Recognizing the Threat of Extremism in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Iran


We all remember the horror that befell the United States that fateful morning on the eleventh of September, 2001. When the twin towers in New York City fell; when the Pentagon was smoldering; and when that gaping hole in Shanksville, Pennsylvania was created by the crash of United Airlines Flight 93, the world was made anew.

What was quickly discovered, however, was that the forces that came beating down America’s splendid “post-historical” moment following the Cold War were actually ancient foes made new again through the glories of globalization.

With Friends Like These…

Following September 11, 2001, former President George W. Bush took to the airwaves to issue his decree proclaiming that the United States faced an “Axis of Evil” which consisted of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, the Islamic Republic of Iran, and the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea (North Korea).

Yet, the attackers who commandeered those civilian American airplanes on September 11 were all fanatical adherents to the extreme interpretation of Sunni Islam known as Salafism. More importantly, 15 of the 19 hijackers were citizens of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. And, there might have been a wider plot for a more catastrophic attack on the United States than the 9/11 attacks (perpetrated mostly by Saudis as well as other Salafists from the Sunni Arab world).

United Airlines Flight 23 was set to fly from New York’s Kennedy Airport to Los Angeles International Airport for a 9 a.m. departure time on September 11, 2001. However, once word of the attacks at the World Trade Center got out, the flight–which was taxiing down the runway–was ordered back to the gate.

Here is what a joint-Fox News and Associated Press report from September 14, 2001 had to say:

“After the plane was boarded, United Airlines officials told passengers that United Airlines Flight 23, bound for Los Angeles, had been cancelled. Three males traveling refused to disembark. The argument with a member of the flight crew became so heated that the crew member called airport security. But before security arrived, the men had vanished, said the source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

On Thursday [September 14, 2001], according to the airline industry source, a man presented a ticket for Tuesday’s Los Angeles flight at the counter — but told airline employees that he had changed his mind and now wanted to travel to San Jose.

People at the ticket counter were suspicious, but they changed the ticket and alerted a supervisor who, in turn, notified Port Authority police. Authorities tracked the man to the gate, where he passed through security checks, including metal detectors. He was then stopped at the gate by security.

A short time later, three more men arrived at Kennedy and boarded American Airlines flight 133 to Los Angeles. Minutes later, law enforcement officers secretly boarded the plane using a catering cart, according to the industry source. The officers, with weapons drawn, then removed the three from the plane.

The industry source was unable to account for the other two people detained.

ABC News reported Thursday night that 10 people in all were detained trying to board flights at JFK and LaGuardia. They included nine men and one woman carrying knives, false identification cards, and flying licenses/certificate from Flight Safety International in Vero Beach, Fla. Four men and a woman were detained sometime before 5 p.m. at JFK, ABC said. Another five were detained between 7:30 and 8:15 p.m. at LaGuardia.”

Here is an ABC News report with the late, great Peter Jennings from that day:

The idea that 9/11 was a one-off is ridiculous.

We know that al Qaeda referred to 9/11 as “the Planes” operation (note that “planes” is plural–and intelligence reported suggested as many as 10 aircraft were originally supposed to be involved, both on the East Coast and West Coast). The twin tales of United Airlines Flight 23 on 9/11 itself, followed on by the United Airlines flight 133 on September 14, indicate that there were many more people involved in 9/11.

Remember, the so-called 20th hijacker, Zacarias Moussaoui was arrested and convicted of having been a co-conspirator in al Qaeda’s 9/11 plot. During his trial, Moussaoui claimed that he and the so-called “Shoe Bomber,” Richard Reid, had conspired to hijack a plane and crash it into the White House at one point in 2001.

And, in 2015, Moussaoui, serving a life sentence in super-max prison here in the United States, testified in court that both al Qaeda generally and, specifically, the 9/11 hijackers, received financial support from the highest levels of Saudi Royal Family.

In 2015, the New York Times reported the following:

“Yet Saudi Arabia continues to be haunted by what some suspect was a tacit alliance with Al Qaeda in the years before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Those suspicions burst out in the open again this week with the disclosure of a prison deposition of a former Qaeda operative, Zacarias Moussaoui, who claimed that more than a dozen prominent Saudi figures were donors to the terror group and that a Saudi diplomat in Washington discussed with him a plot to shoot down Air Force One.”

However, it’s important to note that not only does the Saudi government explicitly deny these claims, but several have questioned why the Saudi Royal Family would even countenance giving support of any kind to a group, like al Qaeda, which was birthed, in large part, to overthrow the current government of Saudi Arabia and replace it with a fundamentalist one.

Still, other highly-respected members of the United States government–such as those who sat on the 9/11 Commission–insist that not enough of the Saudi-al Qaeda relationship has been effectively investigated, and is little understood by the American public.

Several family members of the 9/11 attacks concurred with these claims and filed a lawsuit against the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 2015. Several former elected officials (such as retired Florida Senator Bob Graham) have called for the release of the 28-page memo from the 9/11 Commission Report that was classified as well.

The classified, 28-page memo supposedly details the extent of the Saudi duplicity regarding al Qaeda and its funding of the 9/11 hijackers. Graham and his cohorts argue that the classified report is highly damning to the Saudis.

We certainly know that elements of Saudi intelligence, operating in the United States, had been monitoring a few of the future 9/11 hijackers, when they entered into the United States on student visas, and spent time living in Los Angeles. According to Lawrence Wright’s reporting in his fascinating book, The Looming Tower, both the Saudis and the Central Intelligence Agency were tracking at least two of the future hijackers when they entered into Los Angeles from Malaysia.

Inevitably, according to reports, the Saudis lost track of these two individuals when they surreptitiously moved away from Los Angeles. For bureaucratic reasons, the CIA failed to alert the Federal Bureau of Investigation (which is tasked with handling domestic security) that the two men had entered the country in the summer of 2000.

The CIA’s Bin Laden Unit would not alert the FBI of their presence in the country until August of 2001. By that time, a mere month before the 9/11 attacks, the elephantine FBI would have no way of conducting a nation-wide search for the suspected terrorists before it was too late.

Simmering Extremism in Saudi Arabia

Further, we know that since the bloody 1979 Grand Mosque Seizure in which Wahhābī militants captured the Grand Mosque at Mecca and held countless Islamic worshippers hostage, demanding that the “apostate” Saudi Royal Family abdicate the throne, and place a purer Islamic regime in charge, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has been made to endure the undying enmity of Salafist extremists.

The bloody Grand Mosque siege lasted for days and threatened the stability of Saudi Arabia (this was occurring just as neighboring Iran was being consumed by the Islamic Revolution there). Pakistan sent forces to supplement the hapless Saudi forces–to no avail. Inevitably, Riyadh asked the French for assistance, and Paris deployed a team of French commandos to end the siege–which they did.

From that moment on, the Saudi Royal Family knew they had a problem with Islamic extremism in their lands. Since Saudi Arabia was the land of the Prophet Muhammad, and the House of Saud were clearly in the minority (wanting to enjoy the riches and benefits of close ties with the decadent West), the Saudi Royal Family made a secret deal with the fundamentalist sects of Sunni Islam in Saudi Arabia.

In exchange for tamping down on extremist activities in Saudi Arabia, the government there would fund the proliferation of Salafism throughout the rest of the world–including in the United States.

A Helping Hand for the Head-Choppers

It was during this time that the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. Many in Washington feared that the Soviet invasion was a greater push to move into Iran–weakened by the rise of the anti-American Islamist revolution there–and that the West had to rollback the Reds in Afghanistan before they could move on to breaking NATO’s encirclement, and acquiring access to warm water ports in Iran.

Zbignew Brezenzski, President Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser, looked at Afghanistan as the Soviets’ Vietnam. He wanted the Reds to invade, and then he wanted the West to fund the locals in a guerrilla war against the Reds.

The more that Moscow committed its forces, the harder the fight would be, and it would eventuate in a humiliating defeat for the Soviet Union. Under the Carter Administration, the first support was given to the Afghanistan Mujahideen fighters.

When the Reagan Administration was ushered into office in 1980–thanks, in large part, to Congressional cheerleaders for America’s support of the Mujahideen, like Texas Democratic Senator Charlie Wilson–the United States expanded its lethal aid to the Afghan guerrillas. The United States turned to its Muslim allies, notably Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, to distribute the aid.

Yet, both Saudi Arabia and Pakistan had their own considerations for the Islamic jihad against the atheist Soviet Union fighting in Afghanistan. So, they gladly took the American support. But, the Saudis and Pakistanis directed where–and to whom–that support would go.

The Saudis were ginning up the most-radical elements of their population and pushing them out the door into Afghanistan (and then revoking their right of return to Saudi Arabia, thereby ensuring that the radicals would not come back after the jihad and attempt to destabilize the kingdom, as they had attempted to do with the Grand Mosque seizure in 1979).

Meanwhile, the Pakistanis, ensconced in their own Islamic revolution of sorts, wanted to support only the most radical elements of the Afghan resistance. While the Soviet-Afghan War is remembered as being the Vulcan’s forge for Osama Bin Laden, many forget that the initial stages of that conflict were waged primarily by indigenous Afghans who were Islamic, but were fighting more for their national survival and less as holy warriors.

Once the foreign fighters flooded into the country–sent mostly by Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the other Sunni Arab states and aided by Sunni Pakistan–the nature and makeup of the anti-Soviet resistance changed. It was in Pakistan’s interest to ensure that the Bin Laden-types received the bulk of the assistance.

After all, as a fellow Muslim power that lived in the neighborhood, as it were, the Pakistanis were concerned about the aftermath of a Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan. Namely, the Pakistanis wanted allies in their region to balance against their eternal foe in India.

Islamabad viewed the Bin Laden-type Mujahideen as a better ally than less religious-motivated, native Afghan fighters. Thus, the conflict was transmogrified away from a true national liberation fight and into the early makings of a global religious war.

In any event, the seeds for future warfare directed against unbelievers were planted here–by the Saudis and the Pakistanis.

Perilous Pakistan

Writing in 1979, S.K. Malik, a Pakistani military theorist, who sought to do for the Islamic world that which the likes Prussian military theorist, Carl von Clausewitz, had done for the Western world in the nineteenth century. The key difference between Malik’s work and that of another military theorist was Malik’s desire to base his writings on the Quran. In fact, Malik’s work was entitled, The Quranic Concepts of War. 

At its core, Malik’s argument boils down to his notion that the thrust of all warfare is ultimately spiritual. As such, the key strategy to employ against one’s enemies is a strategy of sheer, bloody terror. For, as Malik rationalizes, “Those who are firm in their religious conviction are immune to terror” while “a weak Faith [sic] offers inroads to terror.” What’s more, “Terror can be instilled only if the opponent’s Faith is destroyed…It is essential in the ultimate analysis, to dislocate [the enemies] Faith.”

So, in other words, all warfare is spiritual according to the Quranic Concepts of War.

Throughout his work, Malik makes it clear that, rather than a strategic means to an end, terrorism of the opponent’s soul is the goal. Malik also insists that terrorism will be the route to which Islam gains parity and respect in the eyes of non-believer rivals.

He also articulates a plot for preparing the battlefield through classical concepts of perception management–psychological warfare–during peacetime. By instilling fear and terror in the souls of Islam’s opponents, Malik supposes that the “war of muscle” (the kinetic phase of warfare) will have already been won by the “war of wills.”

Now, there is some debate as to how prolific Malik’s 1979 work was. However, his writing was deeply rooted in Islamic jurisprudence and the Quran itself. It is a well-respected scholarly work (content notwithstanding). As for the impact, it was at least highly meaningful to the Pakistani leadership.

Malik’s close friend, Zia ul-Haq, a Pakistani general who led a violent coup against the democratically-elected Bhutto government, wrote the foreword for Malik’s book extolling the virtues of the work. So, at the very least, it impacted Pakistani military thought from 1979 onward.

When Zia ascended to power, he promptly murdered his successor, so as to disabuse any pro-democratic holdovers that they could return to power. Pakistan was on an autocratic, entirely Islamist approach. It had a deep flirtation with Salafism, which was being pumped into the country, courtesy of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Not only was Zia a staunch nationalist yearning to take Pakistan’s rivalry with neighboring India (a predominantly Hindu country that was far wealthier and had already defeated Pakistan in war once, eventuating in the permanent partition of Pakistan away from Eastern Pakistan–present-day Bangladesh), but he was also a militant Islamist. Malik’s writing likely resonated deeply within Zia’s soul personally.

As Steve Coll documents in his magnum opus, Directorate S: The C.I.A. and America’s Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the reader is exposed to the concept that Pakistani intelligence service was harboring and lending aid for decades to both the Taliban and even al Qaeda in neighboring Afghanistan–even as the United States had declared al Qaeda as a threat during the Bill Clinton Administration, and as the Taliban refused to hand over Bin Laden to the United States after 9/11.

Not for nothing, Bin Laden had not only fled across Afghanistan’s border with Pakistan during the botched Battle of Tora Bora in December of 2001, but he had ultimately taken refuge at a compound in Abbottabad, home to the Pakistani military’s version of West Point.

In fact, the Pakistani-born Marxist historian, Tariq Ali, claimed in an interview with Seymour Hersh that he knew for certain that the Pakistani intelligence services had knowingly placed Bin Laden in the compound; that Bin Laden was essentially their prisoner, and Hersh added to those claims by stating that the Saudis were paying the Pakistanis to house Bin Laden.

The Americans, for their part (according to Ali and Hersh), were simply looking the other way while they tried stabilizing neighboring Afghanistan. Hersh argued that, rather than being a great tactical victory, the Bin Laden was essentially a high-tech “execution.” Whether this is true or not, it strains credulity to believe that Pakistan was unaware of Bin Laden’s presence in that military town.

Pakistan, like Saudi Arabia, has long supported and flirted with radical Islamist causes either at home or abroad. These forces have been harnessed by the elites in Pakistan in order to further what they viewed as Pakistan’s national interests. Such forces, though, as has been proven time and again, once unleashed, are uncontrollable. With allies like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, America is bound to get burned–repeatedly.

Irritable Iran

Also in 1979, the long-time American ally of Iran was gripped by revolution which overthrew the autocratic Shāh and replaced him with the radical Shiite cleric, the Grand Ayatollah. Thus, the Islamic Republic of Iran was born and, not only was Shia Islam the faith which undergirded this new, totalitarian regime, but so too was a zealous anti-Americanism and malignant anti-semitism. Like the Soviets under Lenin, Iran strove to export its bloody green revolution to the surrounding region. Indeed, through their terrorist proxies in Hizbollah, Iran has sent its messengers of mayhem as far afield as Latin America.

It is Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons that most vexes policymakers in Washington today–and has for some years. While Iran did not have a hand in the horrific 9/11 attacks (as you’ve seen, that was a byproduct of the noxious politics of America’s Sunni Muslim “allies” in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia), it did wage war upon American forces once those forces invaded neighboring Iraq.

Evidence suggests that Iranian agents infiltrated into Iraq during the American war there from 2003-07, and trained and equipped the terrorist elements fighting the Americans. They then made serious inroads with local Shiite leaders and worked assiduously to ensure that, once the United States extricated itself from the conflict there, the Iranians could effectively colonize Iraq and create a land bridge linking Iran with Syria, Lebanon, and Israel.

Iran is one of the worst proliferators of terrorism abroad. Should they acquire nuclear arms–which they are about to–their threat to the United States and its allies would be increased tenfold. Iran’s intentions for the region are multifaceted.

First, Iran wants to secure a bridgehead connected the Shiite-populated parts of the Muslim world and make itself the head of this nexus of Shiite Muslims. Remember, there are no real nation-states in Islam. That is a creation of the post-Roman Empire West. It’s a construct that most devout Muslims view as false. Thus, the Iranians are intent on rehabilitating their ancient empire. Specifically, Iran’s fundamentalist leaders are keen on restoring the old Safavid Dynasty, which ruled that region of the Middle East from 1501-1736 C.E.

Second, the Iranians insist on being able to threaten their great foe, the Jewish state of Israel. By dominating the so-called “Shia crescent,” the Iranians are able to directly threaten the physical safety of Israel (long viewed as an American proxy in the region). Meanwhile, Iran is also expanding out into neighboring Afghanistan, helping to lay the groundwork for the inevitable post-American system that will dominate that country.

Third, as I’ve argued ad nauseam over the years, one cannot discount the fact that at least a portion of the Iranian leadership is crazy enough that, once they achieve full nuclear weapons capability, they might try to compel their enemies in the region into accepting Iranian hegemony. It is possible that the Iranians would assume that their possession of nuclear arms–and their willingness to use them in war–would keep the casualty-conscious Americans over-the-horizon, giving Tehran a proverbial free hand to do as it wishes.

Oddly enough, once the George W. Bush Administration declared its rip-roaring war for the “Greater Middle East,” even though it listed Iran in its bizarre “Axis of Evil” formulation, it refused to do anything about the rising nuclear power of Iran. Instead, the Bush team broached a peace deal of sorts with Iran. Recognizing that Iran would view American military movements in neighboring Afghanistan as potential threat, they broke proverbial bread with Tehran and loosely coordinated with them, so as to avoid an international incident.

Then, in 2003, in order to prevent Iran from intervening in the Iraq War, the Bush Administration agreed to decimate anti-Iran resistance cells that had been given refuge by Saddam Hussein. In a stroke of sheer lunacy, the Bush Administration acted on the recommendations of Iranian intelligence and destroyed many outposts belonging to an assortment of groups that were preparing to march on Iran and “liberate” their fellow countrymen. As the Council on Foreign Relations reported:

“As part of the 2003 invasion, U.S. forces initially attacked MEK military targets in Iraq despite the group’s claims of neutrality. The two sides eventually negotiated a cease-fire that disarmed MEK members and confined them to Camp Ashraf, a 14-square-mile former Iraqi military base in the country’s northeast.”

Thus, former President George W. Bush did more to give Iran a new lease on life than any other American leader since Jimmy Carter. They removed a strong pillar of resistance to Iranian regional hegemony in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, empowered pro-Iran Shiites, who comprised upwards of 80 percent of Iraq’s population, and decimated the anti-Iranian resistance that Saddam had given refuge to in his territory for years.

The reasoning that the Bush Administration brokered a nominal deal with Iran was to keep them out of Iraq. Not only did the U.S. Air Force do Iran’s work for them, but the Iranians predictably double-crossed the Bush Administration and almost immediately intervened in Iraq. Once Saddam and his Baathists were gone, Iran assiduously worked to ensure that the Americans could not fully stabilize the country, and would be forced out.

Overall, American actions have empowered Iran more than any other actor in the region. And, as Iran has grown in strength, the Sunni Arab states have become apoplectic. To balance against Iran, Saudi Arabia has long had an order of at least a dozen or more nuclear weapons on standby from their longtime friend, nuclear-armed Pakistan. The Israelis have also gotten closer to the Sunni Arab states, as they are now equally threatened by Shiite Iran.

Essentially, the George W. Bush policies put America into the middle of a intra-religious blood feud, when the U.S. should have been steadfastly focused on destroying terror cells and punishing the true state sponsors of terror. His successor, Democrat Barack Obama, fared no better with his policies of retrenchment, in which Obama alienated traditional allies, like Israel and the Sunni Arab states, and empowered American rivals in Tehran with the nuclear deal.

Of course, today, many look positively on the massive protests sweeping across Iran. Like them, I hope for a healthy change in Iran that would mitigate any further increases in international tensions. However, it is important to note that many of the protests cropping up are coming from some of the most religiously conservative parts in the country.

What’s more, their protests appear to be aimed almost singularly at the country’s economic state rather than demanding greater calls for freedom. Remember, the Arab Spring that everyone applauded initially began when a Tunisian street vendor set himself aflame to protest the growing poverty and widespread authoritarianism that dominated his country.

Yet, quite rapidly, the Arab Spring became an Islamist Winter. Something similar might be afoot in Iran. After all, the only real democratic push came in 2009, when young, cosmopolitan students in major cities, like Tehran, demanded a change to the political system after a rigged presidential election. They were shot down, both literally and metaphorically.

There’s something different about the protests tearing throughout Iran. Hopefully they will usher in peace. It is quite possible, though, the protests augur in an even more radical form of governance than the one already ruling Iran. American policymakers dare not even countenance such a possibility, lest it threaten their democratic globalist sensibilities.

The Real Axis

In effect, the real “Axis of Evil” was none other than Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Iran. And, it’s not even really an axis. One must also include Turkey, which has done everything in its power to become a rival to the United States and a friend to both Sunni extremists as well as Iran.

The inability to recognize these threats–by no means monolithic–to the United States has allowed for some of the gravest missteps in U.S. foreign policy. In fact, things are so bad now, that the United States has most assuredly lost its dominant position and will have to share power with Russia, as its position in the region continues to erode.

Previously, I had advocated that the United States cozy up to the Sunni Arab states and align them with Israel against Iran. I stand by that call, considering that the United States has little other option. But, judging from how Saudi Arabia has thus far performed in the ongoing Yemen Civil War, it seems quite likely that the Arabs of Saudi Arabia will perform as poorly against the Persians of Iran as Saddam’s forces did in the eight-year-long Iran-Iraq War. The United States had better brace itself to either expand its role in the region to support its “allies” or to take drastic steps back, and witness its allies be defeated.

Language is pivotal to understanding our world. Unfortunately, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, all parties in the United States spoke in rosy language about Islam, about the nature of the threat we faced, and about America’s allies. It also ignored the biggest rival of all–Iran.

We are now paying the price for having failed to recognize the true threats America faced. At some point, the United States will have to seriously acknowledge how wrongheaded its approach to the “Global War on Terror” has been, and it will have to do so by recognizing the true threat.


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