"Blowback" is a CIA term of art for the unintended spilling over of agency tricks abroad onto life in the United States. Coined to cover the risk of phony news items planted overseas creeping into the American information flow, blowback has assumed a far deadlier form in the era of globalization.
Today it is not falsified journalism but terror bombs that wash back into the United States, ferried by couriers intimately connected to the network of Islamic zealots the agency helped recruit, finance and train in the Afghanistan wars of the 1980s.
America's spies helped bleed the Soviet empire to death in the mountains and valleys of Afghanistan. Their accomplishments, in Cold War terms, were almost as grand as their ambitions.
But the scale of that accomplishment and ambition may have blinded the CIA to reality: Many of the thousands of Algerians, Egyptians, Saudis and other Arabs who joined the Afghan insurgents were there to fight another war. Theirs was a holy war--one they would continue even after the Soviets left Afghanistan.
They now pursue that war against the United States and all other powers they see as opposing their violent, fringe version of Islam.
The holy terrorists who emerged from Afghanistan are personified by Osama bin Laden, the wealthy Saudi exile the United States accuses of plotting the bombing of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in August 1998. More than 220 people were killed in the attacks, in which bin Laden's operatives used bomb-making techniques taught in CIA-run camps in the 1980s.
A month ago an Algerian smuggling sophisticated explosives was intercepted crossing from Canada into Washington state. Although details remain to be filled in or confirmed, investigators have linked the man, Ahmed Ressam, to Fateh Kamel, an Algerian veteran of the Afghan war, and to others who are in turn loosely linked to bin Laden.
Was the CIA really oblivious to the likelihood that terror tactics taught in Afghanistan would beget further violence against Israel, friendly Arab governments and ultimately the United States? Or, as is more likely, did the agency decide to get on with the job it was being pushed by Ronald Reagan and William Casey to do, and worry about the consequences tomorrow?
Betting there would be no spillover would have required ignoring recent history's hard lessons about the force of nationalism and religious zealotry across the Third World and particularly in the Middle East and North Africa.
George Orwell died in 1950, presumably without ever hearing the term blowback. But the British writer prophetically portrayed the phenomenon in a 1939 essay titled "Marrakesh," which has stood the test of time far better than CIA analyses of more recent vintage.
Watching a column of Senegalese soldiers commanded by French officers march through southern Morocco, Orwell reported a chilling realization: The African soldiers could at any time they chose turn their weapons against the colonialists who had supplied those arms.
"How much longer can we go on kidding these people? How long before they turn their guns in the other direction? It was curious really. Every white man there had this thought stowed somewhere or other in his mind. . . . It was a kind of secret which we all knew and were too clever to tell," out of fear of speeding up the arrival of that moment.
World War II and its destruction of colonial empires proved Orwell's point. French officers trained Ahmed Ben Bella and other Algerians to fight in Europe against the Nazis. Ben Bella received numerous decorations for bravery--and training in military skills he put to use in helping to lead Algeria's war for independence, becoming that country's first president.
By 1991 more than 100 Algerians who had served in Afghanistan were prominent in the Islamic Front for Salvation political party. Some also led the violent Armed Islamic Group of guerrillas, which has carried out widespread massacres in Algeria. Other "Afghans," as veterans of that conflict are called, have gone to fight against "the infidels" in Bosnia, Chechnya and elsewhere.
The CIA did not create or specifically encourage terrorism against American targets. But the evidence is increasingly clear that the agency did facilitate the spread of anti-U.S. acts by its erstwhile associates in a particularly grim form of blowback.
The open flow of people, goods and ideas across borders makes blowback all but inevitable today. There is much in the case of the "Afghans" to make the CIA question its practices, and indeed its reason for existence, in the new world that has followed the Cold War.