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The strange case of Colonel Cyril Wilson and the Jihadists

The aftermath of the Arab Revolt of 1916-18 and the settlement in the Middle East after the First World War still resonates, world-wide, after a century. It is not only the jihadists of the so-called Islamic State and other groups who rail against the Sykes-Picot Agreement—the secret arrangement between Britain, France, and Russia that carved up much of the territory of the Ottoman Empire. Many moderate Muslims have a rankling feeling of betrayal, being aware that Sykes-Picot contradicted the British promise—albeit a vague one—of a large independent territory for Sherif Hussein of Mecca, the leader of the Arab Revolt, if he would rise up against the Ottomans, Britain’s wartime enemies.

Yet jihadists are not a new phenomenon. On 14 November 1914, encouraged by German intelligence, the Ottoman sultan and caliph declared jihad, or holy war, against the Allies. The British were anxious about the threat: there were about seventy million Muslims in British India, a fifth of its entire population, and anti-British plotters had been active amongst them for many years. The British nightmare was that this small minority could be swelled by a huge number of newly fired-up Muslim jihadists. They were also concerned at the prospect of a rebellion by the Muslims of Egypt, a British protectorate: this could threaten the Suez Canal, Britain’s vital life-line to India. The British clung to the hope that given their support for Sherif Hussein, a direct descendant of the prophet Mohammed, their own Muslim citizens in India and elsewhere would find it difficult to rise up against them.

As if these threats were not enough, the British had another headache. In Jeddah (captured from the Ottomans in the early stages of the revolt) their representative, Colonel Cyril Wilson, knew that pan-Islamic jihadist agitators were amongst the hundreds of British Indian Muslims who lived in the town and also in Mecca. These men were organised in underground societies, and were scheming against Hussein for daring to throw in his lot with the infidels. They resented Hussein’s rebellion because they saw the Ottoman sultan and caliph as the bedrock and heart of their religion.

 “Arrival of the Holy Carpet at Jeddah during the Muslim Hajj or pilgrimage.” Used with permission of Anthea Gray.

The threat came to a head in autumn 1916. Wilson had a vital diplomatic and intelligence role, but his official job title was “Pilgrimage Officer,” a fiction to allay Arab sensitivity to British soldiers based near the Holy Places of Mecca and Medina. Wilson was supposed to be solely in charge of the smooth passage of the two thousand or so British Muslim pilgrims, who came mainly from India, after they disembarked at Jeddah and went on the yearly Hajj to Mecca. Jihadists amongst them, as well as those already in Jeddah and Mecca, wanted to obstruct the pilgrimage, discredit the British in Arabia, and spread anti-British subversion back in India. The stakes were high because Wilson knew that if the pilgrimage were to be disrupted, it would hand a propaganda coup to the Turks and to the jihadists, who would shout from the rooftops that the British could never be trusted with the pilgrimage and were not true friends of Muslims. Sherif Hussein would have lost face and the blow to the revolt could have been terminal.

Cyril Wilson brought in a top Indian Army intelligence officer, Captain Norman Bray, aided by the Persian spy Hussein Ruhi, who discovered that some powerful Arab plotters apparently intended to seize Sherif Hussein and hand him over to the Ottomans. Intrigue was endemic within the Hejaz, Hussein’s territory in what later became the eastern part of Saudi Arabia. In addition the leading jihadist, Mahmud Hassan, who lived in Mecca, planned to return to India after his campaign of subversion and disinformation in the Hejaz. In India he intended to vilify and discredit Hussein in the eyes of Muslims, and try to encourage mutiny among the men of the Indian Army. Bray and Ruhi gathered intelligence from their agents, outmaneuvered Mahmud and had him arrested and deported to a prison camp in Malta. Their secret work neutralised a serious threat to the revolt.

Where the wider threat from jihadism was concerned, it seems, with hindsight, that the Ottomans and Germany over-rated the power of pan-Islam, just as Britain over-rated the appeal of Arab nationalism to gain the support of Ottoman Arabs for Hussein’s revolt. Yet even though the British nightmare about revolution in their jewel in the crown, India, was perhaps overstated at times, it had a dark and powerful hold over their psyche.

The often forgotten diplomatic and intelligence efforts of Cyril Wilson and his small band of comrades kept the Arab Revolt on track, both during the pilgrimage and on a number of later occasions too, when a wavering Hussein threatened to throw in the towel. But perhaps inevitably, the success of the revolt was hollow, and Hussein’s territorial ambitions were dashed. He had visions of becoming caliph of a huge area, but the sophisticated town-dwellers of Syria and Mesopotamia would never have accepted that, and neither would Hussein’s great rival in central Arabia, Ibn Saud. Ultimately, what really counted were British and French imperial interests: they overrode everything else, as they would always do. The legacy of the revolt lives on in the increasingly tangled affairs of the Middle East and beyond.

Featured image credit: Bedouin fighters at the port of Wejh. Used with permission of Anthea Gray.

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