Hammer, Sickle, and Crescent
One of the worst mistakes ever made by the KGB, the Soviet security agency, was to punish one of its agents, Vasili Mitrokhin, for a critical remark about the regime in 1972 by demoting him to archivist. In that position, Mitrokhin copied large numbers of documents and hid them at his country house. As the Soviet Union was crumbling, he offered the cache to the British in exchange for his family's rescue from the country and removal to safe haven, which he got.
In cooperation with Christopher Andrew, Britain's preeminent historian of intelligence, Mitrokhin authored The Sword and the Shield, a history of Soviet espionage against the West. It was perhaps the best single book ever on the subject. Now comes the promised sequel, dealing with the KGB and the Third World, and it does not disappoint. The book has dramatic new details—sometimes the kind of data that changes our view of history—on every part of the world, showing how pervasive Soviet influence and espionage was during the Cold War.
Especially interesting are the 120 pages dealing with the Middle East and 34 pages on Afghanistan and Islam in the USSR. The USSR viewed the Middle East as its "back yard" and devoted a lot of effort in an ultimately failed effort to gain influence there. It is easy to forget that, not so long ago, Egypt, Iraq, Syria, and South Yemen were brimming with Soviet advisors, money, and weapons.
The great Soviet hope in the Middle East was its relations with Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser. In addition to reading Egyptian codes—the Soviets broke most Arab codes through cryptography or burglaries against their Moscow embassies—the Soviets recruited key agents, including Sami Sharaf, Nasser's chief intelligence advisor. On Nasser's 1958 visit to Moscow (where the KGB, not the Soviet foreign ministry, guided him) he was very effectively flattered. During a performance of Swan Lake he attended, for example, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev told Nasser that the black swan represented U.S. secretary of state John Foster Dulles.
Moscow supported Nasser's regime by every means. Soviet agent Kim Philby, then a journalist, explained to his British readers that Nasser had turned Egypt into a "cooperative socialist democracy." The Soviets wrongly saw the Egyptian army as strong, so Israel's massive victory in 1967 took them by surprise, leaving a grudging admiration for Israel, anger at the Arabs for making Soviet weapons look useless, and a total overhaul in Soviet intelligence for the region.
Just after that war, a weakened Nasser granted more concessions to the Soviets, but his successor Anwar Sadat soon turned toward the United States. Although the Soviets spied effectively on his secret communications with the Americans, they chose not to support actively pro-Moscow Egyptians plotting a coup against Sadat, and so, were powerless to stop him. The KGB restricted itself to forging documents to persuade Sadat that the Americans were tricking him and portraying Egypt's leader in non-Egyptian Arab media as the dupe of Jewish bankers, a CIA agent, a sexual deviant, a drug addict, and mentally ill. Sadat so infuriated KGB officials, some advocated his assassination. Moscow was never directly involved in such an effort but knew its contacts in Syrian intelligence and the Palestine Liberation Organization were, though Islamists beat them to it in 1981.
In Iran, the Soviets, with little influence after the 1953 pro-shah coup, focused on undermining U.S.-Iran relations. Their forgeries, pretending to be U.S. documents ridiculing or planning to overthrow the shah, sometimes even fooled Iran's monarch. Elaborate plans were made for sabotage inside Iran, but the defection of a key KGB officer involved in these schemes ensured their cancellation. The Soviets hoped the Iranian revolution would turn in a leftist direction but wrongly estimated the shah was too strong to be toppled and, like others, discounted any chance of an Islamist revolution
Although the Soviets had few intelligence assets in Islamist Iran, they continued disinformation efforts there, feeding forged documents—at times through Yasir Arafat—about U.S. and Israeli plots to overthrow or assassinate Khomeini. On one occasion, a tough anti-Soviet Iranian foreign minister was fired and, along with seventy others, shot largely due to phony coup plans cooked up by the KGB. But when a Soviet intelligence officer in Tehran defected to the West, the CIA passed information to Tehran, allowing it to expel Soviet spies and arrest 200 secret communists on charges of spying for Moscow.
Especially fascinating is the discussion of Soviet relations with Saddam Hussein, whose Stalin-worship was well known in Moscow. The KGB organized special, secret trips for Saddam to the late Soviet dictator's hangouts. But Saddam shared with Stalin an abiding suspicion of everyone, including the Soviets; he also mistrusted the Iraqi communists, many of whom he executed. By 1982, however, the Iran-Iraq war pushed Saddam and the Soviets together in trying to ensure that Iran did not win. The Soviets supplied Scud missiles, which Iraq fired at Iranian cities. While Moscow opposed Saddam's 1990 invasion of Kuwait, Soviet military experts showed him satellite pictures indicating accurately how the United States was going to attack him on the ground. Saddam viewed the material as a phony attempt to intimidate him and ignored the warning.
The KGB's favorite Arab dictatorship was Syria where both cooperation and infiltration of agents to key posts flourished. Even closer ideologically, though further culturally, was South Yemen. "We wanted to prove," said the Soviet ambassador to that country, "that a small underdeveloped Arab country [could rapidly advance] toward the bright future provided it was armed with the slogans of scientific socialism." It didn't work.
The Soviets were also deeply involved in backing the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and terrorism, though fear of discovery made them delegate many of these activities to European satellite states or through Arab regimes. One of the book's most important revelations is that Wadi Haddad, deputy leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) until his natural death in 1978, was a Soviet agent. Haddad's philosophy was summed up in his statement, "To kill a Jew far from the battlefield has more effect than killing hundreds of Jews in battle." The Soviets also gave the PFLP weapons—all manufactured in other countries to conceal their supplier. A number of PFLP operations, including kidnappings and assassinations of American citizens as well as attacks on Israel, were specifically approved in advance by Soviet leaders. The KGB had advance notice of all the main PFLP terrorist attacks.
Another revelation of major importance was the identity of the KGB's most important agent in the PLO, Hani al-Hasan, a confidante of Yasir Arafat for four decades and, at the time of Arafat's death in 2004, his national security advisor. His code name was GIDAR. Moscow was suspicious of Arafat for several reasons, including his ideology, propensity to lie, and close ties with Romanian intelligence (which the KGB distrusted). Arafat met with the KGB and was boosted diplomatically by the Soviets but the low quality of the trainees presented by the PLO—internal documents accused half of them of alcoholism, passing counterfeit money, and sexual perversion—made intelligence cooperation more difficult. So disillusioned were the Soviets of dealing with Arafat that Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev asked in 1988, according to an aide, "What's the point in my meeting with him?"
The World Was Going Our Way provides a detailed account of the KGB's strenuous efforts to place agents in Israel among Soviet-bloc Jewish emigrants, starting in the late 1940s. After some initial successes, it appears the Soviet regime was so riddled with anti-Semitism (which repeatedly shows up in internal reports) and ideology that it simply could never understand what Israel was about. By 1953, all Jews had been purged from the KGB and forty years later that ban still held. Soviet contempt for Israel was critical in such intelligence failures as the prediction that Israel would never be able to defeat Arab armies. Especially ironic is the fact that many emigrating Jews promised to be Soviet agents—perhaps in order to get out—and then in the words of a KGB official "forgot their pledges as soon as they crossed the Soviet border."
A major feature of KGB policy was its obsession with "Zionist subversion" which was so extreme, the authors write that it "came close to, and at times arguably crossed, the threshold of paranoid delusion." A 1982 KGB conference concluded that all the Soviet bloc's problems were traceable to Zionists. One can only conclude that the overall Soviet campaign against Israel, Jews, and Zionism bears a striking resemblance to the thinking and behavior of the Czarist secret police or even, at times, to the kinds of analyses prevalent in places like Saudi Arabia and Iran.
In the end, of course, Soviet efforts ended in failure. It backed the losing side, could not get regional dictators to do its bidding, and faced an environment unfriendly to its ideology. Yet the KGB's efforts succeeded in a way not generally appreciated today. Many of its fabricated claims and arguments about the United States and Israel did become widely accepted, not only in the Arab world but even in many Western media and intellectual circles. The power of radical ideologies, the widespread suspicion of the West, and the general hatred of America and Israel in the Middle East today is the Soviet Union's posthumous revenge.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center of the Interdisciplinary University in Israel and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest book is The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley).