America's Frankenstein

Two decades after it reinvented jehad as an instrument of foreign policy, the war financed by the U.S. rebounds on itself.

Published : Sep 29, 2001 00:00 IST

Ibrahim al-Ghamdi, believed to have taken part in the terror attacks.-

Ibrahim al-Ghamdi, believed to have taken part in the terror attacks.-

"... without full U.S. support, the jehad did not, and still cannot, succeed".

- Brigadier Mohammad Yousaf, commander of Inter-Services Intelligence operations in Afghanistan, 1983-1987.

"EVERY nation in every region," U.S. President George Bush told a joint session of Congress on September 20, "now has a decision to make. Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists." What he omitted to mention was that most of the terrorists he was referring to wear manufactured-in-the-USA labels.

Two decades after it reinvented jehad as an instrument of foreign policy, the holy war financed by the United States of America has rebounded on itself. But much of Asia has been suffering since the early 1980s what U.S. intelligence describes as "blowback". "There were 58,000 (U.S. citizens) dead in Vietnam, and we owe the Russians one," Congressman Charles Wilson told The Daily Telegraph in January 1985. Some 21,600 people died during the Khalistan insurgency in Punjab, designed to secure Pakistan's eastern border in the course of its Afghanistan campaign. Almost another 20,000 have died in Jammu and Kashmir, many of them at the hands of organisations created and financed by the U.S. Millions of others have been killed or displaced in Bosnia, Chechnya, Lebanon, and of course Afghanistan.

How did this welter of bloody wars come about? In 1979, resistance led by rural religious leaders to the socialist Afghan government's decision to make education mandatory for women provided U.S. intelligence with the opportunity it had been seeking. The profoundly reactionary Mujahideen fighting the socialist government, and the Soviet troops which had arrived to support it, were to spearhead the U.S. campaign to avenge its defeat in Vietnam. The operation was put together by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the head of the Saudi Arabian intelligence services Prince Faisal bin Turki, and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). The CIA and the Saudi Arabians were to share the expenses of the campaign; the CIA was to provide technical inputs to the ISI, which in turn was to train and commit personnel to advise the Mujahideen.

In 1983, hundreds of U.S. Marines and French paratroopers were killed when their barracks were bombed by a radical, Iran-backed Shia group. From here on, the campaign in Afghanistan acquired a larger strategic meaning. Far Right Sunni forces were assiduously encouraged in an effort to create a counterweight to the forces backed by Iran. From late 1984, many activists from Far Right organisations in West Asia, often dissidents in their own countries, were drawn to the jehad in Afghanistan. Osama bin Laden, a construction industry magnate and a billionaire from Saudi Arabia, emerged as a key figure in organising this flow of cadre. On reaching Peshawar, the recruits were put under the Mektab-ul-Khidmat (office of assistance), run by one of bin Laden's closest aides, Abdallah Azam. Throughout this period, Laden interacted closely with both the CIA and the ISI.

U.S. officials knew just what impact the huge flow of Arab funds to these groups was having, but they chose to look the other way. As Brigadier Mohammad Yousaf and Mark Adkin have noted in their book, The Bear Trap: Afghanistan's Untold Story, the massive diversion of CIA funds meant that "it was largely Arab money that saved the system". "By this," the authors wrote, "I mean cash from rich individuals or private organisations in the Arab world, not Saudi government funds. Without these extra millions, the flow of arms actually getting to the Mujahideen would have been cut to a trickle." "The problem," the authors continued, "was that it all went to the four fundamentalist parties, not the moderates. This meant that the moderates became proportionately less efficient." Bin Laden himself left Afghanistan for Sudan in 1991, seeking to expand the work he had been doing there. Expelled five years later under U.S. pressure, he returned to Afghanistan, where those he had cultivated on the extreme Right were now well-entrenched in power. In time, the Saudi billionaire dissident would become a key ideological mentor of the Taliban's supreme leader, Mohammad Omar.

India began to feel the heat well before the end of the Afghan war. From 1984 to 1987, the ISI and the CIA began to coordinate a series of Mujahideen attacks across the Amu Darya river, inside the Soviet Union. Barges, fuel depots and industrial installations were hit during the course of these operations. Fearing Soviet military reprisals, possibly backed by India, Pakistan's military ruler General Zia-ul-Haq stepped up support for Khalistan insurgents in Punjab. The idea was to keep Indian troops on this sensitive frontier tied down in the event of a war. Much of the weaponry used by the Khalistan terrorists was diverted from supplies intended for the Mujahideen, while their cadre were directly trained by ISI officers. The U.S. chose not to pay attention to the carnage in Punjab, treating the operation as an acceptable part of its larger objectives in Asia.

With the withdrawal of the Soviet Union from Afghanistan in February 1989, the U.S. lost interest in its war-time recruits. Events, however, were soon to pit the one-time allies against each other. The Gulf War of 1991, and the U.S.' support of Israeli repression of the Palestinian intifada, led the Islamic Right to accuse the U.S. of waging a war against Muslims. The U.S. and Pakistan attempted to control the fallout by abandoning their long-standing ally Gulbuddin Hekmatyar after he supported Saddam Hussain, and backing the Taliban instead. The forces unleashed were, however, not so easily controlled. When the Al-Khobar Towers, housing U.S. troops in Dhahran, were bombed in June 1996, U.S. intelligence at first refused to believe that bin Laden was involved, and blamed Iran. However, all doubts were later laid to rest. Although Pakistan and the U.S. backed the Taliban, it had now snapped the leash.

Meanwhile, the camps set up by bin Laden and others continued to funnel recruits across the world. In Jammu and Kashmir, cadre trained by bin Laden at Khost made their way into the Harkat-ul-Ansar, which now calls itself the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HuM). In Algeria, Afghan war veterans figured in both the Islamic Salvation Front and the Armed Islamic Group, the GIA. Fuad Qasim and Ahmad Taha of the Egyptian Far Right organisation Jamaat Islamiyya are also veterans of the CIA's Afghan jehad. Others made their way to the U.S.

The main suspect in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Centre, Egyptian national Omar Abdel Rahman, had spent time in Peshawar, and both his sons had fought in Afghanistan. Rahman is one of the founders of the Gamaat Islamiyya and approved of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's assassination in October 1981. Despite this, he was granted a visa by the U.S. consulate in Khartoum in May 1990 and later got a Green Card. The other suspects, the Pakistani Ramzi Yousef and Palestinians Muhammad Salameh and Ahmad Ajjaj, had also spent time in Afghan camps.

U.S. officials responded to this turn-about by their allies by attempting to influence events through their traditional allies, the right-wing states of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Pakistan collaborated as best as it could, handing over Ramzi Yousef as well as Mir Aimal Kansi, the author of a 1997 attack on the CIA headquarters. But it was clear that anti-U.S. elements were gaining ground. A former ISI Director-General, Lieutenant-General Hamid Gul, who took over the Afghan war operations from Akhtar Abdul Rahman Khan, condemned this extradition, and labelled the officials responsible "traitors". Then, in November 1997, four American employees of an oil company were assassinated by the Harkat-ul-Ansar in Karachi as reprisal for Kansi's conviction. It was this event, rather than the group's well-documented record of violence against civilians in Jammu and Kashmir, that later led the U.S. to declare it a terrorist organisation.

READ against this record, U.S. claims of bin Laden being a single point source of terrorism appear to be a piece of self-serving fiction. "Osama bin Laden," the scholar Oliver Roy argued in a 1998 article in the French newspaper Le Monde, "does not appear as the mastermind behind radical Islamist movements throughout the world. He should rather be seen as a trainer of militants who subsequently choose their own fields of action." Roy pointed out that these networks were backed by religious madrassas and political parties like the Jamait Ullema-i-Islam, run by the former Pakistani Senator Sami-ul-Haq. "The private madrassas", Roy continued, "have received funding from Saudi Arabia and are exposed to the propaganda of conservative governments that are pushing the sharia in an attempt to cut the ground from under the radicals' feet." As an example, Roy cited the Jamaat Islamiyya support for anti-land reform measures pushed through in 1997 by the regime of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

India's experience appears to bear out Oliver Roy's propositions. In September 1999, speaking from his farmhouse near Farmihadda, bin Laden declared that "India and America are now our biggest enemies". "All Mujahideen groups in Pakistan should come together now to target India," he continued. But officials in Jammu and Kashmir point out that since then there has been little evidence to show that bin Laden is actually involved in ground-level activities.

International arrest warrants have been issued against Said Bahaji, a German citizen, and Ramzi Binalshibh of Yemen.

Many HuM and Lashkar-e-Toiba operatives are known to have trained in the Khost camp, which the U.S. bombed in 1998. However, no cadre are known ever to have been under the command of either bin Laden or his close associates. Says Srinagar Deputy Inspector-General of Police K. Rajendra: "We've found stickers of bin Laden and the odd poster but nothing much else. He's a hero to some terrorists, but not their commanding officer."

BIN LADEN'S activities in India seem, rather, to have focussed on targeting U.S. installations. On August 14, the Delhi Police filed charges against four men they suspected of planning to blow up the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi. Udaipur-based Abdul Raouf Hawas, a doctoral student from Sudan who had spent over a decade in India, is believed to have organised the bomb plot, along with Patna resident and small-time mystic preacher Mohammad Shamim Sarwar. Intelligence officials say Hawas had recruited Sarwar to participate in the operation. The preacher in turn put two of his followers, Abbas Husain Sheikh and Mohammad Arshad, to work, helping to organise the logistical needs of the operation. Hawas in turn reported to bin Laden lieutenant Abdul Rahman al-Safani, a Yemen national believed to have been involved in the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, as well as the subsequent attack on the warship USS Cole in Aden.

It is important to note, however, that bin Laden has not been alone in such enterprises. Intelligence officials believe, for example, that Saudi Arabian businessman Hamid Baraziq has financed some of the attacks. In early September, the Hyderabad Police arrested local resident Abdul Aziz, who had trained in Chechnya and Bosnia after being recruited by Baraziq. Aziz is believed to have been entrusted with the task of carrying out a series of attacks through India. Two other Hyderabad-based terrorists, Azizuddin Sheikh and Pakistani national Mohammad Salim Junaid, are again believed to be linked to Baraziq's network. Baraziq is believed to have met Junaid at a Mumbai hotel in January 1998, to hand over cash which was later used to produce fake documentation for the terrorist.

EVIDENCE showing that the U.S. is concerned only with terrorists and terrorism targeting its citizens is not hard to come by. Consider, for example, the case of Srinagar resident Nadeem Khatib, killed in an encounter with Border Security Force personnel on February 21, 1999. Thirty-two years old at the time of his death, Khatib started training as a pilot at Karnal in Haryana. Before returning home to Srinagar, however, he was only able to complete 17 of the 300 flying hours required for the grant of a commercial pilot's licence. Soon afterwards, Khatib left for the South East School of Aeronautics in Georgia, where he obtained 700 hours of flying training and a commercial pilot's licence. It is during this time that the pilot is believed to have been recruited by the bin Laden-linked group, al-Ansar.

After obtaining his pilot's licence, Khatib briefly returned to India in 1995, ostensibly to search for a job. Soon afterwards, he left for the U.S., this time to complete a jet aircraft flying course from an institute in Atlanta. After this, he continued to work in the city as a commercial pilot and an instructor. Meanwhile, Khatib's links with al-Ansar deepened. Before his final visit to Jammu and Kashmir, the pilot is known to have trained and served with terrorist units in Bosnia, Chechnya and Afghanistan. No one knows for certain just why he was despatched to Jammu and Kashmir in 1999, for the Khatib family claims that it lost contact with him several months before his death. A caller from London, family sources say, told them of his death in Udhampur.

Khatib's story is alarmingly similar to those of the pilots used to crash aircrafts into the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon building. If nothing else, it ought to have led U.S. intelligence officials to monitor the Islamic Far Right with more care. Sources, however, told Frontline that U.S. intelligence officials showed no interest in the Khatib affair, in spite of regular exchanges of intelligence information. The Intelligence Bureau regularly passes on material of possible operational significance to the Research and Analysis Wing, which in turn handles international interaction. While Indian officials had no further interest in Khatib after his elimination, no one seems to be able to explain why U.S. organisations showed no interest in exploring his background and connections. "The fact is," says one senior Indian intelligence official, "that the Americans just weren't bothered as long as the terrorists didn't kill Americans."

Similar U.S. apathy has been evident even when its own citizens are involved. In January 1999, the Delhi Police arrested Bangladesh-based Lashkar-e-Toiba activist Syed Abdul Nasir, who had been entrusted with the task of blowing up U.S. consulates in Chennai and Kolkata (Frontline, February 27, 1999). Perhaps believing that the leverage that Pakistan had with the Lashkar would ensure that it would not attack its interests, U.S. intelligence officials dismissed the Delhi Police's charges as nonsense. Shortly afterwards, however, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) psychologist Frederick Gonnel carried out polygraph tests on Nasir.

Three rounds of lie-detector tests by the psychologist led him to conclude that Nasir was indeed involved in a plot to blow up the consulates in Chennai and Kolkata. By the third week of January, a special U.S. counter-terrorism team, made up of officials Kevin Huska, Karl Wighalm, Mark Rossini and Frederick Wong, was in New Delhi to interrogate the official. Again, the U.S. responded to the recent arrests dismissively, telling the Cable News Network television channel that India's claims were "overblown". That, however, did not stop its embassy from writing to Delhi Police Commissioner Ajai Raj Sharma, asking for increased security.

Painful experience, then, renders absurd the Indian government's servile offers of assistance to the U.S. President Bush himself in his September 20 speech made clear the real character of U.S. "Our war on terror begins with al Qaeda, but it does not end there," Bush said. "It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated."

The words "of global reach" are of obvious significance, suggesting that terrorist groups of the kind India faces in Jammu and Kashmir are of no concern to the U.S. And, while the U.S. President argued that the "enemy is a radical network of terrorists and every government that supports them," Pakistan's support of terrorist groups active in Jammu and Kashmir has not even found mention in official American polemic. This is hardly surprising. Authoritarian, theocratic states were, and continue to be, at the centre of the U.S.' projection of power in West Asia and South Asia. The hunt for Osama bin Laden will do little to make India safer. It could, instead, ensure that Afghanistan becomes a gift for Musharraf, as it was for Zia-ul-Haq.

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