Devil's Game How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam

American Empire Project

Robert Dreyfuss

Metropolitan Books



Trade Paperback

400 Pages



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Devil’s Game is the story of America's misguided efforts, stretching across decades, to dominate the strategically vital Middle East by courting and cultivating Islamic fundamentalism. Among all the books about Islam, this is the first comprehensive inquiry into the touchiest issue: How and why did the United States encourage and finance the spread of radical political Islam?

Backed by extensive archival research and interviews with dozens of policy makers and CIA, Pentagon, and foreign service officials, Robert Dreyfuss argues that this largely hidden relationship is greatly to blame for the global explosion of terrorism. He follows the trail of American collusion from support for the Muslim Brotherhood in 1950s Egypt to links with Khomeini and Afghani jihadists to cooperation with Hamas and Saudi Wahhabism. Dreyfuss also uncovers long-standing ties between radical Islamists and the leading banks of the West. The result is as tragic as it is paradoxical: originally deployed as pawns to foil nationalism and communism, extremist mullahs and ayatollahs now dominate the region, thundering against freedom of thought, science, women's rights, secularism—and their former patron.
Devil’s Game reveals a history of double-dealing, cynical exploitation, and humiliating embarrassment. What emerges is a pattern that, far from furthering democracy or security, ensures a future of blunders and blowback.


Praise for Devil's Game

"Crisp, lively . . . Provides a concise and readable account of the evolution of America's partnerships with radical Islamic groups and regimes."—The American Conservative
"The most clear and engaging history of the deadly, historic partnership between Western powers and political Islam."—Salon

“The crusade against the former Soviet Union is still viewed as the holiest of holies in elite circles to the point where it has become difficult to dissect anything that contributed to the retreat of Communist parties, including Islamic fundamentalism.  This is what makes Robert Dreyfuss’s Devil’s Game so important, even shocking.  For it is not only the best book extant on how the US collaborated with the most retrograde elements in the Islamic world during the cold war, it is also one of the more informative books on how the left transnationally was battered and bludgeoned.”—Gerald Home, Political Affairs Magazine

"Robert Dreyfuss has taken us—all of us—behind the trauma of 9/11 and shown that George Bush's failure to understand the dynamics of Islamic fundamentalism is nothing new. Our presidents have been missing the point for decades and, by doing so, have become the best allies of our worst nightmare. I would have entitled this brilliant book Dumb and Dumber."—Seymour Hersh, author of Chain of Command
"'The enemy of my enemy is my friend' is usually considered unsophisticated, tribal thinking. But Robert Dreyfuss shows how, during the Cold War, precisely this principle led the United States to support anti-Communist Islamist movements throughout the Muslim world—nurturing the whirlwind we are reaping today. His book is judicious, fascinating, and deeply grounded in a little-known history that stretches many decades back from the CIA's supports for anti-Soviet forces in Afghanistan. He is wise enough to know that all of the strength of fundamentalist Islam can't be blamed on American bungling, but the amount that can is appalling."—Adam Hochschild, author of Bury the Chains and King Leopold's Ghost
"A fluent tour de force—Dreyfuss skillfully documents the misguided stratagems of generations of statesmen whose attempts to use the Islamic right to Western strategic advantage have helped make political Islam the formidable force it is today. He makes a convincing case that the U.S. government inadvertently played a central role in building up the forces that struck New York and Washington on 9/11, and questions whether some current U.S. policies and actions are not still strengthening rather than weakening enemies of our country. Dreyfuss's carefully researched and well-written story will be a revelation to experts on the Islamic world and a shock to concerned Americans."—Chas W. Freeman, Jr., former assistant secretary of defense and U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, 1989-92
"Reagan's CIA director William Casey knew next to nothing about Islamic fundamentalism or the grievances of Middle Eastern nations against Western imperialism. He saw political Islam as a natural ally in the American campaign against 'atheistic' Communism. The costs to Americans of such misguided, secret machinations include the 9/11 attacks. Robert Dreyfuss's history is eye-opening, original, and important."—Chalmers Johnson, author of The Sorrows of Empire and Blowback
"The United States government underwrote the rise of radical Islam, argues a frequent contributor to The Nation and The American Prospect. Any American who watches the news is familiar with the photograph of a younger Donald Rumsfeld looking chummy with Saddam Hussein. Forget that picture, Dreyfuss tells us. The more important photograph shows President Eisenhower looking chummy with Said Ramadan, bigwig in the Muslim Brotherhood. (If you've never heard of the Muslim Brotherhood, a militant group that among other things morphed into Hamas, all the more reason to read this book.) That photograph, states the author, shows in miniature the history of American Middle East foreign policy since WWII. Concerned about limiting the spread of communism and arresting the development of leftist Arab nationalist political parties, the U.S. has over and over again allied with and supported radical Islamic groups throughout the Middle East. The CIA, of course, sponsored the 1953 coup in Iran and financed an ayatollah who had founded a radical pan-Islamic political group; American taxpayers funded an Israeli government that funneled money to fanatical Islamic Palestinian activists who, the Israeli government believed, would ultimately weaken the secular PLO; and so forth. The U.S. didn't dream up this strategy, actually. The British did the same thing, partnering in the late-19th century with the great-granddaddy of ideological Islamism, Jamal Eddine al-Afghani. Dreyfuss insists that today's geopolitics is not the inevitable result of a 'clash of civilizations,' but at least in part the fruit of shortsighted, ill-conceived U.S. foreign policy. His account is not a disinterested history, but rather a stinging indictment of the Bush administration for, among other things, replicating the same strategy in Iraq: toppling a decidedly secular regime and encouraging Islamists to grab power (to wit, the administration's alliance with Ali al-Sisatani). A worthy addition to Metropolitan's American Empire Project: a devastating account that policymakers—not to mention American citizens—ignore at their peril."—Kirkus Reviews
"Having dug through the files, Washington-based journalist/commentator Dreyfuss argues that for 60 years the U.S. government (and the banks) supported Islamic fundamentalists as a hedge against communism—and now we're stuck with the terrorists."—Library Journal
"One of the CIA's first great moments of institutional reflection occurred in 1953, after American covert operatives helped overthrow Iran's left-leaning government and restored the Shah to power. The agency, then only six years old, had funded ayatollahs, mobilized the religious right and engineered a sophisticated propaganda campaign to successfully further its aims, and it wanted to know how it could reapply such tradecraft elsewhere, so it commissioned an internal report. Half a century later, the most prescient line from that report is one of caution, not optimism. 'Possibilities of blowback against the United States should always be in the back of the minds of all CIA officers,' the document warned. Since this first known use of the term 'blowback,' countless journalists and scholars have chronicled the greatest blowback of all: how the staggering quantities of aid that America provided to anti-Marxist Islamic extremists during the Cold War inadvertently positioned those very same extremists to become America's next great enemy. (Indeed, Iran's religious leaders were among the first to turn against the United States.) Dreyfuss's volume reaches farther and deeper into the subject than most. He convincingly situates America's attempt to build an Islamic bulwark against Soviet expansion into Britain's history of imperialism in the region. And where other authors restrict their focus to the Afghan mujahideen, Dreyfuss details a history of American support—sometimes conducted with startling blindness, sometimes, tacitly through proxies—for Islamic radicals in Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Syria. At times, the assistance occurred openly through the American private sector, as Dreyfuss describes in a fascinating digression on Islamic banking. But ultimately, too few government officials were paying attention to the growth and dangers of political Islam. A CIA officer summarizes Dreyfuss's case when he says, 'We saw it all in a short-term perspective'—the long-term consequences are what we're facing now."—Publishers Weekly

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Read an Excerpt

There is an unwritten chapter in the history of the Cold War and the New World Order that followed. It is the story of how the United States--sometimes overtly, sometimes covertly--funded and encouraged right-wing Islamist activism. Devil's Game attempts to fill in that vital missing link.
            Vital because this little-known policy, conducted over six decades, is partly to blame for the emergence of Islamist terrorism as a worldwide phenomenon. Indeed, America's would-be empire in the Middle
Read the full excerpt


  • Robert Dreyfuss

  • Based in Washington, D.C., Robert Dreyfuss has written extensively on Iraq, the war on terrorism, and national security for The Nation, The American Prospect, and Rolling Stone, and is a frequent commentator on NPR, MSNBC, and CNBC.