Sleeping with the Devil

Developing Just Leadership

Eric Walberg

Sha'ban 03, 1435 2014-06-01

News & Analysis

by Eric Walberg (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 43, No. 4, Sha'ban, 1435)

Muslims opposed to the extremist ideology espoused and practiced by the likes of al-Qaeda, have to be careful not to become unwitting tools of imperialism.

Life is precious for Muslims, and killing an enemy is a serious matter, not to be taken lightly. This was the focus of my previous article “The moral potholes in fighting imperialism” about the fate of Abu Hamza al-Misri

During the build-up to 9/11, the debate within political Islam was epitomized by well known “Islamist” figures ‘Abdullah ‘Azzam vs Osama Bin Laden/Ayman al-Zawahiri; in particular, the dilemma over the extent to which killing is justified in the fight against imperialism. Life is precious for Muslims, and killing an enemy is a serious matter, not to be taken lightly. This was the focus of my previous article “The moral potholes in fighting imperialism” about the fate of Abu Hamza al-Misri (CI, May 2014).

Another important issue for those struggling against imperialism is the problem of preventing imperialist agents from infiltrating and otherwise undermining genuine movements of jihad. Both these issues were spelled out by double agent Omar Nasiri in his memoir, Inside the Jihad: My Life with Al-Qaeda, A Spy’s Story (2006). Nasiri was involved in the 1990s Islamic insurgency in Algeria, but came to realize it was compromised by Algerian security agents. Despite his open rejection of the goals of the West in the Muslim world, Nasiri was shocked when he discovered that the Algerian struggle was fatally compromised, and he agreed to monitor the Islamic movement for the French and British security forces, especially in London, where he saw through the naive infatuation of many Muslim youth with Abu Hamza, who was slow to disassociate himself from the Algerian Armed Islamic Groups (GIA).

Another important issue for those struggling against imperialism is the problem of preventing imperialist agents from infiltrating and otherwise undermining genuine movements of jihad.

While the very idea of working for Western intelligence as a spy is shocking, it is nonetheless worth considering the case of Nasiri (a pseudonym, as the actual person — a French citizen of Moroccan heritage — is now living a quiet life in Germany with his wife and family). Nasiri helped the French and British security forces in order to prevent terrorist activities violating Islam, though he made clear to his French and British contacts and insists in his memoir that he still wants imperialists out, and wants a dignified Muslim culture not modeled on the West. Even as he slipped into Afghanistan in the 1990s and trained at Khaldan, a camp for non-Afghan volunteers in al-Qaeda and related jihadist groups, he was torn between abandoning his spying to fight in Chechnya, and returning to Europe to report on what he saw and experienced.

When the French were finally forced to abandon their colony, they left the reins of power in the hands of Algerian secular socialists, bypassing Islamic leaders.

Algeria was brutally occupied by the French in 1830, and the secular occupiers did their best to destroy Algeria’s Islamic heritage. The backbone of resistance were Muslims fighting for their faith and lands, true Islamic jihad, as epitomized by the great resistance leader ‘Abd al-Qadir. When the French were finally forced to abandon their colony, they left the reins of power in the hands of Algerian secular socialists, bypassing Islamic leaders.

From the French point of view, even though the secularists were the “enemy,” they were “the best of a bad lot,” since they would act to resist the establishment of an Islamic state. Eventually they ran out of steam, and the Islamic movement after winning the election was poised to take power in December 1991, precipitating the coup supported by the French, and leading to the bloodbath of the 1990s.

This is the background to Nasiri’s collaboration with the French and British security forces, which looks venal at first glance, but in fact was a two-edged sword from the point of view of the former colonial masters. Concerning the brutal civil war in Algeria in the 1990s, Nasiri writes, “the GIA was riddled from the start with spies from the Algerian secret service” and “agent provocateurs who by 1995 were deliberately shifting the campaign of violence into France, to try and draw Paris into the conflict in opposition to the Islamists and in support for the Algerian state.” The secular Algerian elite backed the coup in hopes that their former colonial masters would come to their aid against the threat of an Islamic state in Algeria.

Nasiri met many of the GIA operatives in Brussels, including Ali Touchent, who Nasiri claims was the son of an Algerian commissar of police, and evaded arrest on a number of occasions. “What I want more than anything is to save Islam from these terrible excesses and innovations.” The insurgents buying Israeli Uzi submachine guns, was humiliating, but “now something much worse is happening: we’re fighting our wars using our enemies’ tactics. If we, as Muslims, let ourselves become like them, then there will be nothing left to fight for. This is my jihad.”

Nasiri’s self-justification as a double agent is intriguing. He represents the movement of rejection of both imperialism and the methods of struggle inherited from the imperialist era within political Islam.

There is even a small but growing body of cinema devoted to the role of Muslim émigrés in the West in exposing the origins of terrorist activities through the guise of such double agents. In Traitor: The Truth is Complicated (2008), the hero Samir Horn, a mixed-race Somali-American and former Special Operations officer (both Pentagon and CIA) in Afghanistan, apparently defects from the CIA to work with an al-Qaeda-type terrorist group (Nathir).

Special Forces operatives are under the Pentagon but the CIA also has its Special Activities Division recruited from these Special Forces, and inter-force rivalry sometimes results in situations where no one is in control, as the film demonstrates. The hero supports the bombings carried out by Nathir, partly out of anti-US convictions, but all the time as a CIA (double) agent, and when he was forced to undertake a bombing involving mass civilian targeting in the US, he decides to betray Nathir to the FBI for Nathir’s “betrayal of Islam.”

The CIA is depicted negatively (as secretive and out-of-control) vs. the FBI (concerned not with wild international conspiracies, but with a narrower defense of security within the US). The hero’s anti-Americanism is treated sympathetically, as are his “terrorist” accomplices who are depicted as devout Muslims misled by a Machiavellian leader.

This scenario follows the critique of the CIA vs. the FBI by Laurence Wright and other mainstream liberals. Traitor joins Syriana (2005) as a surprisingly critical look at how US policy in the Muslim East produces terrorism. Syriana was inspired by ex-CIA operative Robert Baer’s Sleeping with the Devil: How Washington Sold our Soul for Saudi Crude (2003).

I won’t give away the dramatic ending. The audience can’t help but root for Changez, who suffered Islamophobia as a Muslim immigrant in post-9/11 New York, eventually rejecting his Western ways, but going to the opposite extreme — from capitalist fundamentalist to Muslim fundamentalist.

Yet another such movie, though independently produced and a commercial flop by Hollywood standards, is The Reluctant Fundamentalist, a 2012 political thriller drama film based on the 2007 novel by Mohsin Hamid, directed by Mira Nair. In 2011, an American professor/CIA operative at Lahore University is kidnapped. Yet another CIA operative and journalist tries to convince Changez Khan, a former Wall Street investment analysis-turned-Islamist, suspected of involvement in the kidnapping, to help the CIA retrieve their man.

I won’t give away the dramatic ending. The audience can’t help but root for Changez, who suffered Islamophobia as a Muslim immigrant in post-9/11 New York, eventually rejecting his Western ways, but going to the opposite extreme — from capitalist fundamentalist to Muslim fundamentalist.

Nair won the Peace Award at the German Film Awards and the 1st Century Award at International Film Festival of India but the movie is just too honest to attract a wide following in the West. Nonetheless, it is heartening to see realism creeping into Western cinema. The days of blithely targeting Muslims as the “bad guys,” like the Wild West cinema’s original depiction of native Americans, are numbered.

As Islam and the West become increasingly entwined, Muslims face the confusion of who the “enemy” — the “bad guys” — and “good guys” really are.

As Islam and the West become increasingly entwined, Muslims face the confusion of who the “enemy” — the “bad guys” — and “good guys” really are. A misguided jihadist may be the “bad guy,” and a spy working for Western security forces may be, relatively speaking a “good guy.” Sometimes, one and the same person embodies contradictory impulses. The need for Muslims to be able to think critically, and to be truly literate about the meaning of the Qur’an and about Islamic history, has never been greater.

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