Britain has played a nefarious role in the Middle East’s history. We all know that London re-drew the region’s borders after World War I as part of a “divide and rule” strategy, but few are aware of Britain’s divisive and often contradictory efforts in the region that have remained a core part of its foreign policy. Instead, the United States and Israel tend to get all the “credit” when it comes to the dark arts of Machiavellian political subterfuge.
In ‘Secret Affairs: Britain’s Collusion with Radical Islam,’ author Mark Curtis uses declassified official documents and leaked reports to lay bare Britain’s policies of destabilization and the political-economic ties Britain developed to ensure energy security and financial co-dependence. What Curtis exposes is as damning to Britain as the WikiLeaks US embassy cables have been to Washington, revealing the decisions made away from public scrutiny and what really makes up official policy.
“It is clear that Britain has an interest in divide and rule in the Middle East. If it sounds conspiratorial, it is there, spelled out in the planning files,” Curtis told Executive.
‘Secret Affairs’ is an eye opening read that charts the beginnings of British collaboration with radical Islamic forces, a relationship that began during the occupation of India over 150 years ago, was used extensively post-1945 and continues to this day. Britain worked with Islamist groups, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood, and friendly authoritarian Islamic regimes in Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, Bosnia, Indonesia, Pakistan and Afghanistan to ensure that communism, nationalism, pan-Arabism and anti-Western policies didn’t take hold.
Britain would cultivate relationships on both sides of the political fence, showing a willingness to work with essentially anyone, whether the Mahaz-i-Milli Islam (National Islamic Front of Afghanistan), the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group or the ayatollahs in Iran, to achieve short-term goals, irrespective of the longer-term implications, in order to maintain a balance of power.
“In [my] analysis of British foreign policy, it is not all down to economics,” said Curtis. “The collaboration with Islamist groups in the Middle East has been about power status, to not be relegated to a bit player on the fringes. It has seen those groups as essential allies in a region where Britain has often lacked dependable allies. In a lot of the episodes where Britain collaborated with Islamic groups, it was essentially to do the dirty work that the US couldn’t do due to Congressional oversight and the fear of being found out.”
The dirty deeds include assassination attempts – for example on Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, Libya’s Muammar al-Qadhafi, and Lebanon’s late Ayatollah Mohammad Fadlallah – military assistance and the dissemination of propaganda tools, such as Korans and Islamic literature. British operatives also orchestrated “false flag” operations, such as the one in Iran in 1953 when mosques and public figures were attacked by agents and paid supporters appearing to be members of the communist Tudeh Party. British intelligence also worked in collaboration with Ayatollah Kashani, the mentor of Ayatollah Khomeini, to stir up sentiment against nationalist Prime Minister Muhammad Mossadiq.
Alongside maintaining its power status and ensuring energy security, Britain also worked to make sure oil-producing countries invested their petro-dollars in London to shore up the city’s global financial position. To do so, Britain needed to maintain its status as a power broker and to curry favor with regimes, regardless of the means. One example of this is the “fabricated invasion” of Kuwait by Iraq in 1958, during which Britain intervened to protect its newly-independent former colony against a threat that they had themselves concocted, as British files explicitly show. “Britain wanted to exaggerate the threat to Kuwait so [Britain] would continue its protection and Kuwait would keep investing revenues in the British banking system,” said Curtis.
Such covert operations — all documented in ‘Secret Affairs’— have been just one part of Britain’s foreign policy that has gone against London’s purported democratic ideals. The backing of Islamist forces, and its hidden alliance with two chief state sponsors of radical Islam, Saudi Arabia —which has spent more than $50 billion to spread the Wahhabi brand of Islam around the world and is a major sponsor of Islamist groups — and Pakistan, have also had major negative repercussions.
By preventing independent and secular governments from coming to power in much of the Islamic world, Britain’s policies have nurtured the current socio-political malaise and resulted in what the late Chalmers Johnson famously termed “blow back,” when the very forces the West aided and abetted came back to bite the hand that once fed them. Curtis shows how Britain in the 1990s allowed Islamist groups to operate out of London, which they believed could be used to destabilize governments in, among other places, Syria, Iraq and Libya. This was possible through a ‘covenant of security’ between radical Islamists and the security services.
A former Cabinet Office intelligence analyst explained: “The long-standing British habit of providing refuge and welfare to Islamist extremists is on the unspoken assumption that if we give them a safe haven here they will not attack us on these shores.”
This pact meant Britain could keep tabs on such groups’ memberships and finances, and enabled British intelligence access to groups linked to militancy from Afghanistan to Yemen. Even Al Qaeda had an office, the Advice and Reformation Committee, in London until 1998.
Alongside the US and Saudi Arabia, Britain equipped and bankrolled Islamist groups in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bosnia that were later involved in the September 11 attacks in the United States, terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia, and the July 7, 2005 bombings in London. Indeed, as Curtis’s research shows, the history of the ongoing “war on terror” is rooted in covert support for the Afghani Mujahedin in its fight against the Soviets and for the terrorism infrastructure co-established with Pakistan’s notorious Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), which trained fighters for operations in Central Asia, India, Bosnia, the Middle East and elsewhere.
It also goes further back in time, to the British-backed partition of India in 1947, which led to the creation of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan and the current imbroglio in Kashmir. Curtis quotes former Indian Ambassador Narendra Sarila as saying, “Many of the roots of Islamic terrorism sweeping the world today lie buried in the partition of India.”
More than 60 years later, Britain is still using divide and rule as a strategy and is contending with the repercussions of what in many ways its foreign policy has created. “There is still this resort to rely on particular Islamist forces to achieve objectives, whether in Southern Iraq[post-2003], where Britain worked with Islamist forces and now [has] a de-facto working arrangement with the Taliban, in the sense that Britain is reliant on them for an honorable exit from Afghanistan,” said Curtis. In a previous book, Curtis called Britain’s foreign policy a “web of deceit.” In his latest, he has further shown how that web was spun and, crucially, how British foreign policy has anurtured global terrorism and instability.