UK funding terror, UK radical islam
Mark Curtis, in his Secret Affairs: Britain's collusion with radical Islam, has investigated how Britain worked with state sponsors of terrorism as well as radical Islamic groups in the post-World War II period in the energy-rich Middle East and Central Asia.

Curtis' book presents a devastating indictment of the criminality of successive governments in the post-war period, whose dirty wars, covert operations, attempted coups, collusion with the US "extraordinary renditions," kidnappings and torture, assassinations and "special operations" illustrate the bloody role of British imperialism.

Britain's collusion with Islamist fundamentalist forces, prepared to use atrocities to achieve their objectives, is in sharp contrast to the official line that Britain is conducting a "war on terror."

Curtis, a former research fellow at the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House) and former Director of the World Development Movement (now called Global Justice Now), has written other useful books, including Web of Deceit and Unpeople, which expose the lies put out by successive governments to cover for Britain's imperialist depredations. His own purpose is to explain the rise of "home grown terrorists" in Britain, in the context of the coordinated bombings on London transport on July 7, 2005 (7/7) that killed 52 people and injured more than 700; and British intelligence claims that they prevented 12 terrorist plots in Britain during the 2000s and knew of the existence of 2,000 terrorists organised in 200 networks.

Curtis argues, using evidence from declassified files from the National Archives, Hansard reports, leaks and government statements, that this is not simply the result of Britain's wars and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, but of two further factors.

First, Britain's decades-long support for some of the most noxious regimes on the planet, such as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia that have sponsored Islamist groups for their own purposes. Second, the willingness of successive British governments to work with reactionary right-wing forces, including radical Islamists and terrorist groups, to prop up authoritarian regimes allied to Britain, undermine unstable regimes perceived as hostile to British interests and install more pliant regimes.

While the US' role in sponsoring Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden is well known. Britain's part in fostering Al Qaeda and similar groups and/or working with them, sometimes in cooperation with Washington as a junior partner or sub-contractor, sometimes on its own account, has generally been omitted.

Britain's broader strategy has been to keep the people of the region tied to a capitalist perspective and the Middle East divided so that no single power dominates oil supplies. Its purpose was twofold: to preserve the commercial position of its oil giants Shell and BP, which controlled one-sixth of the world's oil and 40 percent of the Gulf's oil, mostly in Iran and Kuwait; and to retain the financial benefits derived from the "substantial Arab foreign exchange reserves in sterling" that accrued from oil.

Operations against bourgeois nationalist governments in the 1950s

For decades, Britain has worked with Jihadi groups on an ad hoc basis, switching sides as the need arises.

In the early 1950s, Britain's spy agency MI6 worked with the CIA to topple the nationalist regime of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mosaddeq, who planned to nationalise BP's Iranian oil operations. A key ally in the early stages of their plans were Shi'ite clerical forces loyal to Ayatollah Kashani, later to become the mentor to Ruhollah Khomeini, who was among the MI6/CIA sponsored-crowd protesting against Mosaddeq in 1953. The British dropped Kashani as being too hostile to British interests, but not before using his forces as shock troops to pave the way for the return of the Shah, who imposed a dictatorial regime subservient to his patrons.

Britain cooperated with the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in a bid to undermine Colonel Gamal Abdul Nasser's newly installed and fiercely nationalist regime. It was after a failed assassination attempt that Britain, along with France and Israel, invaded Egypt at the end of October 1956 to overthrow Nasser, even though British officials feared that the political beneficiaries would be the Brotherhood.

Britain again used the Brotherhood to foment dissent in Syria during the late 1950s and provide the basis for two abortive coups, with Prime Minister Harold Macmillan authorising the assassination of key government and military officials and the leader of the Syrian Communist party.

Britain's backing for the House of Saud

A key element in London's efforts to contain secular Arab nationalism in the late 1950s was its backing for Saudi Arabia's theocratic and authoritarian regime, which controlled the region's largest oil reserves. The Saudi royal family, which uses and exports its own brand of Islamism, Wahhabism, to legitimise its tyrannical rule, welcomed the Brotherhood, recently expelled from Egypt, and, along with the CIA, poured money into their religious seminaries and enterprises. This was part of its broader strategy of promoting the rise of right-wing political Islam, and countering and suppressing the growth of any progressive political tendencies within the working class. The House of Saud is believed to have spent $50 billion since the 1970s promoting Wahhabism around the globe, in what one US think tank describes as the "largest worldwide propaganda campaign ever mounted."

Israel's destruction of the Arab armies, in the space of six days in June 1967, played a major role in politically discrediting the secular nationalist regimes of Egypt and Syria, and their backers in the Soviet Union. They had proved incapable of reconciling their differences and taking even the most elementary precautions to protect their equipment and installations from surprise attacks by Israel, much less defeating Israel.

Disillusionment with bourgeois nationalism enabled the revival, during the 1970s, of the Muslim Brotherhood and similar forces throughout the Middle East and North Africa. The Islamist groups were able to fill the political vacuum created by the insistence of the Stalinists and their Pabloite supporters that the working class had no independent political role to play.

A further defeat of the Arab powers in the October 1973 war and the quadrupling of oil prices in 1973 served to enrich the feudal states of the Arabian Peninsula and to enhance their influence.

As Curtis explains, this led Britain to make frantic and obsequious efforts to ensure that this newfound wealth was recycled through the City of London. Following the loosening of controls on the movement of capital in 1979 and especially after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the City became a major centre for the promotion of "Islamic banking" and "Islamic finance" across the world.

Militant Islamic groups benefited from the new-found wealth of the oil-rich states both directly and indirectly.

Popular support for Islamic groups began to grow throughout the region, particularly among the most impoverished layers and the rural poor, due to their provision of basic social services funded by the religious authorities in the Gulf. As a result, by the end of the 1970s, Arab nationalism—with the possible and temporary exception of Palestinian nationalism—was largely a spent force.

In Iran, the betrayals of the Stalinised Tudeh party paved the way for the establishment of an Islamic theocracy following the popular uprising in 1979 against the Shah's tyrannical regime. This inspired and promoted a network of Shi'ite groups, including Amal and Hezbollah in Lebanon, Shi'ite opposition elements to the Iraqi regime, and Shi'ite minorities in the Gulf States. And it encouraged the growth of other Islamist tendencies, including Sunni groups, which both Washington and London promoted in collaboration with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

The imperialist powers viewed Sunni groupings as a mechanism for countering Moscow's influence in the Middle East and internationally; as a political weapon against radical nationalists, such as the Ba'ath Parties in Syria and Iraq; ballast for the reactionary monarchs of Jordan and Saudi Arabia; and as an anti-Communist force through which to divert the oppressed masses with radical sounding rhetoric.

Britain's role in the Afghan war

Al Qaeda and its former leader Osama bin Laden, who had direct links with Saudi intelligence from the early years of the anti-Soviet Jihad in Afghanistan in the 1980s, was a vital element of that policy. It was only one of a number of such groups that Riyadh bankrolled during the Afghan war.

As Curtis explains, while the British government, in public, denied any military involvement in the war, in reality it had been providing covert assistance to Afghani Islamists even before the war started and authorised MI6 operations in the first year of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. MI6 activated its longstanding network of spies and coordinated training alongside the CIA and Pakistan's intelligence service, the ISI.

Britain's SAS played a direct part in the war, unlike its US counterparts, because it was subject to far less oversight. It trained and supported various Islamist groups and directed them in covert guerrilla operations against the southern Soviet republics of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

The end of the Afghan war in 1989 left the Islamists as the dominant political force in the country, vying among themselves for control of Afghanistan. Foreign Jihadis who received military training at the hands of the British went home to set up organisations to fight their own governments and mount terrorist attacks.

Britain continued to support some of these groups in the 1990s, using them as proxy forces in Bosnia, Azerbaijan, Kosovo and Libya. They launched terrorist attacks, first in Muslim countries and then in the US and Europe.

Britain's support for Pakistan

Britain also backed a second state sponsor of terrorist groups, Pakistan, after General Zia ul-Haq's seizure of power in a coup in 1977, supplying it with arms. Lacking a political base, Zia sought the support of the mullahs, promoted the rise of Islamism and backed the Jamaat-i-Islam, which was the main conduit for Saudi aid to the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan. He also supported the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (Assembly of Islamic Clergy), which ran a massive network of religious schools.

Zia and the Islamists' aim was to channel the increasing discontent of the masses with the corrupt bourgeois parties away from left politics. In this, they had the whole-hearted support of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and successive British governments which provided Pakistan with diplomatic cover, arms, military training, aid and foreign direct investment.

Two major terrorist groups were established. The first was Harakat al-Jehad al-Islami. One of its split-offs was trained by the British-funded Haqqani faction in Afghanistan and went on to recruit thousands of volunteers to fight there, including thousands of Britons of Pakistani descent, and later became active against Indian forces in Kashmir. Kashmir has now become a major flashpoint that could trigger a war between two nuclear-armed states.

The second developed out of a Sunni missionary organisation reportedly established with seed money from Bin Laden that joined the Afghan Jihad. It too mounted attacks on Indian-administered Kashmir, becoming Pakistan's largest jihadist organisation with which the 7/7 London bombers had close links.

Britain supported Pakistan's use of Islamist terrorist groups for covert operations in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Chechnya, the location of the huge energy resources of Central Asia, thereby facilitating British energy corporations' access to the region. At the very least, it acquiesced in Islamabad and Riyadh's funding and arming of the Taliban, which emerged victorious after a brutal civil war in Afghanistan in 1996, thereby entrenching Al Qaeda.

"Londonistan" as a centre for terrorist groups

This sordid and cynical relationship positioned Britain as a leading arms exporter, second only to the US, and the City of London as an international financial centre. It also turned London into a major centre in the 1990s for Islamist groups organising terrorism abroad—earning it the sobriquet of "Londonistan."

Groups such as Algeria's Armed Islamic Group (GIA), the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), Egyptian Islamic Jihad and Al Qaeda all had offices in London. Al Qaeda considered London the nerve centre of its operations in Europe.

These groups raised millions of pounds to fund and recruit militants to fight around the world. Thousands of young men went from Britain to train in camps overseas, particularly in Pakistan and Afghanistan, with the knowledge, if not encouragement, of the British government, despite the fact that it was an offence to aid a group proscribed under the 2000 Terrorism Act. British authorities ignored numerous complaints, both domestic and overseas, about extremism, and dragged their feet over requests for the investigation or extradition of terrorist suspects.

Several Islamists refer to Whitehall having given them a "green light" as long as they only carried out terrorist activities overseas, including Abu Hamza, the former cleric at Finsbury Park mosque, Khaled al-Fawwaz, the head of Bin Laden's London operation and Omar Bakri Mohammed, who established the militant al-Muhajiroun group that sent fighters to Kashmir, Chechnya and Kosovo.

There is evidence that the security services collaborated directly with some of these organisations and their leaders, including Abu Hamza. Abu Qatada, the Jordanian cleric sentenced in absentia for terrorist activities who became known as Al Qaeda's spiritual leader in Europe, reportedly worked as a double agent for MI5.

Abdel Hakim Belhaj, a leader of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), who fought in the Soviet-Afghan war and subsequently joined Al Qaeda, claims that MI6 sponsored (unsuccessful) assassination attacks by LIFG on Libya's then leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. Subsequently, following Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair's infamous "deal in the sand" with Gaddafi in 2004, Britain cooperated with the CIA in Belhaj's kidnapping, rendition to Libya and interrogation under torture.

After Belhaj's release in 2009 by Gaddafi under a general amnesty, Britain again made use of the LIFG as a proxy force in 2011 to topple the Libyan leader in the NATO-led intervention. The British authorities have sought to suppress court cases brought by Belhaj in order to prevent the exposure of its links with such forces.

9/11 and the "global war on terror"

The Al Qaeda attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon in 2001 were in part the product of Saudi Arabian and Pakistani support for Jihadi groups.

Curtis points to a possible British connection. Omar Saeed Sheikh, a Briton of Pakistani origin found guilty in 2002 of orchestrating the beheading of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, acted as a conduit for ISI, Pakistan's intelligence service, and wired funds to the leader of the 9/11 plotters.

Sheikh admitted being an ISI agent, while Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf later accused him of also being an MI6 agent. It seems that London offered him an amnesty in 1999, after his release from an Indian prison for kidnapping four British and American tourists in 1994, in return for acting as an informant. At the very least, this implies that the ISI and therefore probably US and British officials, had foreknowledge of the 9/11 attack. The UK has not investigated Sheikh's links to 9/11 to avoid jeopardising its relations with Pakistan.

Following 9/11, these same terrorist groups provided another useful service to the imperialist powers: as justification for a new series of wars for the domination of energy-rich regions in Central Asia and the Middle East. While the wars against Afghanistan and Iraq ostensibly targeted the groups Washington and London had previously supported, their key allies were Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, the key sponsors of these groups.

Prime Minister Blair seized on the "global war on terror" to piggyback Washington's invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq in pursuit of Britain's own imperialist interests. Following the Strategic Defence Review in 1998, the Labour government reconfigured its military forces so that they could intervene as a "pre-emptive" military force in an offensive capacity to "project power overseas" with "expeditionary forces" to support "political objectives," including countering international terrorism.

Britain's close support for Saudi Arabia dovetailed its need for oil and gas, as Britain became a net importer of energy by the mid-2000s. Blair even intervened to stop a Serious Fraud Office investigation of bribery by Britain's largest arms corporation BAE to secure a massive Saudi arms deal.

Similarly, Blair supported Musharraf, ostensibly because Pakistan was a "frontline state" in the war against the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. As the Blair government well knew, Musharraf backed Pakistan's domestic radical Islamists in his twin-pronged war against Indian-controlled Kashmir and his own secular nationalist opponents. He did little if anything to end Pakistan's support for the Taliban and Al Qaeda, allowing Bin Laden to take up residence in Abbottabad, near the Pakistan Military Academy.

The London bombings

The coordinated bombings on July 7, 2005 (7/7) on London transport was the worst terrorist atrocity in Britain. The perpetrators were five British Islamists, three of whom had links to a terrorist infrastructure established by Pakistan, which in turn benefited from British support, and were possibly trained by Pakistan's security service.

The security forces had predicted the rise of "home-grown terrorists." Three months before the 7/7 attacks, a classified government report noted that the wars and on-going occupation of Iraq had exacerbated the threat of international terrorism. Several of the bombers had visited Pakistan where they received training in making explosives from groups that received support from Britain during the Afghan war in the 1980s.

This in turn raises the question of British state involvement in the London bombings, something Curtis ignores. There are numerous indications that a section of the state or intelligence apparatus allowed the terrorists to carry out the 7/7 operation. These include reports that several of the bombers were known to the authorities and had been under surveillance for two years as a result of their links to Pakistan and Al Qaeda; the Israeli embassy received a warning about the bombings; Israel's security service Mossad and the Saudi government alerted MI5, Britain's domestic spy agency, of a possible attack; military explosives appear to have been used; and the fact that the national security threat was downgraded despite a G8 summit in Scotland.

In every similar case—September 11, 2001 in New York City, April 15, 2013 in Boston, November 13, 2015 in Paris and the December 2016 Christmas market attack in Berlin—the security services had the attackers under surveillance for a lengthy period of time and did not intervene to stop them carrying out their plots.

Despite government claims that most of the known terrorist plots against British targets involved groups with links to Pakistan-based Jihadi groups, and a Ministry of Defence think tank's report that the ISI supported terrorism and extremism—leaked to the media in 2006—the Blair government continued to support Musharraf until he resigned in 2008 to avoid impeachment.

This leads to the fundamental drawback of Curtis' review: his inability to explain Britain's covert collusion with these Islamist forces and their political purpose. He concludes that the various operations are a blot on Britain's democracy, having caused various types of "blowback" and having been largely ineffectual in terms of their stated foreign policy objectives.

One could read much of the book and conclude that the British government was merely hypocritical and cynical, that its policies were mistaken and could therefore be changed. But Britain's foreign policy was no mistake. Its foreign policy record testifies to its fear of the working class and the oppressed internationally, nowhere more than in the resource-rich Middle East, leaving it with no choice but to support the most foul forces to preserve its interests.

In the aftermath of World War II, the imperialist powers, whose wars, local stooges and subsequent intrigues had impoverished the region, faced the undying hatred of the masses, dominated politically by the Stalinised Communist parties of the region. Following Moscow's line, those parties and their leftist supporters insisted that the working class had no independent political role to play, dragooning it behind nationalist leaders who sought to supplant Britain and exploit the region's wealth for their own benefit.

When direct rule became impossible, the imperialist powers ruled via their clients, and supported any and all political tendencies that would divide the working class and rural poor along sectarian and ethnic lines and so prevent a unified struggle to overthrow capitalism. After the national bourgeoisie, riding on the back of mass opposition to indirect colonial rule, took power, Britain and other major powers again colluded with these forces, switching sides and alliances as circumstances changed. As Lord Palmerston famously told the House of Commons in 1848, "We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow..."

At home, Britain has used these groups as the justification for a raft of anti-democratic measures, which gets little attention in Curtis' book.

The Labour government used the 9/11 attack in New York, and the terrorist atrocity of 7/7 and other attacks, actual and planned, on British soil, to strengthen police powers to detain suspects, codified in the 2001 Terrorism Act; overturn long-standing democratic rights, including the legal principle of presumption of innocence in the Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005; criminalise the "encouragement" and "incitement" of terrorism in 2006; and position Britain as a leading player in a global spying network in alliance with the US National Security Agency (NSA). The Tories, for their part, introduced legislation ostensibly targeting "extremists" that in effect enables the authorities to criminalise speech and political opposition to the government's policies of aggressive militarism abroad and austerity at home.

The government and state machinery have eviscerated the entire framework of legal and democratic rights fought for in the course of hundreds of years. The target is not primarily the reactionary Islamist network, but opposition from the working class to the government's policies of austerity, war and the assault on democratic rights.

Despite its political limitations, Curtis' book is a valuable piece of investigative journalism, particularly given the extraordinary level of secrecy surrounding UK foreign policy.