This month marks the 45th anniversary of the death of Amin al-Husseini, the one-time Grand Mufti of Jerusalem and Nazi collaborator. Hailed as a “pioneer” by current Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, during World War II al-Husseini raised SS regiments in the Balkans, promoted the Reich’s propaganda in the Arab world, toured death camps and plotted the genocide of Middle Eastern Jewry. After he escaped justice, conventional wisdom has it that the Mufti ceased to be a political force in the post-war years. But conventional wisdom is wrong.
Declassified CIA documents—many revealed for the first time—and a recent book tell a different story, one in which al-Husseini continued to be influential more than a quarter-century after the war’s end. Although he would never regain the power that he once wielded, the Mufti remained a force to be reckoned with. Intelligence agencies closely monitored him, and Arab regimes variously sought his support or his assassination. Through it all he remained not only an unapologetic anti-Semite, but also an inveterate schemer.
The Mufti’s rise to power was itself owed to intrigues. The British, who ruled Mandate Palestine after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, made al-Husseini the grand mufti of Jerusalem in 1921, making him both the country’s highest Muslim cleric and leading Arab political figure.
As Wolfgang Schwanitz and the late Barry Rubin revealed in their 2014 book Nazis, Islamists and the Making of the Modern Middle East, the 24-year-old with no religious training was likely chosen in recognition of his service as a spy for the British in the final years of World War I. The decision, the historians conclude, “was one of the most remarkable errors of judgment ever made in a region rife with them.”
Indeed, al-Husseini would spend the next two decades inciting anti-Jewish violence and refusing numerous British-led attempts to broker peace. By the 1930s, the Mufti was actively seeking—and receiving—support from fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. U.S. intelligence would later conclude that the 1936-39 Arab Revolt, in which Palestinians led by al-Husseini murdered rivals, Jews and British officials, “was able to continue only because of Nazi funding.”
In October 1937, the now ex-Mufti fled to Lebanon, but not before he released an “Appeal to All Muslims of the World,” in which he “urged them to cleanse their lands of the Jews … and laid the foundation for the anti-Semitic arguments used by radical Arab nationalists and Islamists down to this day,” note Schwanitz and Rubin. He would eventually make his way to Berlin, where he would aid the Axis powers, befriend high-ranking Nazi officials like Heinrich Himmler and Adolf Eichmann, and, in a Nov. 28 1941 meeting with Adolf Hitler, ask for “a free hand to eradicate every last Jew from Palestine and the Arab world.”
At war’s end, al-Husseini was considered a war criminal by Yugoslavia and implicated for his role in committing war crimes. Nonetheless, the French government, which briefly captured him, allowed him to network and regroup, and apparently planned on using him to further their post-war ambitions for the region. When the Mufti fled and made his way to Egypt, little effort was made to bring him to justice. Sheltered and supported by Egypt’s King Farouk, the Mufti helped raise forces to attack the fledgling Jewish state during its War of Independence and plotted against Jordan’s King Abdullah, whom he viewed as too pro-British and too willing to compromise with the Israeli government.
In 1949, U.S. intelligence was told that Abdullah’s advisers had sent assassins after al-Husseini. But the Mufti, who had plotted Abdullah’s assassination for years, struck first; his henchmen murdered the Hashemite king in 1951 in front of the regent’s grandson, Hussein. Other Arab politicians who contemplated an accord with Israel were similarly targeted, including former Lebanese Prime Minister Riad al-Sulh.
Although in January 1950 it was reported that the Mufti was “abrupt” and “irritable,” and his “power is on the wane,” the next year would witness a flurry of activity by the Nazi collaborator. In 1951 alone, the Mufti created an intelligence apparatus, traveled to Pakistan to preside over the World Muslim Conference, visited Iran to meet with anti-Shah clerics and figures, conferred with Egyptian and Saudi Arabian foreign ministers, traveled to the ceasefire lines in Kashmir and was the guest of the president of the Syrian Chamber. A 1953 document detailing a trip to Beirut noted: “Not only has the Mufti been greeted by callers of all ranks, but scarcely a day has passed without his being the honored luncheon or dinner guest of some dignitary.”
In early 1950s Cairo, the Nazi collaborator lived in a “luxurious two-story 16 room house” with “a retinue of about 70,” including 20 “Palestinian bodyguards,” and “four male private secretaries and three chauffeurs to drive his two limousines.”
In October 1951, U.S. intelligence warned of a “possible terrorist campaign” by al-Husseini, “who has the combined forces of the [Muslim] Brotherhood and his own terrorist organization” targeting British nationals in four Arab countries, as well as the “property and personnel of the trans-Arabian pipeline.” The Mufti enjoyed close relations with the Brotherhood which used his “spacious home in Jerusalem” for their “Palestine headquarters” where, a neighbor reported in 1947, they read from the Koran, prepared for “a jihad” and chanted “Allah Akbar” after messages from Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna were broadcast on a loudspeaker.
U.S. intelligence managed to capture correspondence showing that the Mufti was regularly briefed on terrorist activities and had operatives traversing the Middle East. As late as 1962, he was still plotting to assassinate opponents. And, as late as 1965, the CIA was warning that Husseini “has instructed key followers” in Jordan to “reactivate” old units for attacks against Israel. The Agency noted that the Mufti was even purchasing “arms and ammunition” that were “remnants of the 1948” conflict.
Those same arms, Rubin and Schwanitz point out, were procured via Nazi funds the Mufti made use of long after the Second World War. The Mufti also depended on the largesse of various Arab regimes, including Farouk’s Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and elements in Iraq and Syria. Ever the schemer, the Mufti eventually had a falling out with Farouk, as well as his successor, Nasser, who reportedly sent assassins after him.
By 1967, al-Husseini had reached a détente with Hussein’s Jordan, which even allowed him to visit Jerusalem shortly before the Six-Day War, in the hopes that the Mufti would help counter Nasser and the then-Egyptian-controlled Palestine Liberation Organization. Amazingly enough, the Mufti even fed intelligence to Hussein—the man whose grandfather he had murdered—about Yasser Arafat, a distant cousin of al-Husseini who he formally anointed as his successor following a Dec. 29, 1968 meeting near Beirut.
By the time of his death in Beirut on July 4, 1974, the Mufti’s legacy was secure. Arafat would similarly play Arab regimes against each other and make war on the Jewish state. A mosque financed by al-Husseini and German ex-Nazis has, in recent years, been linked to Islamist terror groups like Al-Qaeda. And much of the rhetoric employed by al-Husseini—such as comparing Zionists to Nazis—remains common today.
“History,” the writer William Faulkner famously observed, “is not was. It is.”
(Note: A slightly different version of this Op-Ed appeared on July 24, 2019 in JNS)