The US and the threat of terrorism in southeast Asia

Associate Professor at the Department of Political Science, National University of Singapore says the US has always used terrorist groups against “anyone who is viewed as an opponent, be it a State or non-State actor.”

Professor Bilveer Singh made the comments in his paper, The US, the threat of terrorism in southeast Asia – Lessons for Iran’s national security policy, delivered to and selected as one of three best foreign papers in the Second International Congress of 17000 Iranian Terror Victims on September 1, 2015.

He added that the US is pursuing this policy particularly in the Middle East, “where pliant and backward oil-rich sheikdoms have allied with the United States.” “Saudi Arabia is the leader client state in the service of the United States for this purpose, with others such as Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, following suit.”

He continued that the rise of al-Qaeda, and its offshoot, ISIS, are consequences of this “Washington’s vile and double-headed policy,” where it talks of countering terrorism and yet, at the same times, peddles these terrorists to purse its State’s goals.

What follows is Bilveer Singh's paper to the 2nd International Congress on 17000 Iranian Terror Victims:


We supported people who are enemies today. We equipped the Mujahidins to fight the Soviets; then we left after the Soviets withdrew, leaving behind armed men. The people we are fighting today (Al Qaeda), we were supporting in the fight against the Soviets.

Hilary Clinton, 23 July 2012,,

Takfiri groups have been used as ‘agents of United States’ foreign policy’. When these proxy warriors do what they are told - as in Libya where they toppled Khaddafi, and in Syria, where they almost toppled Assad, they are known as ‘freedom fighters’. When they get out of control as they are now in Iraq, they are known as terrorists.

Dr Eugene Michael Jones, April 2015, Editor, Culture Wars Magazine

The United States’ (US) policy towards terrorism is complex and contradictory. While championing global counter-terrorism and de-radicalization efforts, at the very same time, it is also supporting and sponsoring terrorism against targeted states, organizations and individuals. Clearly, the US has come to use terrorism as a dedicated instrument of state policy and hence, it’s consistent and resilient sponsorship of state terrorism, regardless of Republicans or Democrats in the White House. Not only did the US sponsor terrorism, it is also sponsoring state terrorism against other states to do its bidding and promote US’s foreign policy, defence and economic interests. Without doubt, the US believes in the existence of good and bad terrorists – good ones that work with the US and promotes its interests, and bad ones that oppose US’s goals and objectives. Often those who were considered good and allies (proxies) in the past have become bad subsequently to be destroyed as enemies. The so-called ‘Global War on Terror’ best epitomised this phenomenon.

Sure enough, the scourge of terrorism is universal in nature and the sources and causes are manifold. There is ‘no one size fit all’ explanation as the broad strategic and universal drivers are as important as are contextual national and even personal-psychological drivers. While this is largely true in most circumstances, one almost near consistent factor, especially since the Second World War has been the role of the United States in fueling local and regional conflicts with the role of terrorism, both state and non-state, as a major consequence and outcome. This was particularly true in the Southeast Asia setting, and is probably true in many other theatres of conflicts in the Middle East, West Asia, South Asia and now, even in North and West Africa. This study will look at Southeast Asia and attempt to draw some lessons that might be useful for Iran in terms of national security policy planning.


Politically, Southeast Asia is defined as the geographical region that lies south to southeast of India, south to southwest of China, northwest of Australia and lying astride the important sea lanes of communications between the Indian and Pacific Oceans. It is made up of ten countries. As the region is located at a major crossroads of the world, historically it has been highly accessible to external influences. Indian traders, mainly Hindus from India, and Arabs, mostly Muslims from the Middle East, were among the first to traverse the Indian Ocean with the monsoon winds to trade. Being essentially a maritime region, it drew international attention due to its location among the major trade routes of the world; hence, its importance in the trading system of the Indians, Chinese, Muslims and later, Europeans. In addition to growing competition among key international actors, one major and lasting manifestation of the importance of the region and the impact of external players was the transplanting of major external religions and ideologies into the region. This culminated in the establishment of an Islamic arc in southern Southeast Asia, mainly in Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, southern Thailand and southern Philippines.

In the post-colonial era, even though many Southeast Asian states gained various degrees of independence, due to their geographical position and richness, the region was easily sucked into the global rivalries that ensued following the end of the Second World War. The entry of the Cold War into the region, mirroring the clash of the two Superpowers, was not unexpected, and gravely impacted upon the politics, security and economics of Southeast Asia. Similarly, the end of the Cold War did not bring any ‘peace dividends’ as the region continues to be embroiled in various conflicts, with it being viewed as a major front and theater of the global ‘war on terrorism’. This stems in part from the fact that Southeast Asia houses one of the largest concentrations of Muslims in the world.

Southeast Asia is a very violent region. Two categories of conflicts dominate the region, namely, those that are essentially inter-state in character and those that can be subsumed as intra-state conflicts. From the perspective of terrorism studies, intra-state conflicts are more pertinent.[1] Today, there are a vast array of conflicts ranging from centre-periphery conflicts in Papua in Indonesia, the conflict in southern Philippines and southern Thailand, uprisings by various ethnic groups such as the Karens in Myanmar and the Was in Thailand. Of all these conflicts, in addition to the threat posed by communist insurgencies, the jihadi threat had been all-consuming for most Southeast Asian states.

Introduced not by Arab armies but by Sufi mystics, starting in the middle of the 14th century, Southeast Asian Islam adapted not only to Hinduism and Buddhism but also to older animist practices. While Indonesia is the largest Muslim country, its brand of Islam, especially practiced by the Javanese, the majority of Indonesians is really a mixture of many dissimilar elements. Southeast Asia is the cultural and geographical crossroads of Asia where Sinic, Hindu, Islamic and Western civilizations have met and interacted for almost a millennium. Due of this heterogeneity, Southeast Asian Islam had adapted to modernity more easily than the orthodox Islam of the Middle East and North Africa. While secular nationalists such as Gamal Nasser and Ahmed Ben Bella in post-colonial Egypt and Algeria respectively failed to deliver on their promises of bread and freedom, Mahathir bin Mohamed in Malaysia and Suharto in Indonesia succeeded in bringing significant material benefits to their peoples.

Yet, at the same time, economic growth in Southeast Asia, as elsewhere, also generated grievances among groups that were marginalized. In both Muslim majority Indonesia and Malaysia, as well as in Singapore, the southern Philippines and southern Thailand where sizeable Muslim minorities exist, there emerged a number of Islamist movements whose raison d’etre (at least outwardly) sought to redress grievances through violence. Some of these radical movements seek to separate themselves from exploitative secular governments or to overthrow them. Others expressed in religious terms what in reality worldly disputes with non-Muslim communities were over land rights and access to jobs and livelihood. Ultimately, all these movements have sought to create states governed by Koranic law, namely, Islamic states that would be strong enough to resist the invasion of Western influences being promoted by cultural globalization. This force is identified as the root cause of the backwardness of Muslims everywhere.

The emergence of what can be described as ‘ethnocratic regimes’ is also partly blamed for conflicts in the region. This arises when one ethnic group gains control of the state machinery and uses it to maintain its ethnic identity at the expense of the other groups within the state. The controlling ethnic group achieves this position of power by recruiting only members of its ethnic group to positions of power within the state machinery, such as the civil service and armed forces. In the process, the national identity of the population is determined by the cultural attributes of the dominant ethnic group, including the adoption of the governing group’s language. One result of this is that the institutions of the state, such as the constitution and laws, favor and reinforce the monopolization of power by the dominant ethnic group. There are varying degrees of this element in Southeast Asia. While in Malaysia, the regime is a ruling coalition representing the different ethnic groups, it can still be considered ethnocratic because the dominant party represents the Malays and the constitution grants the Malays a “special position” which, amongst other things, gives them special access to government employment. A similar case can be made in Myanmar, Thailand, Singapore and the Philippines with the Burmans, Chinese, Thais and Christian Filipinos respectively dominating politics and the economy, often at the expense of the national minorities.

As a rule, whichever group dominates national politics, it would always attempt to rationalize its political, economic and social policies in terms of national interest as well as in pursuit of its nation building effort. However, the apparent failure of various ‘nationalist projects’ to deliver political, economic and social goods has led to counter-actions in a Muslim majority and minority regions. These include the adoption of the ‘Islamic mode’ of political, economic and social development, and even the use of terrorism and violence, to remedy what are perceived as national, regional and international injustices. This is clearly evident in the various national jihadi movements in the region, especially in Indonesia, Philippines and Thailand.

Indonesia is the world’s largest Islamic country. Islam has a long history in modern Indonesia and most of the violence is related to the quest for setting up of an Islamic state.[2] The struggle for an Islamic state in Indonesia, however, did not always take a violent form as various social and political organizations with aspirations for an Islamic state often adopted parliamentary and electoral approaches. Traditionally, Indonesian Islam has been syncretic in form, incorporating traditional Islamic practices with earlier Hindu and Buddhist influences. Most santri (devout) Muslims are associated with the Nahdatul Ulama and the Muhammadiyah, both of which are moderate, inclusive organizations, encouraging the practice of Islam within the framework of a secular Indonesian State. As elsewhere, Indonesian Islam has become increasingly santricized, partly influenced by the spread of the austere Saudi Arabian Wahhabi doctrines. As the Indonesian public became more pious in their religious practices and aware of their Islamic identity, it also widens the corridor for things religious including the move towards greater radicalism and violence in their political behavior. This was best symbolized by two Jihadi-oriented movements, namely, Darul Islam and the Aceh struggle.

Islam took root in the Philippines in 1380 even though some scholars date it as far as the early 1200s. The inhabitants of Sulu were among the earliest converts to Islam in the country. These converts retained much of their pre-Islamic beliefs because the conversions were mostly done by Arab Muslim traders and not religious scholars. By the early 1700s, the Sultan of Sulu defeated the Sultan of Maguindanao, signaling the rise of the Sulu sultanate in Mindanao and the spread of Islam. The political and ideological cohesive character of the Philippine Muslim principalities was the principal reason impeding the Spanish subjugation of Mindanao and Sulu, unlike other parts of the Philippines. The confrontation between the Spaniards and the Muslims in the Philippines flamed into the so-called Moro Wars—a series of bitter wars of attrition that continued for more than three-centuries. These bitter wars have made the Philippine Muslim what they are today and helped to define their attitudes to all non-Muslim foreigners as well as to non-Muslim Filipinos. The premise of Spanish historians that the so-called Moro Wars were wars waged primarily by the Spaniards to curb piratical incursions of Muslim sultans and their followers is not only too facile an explanation of the facts but was actually a rationalization for the conquest, colonization, and Christianization of the Muslims. Many jihadi groups have surfaced in the Philippines, right to the current period, including the Moro National Liberation Front, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the Abu Sayyaf group.

The Muslim minority accounts for about 6 % of the total population of Thailand. The vast majority of these Muslims are Malay in origin, the remainder being Pakistani immigrants, ethnic Thai Muslims and a few Chinese Muslims. The majority of the Muslims are Sunnis though the Shias are also sizeable in some of the areas. About 10-15% of the total Muslim population is Wahhabi. The Muslims are concentrated in the provinces of Songkhla, Satun, Pattani, Narathiwat and Yala at the southern end of Thailand bordering the northern states of West Malaysia. Historically, the area occupied by these Muslims has generally been much poorer than the rest of Thailand.

The region occupied by the Muslims in Southern Thailand was annexed by Thailand in 1902 as a buffer against British Malaya. Since the 1902 annexation, there has always been local resistance against Bangkok's control over the region. Since then, a variety of jihadi organizations have surfaced to challenge Thai rule. The most important groups include the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), the Barisan Nasional Pembebasan Pattani (BNPP), and the Pattani United Liberation Organization (PULO). In line with the increasing radicalization of Muslims in Southern Thailand, mainly due to their participation in the Afghan struggle, a new group, the Gerakan Mujahidin Islam Pattani (GMIP) was established in 1985 with the aim of establishing an ‘Islamic State’.

Myanmar is home to more than two million Muslims, or four percent of the population. Due to repression by the Myanmarese military junta, there are more than 1.5 million Myanmar Muslims living in Bangladesh, Pakistan and the Middle East. The largest and also the poorest Muslim group are called the Rohingyas, residing along the Myanmar-Bangladesh border and share many common cultural traits with Bangladesh’s Bengali Muslims. There have always been a number of small Muslim armed groups based in the Rakhine State engaged in the struggle for human rights and federal democracy for some decades. A major jihadi-oriented group is the Rohingya Solidarity Organization (RSO) that has established links with Muslim extremist organizations in Bangladesh and Pakistan. Another is the Arakan Rohingya National Organization (ARNO), essentially an armed self-determination movement.

Following the Afghan war and the participation of many Southeast Asia mujahids in the conflict, many new radical groups surfaced in the Southeast Asia region. What distinguished the new groups were their intense militancy, extremism and increasing propensity to resort or condone violence to achieve their political goals. Similarly, more often than not, their national and regional objectives were synchronized with global jihadi objectives. In some ways, Islamist extremism and militancy were part of the rise in global religious extremism. While the Western media has focused on Islamist extremism as the most dangerous threat to Western civilisation following the end of the Cold War, in actuality, religious extremism is not the sole monopoly of Islam. All religions have been experiencing revitalisation, revivalism and tendency towards greater extremism. The resurgence of religious extremism has enhanced inter-ethnic and inter-religious conflicts, especially in the post-Cold War era, a notion best highlighted by Samuel Huntington’s thesis of “The Clash of Civilizations”.

Many factors have contributed to the rise of Islamist militancy. Politically, there is a sense of disillusionment with national politics and political processes. In many Muslim societies, political repression, especially by secular regimes, has aggravated the situation. From the economic standpoint, there is disillusionment with economic programs of various states, especially the exploitation of the poor by the rich. The existence of unfair distribution of economic goods in spite of countries being well-endowed has also provided ready recruits for the extremist cause. The existence of a sense of injustice that the country is being exploited by ‘global capitalism’ and the ‘capitalists’, often through collusion with local elites, has merely widened the ‘us versus them’ gap. As far as socio-cultural factors are concerned, the poor and repressed have blamed the spread of ‘global [mainly Western] values’ through a mass media that is allegedly often controlled by various Jewish groups.

Added to these domestic considerations is the whole array of international factors. Many Muslims are disillusioned with the international system, mainly dominated by the West, and particularly the US that is often portrayed to be practicing double standards. Though viewed as a democracy and champion of human rights, its pro-Israel policies and sanction of Israeli repression of the Palestinians and Arabs as well as US’s largely anti-Islamic policies, evident in its almost non-action when Muslims were being butchered in Bosnia and elsewhere riled many into launching a Jihad against the US, Israel and their supporters. Also, international (read Western) support for repression of Muslims by various secular governments is also a source of anger and motivation. The lack of objection by the West to the repressive policies of Egypt, Algeria, Pakistan and Suharto’s Indonesia against their Islamic militants has led to the burgeoning of Islamic militancy and extremism in these countries.

While many factors have contributed to the rise of new radical organizations and Jihadists in Southeast Asia, in the context of worldwide Islamic revival, the goals and character of ‘new Islam’ has fundamentally altered the socio-political architecture of the region. The influx of funds and ideology from the Middle East and the trend toward Arabization of Islam as well as efforts to ‘purify’ the religion, to a large extent, has accounted for this new phenomenon. Increasingly, unlike the past, concepts of an Islamic Caliphate and Muslim Brotherhood as well as calls for a more ‘assertive defense’ against attacks by ‘kafirs’ (infidels, usually described as Christians and Jews) have been more openly adopted. While the role of the Mujahidin struggle in Afghanistan had a definite impact in radicalizing Islam, Saudi-funded schools and charities, spreading Wahhabism, played a key role in radicalising Islam in the region. It is against this backdrop that the rise of two key terrorist groups in Southeast Asia, with links with the US should be understood.


The US’s Role in the Establishment of the Al Jemaah Al-Islamiyyah

Narrowly viewed, the Al Jemaah Al-Islamiyyah (AJAI) was a product of Indonesian radical jihadists, aimed at establishing an Islamic State in Indonesia, by overthrowing the Suharto regime that had ruled the country since 1965 and was viewed as being ‘anti-Islamic’. The two key leaders behind this movement were Abdullah Sungkar and Abu Bakar Baashyir. What united the jihadists in this effort was that many had their roots in past Islamist extremist movements such as the Darul Islam movement that launched a low-intensity insurgency from 1948 to 1962.

In response to Suharto’s repression of Islamists, many jihadists, including Sungkar and Baashyir strategically migrated (Hijrah) to Malaysia from the early 1980s` onwards. Due to the Afghan struggle, many eventually made their way to Afghanistan through Pakistan. A strong Indonesia-based jihadi community developed in Pakistan and Afghanistan, as part of the Mujahidin struggle, based with the Rasul Sayyaf faction. There were also other Southeast Asian jihadists in Pakistan and Afghanistan from Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines, Singapore and probably Myanmar. This is where this jihadi community was not only radicalised but also developed a network that was eventually to form the basis of AJAI. The jihadi community was imbued with Islamist radicalism of Qutbiyyah, Sheik Abdullah Azzam and Osama bin Laden, organizing it regionally and for violent actions on grounds of Jihad and Dauliah Islamiyyah. This community eventually established itself in January 1993 as AJAI, having region-wide linkages as well as with the Al Qaeda, and was primarily responsible for the violence in the region, especially Indonesia. Due to AJAI’s violence from 2000 onwards, the international community listed it as a ‘terrorist organization’. What began as friends and proxies of the US in the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan, eventually were re-labelled as terrorists and enemies of the West, especially after the 2000 attacks on churches and the 2002 Bali bombings. Yet, this is only part of the narrative. There was also a sinister US’s role in how AJAI actually came about.

Prior to the outbreak of the Afghan mujahidin struggle in 1979, most of the jihadi groups in Southeast Asia were nationally oriented, aiming to establish Islamic States based on Syariat Islam. There was no concept or interest in going beyond national boundary in terms of Islamist goals. It short, what existed were ‘national jihadists’ with no notion of ‘internationalism’. However, what transformed these nationally-oriented jihadists into groups that were prepared to collaborate with like-minded movements and organizations outside their home countries was to their ideological, political and military experiences in Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989. This culminated in the establishment of the Al Jemaah Al-Islamiyyah, the first Southeast Asia-wide terrorist organisation that was formally established in 1993 even though it existed informally since 1985. And, through the United States’ assistance and encouragement, AJAI was born in Afghanistan.

The war in Afghanistan proved to be catalytic in sowing the seeds for Global Jihad and the emergence of the AJAI as a region-wide terrorist organization with close links with hitherto national-oriented jihadists as one of its major consequence. To that extent, the Afghanistan War can be regarded as the cradle from which many terrorists and militants have emerged to threaten the world. The perpetrators of policies aimed at encouraging the growth of Islamic militancy, extremism and even terrorism should be regarded as the mid-wives of these terrorist groups that have come to haunt most civilised states in the world. The primary responsibility for this lays with the United States and its allies, namely, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States and all those who directly and indirectly fuelled Islamic fanaticism as an instrument to reverse the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan.

When the Soviet Army marched into Kabul in December 1979, the Carter and later, Reagan Administration, launched a massive support and training campaign to support the Afghan Mujahidin. According to Robert Gates, the former CIA Director, covert operations to assist the Mujahidin began in June 1979.[3] In 1998, this was confirmed by Carter’s National Security Adviser, Zbigniew Brezinski. Between 1979 to 1989, identifying Pakistan as the ‘front-line state’ in the struggle against global communism, some US$ 6 billion was funnelled into the country to support and train the Afghan Mujahidin with the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) as the principal conduit. The CIA and ISI worked closely with the seven key Afghan resistance movements, including the radical group led by Gulbuddin Hikmatyar, who later became Afghanistan’s prime minister and is presently one of Washington’s greatest sworn enemies. Other hardliners, including the Saudi-born Osama bin Laden, were also recruited for the rollback of the Soviet Union from Afghanistan.[4] Osama ran the Maktab al-Khidmat lil Mujahidin al-Arab (Afghan Services Bureau) in Peshawar, Pakistan, recruiting would-be Mujahidins from all over the world.

At the heart of the CIA plan was to destabilize the USSR through the spread of Islamic fanaticism against its Muslim-dominated Central Asian Republics. In this endeavour, the US funded the establishment of a massive madrasah (Islamic religious schools) network aimed at propagating jihadi Islam as well as using them as a base for recruiting Mujahidin fighters for the war against the ‘Godless Russians’ in Afghanistan. Zia ul Haq’s government promoted the proliferation of these madrasahs in order to gain support from the religious political parties as well as to recruit troops for the war in Afghanistan. The number of madrasahs increased from nearly 1,000 in 1979 to 10,000 by the end of the Afghan War. Here, the CIA played a key role by financing the training and indoctrination of the Mujahidin and where guerrilla training was integrated with the teaching of hard line Islam. Training camps were built in Pakistan and Afghanistan from where the Mujahidin attacked the leftist government in Kabul and later, the Soviet occupation force.  In addition to training and recruiting Afghan nationals to fight the Soviets, the CIA also encouraged the ISI to recruit Muslim extremists from around the world to join in the Global Jihad regardless of its long-term consequences.[5] According to Ahmed Rashid:

Between 1982 and 1992, some 35,000 Muslim radicals from 43 Islamic countries in the Middle East, North and East Africa, Central Asia and the Far East would pass through baptism under fire with the Afghan Mujahidin. Tens of thousands more foreign Muslim radicals came to study in the hundreds of new Madrasahs that Zia’s military government began to fund in Pakistan and along the Afghan border. Eventually, more than 100,000 Muslim radicals were to have direct contact with Pakistan and Afghanistan and be influenced by the Jihad.

In camps near Peshawar and in Afghanistan, these radicals met each other for the first time and studied, trained and fought together. It was the first opportunity for most of them to learn about Islamic movements in other countries, and they forged tactical and ideological links that would serve them well in the future. The camps became virtual universities for future Islamic radicalism. None of the intelligence agencies involved wanted to consider the consequences of bringing together thousands of Islamic radicals from all over the world.[6]

In 1985, President Reagan ordered the escalation of the conflict in Afghanistan by channelling sophisticated weaponry, including anti-aircraft Stinger missiles, to bleed the Soviet occupation force. According to Steve Coll, “President Reagan signed National Security Decision Directive 166 which authorised stepped-up covert military aid to the Mujahidins and it made clear that the secret Afghan war had a new goal: to defeat Soviet troops in Afghanistan through covert action and encourage a Soviet withdrawal”.[7] The CIA-Mujahidin partnership proved to be effective and in 1989, the last Soviet soldier left Afghanistan. While the US interest diminished with the Soviet withdrawal and the CIA markedly reduced its presence in Pakistan, the ISI continued training and channelling funds to the Mujahidins. In 1992, Kabul fell to the Mujahidins.

Following the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, thousands of triumphant non-Afghan jihadists returned to their home countries. The battle-hardened jihadist, their heightened political consciousness combined with their strong ideological convictions made them realise that there was also a need for a national and possibly regional jihad as various secular governments at home were just as much client regimes of the United States as was Najibullah a client of the Soviet Union. Worse still, there was a large army of well-trained religious zealots who believed in the export of their brand of Islam. In many ways, the phenomenon of globalisation of Islamist radicalism went hand in hand with the struggle to undertake national and regional jihad. What also drew these jihadist together was the formidable network they had built up during their sojourn in Afghanistan leading them being labelled as the Afghanis. When the national and regional Afghanis joined forces, there was the synergy of a powerful and dangerous network of terrorism that has since come to haunt the world. As many of the Afghanis would also like to propagate their interpretation of Islam to the rest of the Muslim Ummah, the targeting of various secular regimes in the Muslim world was something natural. This partly explained the raison d’etre of Osama and his supporters’ in targeting of the US. In Osama’s mind, the US was trying to save the heart (Saudi Arabia) of the Muslim world from falling into the hands of radical Islam.

While the Afghan endgame was being played out, in 1988, with US’s knowledge, Osama created the Al Qaeda, a conglomerate of quasi-independent Islamic terrorist cells spread across at least 26 countries, and later believed to have extended to some 60 countries. Washington, however, turned a blind eye, confident that it would not directly impinge on the US and its interests. Once the Afghan War was over, there was a ‘surplus of jihadist’ in Pakistan and Afghanistan. These ‘surplus jihadist’ were unleashed for jihadi mission elsewhere, and therein lay one of the most important factors accounting for the spread of Islamist extremism and terrorism the world over through the 1990s to the present period. Later, many joined Al Qaeda and turned against the United States, Saudi Arabia and others. Even though the Afghan War ended in 1989, the country was torn apart by internecine conflict. The Najibullah regime collapsed in 1992 and Kabul was taken over by the Mujahidins, who now fought a bloody civil war with each other for the spoils of jihad in Afghanistan. In September 1996, Mullah Omar’s created Taliban (drawing mainly students from the madrasahs) came to power in Kabul. Despite the Soviet defeat in 1989, jihadi-oriented training, sponsored by the various Islamist groups and often with the backing of the ISI, continued with many ‘surplus jihadist’ now unleashed for the liberation of Kashmir and elsewhere, including Bosnia and Chechnya. In some ways, Afghanistan as a ‘breeding ground’ for terrorist in the post-Soviet period represented the second phase with Kabul, especially the Taliban providing sanctuaries and training to various groups, including those from Southeast Asia. This continued in Afghanistan until a new political paradigm emerged in the world following the 911 attacks that eventually led to the Taliban’s overthrow by a US-led invasion in December 2001.

To that extent, even though the short-term geopolitical interest of the United States was achieved in Afghanistan, which probably also assisted in the dismantling of the USSR and its communist empire, in the long run, Washington’s Afghan policy was primarily responsible for unleashing the many hydra-headed monsters of jihadi terrorism the world over. In many ways, both Carter and Reagan were responsible for the creation of a Frankenstein Monster of global terrorism that is threatening the world, including the United States. The origins of the 911 attacks on the United States can indeed be found in the short-sighted policy of the preceding American administrations. In the words of Jagmohan Meher, “the indecisive American policy towards Pakistan and Afghanistan seemed to have boomeranged in the form of its former allies becoming the sources of largest terrorist networks worldwide, which led to the attack on American on September 11, 2001”.[8]

The menace of global terrorism a la Al Qaeda is hence partly self-made.  Whatever one calls them, the Afghanis, ‘the Afghan Boys’, the ‘Afghan Veterans’ or ‘the Mujahidins’, these groups were germinated and nurtured by short-term American geopolitical interests. The long-term ramification of this has been the proliferation of various national and regional terrorist organizations, including the AJAI in Southeast Asia. In many ways, it reminds one of an old Javanese saying: ‘siapa menabur angin akan menuai badai’, literally translates to mean, ‘he who sows winds will eventually harvest hurricanes’. Ironically, Washington’s secret programme of supporting the Afghan Mujahidin was called ‘Operation Cyclone’.

In the same vein, when the United States decided to sponsor, fund, support and encourage Osama bin Laden, Abdullah Azzam, Rasul Sayyaf, and mujahidins such as Gulbuddin Hikmatyar, they were praised as freedom fighters and champions of democracy. This was because these groups were fighting in Afghanistan in line with US’s interest to check and reverse Soviet interest in Afghanistan. However, when these very groups turned against the United States and its interests, they began to describe as terrorists and a threat to world peace. In other words when violent groups that accommodate and serve the US, they are welcome and championed as ‘good terrorists’ but when the converse takes place and these groups resist the US and its interests, then they became ‘bad terrorists’ that should be destroyed. Ironically, what became the Al Qaeda and its affiliates such as AJAI were once viewed as ‘good terrorists’, only to have them relabelled as ‘bad terrorists’ when they began to challenge and oppose the US. This, essentially is the story of the US and terrorism. When terrorist groups are willing proxies of Washington, they are tolerated and supported, and when they become strong opponents, then they are vilified.

The US’s Role in the Rise of the Islamic State

As if the United States’ role as the mid-wife the AJAI was not enough, less than ten years after the Al Qaeda-led attacks on the US, Washington was again complicit in helping to create what is probably the most dangerous terrorist organisation in the world today, the Islamic State. If the US had not invaded Iraq, there would have been no Islamic State today. The US’s role in the creation of ISIS was twofold; first, by invading Iraq to oust Saddam Hussein and his regime, it created the conditions for the rise of a Sunni-based terrorist group that was both anti-West, especially American and anti-Shia. Second, later, as part of a strategy to undermine and oust Bashir Assad of Syria, the US, together with its close allies, both Arabs and in the West, funded a then largely weak ISIS, boomeranging into what ISIS has become today, a Frankenstein Monster, in turn, leading to the flow of more than 35,000 foreign fighters from more than 90 countries, including from Southeast Asia to join ISIS in Iraq and Syria. The brutalities and atrocities that the Islamic States have perpetrated are unparalleled in recent history, aimed at provoking counter-actions that will only benefit the US, the West and conservative-feudal Arab states.

ISIS began as an Al Qaeda outfit. What is the Islamic State today went through a series of evolution before it metamorphosed into what it is today.  In response to the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq that toppled the Saddam Hussein’s regime in March 2003 and where a Shia-dominated regime was emplaced, a Sunni-based jihadi-oriented insurgency surfaced. This provided the Al Qaeda with an opportunity to intervene in Iraq. In early 2004, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Jordanian, established the Organisation of Monotheism and Jihad (OMJ) that was affiliated with Al Qaeda. Later, the OMJ morphed into the Organization of Jihad’s Base in the Country of Two Rivers, commonly referred to as the Al Qaeda Iraq (AQI). In January 2006, the AQI ‘iraqized’ itself by renaming itself as Mujahidin Shura Council (MSC), also partly to distant itself from Al Qaeda. Abu Musab was killed by the Americans on 7 June 2006.

In October 2006, the MSC joined forces with four insurgent groups to establish the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), led by Abdullah al-Rashid al-Baghdadi and Abu Ayyub al-Masri, both of whom were killed in April 2010. The ISI’s leadership was taken over by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi aka Abu Duwa. With the outbreak of a civil war in Syria, ISI took advantage of the Sunni-Shia civil war by fighting against Shia and Assad forces in Syria. On 9 April 2013, Abu Bakr declared the establishment of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Shaam. On 29 June 2014, the establishment of a new Caliphate with Abu Bakr as the Caliph was announced. ISIS also renamed itself as the Islamic State. Thus, even though ISIS originated from the Al Qaeda, over time, it distanced itself from the premier terrorist organisation, especially its leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, viewing Al Qaeda and its leadership as being irrelevant, ineffective and inferior in the context of the ongoing jihadi struggle in the Islamic World, especially in the Middle East.

What helped the Islamic State to emergence in such a speed was due to a number of factors. It was due to the pro-Jewish, neo-conservatives, Bush-initiated invasion, of Iraq that created the necessary and sufficient pre-conditions for radical groups such as ISIS to take root. The regime change imposed on Iraq by the short-sighted invasion, which was more concerned with assisting Israel’s security concerns and grabbing the abundant Iraqi oil, destroyed the Baathist secular state and replaced it with a Shia-dominated political-religious-social order that discriminated and marginalised the Sunnis. ISIS was the blowback and backlash to this new political-security order created by the Americans and its clients in Iraq. This led to the exponential growth of a Sunni-driven insurgency that eventually evolved into ISIS.

In this context, one can easily concur with Garikai Chengu, a research scholar at Harvard University that:

There are essentially three wars being waged in Syria: one between the government and the rebels, another between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and yet another between America and Russia. It is this third, neo-Cold War battle that made U.S. foreign policy makers decide to take the risk of arming Islamist rebels in Syria, because Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad, is a key Russian ally. Rather embarrassingly, many of these Syrian rebels have now turned out to be ISIS thugs, who are openly brandishing American-made M16 Assault rifles.[9]

One can venture to argue that even the second war, between Iran and Saudi Arabia, if it is a war at all, is in part responsible for the rise of ISIS. This is because the backward-looking and archaic-oriented Salafiyyah and Wahhabiyyah orthodoxy of Saudi Arabia, which colours the conservative Saudi regime, was highly responsible in supporting Sunni groups that were anti-Shia, anti-Iran and anti-Assad. This led to Saudi Arabia and a number of conservative pro-American regimes in the Gulf States such as Qatar, Bahrain and Kuwait to bankroll extremist and radical groups that eventually coalesced to form the Islamic States. According to The Washington Post, Kuwait, a designated Non-NATO Ally of the US, “is the leading source of funding for al-Qaeda linked terrorists [Jabhat al-Nusra] fighting in Syria’s civil war”.[10] In fact, the US Treasury Undersecretary, David Cohen referred to Kuwait as the “epicentre of fundraising for terrorist groups in Syria”.[11] Similarly Qatar is believed to be funding extremist group such as Al Qaeda and its affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra, and the Islamic State. Interestingly, Jabhat al-Nusra is on the US blacklist of terrorist organizations and yet, the US Government is channelling weapons and money to it to hurt both Assad and the Islamic State. It was in this context that the Syrian Foreign Minister, Walid al-Moallem called on the West, not just to undertake military strikes against the Islamic State (which the West nurtured in the first place) but also to cut off its sources of funding for these groups. Otherwise, “it will create a whirlpool of which the international community will not exit in decades”[12]

In fact evidence is surfacing that Washington planners were hoping for the rise of the Islamic State as early as 2010, at its inception, when the civil war was raging in Syria. The US and its allies kept sending arms and other military wherewithal to Syria, in an effort to undertake regime change in Damascus, even though it knew that these arms were falling into the hands of what was to become the Islamic State. More importantly, in 2012, the US intelligence agencies were telling their political leaders that the establishment of an Islamic State was its goal and that was a key raison d’etre for supporting the opposition to Assad: “If the situation unravels, there is the possibility of establishing a declared or undeclared Salafist principality in Eastern Syria (Hasaka and Der Zor) and this is exactly what the supporting powers to the opposition want, in order to isolate the Syrian regime, which is considered the strategic depth of the Shia expansion (Iraq and Iran)”.[13] The supporting powers in this case were the United States, Israel, the Gulf States led by Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Turkey. Clearly the US was complicit in the establishment of the Islamic State as a ‘good terrorist’ and it was only in 2014 that the Islamic State can to be seen as a ‘bad terrorist’ when it began conquering vast swaths of territories and beheading Westerners.

Finally, another major nail in the coffin of the US’s role in nurturing terrorist groups in the Middle East was made evident with Washington’s intent of controlling the Middle East, Arabs and their resources by dividing them through conflicts and wars, as seems to be happening presently in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya and even parts of Muslim Africa. Hafez Al-Barghouti, writing in Al-Hayat Al-Jadida noted that:

There are many proofs of US involvement in the present disasters in the region, and the present plot is that of dismantling - that is, the dismantling of Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Egypt was supposed to have been dismantled, and at present this is happening to Yemen and several Gulf countries, parallel to the establishment of a Kurdish state in northern Iraq and northeastern Syria.

And there is no better proof of this than the fact that [while] Washington rejected Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki's calls for intervention against ISIS when it started to threaten Baghdad, it [the US] did intervene when ISIS began to threaten Iraqi Kurdistan.

ISIS, the perpetrators of atrocities and the groups that hoist the banner of religion seem to be raising their weapons in sync with Washington, and fight the US verbally, but in practice are killing their enemies. Is this a coincidence, or was it planned ahead of time?[14]

In the same vein: Muharram Barghouti wrote:

After the coffins of US soldiers returned from Afghanistan and Iraq, and before that, from Lebanon, [the US] adopted a new method [to protect US interests]: exploitation and creation of Islamic, Christian and Jewish religious extremism, in order to fight [Arabs] with it rather than with its own soldiers. Taking a closer look at what is happening in the region we can see that the wars in Libya, Iraq, Syria and Palestine were planned by the US in order to protect its interests... The US is using extremists as human shields fighting on its behalf, so that American soldiers will no longer be in danger of returning home in coffins. The ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq), Islamic Front, and Al-Nusra Front (i.e., all radical Islamists) are Muslims from various countries the US is using to fight in Iraq and Syria, in order to fragment the unity of these two Arab countries...[15]


Without an iota of a doubt, Iran has been a victim of Western, especially US and Israeli-sponsored terrorism. The US’s support for the Mujahedin-e Khalq Organization (MEK), a terrorist organization like the Al Qaeda and ISIS, is the definitive evidence of this political behavior. MEK, founded in September 1965, started as a left-wing group but devoted itself to armed struggle against the Shah and his supporters. Before the Iranian Revolution, it had a history of launching violent attacks against Iran and even US officials. Since 1979, through support of the West and Israel, it has left behind a trail of violence including the 30 August 1981 bombing that killed 81 members of the Islamic Republic Party that included President Mohammad Ali Rajai and Prime Minister Mohammad Javad Bahonar. During the Iran-Iraq War, MEK, as a traitor organization, allied with the enemy of Iran, Saddam Hussein. Even though MEK has claimed to have renounced violence and been a key component of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, it is still, clandestinely with US and Israeli support, involved in terrorism in Iran, including being involved in murdering Iranian nuclear scientists in collaboration with the CIA and Mossad. Since January 2009, Western states have delisted MEK as a terrorist organization, with Hilary Clinton doing so in September 2012, making MEK a full-fledged tool of US foreign policy against Iran.

The US and its allies have supported terrorists with money, arms, diplomatic and political support, and even provision of ideological guidelines as they did with regard to the Mujahidins fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan. After masterminding a bloody coup against the democratically-elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh in August 1953 and bringing back the Shah to power, the US saw Iran as a major stooge and client-state in the Middle East. With the fall of Shah and the outbreak of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, the US suffered a major strategic defeat in the Middle East. Since then, repeated American administrations have been trying to exact revenge against the state of Iran, Iranians and its Islamic Revolution. Washington has tried to punish Iran and its people through war-like diplomatic and economic sanctions that have brought untold social and economic hardships and sufferings for Iranians but failed to destroy their will. What the US and its allies have done is an act of Western-sponsored economic terrorism par excellence.

Also, through a relentless disinformation and misinformation campaign by Western-controlled media that serves as instruments of Western strategic interests, it has tried to defame Iran and its people. The single most important allegation has been that Iran is a sponsor of international terrorism. The plain fact of the matter is that not only has the West armed and financed terrorists but Iran has been a victim of Western and Israeli-sponsored terrorism. There are many more victims of terrorism found in Iran than Western Europe and the US combined, and yet the Western-controlled media hardly squeak a word about this reality. Mainly to cover its own support for terrorism, the West, especially US and its permanent ally, Israel, have labeled Iran as a state sponsoring terrorism, partly driven by foreign and security interests as well as the fact that the global media is controlled by pro-Western and pro-Jewish interests that have been amenable to the creation of Islamphobic and Iranphobic sentiments. The subversion of Iran, its government and its people, is the major foreign policy objective of Washington in the hope that a strategic and rich Iran can do Washington’s bidding, not to mention to benefit from Iran’s geopolitical position in the Persian Gulf and West Asia.

Clearly, the US practices double standards when it talks about the dangers of terrorism and the need to counter it while at the same time, it is a key supporter of global terrorism. As the security of Israel and quest for cheap oil from weak and backward regimes in the region are the main drivers of its Middle East policy, the use and for terrorism have been its key planks in its policy towards the region. As far as support for terrorism in the Middle East is concern, the US’s willingness to work with Al Qaeda and ISIS, and more blatantly, to support the MEK, as has been championed by ‘neocons’ such as John Bolton, the staunchly pro-Israeli, former US Ambassador to UN, to give it economic and military aid to hurt Iran through terrorism, is evidence of this US pro-terrorism policy. Since 2012, the US has been openly championing the MEK as a proxy warrior group to be used against Iran, as it has used ISIS and Al Qaeda in the past in the Middle East and elsewhere. Unsurprisingly, there are many key American policy makers who are receptive to such calls. This is what makes US’s policy towards terrorism unpalatable and why the international community has to take US’s policy on terrorism with a pinch of salt.

This is because the US and the West as a whole, supported by Israel, has a simplistic pro-terrorism strategy: destroy states such as Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen by creating terrorist groups such as ISIS in Syria and Iraq, Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria, Al Qaeda in Yemen, and MEK in Iran. This is also directly linked to supporting Saudi-financed and originated Takfiri Islam, arming its followers, creating atrocities worldwide so that the world becomes anti-Islam. As was argued by Alex Newman in August 2014, “from sending weapons and providing training to the same jihadists in Syria who later crossed into Iraq, to tacitly endorsing the bankrolling of Islamic terror groups by supposed American allies, U.S. foreign policy has been critical in the emergence of the monstrously barbaric self-styled Islamic State “caliphate” formerly known as ISIS”.[16] This confirms the emerging view that the barbarism being witnessed in the Middle East at the hands of the Islamic State has its roots in Washington.


In view of the varied lessons that can be learnt from US’s policy towards terrorism, there are many things Iran can do:


  1. Iran should not become trapped in US-led policy of fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. The ultimate objective of the US is to create a ‘Vietnam’ or ‘Afghanistan’ for Iran in the two states and tarnished Iran internationally. It is to suck Iran into the quagmire of a sectarian conflict that can only harm and hurt Iran in the region and beyond. While it is useful to help the Iraqi and Syrian governments in bolstering their security, Iran must be extremely careful that it does fall into the US and Israeli trap of being weakened and bled through terrorists that are ultimately the proxy warriors of the US.
  2. There is much that the State and People of Iran can do to highlight to the world about the fact that it is not a sponsor of terrorism, and more important, that it is a victim of Western and Israeli-sponsored terrorism. This is very little known in the world due to the pro-West and anti-Iran global media. There is much that Iran can do to enhance global awareness, through international conferences, social media, etc. about the aggression against Iran and how the State and People have been victimized by Western-sponsored terrorism. In addition to active engagement in the media world to negate the disinformation of the West, Teheran can use public diplomacy to correct misperceptions about Iran. In the end, Iran can do much to demonstrate that Shias and Sunnis can cooperate to wipe out terrorism and this will also deprive the US a weapon of divide and rule in the Middle East.


That the US has colluded, cooperated and created Islamist radical groups is unquestionable. One can trace this back to the Cold War when the US began nurturing right-wing military regimes and militant political Islam as the bulwark against communism the world over. This has continued to this very day, now in a post-Cold War terrain, with ISIS as its most recent creation. Even though the US might be opposed to ISIS, though not in a full-hearted manner, the terrorist organization still began its existence as a direct consequences of US’s action, namely, the invasion of Iraq and later, as part of its strategy to bring about a regime change in Syria, supporting extremist groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq which morphed into the Islamic State later. This has come to haunt mankind today. In the end, once must conclude that there is no such thing as good and bad terrorism: there is just evil terrorism and anyone who supports and condones terrorism is by extension equally evil in intent.


  1. Why does the United States [with the support of allies in the West and Israel] pursue a double-headed and hypocritical terrorism policy of publicly championing counter-terrorism and yet, covertly is one of the most active state sponsor of terrorism?
  2. Why has Iran been targeted by the US since 1979 for destruction, including through the support of terrorist groups such as the MEK and Jundullah?
  3. What can Iran do to counter the United States’ policy of supporting worldwide terrorism and especially when it is targeted against it, its people and its interests? What measures can Iran alone or in cooperation with the international community do to create a zero tolerance zone against terrorism?
  4. Are there public awareness measures that Iran and its people has already undertaken and can further undertake to highlight how Iran is a victim of Western-sponsored terrorism? What more can be done other than simply organizing an annual conference to highlight this as countering terrorism and its sponsors requires a 7-24-365 policy?
  5. Can Iran establish a world-class counter-terrorism and counter-radicalization centre to train scholars and publish studies so that it can be regarded as one of the places in the world where world-class studies and programs on this subject are taking place?


[1] For a flavour of what has been written on the subject, see Arabinda Acharya, Whither Southeast Asia Terrorism?, (London: Imperial College Press, 2015);Paul J. Smith,  Terrorism and Violence in Southeast Asia: Transnational Challenges to States and Regional Stability, (London: Routledge, 2014); and Zachary Abuza,   Militant Islam in Southeast Asia: Crucible of Terror, (Boulder, Col.: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2003).

[2] Solahudin, The Roots of Terrorism in Indonesia: From Darul Islam to Jema'ah Islamiyah, (Singapore: NUS Press, 2013).

[3] According to Fred Halliday, “in 1979, the United States launched the largest covert operation in the history of the CIA in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan”. See Fred Halliday, ‘The Un-great Game: The Country that Lost the Cold War”, New Republic, 25 March 1996.

[4] According to Dr Farrukh Saleem, “in 1980, Prince Turki al-Faisal, the then head of Istakhbarat, Saudi Arabia’s secret service, handpicked Osama bin Laden to provide engineering  and organizational help to the Mujahidins fighting in Afghanistan”. Dr Farrukh Saleem, “Quetta and Surplus Jihadists”, The News International, (Pakistan), 15 July 2003. See

[5] See Olivier Roy, Afghanistan: From Holy War to Civil War, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995).

[6] See Ahmed Rashid, Taliban: The Story of the Afghan Warlords, (Basingstoke and Oxford: Pan Books, 2001), p.130.

[7] Steve Coll, The Washington Post, July 19, 1992.

[8] See Jagmohan Meher, America’s Afghanistan War: The Success that Failed, (Delhi: Kalpaz Publications, 2004), p.200.

[9] See Garikai Chengu, “How the US helped Create Al Qaeda and ISIS”, Counterpunch, 19 September 2014. Available at

[10] John Glaser, “How US Supports Regimes That Support Terrorism”, Anti-War Blog, 28 April 2014.  Available at

[11] Ibid.

[12] “Syrian FM says countries in US-led coalition continue to support “terrorist groups””, alakhbar English, 30 September 2014. Available at

[13] This quote is from a declassified US Defence Intelligence Agency document dated 12 August 2012. Cited in David Mizner, “How the US Helped ISIS”. Available at

[14] See Hafez Al-Barghouti, Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, 14 August 2014. Available at

[15] See Muharam Barghouti, Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, 16 July 2014. Available at

[16] Alex Newman, “Obama Helped ISIS in Syria, Now Fights It in Iraq”, The New American, 14, August 2014. See

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