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Terror and Empire

In the month or so following September 11 an astonishing picture emerged of the extent to which Osama bin Laden, Al Qaeda and the Taliban had been enjoying crucial support from supposed US friends and client states. It became clear that a steady stream of financial contributions from Saudi Arabia and the Emirates had furnished Al Qaeda and the Taliban with their life blood in the days, months and years leading up to September 11 . The US government itself paid the Taliban authorities $42 million in 2000 for cooperation in ‘war against drugs’. Yet US courts had already established both Al Qaeda’s role in the East African embassy bombings in 1998 and the presence of the Al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan.

The US military and intelligence community has the most intimate relationship with the security services of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. These states, as we know them today, would not exist without US support. Saudi oil and Pakistani proximity to Afghanistan led Washington to confer great importance on these states. And it was only Saudi and Pakistani support for the Taliban–including military units as well as lavish amounts of money, arms and training – which allowed them to seize power in Afghanistan in 1996, displacing the fractious alliance of mujahedeen and military men which ruled the country from 1992. The Taliban movement received help from bin Laden and subsequently allowed his Al Qaeda network to set up training camps there. It was Prince Turki al Feisal, the then head of Saudi intelligence, who first recruited bin Laden to organise resistance in Afghanistan, with US approval. (This man was removed from his post without explanation two months before the attack.) For its part the Pakistani military intelligence, the ISI, sponsors of the Taliban, welcomed the Saudi money which bin Laden continued to attract. The US charge against the bin Laden network was plausible partly because the ramifications of this claim were bound to be so awkward and embarrassing for the US authorities themselves. Another reason is that in an affair like this, the focus of so much attention, pinning the blame simply on a convenient but false target–say Castro, Chavez, Saddam or Ghaddafi–would be risky and short-sighted. (Unfortunately that does not mean that it will not be attempted at a later stage.) While the execution of the September 11 action required comparatively modest sums the extensive operational network and training camps of Al Qaeda certainly demand deep pockets. This is where bin Laden’s supporters in Saudi Arabia and the Emirates come in. An editorial in the New Republic on 24 Sept hinted at this when it referred to Saudi Arabia’s ‘filthy secrets’. In an article in the same issue Martin Peretz explained that Saudi money has been flowing into the coffers of the bin Laden network: ‘Many Saudis–maybe even the monarchy itself–finance it, if only to keep it engaged and out of Riyadh.’ Peretz is strongly favourable to Israel and is likely to be furnished with the best information available to its government. Thomas Friedman in the New York Times for September 21 also writes of a Saudi ‘devil’s pact’ such that the Saudi authorities ‘allowed the Islamists’ domestic supporters to continue raising money, ostensibly for Muslim welfare groups, and to funnel it to Osama bin Laden–on condition that the Islamic extremists not attack this regime.’ Further details were vouchsafed by Seymour Hersh in the New Yorker in an article based in part on US intelligence transcripts of conversations amongst members of the Saudi Royal Family: ‘When the Saudis were confronted by press reports that some of the substantial funds that the monarchy routinely gives to Islamic charities may actually have gone to Al Qaeda and other terrorist networks, they denied any knowledge of such tranfers. The intercepts, however, have led many in the intelligence community to think otherwise. The Bush administration has chosen not to confront the Saudi leadership over its financial support of terror organisations and its refusal to help in the investigation’ (of September 11 ).

Saudi Arabia maintains sixty Islamic Centers spread through the world which proselytise the bleak doctrines of the militant Wahabi sect. The supposedly charitable and educational trusts supported by huge amounts of Saudi cash have been used to fund madrassas, or religious schools, where the basic needs of poor students are met but nothing is taught except the Wahabi interpretation of the Koran and the need for jihad. Inside Saudi Arabia itself hatred of the infidel is also inculcated by the Wahabi-dominated educational system despite the fact that only five per cent of the population belong to the Wahabi sect. A New York Times report from Riyadh observes the paradox: ‘(E)xtremism, born of the local, puritanical Wahabi brand of Islam, constrains life here, shaping the way people live and the way Saudi Arabia greets the world. The United States seeks to build a coalition against terror with the kingdom, long a Western business and military ally, and yet the country has revealed itself as the source of the very ideology confronting America in the battle against terrorism.’ Hersh also explained that one of the few members of the Royal Family who wants to combat corruption, Crown Prince Abdullah, was also regarded as too hostile to the US, and that the almost wholly incapacitated King Fahd was being kept alive to prevent Abdullah’s succession. The king’s inability to recognise even close friends, Hersh explains, did not prevent the US information services releasing a picture of Defense Secretary Rumsfeld meeting with him, ostensibly to plan the response to September 11 .

Despite its prodigious oil wealth the Saudi kingdom has failed to achieve rounded economic or social development, indeed has recently been less buoyant than that of Iraq. As a result there are many frustrated and unemployed youths who aspire to a middle class existence but are unlikely to obtain it. And there are upper class youths who despise their parent’s complicity in a corrupt and arbitrary order. As an educational force the Saudi autocracy not only diffuses Wahabism but also seeks to instil terror by judicial maiming and execution. Against this background the fact that fifteen of the September 11 hijackers came from Saudi Arabia is not surprising. Other hijackers came from the Emirates and from the fundamentalist milieu in Egypt where a stagnant and corrupt autocracy has also helped to make middle class frustration and ressentiment a powerful force.

While Saudi and Pakistani authorities were scared of Al Qaeda and, only dealt with it at arm’s length via ‘charitable’ intermediaries, they were closely involved in the rise of the Taliban. Their support for this organisation, itself linked to Al Qaeda, was given quite voluntarily and cannot be explained away as an attempt to buy off the militants. The Saudi security services supplied money and arms; the Pakistani ISI, training, officers and military experts. The Saudis appreciated the Taliban’s narrow Deobandi theology, while their seizure of power was one of the very few successes that could be claimed by Pakistani state policy. . Without Pakistani and Saudi help, the Taliban would never have seized power and the bin Laden network would have had no haven for its training camps. Mullah Muhammad Omar, the Taliban leader, formed an alliance with Al Qaeda because it also could supply money and men, and because this somewhat reduced reliance on Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. No doubt the latter were not unhappy to see Al Qaeda drawn off to Afghanistan but they also identified with the Taliban project. The US was aware of these developments as was explained by John Burns, reporting from Islamabad in the New York Times just after the attacks: ‘Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence directorate, or I.S.I. (was) responsible for channelling large amounts of military and financial aid to the Taliban. Until the attacks in New York and Washington, that support had been quietly tolerated by the United States, despite the bitter opposition to the repressive forms of Islamic rule imposed by the Taliban ‘.

A later report revealed that the ISI was also in league with Al Qaeda: ‘The intelligence service of Pakistanhas had an indirect but longstanding relationship with Al Qaeda, turning a blind eye for years to the growing ties between Osama bin Laden and the Taliban, according to American officials. The intelligence service even used Al Qaeda camps to train covert operatives for use in a war of terror against India.’ The United States was aware of such connections. Following the embassy bombings in 1998 a State Department official, Michael Sheenan, urged that the US should make isolating Al Qaeda a priority: ‘Mr Sheenan’s memo outlined a series of actions the United States could take toward Pakistan, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen to persuade them to help isolate Al Qaeda. The document called Pakistan the key, and it suggested that the administration make terrorism the central issue in the relations between Washington and Islamabad. The document also urged the administration to find ways to curb terrorist money-launderingMr Sheenan’s plan “landed with a resounding thud,” one former official recalled, “He couldn’t get anyone interested.”‘.

Washington cannot have been unaware of Taliban theology but had long grown used to the idea that Muslim fanatics were convenient and easily manipulated allies and that the real enemy was secular authorities who don’t truckle to the United States. Historically the US security establishment did not see the Islamic jihad and bin Laden terror networks as a negative phenomenon. In the eighties such networks were financed, trained and armed so long as they were fighting against the Russian-supported regime in Afghanistan. Al Qaeda was established in 1989 at the high point of this effort. Subsequent to this, Muslim jihad networks were often still seen as an ally or tool in former Soviet lands and in parts of the Middle East. Elements of the Al Qaeda network were active in Chechnya and former Soviet central Asia. They were also active in Bosnia and Kosovo. The Western press did not like to make much of it but some of the Bosnian and KLA units resorted to terror tactics. Indeed, as a legacy of this, gangs of ethno-religious thugs still terrorise the populations some of the Balkan statelets set up by NATO and act as a prime conduit for the thriving drug trade from Afghanistan to Western Europe. [When police in Oslo made Norway’s largest ever heroin seizure, they discovered that former fighters from the Kosovo Liberation Army controlled the distribution chain, as related in The Economist for October 20, 2001. Of course, neither the terrorism nor the drug-running of some KLA justifies Milosevic’s repression of the Kosovan people. In the late 1980s, the US State Department had a soft spot for Milosevic and did nothing to avert the distinigration of a country that was seen as a “neutral” and “socialist” power by many in the West. Because of the demand of western creditors, the Yugoslav government swept aside by Milosevic was unable to pay the salaries of its soldiers, a circumstance which greatly increased its vulnerability.]

And as we witness special powers being conferred on Bush in the aftermath of a terror action we should remember the decisive role played by the bombing of Moscow apartments in the rise and rise of Vladimir Putin. The slaughter of 118 Muscovites in 1999 set the scene for a revenge panic which Putin adroitly used first to justify a bloody offensive against the Chechens and then to elevate himself to the Presidency. Responsibility for these bombs has never been clarified but supporters of Islamic jihad do seem plausible candidates as the actual perpetrators, with or without some degree of collusion from sections of the Chechen leadership and/or the Russian security services. The murkiness of terror tactics have long made them the provocateur’s weapon of choice, Conrad’s theme in The Secret Agent.

Free market ideology combined with anti-Communism and suspicion of Russia to produce an extraordinary laxness when it came to US surveillance of the bin Laden network, even long after the 1993 World Trade Center bomb and the African embassy bombings. Clinton sought Congressional approval for checks on capital movements to make sure that they were not helping to finance terrorist activity. They were blocked by the Texas Republican Phil Gramm, who was then the chairman of the Senate’s Banking Committee, as well as by the banking industry. Gramm was reported after September 11 2001 asstanding by his previous opposition to any type of capital movement monitoring: ‘ “I was right then and I am right now” in opposing the bill, Mr Gramm said yesterday. He called the bill “totalitarian” and added: “The way to deal with terrorists is to hunt them down and kill them”‘ The religious authorities in Saudi Arabia also uphold the absolute rights of property-owners and the secular authorities allow unlimited cross-border cash transfers. This is a country without capital gains tax, inheritance tax or income tax. As Business Week explains: ‘While Saudi Arabia may seem like a tightly controlled society, its Hanbali system of Islamic jurisprudence puts great emphasis on the sanctity of private property. “What you do with your money is utterly up to you,” says Michael Field, a London-based author of several books on business in the gulf.’ In Washington “it has fallen to Grover Norquist, the neo-conservative and free market advocate, to give radical Islam access to the Republicans and the Bush administration; for some time the Muslim Institute has operated out of the offices of his Institute for Tax Reform.”

In his important study, Islam and Capitalism, the French scholar Maxine Rodinson explained Islam’s compatibility with mercantile and financial accumulation. The first years of the Iranian revolution saw the state given some importance in Islamic economics but, as Olivier Roy explains, this was ‘supplanted by a less state oriented and more liberal image, at least with respect to the economy, in Iran as in the rest of the Muslin world.’ This author adds: ‘This evolution goes hand in hand with Islamism’s shift towards neo-fundamentalism and with the diffusion of the Islamist message to a wider audience (businessmen, students of economics, and others).’ In the summer of 2001 the Bank-e-Eqtesadi Novine became the first private bank to be set up in Iran since the revolution, with many likely to follow. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states are well supplied not just with financial institutions but with proudly Islamic banks. While Islamic investors have to be careful not to enjoy the fruits of ‘usury’ they are able to claim quarterly or annual ‘bonuses’ and they can invest in stocks and shares because such instruments allow them to share profits and losses. As this author explains, the type of mercantile and financial capitalism endorsed by Islamic ideology in Saudi Arabia, taking mainly parasitic and rentier forms, has failed to stimulate or diversify its economy. Straddling the latter are giant ‘state-owned’ corporations, notably Sabic, Saudi Airlines and Saudi Aramco, the latter with revenues of some $80 billion annually. The Islamist view that these instruments of princely patronage should be broken up and turned over to honest Islamic businesses and foundations is gaining ground.

The Al Qaeda group has had access to the most sophisticated banking services but it combines this with the ability to use an informal network of paperless cash transfers, constituted by the facilities of hawala or trust brokers. These brokers regularly transfer large sums from the Middle East or the Indian sub-continent to North America or Europe leaving only the most cryptic records (a telephone remark or an e-mail saying ‘Abdullah to receive twelve crates of mangoes’). The transactions are memorised by the brokers who net off the flows in opposite directions and make balancing payments every so often. Both here and in the organisation of the terror actions themselves we see different forms of the ‘network society’ about which Manuel Castells writes in his book of that name. However Castells does not make it sufficiently clear that the network society has been linked to the rise of flexible markets and structures of capitalist accumulation as well as to the proliferation of informational technology. Not all ‘information’ has the same valency. There is all the difference in the world between the aimless web-surfer or chat-room participant and networks, and intranets, that dispose of financial, human and military resources. Accounts of Al Qaeda stress that it maintains an advanced network of the latter description. Bin Laden himself has specialised in finance and banking, and in commissioning and monitoring large-scale construction projects. Even in his Afghan cave bin Laden was accompanied by mobile generators, computers and communications equipment. A visiting Arab journalist explained: ‘The mujahideen around the man belong to most Arab states, and are of different ages, but most of them are young. They hold high scientific degrees: doctors, engineers, teachers.’ While it is likely that major Gulf state businesses do not speak with one voice, and spread their bets, some of them do identify with Al Qaeda and its campaign against a petrified social order.

The US response to the network challenge is, as explained by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri in their book Empire, to evoke the false universality of the United States as the ultimate custodian and guarantor of all that is valuable in human civilisation. But these authors are wrong to equate ‘imperial sovereignty’ with an imperial network, as they define it, since the latter would tolerate and encourage a multiplicity of centres within a capitalist world. Instead the United States sees itself as the sole center and uses its privileged role to protect anachronisms like the Saudi monarchy. It is true that Washington has managed to forge an understanding with Moscow and, perhaps, Beijing. But what it needs is a credible partner in the Islamic world if it is to head off the danger of a ‘clash of civilisations’. And that is what it lacks.

Chapter 4

Is Terror Ever Effective?

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