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The Power of the Wave Principle

The CIA Said 'Find An Islamic Billy Graham'

Politics / Middle East Sep 14, 2013 - 06:20 PM GMT

By: Andrew_McKillop


As of September 2013, US Secretary of State John Kerry is probably boning up Putin's Russian chess playing gambits and tactics, but his State Dept's goals in the Middle East, in the 1950s included the hot project of finding an Islamic Billy Graham.

US historian John Buescher says the goals of U.S. foreign policy in the region, during the 1950s, as including the race to find fiery Islamic preachers able to cut the political ground away from fast-rising and troublesome Arab nationalist army colonels like Syria's Husni al-Zaim and Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser. At the same time, the U.S. was courting Nasser as a “bulwark against communism”.

The goal was to protect and serve American and western European access to oil in the Middle East, safeguarding what was then the main Suez Canal route for oil transport and other trade shipments. In Syria, the rise of Islamic preachers could blunt Arab opposition to the then young state of Israel. Also on the agenda, the US State Dept and CIA were working to end British colonial rule in the area, in line with the American ideal of self-determination expressed by the Atlantic Charter, and enable American oil companies to edge into former British-dominated oil concessions.

The State Department of the 1950s saw Egypt as the natural leader in the Arab world – and the main focus of Soviet Union encroachment and potential Chinese expansion, and therefore worked to make it the main Arab ally. The gameplan set out to encourage pro-Western and modernizing elements in Egyptian society. This especially focused the army and airforce – but was interpreted as also needing fiery Islamic ulema to whip up what was not yet called “the Arab street”.

Eisenhower's Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles believed that Egypt and other regional countries would naturally undergo a two-step process. First, corrupt and outdated regimes would be cast aside, mostly by military coups also including “non-destructive” military coups, and be replaced by authoritarian regimes that would pull together, unite and organize the country's various factions. Second, after that, with military aid and economic assistance from the US, and trade ties with the rest of the world, the Arab countries would emerge through a peaceful evolutionary process as full-fledged democracies, no longer interested in the ulemas.

After President Roosevelt's meeting with King Farouk of Egypt, shortly after his meeting with King Fahd of Saudi Arabia at the end of World War II, American diplomats assured Egyptian leaders the U.S. supported the country's efforts at self-determination. This meant getting rid of Britain, to Egyptians, but by a fatal misunderstanding the US strategy was firstly to protect Egypt from communist subversion. Another fatal error was to see the Muslim Brotherhood – which supplied the fiery ulema who helped weaken Nasser - as a communist-type political organization, which it was not at the time. This forced the Brotherhood and Nasser into each others arms, for a long critical moment.

Another main problem as Buescher covers in detail in his published works, was that the various goals of US policy towards Egypt were often at complete odds with one another. One major example was that the US was sympathetic to Egypt wanting to free itself from British colonial rule--just like the US had done—but the US was allied with Britain to oppose the Soviet Union and the already-increasing Chinese economic expansion in Europe, Asia and SE Asia. Despite this, US diplomats always emphasized their support for full Egyptian self-rule when meeting the country's political and military leaders. In other words they lied.

King Farouk, like Nasser after him was forced to align himself with factions, including the soon-to-be outlawed Muslim Brotherhood that demanded an immediate abrogation of the treaty that allowed Britain to control the Suez Canal even after Britain had pulled all its troops out of Egypt. The King was riled by America's unwillingness to support Egyptian demands for Britain to abandon Egypt and quit the Suez Canal immediately. To the US, it seemed that political power in Egypt was rapidly being corrupted by nationalist and socialist pressures and that US influence was going "down the drain". The fear of Islamic influence – the Muslim Brotherhood – was downplayed or ignored.

The US made another huge mistake. It took the radicalization of Egyptian politics as meaning the US must find and bind the coming winners. Historians reach different conclusions about the extent of the involvement of American diplomats and the CIA at this juncture, but it is likely they met and supported dissatisfied Egyptian military officers and promised them that if there was a military coup, the U.S. would not oppose it and would prevent any British opposition to it - as long as U.S. nationals were allowed to leave in safety and their property was protected.

The coup occurred in July 1952 when General Mohamed Naguid and Colonel Gamel Abdel Nasser emerged as the coup leaders. The military government immediately asked for U.S. military and economic aid. The US initially balked at this, but when President Eisenhower and his Secretary of State Dulles took power in 1953, Dulles and his brother Allen, then director of the CIA, quickly provided military advisors and equipment to the Egyptian military. Sometimes operating clandestinely, the State Department and the CIA gave Egyptian leaders, especially Nasser, intelligence training and support for weakening and moderating internal political rivals and operating propaganda campaigns.

By 1954 Nasser had edged out Naguid. During the tumult surrounding this, Nasser fully outlawed the main opposition to his “secularist and nationalist government”, the Muslim Brotherhood, after a probably staged assassination attempt against him during one of his speeches. At the time, Nasser was wearing bulletproof clothing supplied by the CIA. Public sympathy for Nasser surged, allowing him to quash his opposition – headed by the Muslim Brotherhood.

As now openly published by world media, since August 18, Egypt's military-led government is "reviewing" its strategic relationships with the US and other Western governments critical of its crackdown on Islamist protestors, deepening the divide between the Obama administration and Cairo. While Saudi Arabia is outspoken in calling the slain protestors “terrorists and haters”, Turkey is outspoken in calling them victims of a “criminal military coup”. Qatar was also a major backer of the Mohamed Morsi government. Fatal cracks have opened wide for the supposed 'Pax Americana' operating in the Middle East, of which Egypt and Israel are, or were the two Near Eastern pillars, and Turkey is or was a longstanding NATO pillar. The petro-states were later added as handy sources of funding for “regime change adventures” in the region.

In a statement that could have been issued in 1954 following Nasser's outlawing and repression of the Muslim Brotherhood, an MB official, cited by the 'Wall St Journal' August 18, said: “"We believe that Egyptians are determined to get their freedom back peacefully" He added "In history, all the revolutions were against very powerful regimes. They succeeded to overthrow them. And this is what we believe that the Egyptian people will do."

Also showing timewarp, in the 1950s the US believed that Egypt could engineer a lasting peace with Israel, given enough American persuasion and tax dollars. At the time, when the U.S. found that Nasser and Israeli PM Ben Gurion were either unable or unwilling to make a peace agreement, Eisenhower and Secretary of State Dulles opted to call Nasser's bluff by countering him in several covert ways, especially by promoting US relations with his then-regional Arab rivals of Iraq, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Libya. The US felt that Nasser would be alarmed that other Arab states were aligning with the West, leaving Egypt with “only one friend”, the Soviet Union.

Obama's supposed “alignment” with the Muslim Brotherhood, claimed by several analysts, could be seen as a tactic for pressuring Egypt's military to work with the MB – ending in spectacular and bloody failure.

The 1950s arm-twisting tactic also failed. In response, Nasser stepped up his anti-American and Arab socialist and nationalist rhetoric in the region and in return for military hardware, helped Soviet attempts at organizing covert intelligence operations in the region, designed to undermine the Arab monarchies of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Libya and Iraq. Nasser also created a major event with plans to construct the Aswan High Dam, which initially the US had been willing to fund, with the Soviet Union. This event was a major gamechanger due to it heralding a series of situations where then Third World countries deliberately played off the US against the Soviet Union, and in Nasser's case, increasingly also against China.

The Suez Canal crisis of 1956, leading to the joint UK-French-Israeli occupation of the canal zone, was another Nasser gamble. Nasser's logic was that by nationalizing the Canal, Egypt would obtain enough revenues to pay for the Aswan Dam, making it unnecessary for either US or USSR financing. In fact this near-world-war event, which caused panic and rage in the US State Department and the threat by the US against Britain that it would massively dump UK Treasury bonds provoking an instant sterling crisis unless Britain abandoned its Canal occupation, ended with Egypt holding greater powers over Canal revenues – and Soviet financing for the Aswan Dam.

Much more insidiously, as Buescher says, Nasser's strategic success invited pro-Western countries in the MENA region to gin up and exaggerate internal or external "communist threats" as a fast track to procure US emergency aid without the need to negotiate political agreements or treaties.

Today all that has happened is the word “communist” has been replaced by “Islamist or terrorist”.

In both cases, today as yesteryear, the always-covert nature of many operations, including assassination projects against heads of state, but also much smaller operations made and makes it impossible to control and coordinate. US Administration officials, supposedly directing policy in the Middle East, were and are often in the dark. In the case of Nasser, multiple covert assassination plots were hatched by the CIA and other agencies, at the exact same time as the State Department lauded Nasser as the most powerful man in the Middle East, able to steer a line between Soviet east and American west.

The best selling author of the 1989 work 'The Game Player: The Confessions of the CIA's Original Political Operative', Mike Copeland (died in 1991), operated in private life at the CIA-cover firm Booz Allen Hamilton. According to him, he remained the senior resident cover operative for CIA action in Egypt for over 25 years.

In 1953 he met Nasser for the first time, to offer US. economic development and military assistance at a time when the US “had to face and define its policy” in all three root sectors of perceived American interest in the region. These were the communist threat, the birth and survival of Israel, and the supply of petroleum. Islamism or Arab street rage did not figure.

Claims are made that it was Copeland who advised that the US must back Egypt's control of the Suez Canal, thwart the UK-French-Israeli canal zone takeover, and act to ending British control of the region's oil resources. He though this action would bind Nasser to the US, by placing the US behind Egypt's legitimate national interests and entrain similar approval from other Arab regimes.

Copeland freely says that he was personally impressed by Nasser's fervent pan-Arab nationalist stance, and understood why he rebuffed American appeals to join the anti-Soviet military intelligence pact that CIA director Allen Dulles was polishing up. Dulles was quoted as snarling to Copeland: “If that colonel Nasser of yours pushes us too far, we will break him in half”. Dulles frequently browbeat Copeland, the CIA’s man-on-the-spot in Cairo.

Copeland explains, and criticizes the CIA for its expedient “mission oriented” house style. Dulles pondered ways to knock the pesky Nasser off his pedestal. So this mission was cranked up and firstly resulted in multiple assassination plots, even a plot to lace Nasser's drinks with LSD to make him talk nonsense in public. After that, Copeland concluded the fallback strategy was – religion.

American spies opted for pushing “the opiate of the people,” as Karl Marx described religion. Copeland was off and running. He visited Egyptian mosques in search of charismatic imams who could sway the Arab masses in a manner congenial to U.S. interests. The key term thrown around in CIA briefings at the time was: “Find an Islamic Billy Graham”. Inevitably, Copeland made many visits to Muslim Brotherhood cells and mosques. His analysis was that the Brotherhood, by virtue of its antipathy to Arab nationalism and to Communism, might be the viable counterweight to Nasser.

In the years ahead and across the region, US intelligence became a de facto partner of the Brotherhood as it evolved from a mass-based, social organization into a clandestine political entity dedicated to overthrowing the “bourgeois and secular” state.

When Egyptian army officers led by Colonel Nasser toppled the pro-British monarch Farouk, the Muslim Brotherhood gave them full support. But the Brothers fell out with Nasser when it became apparent that he was a “secularist” who did not intend establishing an Islamic state. Nasser soon cracked down hard on them, in major part because it was and still is the largest organized popular grass-roots force in the country – and for Nasser the last obstacle to his autocratic leadership style, which had nothing at all to do with democracy. Nasser’s aim was to only banish religious expression from the public stage whenever it was not fully government controlled.

Nasser outlawed the Muslim Brotherhood, jailed thousands of its members, and killed dozens of its leaders. Some fled the country to escape successive waves of brutal repression aimed at smashing their organization. By an extreme irony, recounted by Copeland, Saudi Arabia became the magnet for persecuted Islamist refugees from Egypt (as well as Syria, Iraq, Libya, and other Arab states) and Brotherhood expatriates were welcomed with open arms by the oil-rich Saudi monarchy.


For the Saudi royal family of the time, the Brotherhood's hostility to godless Communism was a gauge of its loyalty to the Arab world and Islam.

The Saudi “flirt” with the Muslim Brotherhood lasted much longer than Nasser's flirt with the organization – but not forever. Today, the Saudi monarchy, and its partner monarchies in the Gulf States – spectacularly excluding Qatar - are prepared to put $12 billion on the table to smash the Brotherhood. This of course is a classic rearguard action, too late.
As Copeland's book explains, from a CIA stance, what later was called “blowback” was already a problem in the Egypt of the 1950s. Creating a seemingly all-powerful leader like Nasser necessarily led to abuse of power, the installation of a police state, repression, and rebellion. Nasser may have been a “historic leader' but this was for a specific time and place. Later, he became a dictator.

Fully known to the CIA from its start, exiled Ikhwani (Brotherhood) cadres were employed as teachers and imams in Saudi mosques, schools and government agencies, where they promoted the extremist doctrine of Sayyid Qutb, then the Brotherhood’s leading Salafist theorist. Executed in 1966 after ten years of confinement in Egyptian torture chambers, Qutb is arguably the most influential political religious scholar in modern Islam. Following the 1952 coup which brought him to power with General Naguib, Nasser is said to have frequently visited Qutb's house to ask him for ideas about the Arab Revolution. From strands including Salafism and Wahabism, Qutb fashioned the lethal variant of political Islam, now the Al Qaeda doctrine, that provides so-called Koranic justification for violence as the sole way to rid the Muslim world of corrupting Western influences.

As described by the analyst Martin A. Lee, Qutb’s incendiary writings decisively influenced a generation of Islamic militants, including Osama bin Laden, the scion of a wealthy Saudi family, who had been first exposed to Qutb’s prose while attending King Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah. One of bin Laden’s instructors was Professor Mohamed Qutb, the brother of Sayyid Qutb, exiled to Saudi Arabia, who taught classes on the imperative need for Islamic jihad.
After Nasser died in 1970, the Muslim Brotherhood, increasingly distrusted by the Saudi royal family but buoyed by Saudi petrodollars, resurfaced in Egypt – where it was wooed by President Anwar Sadat, Nasser’s successor, who freed Islamic activists from jail, lifted many restrictions on the Brotherhood, and used them in his power struggle against the Nasserite diehards and student groups that disapproved of Sadat’s decision to make amends with the United States. His courtship of the Brotherhood was in no way hindered by the CIA, according to Copeland, and under its very nose the formerly-banned but now tolerated Muslim Brotherhood was transformed in its home country.

By inadvertence more than design, the CIA was in the process of spawning, or covering the emergence of a loose-knit but powerful Islamist movement, dedicated to violence, that would soon operate in 43 countries. Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood's transformation was a key stage in the process which very surely and certainly is still playing out, today, firstly in Syria.

By Andrew McKillop


Former chief policy analyst, Division A Policy, DG XVII Energy, European Commission. Andrew McKillop Biographic Highlights

Co-author 'The Doomsday Machine', Palgrave Macmillan USA, 2012

Andrew McKillop has more than 30 years experience in the energy, economic and finance domains. Trained at London UK’s University College, he has had specially long experience of energy policy, project administration and the development and financing of alternate energy. This included his role of in-house Expert on Policy and Programming at the DG XVII-Energy of the European Commission, Director of Information of the OAPEC technology transfer subsidiary, AREC and researcher for UN agencies including the ILO.

© 2013 Copyright Andrew McKillop - All Rights Reserved Disclaimer: The above is a matter of opinion provided for general information purposes only and is not intended as investment advice. Information and analysis above are derived from sources and utilising methods believed to be reliable, but we cannot accept responsibility for any losses you may incur as a result of this analysis. Individuals should consult with their personal financial advisor.

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