CIA Fight Against Communism Bolsters Radical Islam In A Mosque in Munich, Pulitzer Prize winner Ian Johnson explains how Western spy-masters recruited ex-Soviet Muslims to be operatives in the propaganda war against the Soviet Union. These Muslims, in turn, created a community where radical Islam could gain a foothold in the heart of Europe.
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CIA Fight Against Communism Bolsters Radical Islam

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CIA Fight Against Communism Bolsters Radical Islam

CIA Fight Against Communism Bolsters Radical Islam

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GUY RAZ, host:

Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

Right in the middle of the Second World War, a top Nazi official named Gerhard von Mende managed to recruit thousands of captured Soviet soldiers for the German army. These soldiers were all Muslim and all of them resented Soviet rule. Now, after the war, most of those soldiers remained in Germany and would eventually help the CIA penetrate the Iron Curtain.

It was a project, argues author Ian Johnson, that allowed radical Islamists, like the Muslim Brotherhood, to establish a foothold in Europe. Ian Johnson's new book is called "A Mosque in Munich."

Welcome to the program.

Mr. IAN JOHNSON (Author, "A Mosque in Munich"): Thank you.

RAZ: This mosque, as we'll hear, sort of became the center for the Muslim Brotherhood, certainly in Germany and to some extent in Europe. But before it became that, we have to sort of step back to the Second World War and Nazi Germany. How did the Nazi officials begin to think about using Muslims to work on their behalf?

Mr. JOHNSON: Well, they began to realize that Muslims were potential allies in the war against the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union had oppressed Islam, closed many mosques and mistreated many minorities in the Soviet Union, including Muslims.

And after the Germans ended up with literally millions of Red Army POWs in the war, they began to realize that many of these were potential soldiers to fight the Soviet Union.

RAZ: You talk about this guy, Gerhard von Mende, who really began this project during the Second World War. What happened to him after the war ended and what happened to the project?

Mr. JOHNSON: Well, after the war ended, left in Munich were roughly a thousand to 1,200 Muslims who had managed through various means to escape deportation back to the Soviet Union. Von Mende, meanwhile, resurfaced in Dusseldorf as the head of a sort of freelance intelligence organization that was financed by several West German ministries and he began to reassemble his team to work for West German aims in the Cold War.

RAZ: How did the CIA then begin to get involved?

Mr. JOHNSON: Well, the CIA got involved because the U.S. was also engaged in the struggle against communism but on a much larger scale, of course. So they began to look around for where they could find some Muslims who could go into the third world and counter Soviet propaganda and speak credibly.

And they realized that here in Munich were a number of Muslims who could do that. The CIA set up a large covert propaganda operation in Munich and recruited many of these people.

RAZ: Ian Johnson, we often hear about how U.S. covert support for radical Islamist groups really begins in Afghanistan from the anti-Soviet mujahedeen fighters in the late '70s, early '80s. But you write that it really goes back to the beginning of the Cold War. There was a guy named Robert Dreher who was sent to Germany. He was a CIA operative. Tell me about him. What did he do?

Mr. JOHNSON: Well, Dreher was an advocate of rollback. He didn't want to just contain communism, he wanted to rollback communism. So he shows up in Munich in the mid to late 1950s. There is this operation going on with some Muslims being sent out to the third world, but he thinks it isn't enough and he thinks that these people are probably not the most eloquent, the best educated people.

So he begins looking around for other allies, and he sees the Muslim Brotherhood and decides to support their activities in Europe and elsewhere.

RAZ: I mean, obviously, the United States and the Muslim Brotherhood shared this antipathy toward atheistic communists. But when did we start to see the seeds of this sort of U.S.-West German project start to turn on the people who created it?

Mr. JOHNSON: I think the main thing that happened was in the early 1960s, U.S. attention shifted elsewhere, primarily to Southeast Asia with the Vietnam War heating up. My impression is that they were no longer focusing too much on this. And it stayed like that for about the next 15 or 16 years until the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the late 1970s.

RAZ: How was the Munich mosque tied to the attacks of September 11, 2001?

Mr. JOHNSON: There's no direct ties. However, a couple of people who were closely linked to several attacks were active at the mosque. For example, in 1998, one of the Al-Qaida financiers was arrested while visiting people who frequented the mosque and he was extradited to the United States.

RAZ: You write that both the Bush administration and the Obama administration supported some efforts to work with and cultivate Islamist groups. How so?

Mr. JOHNSON: Shortly after 9/11, there was this desire to cut all ties with Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and even to prosecute them. The fundamental problem with that effort was that it tried to link them directly to terrorism, which is really not so much what the Muslim Brotherhood does. The Muslim Brotherhood creates the worldview that can lead to terrorism, the milieu where that can flourish.

So after these prosecutions failed, the Muslim Brotherhood reestablished itself, and by the second term of the Bush administration, there were already very clear efforts where brotherhood groups in Europe are being clearly cultivated for U.S. foreign policy aims.

So much of the rhetoric that you hear today is similar to what we were saying in the 1950s: that Islam is essentially a tool that we can use for foreign policy purposes. I think this is kind of - this is a fundamental problem in how we look at this religion. It's come back to haunt us again and again, but we continue to make the same mistake.

RAZ: That's former Wall Street Journal reporter Ian Johnson. His new book is called "A Mosque in Munich: Nazis, the CIA and the Rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in the West."

Ian Johnson, thank you so much.

Mr. JOHNSON: Thank you.

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