Islam became a Cold War love affair on the sly – an affair that would turn out disastrously for the United States. Nearly all of today’s radical Islamic groups, including al-Qaeda, trace their lineage to the Brotherhood.
“The Muslim Brothers are at the root of a lot of our troubles,” says Col. W. Patrick Lang, one of several US intelligence veterans interviewed for this article . Formerly a high-ranking Middle East expert at the Defense Intelligence Agency Lang considers al-Qaeda to be “a descendent of the Brotherhood.
For many years, the American espionage establishment had operated on the assumption that Islam was inherently anti-communist and there fore could be harnessed to facilitate US objectives. American officials viewed the Muslim Brotherhood as “a secret weapon” in the shadow war against the Soviet Union and it’s Arab allies, according to Robert Baer, a retired CIA case officer who was right in the thick of things in the Middle East and Central Asia during his 21 year career as a spy. In Sleeping with the Devil, a book he wrote after quitting the CIA Baer explains how the United States “made common cause with the Brothers” and used them “to do our dirty work in Yemen, Afghanistan and plenty of other places”. This covert relationship; unraveled when the Cold War ended, whereupon an Islamic Frankenstein named Osama bin Laden lurched into existence.
Described by ex-CIA analyst Graham Fuller as “the preeminent international Islamist organization,” the Muslim Brotherhood currently has a huge following with autonomous branches, all in close contact, spread across the Arab world.
But it is banned in several countries, including Egypt, it’s birthplace, for being an alleged front for terrorists – a claim its supporters adamantly deny even though bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders had close personal ties to the Brotherhood prior to September 11, 2001
To understand what happened on that fateful day when terrorist strikes leveled the World Trade Center and damaged the Pentagon, one must revisit the turbulent changes that took place a half century earlier in the land of the sphinx. After seizing power in a 1952 military coup Egyptian Col. Gamal Abdul Nasser quickly threw prominent Communists in jail. This raised eyebrows among US cloak-and-dagger operatives who were eager to oblige when Nasser requested help in upgrading Egypt’s ineffectual secret service. But the US government “found it highly impolitic to help him directly,” the late CIA agent Miles Copeland acknowledged in his memoirs, The Game of Nations , so the CIA subcontracted more than a hundred German Third Reich vets, who specialized in Nazi security and interrogation techniques, to do the job.
Before long, however, US officials grew wary of Nasser, who seemed like a loose cannon on the deck of Middle Eastern politics. A fervent pan-Arab nationalist, he rebuffed American appeals to join a neutralist coalition of Third World nations that favored an independent stance during the Cold War. Non-alignment in the East-West conflict was an abomination to CIA director Allen Dulles and he bristled at Nasser’s growing stature as a charismatic leader who could galvanize Arabs and Muslims far beyond Egypt, “If that colonel of yours pushes us too far, we will break him in half,” Dulles admonished Copeland, the CIA’s man-on-the-spot in Cairo.
Copeland pondered ways to knock the pesky Nasser off his pedestal. One scheme called for slipping the Egyptian president a surreptitious dose of LSD to induce bizarre public behavior that would discredit him and tarnish his heroic image. But this wasn’t feasible. Instead of an acid hit, American spies opted for pushing “the opiate of the masses,” as Karl Marx sp famously described religion.
There were notable precedents for marshaling religious sentiment to advance America” Cold War agenda . In 1948, the fledging CIA enlisted the cooperation of the Vatican and Catholic Action, the largest Catholic lay organization in Italy, in a successful campaign to deliver the vote and vanquish left-wing parties in a hotly contested Italian election. Although Muslims have no pope or authoritative religious hierarchy, CIA strategists figured they could win over Arab hearts and minds by manipulating Islamic piety. Copeland recounts in The Game of Nations how the CIA engaged in black propaganda operations in Egypt that sought to demonstrate “Soviet ungodliness” by circulating anti-Islamic literature – including books with titles like Against the Veil and Mohammed Never Existed – while attributing its distribution to the Soviet embassy.
But cutting Nasser down to size was a much taller order than making the Soviets look like atheists. What the CIA really needed, according to Copeland was a “religious spellbinder” to alter Arab opinion and “divert the growing stream of anti-American hostility” . As Copeland recalled, “I wanted to find and groom a messiah who would start out in Egypt, and then spread his word to Africans and perhaps other Third World peoples. Our Chosen One would immunize them against false prophets,” I.e., Nasser and other non-aligned nationalist leaders.
Miles knew “from what was happening in America that a religious movement didn’t have to make sense in order to attract adherents,” as he put it. He was referring to Billy Graham’s sick gospel and salvation road show, which drew huge crowds across the USA in the early 1950’s. The meteoric transformation of this dime-a-dozen, Protestant Bible-thumper into a big time celebrity evangelist evidently made quite an impression on Copeland, who came up with the bright idea to sponsor “a Moslem Billy Graham.
Copeland was off and running. He visited several Egyptian mosques in search of an Islamic preacher who could sway the Arab masses in a manner most congenial to US interests. Although Copeland never found the CIA’s messiah, his furtive machinations were not without impact. While on the prowl for a Muslim Billy Graham, Copeland reached out to leaders of the religious revival movement known as the Ikhwan, or Muslim Brotherhood, which sought to build an Islamic society from the bottom up. The seeds of a clandestine relationship between the CIA and the Ikhwan were planted by Copeland, who surmised that the Muslim Brothers, by virtue of their strong antipathy to Arab nationalism as well as Communism, might be a viable counterweight to Nasser in the years ahead, US intelligence would become a defacto partner of the Brotherhood as it evolved from a mass-based social reform organization into the wellspring of Islamic terrorism.
“Any contact Miles had with the Muslim Brotherhood was not official policy,” insists retired CIA officer Raymond Close, a colleague of Copeland in the Middle East. “It was strictly solo work on his part. There were an awful lot of things that Miles did that were totally off the board.”
Whether Copeland’s efforts were “off the board” or otherwise, the Muslim Brotherhood was certainly a force to be reckoned with. Since its inception in 1928, the Society of the Muslim Brothers sought to restore Islamic law and values in the face of growing Western influence. Launched as a social welfare association, it became a focal point of resistance to British colonial rule. The Special Order Group, a secret paramilitary wing set up by the Brotherhood, carried out guerrilla raids in Egypt during the 1940′s, bombing British installations and killing British soldiers and civilians. By the time Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna was assassinated in 1949, the fast-growing Ikhwan, with its distinctive green flag crossed with white swords and a red Koran, had a half million Egyptian members and affiliates in several other countries.
When a group of young Egyptian army officers led by Col. Nasser toppled the pro-British monarchy, the Muslim Brotherhood gave them full support. But the Brothers soon had a falling out with Nasser when it became apparent that he did not intend to establish an Islamic state. Egypt’s secular strongman cracked down hard on the Muslim Brethren, which comprised the largest organized popular force in the country and the last obstacle to his autocratic leadership. Nasser’s aim was not to banish religious expression from the political domain, but to prohibit any religious expression that was not government controlled.
In the wake of failed assassination attempt against Nasser in October 1954, Egyptian authorities outlawed the Muslim Brotherhood, jailed and tortured thousands of its members and killed several of its leaders. Some went underground or fled the country to escape successive waves of brutal repression aimed at smashing the Brethren.
Saudi Arabia became a magnet for many persecuted Islamist refugees not only from Egypt but also from Syria, Iraq, Libya and other Arab states where the Muslim Brothers were perceived as a threat to the secular, nationalist order. Ikgwani expatriates were welcomed by the oil-rich Saudi monarchy, which became the principal patron of the Brotherhood on the Arabian Peninsula and elsewhere. A strategic US ally, the Saudi royal family was so hostile to godless Communism that it did not even maintain diplomatic relations with Moscow.
American intelligence formed a three-way tryst with the Saudis and the Muslim Brothers, according to Robert Baer, the former case officer in the CIA’s Directorate of Operations, With the CIA’s implicit approval, the Saudi royals channeled funds to the Brothers, who joined a US-backed anti-Nasser insurgency in Yemen in 1962. “Like any other truly effective covert action, this one was strictly off the books,” explains Baer “There was no CIA finding, no memorandum of notification to Congress. Not a penny came out of the Treasury to fund it. All the White House had to do was give a wink and a nod to countries harboring the Brothers”
Yemen was just a warm up. To give a boost to Islamic proselytizing the Saudis with CIA encouragement, founded the Muslim World League in 1962. Underwritten initially by several donors including the Saudi-based Aramco oil consortium (then a CIA collaboration, the League established a formidable international presence with representatives in 120 countries. Members of the Muslim Brotherhood occupied key staff positions at the League while it disseminated anti-communist religious propaganda and sponsored the construction of mosques and Islamic center’s around the world.
Exiled Ikhwani were also employed as teachers and imams in Saudi mosques, schools and government agencies, where they promoted the extremist doctrine of Sayyid Qutb, the Brotherhood’s leading scribe and theorist. Executed in 1966 after 10 years of confinement in Egyptian torture chambers, Qutb is arguably the most influential religious scholar in modern Islam. He fashioned a lethal variant of political Islam that provided a Koranic justification for violence as the only way to rid the Muslim world of corrupting Western influences. Qutb’s hostility toward the West, in general, and the United States, in particular, was born during two years of study at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley in the late 1940′s. He returned to Egypt mortified by decadent, sex-crazed America, which he likened to a brothel.
The Muslim Brotherhood underwent a significant shift with the radicalization of Qutb in prison. What had been essentially a reformist organization in its formative phase veered off in a dangerous new direction. In addition to intro ducting a harsh anti-American perspective to the Brethren, Qutb called for the formation of a revolutionary Islamic vanguard to spearhead the violent overthrow of secular Arab regimes. Qutb’s martyrdom bestowed instant credibility upon his message, which posthumously filled the ideological void left by the huge Arab defeat in the 1967 Six Day War with Israel, a defeat that shamed Nasser and discredited the Arab nationalist cause.
Qutb’s inflammatory writings would decisively influence a generation of young militants, including the future spear-carriers of al-Qaeda. Osama bin Laden, the tall, handsome scion of a wealthy Persian Gulf family, was first exposed to Qutb’s nostrums while attending King Abdul-Aziz University in Jeddah. One of bin Laden’s instructors in religious studies was Egyptian Professor Muhammed Qutb, the exiled brother of Sayyid Qutb, who taught classes on the imperatives and nuances of Islamic jhad.
After Nasser died in 1970, the Muslim Brethren, buoyed by Saudi petrodollars, resurfaced in Egypt. The newly emboldened Ikhwani were wooed by President Anwaar Sadat, Nasser’s successor, who freed Islamic activists from jail, lifted some restrictions on the Brothers, and turned them loose against the Nasserite die-hards and leftist student groups who disapproved of Sadat’s decision to make amends with the United States. Sadat’s courtship of the Brotherhood elicited more winks and nods from US intelligence. Right under the CIA’s nose, the officially-banned by semi-tolerated Muslim Brotherhood was going through a momentous transformation in its country of origin.
French scholar Gilles Kepel, the author of Jhad: The Trail of Political Islam, describes how Qutb’s theories found a receptive audience at Egyptian university campuses, giving rise to a potent radical wing with in the Islamist movement. When the older leaders of the Ikhwan, chastened by years of repression, repudiated armed confrontation in favor of gradual efforts to reform the system, renegade Brothers created several violent splinter groups and vowed to wage holy war against an authoritarian Egyptian regime, which they saw as corrupt, anti-Islamic, and a US puppet. The heads of two Brotherhood breakaway factions – the Egyptian Islamic Jhad of Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri and the Islamic Group of Sheik Omar Abdei Rahman – were among those implicated in the 1981 assassination of President Sadat.
Today Rahman, a blind Egyptian cleric, is serving a life sentence in the United States for plotting to blow up the United Nations, Manhattan’s FBI building, the George Washington Bridge and other New York City landmarks, while Dr. al-Zawahiri, a squat, bespectacled zealot with a round head and owlish face, appears in post-9/11 video footage sitting on the right-hand side of Osama bin Laden. Dubbed “the brains behind al-Qaeda,” al-Zawahiri became bin Laden’s top deputy after the Egyptian physician had matriculated through the ranks of the Muslim Brothers.
Muslim Brotherhood veterans have played a prominent role during every phase of bin Laden’s terrorist odyssey. As a college student he was mentored by Abdullah Azzam, a Palestinian Brother, who convinced the young Saudi to join the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan, a cause embraced by Islamists worldwide, moderates and radicals alike, after the Red Army invaded in 1979. That same year, Islamists Shiite revolutionaries led by the Ayatollah Khomeini overthrew America’s longtime partner, the Shah of Iran. These tumultuous events underscored the geopolitical importance of the Saudi connection to unnerved US officials. Henceforth, Saudi Arabia would serve as a Sunni Muslim bulwark against Shiite extremism, while also matching the United States dollar for dollar in support of the Afghan mujahedin guerillas who were fighting against the Soviets.
In 1984, Azzam and bin Laden jointly set up the Service Bureay, based in Peshawar, which played a pivotal role in organizing Islamic militants from 43 countries, including the United States, who flocked to Pakistan’s North-West Frontier territory to join the anti-communist jihad. With contacts spread across North Africa and the Middle East the Muslim Brotherhood was instrumental in recruiting many of these foreign Islamic volunteers. Jane’s Defence Weekly estimates that 14,000 of the so-called “Afghan Arabs” (though none were Afghans and many were not Arabs) trained in guerrilla camps, where paramilitary drills were infused with radical Islamic teachings. Some of these outside agitators fought along side CIA-backed mujahedin units during clashes with the Red Army.
Once again, an off-the-shelf approach to nation-tampering was deemed preferable by US intelligence as the Afghanistan operation grew by leaps and bounds during the 1980’s. It became the largest covert intervention in the CIA’s history, with Washington’s funneling more than $3 billion worth of aid and military equipment to the mujahedin through Pakistan military intelligence, which served as a conduit for American and Saudi largesse. In Ghost Wars, a compelling narrative history of the CIA’s Afghan imbroglio Steve Coll discusses how this cut-out arrangement provided US intelligence with a layer of deniability while its Pakistan proxy pushed aside traditional Afghan mujahedin organizations lacking the requitsite fundamentalist ardor and boosted the four mujahedin groups led by militants aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood. The CIA, according to Cole, never pressed Pakistan to back the more moderate, nationalist-oriented mujahedin rebels instead of the radical Islamic Afghan leaders who touted the writings of Sayyid Qutb, which were translated into local Afghan dialects.
A well-known figure among the Muslim Brotherhood-linked Afghan factions, bin Laden also collaborated with top Saudi and Pakistani espionage officers. Although bin Laden had no official contact with the CIA, his efforts to create an Islamic foreign legion were generally looked upon with favor by US intelligence. The more anti-communist forces in the fray the better, they figured. The going assumption was that these bearded extremists could be revved up and covertly deployed when Washington needed “a cheap no-American-casualties way to fight the Soviet Union,” as Baer put it.
Some of Baer’s colleagues at the CIA thought the foreign legion contingent should be formally endorsed and expanded. “The CIA examined ways to increase their participation… but nothing came of it,” then-CIA deputy director Robert Gates said of the Islamic volunteers, who, if nothing else, were useful from a public relations perspective. The burgeoning international brigade was touted as proof that the entire Muslim world stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the Afghan mujahedin against the Evil Empire. No one at the CIA reckoned that the foreign legionnaires had their own agenda.
Even before the Red Army withdrew the last of its regiments from Afghanistan in 1989, bin Laden was already hatching ambitious plans to wage a worldwide jihad. The Soviet pull out prompted a wholesale scattering of foreign volunteers, who retruned to their respective countries imbued witht eh spirit of Islamic revolution and ready to carry on the struggle. About 1000 militants remained in Afghanistan, many of these men could not go home because they were wanted for crimes against the state. This self-selecting stay-behind network formed the core of al-Qaeda, which became even leaner and meaner when bin Laden transferred his base of operations to the Sudan in 1991.
For the next five years, bin Laden and his inner circle were holed up in Khartoum courtesy of Sheikh Hassan al-Turabi, the Sorbonne-educated head of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Sudanese branch. Dubbed the “black pope”, Turabi came to power on the heels of a military coup and immediately announced that Islamic law would be strictly enforced in his country. He was hin Laden’s protector during this crucial period of exile, together they hosted strategic powwow’s with representatives from several Islamic terrorist organizations, including Hamas, a Palestinian offshoot of the Brotherhood. There was considerable debate among jihadists over whether to target the “near enemy” (apostate regimes in the Muslim world or the “far enemy ,” (the Western powers thwarting the implementation of Islamic rule.) More militants parted ways with al-Qaeda when it’s leadership dominated by Egyptian veterans of the Muslim Brotherhood , decided to go after “the head of the snake, “ which is how they described the United States.
By a process of elimination, only the hardest of the hardcore stayed with bin Laden when he and 150 border-hopping Islamic radicals and their families moved back to Afghanistan in 1996. Shortly thereafter, according to the official September 11 Commission, Khalid Shekh Mohammed, a tubby young engineer, approached bin Laden and pitched an outlandish idea to hijack jets and fly them into buildings in New York and Washington. This was the origin of the collective muder-suicide assaults that killed nearly 3000 people on September 11, 2001. Mohammed, the self-described mastermind of the 9/11 operation who had cut his teeth with the Kuwaiti chapter of the Muslim Brotherhood, is now in US custody.
The emergence of anti-American terrorist cadres from the bowels of the CIA’s proxy war in Afghanistan took US spymasters by surprise. It was blunder as colossal as the CIA’s inability to predict the collapse of Soviet Bloc Communism. ”Conceptually we failed,” admits Baer, “ We didn’t consider Sunni Islam to be a threat to the West…We didn’t want to see it.” While CIA operatives fixated on Shiite Iran as the fount of religiously motivated terrorism, a stateless network of Muslim Brotherhood-inspired zealots morphed into a worldwide insurgency. “The militant wing of the Muslim Brotherhood is essentially what we’re facing today.” asserts Baer.
Perhaps Col. W. Patrick Lang, formerly with the Defense Intelligence Agency, summed it up best by nothing the similarities between the Brotherhood and the Irish Republican Army (IRA). “There is the main IRA, whick=h eschews violence, and the “Provisional IRA, the armed wing. And there’s also the ‘Real IRA’, a more extreme spin-off from the Provisionals …These groups tend to fracture as they develop almost theological – and in the xcase of the Muslim Brothers actual theological – differences. They find each other’s projected courses of action to be insufficiently zealous or earnest or pure enough. And in Islam, of course, there’s no hierarchy to settle ideological disputes.
And so it continues as al-Qaeda chieftains criticize the Muslim Brotherhood for its accommodating stance toward secular rulers in Egypt and Jordan, where several Ikhwani sit in parliament. At the same time, moderate Brotherhood leaders – the Islamist movement’s elder establishment – have condemned terrorist attacks by bin Laden as “a grave sin,” Pursuant to their long-term strategy of using peaceful means to turn Egypt into an Islamic republic, the Muslim Brotherhood have taken over numerous trade unions and professional associations, while operating banks, businesses, health clinics, schools, and legal services that often outperform shabby government institutions. With more than two million members divided into several thousand semi-clandestine cells throughout the country, the Brothers are still subjected to episodic police raids, incarceration and torture. But these measures have failed to stifle popular support for a mainstream movement that, for a better or worse, expresses the concerns, aspirations and legitimate grievances of Muslims from all social strata.
America’s invasion of Iraq – “an avaricious, premeditated unprovoked was against a foe who posed no immediate threat,” as one CIA agent scathingly put it – has energized the entire spectrum of Islamist groups. While they give voice to anti-US passions and pervasive feelings of the injustice in Muslim communities, moderate Islamist also risk losing followers to fanatical jihad cults spawned by the Brotherhood. (The opiate of the masses turns out to be a gateway drug, as well.) According to a recent report by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, Iraq is now a fertile breeding ground for new recruits that have swelled al-Qaeda’s ranks to more than 18,000 potential terrorists.
In response to a plethora of social and economic ills that bedevil the Muslim world, the answer from every Brotherhood chapter and affiliate has always been the same: Islam is the solution,” Ironically, US spymasters also once saw Islam as the solution to America’s problems in the Middle East. Fifty years ago, a CIA cad dreamed of an Arab messiah, “a Moslem Billy Graham,” who would plunk for US priorities in Egypt and beyond. That’s how it all began. And now, ironically, it’s onward Christian soldiers with Rev. Franklin Graham, Billy’s prodigal son, denigrating Islam and trumpeting the clash of civilizations as he dispatches American missionaries to save souls in US-occupied Iraq. Aself-fulfilling prophet, Franklin carries on like God’s gift to bin Laden, who must be laughing somewhere in his cave or his grave.