Washington’s Alliance With al-Qaeda

When I read Imperial Hubris, by Michael Scheuer – a former top CIA official and head of their bin Laden unit — I was floored by his opening paragraph:

"As I complete this book, U.S., British, and other coalition forces are trying to govern apparently ungovernable postwar states in Afghanistan and Iraq, while simultaneously fighting growing Islamist insurgencies in each – a state of affairs our leaders call victory. In conducting these activities, and the conventional military campaigns preceding them, U.S. forces and policies are completing the radicalization of the Islamic world, something Osama bin Laden has been trying to do with substantial but incomplete success since the early 1990s. As a result, I think it fair to conclude that the United States of America remains bin Laden’s only indispensable ally."

It seemed incredible – at least in the way he phrased it — but Scheuer made an entirely plausible case: through its actions in Iraq and Afghanistan, he argued, the US was creating a deep pool of recruits for al-Qaeda, giving credibility to Osama bin Laden’s view that the US was embarked on a campaign to eradicate Islam. Al Qaeda, he averred, was "blowback" from decades of US intervention in the Middle East, the result – indeed, the creation – of American foreign policy in the region. Scheuer’s book was published in 2004, when the Bush administration was at the height of its hubris. The President had recently declared that his wars were an episode in what he called a "global democratic revolution" that was being led by the United States. The neoconservatives who had agitated for and provoked this war were dreaming of a "transformation" of the entire region, one that would "drain the swamp" of the Middle East and remove the sources of Muslim radicalism – which, naturally, they did not locate in the particulars of US foreign policy, but in the "Arab mindset," or some such borderline racist nonsense.

Hubris soon gave way to despair, however, which finally gave way to realism – and America’s withdrawal (however tentative) from Iraq. Afghanistan, too, has ended in a stalemate, and Washington’s announcement of a time frame – however vague – for withdrawal. The geniuses in charge of American foreign policy had finally realized their strategy of reform-at-gunpoint wasn’t working – or had they?

When the Obama administration came to Washington, they brought with them a new "smart" strategy for fighting the Terrorist Threat, exemplified by the "COIN" doctrine, the military’s new counterinsurgency theory associated with Gen. David Petraeus. This was an essentially political strategy: that is, it was premised on the idea that if we could "win hearts and minds," the US military could defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan, build up the Afghan state apparatus, and depart, leaving our local allies to police the region and prevent a Taliban comeback. That it didn’t work out that way is generally acknowledged, these days, but this doesn’t mean the strategic premise at the heart of "COIN" has been abandoned.

Far from it: the "smartness" of the new strategic vision was applied to the foreign policy realm, in the wake of the "Arab Spring," and fully implemented in the ditching of Hosni Mubarak and our support to the Libyan rebellion. It has culminated in US support to the Syrian "opposition," which is, for all intents and purposes, the Syrian branch of Al Qaeda.

You know you’ve landed in Bizarro World when our "war on terrorism" means making an alliance with the ideological blood brothers of those who brought down the World Trade Center and attacked the Pentagon on September 11, 2001 – which is precisely what we are doing in Syria.

"We have solid information and intelligence that members of al-Qaida terrorist network have gone in the other direction to Syria to help and to liaise to carry out terrorist attacks," says Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari. "This is a fact that the extremist groups have an important role in the level of violence that is going on in Syria," he continued.

Al Qaeda-in-Iraq – the alleged reason we kept our troops in that country as long as we did – is now reappearing in neighboring Syria as our de facto ally. As Al Qaeda fighters pour across the Iraqi-Syrian border, our Secretary of State echoes the jihadist call for Bashar al-Assad’s ouster. And it isn’t just talk: while there is much "debate" about whether we should officially arm the Syrian rebels – who have gathered just over the border in Turkey, where they are being succored by the international "Friends of Syria" — we are already doing so indirectly, at the very least, via our allies in Qatar and the Saudi Kingdom.

Yet the Free Syrian Army, as it calls itself – in reality a constantly splitting and re-splitting collection of independent militias– is not the only or even the main military force facing off against the regime. It is Al Qaeda – or, rather, groups claiming the Al Qaeda franchise – who are conducting the most effective military campaign against Assad’s army. Al Nusra, widely believed to be a front for Al Qaeda operatives arriving from Iraq, recently claimed responsibility for dozens of bombings, including one in Damascus that killed 55 people and an attack on a pro-government television station in which three journalists and a number of other personnel were killed. There is also the Al Baraa Ibn Malik Martyrdom Brigade, another faction of suicide-bombers, which claims affiliation with the Free Syrian Army and is fighting on the front lines in Homs, the epicenter of the rebellion: they, too, seem to have migrated from Iraq. The Lebanon-based Abdullah Azzam Brigade is also in the running.

Wherever the American eagle strikes, the vultures of Al Qaeda soon follow. Scheuer’s contention that the US is objectively, albeit unintentionally empowering Al Qaeda by intervening in the Muslim world was one thing, but this is something else. The campaign to win "hearts and minds" has become an attempt to coopt Sunni radicalism, neutralize Al Qaeda, and use the Sunnis as a battering ram against Washington’s real target in the region: Iran.

The Bush administration played the Sunni card in Iraq to spark the so-called Arab Awakening and neutralize Al Qaeda as an effective terrorist force. The COIN-distas universalized the great "success" of the surge and turned it into a full-blown military strategy, while over at the State Department Hillary Clinton went from declaring Mubarak an old family friend to demanding he step down. The Libyan adventure was the doctrine’s debut: there the local Al Qaeda affiliate was the backbone of the opposition’s military wing, and now we are seeing the same pattern emerge in Syria.

While Syrian oppositionists meeting in Cairo are slugging it out, Al Qaeda is doing their dirty work on the ground: killing innocents, spreading terror, and setting just the right conditions for Western military intervention.

Funny how it works out that way.

It is no longer the case that the US government is objectively advancing Al Qaeda’s cause due to its ineffective and counterproductive policies in the Middle East: we’ve gone far beyond that. This administration is actively aiding and abetting Syrian opposition groups, such as the Free Syrian Army, with whole contingents of Al Qaeda fighters in their ranks. American money is "training" the public face of the opposition, while the Saudis and Qataris funnel arms to Islamist terror groups: that’s how the international division of labor in the regime-change industry works.

To say that the US is Al Qaeda’s "one indispensable ally," these days, is no overstatement: it is literally and not just metaphorically true. Which just goes to show how everything comes full circle, or some such metaphysical jazz: after all, we were allies with Al Qaeda during the cold war with the Soviet Union – indeed, the US and its Saudi ally could be credited with birthing the international mujahideen network that fought in Afghanistan (and, don’t forget, in the Balkans) in alliance with the US.

After a falling out that began when the Saudi king refused bin Laden’s offer to defend the Kingdom against Saddam Hussein and allowed US troops on sacred Saudi soil, it looks like these two old allies are together again. It may be a remarriage of convenience, but it’s a reunion all the same: politically and militarily, the two are fighting the same battle – against the old-style secular Arab autocrats, of which Assad is the last surviving example, and against the emerging Shi’ite power centered in Iran and spreading to Iraq and beyond. The only point of contention between them is whether US military power or Al Qaeda’s suicide bombers are the best means of defeating these two enemies. Hillary Clinton disdains the Al Qaeda factor in Syria by saying they merely "claim" to be supporting the rebels, but in reality it is Al Qaeda that is doing the bulk of the actual fighting, and the US that is doing most of the claiming.

This is good for the regime changers in the mid to long run, because eventually they’ll get to designate Syria a "failed state," with a significant presence of Al Qaeda. That it failed due to their diligent efforts, and that they and their Gulf allies fully facilitated the success of bin Laden’s boys, will at that point be deemed irrelevant. The West will be "forced" to intervene.

And the regime-change machine rolls onward. Next stop: Iran….

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo passed away on June 27, 2019. He was the co-founder and editorial director of Antiwar.com, and was a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He was a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and wrote a monthly column for Chronicles. He was the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].