Tag Archives: Afghanistan

Britain’s collusion with radical Islam: Interview with Mark Curtis

Britain’s collusion with radical Islam: Interview with Mark Curtis
by Ian Sinclair
Open Democracy
20 March 2018

A former Research Fellow at Chatham House and the ex-Director of the World Development Movement, British historian Mark Curtis has published several books on UK foreign policy, including 2003’s Web of Deceit: Britain’s Real Role in the World, endorsed by Noam Chomsky and John Pilger. Ian Sinclair asked Curtis about the recently published new edition of his 2010 book Secret Affairs: Britain’s Collusion with Radical Islam.

Ian Sinclair: With the so-called ‘war on terror’ the dominant framework for understanding Western foreign policy since 9/11, the central argument of your book – that Britain has been colluding with radical Islam for decades – will be a huge shock to many people. Can you give some examples?

Mark Curtis: UK governments – Conservative and Labour – have been colluding for decades with two sets of Islamist actors which have strong connections with each other. In the first group are the major state sponsors of Islamist terrorism, the two most important of which are key British allies with whom London has long-standing strategic partnerships – Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. The second group includes extremist private movements and organisations whom Britain has worked alongside and sometimes trained and financed, in order to promote specific foreign policy objectives. The roots of this lie in divide and rule policies under colonialism but collusion of this type took off in Afghanistan in the 1980s, when Britain, along with the US, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, covertly supported the resistance to defeat the Soviet occupation of the country. After the jihad in Afghanistan, Britain had privy dealings of one kind or another with militants in various organisations, including Pakistan’s Harkat ul-Ansar, the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group and the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), all of which had strong links to Bin Laden’s al-Qaida. Covert actions have been undertaken with these and other forces in Central Asia, North Africa and Eastern Europe.

For example, in the 1999 Kosovo war, Britain secretly trained militants in the KLA who were working closely with al-Qaida fighters. One KLA unit was led by the brother of Ayman al-Zawahiri, then Bin Laden’s right-hand man. The British provided military training for the KLA at secret camps in Kosovo and Albania where jihadist fighters also had their military centre. The ‘dirty secret’ of the July 2005 London bombings is that the bombers had links with violent Islamist groups such as the Harkat ul-Mujahidin whose militants were previously covertly supported by Britain in Afghanistan. These militant groups were long sponsored by the Pakistani military and intelligence services, in turn long armed and trained by Britain. If we go back further – to the 1953 MI6/CIA coup to overthrow Musaddiq in Iran – this involved plotting with Shia Islamists, the predecessors of Ayatollah Khomeini. Ayatollah Seyyed Kashani – who in 1945 founded the Fadayan-e-Islam (Devotees of Islam), a militant fundamentalist organization – was funded by Britain and the US to organise opposition and arrange public demonstrations against Musaddiq.

More recently, in its military interventions and covert operations in Syria and Libya since 2011, Britain and its supported forces have been working alongside, and often in effective collaboration with, a variety of extremist and jihadist groups, including al-Qaida’s affiliate in Syria. Indeed, the vicious Islamic State group and ideology that has recently emerged partly owes its origins and rise to the policies of Britain and its allies in the region

Although Britain has forged special relationships with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, it has not been in strategic alliance with radical Islam as such. Beyond these two states, Britain’s policy has been to collaborate with Islamist extremists as a matter of ad hoc opportunism, though it should be said that this has been rather regular. Whitehall does not work with these forces because it agrees with them but because they are useful at specific moments: in this sense, the collaboration highlights British weakness to find other on-the-ground foot soldiers to impose its policies. Islamist groups appear to have collaborated with Britain for the same reasons of expediency and because they share the same hatred of popular nationalism and secularism as the British elite.

IS: Why has the UK colluded with radical Islamic organisations and nations?

MC: I argue that the evidence shows that radical Islamic forces have been seen as useful to Whitehall in five specific ways: as a global counter-force to the ideologies of secular nationalism and Soviet communism, in the cases of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan; as ‘conservative muscle’ within countries to undermine secular nationalists and bolster pro-Western regimes; as ‘shock troops’ to destabilise or overthrow governments; as proxy military forces to fight wars; and as ‘political tools’ to leverage change from governments.

This collusion has also helped promote two big geo-strategic foreign policy objectives. The first is influence and control over key energy resources, always recognised in the British planning documents as the number one priority in the Middle East. British operations to support or side with Islamist forces have generally aimed at maintaining in power or installing governments that will promote Western-friendly oil policies. The second objective has been maintaining Britain’s place within a pro-Western global financial order. The Saudis have invested billions of dollars in the US and British economies and banking systems and Britain and the US have similarly large investments and trade with Saudi Arabia; it is these that are being protected by the strategic alliance with Riyadh.

IS: You include a chapter in the new edition of the book exploring the UK and West’s role in Syria. Simon Tisdall recently noted in The Observer that the West has been “hovering passively on the sidelines in Syria”. This is a common view – including on the Left. For example, in September 2014 Richard Seymour asserted “The US has not been heavily involved” in Syria, while in February 2017 Salvage magazine published a piece by Dr Jamie Allinson, who argued it was a myth that “the US has pursued a policy of regime change” in Syria. What is your take on the West’s involvement in Syria?

MC: These are extraordinary comments revealing how poorly the mainstream media serves the public. I’ve tried to document in the updated version of Secret Affairs a chronology of Britain’s covert operations in Syria to overthrow the Assad regime. These began with the deployment of MI6 and other British covert forces in 2011, within a few months after demonstrations in Syria began challenging the regime, to which the Syrian regime responded with brute force and terrible violence. British covert action, mainly undertaken in alliance with the US and Saudi Arabia, has involved working alongside radical and jihadist groups, in effect supporting and empowering them. These extremist groups, which cultivated Muslim volunteers from numerous countries to fight Assad, have been strengthened by an influx of a massive quantity of arms and military training from the coalition of forces of which Britain has been a key part. At the same time, Britain and its allies’ policy has prolonged the war, exacerbating devastating human suffering.

UK support for Syrian rebel groups long focused on the Free Syrian Army (FSA), described by British officials as ‘moderates’. Yet for the first three years of the war, the FSA was in effect an ally of, and collaborator with, Islamic State and al-Qaida’s affiliate in Syria, al-Nusra. London and Washington continued to provide training and help send arms into Syria despite the certainty that some would end up in the hands of jihadists. Some of the militants who joined the Syrian insurgency with British covert support were Libyans who are believed to have been trained by British, French or US forces in Libya to overthrow Qadafi in 2011. Some went on to join Islamic State and also al-Nusra, which soon became one of the most powerful opposition groups to Assad.

Britain appears to have played a key role in encouraging the creation of the Islamic Front coalition in Syria in November 2013, which included groups which regularly worked with al-Nusra; these included Liwa al-Tawhid – a group armed by Qatar and which coordinated attacks with al-Nusra – and Ahrar al-Sham – a hardline Islamist group that rejected the FSA. Both groups contained foreign jihadists, including individuals from Britain. Ahrar al-Sham’s co-founder, Abu Khalid al-Suri, was linked to the 2004 Madrid bombing through a series of money transfers and personal contacts; a Spanish court document named him as Bin Laden’s ‘courier’ in Europe. The same network was connected to the 2005 London terror attack.

The UK role in Syria has not been minor, but has been an integral part of the massive US/Arab arms and training operations, and British officials have been present in the control rooms for these operations in Jordan and Turkey. Britain also consistently took the lead in calling for further arms deliveries to the rebel forces. British covert action was in the early years of the war overwhelmingly focused on overthrowing Assad: evidence suggests that only in May 2015 did UK covert training focus on countering Islamic State in Syria.

IS: What role has the mainstream media played with regards to Britain working with radical Islam?

MC: It has largely buried it. In the period immediately after the 7/7 bombings in 2005, and more recently in the context of the wars in Libya and Syria, there were sporadic reports in the mainstream media which revealed links between the British security services and Islamist militants living in Britain. Some of these individuals have been reported as working as British agents or informers while being involved in terrorism overseas and some have been reported as being protected by the British security services while being wanted by foreign governments. This is an important but only a small part of the much bigger picture of collusion which mainly concerns Britain’s foreign policy: this is rarely noticed in the mainstream.

IS: The British public and the anti-war movement are not mentioned in your book, though they seem a potentially important influence on the nefarious and dangerous British foreign policies you highlight?

MC: Yes, it’s largely down to us, the British public, to prevent terrible policies being undertaken in our name. We should generally regard the British elite as it regards the public – as a threat to its interests. The biggest immediate single problem we face, in my view, is mainstream media reporting. While large sections of the public are deluged with misreporting, disinformation or simply the absence of coverage of key policies, there may never be a critical mass of people prepared to take action in their own interests to bring about a wholly different foreign policy. The mainstream media and propaganda system has been tremendously successful in the UK – the public can surely have very little knowledge of the actual nature of British foreign policy (past or present) and many people, apparently, seriously believe that the country generally (although it may make some mistakes) stands for peace, democracy and human rights all over the world. When you look at what they read (and don’t read) in the ‘news’ papers, it’s no surprise. The latest smears against Corbyn are further evidence of this, which I believe amounts to a ‘system’, since it is so widespread and rooted in the same interests of defending elite power and privilege.

The other, very much linked, problem, relates to the lack of real democracy in the UK and the narrow elitist decision-making in foreign policy. Governments retain enormous power to conduct covert operations (and policies generally) outside of public or parliamentary scrutiny. Parliamentary committees, meant to scrutinise the state, rarely do so properly and almost invariably fail to even question government on its most controversial policies. Parliamentary answers are often misleading and designed to keep the public in the dark. Past historical records of government decision-making are regularly withheld from the public, if not destroyed to cover up crimes. British ‘democracy’, which exists in some forms, otherwise resembles more an authoritarian state.

There are fundamental issues here about how policy gets made and in whose name. It’s not an issue of whether Labour or Conservative is in power since both obviously defend and propagate the elitist system. Jeremy Corbyn himself represents a real break with this but the most likely outcome, tragically, is that the Labour extremists (called ‘moderates’ in the mainstream) and the rest of the conservative/liberal system which believes in militarism, neo-liberalism and the defence of privilege, will prevail if and when Corbyn becomes Prime Minister. The signs are already there in the Labour manifesto for the last election, which would have continued the present extremism in most aspects of UK foreign policy, even if it promised some change and still represented a major challenge to the establishment. Again, it will obviously be up to us to change policies, democratize the media and transform British governance more broadly.

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Natalie Nougayrède: a victim of the propaganda system she doesn’t think exists

Natalie Nougayrède: a victim of the propaganda system she doesn’t think exists
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
22 February 2018

Last month Guardian columnist and leader writer Natalie Nougayrède wrote an op-ed examining propaganda in our supposed age of “lies and distortion”.

Focussing on “Russian propaganda” and “Russian meddling” in the West’s political systems, Nougayrède argued “citizens who live in an authoritarian, disinformation-filled environment deal daily with the reality of propaganda in ways we can’t fully experience, because we live outside of it.”

The former executive editor of Le Monde newspaper in France couldn’t be clearer: propaganda is what ‘they’ – Russia and other official enemies – do, not something the West dirties its hands with.

In actual fact, as the academics David Miller and William Dinan argue in their 2007 book A Century of Spin, sophisticated propaganda has played a central role in Western societies, particularly the United States, since the early twentieth century. US dissident Noam Chomsky calls this “thought control in a democratic society”.

As the “father of Public Relations” Edward Bernays explained in his 1928 PR manual: “The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society… it is the intelligent minorities which need to make use of propaganda continuously and systematically.” This echoes the thoughts of another influential intellectual of the period, Walter Lippmann, who believed the elite needed to be protected from the “bewildered herd” – the general public. How? By “the manufacture of consent”.

Indeed the term ‘Public Relations’ is itself a brilliant bit of spin, with Bernays noting: “Propaganda got to be a bad word because of the Germans… using it [in 1914-18]. So what I did was to try to find some other words. So we found the words Council of Public Relations.”

As the quotes from Bernays and Lippmann highlight, Dinan and Miller note “Public Relations was created to thwart and subvert democratic decision making” – to “take the risk of out of democracy”, to paraphrase the title of the seminal 1995 book written by Australian academic Alex Carey.

With the US and UK at the heart of the global advertising and marketing industries, and corporations funding thinktanks and huge lobbying efforts, today the general public face hundreds of thousands of talented professionals spending billions trying to influence their thoughts and actions.

For example, in 2013 The Guardian’s Suzanne Goldenberg reported that between 2002 and 2010 conservative US billionaires had covertly provided $120 million to more than 100 groups casting doubt about the science behind climate change. “Americans are now being exposed to more public relations than even before”, Sue Curry Jensen, professor of media and communication at Muhlenberg College, wrote on The Conversation website last year.

Western governments become especially interested in manipulating public opinion during wartime. In 1990 we had the confected story about Iraqi soldiers in Kuwait throwing babies out of incubators, masterminded by the US PR firm Hill & Knowlton. In the late 1990s Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service carried out Operation Mass Appeal aimed at gaining support for sanctions and war against Iraq. Stories were planted in the foreign media “with the intention that they would then feed back into Britain and the US”, British historian Mark Curtis explained in his book Unpeople: Britain’s Secret Human Rights Abuses. In 2002-3 the British government carried out a long campaign, complete with dossiers, sexed-up intelligence and dirty tricks at the United Nations, to persuade the British public to back the invasion of Iraq – what Curtis calls “a government propaganda campaign of perhaps unprecedented heights in the post-war world”. In 2011 the public was told that NATO’s intervention in Libya was essential to stop Libyan government forces massacring civilians in Benghazi. Five years later the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee’s investigation into the UK’s role in the conflict concluded “the proposition that Muammar Gaddafi would have ordered the massacre of civilians in Benghazi was not supported by the available evidence.”

The military itself is a huge source of propaganda. In 2016 the Mirror newspaper reported the British armed forces employ 122 press officers and spends £41.4 million on press and public relations. Across the pond the Pentagon spends “nearly $600 million annually on public relations” in an attempt “to shape public opinion”, according to Chatham House’s Micah Zenko. It is likely US propaganda is directed at the UK population as well as the American public. For example, in 2010 Wikileaks published a US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) memo proposing how European support for NATO mission in Afghanistan could be sustained. Concerned that “indifference” to the war in nations like France and Germany “might turn into active hostility” the memo recommends “a consistent and iterative strategic communication program across NATO troop contributors”. This will create “a buffer” to future opposition, thus “giving politicians greater scope to support deployments in Afghanistan.”

“Afghan women could serve as ideal messengers in humanizing the ISAF [International Security Assistance Forces] role in combating the Taliban”, the CIA notes. “Outreach initiatives that create media opportunities for Afghan women to share their stories… could help to overcome pervasive scepticism among women in Western Europe toward the ISAF mission.”

Though the liberal view is of a media that is cantankerous and highly critical of power, some basic facts suggest something else is going on. “Research indicates that as much as 75 percent of US news begins as public relations”, Curry Jansen notes. Investigative journalist Nick Davies confirmed similar figures for the UK press in his 2008 book Flat Earth News. In addition, in the US there are now five PR people for every reporter.

More broadly, Chomsky has long noted that mainstream news media play a key role in relaying corporate and government propaganda to the general public. In their book Manufacturing Consent Edward Herman and Chomsky highlight an “observable pattern of indignant campaigns and suppressions, of shading and emphasis, and of selection of context, premises, and general agenda” which “is highly functional for established power and responsive to the needs of the government and major power groups.”

Which brings us back to Nougayrède, who has been spreading fake news and propaganda about the West’s involvement in the Syrian conflict. In August 2015 she wrote in the Guardian that President Obama has “refrained from getting involved in Syria”, noting that “the US has this year found only 60 rebels it could vet for a train-and-equip programme”. In the real world mainstream newspaper reports had already noted the US (and UK) had been working with Saudi Arabia and Qatar to send in hundreds of tons weapons to Syrian rebels. Moreover, in June 2015 the Washington Post estimated that the CIA’s Timber Sycamore programme in Syria — “one of the agency’s largest covert operations” – was spending $1 billion a year and had trained and equipped 10,000 rebels.

Pushing for Western military intervention in July 2015, Nougayrède highlighted what she saw as the hypocrisy of the anti-war left in the West: “there have been no significant street demonstrations against the war that Assad and his allies have waged on Syrian civilians.”

Chomsky explored the laser-like focus many intellectuals had for the crimes of opposite states in his 1992 book Deterring Democracy: “Fame, Fortune and Respect await those who reveal the crimes of official enemies”, he noted, while “those who undertake the vastly more important task of raising a mirror to their own societies can expect quite different treatment.”

There are, of course, very real consequences for those criticising the government in authoritarian states, so it’s understandable why commentators living under oppressive governments might toe the party line. Nougayrède, on the other hand, continues her Western power-friendly crusade against the West’s official enemies freely of her own volition, no doubt thinking she is a questioning, adversarial commentator – a perfect illustration of the power of Western propaganda.

As George Orwell once said, “Circus dogs jump when the trainer cracks the whip, but the really well-trained dog is the one that turns somersaults when there is no whip.”

You can follow Ian Sinclair on Twitter on @IanJSinclair.

‘A Fantastic Foreign Secretary’? William Hague Leaves Office

‘A Fantastic Foreign Secretary’? William Hague Leaves Office
by Ian Sinclair
Huffington Post
21 July 2014

You’ll have heard, of course, of the maxim “Don’t speak ill of the dead”. However, you are probably less familiar with the media’s recent modification to this: “Don’t speak ill of the recently departed Foreign Secretary”.

Over at the Financial Times political commentator Janan Ganesh noted William Hague, who announced he was stepping down as Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs last week, “has hardly erred” since taking over the Foreign Office in 2010. “Nobody disputes his technical competence, his facility with a brief, his easy but authoritative style of management”, explained Ganesh.

The Guardian’s Diplomatic Editor Julian Borger reported that Hague had “suffered early setbacks but emerged at the end of it as a pioneering campaigner in partnership with one of the most glamorous film stars on the planet.” Indeed, Borger devotes over half of his article’s 756 words to Hague’s work with film star Angelina Jolie on sexual violence. And the “early setbacks”? That would be the rumours of Hague having an affair with his assistant and the incident when planes broke down trying to rescue British citizens from Libya.

Perhaps most shocking of all, Zara Taylor-Jackson, UNICEF UK’s Government Relations Manager, tweeted that Hague “has been a fantastic Foreign Secretary. He’s shown remarkable leadership in his efforts to end sexual violence in conflict.”

What these three responses to Hague’s resignation reveal is that propaganda is just as much about what is left out as what is actually stated.

So all three failed to mention that Hague was a key player in the NATO attack on Libya in 2011. The West quickly overstepped the United Nations resolution, escalating the level of violence and number of dead and arguably fanning the flames of conflict into Mali. Today Libya is in a state of perpetual violent crisis, with rival militias fighting over Tripoli’s international airport in the past week.

They also failed to mention Hague’s role in pushing for war in Syria in August 2013, a course of action that would have increased the level of violence and dead, according to such anti-war liberal pinkos as two former NATO Secretary-Generals and Yacoub El Hillo, the highest ranking UN humanitarian official in Syria at the time.

They also failed to mention Hague’s involvement in the continuing US-NATO military occupation of Afghanistan. Last week the United Nations reported civilian casualties in Afghanistan had surged 24 percent in the first half of the year – their highest levels since 2009.

They also failed to mention Hague’s role in standing with Bahrain’s rulers in opposition to democracy and human rights, and how Hague continued the long-standing British policy of supporting the other Gulf autocracies of Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and UAE, overseeing billions of dollars of arms sales to these undemocratic governments.

They also failed to mention that while Hague has been foreign secretary Britain has armed Israel and provided cast-iron support to Israel as it attacks the “prison camp” of Gaza.

And finally they also failed to mention how Hague has given his support to the murderous US ‘war on terror’ and all that entails – drones attacks on seven nations, US special forces operations across the world, extraordinary rendition and the US prisons in Bagram and Guantanamo.

All this is not to single out Hague as especially bad or evil – he is simply fulfilling his role as British Foreign Secretary. If he had thought or acted differently he would never have risen so high in the British political elite. As the historian Mark Curtis explained in his 1995 book The Ambiguities of Power: British Foreign Policy since 1945 “Rather than occasionally deviating from the promotion of peace, democracy, human rights and economic development in the Third World, British foreign policy has been systematically opposed to them, whether the Conservatives or Labour have been in power.”

However, I would argue that writing an assessment of Hague’s time as Foreign Secretary and not mentioning any of these significant global events displays an extraordinary level of internalised establishment-friendly thinking – something huge chunks of the British media seem to excel at. As Curtis said in his 2003 book Web of Deceit: Britain’s Real Role in the World, “The British liberal intelligentsia generally displays its servitude to the powers that be rather than to ordinary people, whether here or abroad.”

 

Did the BBC’s Mark Urban act as an advisor to the US military in Afghanistan?

Did the BBC’s Mark Urban act as an advisor to the US military in Afghanistan?
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
22 September 2017

The myth of the BBC exerts a powerful grip on many liberals and leftists in the UK. The Guardian’s Polly Toynbee recently described the corporation as “the nation’s crucible, upholding an idea of fair reporting in the turmoil of these bitterly divided times”, while in 2015 the National Union of Journalists General Secretary Michelle Stanistreet wrote an article for the Morning Star that argued the BBC “plays a major role in presenting balanced, impartial news coverage.” For BBC Political Editor Laura Kuenssberg it’s a matter of life or death. “I would die in a ditch for the impartiality of the BBC. That’s what we do”, she told the Press Gazette after collecting the prize for Journalist of the Year at the British Journalism Awards last year.

Compare these platitudes with what the first BBC Director-General said at the height of the 1926 General Strike. Considering the tacit understanding that existed between the government of the time and the BBC to give the latter operational autonomy, John Reith noted in in his diary the government “know that they can trust us not to be really impartial.”

The publication of Tom Mills’s book The BBC: Myth Of A Public Service 90 years later suggests little has changed. Surveying the history of the BBC, Mills notes its structure is “profoundly shaped by the interests of powerful groups in British society” which means its news journalism “has overwhelmingly reflected the ideas and interests of elite groups and marginalised alternative and oppositional perspectives.”

The mainstream media’s bias towards established power tends to increase during wartime. Take the BBC’s John Simpson’s whitewashing of the British occupation when British forces officially withdrew in 2014, for example. Afghanistan “is stable, it is working and it doesn’t look as though the Taliban are coming back. I think in the grander view of things you’d have to say it has been pretty successful even though it ought to have been more successful”, Simpson reported on the Today Programme.

The BBC’s usually Western military-friendly coverage resonates with much of the British media’s reporting of Afghanistan. “With few honourable exceptions, in the Afghanistan war the media failed” to “to tell the people what is really going on, as distinct from what the government says is going on; to penetrate propaganda and lies” and “to provoke debate”, according to the late veteran reporter Philip Knightley.

Rarely mentioned during the UK’s direct military occupation of Helmand was the wider historical context for the intervention. Speaking about the war in 2014 Hew Strachan, Professor of the History of War at University of Oxford, was clear: “Quite frankly, what drives British defence policy in the first decade of the 21st century is its alliance with the United States. No government says that openly because it wants to pretend it continues to have an independent defence policy.”

Speaking at an event earlier this month organised by the Royal United Services Institute thinktank the BBC’s Diplomatic Editor Mark Urban highlighted just how serious he was about the cementing the so-called Special Relationship. ‘They [British unit commanders] were lacking in intellectual curiosity. If you told them you had been there when the Russians had been there, there was almost never a follow up question about “Oh, how did they do this?”’, Urban commented about his experiences of reporting on the ground in Afghanistan. ‘Whereas I was contacted by officers from US Marine battalions that were deploying saying “We are doing our study day and we’ve got your [1987] book on the Soviet war in Afghanistan. Can you explain X, Y and Z?” And as a result of which I built relationships with some of these US Marine guys that then resulted in embeds when they were taking over some of these places.’

To summarise, Urban appears to reveal he advised the American military on how to fight better in Afghanistan – a war, we shouldn’t forget, that was deeply unpopular in the UK, involved the military occupation of another country and tens of thousands of conflict deaths. Moreover, through building a friendly relationship with the US military Urban believes he was given embedded reporting posts with American forces.

How, exactly, does this fit with the BBC’s claims to be impartial and independent?

The Rise and Fall of Phil Shiner

The Rise and Fall of Phil Shiner
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News
June-July 2017

On 2 February 2017, Phil Shiner, the award-winning human rights lawyer who brought the UK government to account for the 2003 killing of the Iraqi hotel receptionist Baha Mousa, was struck off by the solicitors disciplinary tribunal (SDT). In March 2017, Shiner, who was also ordered to pay interim costs of £250,000, was declared bankrupt, and was reported to be in poor health.

Shiner and his legal firm, by fighting for victims of the Iraq war, had made enemies of some of the most powerful forces in our society – the government, the military, and the right-wing press. The British military has been on the back foot since the deeply unpopular wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, with its international reputation damaged and recruitment dwindling.

It seems likely that these rattled centres of established power have been hounding Shiner – and have now seized on his professional demise – to drive home their own long-term agenda: to shift national politics back to unquestioning support for the armed forces and an interventionist foreign policy.

Shiner, 60, set up Midlands-based Public Interest Lawyers (PIL) 18 years earlier, gaining plaudits for the company’s environmental work, for winning a landmark battle for equal pay and pensions for Gurkhas, and for acting for veterans suffering from ‘Gulf War Syndrome’.

However, it was the Baha Mousa case which brought Shiner to the public’s attention – and led to him to coming ‘under concerted attack’, Bill Bowring, professor of law at Birkbeck at the University of London, told me. As a result of Shiner’s efforts, it was found that Mousa had died in British custody after sustaining 93 injuries, including fractured ribs and a broken nose.

In 2004, Shiner was named human rights lawyer of the year by the organisations Liberty and Justice for ‘his tremendous skill, tenacity and dedication to fighting for justice’. William A Schabas, professor of international law at Middlesex University, told me: ‘For many years, Phil Shiner was one of the most effective and eloquent voices against impunity for the violations of international law attributable to the government of the United Kingdom and its armed forces.’

Firing squad

It was after the Al-Sweady public inquiry was set up in 2009 that Shiner’s fortunes started to change. The inquiry investigated accusations by PIL and others that British soldiers had murdered and mistreated prisoners following the ‘Battle of Danny Boy’ in Iraq in 2004.

The inquiry concluded in 2014 that a number of prisoners had been abused, and that British troops had breached the Geneva Conventions. However, in relation to murder, the judge stated that the accusations against British soldiers were ‘wholly without foundation and entirely the product of deliberate lies, reckless speculation and ingrained hostility.’

The British defence secretary, Michael Fallon, denounced Shiner for leading the ‘shameful attempt’ to attack the British armed forces. He announced that the solicitors regulation authority (SRA) would be investigating.

Taking his cue from Fallon, in a December 2014 article titled ‘These human rights parasites should be tried for treason’, Richard Littlejohn of the Daily Mail suggested that those falsely accused ‘would be happy to form a firing squad’ to shoot Shiner.

This campaign against Shiner was widely criticised. ‘In sending a dossier to the Solicitors Regulatory [sic] Authority the government is not only trespassing on an important separation of powers’, a March 2015 Guardian editorial argued; ‘it is risking the same over-identification between lawyer and client’ that led to the murder of Irish human rights lawyer Patrick Finucane in 1989.

Indeed, Shiner was receiving multiple death threats. The UK law society and the council of bars and law societies of Europe wrote to the UK government to protest against its political attacks on Shiner.

In absentia

Announcing in February that Shiner had been struck off, the SDT upheld 22 charges of professional misconduct surrounding the Al-Sweady inquiry. This judgement was based on sources including emails, text messages, handwritten notes and witness statements. Shiner, pleading ill health and lack of funds, did not appear – and was not represented – at the trial. According to the SDT, the charges were ‘proven to the criminal standard of proof’.

The Legal Futures blog summarised the charges: ‘authorising unsolicited direct approaches to potential clients; paying prohibited referral fees to, and approving an improper fee-sharing arrangement with, a middleman, Mazin Younis, and later bribing him to change his evidence on how the clients had been identified; misleading the SRA [all these were admitted by Shiner, though he did not admit to the following]; failing to comply with his duty of candour to the court; failing to comply with his duty of full and frank disclosure to the Legal Services Commission; and making improper allegations at a press conference that the British Army had unlawfully killed, tortured and mistreated Iraqi civilians, including his clients.’

‘His misconduct has caused real distress to soldiers, their families and to the families of Iraqi people who thought their loved ones had been murdered or tortured’, stated Paul Philip, the SRA chief executive.

Other than Shiner, I cannot find any journalist or commentator who has questioned the SDT’s findings, though the Leigh Day law firm (see below) has claimed the SRA may have been pressured by the government to bring the case.

Impunity returns

Shiner’s professional disgrace has already had significant repercussions, with Professor Schabas noting it ‘has only emboldened those who proclaim impunity for war crimes and other violations of international law.’

In October 2016, the government announced plans to opt out of the European Convention on Human Rights during future conflicts to block an ‘industry of vexatious claims’ against troops – a move criticised as dangerous by both Liberty and the Law Society.

In February 2017, it was announced that the Iraq historical allegations team (IHAT), the unit investigating claims of abuse by British forces in Iraq, would be shut down. Shiner’s downfall was ‘the beginning of the end for IHAT’, Fallon noted, ‘Now we are taking action to stop such abuse of our legal system from happening again.’

As part of this process, the royal military police are to discontinue investigating 90 percent of the 675 allegations of abuse from Afghanistan, according to the ministry of defence.

The government’s pursuit of Shiner seems to have been a deliberate attempt ‘to chill future claims’, according to the Guardian (3 February 2017).

Professor Bowring agrees: ‘Any lawyers who assist victims of UK government injustice can now expect similar treatment’ to Shiner. He adds: ‘The attacks on Shiner culminating in the latest findings, closure of Public Interest Lawyers, bankruptcy, and criminal prosecution are likely to be the fate of any campaigning lawyers.’

It was reported in April that the law firm Leigh Day is being prosecuted by the SRA because of its conduct during the Al-Sweady inquiry.

Book review: Shadow Wars. The Secret Struggle for the Middle East by Christopher Davidson

Book review: Shadow Wars. The Secret Struggle for the Middle East by Christopher Davidson
by Ian Sinclair
Red Pepper
February-March 2017

Having published the critically-acclaimed After the Sheikhs: The Coming Collapse of the Gulf Monarchies in 2012, with his new book Christopher Davidson has broadened his analysis out to the wider Middle East. For Davidson, a Reader in Politics at Durham University, ‘the primary blame for not only the failure of the Arab Spring, but also the dramatic and well-funded rise of Islamist extremist organizations’ such as al-Qaeda and Islamic State ‘must rest with the long-running policies of successive imperial and “advanced-capitalist” administrations’ – that is, the West.

The 670-page tome (including 120 pages of footnotes) begins with a fascinating survey of the US and UK’s long history of interference around the world, opposed to any independent and democratic forces which might endanger access to natural resources or reduce the West’s geo-political advantage. In the Middle East this often covert counter-revolutionary strategy meant backing monarchs, radical Islamists and other reactionary forces, with the US taking the reins from the fading British Empire in the early 1950s. Davidson’s frequent citing of British historian Mark Curtis and American dissident William Blum hint at his own politics, though Shadow Wars delivers more detail and expertise than either Curtis or Blum. For example, there is an absorbing section about the US and UK’s support for the mujahideen fighting the Soviet Union in 1980s Afghanistan. “The US deliberately chose to back the most dangerous elements of the insurgency”, Davidson notes. The danger of this Machiavellian strategy was obvious, with 9/11 the shocking blowback.

Likely to be provocative to many, Davidson highlights a number of uncomfortable facts in chapters titled ‘Enter the Islamic State – A Phantom Menace’ and, more controversially, ‘The Islamic State – A Strategic Asset’. There is a welcome mention of the formerly classified 2012 US Defence Intelligence Agency report that notes the West wanted a ‘Salafist Principality’ to be established in Eastern Syria. Davidson also highlights how US-UK close allies Saudi Arabia and Qatar have supported the Islamic State – confirmed by Hillary Clinton’s recently leaked emails that show the former US Secretary of State explaining the two Gulf monarchies are providing ‘clandestine financial and logistic support’ to the Islamic State ‘and other radical Sunni groups in the region’. So much for the Clash of Civilizations.

An accessible, though scholarly, tour de force, Shadow Wars is absolutely essential reading for anyone interested in understanding the West’s ongoing and deadly interventions in the Middle East.

Shadow Wars. The Secret Struggle for the Middle East is published by Oneworld Publications, priced £25.

*An edited version of this review appears in Red Pepper

Spotlight on Saudi: interview with Medea Benjamin

Spotlight on Saudi: interview with Medea Benjamin
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News
December 2016-January 2017

Having become one of the most prominent US anti-war activists protesting against the US-led ‘war on terror’, Medea Benjamin, co-founder of the group CODEPINK, has now turned her attention to her nation’s close relationship with Saudi Arabia.

‘I’ve been doing a lot of work around the Middle East conflicts since the 9/11 attacks’, Benjamin, 64, tells me when we met in London during her recent speaking tour of Europe. ‘I realised as the years went by that there was this elephant in the room and it was kind of crazy that the anti-war movement, at least in the United States, was not doing anything on Saudi Arabia’, she says. ‘I just thought how ironic it is that the US is spending at this point trillions of dollars fighting a “war on terrorism”, and yet is arming the country that is the most responsible for the spread of terrorism.’

The outcome is Benjamin’s new book Kingdom of The Unjust: Behind the US-Saudi Connection, which charts the history of US ties to the absolute monarchy. A key moment was the 1945 meeting between US president Franklin D Roosevelt and Saudi king Abdul Aziz ibn Saud to agree US access to the kingdom’s vast oil supplies in return for military support. Since then, ‘one by one, US presidents promised to keep Saudi Islamist theocracy in power’, Benjamin notes in the book.

Buying silence

‘Oil is the foundation of the relationship, but it’s become much more complicated today’, she says, highlighting the ‘mindboggling’ $110bn of US arms sales to Saudi Arabia during the Obama administration. In addition, she notes, the Saudis ‘have invested in the US economy buying hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of US treasury bonds, and investing in Wall Street, investing in real estate’ and have ‘bought silence or complicity by giving millions of dollars to US universities and think-tanks and paid lobbyists’.

‘There is so much intertwining of this relationship that to start peeling away the layers is very important to do’, she believes.

Fearful of growing Iranian influence following the 1979 Iranian Revolution, and buoyed by high oil prices, Saudi Arabia has spent huge sums of money exporting Wahhabism, their extremist version of Islam, across the Middle East. Madrassas (religious schools) and mosques were built and imams and teachers brought to the kingdom to be indoctrinated. ‘It has become such a potent mix and has corrupted the minds of a lot of young people who live in poor countries, who don’t have job opportunities, who are looking for some kind of outlet, something to believe in.’

As part of this mission, the Saudis – collaborating with the US central intelligence agency (CIA) – funnelled weapons to the armed resistance to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, strengthening the most extreme jihadis, out of which came the Taliban and al-Qa’eda.

Benjamin personally experienced the consequences of this policy after the October 2001 US-led invasion of Afghanistan. ‘I was at the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan and I was told there was a rally against the Western invasion of Afghanistan’, she notes. ‘We were two Western women and when we got there we were attacked by the guys there and we had to get out for our lives because they were after us. I had never been in such a situation. I had always been able to talk to people and say: “Hey, I’m an anti-war activist in the US, I don’t like the invasion either.” And people said: “No, you can’t do that here because these are the Saudi-funded madrassas and they are really taught to hate people from the West.”’

The CIA’s role in arming the jihadis in Afghanistan in the 1980s was a covert operation – a cornerstone of the US-Saudi relationship, Benjamin says. ‘When the CIA has wanted to do illegal activities around the world and doesn’t want to go to the US congress, because they want these to be unseen and unheard by the American people, they go to the Saudis to get the funding.’

According to a January 2016 New York Times article, the CIA and Saudi Arabia continue to work closely together, arming the insurgency in Syria since 2013. ‘The US is selling all these weapons to Saudi Arabia; where do these weapons end up?’, she asks. ‘They are being channelled into groups that the Saudis are supporting in Syria, including the al-Qa’eda affiliate in Syria’.

Divest Saudi money

Turning to Saudi Arabia’s military intervention in Yemen, Benjamin quotes the Yemen Data Project, noting that one-third of Saudi airstrikes have struck civilian sites, including hospitals, schools, markets and weddings. ‘They are getting munitions from the West, they are getting the logistical support. The US is even refuelling their planes in the air’, she explains. With the Saudis unable to continue their air campaign without US and UK support, Benjamin believes the peace movements in the US and UK have a great opportunity to exert pressure on the kingdom. How? ‘The number one thing is weapons. Look and see who is providing the weapons, what weapons are they providing, starting to do protests at the headquarters and the production facilities. We are even looking to see where the shipments are going out of and seeing if we could block the shipments.’

She also suggests ‘shaming the political figures who are supporting the weapons sales… doing a divestment campaign to get universities and pension funds to take their money out of the weapons industries that are profiting from Saudi sales’ and ‘looking at the places that received Saudi money, like universities, and asking them to renounce taking Saudi money.’

During our interview in September, Benjamin mistakenly predicted a Hillary Clinton victory in the US presidential election. However, though she says Donald Trump in the White House would be ‘a wild card’, she expects ‘there will be a continuity of the present relationship’ between the US and Saudi Arabia. ‘There is a certain momentum that the military-industrial complex keeps in motion no matter who is in the White House… it’s bigger than one individual.’ She is also hopeful there will ‘be much more of a possibility of building up an anti-war movement like we had under the Bush years’. Presuming a president Clinton, she argued that nobody had any illusions about her ‘being a peace candidate or a peace president, so I don’t think it is going to be so hard to get people to protest her policies.’ This, of course, applies even more so to Trump.

Medea Benjamin is the author of Kingdom of the Unjust: Behind the US-Saudi Connection, OR Books 2016, 246pp, £13.