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Behind the War On Terror
An interview with Nafeez Ahmed
N afeez Mossadeq Ahmed, based in the UK, is the executive director of the Institute for Policy Research & Development. He is the author of Behind the War on Terror: Western Secret Strategy & the Struggle for Iraq .
BARSAMIAN: Let’s talk about your book. What is the Western secret strategy in Iraq?
AHMED: It goes back to the beginning of the 20th century, when the British and the French went into the Middle East and interfered in the operation of the Ottoman Empire, with the very clear design on the huge oil reserves in the region. They manufactured the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Previously, the Middle East was united, more or less, under this empire. They basically co-opted various factions that didn’t have popular support and used them to create conflict and division. It was a very bloody process. In the end, they carved the Middle East into 12 previously nonexistent nation states—Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, Syria. This is the legacy that we live with today. They gave a lot of financial and military support to these regimes. The result was a great deal of repression because the Arab people didn’t like this. It was a way of getting control of regional energy.
One of the interventions occurred in 1953 in Iran, when the conservative parliamentary democracy of Mohammad Mossadeq was overthrown by a British-U.S. operation—MI6 and the Central Intelligence Agency. What happened in Iran in 1953?
Mohammad Mossadeq was a popular, democratically elected leader. He wasn’t any kind of Islamic fundamentalist. He nationalized the oil industry, which previously the United States and Britain had monopolized. Both governments were extremely worried about this because it occurred in the context of the Cold War. That was the justification for trying to remove Mossadeq—that Mossadeq had connections to communism. In reality, there was no meaningful Soviet presence in Iran. According to declassified British Foreign Office documents, they were fully aware that the communist Tudeh Party was marginal and had no real relationship to Mossadeq. So this was, as one document mentions, the Mossadeq brand of nationalism. That was the key problem.
also represented a wider threat to the region because if Iran was
able to successfully come out of the grip of this imperial system,
it would serve as the threat of a good example. Many other nations
could be inspired to do the same. So they arranged this military
coup installing the Shah of Iran, essentially reinstalled him. The
Shah went on to reverse everything that Mossadeq had done. He opened
the country up, under so-called free market principles, to the West,
which allowed them to have free rein over the entire country, undercutting
business, industries, and development. Most notoriously, with the
help of Israel, the United States and Britain set up the Savak secret
police, which imposed horrendous human rights conditions. It was
a police state. They were spying on anybody who said anything against
That period culminated with the Islamic revolution of 1978 and 1979.
There is no doubt that this policy of the United States and Britain ultimately generated the grievances that led to that revolution, because the Shah of Iran was very similar in some ways to Kemal Ataturk. It was all justified that this was a secular democracy. Of course, it wasn’t. It was a complete dictatorship. This is what partly fueled the response of the Iranian people, that we have to go back to our own culture, which is why it expressed itself in Islamic terminology. As the revolution intensified, the Shah’s response intensified as well, to the point that 10,000 Iranian civilians were killed by Iranian troops firing into crowds of protesters. There was one time when the demonstrations were very huge and the Shah had completely cracked down on them, firing into crowds. Then the Shah went to Washington and met with President Carter who said something like Iran is an island of stability in a turbulent part of the world. You could hardly imagine a clearer statement of support for state terrorism.
One of the explanations that the U.S. gives for its invasion and occupation of Iraq is that by establishing democracy there, it will have a domino effect. What kind of confidence can people have in those kinds of expectations?
They can have absolutely zero confidence in that. There is no doubt that the United States and Britain have never had any concern for democracy. It’s been the opposite. There are quite candid admissions about this in the documents that have come out in both the state department and the foreign office.
Almost all of the discussion in the United States on the events of September 11 —and that has been amplified during the hearings of the September 11 commission—have been on the mechanics: How did it happen? Where were the failures of intelligence? Why weren’t different agencies communicating? What about some of the whys?
Nobody discusses the why very much. Why did terrorists attack on September 11? If you look at the transcripts of some of Osama bin Laden’s speeches, you can see what he’s talking about. He’s highlighting very specific grievances about the Middle East—the sanctions on Iraq, which killed—there is no disagreement about this—over one million civilians, half of them children. He talks about the occupation of Palestine by Israel and the apartheid. He talks about the occupation of Saudi Arabia, considered by Muslims to be a holy land. It’s very clear that U.S. and British policy in the region, by oppressing the populations, by denying them the right of self-determination and exploiting their resources, has created extreme anti- Americanism and resentment. That’s not a case of legitimizing the attacks; that’s an analysis to understand the causes, the social and psychological causes, behind them.
Let ’s talk a little about Spain and what happened in the election there in March 2004. Trains were bombed. Tragically, almost 200 people died. A few days later, the ruling pro-war party was voted out and Zapatero, who promised to withdraw Spanish troops from Iraq, was elected. This election has been described in the liberal New York Times , by its columnist, Thomas Friedman, as appeasement.
This is absurd. We actually heard stuff like this in the British press as well. The Madrid bombing was a backlash, which arose as a consequence of the war on terror. It’s very important to understand that the Spanish people experienced what it means when you go into a country and you invade and you occupy them: there is going to be resistance. As a result of that experience, they said, “We don’t want our troops in Iraq.” They voted for the guy who said, “We’re going to get our troops out.” It’s insulting to the Spanish people to say that this is appeasement because they were the ones who suffered.
P eople like Bush, Powell, Rice, Cheney, and Rumsfeld now say that they are quite surprised that there are no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, but, regardless, Iraq has now been liberated and the Iraqi people and the world are better off without Saddam Hussein because the world is a lot safer. Is it?
Absolutely not. First off, in relation to the whole WMD thing—they knew there weren’t any WMDs. There is a famous defector, General Hussein Kamel, that everybody always quotes. In 1995 Kamel was head of the WMD program in Iraq and he defected. He had this massive pile of documents making clear what Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction were. That’s what Powell quotes him as saying: Saddam Hussein has this much anthrax now, blah, blah, blah. But what they don’t say is that when Hussein Kamel was interviewed by UNSCOM officials about the same documents, he said: Saddam Hussein destroyed these weapons. He said, I ordered the destruction of these weapons before the Gulf War because Saddam Hussein was afraid of what would happen when people realized and it became public knowledge that this is what happened. So he wanted to eliminate them so he didn’t get too incriminated. They knew from the start that there was no threat.
But, pundits say, Iraq has been liberated. Aren’t the Iraqis better off without Saddam Hussein?
That’s the most interesting line that I could imagine to justify this war, the lie that this is a war of liberation. If you look at reality, what is happening on the ground in Iraq now, after they removed Saddam Hussein and his immediate entourage, they didn’t go about dismantling the Ba’athist apparatus. They always said they were going to remove the Ba’athist regime. But this was rhetoric. In reality, the war was won by buying off the entire Ba’athist establishment. They paid money to key generals in the Republican Guard, for example—people who were implicated in war crimes and genocide and mass murder of the Iraqi people—to switch sides. I think it was General Vincent Brooks, one of the generals in Iraq, who basically said, some of these people, when they switch sides, they’re going to have positions in the new Administration. This is what has happened. For example, Saddam’s former head of the interior ministry has been installed as the head of the police in Baghdad. Six thousand Ba’athist loyalists, who were former police—the Ba’athist police are notorious for torture—have been unleashed, again, into the streets of Baghdad.
One of the demands that al-Qaeda and bin Laden made was that U.S. troops should get out of Saudi Arabia. Well, they ’ve gotten out, but most of them have relocated to Iraq.
If you look at the reasons why they got out of Saudi Arabia, it seems to be because of the increasing unrest in that country. There are reports about Saudi officials saying that there have been contingency plans to grab the oil fields. The Pentagon has done studies of this, to grab the oil fields in case of a coup. There has been more and more unrest, not only on the streets, but also among members of the royal family. There is the possibility that the current regime might topple. There is a feeling within Saudi Arabia that the United States is controlling the regime, controlling the repression. That they are responsible for the torture, because they’re the ones, as many reports document, providing the regime with weapons. Pulling out of Saudi Arabia is a bit of a PR stunt. It’s like saying, “Look, we are conceding. We’re pulling out of Saudi Arabia.” But by establishing a military occupation in Iraq, they’re hoping that they can transform the geopolitical order in the region to one where the United States plays the role of a regional imperial power.
There are some very schizophrenic tendencies in U.S.-Saudi relations. For example, Saudi Arabia, which has a particularly virulent form of Islam, Wahabism, has been financing a lot of the international terror. But at the same time the U.S. is a very close ally with the ruling emirs in Riyadh.
It says to me that the war on terror is very much a facade, because if this was really about fighting terrorism, they would put sufficient pressure on Saudi Arabia to crack down on the financial arteries of terrorism. They have known since 1996. There was a report in the New Yorker which revealed that National Security Agency intercepts had revealed communications among Saudi royal family members—obviously not the whole family, but people within it—which proved, essentially, that they were funding al-Qaeda to the tune of millions of dollars. Clinton knew about this, Bush knew about this. But Saudi Arabia is consistently being protected.
You ’re of Bangladeshi origin and it’s one of the world’s most populous Muslim countries. Within that arc of Islam from Morocco to Indonesia how have U.S. actions in Afghanistan and Iraq been viewed?
I went to Malaysia a couple of years ago to attend a few conferences after the Afghan war. The majority of people there didn’t believe that Osama bin Laden had anything to do with 9/11. The reason for this was not because they love terrorism, but because they didn’t believe anything that the United States said. They were so disillusioned. Because of that, Osama bin Laden was seen as struggling against U.S. imperialism. They can’t be blamed for that, because the U.S. government and the British government have such a vast record of deception and fabrication in the region.
Talk about protracted genocide because I think that may trouble some people.
My general argument is that we are living in a continuum; that imperialism is not something divided into clear blocks, which are separated from one another, but it has been an unbroken continuum for 500 years. There is a term which I think the journalist John Pilger uses: “unpeople.” This concept transcends geographical barriers and transcends ethnic distinctions and, in a sense, leads us to a new conception of genocide. Genocide is being targeted against groups that are politically, economically, and socially situated because they are weak and because they are obstacles to the consolidation of this global imperial system and therefore ought to be exterminated, in part. I see that as an interconnected process, which you can actually describe as an ongoing genocide against, say, the Third World, if you want to call it that.
The important thing about this concept is that it doesn’t imply wholesale extermination or anything like that. An important definition of genocide is that it is the targeting of a group, in whole or in part. But what is common about these people is their situation, is their social class and the fact that they are, in terms of the system, viewed as a single entity. This categorization of “unpeople” is very useful because they’re this single mass of people. Just get rid of them; we don’t need those. An example would be Stalin, when he targeted the peasant class. He wasn’t trying to wipe out an entire population. But in a sense it was genocide. Even though under the genocide convention it wouldn’t be described as genocide, many scholars have said it was genocidal in its implications because millions of people were killed. And millions of people are dying in this overall process of decades and centuries. It amounts to tens of millions of people—to me that seems genocidal.
Bernard Lewis is a scholar of Islam and regarded with great reverence in the U.S. He coined the term “clash of civilizations” in a 1990 article he wrote in the Atlantic Monthly called “Roots of Muslim Rage.” A few years later, Harvard Professor Samuel Huntington picked up on that title for his book. It became a bestseller, particularly after September 11. You talk about this thesis in Behind the War on Terror . What’s your analysis of it?
It creates this ideological framework for justifying a war on terror which has absolutely nothing to do with this kind of civilizational clash. If you look at Huntington’s thesis, and Lewis’s writings, what they both do is buttress this kind of national security discourse where you have us over here who are threatened by the outsiders over there. Post 9/11 al-Qaeda has provided this wonderfully convenient constant target. Everything can be blamed on al-Qaeda. We can’t communicate with each other. They don’t understand us, we don’t understand them. Therefore, the only thing we can do is have a war on them to stop them from destroying us. In reality, this veils the interests that are motivating this war. If you look, for example, at the Project for the New American Century, they don’t talk about a clash of civilizations, they talk about expanding Pax Americana. They talk about accessing key regions—all of which were listed, including the possibility of an invasion of Iraq, prior to 9/11. The axis of evil that Bush mentioned post 9/11 was already listed in this document, which makes very clear that the war on terror was not a response to 9/11. It was an imperial geostrategy that had been planned for some time and 9/11 provided the pretext to implement it.
Even if you look at the official parameters of the war on terror, it doesn’t make sense. What does Iraq have to do with al-Qaeda? There is no connection between Iraq and al-Qaeda. There were reports from the conservative Israeli news service, DEBKAfile, based in Jerusalem, that Ramzi Binalshibh—he’s the Pakistani connected to al-Qaeda, a top guy who’s now in U.S. custody—had passed information to the United States about the Moroccan terror network that was supposedly behind the Madrid bombings. DEBKAfile comments that they didn’t do anything about this network that was there, that there was absolutely no response. It does make us wonder, staying within the parameters of the official discourse, why we are spending so much money in Iraq and there is absolutely no concern for what is happening in Madrid, for example, if we assume that this terror network does exist and nothing was done? Terrorism is not the target. The target is innocent people who stand in the way of the expansion of this imperial system.
Along those lines, what suggestions might you make?
What I always tell people is that it starts at home. You can’t transform the world in a day. What we need to be doing is generating awareness of these issues and problems, generating awareness that going into the Gulf is not the way to solve our problems. I think we need fundamental structural change. We need to pull out of the Gulf, which means transforming the way our society is organized. If we want to, say, invest in renewable resources, we need to lobby about this. We need to inform members of the public about the trajectory of U.S. foreign policy. And we need to start in our local communities. We can’t convince the entire world just like that, but if we’re proactive and work together with people who agree with us, we can have an effect.
We have to remember that historical change takes time. In essence you have to be optimistic about it. Once we focus on all these different issues and get to the main point, get these issues out, I think we can have change, we can have change in people’s consciousness. And that’s where it really begins.
What keeps your fires burning today?
It’s very easy to be pessimistic about things, but I have this sense of optimism and I feel that if you spread the information, then things will change. That is how movements develop. Movements always take time, and the important thing is planting the seeds. You have to feed people information slowly so that they don’t fall into denial, give them basic facts. I do talks and interviews because the more people have access to information, the more likely the information will be spread, the more people it will touch, and the more people in society will be changed.
David Barsamian is the founder and director of Alternative Radio, based in Boulder, Colorado. He is the author of Decline & Fall of Public Broadcasting as well as a number of books. His forthcoming book is with Arundhati Roy. He is a regular contributor to Z , the Progressive , and other magazines.
Z Magazine Archive
HUMAN RIGHTS - The U.S. Human Rights Network will celebrate its 10th anniversary with the Advancing Human Rights 2013 Conference, December 6-8, in Atlanta, GA.
Contact: 250 Georgia Avenue SE, Suite 330, Atlanta, GA 30312; firstname.lastname@example.org; http:// www.ushrnetwork.org/.
AFRICAN/SOCIALIST - The Sixth Congress of the African People’s Socialist Party USA will be held December 7-11, in St. Petersburg, FL.
Contact: 1245 18th Avenue South, St. Petersburg, FL 33705; 727- 821-6620; info@aps puhuru.org; http://asiuhuru.org/.
SCHOOLS - The Dignity in Schools Campaign (DSC) will host a workshop on the DSC “Model Code on Education and Dignity: Presenting A Human Rights Framework for Schools” at the Mid-Hudson Region NY State Leadership Summit on School Justice Partnerships, December 11 in White Plains, NY.
Contact: http://www.dignityin schools.org/.
ANARCHIST/BOOKFAIR - The Humboldt Anarchist Book Fair will be held December 14, in Eureka, CA.
Contact: humboldtgrassroots @riseup.net; http://humbold tanarchist bookfair.wordpress. com/.
CLIMATE - The World Symposium on Sustainable Development at Universities is hosting a follow-up event to the 2012 Rio de Janeiro symposium. The gathering will be held in Qatar on January 28-30, 2014.
Contact: http://environment.tufts. edu/.
LABOR - The United Association for Labor Education (UALE) will host Organizing for Power: A New Labor Movement for the New Working Class in Los Angeles, March 26-29. Proposals are due December 15.
Contact: LAWCHA, 226 Carr Building (East Campus), Box 90719, Duke University, Durham, NC 27708-0719;lawcha @duke. edu; http://lawcha.org/.
MEDIA FELLOWSHIP - The Media Mobilizing Project is seeking applicants for the first annual Movement Media Fellowship Program. The Fellow will work with MMP to produce the spring season of Media Mobilizing Project TV. MMPTV is a news and talk show that tells the stories of local communities organizing to win human rights and build a movement to end poverty.
Contact: 4233 Chestnut St., Philadelphia, PA 19104; 215-821- 9632; milena@media mobilizing.org; http://www.media mobilizing.org/.
RACE - The 7th Facing Race: A National Conference will be held in Dallas, TX November 13-15, 2014. Organizers, educators, artists, funders and everyone interested in racial equity is invited to exchange best practices and learn about innovative models and successful organizing initiatives. Proposals must be submitted by January 24, 2014.
Contact: Race Forward, 32 Broadway, Suite 1801, New York, NY 10004; 212-513-7925; media @raceforward.org; http://race forward.org/.
VETERANS - They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America’s Wars - The Untold Story, by Ann Jones, is about the journey of veterans from the moment of being wounded in rural Afghanistan to their return home.
Contact: Haymarket Books, PO Box 180165, Chicago, IL 60618; 773-583-7884; http://www.haymarketbooks.org/.
LIBYA - Destroying Libya and World Order: The Three-Decade U.S. Campaign to Terminate the Qaddafi Revolution, by Francis A. Boyle, is a history and critique of American foreign policy from Reagan to Obama.
Contact: Clarity Press, Inc., Ste. 469, 3277 Roswell Rd. NE, Atlanta, GE 30305; 404-647-6501; email@example.com; http://www. claritypress.com/.
CHILDREN - Fannie and Freddie by Becky Z. Dernbach is about two bumbling villains who gamble away the savings of the people of Homeville.
Contact: fannieandfreddiebook @gmail.com; http://fannieand freddie.org/.
PROTEST/COMIC - Fight the Power!: A Visual History of Protest Among English Speaking Peoples, by Sean Michael Wilson and Benjamin Dickson is a graphic narrative that explains how people have fought against oppression.
Contact: Seven Stories Press, 140 Watts Street, New York, NY 10013; 212-226-8760; info@ sevenstories.com; http://www. sevenstories.com.
CHILDREN - Brave Girl by Michelle Markel and illustrated by Melissa Sweet is the true story of Clara Lemlich, a young Ukrainian immigrant who led the largest strike of women workers in U.S. history.
Contact: http://www.harpercollins childrens.com/Kids/.
FESTIVAL - The 2014 Queer Women of Color Film Festival will be held June 13-15 in San Francisco. The festival is currently accepting submissions until December 31.
Contact: QWOCMAP, 59 Cook Street, San Francisco, CA 94118-3310; 415-752-0868; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.qwocmap.org/.
IRAQ/REFUGEES - Ten years after the U.S.-led war in Iraq, thousands of displaced Iraqi refugees are still facing a crisis in the United States. The Lost Dream follows Nazar and Salam who had to flee Iraq in order to avoid threats by Al- Qaeda-affiliated groups and Iraqi insurgents that consider them “traitors” for supporting U.S. forces in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Contact: Typecast Films, 888- 591-3456; info@type castfilms. com; http://type castfilms.com/.
HUMAN RIGHTS - Lyrical Revolt! III will be held December 4 in Syracuse, NY. The event will feature hip-hop musician Anhel whose album Young, Gifted, and Brown was just released. The event is sponsored by ANSWER Syracuse, Liberation News, and SyracuseHip Hop.com. Performers and artists are encouraged to send submissions.
Contact: email@example.com; http://www.answercoalition.org/syracuse/.
FOLK - Musician Painless Parker has released his album Music for miscreants, malcontents and misanthropes featuring “Fuck Yeah, the Working Class.”
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://painlessparkermusic.com/.
COMEDY - Political comedian Lee Camp’s new album Pepper Spray the Tears Away has been released.