Bin Laden’s best friends, 30 years ago
Britain’s National Archives last week released restricted materials from its underground vaults from the Cold War era, declassified after 30 years.
The papers provide insider accounts of how key western powers secretly decided to pit Afghan fighters against the Soviets. Many of them would go on to become the founders of al-Qa’eda.
In December 1979, Russia invaded Kabul to rescue a Marxist-Leninist puppet regime under threat from the mujahideen, an Islamist opposition.
What emerges from these cabinet files are details of how Western powers met secretly immediately after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and promptly formulated plans to back the “Islamic resistance” by arming the mujahideen to their teeth. (The term global terrorism had not yet been coined.)
The papers also bring out details of how swiftly clandestine weapons routes were created by western powers to aid mujahideen fighters.
On January 15th, 1980, Sir Robert Armstrong, Britain’s Cabinet Secretary, met senior US officials along with government politicians from France and West Germany at the Palais Marigny in Paris.
Sir Armstrong recounts how the Americans suggested supporting refugee camps in Pakistan, as they were bases of Islamist guerrillas fighting the Soviets. This, it was observed, would “help to keep Afghan resistance alive”.
US national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski was among those at the Paris meeting. He sought support for the mujahideen through the MI6, the UK’s foreign intelligence agency.
As long as the Afghans were going to resist the Soviets and as long as the Pakistanis were going to allow their territory to be used for this, the resistance should be supported, Armstrong said.
“If one of the objectives of the West in this crisis was to keep the Islamic world aroused about the Soviet invasion, that would be served by encouraging a continuing guerrilla resistance,” it was said in that cold January meeting in Paris.
After visiting Pakistan, Brzezinski wrote back to the UK’s Cabinet Office: “I was impressed by the determination of the Pakistanis, and also with the Afghan resistance fighters – the mujahideen – whom I encountered during my visit to a refugee camp on the frontier.”
Brzezinski recommended that Afghan fighters in “forward positions” just inside the Pakistan border should be provided with surface-to-air missiles. The French proposed military aid via Iraq.
There were further “secret talks” in London on February 1. British foreign secretary Lord Carrington told Prime Minister Thatcher about “covert supply of arms and training” to the mujahideen. “French officials favour this. The Chinese are also interested; and the US are active in this respect. Muslim money is already flowing and may be sufficient,” he said.
Muslims were arriving from around the world into Afghanistan to expel the Soviets and many Mujahideen leaders received weapons and training from Western powers. One of them went by the name of Osama Bin Laden. Unfortunately, Laden — himself a prominent Saudi financier of the mujahideen — now uses them against his very former backers.
Of course, the West’s arming of the mujahideen is seen as one of the major reasons for the rise of al-Qaida.
So, the term “Islamic terror”, which bobs up frequently, begs one simple question. Whose creation is Islamic terror? Islam or Western politics?