Secret Affairs: Britain's Collusion with Radical Islam
By Mark Curtis
352 pages (pb), Serpent's Tail, 2010.
In Tony Blair's new memoir, A Journey, the former British prime minister says one of his biggest regrets is introducing the Freedom of Information Act, because journalists have used it “as a weapon”.
Foremost in his mind would be people like Mark Curtis, who uses declassified British government documents to reveal the true recent history of the country. Curtis' previous book, Unpeople, showed that, by invading Iraq, Blair was continuing a great British tradition of plundering other nations' resources — a dirty habit that has killed more than 10 million people, and counting.
Curtis' latest book shows that, far from fighting Islamic terrorism, Britain has nurtured it whenever it has thought it useful to do so. Occasionally, the consequences for Australia have been horrific.
For the past 100 years, Britain's real enemy in the Middle East has been not Islam, but secular nationalism. As British colonial power began to ebb in the 20th century, it tried to prop up its interests in the resource-rich region by any means possible. Radical Islamists usually fitted the bill.
Britain has long employed Machiavellian divide-and-rule tactics. Lawrence of Arabia, the "great liberator" of the Arab world in the sanitised British version of history, would be better named Lawrence of Disunited Arabia, since he wanted it sliced up and undermined.
Curtis notes an intelligence memo Lawrence sent in 1916, which said the burgeoning Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire was “beneficial to us because it marches with our immediate aims, the break-up of the Islamic ‘bloc’.
“The Arabs are even less stable than the Turks. If properly handled they would remain in a state of political mosaic, a tissue of small jealous principalities incapable of cohesion.”
Following the Arab revolt, the British didn't back the revolt's leader, Sherif Hussein, who had visions of a united Muslim world. Instead, they favoured Ibn Saud, a hardline conservative Islamist whose ambitions were limited to Arabia. In an orgy of murder that cost the lives of up to 400,000 people, Saud established “Saudi” Arabia.
Britain's then-colonial secretary, Winston Churchill, noted that Saud's “austere, intolerant, well-armed and bloodthirsty” forces “kill all who do not share their opinions” and “make slaves of their wives and children”. But he later wrote that “my admiration for him [Saud] was deep, because of his unfailing loyalty to us”.
As a British ambassador to Saudi Arabia put it later in the 20th century, the House of Saud could be built up as “the great gookety gook of the Muslim world” to counter the rising popular Arab nationalism led by Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser.
In 1917, the British were intent on seizing Palestine, since it opened up a clear overland route to the huge oil reserves of British-controlled Iraq. Britain declared it was creating a home for the persecuted Jews, but “without prejudice” to the Arab inhabitants.
Historian Barbara Tuckman says the declaration “allowed Britain to acquire the Holy Land with a good conscience … they had to have a good moral cause”. Curtis says: “Britain also saw the Jewish national home as creating a reliable client population in a strategically important region.” It also fitted the bill for a disunited Arabia.
After Britain was left weak and near-bankrupt by the World War II, it was forced to end its rule over India. In doing so, it divided the country along the sectarian lines it had always exploited, pitching Hindus against Muslims. The strategically important Muslim state of Pakistan was formed. Its creation, says Curtis, “would contribute profoundly to the development of radical Islam throughout the world”.
In 1959, the Cabinet Office stated that Britain's "special interest" was "continued control of sources of oil with consequential profits to United Kingdom".
As the head of the Eastern Department of the Foreign Office put it: "Our interest lies in keeping Kuwait independent and separate, if we possibly can, in line with the idea of maintaining the four principal oil-producing areas [Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iran and Iraq] under separate political control."
In the same period, united Indonesia under anti-imperialist president Ahmed Sukarno was also seen as a threat. Sir Robert Scott, Britain's commissioner-general in Singapore, saw an opportunity to unsettle Sukarno by nurturing the radical Islamic elements in Indonesia's outlying provinces.
He told the Foreign Office: "I think the time has come to plan secretly with the Australians and Americans how best to give these elements the aid they need."
The result was a strengthening of Darul Islam (House of Islam), which went on to produce the violent splinter group Jemaah Islamiyah, the perpetrator of the 2002 Bali nightclub bombings in which 202 people, including 88 Australians, died.
In the oil crisis of 1973, Western industrial nations went from trading surpluses of $10 billion to deficits of $48 billion, while the oil producers accrued surpluses of $69 billion. Britain courted Saudi Arabia to invest its new wealth in indebted Britain, forging a partnership that continues today.
In return for oil, Britain supplies the Saudis with arms and military training. Britain turns a blind eye to the fact Saudi Arabia is the biggest funder of radical Islam worldwide, estimated at $50 billion so far.
Similarly, Pakistan has become more violent and extreme through Western funding, arms and training. Britain, with an eye on Central Asia’s huge oil and gas reserves, encouraged Pakistan to begin expanding northwards into Afghanistan and beyond.
The Taliban was formed from the 400,000 pupils in Pakistani madrassas (Islamic schools). Other violent Islamists had been championed as "freedom fighters" by Margaret Thatcher in their battle for Afghanistan against the Soviet Union.
Pakistan's General Pervez Musharraf (who later became president) trained Osama Bin Laden. The result, says, Curtis, was 9/11.
Britain has always sought to hedge its bets by funding both sides in war or politics — and did just that with Islamic terrorist groups who began using London as a base for their activities worldwide. Britain gave them free reign, so long as they supplied MI5 with information.
The most notorious result was the 7/7 bombings on London public transport in 2005. A lesser-known result was the death of an Australian in 1998, who was killed after being kidnapped in Yemen by a group of jihadists trained by British ex-soldiers, funded by Finsbury Park cleric Abu Hamza, an MI5 informant.
Today, says Curtis, Britain finds itself in an absurd situation. It continues to insist the real enemy is Iran and that Saudi Arabia and Pakistan are moderates, when they are anything but. Almost half of all foreign jihadists in Iraq are Saudis and the US military says they carry out more suicide attacks there than any other nationality.
Curtis says 70% of terrorist activity in Britain has links to Pakistan, yet Britain continues to funnel arms and aid to the country, which Pakistan then passes on to jihadists who are fighting against NATO forces in Afghanistan.
Perhaps as a result of Curtis' source material, his book is a dense, dry tome — less like Tony Blair and more like his doomed successor, Gordon Brown. It would have perhaps benefited from some Blair-like levity.
However, if you want to find out the real dirty details of British politics, this book will tell you far more than Blair's self-serving memoir — and it’s guaranteed that Blair will hate it.