Long & Strange Trip: US Shielding al-Qaeda 17 Years After 9/11 Attacks

© AFP 2022 / Fadi al-Halabi / AMCFighters from Al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliate Al-Nusra Front drive in armed vehicles in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo as they head to a frontline. (File)
Fighters from Al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliate Al-Nusra Front drive in armed vehicles in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo as they head to a frontline. (File) - Sputnik International
Seventeen years after al-Qaeda terrorists attacked the United States, flying planes into the World Trade Center in New York City, killing nearly 3,000 innocent Americans and attempting to hit the White House in Washington, DC, the US finds itself going to bat for the jihadist group in Syria.

The US has been raising a racket over the upcoming Syrian liberation of the Idlib province. On September 4, the US State Department said that "any Assad regime military offensive in Idlib would be an unacceptable, reckless escalation of the conflict in Syria." But a closer look at who controls the province, and therefore who the United States is trying to protect, raises troubling questions.

According to Staffan de Mistura, United Nations' Special Envoy to Syria, around 10,000 al-Qaeda fighters, plus their families, are currently residing in the province, Sputnik News reported.

That's just to put a figure on it, however. One senior US official, as recently as last year, painted a grim picture of the province, calling it "the largest al-Qaeda safe haven since 9/11, tied directly to Ayman al-Zawahiri." That was America's Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS [Daesh] Brett McGurk, and he was speaking of the al-Qaeda leader who took over control of the group after the killing of Osama Bin Laden in 2011.

Perhaps looking a gift horse in the mouth, on September 11, 2018, Zawahiri called on Muslims across the world to take up arms against the United States, Sputnik News reported.

McGurk was speaking in 2017 at the Middle East Institute think tank in DC. "The approach — I obviously will not talk about anything the US government has done in certain parts of Syria on this problem — but the approach by some of our partners, to send in tens of tons of weapons and looking the other way as these foreign fighters come into Syria, may not have been the best approach, and al-Qaeda has taken full advantage of it," he said.

"Idlib now is a huge problem. It is an al-Qaeda safe haven," he added. Currently, al-Qaeda affiliates Jabhat al-Nusra and Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham are dominating the zone, threatening to kill any rebel fighters who seek to rejoin the Syrian Army.

Western governments, Turkey, Israel and Gulf monarchies, including Saudi Arabia — the nation from which 15 if the 19 9/11 hijackers hailed — have armed, trained, supplied and funded Islamist proxy fighters in an effort to oust Syrian President Bashar Assad from power in the so-called ‘civil war' in Syria. Over the course of the conflict, as Syria has liberated various provinces and cities from the Islamists, it has allowed fighters passage into Idlib — now the last remaining ‘rebel'-held province in the country. Many of them have belonged to groups affiliated with al-Qaeda.

Footage, purportedly from Idlib, posted on Twitter by user Hadi Nasrallah on September 8 shows terrorists in Idlib singing praises of the attack on the Twin Towers. "We destroyed America with a civilian aircraft. The World Trade Center became a pile of dirt. And if you say that I'm a terrorist, I'd say it's an honor for me," they sing.

But for one reason or another, the US is doing its damndest to keep them there. US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley told the international body on Friday that the consequences of an offensive in Idlib "will be dire."

Haley told the UN "an offensive against Idlib is starting despite the clear warnings of the president of the United States and world leaders."

But Syria is not the only theater in which the United States finds itself on the same side as al-Qaeda. In Yemen, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is, like the United States and Saudi Arabia, seeking to overthrow the Houthi government. The US provides Saudi Arabia with weapons and military support in its war, which has led to one of the worst humanitarian crises in modern times. An early August report from the Associated Press details the Kingdom's cooperation with AQAP in the Yemen conflict. Saudi Arabia has paid the group's fighters to abandon cities they occupy and allowed them safe passage as they make off with weapons and looted spoils. "Hundreds more were recruited to join the [Saudi-led] coalition itself," AP reported.

While the extent of US-al-Qaeda collaboration may shock some, it comes as less of a surprise to others keen to the history of the jihadist group. Al-Qaeda and the Taliban's precursor was a conglomeration of Islamist groups called the Mujahedeen in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Prior to and following the Soviet Union's intervention in Afghanistan at the request of its then-socialist government, the US sought to bog the USSR down there with a quagmire akin to Vietnam.

Under the program Operation Cyclone (1979 to 1989, the same time period of Soviet involvement), America trained and armed the Mujahedeen in addition to crafting pro-jihad curriculum for the youth in the region. Then-US National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, who worked under President Jimmy Carter, said he wanted to give the Soviets a situation like the one the US faced in Vietnam. 
Lt. Gen. Robert Neller. - Sputnik International
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When Brzezinski flew to Pakistan near the Afghan border to meet with the Mujahedeen in 1979, he told them, pointing towards Afghanistan, "That land over there is yours; you'll go back to it one day because your fight will prevail, and you'll have your homes and your mosques back again there because your cause is right, and God is on your side."

As recently as a few years ago, Carter boasted to MSNBC's "Morning Joe" hosts Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski, Zbigniew's daughter, that he helped the "freedom fighters push out the Soviet troops."

Then US President Ronald Reagan also characterized the Islamists as "freedom fighters" in a 1983 speech.

Even Hollywood, where Reagan originally rose to fame, couldn't keep from joining in the praise. In 1988 the blockbuster "Rambo III" dedicated itself to the "brave Mujahedeen fighters of Afghanistan."

Journalist Max Blumenthal recently reported on an academic conference in 1985 recounted to him by a journalist, Helena Cobban, who attended it. "I remember mingling with all of these wealthy Republican women from the Phoenix suburbs and being asked, ‘Have you adopted a muj?" she told Blumenthal. "Each one had pledged money to sponsor a member of the Afghan Mujahedeen in the name of beating the communists. Some were even seated at the event next to their personal ‘muj.'" The late Senator John McCain was the keynote speaker at the conference.

Western media, as late as 1993, praised the "Saudi businessman" Osama Bin Laden, who had recruited the Mujahedeen to "destroy the Soviet army" but was now putting "his army on the road to peace."

The US wanted to prolong the Islamist insurgency, perhaps as it is trying to do in Idlib, in order to suck "the Soviets into a Vietnamese quagmire," a representative of the US Department of Defense, Walter B. Slocombe, said. "Well, the whole idea was that if the Soviets decided to strike at this tar baby [Afghanistan], we had every interest in making sure that they got stuck."

It may have backfired, however, as the Soviet Union spent 10 years in the country fighting Islamists and the United States now remains there battling fighters of the same ideology it helped propagate 17 years after invading under the pretext of hunting down Bin Laden, who was once supported by the United States, for attacking the United States. One may wonder why the US did not learn not to get sucked in to such quagmires after plotting to weaponize them against its enemy.

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