BY JOHN K. COOLEY
March 13, 1996
Knowing your enemy is a first step toward defeating him especially if you helped to create him, as the United States, Israel and some allies unwittingly helped to create the suicide bombers of Hamas and Islamic jihad.
President Bill Clinton and other leaders at [the March, 1996] antiterrorist summit in Egypt may want to do some careful homework on just how these movements emerged as the deadly threat to peace and human life they have become. This threat faces not only Israel but also the summit's host country, Egypt, and a number of other nations from Pakistan and the Phiiippines to the United States.
In 1982, [Egyptian] President Hafez Assad's army smashed a serious Islamist revolt in the Syrian city of Hama, killing more than 15,000 people and splitting the clandestine Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. Different leaders took refuge in Iraq and Saudi Arabia. They have contributed to Mr. Assad's difficulties with these neighbors ever since.
The brotherhood's branch in Sudan, dating from 1946, was renamed the Islamic National Front in 1985. Its leader is the strongman behind today's Sudanese military regime, Sheikh Hassan Turabi. His supporters are being confirmed in power by Sudanese elections.
It was in Sudan that Egypt's blind Islamist preacher, Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, obtained a U.S. visa to fly to New York and assist U.S. agencies in recruiting Islamist guerrillas to help expel the Soviets from Afghanistan in the 1979-1989 war. They accomplished this, but postwar internecine fighting has left Afghanistan in ruins.
Omar Abdel Rahman and fellow conspirators are now locked in U.S. prisons for the murderous attack of 1993 on New York's World Trade Center and for another major bomb plot in the same year. However, most of America's former Islamist allies are not in jail. Many are committing murder, sabotage and sectarian crimes to destabilize Egypt, Algeria, Yemen Pakistan, India, the Philippines and other nations.
Which brings us to the specific case of Hamas. The Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood, to which Yasser Arafat once belonged, laid the foundations for Hamas in Gaza in the 1980s. A key Hamas organizer was Abdallah Azzam. He was a tough, brilliant and charismatic Palestinian from Jordan. He supervised training for the CIA's Afghan guerrillas in Peshawar, Pakistan, where a car bomb killed him in 1989. In the earlier 1980s he toured the United States, recruiting Arab-Americans for the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan.
Mr. Azzam and others like him shuttled between the "front" in Israel-Gaza-West Bank and that in Afghanistan. They had active financial support from the Saudi Arabian government and some private Saudi tycoons.
Saudi funding of the Afghan war and Islamic movements in Central Asia and elsewhere, including Hamas have a common origin: Saudi rivalry with Iran. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's revolution of 1979 immediately challenged the Saudi monarchy's legitimacy, as well as that of Israel. "There is no king in Islam, and the Zionists are corrupters of the earth," the Iranian ayatollahs intoned.
To deny Iran a monopoly on helping groups like Hamas or the smaller Islamic Jihad, the Saudis in 1980, according to a French specialist in political Islam, Olivier Roy, made a deal with the Arab Muslim Brotherhood. It could not operate inside Saudi Arabia. What it could do was act as a relay for contacts with overseas movements such as Hamas. This gave the brotherhood a determining role in who would receive Saudi money.
The U.S. and Saudi partnership with Islamists backfired on Washington during the 1990-91 Gulf crisis. The backfire had its roots, again, in the Afghanistan war. The main U.S.-Saudi partner there had been Pakistan's powerful military intelligence service. Washington allowed it to choose which anti-Soviet guerrilla groups would get money, arms and training.
The Muslim Brotherhood and the Saudis, with the Pakistanis, backed the most radical Afghan factions. They organized training of groups that now oppose authorities in the Philippines, Kashmir and other regions.
In 1990-91, several Pakistani and foreign Islamist organizations financed by the United States and Saudi Arabia supported Saddam Hussein in the Gulf war, even though he was a prime enemy of the Saudis and the Americans.
The Palestinian intifada had already begun in Gaza and the West Bank in 1987. Two rival Islamist groups, Islamic Jihad and a larger one called the Mujama, were operating actively. Mujama followed the example of Iranian fundamentalists by founding a mosque-based system of welfare and educational institutions. By early 1988 it was renamed Islamic Resistance Movement - Hamas, from the Arabic acronym.
Israeli security turned a blind eye at first to Hamas because it opposed the more secular PLO. By the time it began its own anti- Israel violence, it was still receiving Saudi funds.
In 1990, Mr. Arafat unwisely chose to embrace Saddam Hussein's Iraq. There was a massive anti-Saudi and pro-Iraqi movement by the Muslim Brotherhood. The Saudis cut funds to these groups and to the PLO, but continued to fund Hamas - despite the fact that the Iranians apparently did so, too.
Because of this history, the U.S., Canadian and European governments which have protected Hamas fundraising and banking operations with their laws are going to have great difficulty sorting out the tangled threads of Hamas support and cutting them off.
Unless they do this, however, it is unlikely that any amount of conferences or political rhetoric will end the deadly attacks that now undermine Mideast peacemaking which the United States and its allies have worked at steadily since the Madrid peace conference of 1990.
March 13, 1996
The writer, an ABC News correspondent and author based in Cyprus, is winner of the 1995 George Polk Award for career achievement in journalism.
The International Herald Tribune