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Islamists as Partners in World War II

12 August 2021


In North Africa, the Axis powers had the support of Islamists in the fight against the Allies. As a result of that partnership, the Allies needed to respond. This article analyzes the historical interactions of different parties and provides a multifaced picture of how the United States tried to engage Islamists. But the Islamists showed an alarming tendency of hatred for the Jewish people, such as in Baghdad‚Äôs al-Farhud pogrom, which was meant to show how to drive Jews out. A year later, in mid-1942, as the Axis fought the British in Egypt, Jerusalem‚Äôs Grand Mufti Amin al-Husaini had called on Arabs to kill Jews. Watching it, Americans debated how to win over Islamists such as Abd al-Karim of Morocco or Libya‚Äôs Idris as-Sanusi ‚Äúto make the Mediterranean safe for the Allies. The idea of engaging Islamists was never conveyed to General Dwight Eisenhower before his invasion of North Africa. The Joint Psychological Warfare Committee, briefly the Joint Committee, tackled the ‚ÄúIslamist case‚ÄĚ in the U.S. Office of Strategic Services. The goal was to weaken the enemy‚Äôs hearts and minds to make the Allied invasion easier. Islamists became a target for cooperation in launching a guerilla warfare campaign. From 1913-26, they had fought against the French, Italian, and Spanish colonials. In May 1940, Adolf Hitler invaded France, and within a month, it became clear that the French and Lowlands countries, such as Belgium, would surrender. Britain came within Hitler‚Äôs reach, as well as French Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia. After the French armistice in mid-1940, the Nazis ruled continental Europe to the Soviet border in ex-Poland and wanted to use Vichy‚Äôs colonies in the Middle East for their plans to establish its empire. Benito Mussolini moved troops from the Cyrenaica‚ÄĒsince 1934 part of the Italian colony of Libya‚ÄĒto the British-held Egypt to seize the Suez Canal as main artery of the British Empire. In 1915, the Germans and Ottomans attacked the canal form the east via Sinai. In 1941, the Axis approached the canal from the west via the Libyan Desert. Twice, Islamists waged with the Axis jihad: Morocco‚Äôs Rif Mountain tribes of Abd al-Karim, Salih at-Tunisi of Tunisia, Libyan as-Sanusi brothers; and Hasan al-Banna‚Äôs Muslim Brothers in Egypt. The Fight for Victory in North Africa Mussolini desired to use Islamists to strike the Suez Canal and Egypt, which he considered England‚Äôs soft spots. With Europe controlled by the Axis powers, England would perhaps have difficulties mounting a credible defense at the canal. The Arab role in this endeavor would be substantial. In exchange for their assistance, Mussolini promised in his meeting with al-Husaini full independence and self-rule. Rome would set up an Arab military center and welcome Iraq‚Äôs ex-Premier Rashid Ali al-Kailani, who went to Berlin. Mussolini said that Jews were ‚Äúour enemies‚ÄĚ and had no place in Europe. Approximately 45,000 Jews out of 45 million residents (7,500 Jews were deported to Auschwitz) lived in Italy. He agreed with al-Husaini that Zionists had no historical, national, or other rights in Palestine. He turned against Zionism and agreed with al-Husaini‚Äôs wish of annulling a Zionist home. Both were willing to serve Hitler‚Äôs plans in Europe and the Middle East. In mid-1940, Italy prepared to invade Egypt. While Hitler hesitated to fully fight the British, Mussolini attacked from Libya to Egypt. Early success turned to a defeat near Tubruq. In early 1941, British, Australian, and Indian forces captured it. At this point, the Allies had decided to liberate North Africa before launching the European campaign. However, to avoid full defeat, Mussolini asked for Germany‚Äôs assistance. Hitler sent the German Africa Corps under Erwin Rommel. In 1942, he drove the Allies back to Egypt from Libya. In mid-June 1942, he retook Tubruq. Throughout the North Africa campaign, the Allies debated the usefulness of cooperating with Islamists to defeat the Axis powers. The Joint Committee checked ‚ÄúIslamists as partners‚ÄĚ: They waged jihad against colonials and could be turned against the Axis. However, Germany‚Äôs ties to the Islamists dated back to World War I, so the groups had more sympathy for the Germans, who were not colonials in the region. On August 1, 1942, the Joint Committee forwarded a study on Abd al-Karim. During World War I, it says, Germany spread discontent among natives against the French and the Spanish. Islamists embraced the effort because Muslims resent non-Muslim rule.


Wolfgang G. Schwanitz
Wolfgang G. Schwanitz is the inaugural Bernard Lewis Fellow in the Middle East Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He holds a Ph.D. in Middle Eastern Studies from Leipzig University.

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