The Strange Career of Ahmad Kamal and How He Helped the CIA Invite Radical Islam into Europe

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October 1, 2012 · Posted in Commentary 

Leslie Evans

A Mosque in Munich: Nazis, the CIA, and the Muslim Brotherhood in the West. Ian Johnson. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010. 318 pp.


Oh what a tangled web we weave,
When first we practise to deceive!
– Sir Walter Scott


Ahmad Kamal in 1935

Everyone is familiar with the disastrous after effects of the American effort to mobilize radical Islam to defeat the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, a project that gave birth to Al Qaeda. Ian Johnson’s A Mosque in Munich is an account of a much older, less violent, and smaller-scale chapter in Western attempts to co-opt Islam in the battle with Communism, tracing ill-considered U.S. help to radical Islam in establishing a base in Western Europe. It opens with Nazi use of Soviet Muslim defectors and prisoners of war to try to incite revolt against Soviet rule among the Turkic peoples of Soviet Central Asia. During the war the center of this operation was Berlin; in the postwar period it moved to Munich in West Germany, where, as the Cold War blossomed, both the West German government and the American CIA took over the group of aging Soviet Muslims who had fought on the Nazi side, as well as their German handlers, to use as propagandists to the world’s Muslims, exposing Soviet oppression of Central Asian peoples.

Ultimately, the CIA concluded that the ex-soldiers were too compromised by their history of collaborating with the Nazis to serve as effective spokespeople. The Americans, thinking that religious zealots were just the thing to toss at the godless Russians, then turned to more authentic representatives of Islam, inviting in the radical Muslim Brotherhood, helping it to establish its first foothold in Western Europe. Communism fell but radical Islam lives on, not least in its European incarnation, from which emerged the 9/11 hijackers and, more broadly, the multi-millioned and little-integrated population of Muslim immigrants, strongly influenced by the network of extremist mosques whose first node was the one in Munich planned by ex-Nazis and the CIA as a front for anti-Soviet agitation. Unintended consequences.

Ian Johnson organizes his story around long-drawn-out plans to build the mosque in Munich as a political front. The Americans, the West Germans, and various Islamists competed for years over who would ultimately complete the building and control it. The idea came from a German ex-Nazi who had run the Muslim exile propaganda operation for Hitler during World War II. The CIA adopted the plan and was instrumental in handing it over to Islamic radicals, who in turn saw it as an instrument for expansion. Johnson writes that “Munich was the beachhead from which the Brotherhood spread into Western society.”

Nothing in the thirty years of Johnson’s narrative worked out for the Germans or Americans quite as they hoped. The people we meet along the way are fascinating. And in some ways the whole history is a shaggy dog story. The Nazis, and later ex-Nazis, never got very close to the mosque-building project. Even the CIA had left the scene years before ground was broken in 1967 to actually start construction. One of the most interesting characters, the American adventurer who called himself Ahmad Kamal, was never really connected to the mosque project at all, but won inclusion in the story because the West German government for several years erroneously thought he was the project’s leader, an assumption apparently fostered by the CIA for its own ends.

It may seen counterintuitive that Soviet citizens, no matter their religion, would choose to fight on the side of the Nazi invaders. The brutal Stalin dictatorship in the USSR, which had killed tens of millions of its own citizens in the forced collectivizations and mass purges of the 1930s, was particularly harsh toward its non-Russian subjects. It sought to forcibly eradicate religion, most especially Islam. Large numbers of Turks, Uyghurs, Uzbeks, Tatars, Cossacks, and Caucasians went over to the Germans after Hitler invaded in June 1941. A million Soviet Muslims fought on the German side, 250,000 of them as combat soldiers, most in all-Muslim units such as the SS East Turkestani Armed Formation, which took part in crushing the Warsaw city uprising in 1944. The all-Muslim 13th Handschar Division of the Waffen SS participated in exterminating the Bosnian and Croatian Jews (Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, vol. 2, Israel Gutman, 1990 edition). The central leader of the Palestinians of that period, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, spent the war in Berlin and recruited to the 13th Handschar SS Division. He was also closely involved with the psychological war operation directed at the Soviet Union, the precursor of the mosque project.

Throughout the war al-Husseini broadcast regularly from Berlin a profoundly anti-Semitic, Nazified version, of Islam that had a powerful influence on Islamic militants in North Africa and the Middle East, particularly on Hassan al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood. This story is told elsewhere, in Paul Berman’s The Flight of the Intellectuals . This Nazified Islam was reimported to Germany at the end of the 1950s with the help of the American government.

Palestinian leader Haj Amin al-Hussaini inspecting Muslim SS troops for Hitler

Hitler’s effort to expand Nazi influence among Soviet Muslims was run by Gerhard von Mende, a one-time professor and former SA storm trooper, who worked for the Reich Ministry for the Occupied Eastern Territories, known as the Ostministerium, headed by Alfred Rosenberg, a Baltic German. A gifted linguist, von Mende spoke several of the Central Asian Turkic dialects as well as Arabic, in addition to German, French, English, Russian, and Swedish. Through the Ostministerium he built a staff of displaced Soviet Muslims. His first recruits came from an anti-Soviet group of Caucasus exiles called Prometheus that had been operating in Germany since 1925. Rosenberg and von Mende hoped to offer the non-Russian Central Asian peoples some form of nominal independence as an incentive to come over to the Germans. Hitler opposed this, so the Ostministerium Muslim operation never got very far. Von Mende employed Veli Kayum, a leader of the Prometheus group and a Central Asian exile, to scour prisoner of war camps to seek out talented Muslim recruits for his network.

Gerhard von Mende, Nazi spymaster in charge of Soviet Muslim exiles in Germany

Von Mende set up liaison offices for each of the major non-Russian ethnic groups from Ukraine and Central Asia. Their miniscule staffs posed as governments in exile. The Ostministerium used them to recruit to the Nazi army in territories they occupied as they moved deeper into the USSR. In the Crimea, virtually the entire able bodied male Tatar population, some 20,000, signed up, for which Stalin never forgave them. At the war’s end he had the whole of the Crimean Tatars deported to Siberia.

Von Mende was high enough in the Nazi bureaucracy that he attended the 1942 conference on Lake Wannsee where the Holocaust was planned.

As the war progressed the Ostministerium set up puppet parliaments for Azerbaijanis, Volga Tatars, and Turkestanis. They needed some common glue to hold these disparate peoples together, and believed they found it in Islam. Von Mende persuaded the Palestinian Grand Mufti, Haj Amin al-Husseini, to authorize Islamic seminaries run by Nazi-approved clerics.

Gerhard von Mende survived the war. In the chaos of bombed out Germany, occupied by the USSR in the East and by the U.S., Britain, and France in the West, he managed to hide his years in the Storm Troopers and present himself as a harmless academic bureaucrat. He was soon on the payroll of British MI5, once again living well, and building his own intelligence apparatus among Soviet Muslim former soldiers and other exiles. He moved his operation to Munich, the country’s most important postwar city. Soon the West German government also established a paying relationship with von Mende’s intelligence group as part of their Cold War efforts to influence people and events behind the Iron Curtain.

The American consulate in Munich was said to be the second largest anywhere. It served as a listening post for all things Soviet. The Americans ran two radio stations out of Munich. The famous one was Radio Free Europe, which began broadcasting in 1949 and which still operates today from the Czech Republic. RFE was aimed at the Soviet satellite countries of Eastern Europe. It was acknowledged to be an agency of the American government. It 1951 it was supplemented by the less-well-known Radio Liberty (originally Radio Liberation), which beamed shortwave transmissions aimed at the Soviet Union itself. This posed as a civilian nonprofit, operated by the American Committee for Liberation (Amcomlib). It was chaired by former Reader’s Digest editor Eugene Lyons. It had its headquarters at Munich’s Oberwiesenfeld Airport, where, Ian Johnson writes, it commanded “more than a thousand writers, producers, technicians, accountants, and advisers.” Amcomlib and its broadcasting arm were fronts for the CIA. The staff included many legitimate American journalists who chose not to be too squeamish about their secret bosses. But it needed announcers and news anchors who could speak not only Russian but the wide variety of languages of the Soviet minority peoples. Here Amcomlib recruited liberally from von Mende’s Muslim operatives, who could handle the linguistic problems of translating scripts and broadcasting in multiple Turkic languages.

In addition to Radio Liberty, Amcomlib ran a think tank that published papers by its staff, and “also had an emigre relations department that recruited agents, mostly in Munich, and sent them around the world on covert propaganda missions. U.S. government involvement was carefully masked.”

The Ostministerium Muslim agents were mostly able to hide their Nazi past at the end of the war by getting rid of their ID papers and claiming to be Turkish students or refugees from China’s Xinjiang province. Amcomlib and its Radio Liberty aimed at the Soviet Union as a whole, so it had a Russian section and a section representing the many non-Russian peoples in the USSR. Of the latter, Johnson writes, “The people on the desks had almost all worked for von Mende in the Ostministerium.” He adds: “Radio Liberty relied so heavily on Nazi collaborators that the station would have closed without them. One estimate put the proportion of Radio Liberty employees who had worked for the Nazis at 75 to 80 percent.” These were no ordinary soldiers, but people trained as skilled propagandists under the Hitler regime. At least two of them were murdered by Soviet agents shortly after Radio Liberty officially went on the air in 1953.

How the CIA first located this small group of Central Asian exiles is a story that no doubt deserves a book of its own. In November 1944 in the last days of the war the CIA’s predecessor, the Office of Strategic Services, sent an agent code-named “Ruppert” into Nazi-occupied France to try to find out what the Germans were planning. Ruppert headed for Berlin, where he spent five and a half months posing as a Nazi security officer. There “he recruited a group of people who would at once repulse and fascinate his American employers: Nazis eager to fight the Soviet Union. Ruppert’s top recruit was von Mende.” When the Third Reich collapsed, von Mende brought his cadre of Turkic Soviet exiles over to the Americans. They were debriefed by the OSS at a safe house in Frankfurt.

The downside of becoming dependent on ex-Nazi collaborators was two-fold. First, the Soviet Union quickly discovered who they were, and relentlessly exposed them. Second, aiming their propaganda at a milieu where the common denominator was devout Islam, these were people who had grown up in the USSR where religion was banned and had then lived in Nazi Germany, so their knowledge of Islam and credentials for piety were more than thin. The CIA struggled with this problem for a number of years. Finally it gave up and sought out more authentic Islamists.

The most immediate issue within Amcomlib was hostility between the Russian staff and the Muslims. The latter, no matter how tenuous their religious training, were deeply hostile to the Slavs. Several times the CIA brought in von Mende himself for consultation. His advice, Johnson writes, was to “support the Soviet minorities – and forget about the Russians.” By this time von Mende was running his own network and was principally working as a contractor for the West German government in Bonn, out of upscale offices in Dusseldorf. Von Mende maintained his own moles inside Amcomlib who kept him up to date on the Americans’ problems.

The CIA agents were Russophiles, which made von Mende’s recommendation hard to stomach. But they did send two of their Muslim employees, Rusi Nasar and Hamid Raschid, on the 1954 Hajj to Mecca. Actually Soviet defectors, they pretended to be Turks. They harassed Soviet Muslim pilgrims, even throwing tomatoes at them, shouting “You serve the Moscow atheists!” Time magazine and the New York Times reported the incident as an example of spontaneous opposition to Soviet oppression.

The CIA next sent Rusi Nasar to the Bandung nonaligned nations conference in Indonesia in April 1955, as a representative of the National Turkestani Unity Committee, a front group run by von Mende’s henchman Veli Kayum. The Soviet press denounced Nasar as a “U.S. agent sent from West Germany.” Many years later Rusi Nasar became a respected leader of the Uzbek community in the United States. He was interviewed by Ian Johnson in 2006, at the age of eighty-nine. Nasar acknowledged that he had fought on the German side in World War II, saying it was his way to break the Russian hold over his people. He denied he had ever been an employee of Amcomlib, saying that Isaac Don Levine, author of The Mind of an Assassin, an account of Trotsky’s assassination, had tried to recruit him but he had refused.

By 1956 the CIA began to focus on how to employ a wider range of Muslims in the West. It sent an agent to Turkey to meet with Muslim refugees from the USSR to see if it could broaden its stable, to get away from that taint of men who had fought on the Nazi side. The West Germans were still committed to von Mende’s crew. They had their minister for refugee affairs, Theodor Oberlander, contact von Mende to see if his network of Muslim exiles could put any weight in the scales in Germany’s effort to regain East Germany and territories it had lost to Poland after World War II. Oberlander went way back in the Nazi party, even participating in Hitler’s beer hall putsch in 1923. He had helped plan the extermination of Jews in Eastern Europe. His get-out-of-jail-free card was that he had supported the Ostministerium plan to establish puppet governments for the USSR’s non-Russian minorities, which put him afoul of the SS, which favored outright slavery. This gave him just enough credentials as a critic of Hitler to return to the government, in 1953.

Von Mende proposed that the government unify Germany’s Muslims by selecting a chief imam to lead them. His candidate was hard-core Nazi Nurredin Namangani, who had just arrived in Munich in March 1956. Namangani had been arrested by the Soviets in Turkestan before the war. He was freed by the German invasion and became the imam of the SS East Turkistani Armed Formation. The United States had kept him in a prisoner of war camp for two years.

The West German government embraced this plan. Von Mende had a group of his Muslim exiles, all of whom had worked for the Ostministerium, stage a meeting in a beer hall in March 1958, where they formed the Ecclesiastical Administration of Moslem Refugees in the German Federal Republic. They elected Namangani its head. It was then funded by Oberlander’s ministry for refugees.

Namangani began to collect funding to build a mosque in Munich. His first significant backer was former SS Major Wilhelm Hintersatz, who had commanded the SS Muslim unit in which Namangani had served as chief imam. Hintersatz had himself converted to Islam after World War I and changed his name to Harun el-Raschid. The plan to build the mosque was announced at a meeting of the Ecclesiastical Administration in December 1958. A Mosque Construction Commission was formed with Namangani as chairman.

Robert Dreher, CIA chief in Munich who invited the Muslim Brotherhood in

The American government meanwhile was looking elsewhere in the Islamic world for potential allies against Communism. In 1957 the interagency Operations Coordinating Board for U.S. covert intelligence activities set up an Ad Hoc Working Group on Islam. This body decided its best candidates were the more militant “reform” currents within Islam, most notably the Muslim Brotherhood. That same year the CIA dispatched Robert Dreher to run Amcomlib in Munich. Dreher soon began to cultivate a newly arrived Muslim personality: Said Ramadan. Ramadan was the son-in-law and former secretary of Hassan al-Banna, the Egyptian founder in 1928 of the Muslim Brotherhood. Al-Banna had close ties with the pro-Nazi Grand Mufti. In 1937 and 1938 the Brotherhood attacked Jewish shops in Cairo and became a channel for Nazi anti-Semitic propaganda, still circulated by the Brotherhood today. In 1948, at the announcement of Israel’s founding, the Grand Mufti appealed to the Brotherhood to raise soldiers for the Arab armies that were launched against the new Jewish state. Hassan al-Banna entrusted that task to Said Ramadan.

The Americans first came in contact with Ramadan when he attended a ten-day Princeton University conference on Islam in 1953. He came as an official delegate of the Muslim Brotherhood. Ian Johnson cites a CIA report on the conference that made the assessment “Ramadan seems to be a Fascist.” Fascist or not, in those years the Muslim Brotherhood regarded Communism as a greater evil than Western capitalism, because the USSR prohibited religion outright. That was good enough for Washington.

By the end of 1958, Ramadan was in Munich attending meetings of Mosque Construction Commission, where he made grandiose claims about big donations he could command from Saudis and other rich Arabs. Johnson says that by this time Ramadan was working closely with Dreher of the CIA. Von Mende was angry that his associate, Namangani, was being outmaneuvered by the Americans. In 1960, when the Mosque Construction Commission registered with the government as an official nonprofit, Ramadan, not Namangani, was listed as chairman. Johnson writes:

“Ramadan was suddenly at the helm of the legal entity charged with building the mosque.” Von Mende responded by secretly asking the Bavarian ministry to raise bureaucratic obstacles to halt the mosque project. According to Ian Johnson, the Americans countered by moving one of their assets to Munich to simulate a broad Muslim clamor to see the mosque project move ahead. Ahmad Kamal showed up in town with a small staff claiming to represent a major world Muslim charity called Jami’at al Islam (this had no connection to the radical Pakistani Islamic group with a similar name). “Within less than a year,” Johnson writes, “Jami’at was so successful that the local media assumed it was running the mosque project,” including printing a photo of a Jami’at official inspecting plans for the mosque. The government caved in and withdrew its objections.

Said Ramadan, Muslim Brotherhood representative in Munich who got the mosque project off the ground

Here I stopped cold. I had not heard of von Mende or Said Ramadan, but Ahmad Kamal was a different matter entirely. Back in 1979, when I was still a member of a small Marxist organization, I had moved on party assignment from New York to Virginia, Minnesota, up on the Mesabi Iron Range, to look for a job in the iron mines. Virginia was a tough little town of 12,000 sixty miles north of Duluth, closer to Canada than to Minneapolis. Its one bookstore was a disappointing B. Dalton. I discovered that once a year a women’s group in Hibbing, thirty miles away, would have an outdoor book sale on a few tables. Desperate for something new to read, I went each of the three years I lived on the Range. One year I picked up Ahmad Kamal’s 1940 Land Without Laughter .

It was one of those fascinating, slightly archaic, off-beat adventure books set in that mysterious region, Chinese Turkestan. It has a place on my bookshelves next to the romantic To Lhasa in Disguise of William Montgomery McGovern (1924), William Seabrook’s Adventures in Arabia: Among the Bedouins, Druses, Whirling Dervishes, & Yezidee Devil Worshippers (1927), and Beasts, Men and Gods by Ferdinand Ossendowski (1921). A Pole of Lithuanian Tatar descent, Ossendowski’s book chronicles his 1918-1920 flight from the Bolshevik Revolution, eastward across Siberia and Mongolia, including his failed efforts to reach Tibet. All of this literature verges into the fantastic. Ossendowski became famous in occult circles as a principal source of the legend of the King of the World and the underground kingdom of Agharti. He recounts meetings with Tibetan lamas and Mongolian princes who tell him of an underground kingdom of wise priest scientists who secretly guide the world’s affairs and predict that their ruler, the King of the World, will emerge after a series of devastating world wars to establish a reign of peace and spiritual advancement.

Though Ahmad Kamal’s role in the Munich mosque history was transitory, lasting from 1960 to 1962, he is the most interesting character in Ian Johnson’s book, and Johnson provides the most detailed biography currently available of this strange man. First of all, Ahmad Kamal was an American, and probably a convert to Islam. Johnson under the Freedom of Information Act retrieved Kamal’s FBI file, which states that he was born on February 2, 1914, in Arvada, Colorado. His name was Cimarron Hathaway. His mother was Caroline Grossmann Hathaway, his father, James Worth Hathaway. According to an interview Johnson obtained with a daughter, James was a stepfather and Cimarron’s biological father was Qara Yusuf, a Uyghur from Turkestan who was much older than Caroline – he was sixty-four and she sixteen when they married. Yusuf had other wives in his homeland, to which he returned when Cimarron was very young.

Johnson suggests Land Without Laughter was a novel, in part by pointing to several obvious falsehoods in the back cover text of the 2000 paperback reprint edition, prepared by Ahmad Kamal’s son, such as the claim that Kamal “commanded” the Basmaci rebellion against the Soviets, which ended when he was ten years old. The version published in 1940 when Kamal was alive makes no such claim. The Kirkus review when it was first published treats it as nonfiction. It is true that, despite the plethora of authentic sounding detail, Land Without Laughter rates an extremely high score on the improbability index.

The book lists its author and protagonist as Ahmad Kamal and includes no suggestion that it is fiction. It makes no mention of the name Cimarron Hathaway. “Ahmad Kamal” says his father died when he was an infant and that he was raised on Indian reservations, where his mother, never named, was writing histories of the various tribes. While living in Houston, Texas, his mother had him home schooled, hiring a “disinherited son of a Prussian nobleman,” Lothar von Richter, as his tutor. Von Richter happened to be a student of ancient Turkish and fortuitously taught the young “Ahmad” this obscure language, as well as military tactics. The family moved on to Tucson, Arizona, where his next tutor was one Musa Jan, a Muslim scholar from Kazan, who continued his education in the same vein.

Coming of age knowing nothing but military tactics, the Uyghur language, Islam, and the history of Tartary, Ahmad finds himself unfit for anything but a military career in Sinkiang (Chinese Turkestan, present-day Xinjiang). So in late 1935 he sets sail from the Los Angeles port at San Pedro for India, landing first in Bombay. According to his FBI file he had turned twenty-one earlier that year. In his book he claims he was twenty-three. From Bombay he treks across the subcontinent to Delhi, then northwest into what is now Pakistan, and finally to Kashmir. Here, as he tells it, he hires several servants and horses, and, defying a prohibition by the British authorities, sets off in the dead of winter to cross the Himalayan passes into Tibet.

He finds the high passes littered with the corpses of dead pack animals and human travelers, some frozen to death, others killed and stripped by bandits. After many hardships his small party emerges into western Tibet. They travel on by horse and mule into Xinjiang. His goal was to connect with the Chinese Muslim garrison that controlled most of southern Xinjiang from their fortress in the town of Khotan (now Hotan).

Even today Xinjiang’s Muslim people maintain a tumultuous opposition to Han Chinese rule, staging frequent riots, bombings, and acts of sabotage against the Beijing government. In the 1930s the situation was far more chaotic and complex. China was weakly governed by the corrupt Kuomintang (KMT) of Chiang Kai-shek. Mao Zedong’s Long March (1934-1935) established the Communists permanently in Shaanxi in north central China. The northwest provinces of Gansu and Qinghai were ruled by Muslims, three families of Hui (Muslim) Chinese known by their enemies as the Ma Clique (Ma is the Chinese rendering of Muhammad). The Mas offered ostensible allegiance to the Kuomintang. Adjacent Xinjiang to the west was ruled until 1928 by an independent warlord. After his assassination he was succeeded first by Jin Shuren (1928-1933), then Sheng Shicai (1933-1944). Though nominally representing the KMT, both Jin and Sheng were de facto puppets of the Soviet Union.

Chiang Kai-shek in 1933 authorized the formation of the 36th Division of his national army, an all-Muslim corps in Gansu, to invade Xinjiang to overthrow Jin Shuren. The unit was commanded by Ma Zhongying, seconded by his half brother, Ma Hushan. As these troops entered Xinjiang, a Muslim Tatar uprising broke out in the south, known as the Kumul Rebellion. Jin’s main troops were White Russians who had settled in north Xinjiang to escape the Russian Revolution. In a bizarre turn, Stalin sent regular Soviet troops in disguise to secretly join the White Russian units to reinforce Jin Shuren’s position. Ma’s forces defeated Jin Shuren in a series of pitched battles in 1933 and early 1934, culminating in Ma’s capture of Kashgar in February 1934. The USSR responded with a full-scale invasion.

Ma Zhongying retreated into Xinjiang’s southern prefectures, where he confronted the First East Turkestan Republic, the product of the Kumul Rebellion, a breakaway effort by the local Turkic people to establish an independent state. The locals made a sharp distinction between Turkic Muslims and the Hui Chinese Muslims. Ma mercilessly crushed his fellow religionists and established his own stable base at Khotan in the far south. Then, inexplicitly, Ma Zhongying is said to have defected to the Soviet Union, after having battled the Russian troops for more than a year. He was never seen again. The Khotan base was thereafter commanded by Ma Zhongying’s half brother, Ma Hushan.

This was the situation when Ahmad Kamal, as I should now call him, rode into town in 1936, eight months after he left Los Angeles. Ahmad for some reason refers to Ma Hushan as Ma Hsi Jung, but it is clear from everything in his text, including a specific identification of the two names in an appendix, that it is Ma Hushan he claims to have met. (He says he was first told the general’s name by a Mongol in Ladakh on the Indian side of the Himalayas, and that may have permanently tainted his sonic spelling. Alternatively, many Chinese have multiple given names bestowed at different times in their lives and used in different contexts.)

Ahmad Kamal claims that at their first meeting “Ma Hsi Jung” appointed him an officer in the Tungan (Chinese Muslim) 36th Division army. Almost immediately he was dispatched with a squad of thirty-five men to capture or kill a group of 181 deserters. Two battles with machine guns, rifles, and grenades ensued, in which Kamal’s second-in-command was killed along with several others of his unit. A few days later he took part in the storming of Kizil Kurgan, a fortress two hundred miles southeast of Khotan that had been occupied by the Russians and their Chinese allies. This involved storming the walls on siege ladders and hand-to-hand combat with scimitars.

A few weeks after this encounter, Ma Hsi Jung meets with Kamal, telling him he is appointing him to go back to America to buy airplanes for the Tungan army. When the planes arrive, General Ma says, he “will take all of Sinkiang. First, Kashgar, then north to Urumchi, and when he is ruler of all of Sinkiang, he will conquer Kansu and Tibet. And then the balance of Asia!” No megalomaniac he! But his ambition did not stop at the borders of Asia. He dreamed the same dream as Gerhard von Mende and the American CIA, of calling forth a rising of the oppressed Turkic peoples of Soviet Central Asia, and still more broadly, the old Muslim goal of submitting the entire world to Islam. General Ma imagined, erroneously as it turned out, that he held in his hands the match that could set off the Second World War, which fit nicely into his plans of conquest:

“While the bulk of the Russian army would be occupied with the millions of Muslim fighting men besieging their frontiers, other governments would probably take advantage of the moment to throw an army into the field. Ten of every hundred men in Siberia and Russian Turkistan could be relied upon to revolt against the Soviet regime . . . Then, God willing, Ma Hsi Jung would march into the Kremlin!”

In fulfillment of these fantasies Ma Hushan sends Ahmad Kamal up the northern string of towns in western Xinjiang to begin a journey back to America to purchase his air force. Ahmad got as far as Aksu (Aqsu) before being arrested. Jailed under appalling conditions, he was eventually transferred to Urumqi, Sheng Shicai’s capital. There he spent four months in a dungeon, where he lost forty-three pounds. His three traveling companions, casual acquaintances, were executed, apparently solely because they could testify that the pro-Russian government was holding an American citizen. Finally he was ordered released. On his way out of the city a counter order was received when some spy had discovered Kamal was in fact working for Ma Hushan. The telegram was garbled and Kamal succeeded in convincing the commandant that it didn’t apply to him. He was out of the province before the truth caught up with him.

Ahmad Kamal crossed the Gobi desert, Mongolia, then China, and finally returned to the United States. He hints in closing that he intends to secretly purchase the aircraft he had been commissioned to buy.

Ma Hushan staged a new offensive in June 1937. He captured Kashgar and held it until October. Defeated, he fled to British India. In 1939 he returned to China. In his native Gansu he fought alongside the Chinese Communists against the Japanese invaders. Then, in 1950, he led an uprising in Xinjiang against the new Chinese Communist government. This lasted until 1954, when the redoubtable general was captured. He was executed by the Chinese at Lanzhou. He never marched in glory into Moscow’s Red Square at the head of a Tatar host.

How much, if any, of Cimarron Hathaway’s swashbuckling tale is true? It is filled with images of barbaric cruelty: floggings, beheadings, rapes. He says he is speaking mainly in Uyghur, which may or may not explain why every conversation comes through as flowery and stilted. His companions – soldiers, merchants, travelers – quote more quaint proverbs than Sancho Panza. And his own bravery often seems over the top, from cutting off men at the ankles with his scimitar from the top of a scaling ladder to throwing a bowl of slops he had been given to eat back in a guard’s face or tossing a cup of hot tea into the face of an interrogator who could easily order him shot.

Ian Johnson cites Hathaway’s FBI file, which confirms that he did go to Central Asia in 1935, and that he was arrested by the Chinese authorities in Xinjiang and escaped. It also states that he was married while in Xinjiang and his seventeen-year-old wife died of some act of violence during the turbulence there. In Land Without Laughter one of the author’s soldier companions without his knowledge negotiates an arranged marriage for him, but it is with a fourteen-year-old and he manages to get out of it the same night, unconsummated, returning the girl to her parents. Whatever passport he was carrying in that adventure would have borne the name Cimarron Hathaway, as he did not officially change his name to Ahmad Kamal until he was back in the United States, in a Hollywood court in 1938.

In 1941, Ahmad Kamal returned to China. There he did marry a Tatar woman named Amina, who had worked as a linguist and correspondent for Russian newspapers. They were both imprisoned by the Japanese in the Weihsien internment camp in Shandong, where they spent almost four years. On their return to the United States after Liberation the Los Angeles Times ran an article with their pictures. Kamal said he had gone back to Chinese Turkestan to retrieve his notebooks from his 1935-36 trip. He told the Times that at the time he and Amina were detained by the Japanese he had three manuscripts, a novel, a history, and a political study. Prohibited from keeping anything but a Bible, he and Amina transcribed the three manuscripts into ornate Turkic script and passed them off to the Japanese guards as a copy of the Koran. ( LA Times , November 11, 1945)

There is yet another curious side tale here that Ian Johnson did not pick up. This one involves the mystery of Amelia Earhart, the famed woman pilot who during an around-the-world flight disappeared over the Pacific in July 1937 with her copilot Fred Noonan,. One theory was that she had been spying for the United States and was captured by the Japanese. On August 21, 1945, as the Weihsien camp was shutting down, a radiogram was sent from there to Earhart’s husband, the publisher George Putnam, in North Hollywood, California. The telegram read:

“Camp liberated; all well. Volumes to tell. Love to mother.”

It was unsigned. Forty-two years later, on June 28, 1987, the Los Angeles Times reported that a State Department employee had found a copy of this message in the Earhart files in the National Archive. This sparked a renewal of the theory that Earhart had been captured by the Japanese and interned in the Weihsien camp. “Love to Mother” was widely assumed to be some kind of secret code, and the conspiracy literature soon abounded with the abbreviation for it: LTM.

A recent post by Ron Bright and Laurie McLaughlin clears up the mystery. The sender of the mysterious unsigned message was our Ahmad Kamal. It seems that one more of the improbable claims about Cimarron Hathaway that appear on the back cover of the 2000 edition of Land Without Laughter was true, or partly so. This was the claim that he had been a combat pilot. Ron Bright and Laurie McLaughlin in 2001 located his son, who confirmed that Ahmad Kamal had been a licensed pilot and that he kept a plane at the Burbank airport, also used by Amelia Earhart. The son added that Kamal knew both Earhart and her husband, George Putnam, and that when he left for his trip to China in 1941 he had asked Putnam to regularly look in on his mother, who lived nearby. Beyond these facts this account is full of misinformation, claiming, for example, that Ahmad Kamal served as a guide for the famous dinosaur hunter Roy Chapman Andrews, the purported model for Indiana Jones. But Andrews’ expeditions in the Gobi Desert and Central Asia took place between 1922 and 1930, when Cimarron Hathaway was still a boy. It appears that Kamal’s son has a thin grasp of his father’s history and has expanded his legend into myth. (

There is always something uncertain surrounding everything claimed about Cimarron Hathaway/Ahmad Kamal. His Jami’at al-Islam charity, which he invented while living in Indonesia in the 1950s, issued brochures claiming it had been founded in Turkestan in 1868-69 to promote revolution against tsarist Russia. Ahmad’s son, the source of the information about Amelia Earhart, was born in 1950 so events in 1937 took place long before he was around. Cimarron had left for Xinjiang the first time when he was only twenty-one. He had been back in the United States only a few months when Amelia Earhart left on her fatal flight. Surely he was not a licensed pilot then, much less with his own plane in a hangar at the Burbank airport. In the years after her disappearance he became an author and sought out contacts with various publishers, including Scribners, who published his Land Without Laughter in 1940. Earhart’s husband, George Putnam, was also a publisher. As the Weihsien camp was shutting down in 1945, Kamal sent two messages, not just one. The second was to Maxwell Perkins at Scribners.

Ahmad Kamal lived in Los Angele between 1945 and 1951. During that period he wrote and published three novels: Full Fathom Five , about Greek sponge divers in Florida, One-Dog Man about a boy and his dog, and The Excommunicated , a romance thriller set in pre-Communist Shanghai. He marketed a number of short stories and worked in Hollywood as a screen writer. Then he abandoned literary work and turned to Islam in a serious way, publishing The Sacred Journey: A Pilgrimage to Mecca in Arabic. Thereafter his life was bound up with intelligence work for the United States on behalf of Islamic, and in particular, Turkestani causes.

In the early 1950s he moved to Indonesia, where he lived in Bandung. The U.S. government lent him the money for his passage, and Johnson says that Kamal told a friend he would be working for the U.S. government. Kamal established the world headquarters for his Jami’at charity in Jakarta. Von Mende’s files claim Kamal was working for the Americans in providing support to an anticommunist minister in the Indonesian government. After two assassination attempts Kamal fled to Barcelona. Von Mende’s files also record that Ahmad Kamal refused to work for the CIA, because he claimed it was heavily infiltrated by Soviet spies. Instead he was paid by the National Security Council, at the personal request of Richard Nixon, then Eisenhower’s Vice President. Kamal tried to have the famous 1955 Bandung nonaligned nations conference canceled, and when that failed he returned from Spain to attend for a day, but left for fear of a physical attack. Throughout all of this his primary goal remained what it had been in Xinjiang in 1936: to inspire Islamic opposition to Communist rule.

There were unproven claims that Kamal’s Jami’at charity supplied funding for arms for Islamic insurgencies, including the Algerian revolution for independence from France and the Palestinians in Jordan, from which the Jami’at offices were expelled in 1961. Then in October 1961, at a conference at the New York Sheraton hotel, the Jami’at began to fall apart. It issued a declaration that it was withdrawing its pledge to refrain from “extreme methods” because of the failure of Western governments to support the Islamic cause. It also fired its principal representative in Munich, Ahmet Balagija, who, like von Mende’s operatives, was a former Muslim soldier in the Wehrmacht.

The Americans now regarded Ahmad Kamal as too troublesome. They retaliated by ordering an audit of the funds they had been supplying to the Jami’at charity. Jami’at was being paid to care for some 4,000 refugees. On inspection it proved there were only 400 and the money was being used for its general propaganda work. In March 1962 Jami’at al-Islam International, to use its full name, announced that it was leaving Germany to do work in sub-Saharan Africa. It was never heard of again.

According to Johnson, “A few years later, Kamal would move back to California to continue his covert work.” He is said to have traveled extensively in Burma. Johnson adds, “In 1969, he offered the Burmese opposition leader U Nu $2 million if he would depose the country’s dictator, Ne Win.” The back cover text of the 2000 edition of Land Without Laughter , repeated in reprints of his three novels, say that Ahmad Kamal was the “commanding General of the Muslim liberation forces of the Union of Burma into the 1980’s.” Searches trying to confirm this turn up only the back covers of the reprint editions of his books. Ahmad Kamal died on October 13, 1989, in Santa Barbara, California.

The mosque project continued without him. Now safe from the threatened government prohibition, a decisive meeting was held on November 26, 1961, where the young students from the Muslim Brothers, with support from the CIA, backed Said Ramadan to head the project while von Mende’s old soldiers supported one of their own, the half-blind Ali Kantemir. Kantemir won a majority, but Ramadan, who was the incumbent, won the day when a German bureaucrat pointed out that the group’s charter required a two-thirds majority for such a decision. Ramadan held on to his position.

With his American backing and his beachhead in Germany secure, Said Ramadan in May 1962 went to Mecca to help create the Muslim World League, still today one of the most important international Islamic organizations. Ramadan’s agenda was to make the group sharply political, in particular to declare itself the enemy of Israel.

It didn’t take long for the Americans to discover that when they bought Ramadan they didn’t get what they had bargained for. Johnson writes:

“The Germans and the Americans had the same idea: control the mosque, control the local Muslims, and then use them to fight communism. The local Muslims were still in Munich and to that extent could still be used for covert propaganda purposes, but . . . it seems that Ramadan hadn’t cared about uniting Muslims to fight communism.” Ramadan wanted instead to promote the Muslim Brotherhood’s version of militant Islam, focused on a world revolution to impose Islam and Sharia law not only on the Communist lands but everywhere. And for that he had no use for the old Nazi soldiers. He wanted young, impressionable disciples. As Johnson puts it, “He didn’t want an umbrella group; he wanted a cell.”

By 1962, as Holocaust studies began to cast light on ex-Nazis still active in German political life, von Mende was snubbed by being refused an invitation to a major Washington conference on Islam and the Soviet Union. He died in December 1963. From 1964 on, Amcomlib and its Radio Liberty concentrated on broadcasting and abandoned trying to manipulate Germany’s Muslims through their religious leaders. In the 1970s, when it was exposed as a CIA front, Radio Liberty was merged with Radio Free Europe.

The Munich mosque

The Islamic Center of Munich opened to the faithful on August 24, 1973. By this time control had passed to an alliance between Saudi Arabia’s militant Wahabis and the Saudi branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. Said Ramadan, an Egyptian, was squeezed out in 1966. Acting on a well-financed, expansionist vision, over the next twenty years it established branches throughout Germany, promoting the Brotherhood’s version of Islam. It recruited fighters for jihad in Bosnia and inspired Islamic militancy in other world hot spots.

Figures intimately associated with the Munich mosque’s operation such as Youssef Nada and Ahmed Totonji helped to spread the Brotherhood to the United States. Totonji was a central founder of the Muslim Student Organization in 1962, which Johnson writes is “widely regarded as the first Brotherhood organization in the United States.”

That the radical Muslim Brotherhood got there first in establishing its network of religious houses of worship has had an incalculable effect as Europe’s Muslim population has mushroomed over the last three or four decades. According to Ian Johnson’s figures (circa 2009-2010) there were fifteen to twenty million Muslims living in Western Europe; of these, 3.5 million were in Germany, as many as 6 million in France, and just under 2 million in Britain.

Evidence that the Munich mosque has ties to actual terrorism is thin. A regular worshipper in the 1980s was Mahmoud Abouhalima, later convicted in the attempt to blow up the World Trade Center in 1993. Mamdouh Mahmud Salim, believed to be Al Qaeda’s finance chief, sought spiritual counseling at the mosque before being extradited to the United States in 1998. Somewhat less clear are long-standing accusations that two central figures of the mosque helped finance terrorism. These are directed at Ghaleb Himmat, the mosque’s chief imam for twenty-nine years, and the mosque’s principal financial figure, Youssef Nada. They concern the al-Tarqwa Bank, of which Nada was a co-founder and Himmat served as a director. There is little dispute that the bank is a Muslim Brotherhood enterprise, or that the Brotherhood supports terrorism at least in Iraq against the government and its American supporters and against Israel.

The bank’s European functionaries include some very unsavory characters. Headquartered in Switzerland, its officers include Swiss Islamic convert Ahmed Huber, an enthusiastic admirer of Hitler, and Francois Genoud, a central manager of Nazi assets in the years after World War II. Jordan accused the bank of funding Musab al-Zarqawi, the since-deceased head of Al Qaeda in Iraq, while the United States insists they laundered money for Osama bin Laden and Hamas. The UN joined the U.S. in declaring the bank and its officers terrorist financers, though the UN withdrew the designation in 2010. Nada denies the charges, but Himmat was forced to resign from his long-held position at the mosque in 2002.

More indisputable is the role of the mosque and its siblings in other cities in spreading anti-Semitism and promoting a version of Islam that rejects integration in European societies and aspires to replace secular regimes with Islamic Sharia law governments. This has created a huge existential problem for Western Europe and generated a large anguished literature on the subject, to mention only Robert S. Keiken’s Europe’s Angry Muslims and Walter Laqueur’s The Last Days of Europe and After the Fall .

One creation of the Munich mosque is the European Council for Fatwa and Research, said to be the most influential body in setting the norms of Islamic attitudes in Europe. Johnson cites a 2004 meeting of this body where German Muslim scientist Mohammad Hawari received no objection when in a lecture he explained that the Jews are responsible for the sexual revolution, with the aim of destroying the morals of Islamic youths in order to take over the world. He cited as his authority for this claim the notorious Russian tsarist forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a mainstay of Nazi anti-Jewish propaganda and today widely reprinted in Arabic throughout the Middle East. .

Johnson adds:

“Far from setting up rules to govern a fringe group, the fatwa council issues guidelines aimed at tens of millions of European citizens and residents – members of Europe’s second-biggest religion.” The head of this organization, Mahdi Akef, is a past head of the Munich mosque, the Islamic Center of Munich. He calls the Holocaust a myth and is a public sympathizer of Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

So where have we arrived? This tale is something like Rashomon, being able to see the same events from opposite and irreconcilable points of view. During World War II two evil totalitarian systems were locked in a death struggle, each looking for any weakness in the other that would let it get a grip on its opponent’s throat. The captive Turkic peoples of Soviet Central Asia had their own aspirations for independence, which the Nazis exploited. The majority of these Muslim nations finally won their goal, not with the help of Nazi Germany or even the American CIA, but only with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990. The Muslim peoples of China’s Xinjiang province, the central concern of Ahmad Kamal’s life, are the exception. They remain under the domination of an alien people. In that story Ahmad Kamal is an admirable outsider, bridging American and Turkic Muslim cultures, devoted to a people that were by birth, or perhaps only in his vivid imagination, his forebears and blood kin. If he invented many details about his life and history, enough is true to validate him as a patriot to the Muslims of Xinjiang.

At the same time, in the broader world beyond Chinese Turkestan, Islamic radicalism is a declared enemy of most of the essential values of the advanced democracies. Islam as a whole does not accept the separation of church and state essential to maintain harmony among peoples of different creeds and sects. It stands where Christianity did in the fifteenth century. Moderate and reform-minded Muslims are in a decided minority, while a more militant minority at the other end of the spectrum enforces its view by violence. Giving one of the more extreme variants of this authoritarian and intolerant current a hand up in establishing itself in Western Europe ahead of the flood of Islamic immigrants that followed, and came under its influence, was a disastrous mistake that we will pay for for generations to come. Part of how that part of the story will unfold is being written now in Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood finally has governmental power, and is proving to have within it some more moderate elements. One wing is seemingly willing to work with the West, to extend toleration to Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority – who long predate the invasion of Islam – and to retain the peace treaty with Israel. Others hew to the traditional view of Hassan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb, that the whole of the world that is not under strict Sharia law is jahiliyyah, degenerate barbarians, who must be forced to submit to Islam, while the Jews are fit only for extermination. Much rides on how this contest plays out.


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