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The United States Treasury Department announced on Tuesday that it had designated Muhammad Hadi al-Anizi as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT) due to his fundraising for, and facilitating the travel of, terrorists on behalf of al-Qaeda in Syria (AQS). This is at least the eleventh individual sanctioned for funding AQS, and underlines the structure of al-Qaeda’s regional network and the challenges it continues to pose.
AL-ANIZI’S DESIGNATION AND THE WIDER NETWORK
Al-Anizi, based in Kuwait, has “provided extensive material and financial support to AQ since at least 2007,” Treasury writes. “Prior to 2014, al-Anizi provided financial support to his brother, AQ facilitator and SDGT Abdullah al-Anizi, who used the money to fund terrorist operations.”
The sanctions against Abdullah al-Anizi, who was also based in Kuwait, described him as having been a “communications conduit for al-Qaeda senior leadership” from as early as 2010 and a fundraiser for both al-Qaeda “central” (AQC) in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and for AQS, at least from 2013 onward. Abdullah was also one of those who provided funding for the migration of AQC from Pakistan to Syria in 2013 and 2014 in an attempt to resolve the dispute between al-Qaeda and its then-Iraqi branch, now known to us as the Islamic State (IS). Al-Qaeda has in Syria a haven of a kind it has not really had since the fall of the Taliban, with the possible exception of Yemen, though al-Qaeda never risked the movement of its senior leaders to Yemen in any significant way. In contrast, it is arguable, as indicated by the recent demise of al-Qaeda’s overall number two, Abdullah Muhammad Rajab Abd al-Rahman (Abu al-Khayr al-Masri), in Idlib, that AQC has a greater presence in Syria at present than it does in the “Af-Pak” theatre.
In Syria, Muhammad al-Anizi has been a key money-man for al-Qaeda and provided the jihadists with important logistical support. Al-Anizi’s “extensive material and financial support” to Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch, which rebranded last year as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS) and rebranded again earlier this year as Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), dates back to 2014, at the latest.
“In mid- to late-2014, al-Anizi obtained passports for an AQ associate in Syria, provided medical supplies to an injured Syria-based AQ associate, and was appointed as AQ’s representative in Syria by AQ senior leadership,” Treasury notes, and, in “late 2014,” al-Anizi “worked with an [al-Nusra] associate to provide hundreds of thousands of dollars to [al-Nusra] members in Syria.”
In “late 2015, al-Anizi solicited donations for [al-Nusra] fighters in Syria and sent approximately $20,000 to an [al-Nusra] member in Syria.” In the same time period, al-Anizi sought assistance from AQ financier and U.S.- and UN-designated terrorist Sa’d al-Ka’bi to facilitate the travel of AQ-associated individuals.”
Al-Anizi’s connection with Al-Ka’bi, more fully Sa’d bin Sa’d Muhammad Shariyan al-Ka’bi, shows he was tied to a web of al-Qaeda financiers on the Gulf since al-Ka’bi was based in Qatar.
Al-Ka’bi was sanctioned by the Treasury in August 2015 for having acted at the instruction of an al-Nusra operative to set up a donations campaign in his native Qatar, likely referring to the Madad Ahl al-Sham campaign, in early 2014, and around the same time al-Ka’bi also acted as the intermediary for one of the many hostages al-Nusra was ransoming, almost certainly to a Western country. This lucrative stream of revenue for AQS is of a piece with al-Qaeda’s known behaviour: between 2008 and 2014, al-Qaeda took in at least $165 million from hostage ransoms, near-exclusively from European governments.
Al-Ka’bi had been working in support of al-Nusra since late 2012 and possibly before, and in 2013 had worked closely with Hamid Hamad Hamid al-Ali. Al-Ali gave money to al-Ka’bi that was then passed on to al-Nusra. Sanctions were imposed on al-Ali a year before they were slapped on al-Ka’bi. Al-Ali, a prominent activist/political (haraki) salafi cleric in Kuwait, was identified as a financier for al-Nusra, having raised tens of thousands of dollars for the organization and even delivered some money to al-Nusra personally, travelling to Syria.
Al-Ali became known to U.S. authorities a decade before when raids in his home country exposed his role in sending jihadists into Iraq to join IS’s predecessor. Al-Ali claimed the U.S. regency in Iraq was designed to uproot Islam, returning the country to jahiliyya (pre-Islamic ignorance), and fragment the state with pieces given to Iran and Israel. The necessary response to this was jihad, said al-Ali, who publicly legitimized suicide bombing and offered technical help on assembling explosives and chemical weapons on his popular website. And once the Syrian uprising was militarized by the Bashar al-Assad regime’s unmerciful crackdown and sectarian atrocities, al-Ali had made absolutely no pretentions of being anything other than an ardent supporter of al-Nusra, praising them as “heroes” and inciting support for their “great jihad,” notably at a Friday sermon on 2 March 2012 delivered in the state-run Grand Mosque in Doha at the invitation of the Ministry of Endowment and Islamic Affairs.
TERROR FINANCING IN KUWAIT
Kuwait, in particular, and Qatar as well, have been notable hubs of finance for AQS. Kuwait passed a law against terror-financing for the first time in 2013. Still, in April 2014, the U.S. Undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David Cohen gave a speech saying that: “Certainly much of the private fundraising in the Gulf related to Syria is motivated by a sincere and admirable desire to ease suffering … But a number of fundraisers operating in more permissive jurisdictions—particularly in Kuwait and Qatar—are soliciting donations to fund extremist insurgents … Our ally Kuwait has become the epicentre of fundraising for terrorist groups in Syria.”
Just months later, some of the first Treasury sanctions against AQS financiers were in Kuwait: Shafi al-Ajmi, Hajjaj al-Ajmi, and Abdurrahman al-Anizi.
A salient haraki-salafi in Kuwait, Hajjaj al-Ajmi was “a funnel for financial donations” to al-Nusra facilitators in Syria, according to the Treasury, and travelled regularly from Kuwait to Syria “to engage in financial activity on behalf of [al-Nusra] and deliver money to the group.” During one such trip, in September 2013, Hajjaj was photographed in the company of Tarkhan Batirashvili (Abu Umar al-Shishani), the Georgian Chechen who would later emerge as one of IS’s most telegenic commanders. Hajjaj also had a Qatari wing to his operation, run by Shaqer al-Shahwani, who works for the Ministry of Endowments. Hajjaj had tried to leverage his support—which was considerable, and also flowed to Ahrar al-Sham, a salafi insurgent group that had men tied to al-Qaeda’s network among its founders—to have Kuwaitis installed in leadership positions in al-Nusra. Hajjaj was among the funders of the insurgent offensive—comprising al-Nusra, IS, and Ahrar—into the coastal areas in August 2013 that resulted in terrible atrocities against Alawi civilians, documented by Human Rights Watch (HRW).
Shafi al-Ajmi, another haraki-salafi agitator, was dismissed by some as “a kid” who was good at getting attention but of no real importance. The Treasury sanctions begged to differ, identifying Shafi’s regular social media campaigns as a significant source of money for AQS. Shafi had “delivered … funds in person to [al-Nusra]” and “acknowledged purchasing and smuggling arms on behalf of [al-Nusra].” Shafi’s funding was significantly responsible for the anti-Shi’a massacre in Hatla village in the Deir Ezzor Province in June 2013, and was also implicated in the sectarian crimes on the coast that August, the same month Kuwait pulled the plug on his television show for sectarian incitement and glorifying al-Nusra.
While Abdurrahman al-Anizi was formally designated for acting on IS’s behalf to smuggle fighters, from Afghanistan and elsewhere, to Syria and Iraq, and also to move some cash to IS, Aburrahman had been carrying out this job since 2008—when IS was a branch of al-Qaeda. Abdurrahman had worked with the Iran-based al-Qaeda facilitation network, the main artery bringing resources from AQC to al-Qaeda’s branches and affiliates in those years, and the Iranian network into Iraq often went via Kuwait. Muhsin al-Fadhli, of later “Khorasan Group” fame, was the overseer of al-Qaeda’s operations in Kuwait until 2009, for example, moving resources from AQC to then-al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), now IS, before moving to Iran.
In 2011, the Treasury exposed a “secret deal” between the Iranian revolution and al-Qaeda that allowed al-Qaeda to operate its network in Iran—out of (political) range of America’s drones—and to “funnel funds and operatives through [Iranian] territory”. One of the six men designated for participation in this network was Ali Hasan Ali al-Ajmi, who was based in Kuwait and linked to the head of the Iran-based network, Ezedin Abdel Aziz Khalil (Yasin al-Suri).
The Iranian government “maintain[ed] a relationship with Khalil and have permitted him to operate within Iran’s borders since 2005.” Money from al-Qaeda operatives on the Gulf went through Khalil back to AQC in Pakistan, and when Iran released operatives it had under “house arrest”—a situation that included the freedom to orchestrate bombings in Casablanca—it was to Khalil they were handed. The embarrassment of Treasury’s public accusations had Khalil moved underground for a while—replaced by al-Fadhli, who had just been released from Iranian “arrest”—but Khalil was soon enough back in place.
From his perch as al-Qaeda’s man in Iran, Khalil “provide[d] financial and facilitation support to al-Qaeda, AQI and the Taliban,” Treasury revealed in 2011, and Ali al-Ajmi “has collected money from individuals in Gulf countries and provided these funds to AQI facilitators as well as to the Taliban. He has also supported al-Qaeda by facilitating travel for individuals associated with the group so that they could take part in fighting in Afghanistan.”
When Treasury sanctioned Abdullah al-Anizi, they also designated Abdul Muhsin al-Mutayri, a haraki-salafist preacher and teacher of the Qur’an and Qur’anic sciences at Kuwait University’s Faculty of Theology, “for providing financial, material, or technological support for, and financial or other services to or in support of, [al-Nusra]” since 2012. Al-Mutayri ran numerous charities that channelled donations to al-Nusra and, in 2012 and 2013, al-Mutayr paid for foreign fighters who wanted to travel to join al-Nusra.
Abd al-Aziz Aday Zimin al-Fadhil, a “Kuwait-based facilitator,” was sanctioned in September 2014 as a financial services provider to al-Qaeda, coordinating the transfer of hundreds of thousands of dollars to al-Nusra and supporting al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) with cash transfers as well.
Other problematic figures in Kuwait include Nayef al-Ajmi, a member of Kuwait University’s College of Shari’a and Islamic Studies, who was made Kuwait’s Justice Minister and the Minister of Islamic Endowments in January 2014. In Cohen’s speech he said this was a “step in the wrong direction,” and Nayef’s position was duly withdrawal. Nayef’s rabid public pronouncements included saying that Jews were “the scum of mankind … whom Allah transformed into pigs and apes,” and Nayef was associated—despite his claims to the contrary after the HRW report—with the AQS-supporting networks of his clansmen, Shafi.
Nayef claimed, after supposedly dissociating from Shafi, that his support was exclusively behind the Council of Supporters of the Syrian Revolution run by Muhammad Hayef al-Mutayri, a Kuwaiti MP, which backed Ahrar al-Sham in public, an arrangement that likely meant resources were ending up with al-Nusra. Al-Mutayri sought a fatwa in 2011 to kill Syria’s ambassador to Kuwait and in 2013 suggested kidnapping U.S. soldiers to trade for Kuwait’s citizens in Guantanamo Bay.
Another, related figure, is Hakim al-Mutayri, the leader of the salafi political party, al-Hizb al-Umma (The Party of the Islamic Nation), which has branches in other countries, including Syria. Hakim had praised Usama bin Ladin, and his one-time deputy was Hamid al-Ali. Hakim was one of the joint-heads of the People’s Commission for the Support of the Syrian Revolution with the above-mentioned Hajjaj al-Ajmi. Their fundraising efforts often had parallel Qatari efforts and provided seed funding for Ahrar al-Sham. One of Hizb al-Umma’s co-founders, Muhammad al-Abduli, a former colonel in the U.A.E.’s military, allegedly provided training for Ahrar’s early cadres.
Qatar’s foreign policy since the Arab Revolts began in late 2010 has favoured Islamists across the region. Doha’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood, including the unashamed support for HAMAS, remains a troublesome aspect of its relations with neighbours and the United States; the support for the putschist Libya Dawn coalition is another sticking point. Providing official platforms to Mohammed al-Arifi, a Saudi cleric with more than ten million followers on Twitter, even after he defended al-Nusra, and celebrating the release Ali al-Marri, an al-Qaeda sleeper agent acting at the instructions of the operational planner of 9/11, have tended to irk Qatar’s allies. Without doubt, however, the money that flows from and through Qatar to al-Qaeda in Syria remains one of the most worrisome aspects.
“There are eight to twelve key figures in Qatar raising millions of pounds for the jihadis,” a local Western diplomat told The Daily Telegraph in 2014. “There’s not even much attempt to keep quiet about it.” Almost all of these donors were pro-Nusra, though during the period of chaos as al-Nusra split from its parent organization (IS) in 2013-14 it is possible resources went “astray”.
In December 2013, U.S. sanctions were levied against the Qatar-based Abd al-Rahman bin Umayr al-Nuaymi for financing terrorism. In 2003 and 2004, al-Nuaymi acted as a supporter of the Iraqi insurgency in general, and specifically al-Nuaymi had “facilitated significant financial support to [IS’s predecessor] al-Qaeda in Iraq, and served as an interlocutor between al-Qaeda in Iraq leaders and Qatar-based donors,” Treasury noted. Al-Nuaymi “oversaw the transfer of over $2 million per month to al-Qaeda in Iraq for a period of time.” In 2012, al-Nuaymi sent funds to Mukhtar Robow and Shaykh Hassan Aweys Ali, both sanctioned operatives of al-Qaeda’s Somali branch, al-Shabab, and in the same year sent money to Abd al-Wahhab al-Humayqan, who runs a charity in Yemen that finances AQAP. In 2013, al-Nuaymi “ordered the transfer of nearly $600,000 to al-Qaeda” via “al-Qaeda’s representative in Syria,” Muhammad al-Bahaya (Abu-Khalid al-Suri), and “intended to transfer nearly $50,000 more.” Al-Bahaya was the then-deputy of Ahrar al-Sham, who had been appointed as al-Qaeda’s representative in the Levant by al-Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, to mediate the dispute between al-Nusra and IS.
Cohen mentioned the designation of al-Nuaymi in his speech a few months later as an example of the U.S. acting alone when it could not get the cooperation it needed from allies that the U.S. remained committed to working with. Cohen also highlighted not only Qatar’s less-than-stellar performance in shutting jihadi finance networks down, but the connections between the Qatar-based networks and those in Kuwait. “Private fundraising networks in Qatar … increasingly rely upon social media to solicit donations for terrorists and to communicate with both donors and recipient radicals on the battlefield,” Cohen said. “This method has become so lucrative, and Qatar has become such a permissive terrorist financing environment, that several major Qatar-based fundraisers act as local representatives for larger terrorist fundraising networks that are based in Kuwait” [italics added].
The U.S.’s Country Reports on Terrorism for 2013, released the same month as Cohen’s speech, bluntly stated that Qatar’s enforcement of its own laws against terrorism-financing were “lacking,” with Doha’s lack of outreach, let alone referrals, to the Middle East North Africa Financial Action Task Force to ensure that blacklisted activities were not taking place in its jurisdiction being “significant gaps”.
There are far fewer designations to work from in the case of Qatar, but a significant amount of nefarious activity is right out in public—which is among the things that makes the line between state-approved and non-state-approved activity so difficult to discern.
It was Qatar in most cases that acted as mediator for AQS’s lucrative trade in hostages—the Malula nuns, Peter Curtis (Theo Padnos), Antonio Pampliega, José Manuel López, and Ángel Sastre. After the formation of Jaysh al-Fatah insurgent coalition, which included al-Nusra, to take Idlib City in 2015, the Qatari—and Turkish and (reluctantly) Saudi—support to the AQS-containing umbrella organization was undisguised.
Qatar has, with Turkey, long supported Ahrar al-Sham. Where Ankara provides the military support to Ahrar—weapons, logistics, intelligence, and so on—Doha provides copious funds and media exposure that long made Ahrar seem more central to the Syrian insurgency than it truly was. Qatar’s influence over Ahrar has waned as Turkey has taken a direct hand in northern Syria, but its past actions warrant scrutiny because of the nature of Ahrar.
Much of the attempt by Ahrar to present itself as part of Syria’s moderate mainstream opposition can be dismissed as a well-financed and -organized information operation conducted with Turkey’s and Qatar’s help. The connections between Ahrar and al-Qaeda’s network—from its very foundations, with al-Bahaya and the pro-al-Qaeda seed financiers—are visible. It is possible that with the formation of HTS, to which many of Ahrar’s most al-Qaeda-friendly operatives defected, and the reshuffle of insurgent dynamics in northern Syria, which is clarifying the “green” (revolutionary) and “black” (jihadist) factions, that Ahrar will fall on the “green” side, having tried to straddle this divide. But it will not undo what has happened.
Ahrar was “the greatest enabler of Jabhat al-Nusra’s sustained rise in influence in northern Syria,” as Charles Lister wrote in a profile of al-Nusra. Whatever the exact nature of Ahrar’s relationship with al-Qaeda’s network, Ahrar’s main effect has been to give al-Qaeda a portal to infiltrate, and probably now to co-opt and destroy, the Syrian rebellion in northern Syria.
That there has been a flow of resources between Ahrar and al-Nusra, allowing al-Nusra to avoid direct interactions with governments it considers “infidel,” cannot be doubted. Ahrar provided potentially existential support to al-Nusra, at al-Bahaya’s behest, when al-Nusra was cut off from IS in 2013. Al-Nusra fighters have said the group has relied on weapons from Ahrar for some battles. The extent of this deniable channel between Doha and AQS via Ahrar is hard to prove—as is the intent—and assessing its significance to AQS is even more difficult.
Qatar has evidently had contact directly with al-Nusra, too, as can be seen from the hostage negations. But it appears deeper than that: Doha’s encouragement of the JFS rebranding was premised on the hope that an al-Nusra divorced from al-Qaeda would increase Doha’s influence in Syria. Additionally, there is the strange case of Abdulaziz bin Khalifa al-Attiyah, a cousin of the Qatari foreign minister, who is accused of having delivered $20,000 in person to Abd al-Maliki Muhammad Yusuf Uthman Abd al-Salam (Umar al-Qatari) in Lebanon.
Abd al-Malik, a Jordanian citizen, facilitated men and money to al-Nusra, according to the U.S. sanctions. In 2011, Abd al-Malik had delivered thousands of dollars to Muhsin al-Fadhli in Iran. Later, Abd al-Malik collaborated with Qatari national Ibrahim Isa Haji Muhammad al-Bakr, who was designated a SDGT at the same time, for his role as a jihadi fundraiser back to the early 2000s for both al-Qaeda and the Taliban, and plotting in 2006 to strike American bases and citizens in Qatar.
Al-Bakr was close to Mustafa Hajji Muhammad Khan (Hassan Ghul), the first successful courier between AQC and the IS movement, operating at the instruction of Nashwan Abdulbaqi (Abdul Hadi al-Iraqi), who would later try to take up the role himself and was also arrested. When Khan was arrested in 2004 he was in possession of the letter by IS’s founder, Ahmad al-Khalayleh (Abu Musab al-Zarqawi), laying out his plan to defeat the Americans by causing sectarian carnage. Information gleaned from Khan led the U.S. to a Kuwaiti courier and thence to Usama bin Ladin in Abbottabad. Khan had been provided a fake passport to travel to Qatar by Abd al-Latif Bin Abdallah Salih Muhammad al-Kawari, a Qatari-based al-Qaeda financier and security official. Al-Kawari (who was sanctioned at the same time as al-Ka’bi) and al-Bakr used to travel with Khan to and around Qatar. In early 2012, al-Kawari “facilitated the international travel of a courier who was carrying tens of thousands of dollars earmarked for al-Qaeda,” Treasury notes, and later that year he “worked with al-Qaeda facilitators to coordinate the delivery of funding from Qatari financiers intended to support al-Qaeda and to deliver receipts confirming that al-Qaida received foreign donor funding from Qatar-based extremists.”
Abd al-Malik and al-Bakr combined with associates in Lebanon, where Abd al-Malik would soon be imprisoned, “to procure and transport weapons and other equipment to Syria with the assistance of a Syria-based al-Qaeda associate.” In 2012, Abd al-Malik, as part of his role in procuring funds for al-Qaeda’s senior leaders in Waziristan, was in receipt of funds from Khalifa Muhammad Turki al-Subaiy, a Qatari citizen. Al-Subaiy is on the United Nations sanctions list and was sanctioned by the United States for providing financial support to AQC in Pakistan, including 9/11 planner Khalid Shaykh Muhammad before his arrest in 2003. Having been temporarily arrested, al-Subaiy was released on the understanding a watch was being kept on him; his activities in 2012 suggest Qatar failed at this.
The conviction against al-Attiyah comes from a Lebanese government that operates significantly at the pleasure of the Iranian proxy militia, Hizballah, so has to be taken with some caution. Even so, al-Attiyah did present a video in support of the Qatar-based Madad Ahl al-Sham (MAS) campaign, which al-Nusra had instructed its followers—from its official Twitter page—to contribute to in order to assist them. This was in August 2013, after al-Nusra had made its allegiance to al-Qaeda public. MAS had al-Ka’bi among its staff while in operation: “His name and phone number appear to be included on every single flyer that has been attributed to the campaign, typically as the first name listed.” Al-Kawari appears to have been involved in MAS, too.
Sanctioned at the same time as Abd al-Malik was Ashraf Muhammad Yusuf Uthman Abd al-Salam, who had been an al-Qaeda member from 2005 and provided funds to the IS movement in 2007, while facilitating their communications. In 2012, Ashraf “and an Iraqi explosives expert worked with [al-Nusra] and also sought to use explosives in acts of terrorism.” The same year, Ashraf also worked with al-Subaiy “to facilitate the transfer of hundreds of thousands of dollars … intended for al-Qaeda in Pakistan.”
David Weinberg, in an extensive report on Qatar and terror funding, revealed that Abd al-Malik and Ashraf were brothers whose father was Muhammad Yusuf Uthman Abd al-Salam (Abu Abdulaziz al-Qatari, Muhammad Yusuf al-Filistini), a Jordanian of Palestinian descent, who founded a jihadi group, Jund al-Aqsa, in 2013 as a proxy group intended for al-Nusra’s leadership to retreat to if al-Zawahiri ruled against them and gave Ibrahim al-Badri (Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi) dominion over both IS and al-Nusra. Muhammad worked with al-Zarqawi soon after Saddam Husayn’s regime came down and was it seems among the advance party of IS agents that moved into Syria in 2011 to form al-Nusra. It is also reported, intriguingly, by Masar Media, an outlet that was close to Jund, that Muhammad initially joined Ahrar al-Sham. Later, Muhammad would be a senior associate to one of the crucial IS operatives in knitting together the caliphate in Syria, Abdurrahman al-Qaduli (Abu Ali al-Anbari). Muhammad tried to act as a mediator between IS and al-Nusra once conflict erupted between the two in late 2013; in this he did not succeed and was killed by Syria’s rebels in January 2014. Jund, though it was sanctioned by the State Department as a terrorist organization, evolved into a somewhat independent force with heavy backing from Gulf donors, before it joined IS after many months of warning signs that Jund was coming under IS’s sway.
By Lister’s count, there have been eight people in Kuwait, and one each from Qatar, Turkey (another complicated case), and Lebanon, sanctioned officially for financially supporting al-Nusra. This can “seem to imply that Doha’s problems regarding the group are minor,” Weinberg notes. “But while this figure is technically accurate, it also dramatically underestimates the number of individuals who were based in Qatar and accused of funding the group,” as the above sketches of the Abd al-Salam family, al-Ka’bi, al-Kawari, al-Bakr, and al-Subaiy make clear.
As al-Qaeda, under the HTS banner, treads the path of its parent organization in trying to integrate itself into local populations and make itself indispensable to Syrian opposition societies, there have been some indications that HTS is relying more on internal sources of revenue, such as “taxing”—extorting—local populations and on the war spoils carried off from the pro-regime coalition and from the rebel groups whose bases and supplies it stole in January. Al-Qaeda’s external donations model persists, however, and al-Anizi’s designation illuminates just a small part of the networks feeding al-Qaeda in Syria, taking advantage of the unravelling of the post-9/11 restrictions on terrorist “charities” and donors, a phenomenon partly abetted by Western allies who were asked to chart their own path in a world where American hegemony was in retreat.