Some years ago, I met a landlord briefly who was an Iraqi. After volunteering to tell me his land of origin, he began to explain his theory that ISIS — Daesh — was created by the CIA, America's Central Intelligence Agency.
When discussing Al-Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State with ordinary people in Arab countries, it is common to hear both violent extremist groups described as creatures of the West, set up to destabilise regional governments that demur from the CIA and other intelligence agencies' agendas.
The landlord's theory was a little far-fetched, because there is no evidence to suggest that the CIA sat down one day and founded "Islamic State in Iraq and Syria", also known by its Arabic acronym Daesh. However, there is absolutely no doubt that the would-be American Empire has for decades encouraged and aided violent sectarian insurgent groups in the region which claim to operate under the banner of Islam, including Al-Qaeda.
In his new book, The Management of Savagery: How America's National Security State Fuelled the Rise of Al Qaeda, ISIS, and Donald Trump, American journalist Max Blumenthal traces the history of how the US has done just that in recent years.
As Blumenthal explains in his introduction, the book's controversial title was taken from a 2004 essay of the same name by an Al-Qaeda ideologue in Iraq. In it, Blumenthal explains, the pseudonymous author "outlined a strategy for building an Islamic State by exploiting the chaos spawned by America's regime-change wars." The paper "dovetailed neatly with the regime change blueprints [for Iraq] conceived by the national security hard-liners in Washington [ahead of the 2003 invasion], and hints at the symbiotic relationship that these two extremist elements have enjoyed."
In other words, both sides fed off and encouraged each other.
What the Al-Qaeda paper termed its own "administrations of savagery" in Iraq were intended to spark an over-the-top response from America, which would end up killing civilians, and in turn encourage recruitment to the extremists. America had already fallen for the same trap by invading Afghanistan, which was arguably precisely the kind of response that the 9/11 attacks were intended to provoke.
Interestingly, the Tora Bora cave complex in which Osama Bin Laden and his loyalists took refuge after the 2001 American invasion of Afghanistan "had been constructed with the help of the CIA during the anti-Soviet jihad in which he fought during the 1980s." That's not the only link between the two sides of the "War on Terror".
Blumenthal's book traces this mutual extremist dynamic all the way back to America's war against the Soviet-backed secular government of Afghanistan beginning in the late 1970s. The USA, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan began training, arming and funding the violent extremist groups which would later beget Al-Qaeda and the Taliban.
The US did this simply as a way to bleed the USSR dry, first by goading Moscow into the invasion of Afghanistan, and later by keeping the insurgency going until the collapse of the Soviet-backed government leading to decades of brutal civil war in the country. The failed invasion of Afghanistan is often cited as a major reason for the downfall of the Soviet Union itself.
The author then traces such "management of savagery" on through the 9/11 blowback and the "War on Terror" era, the invasion of Iraq and the regime-change wars against Libya and Syria.
All along, what Blumenthal accurately terms the "national security state" had absolutely no compunction whatsoever about allying itself with some of the world's most vicious and violent sectarian extremists groups when it suited America's purpose. This was apparent even when they had been the very same groups that attacked civilians in Arab lands and the West, such as the attacks on 9/11, for example, and more recently the Manchester Arena bombing.
Al-Qaeda attacks on US military installations in Yemen in 1992 bore very specific hallmarks, according to one US State Department expert cited by Blumenthal: "The CIA had trained whoever had conducted them… several specific elements of those attacks matched techniques I had learned when I had attended the CIA's improvised explosive device training course."
Of course, there is much here that is already known, but the strength of the book is in connecting the dots, and the masterful narrative it weaves together. Most readers will find much that is new to them; I certainly did.
Something else that you'll find in this book which you will find in few others is a highly critical and illuminating attitude towards Israel. The Zionist state is a key part of the West's "management of savagery" in Arab lands, and the book traces many examples of how it participates. There is a great section on the "Israelification" of American's security establishment and how, for example, the infamous sexualised torture of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison by US troops was influenced by Israeli-American cultural anthropologist Raphael Patai and his book on the supposed sexual dysfunctions of Arabs, The Arab Mind.
Max Blumenthal is a friend of mine, and an occasional contributor to The Electronic Intifada, where I am an associate editor. Nonetheless, if I didn't genuinely love this book, there is no way that I would heap such fulsome praise on it. So let me make it clear: I have absolutely no hesitation in declaring this book to be one of my all-time favourites.
As far as I am concerned, The Management of Savagery… is up there with Andrew and Leslie Cockburn's Dangerous Liaison, Seymour Hersh's The Sampson Option and even Gary Webb's Dark Alliance. It is a journalistic achievement the importance of which cannot be stressed enough.