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British colonial strategy and the 9/11 blowback

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Osama bin Laden gained his reputation as a militant Islamist during the Western backed counter-insurgency – so-called “jihad” – against the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980’s

The main strategy employed by the West during this campaign to contain and repel the Soviet invasion was to recruit Islamists from around the world [1] in a war against ‘godless communism’.

Needless to say, this alliance or collusion between the West and Islamist did not originally arise with the invasion of Afghanistan by Soviet troops. Its provenance can easily be traced back to the challenges faced by British Imperialism in the earlier part of the twentieth century.

As we shall see, in Egypt, India and in what became known as “Saudi Arabia”, the British Empire, when faced with challenges to its occupations or policies fell back on Islamism or Islamic sectarianism to hold back the tide of independence and unity against its presence.


The Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt was founded by Hasan al-Banna during his teaching stint in Ismaliyya, a town generously populated by employees of the then British owned Suez Canal Company, in 1928.

One of Hasan al-Banna’s admirers was a James Heyworth-Dunne, an employee (and future scholar) of the British Embassy in Cairo. His admiration, even hero-worship, for Mr al-Banna is contained in the first book (in the English language) on the Muslim Brotherhood, “Religious and Political Trends in Modern Egypt”. [2]

This book is considered by the author of the seminal account on the Muslim Brotherhood as a primary source of information on the group because Heyworth-Dunne was a participant in some of the early meetings of the Muslim Brotherhood. [3]

Heyworth-Dunne informs us that the challenges faced by the Empire in twenties and thirties Egypt were twofold. Firstly, President Wilsons’s “declaration of self-determination inspired the Egyptians to higher ideals…” i.e. that is independence. [4]

Secondly, there was what Heyworth-Dunne refers to as “communistic ideas” i.e. along with independence this also included socialism and nationalism. To offset these challenges, especially the latter, it was British officials such as Mr Heyworth-Dunne in the pre-war period, which identified Islam as the ‘rallying cry’ [5] by which British interests can be maintained. However, this Islam is not the Islam that had been practised in the region in previous centuries but the Islam as “taught and represented by Hasan al-Banna”. [6]

Furthermore he urges the “Egyptian ruling class” to “surrender some of their privileges in order to uplift the less unfortunate of their compatriots, for it is useless to expect Islam to hold out against the ideology of Communism…” otherwise. [7]

More so, with the political arrival of Hasan al-Banna and the Muslim Brotherhood, Heyworth-Dunne gleefully informs the reader that there had been a qualitative change in political violence:

“the difference…in the nature of the struggle now and twenty years ago is that two decades, it was anti-British, now it was Egyptian against Egyptian…” [8]

In 1942, the Britain began officially financing the Muslim Brotherhood. [9]


India was another terrain where nationals were eventually pitted against each other with the help of British Imperialism. In 1937, the sectarians of the Muslim League only garnered 4.8% on the Muslim vote in the provincial elections. [10] Most Muslims were inclined towards the political party of Ghandi, Congress or their allies. Today North West Frontier Province (NWFP) is more or less synonymous with extremism, but back then, this region overwhelmingly voted in favour for Congress, rather than sectarianism. [11]

With the growing ‘threat’ of Indian independence, including an independent foreign policy Britain was compelled to support the separatist Muslim League. Britain rightly assumed an independent India would want nothing to do with British foreign policy in the immediate post-war period. Britain needed military bases in South East Asia for the ostentatious purpose of fending off any Soviet Union incursions on its perceived interests.

On this basis, the British assisted in promoting the Muslim League and it’s leader Muhammad Ali Jinnah as the main voice of the Muslims of India as well as conducting propaganda campaigns on his behalf. [12] Jinnah’s agenda was to establish a new Muslim majority state that would be “in collaboration with Great Britain.” [13]

Part of the propaganda included lampooning the popular Muslim leader of the North West Frontier Province, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan. The British accused him, while they had thrown him (and 6000 of his followers) into jail, of being anti-Islamic because he was a believer in Gandhian nonviolence. [14] They also argued that it was anti-Islamic for Muslims to align with Congress. [15]

Sir George Cunningham, Governor of NWFP, was able boast that the new success of the Muslim League “would not have been possible had not the ground been prepared by the propaganda which we have been doing almost since the war started, most of it on Islamic lines.” [16]

Furthermore, he considered the new success of the Muslim League, “as a victory for the British government over the subversive elements in the country.” [17]

Subversive here literally means, Gandhian nonviolence.

After the British had successfully assisted to pitch Indian against Indian which materialised in mass sectarianism killings in the mid 1940’s, Ernest Bevan, Labour Party Foreign Secretary was able to proclaim a week after the announcement of partition, that a divided India “would help to consolidate Britain in the Middle East”. [18]

Saudi Arabia

It is in the Middle East where Britain had greatly assisted the Saudi tribe to power. The head of this tribe, Ibn Saud was an exiled figure in what is now “Kuwait” in 1899. Upon meeting the British in Kuwait, Abd al-Aziz Ibn Saud managed to capture Riyadh in 1902 with British weapons and his fanatical Wahhabi allies.

In 1915 Ibn Saud entered World War one on the side of the British Empire against his co-religionists, Ottoman Empire. In their first and only battle during this war, the Wahhabis were joined by British political agent of Kuwait, Captain William Shakespear. The Wahhabis were defeated and Shakespear whose role was to direct the fire from a cannon onto the Caliphates troops was killed. However, had there been a victory for Ibn Saud and the Wahhabis, it seems that Britain was intending on unleashing them into Baghdad, Mecca and along the Hijaz railway route:

“There is no reason to doubt that if he (William Shakespear) had lived he would have organised British support for Ibn Saud and his Ikhwan (Wahhabi fanatics)…either north towards Baghdad or west towards the Mecca railway…” [19]

Indeed, some British historians have argued that if Ibn Saud and William Shakespear had been successful there would have been no need to turn to the leader of Hijaz (western region of today’s Saudi Arabia), Sharif Ali bin Hussain and hence there would’ve been no need for any kind of Hussain-Macmohan letters, Hijaz revolt or “Lawrence of Arabia”. [20]

The United States and Today

In the United States, British intellectuals and officials successfully argued that “Islam” was the chief tool that could fend off “communism” during the Cold War with the Soviet Union. Needless to say, “communism” here is any policy that is not in the interests of Britain. Writing in 1954, Bernard Lewis asserted that, “Communism is not and cannot be a religion, while Islam, for the great mass of believers, still is; and that is the core of the Islamic resistance to Communist ideas.” [21]

While a former British official of the Raj, Sir Olaf Caroe, also a former governor of North West Frontier Provence in India was paid by the British Foreign Office to preach the “Islam” strategy in the United States by conducting a lecture tour. Amongst the questions he posed to his many listeners was: “Will Islam stand up to Communism?” [22]

According to the Arab writer and political biographer, Said Aburish, the United States enlisted into this British driven Islamist strategy with the implementation of the Eisenhower doctrine in the late 1950’s. [23] Or as Professor Nathan Citino has argued in his book on U.S. Oil politics, “Eisenhower’s Islamic strategy did not emerge out of a vacuum.” [24]

Indeed, Eisenhower’s “assumptions about the importance of Islam in the Cold War were far from original and reflected trans-Atlantic continuities in Middle Eastern expertise just as the U.S. inherited regional power from its European allies.” [25]

The Eisenhower doctrine was supposedly aimed at containing the threat purportedly posed by Soviet Russia in the Middle East.

All three strands of Islamism, the Egyptian, Saudi and Indian came to modern political formation during the British imperial reign in the Arab World and South East Asia. It is these three strands of Islamism that the United States “inherited” from Britain.

Naturally, during the Cold War period these three strands of British supported Islamism slowly converged and solidified with the immediate challenges posed by Nasserism, Socialism and Communism. After the alleged Muslim Brotherhood’s failed assassination attempt on Nasser, many Egyptian Islamists fled to Saudi Arabia. King Faisal of Saudi Arabia invited brigades of the Pakistani army to defend his Kingdom and Western interests.

When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in the 1980’s, the West, led by the United States, countered by implementing the “Islam” strategy. The recruiting of Islamic militants from around the world to fight in the “jihad” included the recruitment of Osama bin Laden by Saudi and Pakistani intelligence services. [26]

Ultimately, British strategy manifested or transmogrified into American support for the ‘holy warriors’ against the Soviet invasion. The United States invested massive amounts of armoury, military training and billions of dollars in this enterprise.

Chalmers Johnson defined, ‘blowback’ “as a way of thinking of an individual, a class, a nation or an empire…” when employed in the arena of “international conflicts” this way of thinking, “has a tendency to blow back onto the party releasing it.” [27] The criminal events in New York and Washington almost ten years ago, were partly and clearly a blowback from the “Islam” strategy.

Whereas Britain concocted and propelled the “Islam” option into strategic consideration amongst policy makers during the Cold War period, it was then the United States which was largely seen to “release”, implement and support this policy in Afghanistan in the 1980’s.

In conclusion, it needs to be emphasised that as the provenance of this “Islam” strategy pre-dates the Cold War and even the emergence of the United States as a superpower, there is every reason to believe that it will also outlive a perceived declining United States. We can now see this in Libya where NATO has worked in conjunction with Libyan Islamists to overthrow the Gadhaffi regime. [28]

Nu’man Abd al-Wahid is a UK-based freelance Anglo-Yemeni writer specialising in the political relationship between the British state and the Arab World.


  1. Ahmed Rashid, Taliban, (London: Pan Books, 2000), pg.129
  2. J. Heyworth-Dunne, Religious and Political Trends in Modern Egypt, (Washington: McGregor & Werner, Inc., 1950)
  3. Richard P. Mitchell, The Society of the Muslim Brothers, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993) pg.xxiv: Heyworth-Dunne, “was a participant in some of the history of the movement and his work must be considered a primary source.” (Italics are mine).
  4. Heyworth-Dunne, op. cit., pg5
  5. The term belongs to Robert Dreyfuss. See his Robert Dreyfuss, Devils Game, (New York, Metropolitan Books, 2005). In some respects this essay is filling out the important gaps in the early chapters of this (and Said Aburish’s, The Rise, Corruption and Coming Fall of The House of Saud, London: Bloomsbury, 2005) essential book.
  6. Heyworth-Dunne, op. cit., pg50. Another writer admired by Heyworth-Dunne, was Sayid Qutb, see ibid, pg 97.
  7. ibid., pg78
  8. ibid., pg77
  9. Mark Curtis, “Secret Affairs: Britain’s Collusion with Radical Islam”, (London: Serpants’s Tail) 2010, pg. 24.
  10. Madhusree Mukerjee, “Churchill’s Secret War” (New York, Basic Books) 2010, pg. 9
  11. Rajmohan Gandhi, “Ghaffar Khan” (New Delhi, Penguin Books) 2008, pg. 112-113.
  12. ibid, pg 149 and Narenda Singh Sarila, “The Shadow of the Great Game: The Untold Story of India’s Partition”, (New Delhi, Harper Collins), pg.52-60.
  13. ibid., pg.42.
  14. Mukerjee, op. cit.,pg. 134.
  15. Gandhi op. cit., pg. 167: “Cunningham had promoted the idea that it was anti-Islamic for Muslims to align with Congress”
  16. Nicholas Mansergh, “The Transfer of Power 1942-1947”, London: Her Majesty’s Stationary Office, 1970-1982, Vol. IV, pg. 186
  17. ibid. pg.187
  18. Singh Sarila, op. cit., pg.15
  19. David Howarth, The Desert King, (London : Quartet Books, 1980), pg. 82. Gary Troeller, The Birth of Saudi Arabia, (London : Frank Cass, 1976). Troeller also mentions British generals on the ground who agree with this view, pg120, nt. 24.
  20. ibid and R Baker, King Hussain and the Kingdom of Hijaz (Cambridge: Oleander Press) 1979.
  21. Bernard Lewis, ‘Communism and Islam’, International Affairs, 1954, Vol.30, No.1, pg.12
  22. Singh Sarila, op. Cit., pg.31
  23. Said Aburish, Nasser, The Last Arab, London:Duckworth, 2005, pg128
  24. Nathan Citino, From Arab Nationalism to OPEC, (Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 2002) Pg95
  25. ibid., pg.98
  26. Rashid op. cit., pg. 129
  27. Chalmers Johnson, “Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire” (London: Time Warner paperbacks) 2003, pg. 182
  28. Charles Levinson, “Ex-Mujahidden Help Lead Libyan Rebels”, Wall Street Journal, 2 April 2011. Richard Spencer, “Libya: the West and al-Qaeda on the same side”, Daily Telegraph, 18th March 2001. Rod Nordland, “In Libya, Former Enemy is Recast in Role of Ally”, New York Times, 1st September 2011.
Nu'man Abd al-Wahid

Nu’man Abd al-Wahid is a Yemeni-English independent researcher specialising in the political relationship between the British state and the Arab World. His main focus is on how the United Kingdom has historically maintained its political interests in the Arab World. A full collection of essays can be accessed at Twitter handle: @churchillskarma.

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