The rise of the Islamic State (sometimes called ISIL) is commonly seen in the West as something that emerged more or less out of the blue. US President Obama for instance has said the dramatic rise of IS was not anticipated by the intelligence services of the US.
That’s not true, however. At about the time that Obama made this claim, European diplomats stationed in Syria told a journalist working for an Asian newspaper that the CIA had repeatedly warned the US government of the danger posed to America by the IS. The CIA termed it the greatest threat to the US since the Second World War, according to the diplomats.
So it may be more accurate to say it was Obama himself who underestimated the danger of the Islamist movement, and who chose to ignore the CIA’s warnings.
Why? Because heeding those CIA warnings would have meant admitting that US policy in Syria and Iraq had failed, and that his disengagement policy in the Middle East needed significant adjusting.
Von Oppenheim’s Jihad strategy
As we will see, the Islamic State ‘s current campaign of Jihad is not only unsurprising but is in large measure the result of a strategy that has been known for more than a hundred and twenty years and was devised by a German diplomat of Jewish origin.
That diplomat was Max von Oppenheim, born in Cologne in 1860 to a Jewish banking family whose members converted to Catholicism after his birth.
Von Oppenheim traveled throughout the Middle East in the last years of the 19th century, visiting Syria, Mesopotamia (now called Iraq), the Persian Gulf, Morocco and Egypt. After his return to Germany, he published his observations in a two-volume book. He studied law and, later, Arabic in Egypt, and in 1896 became an attaché at Germany’s embassy in Cairo, Egypt.
During that Egyptian stint, von Oppenheim authored 467 reports on the Middle East, including a lengthy report on the rise of the Pan-Islamic movement. These influenced and to an extent even determined German policies in the region. He eventually became a key adviser to the German emperor Wilhelm.
On the eve of Wilhelm’s visit to the Middle East in 1889, von Oppenheim recommended that Germany support the emerging Islamist movement. This, he argued, would benefit German interests in the region. On one hand, the Germans were without colonies in the Middle East. On the other, the area’s Muslims sought an end to the dominance of the Christian powers – Great Britain, France and Russia – in a region with a Muslim-majority population. There was therefore a shared interest. The Muslims alone were not able to bring an end to foreign domination. And German was anxious to expand its influence in the Middle East at the expense of the French and British.
In his report to the emperor on Pan-Islamism, Von Oppenheim explained that the Muslims already had established a Caliphate, an overarching state, in the Middle East in the seventh century and that state had existed for centuries. The German diplomat argued that the Ottoman Turks had managed to breathe new life into this state and had succeeded in attracting Muslim loyalty to the Sultan/Caliph.
The Muslim masses increasingly viewed the Ottoman leader as the protector of Islam and its holy sites, Von Oppenheim wrote. He concluded that if the Sultan would issue a fatwa calling for Jihad, three hundred million Muslims could be counted upon to rise in revolt and put an end to Anglo-French dominance in the Middle East.
The mission, in his words, was therefore “to unleash Muslim fanaticism that would border on madness”.
Von Oppenheim’s plan led to a pact between Germany and the Ottoman Empire. However, the concept of a massive jihad that might have produced a German-Turkish victory over the Allies in the First World War failed completely.
Mainly, this was the result of fundamental errors in his analysis. Von Oppenheim ignored the internal divisions in the Muslim world, for instance. And he over-estimated the extent of Arab acceptance of the Turkish Caliph’s authority.
But along with a group of German Middle East experts, Von Oppenheim succeeded in establishing Islamist groups that did in fact begin to execute the planned Jihad in certain Muslim countries.
In November 1914, he dispatched a 136-page plan entitled “Revolutionizing the Islamic territories of our enemies” to his emperor. The plan was quickly approved and Von Oppenheim’s team was provided with the necessary funds. Shortly afterwards, Von Oppenheim’s terrorist groups began deploying suicide attacks as a means of achieving their goals. In India, for instance, a group of 25 Jihadists attacked British targets.
The German experts recognized that there was a risk the forces of jihad would eventually be out of control and turn into an offensive against the West. The unfolding of events after the defeat of Germany and Turkey in World War I and the emergence of Franco-British domination over the Middle East resulting in the Sykes Picot agreement proved them right.
Sykes-Picot, in particular, resulted in a redefined Middle East of states whose borders were drawn by the French and British. These borders however failed to take account of the tribal nature that had long characterized the Middle East. They also ignored the sharp divisions between Sunni and Shiite Muslims.
The so-called Arab Spring in 2010 represented a kind of turning point. Dictatorships in the area had prevented some of the states that emerged under British-French influence from falling apart. Their leaders had more or less succeeded in curbing sectarian violence within their borders.
But then came the fall of dictators like Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Gaddafi of Libya. These changes, plus the uprising against Assad in Syria and the reduction in the United States’ Middle East influence finally offered Islamists the opportunity to establish a new order based on their interpretation of Islam.
Immediately after proclaiming the establishment of an Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, ISIL was able to triumphantly announce – with a certain degree of justification – that the Sykes-Picot era had finally come to an end.
Hitler and Husseini
Following the failure of Von Oppenheim’s plan in World War I, a second German attempt was made by Hitler through his alliance with the Islamist, Haj Amin al-Husseini.
Husseini originally harbored pan-Arab ambitions, aspiring to become the leader of the Arab world. He eventually settled for becoming the Grand Mufti of Palestine and the de facto leader of the Palestinian Arabs.
Husseini and Hitler shared a deep hatred of the Jews and other common interests. Hitler sought an Arab leader who would promote his agenda of world domination in the Middle East. Husseini in turn needed a Western ally who would prevent the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine and put an end to Western domination of Muslim countries.
Husseini’s collaboration with the Nazis is well known. It went well beyond preventing the emergence of a Jewish state in the Middle East. For example, Hitler took the decision to embrace the so-called ‘Entlosung ’, the strategy of systematically exterminating European Jewry, a few hours after a meeting with Husseini. During that meeting, Husseini had exerted pressure on Hitler to solve the “Jewish problem” once and for all.
In 1944,Husseini succeeded in preventing a deal between the Germans and the Allied forces in which 5,000 Jewish children would be exchanged for Allied prisoners of war, and frustrated the escape of 14,000 Jewish children from Hungary. Almost all of these children were later murdered in the Nazi death camps.
Husseini spent much of World War II living in Berlin, establishing his headquarters in a confiscated Jewish mansion. The Nazis provided him with funds to undertake a range of Islamic projects in Europe and beyond.
He developed a plan to establish death camps in Arab countries for the intended extermination of the Jews in the Middle East. This failed because of the 1942 defeat of the advancing German army at El Alamein, Egypt and the collapse of Hitler’s Africa Korps. Most of the Middle East’s Jews thus escaped the Holocaust.
Husseini escaped prosecution for war crimes after World War II, largely for political reasons. He was thus able to continue to lead the jihad against Israel and keep the Islamist movement alive. In May1946, carrying a false passport, he escaped from French custody and fled to Egypt. Once in Cairo, he founded a new army al-Jihad al-Muqaddas, under the leadership of another Nazi collaborator, al-Qawuqii. With a training camp near the Libyan border, its soldiers prepared for the ”struggle against the Zionists” and participated in the War of Independence in 1948.
Following the Arab defeat in the 1948 war, Husseini united the Islamists under his leadership in a new organization called the Islamic World Congress (IWC). Among its other prominent members: Sayyid Qutb, the ideologue of the Muslim Brotherhood; and the Iranian Islamic spiritual leader Abd al-Qasim al-Kashani. One of Kashani students was Ruhollah Khomeini who went on in 1979 to lead Iran’s Islamic revolution.
Husseini moved the headquarters of the Islamic World Congress (IWC) to Karachi, Pakistan,in 1949. He appointed Dr. Inamullah Khan as its Secretary General. Khan, known for his hatred of Jews, nevertheless became the recipient of the prestigious 1988 Templeton Prize for Progress in. This prize had been awarded in previous years to Mother Teresa and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
Syrian Islamist Maaruf al-Dawalibi, who had also collaborated with the Nazis, was Husseini’s successor. In 1984, he declared at a United Nations seminar that Hitler had been right when he wanted to exterminate the Jews because of their belief that they were God’s chosen people. In the same speech, he repeated the classic anti-Semitic blood libel that the Talmud commands the Jews to drink the blood of non-Jews at Passover.
Jihad in Europe
Said Ramadan, the son-in-law of the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hassan al-Banna, was asked by Husseini to spread the Islamist ideology in Europe. In 1958, Ramadan fled to Geneva due to the repression of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Syria. In 1959, Ramadan wrote a dissertation on Islamic Sharia law called “Islamic Law: Its Scope and Equity” for the University of Cologne in which he called upon European Muslims to fight against Western secular culture in Europe.
Ramadan, aided by money from al-Husseini’s Nazi funds and later with the financial help of Saudi Arabia, began a process whereby local Muslim communities in Europe came under the control of the IWC and the Muslim Brotherhood. By 2000, many Muslim communities in Europe had adopted the Islamist ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood and were led by members of the organization.
After Ramadan’s death, Ali GhalebHimmat, one of his lieutenants, became the leader of one of Europe’s most important beachheads of radicalIslam – a mosque in the German city of Munich. The mosque had beenestablished by Muslims who had fought for the Nazis.
Together with the Syrian Islamist Yusuf Mustafa Nada Ibada, Himmat built a global financial network for the Muslim Brotherhood. In 1988, they founded the al-Taqwa bank that was involved in financing the Al Qaeda attack on the United States on 11 September 2011. The main architect of the attack on the US was Aiman al-Zawahiri, the current leader of Al Qaeda. He is the grandson of Abd al-WahhabAzzam, who was the spiritual leader of Hajj Amin al-Husseini. Al-Wahhab was the brother of Abd al-Rahman Azzam , the first Secretary General of the Arab League. During World War II, Abd al-Rahman Azzam worked as a secret agent for the Nazis under al-Husseini.
From Hassan al-Banna to ISIL
Prior to his membership of Al-Qaeda, the Egyptian Al-Zawahiri was the leader of Tanzim al-Jihad, the group responsible for the assassination of President Anwar Sadat. He was strongly influenced by Sayyid Qutb, the ideologue of the Muslim Brotherhood.
In one of his writings, he wrote that Qutb started the Islamic revolution against the enemies of Islam in the Middle East and beyond. This bloody revolution continues up to this day, wrote Al-Zawahiri. He fully endorsed Qutb’s view that the establishment of the kingdom of Allah on earth cannot be achieved through prayer and preaching alone. In order to reach this goal, it was necessary that those who did not recognize Allah’s authority should be killed.
According to Qutb and al-Zawahiri, Islam permits killing people in Jihad for Allah.
Al-Zawahiri also explained the importance of the mobilization for Jihad against the enemies of Islam. Since the end of the Anglo-French domination in the Middle East, these enemies had been replaced by the United States and Israel.
This Jihad is not – like the Sufi version of Islam says – a spiritual struggle of the Muslim, but is the ultimate battle between Islam and the infidels and their societies. This is the main theme that connects all Islamist groups and that is practiced by Al Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah, Islamic State, Boko Haram (whose name means Western education is forbidden) and many other Islamist movements.
In this view, Jihad against the Jews (and other infidels) becomes a primary religious duty. In this respect, there is no difference between the ideas of Khomeini, Khamenei, Al Qutb, Bin Laden, Al-Zawahiri, al-Husseini, IS leader al-Baghdadi, the current Brotherhood ideologue Yusuf al-Qaradawi and Hamas leaders.
All have said publicly that the Jews control the world and that they are the enemies of Allah and must be expelled from Muslim land (meaning Palestine) or they are to be killed. They also stated that Jihad should continue until Islam rules the world.
So the ideology of the Islamic State is not new. It is rooted in the ideology of Islamists who previously, not coincidentally, collaborated with the Nazis.
The similarities between the methods of IS and those of the Nazis are striking as well as the ideology that underlies those methods. For Islamic State, the ‘ubermensch’ is a Muslim who has abandoned the state of barbaric negligence (Jahaliyah) which in IS view also prevails in Arab countries and that is typical of the West. Jahaliyah existed before the advent of Muhammad and the goal of Islamists is to bring the Umma, the Islamic world community, back to the early days of Islam and the path of the upright Caliphs who led the Islamic empire at the time.
Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna, who was an admirer of Hitler and Mussolini, had the model of the SS in mind when he founded the so-called shock battalions. These battalions intended to do what ISIL is now doing in Iraq and Syria. So it comes as no surprise that a variation on al-Banna’s slogan can now be seen on the black flags of Islamic State: ‘Allah is our objective, the Koran is our constitution, the Prophet our leader; struggle is our way and death for Allah is our highest aspiration. ‘
This article is partly based on research by Middle East expert professor Barry Rubin who was my mentor. Professor Rubin passed away in February 2014.