Shadow Warriors: Paying to Keep Playing in Iraq

Patrick Cockburn, one of the most important Western witnesses of the Iraq War, gives this trenchant analysis of the reality on the ground: Only one thing unites Iraq: hatred of the US. The piece is worth reading in full, but here is an excerpt on one aspect of the situation:

The US is the most powerful single force in Iraq but by no means the only one. The shape of Iraqi politics has changed over the past year, though for reasons that have little to do with "the surge"...

The Sunni Arabs of Iraq turned against al Qa'ida partly because it tried to monopolise power but primarily because it brought their community close to catastrophe. The Sunni war against US occupation had gone surprisingly well for them since it began in 2003. It was a second war, the one against the Shia majority led by al-Qa'ida, which the Sunni were losing, with disastrous results for themselves. "The Sunni people now think they cannot fight two wars – against the occupation and the government – at the same time," a Sunni friend in Baghdad told me last week. "We must be more realistic and accept the occupation for the moment."

This is why much of the non-al-Qa'ida Sunni insurgency has effectively changed sides. An important reason why al-Qa'ida has lost ground so swiftly is a split within its own ranks. The US military – the State Department has been very much marginalised in decision-making in Baghdad – does not want to emphasise that many of the Sunni fighters now on the US payroll, who are misleadingly called "concerned citizens", until recently belonged to al Qa'ida and have the blood of a great many Iraqi civilians and American soldiers on their hands.

In effect, the Americans have bought the barest modicum of temporary "stability" in Iraq by hiring al Qaeda. This is of course merely a renewal of a long-standing relationship between the various shifting entities grouped under the rubric "al Qaeda" and the forces of "deep politics" in the American power structure. As Peter Dale Scott notes (see original for links and footnotes):

Recently I have written about Ali Mohamed, who was Washington’s star double agent inside al-Qaeda, and also a chief al-Qaeda trainer for aircraft hijackings.60 (Mohamed “knew at least three terrorist pilots personally,” and also “knew the internal procedures of the security company that maintained two checkpoints used by hijackers at Boston’s Logan airport.”)

Triple Cross, by Peter Lance, confirms that Ali Mohamed, one of al-Qaeda’s top trainers in terrorism and how to hijack airplanes, was an informant for the FBI, a one-time asset of the CIA, and for four years a member of the US Army. This special status explains why one of his protégés, El Sayyid Nosair, was able to commit the first al-Qaeda crime in America, back in 1990 [the assassination of the Jewish extremist Meir Kahane], be caught along with his co-conspirators, and yet be dismissed by the police and FBI as (and these are actual quotes) a “lone deranged gunman” who “acted alone.”

In fact, the FBI was aware back in 1990 that Mohamed had engaged in terrorist training on Long Island; yet it acted to protect Mohamed from arrest, even after one of his trainees had moved beyond training to an actual assassination. Three years later, in 1993, Mohamed was actually detained in Canada by the RCMP. But he gave the RCMP the telephone number of his FBI handler in San Francisco, and after a brief call the RCMP released him. This enabled Mohamed to fly later in the year to Nairobi, and begin to organize the eventual al-Qaeda attacks on the US embassies in Africa.

Mohamed’s trainees were all members of the Al-Kifah Center in Brooklyn, which served as the main American recruiting center for the Makhtab-al-Khidimat, the “Services Center” network that after the Afghan war became known as al-Qaeda. The Al-Kifah Center was headed in 1990 by the blind Egyptian Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, who like Ali Mohamed had been admitted to the United States, despite being on a State Department Watch List. As he had done earlier in Egypt, the sheikh “issued a fatwa in America that permitted his followers to rob banks and kill Jews.

…Mohamed was training Nosair in July 1989, at a time when the U.S. government… was of two minds about what to do in Afghanistan. The CIA was backing Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a major heroin trafficker with his own heroin labs, as part of the ISI’s puppet alternative to the secular, anti-Islamist government in Kabul, which the Russians left behind. Meanwhile a State Department official, Edmund McWilliams, with middle-level backing in Washington, objected that “Pakistani intelligence and Hekmatyar were dangerous allies,” and that the United States was making an important mistake by endorsing ISI’s puppet Afghan government.

But Ali Mohamed’s training, both in Afghanistan and later around New York, was precisely designed to strengthen the Arab Afghans in Brooklyn who were allied with Hekmatyar. Ali Mohamed’s trainees became involved in terrorist activities in other parts of the world. Another of Ali Mohamed’s trainees, Clement Rodney Hampton-El, accepted money from the Saudi Embassy in Washington to recruit Muslim warriors for Bosnia.

He was also allowed to go to Fort Belvoir, where an Army major gave him a list of Muslims in the US Army whom he could recruit.76 Fort Belvoir was the site of the Army’s Land Information Warfare Activity (LIWA), whose Information Dominance Center was “full of army intelligence `geeks’” targeting Islamic jihadists. Hampton-El’s recruiting for Bosnia was part of a larger operation. Numbers of Arab Afghans were trained for Bosnia, and later for the Kosovo Liberation Army, by Ayman al-Zawahiri, the top associate of Osama bin Laden in al-Qaeda, and also a close ally of his fellow Egyptian, Ali Mohamed. (Ali Mohamed had sworn allegiance to al-Zawahiri in 1984 while still in Egypt, and he twice arranged for al-Zawahiri to come to stay with him in California for fund-raising purposes.

Meanwhile US intelligence veterans like Richard Secord helped bring Arab Afghans recruited by Hekmatyar to Azerbaijan, in order to consolidate a pro-western government there. And in 1998 the US began bombing Kosovo in support of the Kosovo Liberation Army, some of whose cadres were both trained and supported in the field by al-Qaeda’s “Arab Afghans.”

So Ali Mohammad’s activities intersected with US covert operations, and this fact appears to have earned him protection. Jack Blum, former special investigator for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, commented that "One of the big problems here is that many suspects in the [1993] World Trade Center bombing were associated with the Mujahedeen. And there are components of our government that are absolutely disinterested in following that path because it leads back to people we supported in the Afghan war."

And of course, the murky mingling of American arms and money with death squads and militias of various factions in Iraq long predated the surge. As we noted earlier this year in "Ulster on the Euphrates: The Anglo-American Dirty War in Iraq" (see original for links):

The Pentagon's ever-expanding secret armies are deeply enmeshed in such efforts as well. As Sy Hersh has reported ("The Coming Wars," New Yorker, Jan. 24, 2005), after his re-election in 2004, George W. Bush signed a series of secret presidential directives that authorized the Pentagon to run virtually unrestricted covert operations, including a reprise of the American-backed, American-trained death squads employed by authoritarian regimes in Central and South America during the Reagan Administration, where so many of the Bush faction cut their teeth – and made their bones.

"Do you remember the right-wing execution squads in El Salvador?” a former high-level intelligence official said to Hersh. "We founded them and we financed them. The objective now is to recruit locals in any area we want. And we aren’t going to tell Congress about it." A Pentagon insider added: "We’re going to be riding with the bad boys." Another role model for the expanded dirty war cited by Pentagon sources, said Hersh, was Britain's brutal repression of the Mau Mau in Kenya during the 1950s, when British forces set up concentration camps, created their own terrorist groups to confuse and discredit the insurgency, and killed thousands of innocent civilians in quashing the uprising.

Bush's formal greenlighting of the death-squad option built upon an already securely-established base, part of a larger effort to turn the world into a "global free-fire zone" for covert operatives, as one top Pentagon official told Hersh. For example, in November 2002 a Pentagon plan to infiltrate terrorist groups and "stimulate" them into action was uncovered by William Arkin, then writing for the Los Angeles Times. The new unit, the "Proactive, Pre-emptive Operations Group," was described in the Pentagon documents as "a super-Intelligence Support Activity" that brings "together CIA and military covert action, information warfare, intelligence and cover and deception."

Later, in August 2004, then deputy Pentagon chief Paul Wolfowitz appeared before Congress to ask for $500 million to arm and train non-governmental "local militias" to serve as U.S. proxies for "counter-insurgency and "counterterrorist" operations in "ungoverned areas" and hot spots around the world, Agence France Presse (and virtually no one else) reported at the time. These hired paramilitaries were to be employed in what Wolfowitz called an "arc of crisis" that just happened to stretch across the oil-bearing lands and strategic pipeline routes of Central Asia, the Middle East, Africa and South America.

By then, the Bush Administration had already begun laying the groundwork for an expanded covert war in the hot spot of Iraq.  In November 2003, it created a "commando squad" drawn from the sectarian militias of five major Iraqi factions, as the Washington Post reported that year. Armed, funded and trained by the American occupation forces, and supplied with a "state-of-the-art command, control and communications center" from the Pentagon, the new Iraqi commandos were loosed on the then-nascent Iraqi insurgency – despite the very prescient fears of some U.S. officials "that various Sunni or Shiite factions could eventually use the service to secretly undermine their political competitors," as the Post noted.

...as investigative reporter Max Fuller has pointed out in his detailed examination of information buried in reams of mainstream news stories and public Pentagon documents, the vast majority of atrocities then attributed to "rogue" Shiite and Sunni militias were in fact the work of government-controlled commandos and "special forces," trained by Americans, "advised" by Americans and run largely by former CIA assets. As Fuller puts it: "If there are militias in the Ministry of Interior, you can be sure that they are militias that stand to attention whenever a U.S. colonel enters the room." And perhaps a British lieutenant colonel as well

With the Anglo-American coalition so deeply embedded in dirty war – infiltrating terrorist groups, "stimulating" them into action," protecting "crown jewel" double-agents no matter what the cost, "riding with the bad boys," greenlighting the "Salvador Option" – it is simply impossible to determine the genuine origin of almost any particular terrorist outrage or death squad atrocity in Iraq. All of these operations take place in the shadow world, where terrorists are sometimes government operatives and vice versa, and where security agencies and terrorist groups interpenetrate in murky thickets of collusion and duplicity. This moral chaos leaves "a kind of blot/To mark the full-fraught man and best indued/With some suspicion," as Shakespeare's Henry V says.

What's more, the "intelligence" churned out by this system is inevitably tainted by the self-interest, mixed motives, fear and criminality of those who provide it. The ineffectiveness of this approach can be seen in the ever-increasing, many-sided civil war that is tearing Iraq apart. If these covert operations really are intended to quell the violence, they clearly have had the opposite effect. If they have some other intention, the pious defenders of civilization – who approve these activities with promotions, green lights and unlimited budgets – aren't telling.

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