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CIA Fight Against Communism Bolsters Radical Islam

The CIA's determination to roll back communism during the Cold War inadvertently allowed radical Islamists to gain a foothold in Europe, according to a new book by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Ian Johnson.

A Mosque in Munich: Nazis, the CIA and the Rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in the West details the Nazis' attempts to create a fifth column within the Soviet empire by becoming allies with Muslim minorities living in the Soviet Union.

"The Soviet Union had oppressed Islam, closed many mosques and mistreated many minorities in the Soviet Union, including Muslims," Johnson tells host Guy Raz. "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."

After the war, the CIA and West German intelligence operatives, many of them former Nazis, took over the project.

Johnson says the CIA was looking for Muslims who could go into the Third World and speak credibly to counter Soviet propaganda. The Islamic Center of Munich had become the center for the Muslim Brotherhood in Germany and to some extent in Europe.

"The CIA set up a large covert propaganda operation in Munich and recruited many of these people," Johnson says.

The CIA began to support the activities of the Muslim Brotherhood in Europe and elsewhere. But U.S. attention shifted when the Vietnam War heated up, Johnson says, and it wasn't until the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the late 1970s that focus on the project returned.

Shortly after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Johnson says, there was a desire to cut off all ties with Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and even to prosecute them. The effort failed, however, because the group could not be linked directly to terrorism.

By the second term of the Bush administration, CIA documents show there were efforts to cultivate Muslim Brotherhood groups in Europe for U.S foreign policy aims. Using Islam in this way is a fundamental problem in how we look at the religion, Johnson says.

"It's come back to haunt us again and again," he says. "But we continue to make the same mistake."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NPR Staff