August 11, 2016
(First published on September 29, 2012)
Pavel Stroilov is a Russian historian who smuggled a top-secret archive of about 50,000 Soviet documents to the West. Stroilov tells the story of the Soviet support for the Islamist movements, and analyzes Russia’s actions today.
Pavel Stroilov is a Russian historian who, in 2004, copied a top-secret Soviet archive of about 50,000 documents from the Gorbachev Foundation, where he was a researcher. He smuggled the documents to the West and was granted political asylum in London. He was a friend of FSB defector Alexander Litvinenko, who was murdered in London with the Russian government widely suspected of being responsible. Stroilov translated and edited his writings after his death, titled Allegations: Selected Works by Alexander Litvinenko.
His books include EUSSR: The Soviet Roots of European Integration, co-authored with Vladimir Bukovsky and Behind the Desert Storm: A Secret Archive Stolen From the Kremlin That Shends a New Light on the Arab Revolutions in the Middle East.
The following is Pavel Stroilov’s interview with ClarionProject.org’s Ryan Mauro:
Mauro: One of the revelations in your new book is that Soviet records show that the Communists actively sponsored the growth of radical Islam. How much work did the Soviets put into this effort and what did they hope to achieve?
Stroilov: Oddly enough, the story actually did not begin with the ideology of radical Islam but with the method, terrorism. The Soviets created modern international terrorism and the archival documents leave no doubts about that. Vladimir Bukovsky’s archival collection shows that the Soviets were financing, arming, and training terrorists from “liberation fronts” all over the world since the 1960s.
According to the highest-ranking and very credible defector from the Soviet Bloc, General Ion Mihai Pacepa, it was the then-head of the KGB’s intelligence arm, General Alexander Sakharovsky, who insisted that “In today’s world, when nuclear arms have made military force obsolete, terrorism should become our main weapon.”
In the narrow circle of high-ranking Soviet Bloc spymasters, Sakharovsky boasted that airplane-hijacking was his own invention. His personal office decoration at KGB headquarters was a large world map, covered with countless red flags, each pinned by Sakharovsky to mark a successful hijacking. Another notorious species of terrorist attacks—mass shootings in airports and other public places—was also invented by the KGB in the wake of the successful campaign to hijack 82 airplanes in 1969 alone.
Originally, this was a worldwide campaign, with the Middle East-brand of terrorism being just one of many, along with other “liberation fronts” on every continent, even in Europe (e.g., the Irish terrorists or the Red Brigades). But then, resulting from practical experience rather than design, Palestinian terrorists became the most successful. The term “Palestinian” is a rather misleading adjective here, because Palestinians are not a nation, but rather a voluntary organization. “Palestinian” is what they call themselves, without any particular historic or geographic connection with Palestine, except that they hope to conquer it. It is more accurate to call it Arab anti-Western (and hence, anti-Israeli) terrorism.
Religion was brought into it at a rather late stage. From the scarce documents and witnesses that are available, it seems to be in the 1970s. It was then that the new head of the KGB, Yuri Andropov, came up with the idea of using Islam to broaden the base of anti-Western “liberation fronts.” Again, apparently this was not limited to Islam alone. Around the same period, the world saw similar ugly hybrids of religion with socialism mushrooming everywhere—for example, the Catholic “Liberation Theology” in Latin America. And again, the Muslim world has proven to be the most fertile soil for these evil seeds, so much so that the Islamic terrorism has long outlived its Marxist creators.
Mauro: Was there a relationship between the Soviet Union and the Muslim Brotherhood?
Stroilov: I have no evidence of any direct relationship and would be surprised if there was. Rather, it was the KGB’s sister service in Egypt who infiltrated the Muslim Brotherhood very densely and deliberately nurtured them as the only organized opposition in Egypt. It was their game, so it would be pointless for the Soviet KGB to interfere. While they were friends with the Egyptian regime, it was practical common sense to leave such a massive operation to the local comrades. When they became enemies, the KGB knew well that the Muslim Brotherhood was so densely infiltrated by their Egyptian counterparts that nobody could be trusted there.
Socialist Egypt was an ally of the Soviet Union for longer than is generally thought. As the archival documents show, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat maintained a secret relationship with Moscow for a number of years in the earlier period of his rule before switching sides. For that, he was killed and his successor, Hosni Mubarak, then restored the secret relations with Moscow.
It is very likely that the KGB was involved in the assassination of Sadat and it should be inferred that they had a close relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood’s splinter group that did it. We still do not know how direct the relationship was—it may have been through the Syrians and/or Palestinians. According to the archive taken by KGB defector Vasili Mitrokhin, it was immediately after Sadat made peace with Israel that the Syrian secret service and the National Front for the Liberation of Palestine began preparing his assassination with Moscow’s knowledge and, at least, tacit approval.
Mauro: Tell us about the relationship between the Soviets and Ayatollah Khomeini and the Iranian regime.
Stroilov: It was quite long and complicated. I tell the full story in the book. To begin with, the fundamentalist regime in Iran emerged because of a very weird accident of history.
The 1979 Iranian Revolution had been prepared very thoroughly by the Soviets ever since the end of World War II, but it was meant to be a communist revolution. The Islamists were mere fellow-travelers at first, but at the decisive moment, the most important KGB spymaster in Tehran, Vladimir Kuzichkin, turned out to be a double-agent for the British MI6. He gave them full information on the entire Soviet subversive network in Iran. The British passed it on to the Shah, and then the records were captured by the Islamists, so they easily rounded up all the Soviet agents and Iranian communists, the entire, very impressive subversive network.
This was the moment when the Islamists really became the “third force” in the Middle East Cold War. The Soviets and their “Red Arab” satellites faced a difficult choice between an alliance with the ayatollahs against the West or a war against them. Syrian dictator Hafez Assad wanted an alliance, and Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein wanted war, which he eventually started without Moscow’s approval. By that time, Moscow practically accepted Assad’s line.
In 1987, one of Gorbachev’s advisors wrote in a confidential memo: “Of course, Assad is playing his own game with us, although he believes he is right. The reason we need him now is not even the Middle East…but Iran after Khomeini (the Syrians have strongly penetrated the various strata of the Iranian society).” In the same period, the Soviets began actively seeking secret contacts with Iran through Assad and Yasser Arafat.
In response, Khomeini suddenly sent a written epistle to Gorbachev in 1989, suggesting it was time to abandon Marxism and turn the Soviet Union into an Islamic Republic. The whole Politburo laughed their heads off. Gorbachev, of course, replied that he was as loyal a communist as any, but they could still cooperate on many fronts and so they did.
Within months, as the transcripts of their negotiations show, the Soviets and Iranians were already discussing cooperation on such issues as ousting the Americans from the Indian Ocean, building a strategic railway to link the Soviet Union to the Persian Gulf through Iran, technology, and yes, nuclear energy. Ayatollah Rafsanjani even wanted to send his son to space on a Soviet shuttle “as a symbol of Soviet-Iranian friendship.” Gorbachev is also recorded as proposing to his Politburo that the Soviets organize secret arms shipments to Iran through Czechoslovakia or Hungary.
As Khomeini died that same year and was succeeded by more cynical people, the attempts to convert the Russians to Islam ceased and a pragmatic but very close anti-Western alliance between Moscow and Tehran was established very rapidly. In spite of some occasional maneuvers and pretenses, that alliance certainly continues to this day.
Mauro: Islamist terrorists like Al-Qaeda target Russia today. What’s your opinion of those who argue that the U.S. and Russia today face a common enemy now and should be allies?
Stroilov: The whole thing is Moscow’s propaganda. Even though Moscow is desperate to link the Chechens with Al-Qaeda, the connection is entirely false. From the outset, the Chechen independence movement was not religious but nationalist and even democratic. It was simply that, as the Soviet Union collapsed, the Chechens wanted independence like everybody else.
Since they are a Muslim nation, the Islamists tried to get onboard and Moscow always supported that, using its own agents in Islamist organizations. On the one hand, that would discredit the Chechens, and on the other, it would help infiltrate them. These efforts have had some success and the Chechen leadership is now bitterly split between democrats and “Islamists,” but it is really an open secret that even the “Islamist” Chechen leaders do not really believe in the ideology. They are simply flirting with rich sponsors in the Middle East or are manipulated by Russian FSB agents.
Indeed, as FSB defector Alexander Litvinenko revealed, and this was probably the revelation that cost him his life, the present head of Al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is an FSB agent himself. As the former leader of the terrorist organization Egyptian Islamic Jihad, Zawahiri was on international lists of most wanted terrorists for many years. In 1997, he suddenly resurfaced in Russia, where he undertook a special training course at a secret FSB base in Dagestan. After that, he was sent to Afghanistan and joined Al-Qaeda as Bin Laden’s number two.
When the story emerged, Moscow claimed that they arrested Zawahiri in the North Caucasus as an illegal immigrant, but failed to identify him, so they had to deport him. Yet, it is difficult to believe that they failed to identify one of the world’s most wanted terrorists. In fact, nearly all foreign jihadist preachers who emerged in North Caucasus in that period came from Moscow on Russian visas and spoke fluent Russian, so the Chechens easily realized who these people were.
Mauro: Russia is supporting Bashar Assad today in Syria and this is usually attributed to the fact that Assad permits the Russians to have a major naval base there. If the Syrian rebels were to promise Russia that it could keep its base, would the Russians switch sides?
Stroilov: No. The naval base is not just there to guarantee Russia’s commitment to supporting Bashar Assad’s regime. It is there to deter the West from intervening if they do not want to risk a conflict with Russia and at that, the mission has been successful.
Syria was Moscow’s closest ally in the Middle East since the 1970s, ever since Sadat’s “defection” to the West. In my book, I cite the transcripts of negotiations where Gorbachev tells Hafez Assad that he wants him to be the leader of the whole Arab world. In that, Gorbachev was by no means unique among the Soviet leaders.
The reason why Moscow supports the Syrian regime is the same reason why they support Iran and other dictators and terrorists. They simply need to stir up trouble. This used to be ideological in the old time, but now they need trouble for trouble’s sake. The main reason is, simply, that it drives oil prices up. Also, they like to be involved in any international crisis so they can bargain for concessions from the West, so they will be supporting Assad until they are offered a really big prize for betraying him. I don’t mean money but Western concessions on issues like Georgia or the anti-missile defense in Eastern Europe. This is the real game, where the naval base is rather incidental.
What will happen if and when the Syrian rebels win depends upon which kind of rebels come out on top. Generally, rebels rightly regard Russia as a friend and patron of their enemy that keeps using their country as a pawn in its international games at the expense of the people. The whole rebellion began with Russia and Iranian flags burning on the streets of Damascus.
If and when Syria becomes democratic, its alliance with Putin will end the same day. But a likelier and much more sinister scenario, given the suicidal policy of the West, is that the Islamists will win, like they did in Tunisia and Egypt. In that case, it is quite possible that they will reach a pragmatic understanding with Putin and will go on stirring up trouble and driving up oil prices for him. In that case, they will want to keep the Russian base in Syria and probably will, so we will just be back to square one.