What are the consequences of the U.S. interventionist policies in the Middle East? The bad ones are about these: the destabilization of Iraq a few years after the withdrawal of troops, the rise of Islamic fundamentalist rhetoric, the emergence of a group of which it appears even “Al-Qaeda” wants to desist and the spread of the influence of these groups (ISIS, newer IS), that influence the civil war in Syria.
The rise of Islamic fundamentalism and Islamist terrorist is not the direct consequence of US intervention in the Middle East. Modern Islamic fundamentalism is a type of political-religious ideology that emerged in the 1920s, at a time the US was virtually absent from the Middle East scene. The main Islamic fundamentalist movement which appeared at the end of the 1920s is of course the Muslim Brotherhood which was founded in Egypt by Hassan Al Banna. It was founded as a pan-Islamist, political-religious and social movement. Though it did see itself as an international movement, its political action was very much limited to Egypt, though by the late 1940s, the group had an estimated 500,000 members in Egypt while its ideas had spread across the Arab world. From around 1936 it resorted to terrorism, opposing British rule and those it believed cooperated with it, but with strictly Egyptian goals and renounced violence for a time in 1949. The MB welcomed the overthrow of the Egyptian monarchy in 1952 but quickly fell out with the Free Officers whom they accused of secularism.
After a failed attempt to assassinate President Gamal Abdul Nasser in 1954, the Ikhwan were blamed, banned, and thousands of members imprisoned and often tortured. The group continued, however, to grow underground. This clash with the authorities prompted an important shift in the ideology of the Ikhwan, evident in the writing of one prominent member, Sayyid Qutb, who became posthumously one of Al-Qaeda’s favorite ideologues.
Qutb’s work advocated the use of jihad (struggle) against Jahili (religiously ignorant) societies, both Western and so-called Islamic ones, which he argued were in need of radical transformation.
His writings – particularly the 1964 work “Milestones” – inspired the founders of many radical Islamist groups, including Ayman Al-Zawahiri’s Tanzim Al-Jihad, Gemaa al-Islamiya and Osama bin Laden’s mentor, Abdullah Azzam.
In 1965, the Egyptian government again cracked down on the Ikhwan, executing Qutb for terrorist actions in 1966 and transforming him into a martyr for Islamists across the region. In the early 1970s the MB renounced again terrorism but continued to oppose both authoritarian regimes and the principles of democracy. This when those who were not ready to forsake terrorism founded Gemaa Islamiya and Tanzim Al-Jihad. Gemaa (or Jemaa) Islamiya has now renounced terrorism while Tanzim al Jihad (or Islamic Jihad) joined in its majority Al-Qaeda. During the 1980s, the Ikhwan attempted to rejoin the political mainstream.
Al-Qaeda was founded by Osama bin Laden, Abdullah Azzam,and others in late 1989 on the basis of the Maktab al-Khidamat (services bureau) which had been set up to coordinate logistics for Arab fighters against the Soviet occupation or Afghanistan and which indirectly probably received US money distributed by Pakistan’s ISIS according to its own criteria. Al-Qaeda was not initially particularly anti-American and anti-Western and the US and the organization found themselves on the same side. Differences however emerged however between Abdullah Azzam, a Palestinian. The latter defended the view that the main objectives of Islamists was to overthrow the “apostate” regimes in the Muslim and in particular the Arab Muslim world, while bin laden and his supporters believed that these “apostate” regimes survived only as a result of Western support and that the “far enemy”, initially designated as the US and the West in general, later “the Christians and the Jews”, should be defeated before the “near enemy” -the apostate regimes- could be overthrown. Egyptian supporters of bin Laden murdered Azzam, apparently without his permission, though he did not punish them. Al-Qaeda adheres to a version of Islamic fundamentalism known as Salafism, according to which Muslims started to go astray about two centuries after the death of the Prophet of Islam, and that Islamic societies should return to this Golden Age of Islam represented by theses first two centuries. But their representation of Muslim societies after the death of the Prophet has little to do with historical reality: it is an artificial reconstruction of this period based on today’s Salafist concept of Islam, which opposes nation states (it wants a return to the Umma, the non-national community of Moslems) an democracy, which they describe as the rule of man as opposed to the rule of God. The Umma should be ruled by a Caliph as after the death of the Prophet (the first four Caliphs, known as the Rashidoun) are honored by all Muslims except Shiites who honor only the last of the four, Ali, as a descendent of the Prophet.
Osama bin Laden’s switch to global terrorism against the West and regimes it considered as supported by the West dates from Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. He asked the Saudi authorities permission to create an army of Mujaheddin to fight Iraq but was told that this was no guerilla Afghanistan and that bin Laden’s fighters would not stand a chance against Iraq’s 2,500 tanks. bin Laden was adamantly opposed to any non-Muslim military presence in the Kingdom. He soon went to Sudan where he was for a time supported by the authorities there and Islamist ideologue Hassan Al-Tourabi, who has since changed his political-religious views and strongly opposed Islamist terrorism. He later found refuge and support in the Taleban’s Afghanistan.
Until Operation Desert Shield the US had little to do with Islamist terrorism, though Islamists have always criticized the West for their support for the existence of Israel, which they consider illegitimate, and for their alleged and sometimes real support during the Cold War for authoritarian regimes in the Muslim world. The US had little to do with the creation of Israel but recognized her almost immediately -though the administration was divided on the subject with president Truman however adamant on the issue-, followed just as immediately by the Soviet Union. Israel’s hard-won independence was made possible by Czech arms rather than Western ones, supplied on orders from Stalin who wanted to exploit animosity between Israel and Britain.
Al-Qaeda and similar ideologies need their causes promoted. One of the first ones after Afghanistan was Bosnia, which hit by an arms embargo (which also applied to Serbia and all other members of the former Yugoslav federation, but Serbia was awash with weapons including heavy ones -the JNA was an apt fighting force) did not know where to turn to -at least until president Clinton was persuaded to act to stop the genocide that had started, with NATO following as usual- in desperation welcomed AQ-linked Jihadists. The Bosniaks were to regret this later and became a strong ally of the US in the fight against AQ terrorism, extraditing expeditiously a number of Jihadists to the US.
The second cause célèbre was Iraq. There was no love lost between Saddam Hussein and bin Laden, and though the Iraqi dictator once sent former senior intelligence officer Farooq Al-Hijazi to meet with bin laden in Sudan, almost nothing came out of it. But the Jihadists were strongly opposed to any type of Western military intervention in the Muslim world. The Iraqi version of AQ -Al-Qaeda in the land of the two rivers, the Islamic State of Iraq, the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham and now the Islamic State- differentiate themselves from the main AQ ideology is that they are determined not only to oppose democracy but to destroy Shiismi, its holy sites and even many of the faithful themselves. Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian who was killed in a targeted US air strike, is the father of this ferocious anti-Shiism, which was too harsh for bin laden and Zawahiri. Abu Bakr al Baghdadi shares this ferocious anti-Shiism. He no longer obeys Zawahiri’s edicts and believes a non-national Islamic State can be created right now which would expand to the rest of the Muslim world, abolishing national borders, and ruled by himself, Caliph Ibrahim. He is over-extending himself and will pay the price.
US interventions in the Muslim world did not create Islamic fundamentalism and international Islamist terrorism, but they create focal points for it, helping recruitment by giving like-minded Muslims a cause célèbre. Islamic fundamentalism, including its violent Salafist-Jihadist form, was not created by the US or the West in general. It is the product of the very rapid evolution of Muslim-majority societies, where some cannot accept many aspects of modernity which collide with their own, narrow and backward-looking conception of Islam. Ironically, it is a by-product of an evolution which created them but which will eventually destroy them. The fight against AQ ideology will not be won with drones, though this fight has a military aspect and drones are a most useful weapon in this military dimension. It will be won ideologically and religiously by the Muslims themselves, but they do need our support, particularly in the military aspects.
Saying that the Saddam Hussein regime, which killed 650,000 Iraqis in judicial and extrajudicial executions, generalized torture even against whole families, started two major wars and lesser ones, was after all preferable to the Islamic State, is comparable to saying that we should have left Hitler and the Nazi regime in place as the best defense against Communism. Supporting the Iraqi state is most urgent.