Ammar Ali Hasan, Novelist and researcher in political sociology
The declassification of official documents dating back to the time of the British Empire — which at some point spanned lands from Nigeria all the way to India — has shed important light on the nature of the relationship between London and radical Islamist groups across the Muslim world.
British author and journalist Mark Curtis examined these documents from the intelligence service and Foreign Office in a book published in 2010 entitled Secret Affairs: Britain’s Collusion with Radical Islam. Curtis — who is also a fellow researcher at the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House), director of the World Development Movement (Global Justice Now) and the head of global advocacy and policy at Christian Aid — has said that the main motive behind his book stemmed from the fear he experienced after the 7 July 2005 London bombings by Al-Qaeda, which killed 52 people and injured more than 700.
The timing of his book was also important, on the eve of the “Arab spring” that would bring Islamists to greater prominence in a number of countries across the Middle East and North Africa, notably in Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Mursi was elected president in 2012.
Through his diligent analysis of these official documents, Curtis is able to comprehensively map out Britain’s role in encouraging Islamic political groups in the Muslim world. This was done through direct contacts with their leaders, signing secret agreements with them, and exchanging information with their intelligence agencies.
This relationship continued to a lesser degree after the United States replaced Britain as the world leader after the Second World War. Britain would maintain some of its interests by working alongside the U.S., and part of this new arrangement was turning over many political files to Washington, including files pertaining to radical Islamist groups.
Curtis’s book reveals Britain’s links with countries, groups, and individuals from Africa and Asia to the Balkans, including the Sokoto Caliphate in northern Nigeria and aligning with proto-Islamist forces to combat Communism in the ruins of Yugoslavia. Curtis contends that Britain was involved in crushing the last remnants of the Ottoman Empire, overseeing Pakistan’s secession from India, and working to eradicate Arab nationalist sentiment, which reached its peak with the Soviet-backed military dictatorship of Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt. There is also the infamous case of Iran, where Britain had a (much-exaggerated) role in removing the autocratic premier Mohammad Mosaddegh, who caused an international crisis by pushing for the expropriation of British oil. To maintain its interests, Britain supported both Shiite and Sunni groups in Iran and Iraq, undertook commercial activity in Southeast Asia and India, and gradually became less hostile to Israel. All this was done under Britain’s favorite political principle: divide and rule.
Britain and Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood
In Egypt, Britain donated £500 to the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood — Hassan al-Banna — shortly after the founding of the group in 1928, along with six members of the Suez Canal Company, which was created by and still controlled by the British at the time. By 1941, the Muslim Brotherhood had become so powerful that Britain began offering them financial aid in exchange for not attacking its interests.
In the same year, officials from the British Embassy in Cairo held a meeting with Egyptian Prime Minister Amin Osman where it was agreed that the Egyptian government would secretly provide financial support to the Muslim Brotherhood, but government informers would be planted in the ranks of the group to monitor its activities. The informants were tasked to monitor the group’s possible links with Nazi Germany after the Muslim Brotherhood’s wing in Palestine established contacts with Adolf Hitler.
Tarek al-Beshri, in his book on Egypt’s national movement from 1945-1952, has suggested that the relationship was deeper, and that it was Muslim Brotherhood students who confronted anti-British demonstrations organized by the liberal-nationalist Wafd Party. Al-Beshri claims that Brotherhood prisoners were treated better than Communists and supporters of the fascist Young Egypt Party, among whose members Nasser could be counted.
Al-Banna’s assassination in 1949 is generally believed to be the work of agents of the Egyptian government, which does not necessarily conflict with Curtis’ suggestion that Al-Banna was struck down by one of his own followers from within the clandestine structure of the Brethren. Curtis then delves into the relationship between Britain and Al-Banna’s successor Hassan al-Hudaybi.
In December 1951, British officials held several meetings with one of Al-Hudaybi’s advisers, despite the Brotherhood publicly criticizing the British “occupation” of Egypt. In early 1953, British officials held a face-to-face meeting with Al-Hudaybi to understand the group’s positions as London tried to forge a new way forward with Egypt after the so-called Free Officers destroyed the parliamentary monarchy with their coup in July 1952, establishing a military despotism and pushing British troops out of the country. The documents indicate that Britain wanted to use the Muslim Brotherhood as a lever to pressure the Cairo regime in negotiations.
Curtis cites a handwritten memo from 7 February 1953 that details a meeting held between British officials and the Muslim Brotherhood, in which a person named “Abu Rafiq” told the eastern advisor of the British Embassy, Trevor Evans, that “if Egypt searched all over the world for a friend, it would only find Britain”. The British concluded from this that there was a wing of the Muslim Brotherhood willing to cooperate with London. The memo stated: “The willingness to cooperate probably stems from the increasing middle-class influence in the Brotherhood, compared with the predominantly popular leadership of the movement in the days of Hassan al-Banna”.
Nasser accused the Brotherhood of going “behind the back of the revolution” in having contact with Britain’s representatives and slammed the British government for “conspiring” with the Muslim Brotherhood. Such charges would be used by Nasser to legitimate his all-out suppression of the Brothers in 1954, a process that had begun earlier and almost certainly contributed to the Brotherhood’s outreach to the British in search of a counter-balancing force.
Undermining Arab Nationalism
It was after this that a new phase began in relations between the Muslim Brotherhood and Britain as they found common cause in undermining Arab nationalism. This interest was also shared by the conservative Arab regimes allied to London and Washington. These conservative governments granted diplomatic passports, money, and safe haven to the Islamists after Nasser banished them following a failed attempt on his life in March 1954.
In a memo, Evans wrote that Britain would continue its cooperation with the Muslim Brotherhood in order to achieve “Britain’s main objective: the disappearance of the Nasser regime.” Cooperation was not confined only with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt but also extended to the Levant and Iraq, in order to counter the growing pan-Arabist trend.
Curtis traces the evolution of the Anglo-American de facto alignment with the Muslim Brotherhood through their international organization led by Saeed Ramadan. Eventually, after Nasser died and was replaced by Anwar Sadat, Egypt would change its policy on the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists like the “Islamic Group”, tacitly encouraging them in order to counter the Communist proxies of the Soviet Union, which was at that time trying to recolonise Egypt.
Britain’s Ties to Islamists in Other Countries
Probably the best-known case of Britain — and other Western countries — allying with Islamists is Afghanistan after the Soviet conquest in 1979. The West supported insurgent groups to push back against Soviet imperialism, and the most powerful such groups descended from the local manifestation of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Jamiat-e-Islami. These radical Islamic organizations were used to weaken and ultimately defeat the Soviet Union’s grip on the country. The Muslim Brotherhood also played a major role in Afghanistan through the relief agencies.
Alongside the Afghan resistance there was a small contingent of “Arab-Afghans”, the most infamous being Osama bin Laden, who set up an office in London called the Advice and Reformation Committee, which recruited trainees, purchased equipment, performed services, and received reports send by jihadist organizations across the Muslim world.
Curtis argues that Britain’s role in helping the Afghan resistance makes it culpable in the subsequent establishment of the Taliban regime, and under its protection the Global Islamic Front to Fight Jews and Crusaders, i.e. Al-Qaeda.
By Curtis’ account, Britain played an important role in establishing the Islamic Group — founded in British-ruled India in 1941, which became a major political player in Pakistan following its separation from India — and also secretly cooperated with the Dar al-Islam movement in Indonesia, radical Shiite forces in Iran, Ismaili Shiites in Iraq, and encouraged guerrilla groups in Azerbaijan, Bosnia, Kosovo and Libya.
Curtis then circles back to Britain’s continuing interaction with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt during Hosni Mubarak’s time in power. The British ambassador in Cairo wrote a memo in June 2005, noting that talking to the Brotherhood might be useful in getting information and the group could be used to pressure Mubarak into introducing political reform. The memo warned, however, that while pressuring Mubarak to legitimize the group could damage the London-Cairo relationship, “if the Brotherhood is suppressed aggressively, it will necessitate a response from us”.
The British Foreign Office approved this policy. It believed that accommodating radical Islamist organizations would give Britain some regional and international leverage to advance its interests. In Curtis’ view, London considered the Muslim Brotherhood as a “reliable bulwark to any more popular national change in Egypt and the region”.
Curtis gives an overview of successive British governments — Labour or Conservative — and says that their cooperation with Islamist groups in states of the former Empire remained constant. He noted that many radicals took up residence in London, and they appeared to have official support, under the guise of political asylum. In this context, Curtis notes:
“Whitehall not only tolerated but encouraged the development of Londonistan — the capital acting as a base and organizing centre for jihadist groups — even as this provided a de facto green light to terrorism abroad. I suggest that some elements, at least, in the British establishment, may have allowed some Islamist groups to operate from London not only because they provided information to the security services but also because they were seen as useful to British foreign policy, notably in maintaining a politically divided Middle East — a long-standing goal of imperial and postwar planners, and as a lever to influence foreign governments’ policies.”
London Becomes a Hub for Radicals
There is no question that in the 1990s London became possibly the leading centre for Islamist radicals in the world, combining a great concentration of extremists with great freedom to operate. The Algerian Armed Islamic Group (GIA) found London as a reserve base when it began losing its struggle with the Algerian military and France started constricting the GIA’s freedom to operate. The Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), the Egyptian Jihad Group, and Al-Qaeda itself found London to be hospitable territory, with notorious figures like Omar Othman (Abu Qatada al-Filistini) essentially unhindered as they indoctrinated, recruited, and raised money. Al Qaeda considered London to be the center of its operations in Europe and millions of pounds were raised to recruit and finance terrorists from Afghanistan to Yemen.
Curtis contends that this amounted to Britain cooperating with radical Islamist groups and that this brought advantages to London in achieving three main objectives:
First, exerting influence and control of energy resources;
Second, maintaining Britain’s place in a pro-Western international financial system. In this respect, Britain cooperated with the U.S., which the author says “has a similar history of collusion with radical Islam”, and given the diminishing of British power, it became a junior partner, or the de facto covert arm of the U.S. government, and even “doing the dirty work that Washington could not, or did not want to do”.
Third, preventing these groups perpetrating their evil in Britain. As explained by Crispin Black, a former Cabinet Office intelligence analyst, there was a covenant between extremists in Britain and security services: Britain would provide refuge and welfare to the Islamist extremists, and in return they would not launch any attacks inside Britain or against British interests abroad. A Special Branch officer said: “There was a deal with these guys. We told them that ‘if you don’t cause us any problems, then we won’t bother you’.”
Curtis believes that British policies have fueled modern-day terrorism, writing:
“British governments, both Labour and Conservative, have, in pursuing the so-called ‘national interest’ abroad, colluded for decades with radical Islamic forces, including terrorist organizations. They have connived with them, worked alongside them and sometimes trained and financed them, in order to promote specific foreign policy objectives…With some of these radical Islamic forces, Britain has been in a permanent, strategic alliance to secure fundamental, long-term foreign policy goals; with others, it has been a temporary marriage of convenience to achieve specific short-term outcomes”.
But Curtis stops short of accusing Britain of having created radical Islam or violent jihadist groups. To suggest this latter point would overestimate Western influence over regions such as the Middle East and Southeast Asia, ignoring domestic and ideological factors which contributed to the spawning of these organizations.
According to Curtis, Britain has benefited from cooperation with these group in five specific ways:
- Gaining a global counterforce to Arab nationalist Left-wing ideologies and Soviet Communism;
- Added a considerable conservative force within their own countries to counter Leftists;
- Gave support to pro-Western regimes;
- Offered a violent confrontational force that could be used to destabilize or overthrow governments which became hostile to the West; and
- Offered a potential military force to fight war, if necessary, or to use them as political tools to push governments for change.
In Curtis’ estimation these benefits are still being reaped today, albeit more so by the U.S., rather than Britain.