Apr/May 2010

The Jihad Factory

Gal Beckerman


"I consider only the Mohammedans to be safe. All the others I consider unsafe," Adolf Hitler proclaimed at his headquarters one day in 1942. "I don't see any risk if one actually sets up pure Mohammedan units." The Soviet Union, Hitler's enemy, had a population of millions of Muslims who felt their religious and nationalist aspirations were being quashed by the Communist state. The führer's idea was simple: exploit this anger for military and propaganda gain. Like much else about the Nazis' expansion eastward, these plans would crumble. However, once the United States emerged from World War II and geared up to fight the USSR, its former ally, the CIA sought to employ militant Muslims to combat Communism. But if Hitler thought there was nothing to lose by mobilizing Islam for his own gain, the United States would learn otherwise—particularly on that cloudless morning of September 11, 2001.

Before the smoke had cleared, critics of US policy claimed that the attacks were the result of unintended consequences, a form of blowback. The desperate search to find a cause for the massacre yielded this story: The United States had armed and trained Islamic fundamentalists, the mujahideen, to resist the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, the latest cold-war front line. Their battle won and the Soviet Union dead, these emboldened fighters, Osama bin Laden among them, had turned their sights on their former benefactors. We had helped create the monster.

As most people understand it, Afghanistan is where the story began and September 11 where it ended. But the great surprise—the revelation, really—of Ian Johnson's new book, A Mosque in Munich, is how much older and more complex this entanglement really was. In this telling, the blowback effect in Afghanistan just marked the last, loudest note in a quest to get the Muslim world to dance to the West's tune.

For Johnson, the Nazis are the starting point—particularly the colorful academic Gerhard von Mende, a Turkic-studies expert who threw his lot in with Hitler. Head of the Caucasus division at the Ostministerium, the office overseeing the Nazi-occupied eastern territories, von Mende pioneered the notion of turning the oppressed peoples of the Soviet empire—Tatars, Georgians, Chechens, Kazakhs, Uzbeks—into a fifth column.

When Hitler lost and the cold war began, von Mende's group quickly made the transition, throwing off its Nazi allegiance in order to work for the United States. Radio Liberty, a shortwave station run out of Munich by a CIA front organization, the American Committee for Liberation from Bolshevism (or Amcomlib), drew heavily on these exiles in its propaganda war. One source estimated former Nazi collaborators at Amcomlib's flagship station, Radio Liberty, to be 75 to 80 percent. The CIA proved so effective in recruiting these émigrés that the Americans soon found themselves in conflict with von Mende, who was now on the payroll of the West German government and wanted to keep his stable of Muslim elites under Bonn's control.

As Johnson shows, this odd intelligence turf battle reverberates into the present day. In 1958, those loyal to von Mende decided to build a proper mosque in Munich, to act as a spiritual and political base. But they soon had to contend with Said Ramadan, a leader of the radical Muslim Brotherhood, who also happened to be working with the CIA, and who eventually hijacked the plan. Ramadan had the backing of a particularly zealous American agent, Robert Dreher, who arrived in Munich to run Amcomlib and decided to invest in the Brotherhood. Dreher also helped secure a Jordanian passport for Ramadan so that he could freely enter Europe—a move that, combined with the CIA's financial support, set the Islamist leader up for his takeover of the Munich mosque.

But the cold-war allure to the CIA of the Brotherhood blinded operatives like Dreher to the group's deeply anti-Western ideology. Ramadan was a protégé of Hasan al-Banna, the founder of the fundamentalist group, whose political agenda demands a return—by sword if need be—to a state of pure Islam.

The unintended consequences piled up in the following decades. Once it was completed in 1973, the mosque, called the Islamic Center of Munich, became a beachhead for Muslim Brotherhood–style Islamism in the Western world. Its influence spread out all over Germany, then Europe, and even the United States, spawning a network of Islamic centers, all spouting a similar anti-American and anti-Semitic hard line. Unbeknownst to Ramadan and his colleagues, who were just looking for a foothold in the West, they had established a critical transmission point for militant Islamic believers who had immigrated to Europe and beyond. The millions of Muslim workers who arrived in Europe in the 1960s and '70s adopted the mosque and its offshoots as meeting places, home to an Islamist community-in-exile—and before long, their fundamentalist brand of Islam became the dominant one on the Continent and a major influence on jihadists to come.

At times, Johnson overstates his case—the Muslim Brotherhood would surely have found a way to expand into Europe without the help of the CIA. But he's done a stunning job of unearthing a largely unknown story about America's behavior during the cold war—and, in the process, has helped to clarify just how extreme the myopia among American intelligence lords was. Blowback seems, indeed, to be a tame word for an American policy of deliberately abetting the rise of a political Islam that demands, at its core, an end to all that the Western world represents.

Gal Beckerman's first book, When They Come for Us, We'll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry, will be published in September by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

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