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Filed under: Bahrain, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Middle East, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Terrorism, UK foreign policy, Uncategorized | 10 Comments
An extract from Secret Affairs on the British plot in the mid-1990s
While Bin Laden was drafting his declaration of jihad in early 1996, British intelligence was plotting with al-Qaida-associated terrorists in Libya to assassinate Colonel Qadafi. Qadafi had long challenged British interests and Western hegemony in the Middle East and Africa. The revolution that brought him to power in September 1969, recognised as ‘popular’ by British planners, overthrew the regime of eighty-year-old pro-British King Idriss, which provided a quarter of Britain’s oil and was home to £100 million worth of British oil investment. The ‘security of oil supplies must be our greatest concern’, one Foreign Office official noted a year after the revolution. However, Qadafi set about removing long-standing US and British military bases, nationalising the oil import and distribution industries and demanding vastly increased revenues from the oil-producing companies. The regime later sealed its fate as a British and US bête noire by espousing an independent militant nationalism and sponsoring various anti-Western regimes, as well as terrorist groups such as the IRA.
Britain and the US have long been accused of involvement in plots to overthrow Qadafi. The most direct attempt was the US bombing of Libya in 1986, conducted ostensibly in response to Libyan sponsorship of a terrorist attack in Germany and believed to have targeted Qadafi personally, but instead killing his adopted daughter. Ten years later, another opportunity occurred when a Libyan military intelligence officer approached MI6 with a plan to overthrow Qadafi, according to former MI5 officer and whistle-blower David Shayler. The Libyan, codenamed ‘Tunworth’, proposed establishing links with the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), an organisation formed in Afghanistan in 1990 from around 500 Libyan jihadists then fighting the Soviet-backed government. One former senior member of the LIFG, Noman Benotman, who first went to Afghanistan as a twenty-two-year old in 1989, later said in an interview that during the Afghan War his mujahideen commander was Jalalludin Haqqani, and that he and fellow militants had benefited from British training programmes:
‘We trained in all types of guerrilla warfare. We trained on weapons, tactics, enemy engagement techniques and survival in hostile environments. All weapons training was with live ammunition, which was available everywhere. Indeed, there were a number of casualties during these training sessions. There were ex-military people amongst the Mujahideen, but no formal state forces participated. We were also trained by the elite units of the Mujahideen who had themselves been trained by Pakistani Special Forces, the CIA and the SAS … We had our own specially designed manuals, but we also made extensive use of manuals from the American and British military.’
After Afghanistan, the LIFG joined the armed struggle in Algeria, fighting alongside the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), with whom it had built up close relations in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The British Home Office later noted that the LIFG’s ‘aim had been to overthrow the Qadafi regime and replace it with an Islamic state’. The US government later described the LIFG as an ‘al-Qaeda affiliate known for engaging in terrorist activity in Libya and cooperating with al-Qaeda worldwide.’ It shared the same aspirations and ideology as al-Qaida, although it never formally joined the organisation, having a more nationalistic stance and preferring to focus on the ‘near enemy’, i.e., the Qadafi regime. Shayler asserts that he was told by David Watson, an MI6 officer, that at Christmas 1995 he had supplied Tunworth with $40,000 to buy weapons to carry out the assassination plot and that similar sums were handed over at two further meetings. A secret MI6 cable dated December 1995 – leaked in 2000 and published on the internet – revealed MI6’s knowledge of an attempt to overthrow Qadafi in a coup led by five Libyan colonels scheduled for February 1996. It provided a detailed schedule of events:
The coup was scheduled to start at around the time of the next General People’s Congress on 14 February 1996. It would begin with attacks on a number of military and security installations including the military installation at Tarhuna. There would also be orchestrated unrest in Benghazi, Misratah and Tripoli. The coup plotters would launch a direct attack on Qadafi and would either arrest him or kill him … The plotters would have cars similar to those in Qadafi’s security entourage with fake security number plates. They would infiltrate themselves into the entourage in order to kill or arrest Qadafi.
The cable also noted that one Libyan officer and twenty military personnel were being trained in the desert for their role in the attack, and that the plotters had already distributed 250 Webley pistols and 500 heavy machine guns among their sympathisers, who were said to number 1,275 people, including students, military personnel and teachers. Messages to these sympathisers ‘were passed via schools and mosques’ while the plotters also had ‘some limited contact with the fundamentalists’ who were ‘a mix of Libya [sic] veterans who served in Afghanistan and Libyan students’. It continued:
‘The coup plotters expected to establish control of Libya at the end of March 1996. They would form an interim government before discussions with tribal leaders. The group would want rapprochement with the West. They hoped to divide the country into smaller areas, each with a governor and a democratically elected parliament. There would be a federal system of national government.’
The plot went ahead in February 1996 in Sirte, Qadafi’s home city, but a bomb was detonated under the wrong car. Six innocent bystanders were killed, and Qadafi escaped unscathed. Shayler recollected how:
‘At a meeting shortly after, [David Watson] ventured to me in a note of triumph that Tunworth had been responsible for the attack. ‘Yes, that was our man. We did it,’ was how he put it. He regarded it, curiously, as a triumph even though the objective of the operation had not been met and reporting indicated that there had been civilian casualties. Despite that, I very much got the impression that this was regarded as a coup for MI6 because it was playing up the reputation that the real James Bonds wanted to have.’
Annie Machon, Shayler’s partner and a former MI5 officer, writes that, by the time MI6 paid over the money to Tunworth, Osama Bin Laden’s organisation was already known to be responsible for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, and MI5 had set up G9C, ‘a section dedicated to the task of defeating Bin Laden and his affiliates’. This is significant in light of Britain’s toleration of Bin Laden’s London base – the Advice and Reformation Committee – which would not be closed down for another two and half years. US intelligence sources later told the Mail on Sunday newspaper that MI6 had indeed been behind the assassination plot and had turned to the LIFG’s leader, Abu Abdullah Sadiq, who was living in London. The head of the assassination team was reported as being the Libya-based Abdal Muhaymeen, a veteran of the Afghan resistance and thus possibly trained by MI6 or the CIA. A spattering of other media investigations confirmed the plot, while a BBC film documentary broadcast in August 1998 was told that the Conservative government ministers then in charge of MI6 gave no authorisation for the operation and that it was solely the work of MI6 officers. All these reports contradicted the earlier claim by now Foreign Secretary Robin Cook that MI6 involvement in the plot was ‘pure fantasy’. Equally, the government’s denial of knowledge of the plot was decisively contradicted by the leaked cable, which showed that civil servants in the permanent secretary’s department, GCHQ, MI5 and the MoD were all aware of the assassination attempt some two months before it was carried out. It is inconceivable that none of them would have informed their ministers. At the same time, Shayler was persistently hounded and prosecuted, the British elite’s usual treatment meted out to insiders divulging information incriminating it.
As the LIFG stepped up its confrontation with the Libyan regime in 1995, it issued calls for Qadafi’s overthrow. One communiqué, written in October 1995, around the time the organisation was plotting with MI6, described the Qadafi government as ‘an apostate regime that has blasphemed against the faith of God Almighty’, and declared that its overthrow was ‘the foremost duty after faith in God’. These calls were mainly issued in London, where several prominent members of the LIFG were based after having been granted political asylum. American political analyst Gary Gambill, a former editor of the Middle East Intelligence Bulletin, notes that Britain accepted the LIFG dissidents since British views of Qadafi were ‘at fever pitch’ over the regime’s alleged involvement in the Lockerbie bombing in 1988; thus ‘Britain allowed LIFG to develop a base of logistical support and fundraising on its soil.’ While the Libyan regime complained that Britain was hosting nationals intent on overthrowing it, Whitehall continued to offer de facto protection to the LIFG. Indeed, it was only in October 2005, after the London bombings on 7/7, that the British government designated the LIFG a terrorist group. This was after Libya’s rapprochement with Britain and the West that began in 2003.
One LIFG member was Anas al-Liby. A computer expert based in Sudan in the mid-1990s, al-Liby had moved there from Afghanistan, where he trained al-Qaida members in surveillance techniques. In 1993 al-Liby travelled to Nairobi and used the apartment of an al-Qaida member to develop surveillance pictures of the US embassy. This was the first step in the five-year plot that culminated in the embassy bombings of August 1998, following which al-Liby was indicted and became one of America’s most wanted fugitives, with a $25 million reward for his capture or killing. In 1995 al-Liby came to Britain and applied for asylum. Soon after, the Egyptian authorities sent a detailed file on his terrorist credentials to Whitehall, including allegations of his involvement in a failed assassination attempt on President Mubarak in Addis Ababa in June 1995. But Cairo’s request for his extradition was refused; British officials reportedly questioned whether he would get a fair trial and feared he could face the death penalty. Yet there is also the strong suspicion that the British security services were protecting al-Liby, along with the LIFG, given that MI6 was collaborating with it to kill Qadafi. Al-Liby was allowed to live in Manchester until May 2000, when his home was raided on orders from the Home Office, acting on a request from the US; copies of jihad training manuals were discovered, but al-Liby had already fled. Other members of the LIFG included Abu Hafs al-Libi, who reputedly lived in Dublin from 1996 until going to Iraq in 2004, where he served as one of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s lieutenants in the al-Qaida group there until his death the same year; and Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, a commander of Bin Laden’s Khalden training camp in Afghanistan.
Significantly, it was the Qadafi regime that in March 1998 urged Interpol to issue the first arrest warrant for Bin Laden. It did so in response to the LIFG’s presumed murder of a German intelligence officer, Silvan Becker, and his wife in Libya in March 1994, some eighteen months before Britain began collaborating with the group. Interpol then issued a red notice on Bin Laden and three of his Libyan associates. Yet, according to two French intelligence experts, Guillaume Dasquié and Jean-Charles Brisard, the British and US intelligence agencies buried the arrest warrant and played down the threat due to MI6’s involvement in the Libyan coup plot. This story was later reported in the Observer under the headline: ‘MI6 “halted bid to arrest bin Laden”’. It was five months after the issuance of the arrest warrant that the US embassies in East Africa were bombed; perhaps if governments, including Britain’s, had acted then, the bombings could have been averted.
The episode is interesting in that it shows how Britain’s secret collusion with radical Islamists has directly undermined its ability to curb and prosecute them – a leitmotif, in fact, of Britain’s postwar foreign policy where Whitehall has often collaborated with the very groups to which it claims to be opposed. Indeed, the extent of this collaboration has been so extensive that many open public trials of the leading terrorist figures are likely to expose it, a fact which also applies to the Saudi, Pakistani and US governments. This partly explains London’s and Washington’s overt opposition to pursuing open legal processes for terrorist suspects – and, most notably, Camp Delta at Guantanamo Bay, where suspected militants have been incarcerated and interrogated behind closed doors.
Filed under: Libya | 5 Comments
Article in the Guardian, 19 February 2011
Five years after Britain first deployed forces to Helmand province in Afghanistan, it is emerging that British and US policies in the country are not helping, but setting back, development prospects.
Although more children now go to school and health services have improved, it is remarkable how little Afghanistan has progressed given that it is the world’s most aid-dependent country, with 90% of its budget financed by donors. One in five children dies before the age of five and one in eight women dies from causes related to pregnancy and childbirth. There are few signs that donor support is improving. Hundreds of millions of dollars are wasted while up to 80% of donations return to donor countries in corporate profits or consultants’ salaries.
Aid itself has become militarised. Nato’s use of the military to deliver much of the aid – essentially as part of its counterinsurgency strategy – turns aid personnel and projects into targets for the insurgents. It doesn’t help that CIA agents also use aid teams as cover to gather intelligence. The UN agency Unicef has reported that military operations are making more than 40% of the country inaccessible to humanitarian workers for extended periods. Thus military operations, far from paving the way for development, are undermining it.
The UN security council says that 25 times as many Afghans die every year from under-nutrition and poverty as from the war; yet Britain has spent 10 times more on military operations than on development (for the US, it is 20 times as much). Afghanistan has become the most militarised country on Earth, where the government spends nearly half its entire budget on “security”. Already awash with guns, Britain exported £34m worth of military equipment to Afghanistan, including more than 18,000 assault rifles, between 2008 and 2010.
From 2004 to 2009, the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development, using aid money, spent £69m on the “shadow army” of private military companies providing “security” and “combat support” to regular forces. These companies have considerable immunity from criminal prosecution, but the British government has refused to ban or even regulate them.
Nato has also spent hundreds of millions of dollars recruiting and arming more than 1,000 illegal “Armed Support Groups” to provide security at bases and escort convoys – militias often run by former military commanders responsible for human rights abuses or involved in the drugs trade. Alongside them are thousands of CIA-backed paramilitaries, working closely with US special forces, some of whom are accused of being little more than death squads.
A reduction in the number of civilian deaths would be the one sign of progress, yet the number has increased every year since 2006, and a third of the nearly 10,000 total are attributable to Nato or Afghan government forces. A confidential US military report in 2009 conceded that Nato was causing “unnecessary collateral damage”; but policies causing civilian deaths continue, notably the use of “drones” for surveillance and “targeted” killings – though they mainly kill civilians.
It is not just the Taliban, but also our own forces who are holding back the prospects for the next generation of Afghans. Yet our leaders keep troops there. As the defence secretary, Liam Fox, said recently, this is because a withdrawal of troops would “damage the credibility of Nato”. Similarly, the chief of the general staff, General David Richards, told Chatham House in 2009 that a key issue was the “grand strategic impact on the UK’s authority and reputation in the world of the defeat of the British armed forces and its impact on public sentiment in the UK”. The British exit is being delayed by British imperial hubris.
Helping Afghanistan develop means not only facing up to a withdrawal of troops. There is also an even more immediate need to stop the drone attacks, end the backing of militias, regulate the private armies, close the secret torture network and stop selling arms.
Filed under: Afghanistan | 1 Comment
Afghanistan is the UK government’s “most important” foreign policy and national security issue, according to Prime Minister David Cameron. The current war in Afghanistan has now entered its 10th year, longer than both the First World War and Second World War combined. According to the latest timetable for withdrawal, British combat forces could still remain in the country for a further four years. Over 1,450 US service personnel and 340 British personnel have been killed in Afghanistan to date. The most recent year, 2010, was the bloodiest for foreign troops, with 711 killed compared with 521 during 2009.
Afghanistan has borne the brunt of decades of foreign intervention and conflict, and as a result is now one of the poorest countries in the world. For ordinary Afghans, the situation resulting from the war is terrible. Thousands of civilians have been killed and injured since 2001, human rights are deteriorating and millions of Afghans rely on food aid to avoid starvation. The impact of military intervention can be seen in figures from the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, which reveal that one in four of all refugees the agency deals with worldwide comes from Afghanistan.
The Afghan government remains mired in corruption and unwilling or unable to satisfy people’s basic needs. Meanwhile, the USA and Britain are turning Afghanistan into one of the most militarised countries in the world, while privatising the economy and outsourcing warfare to private armies and militias. The combined effect of these actions is to undermine any development prospects for the next generation.
The USA has spent over $223 billion on the war since 2001, while Britain has spent over £11 billion. At a time of economic crisis, with massive cuts being planned across the public sector in the UK, more and more people are questioning why NATO member countries are spending such sums fighting an unwinnable war in Afghanistan, and what they hope to achieve…
Filed under: Afghanistan | 1 Comment
An edited extract from Mark Curtis’ latest book, Secret Affairs: Britain’s Collusion with Radical Islam (Serpent’s Tail, 2010)
The Second World War witnessed the continuing growth of the Muslim Brotherhood, which developed under Hassan al-Banna’s leadership into an Islamist mass movement. It had become the largest Islamic society in Egypt and had set up affiliates in Sudan, Jordan, Syria, Palestine and North Africa. Aiming to establish an Islamic state under the slogan ‘The Koran is our constitution’, the Brotherhood preached strict observance of the tenets of Islam and offered a religious alternative to both the secular nationalist movements and communist parties in Egypt and the Middle East – forces which were becoming the two major challengers to British, and US, power in the region.
Britain had regarded Egypt as a linchpin of its position in the Middle East ever since it declared a ‘protectorate’ over the country at the beginning of the First World War. British firms dominated foreign investment and the commercial life of the country, while the British military base in the Suez Canal Zone had become the largest in the world by the time of the Second World War. British dominance of the country was, however, increasingly challenged both by a growing nationalist movement and by the religious forces of the Muslim Brotherhood, while London’s ultimate ally in the country was its ruler, King Farouk, who assumed the throne in 1936.
The Brotherhood had called for jihad against Jews in the 1936–9 Arab Revolt in Palestine, and had sent volunteers there after an appeal from the mufti; it had also been assisted by German officers in constructing its military wing. The organisation regarded the British as imperialist oppressors in Egypt, and agitated against the British military occupation of the country, especially after the Palestine rebellion. During the early years of the Second World War, British strategy towards the Brotherhood in Egypt mainly involved attempts to suppress it. Yet at this time the Brotherhood, which was allied to the political right, also enjoyed the patronage of the pro-British Egyptian monarchy, which had begun to fund the Brotherhood in 1940. King Farouk saw the Brothers as a useful counter to the power of the major political party in the country – the secular, nationalist Wafd Party – and the communists. A British intelligence report of 1942 noted that ‘the Palace had begun to find the Ikhwan useful and has thrown its aegis over them.’ During this time, many Islamic societies in Egypt were sponsored by the authorities to oppose rivals or enhance the interests of the British, the palace or other influential groups.
The first known direct contact between British officials and the Brotherhood came in 1941, at a time when British intelligence regarded the organisation’s mass following and sabotage plans against the British as ‘the most serious danger to public security’ in Egypt. That year al-Banna had been jailed by the Egyptian authorities acting under British pressure, but it was on his release later the same year that the British made contact with the Brotherhood. According to some accounts, British officials offered to aid the organisation, to ‘purchase’ its support. Theories abound as to whether al-Banna took up or rejected the offer of British support, but considering the relative quiet of the Brotherhood for some time after this period, it is possible that British aid was accepted.
By 1942 Britain had definitely begun to finance the Brotherhood. On 18 May British embassy officials held a meeting with Egyptian Prime Minister Amin Osman Pacha, in which relations with the Muslim Brotherhood were discussed and a number of points were agreed. One was that ‘subsidies from the Wafd [Party] to the Ikhwani el Muslimin [Muslim Brotherhood] would be discreetly paid by the [Egyptian] government and they would require some financial assistance in this matter from the [British] Embassy.’ In addition, the Egyptian government ‘would introduce reliable agents into the Ikhwani to keep a close watch on activities and would let us [the British embassy] have the information obtained from such agents. We, for our part, would keep the government in touch with information obtained from British sources.’
It was also agreed that ‘an effort would be made to create a schism in the party by exploiting any differences which might occur between Hassan al-Banna and Ahmed Sukkari,’ the two leaders. The British would also hand over to the government a list of Brotherhood members they regarded as dangerous, but there would be no aggressive moves against the organisation. Rather, the strategy decided upon was that of ‘killing by kindness’. Al-Banna would be allowed to start a newspaper and publish articles ‘supporting democratic principles’ – this would be a good way of, as one of the attendants put it, ‘helping to disintegrate the Ikhwani’.
The meeting also discussed how the Brotherhood was forming ‘sabotage organisations’ and spying on behalf of the Nazis. It was described as ‘a narrow religious and obscurantist organisation’, but one which ‘could bring out shock troops in a time of disturbance’, including ‘suicide squads’. With an estimated 100–200,000 supporters, the Brotherhood was ‘implicitly anti-European and in particular anti-British, on account of our exceptional position in Egypt’; it therefore ‘hoped for an Axis victory, which they imagined would make them the dominant political influence in Egypt.’
By 1944, Britain’s Political Intelligence Committee was describing the Brotherhood as a potential danger, but with a weak leadership: al-Banna, it felt, was the ‘only outstanding personality’, without whom ‘it might easily crumble away’. This rather dismissive analysis of the Brotherhood would be revised in the years to come, as the British cultivated and collaborated with it in the face of growing anti-colonialism in Egypt.
Thus, by the end of the Second World War Britain already had considerable experience of colluding with Muslim forces to achieve certain objectives, while officials also realised that these same forces were generally opposed to British imperial policy and strategic objectives: they were temporary, ad hoc collaborators to achieve specific goals when Britain lacked other allies or sufficient power of its own to impose its priorities. This policy of British expediency would significantly deepen in the postwar world as the need for collaborators increased in a much more challenging global environment.
After the end of the Second World War, the Brotherhood was one of two mass-based political parties in Egypt, alongside the Wafd Party of moderate nationalists, and King Farouk continued to find the Brotherhood useful as a bulwark against radical economic and social ideas. The Brotherhood is known to have passed information to the government to help in its continual round-ups of real and suspected communists, especially in the unions and universities. It was, however, always an uneasy co-existence amidst increasing opposition to the British presence and a stream of violence which shook Egypt after 1945.
Confrontation soon escalated between the Brotherhood – bent on expelling the foreign ‘occupier’ and ultimately seeking the establishment of an Islamic state – and the British and the palace. In the Suez Canal Zone, bomb attacks against British troops were common, and the authorities regularly claimed to have uncovered Brotherhood arms caches. The Brothers also attempted various assassinations: between 1945 and 1948, two prime ministers, the chief of police and a Cabinet minister were among those who died at their hands. In December 1948, following the authorities’ alleged discovery of Brotherhood arms caches and a plot to overthrow the regime, the organisation was dissolved, a decision the British had apparently requested the Egyptian government to take in order to clamp down on their anti-British activities. Three weeks later, Prime Minister Mahmud al-Nuqrashi, who had given the dissolution order, was assassinated by a member of the Muslim Brotherhood’s ‘secret apparatus’, its paramilitary, and terrorist, unit that carried out bomb attacks against the British in the canal zone.
By January 1949, the British embassy in Cairo was reporting that King Farouk ‘is going all out to crush’ the Brotherhood, with a recent sweep rounding up and arresting over 100 members. The following month Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna himself was assassinated. Although the killer was never found, it was widely believed that the murder had been carried out by members of the political police, and either condoned or planned by the palace. An MI6 report was unequivocal, stating that:
The murder was inspired by the government, with Palace approval … It was decided that Hassan el Banna should be eliminated from the scene of his activities in this way since, so long as he was at liberty, he was likely to prove an embarrassment to the government, whereas his arrest would almost certainly have led to further troubles with his followers, who would have no doubt regarded him as a martyr to their cause.
Yet the alibis were already being spun. Three days after the murder, the British ambassador, Sir Ronald Campbell, met King Farouk and recorded that ‘I said I thought the murder might have been done by Hassan al-Banna’s own extreme followers out of fear or suspicion that he was giving things away’. King Farouk, for his part, also concocted a tale of responsibility lying with the ‘Saadists’ (a breakaway group from the Wafd Party, named after Saad Zaghoul, a former party leader and prime minister). Britain’s senior diplomat in Egypt was clearly conniving with al-Banna’s murderers to cover it up.
In October 1951, the Brotherhood elected as its new leader the former judge, Hassan al-Hodeibi, a figure not publicly associated with terrorism, who made known his opposition to the violence of 1945–9. Hodeibi was unable, however, to assert his control over the organisation’s sometimes competing factions. The Brotherhood renewed its call for a jihad against the British, calling for attacks on Britons and their property, organised demonstrations against the occupation and tried to push the Egyptian government to declare a state of war with Britain. A British embassy report from Cairo in late 1951 stated that the Brotherhood ‘possess[es] a terrorist organisation of long-standing which has never been broken by police action’, despite the recent arrests. However, the report otherwise downplayed the Brothers’ intentions towards the British, stating that they were ‘planning to send terrorists into the Canal Zone’ but ‘they do not intend to put their organisation as such into action against His Majesty’s forces’. Another report noted that although the Brotherhood had been responsible for some attacks against the British, this was probably due to ‘indiscipline’, and it ‘appears to conflict with the policy of the leaders’.
At the same time, in December 1951, the files show that British officials were trying to arrange a direct meeting with Hodeibi. Several meetings were held with one of his advisers, one Farkhani Bey, about whom little is known, although he was apparently not himself a member of the Brotherhood. The indications from the declassified British files are that Brotherhood leaders, despite their public calls for attacks on the British, were perfectly prepared to meet them in private. By this time, the Egyptian government was offering Hodeibi ‘enormous bribes’ to keep the Brotherhood from engaging in further violence against the regime, according to the Foreign Office.
Then, in July 1952, a group of young nationalist army officers committed to overthrowing the Egyptian monarchy and its British advisers seized power in a coup, and proclaimed themselves the Council for the Revolutionary Command (CRC), with General Muhammad Naguib as chairman and Colonel Gamal Abdal Nasser as vice-chairman. The so-called ‘Free Officers’ removed the pro-British Farouk and swept aside the old guard, promising an independent foreign policy and widespread internal change, notably land reform. A conflict between Naguib and Nasser gradually led to Naguib’s deposition in late 1954 and Nasser’s assumption of full power. The Muslim Brotherhood, pleased to see the back of the King’s pro-Western regime, initially supported the coup, and indeed had direct links with the Free Officers. One of them, Anwar Sadat, later described his role as the pre-coup intermediary between the Free Officers and Hassan al-Banna. ‘He was clearly one of the Free Officers on whose association with them the Brethren counted to help further their political aims,’ Britain’s ambassador to Cairo, Sir Richard Beaumont, later wrote, after Sadat had succeeded Nasser as president in 1970. The Brotherhood leant the revolutionary leaders important domestic support, and good relations were maintained for the rest of 1952 and throughout most of the following year.
In early 1953, British officials met directly with Hodeibi, ostensibly to sound him out on his position regarding the forthcoming negotiations between Britain and the new Egyptian government on the evacuation of British military forces from Egypt; the twenty-year agreement signed in 1936 was shortly due to expire. Since some of the British files remain censored, it is not known precisely what transpired at these meetings, but Richard Mitchell, the principal Western analyst of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, has documented what the various parties – the British, the Egyptian government and the Brotherhood – subsequently said about them. Mitchell concludes that the Brotherhood’s entrance into these negotiations was at the request of the British and presented difficulties for the Egyptian government negotiators, providing ‘leverage for the British side’. The British, in seeking out the views of the Muslim Brothers, were in effect recognising their voice in the affairs of the nation, and Hodeibi, in agreeing to the talks, was perpetuating that notion and thus weakening the hand of the government. The Nasser regime condemned the meetings between the British and the Brotherhood as ‘secret negotiations … behind the back of the revolution’, and publicly accused British officials of conniving with the Brothers. They also charged Hodeibi with having accepted certain conditions for the British evacuation from Egypt which tied the hands of government negotiators.
From the limited information available, British strategy appears to be traditional divide and rule, aimed at gaining ‘leverage’ over the new regime in pursuit of its own interests. The British cultivation of the Brotherhood could only heighten tensions between the regime and the Brotherhood and strengthen the latter’s position. Internal British memos indicate that British officials told Nasser about some of their meetings with Hodeibi and other members of the Brotherhood, naturally assuring him that London was doing nothing underhand. However, the very fact that they were taking place surely instilled doubt in Nasser’s mind over the trustworthiness of the Brotherhood. At this time, British officials believed that the Brotherhood and its paramilitary groups were ‘at the disposal of the military authorities’ and that the Brotherhood wanted to make the regime pay some kind of price for its support for it, such as introducing an ‘Islamic constitution’.
The files also contain a note of a meeting between British and Brotherhood officials on 7 February 1953, in which an individual by the name of Abu Ruqayak told the British embassy’s oriental counsellor, Trefor Evans, that ‘if Egypt searched throughout the world for a friend she would find none other than Britain’. The British embassy in Cairo interpreted this comment as showing ‘the existence of a group within the Brotherhood’s leaders who were prepared to cooperate with Britain, even if not with the West (they distrusted American influence).’ One handwritten note on this part of the embassy’s memo reads: ‘The deduction … seems justified and is surprising.’ The memo also notes that the willingness to cooperate ‘probably stems from the increasing middle class influence in the Brotherhood, compared with the predominantly popular leadership of the movement in the days of Hassan al-Banna.’
The apparent willingness of the British and the Brotherhood to cooperate with each other would become more important by late 1953, by which time the Nasser regime was accusing the Brotherhood of resisting land reforms and subverting the army though its ‘secret apparatus’. In January 1954, government and Brotherhood supporters clashed at Cairo University; dozens of people were injured and an army jeep was burned. This prompted Nasser to dissolve the organisation. Among the long list of accusations against the Brotherhood in the dissolution decree were the meetings the Brotherhood had held with the British, which the regime later elevated to amounting to a ‘secret treaty’.
In October 1954, by which time the Brotherhood was seeking to promote a popular uprising, its ‘secret apparatus’ attempted to assassinate Nasser while he was giving a speech in Alexandria. Subsequently, hundreds of Brotherhood members were arrested and many tortured, while those who escaped went into foreign exile. In December, six Brothers were hanged. The organisation had been effectively crushed. One of those arrested, and horribly tortured, was Sayyid Qutb, a member of the Brotherhood’s Guidance Council, who was sentenced to twenty-five years hard labour, and who would by the 1960s become one of radical Islam’s leading theorists, writing from Nasser’s jails.
After the failed assassination attempt against Nasser, Prime Minister Winston Churchill sent a personal message to him saying: ‘I congratulate you on your escape from the dastardly attack made on your life at Alexandria yesterday evening.’ Soon, however, the British were again conspiring with the same people to achieve the same end.
Three years into the new regime, Nasser’s domestic reforms included widespread land redistribution benefiting the rural poor, and moves towards enshrining a constitutional form of government to replace arbitrary rule. In July 1955, the outgoing British ambassador to Cairo, Sir Ralph Stevenson, noted that the regime was ‘as good as any previous Egyptian government since 1922 and in one respect better than any, in that it is trying to do something for the people of Egypt rather than merely talk about it.’ Stevenson argued to Harold Macmillan, foreign secretary in Anthony Eden’s new government, that ‘they [the Egyptian leaders] deserve, in my view, all the help that Great Britain can properly give them’. Nine months after this memo was written, the British decided to remove Nasser.
The British and Americans were by now involved in a variety of coup plots against Syria and Saudi Arabia, as well as Egypt, as part of a much bigger planned reorganisation of the Middle East to counter the ‘virus of Arab nationalism’. According to a top secret Foreign Office memo, US President Eisenhower described to the British the need for ‘“a high class Machiavellian plan to achieve a situation in the Middle East favourable to our interests” which could split the Arabs and defeat the aims of our enemies’.
In March 1956 Jordan’s King Hussein removed the British General John Bagot Glubb as commander of the Arab Legion, a move which Eden and some British officials put down to Nasser’s influence. It was then that the British government concluded that it could no longer work with Nasser and that serious British and US planning to overthrow the regime began; Eden told his new foreign secretary, Anthony Nutting, that he wanted Nasser ‘murdered’. This was before the latter’s decision to nationalise the Suez Canal in July 1956, an act which ‘would inevitably lead to the loss one by one of all our interests and assets in the Middle East,’ Eden explained in his memoirs, fearing the possible domino effect of Egypt’s action. ‘If we allowed Nasser to get away with his Suez Canal coup the consequence would be to put an end … to the monarchy in Saudi Arabia,’ explained the permanent under-secretary at the Foreign Office, Ivone Kirkpatrick, fearing that nationalist forces there would be inspired by Nasser’s successful defiance of the West in Egypt.
Many British files on the ‘Suez crisis’ remain censored but some information has crept out over the years on the various British attempts to overthrow or murder Nasser. At least one of these plans involved conniving with the Muslim Brotherhood. Stephen Dorril notes that the former Special Operations Executive agent and Conservative MP, Neil ‘Billy’ McLean, the secretary of the ‘Suez group’ of MPs, Julian Amery, and the head of the MI6 station in Geneva, Norman Darbyshire, all made contact with the Brotherhood in Switzerland around this time as part of their clandestine links with the opposition to Nasser. Further details about these Geneva meetings have never emerged, but they may well have involved an assassination attempt or the construction of a government-in-exile to replace Nasser after the Suez War. In September 1956, Ivone Kirkpatrick was in contact with Saudi officials in Geneva who told him of ‘considerable underground opposition to Nasser there’; indeed, his fear was that Nasser’s take-over of the Suez Canal would ‘put an end to the Egyptian resistance’, likely to mean the Muslim Brotherhood.
Certainly, British officials were carefully monitoring the anti-regime activities of the Brotherhood, and recognised it as capable of mounting a serious challenge to Nasser. There is also evidence that the British had contacts with the organisation in late 1955, when some Brothers visited King Farouk, now in exile in Italy, to explore cooperation against Nasser. King Hussein’s regime in Jordan gave Brotherhood leaders diplomatic passports to facilitate their movements to organise against Nasser, while Saudi Arabia provided funding. The CIA also approved Saudi Arabia’s funding of the Muslim Brotherhood to act against Nasser, according to former CIA officer, Robert Baer.
In August 1956, the Egyptian authorities uncovered a British spy ring in the country and arrested four Britons, including James Swinburn, the business manager of the Arab News Agency, the MI6 front based in Cairo. Two British diplomats involved in intelligence-gathering were also expelled. They had, as Dorril notes, apparently been in contact with ‘student elements of a religious inclination’ with the idea of ‘encouraging fundamentalist riots that could provide an excuse for military intervention to protect European lives’.
In October, Britain, in a secret alliance with France and Israel, launched an invasion of Egypt to overthrow Nasser, but was stopped largely by the US refusal to support the intervention. The invasion was undertaken in the British knowledge that the Muslim Brotherhood might become the primary beneficiary and form a post-Nasser government; memos indicate that British officials believed this scenario a ‘possibility’ or ‘likely’. Yet, in an echo of their assessment of Kashani’s potential as a leader in Iran, British officials feared that a Muslim Brotherhood takeover would produce ‘a still more extreme form of government’ in Egypt. Again, this did not stop them using these forces.
A few months after the British defeat by Nasser, in early 1957, Trefor Evans, the official who led the British contacts with the Brotherhood four years earlier, was writing memos recommending that ‘the disappearance of the Nasser regime … should be our main objective’. Other officials noted that the Brotherhood remained active against Nasser both inside and outside Egypt, especially in Jordan, from where a ‘vigorous campaign of propaganda’ was being mounted. These memoranda suggest that Britain would continue to use these forces in the near future – and indeed they would.
For references, see Chapters 1 and 3 of Secret Affairs: Britain’s Collusion with Radical Islam
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Mark Curtis’s new book was published on 1 July 2010
Read The Guardian‘s coverage of the book, 6 July 2010, here
Read Mark Curtis’s Guardian article, 6 July 2010, here
Read reviews here (Independent), here (Metro), here (New Humanist) here (Asharq al-Awsat, in Arabic) here (Al-Masry Al-Youm, in Arabic) here (Morning Star) here (Tribune) here (Socialist Review) here (History Today) here (GreenLeft) here (New Statesman) here (Executive Magazine) here (New Internationalist)
Read an online interview about the book here
Mark Curtis’ new book recounts the history of British collusion with radical Islamic and terrorist groups
“Startling and deeply disturbing evidence about how, in an effort to preserve declining influence in the world’s oil-producing regions, the government has lent frequent and critical support to the states that have been the primary sponsors of radical Islam and the terrorism that it spawns...’
“Sensational in the best sense, Secret Affairs examines the darkest corners of the imperial past to reveal the truth behind today’s news.”
“This valuable and important book presents a far more accurate and balanced picture than the shallow simplicities fed by Bush’s so-called war on terror.”
About Secret Affairs:
In his ground-breaking new book, Mark Curtis reveals the secret history of British collusion with radical Islamic and terrorist groups. It shows how Labour and Conservative governments have connived with militant groups linked to al-Qaida to control oil resources, overthrow governments and promote Britain’s financial interests. The current terrorist threat to Britain is partly ‘blowback’.
The story of how Britain has helped to nurture the rise of global terrorism has never been told. Secret Affairs reveals how Britain has covertly supported radical Islamic groups in Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Libya, the Balkans, Syria, Indonesia and Egypt. Drawing on declassified government files, it documents Britain’s hidden strategic alliance with the two major state sponsors of radical Islam – Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. And it shows how British policies of ‘divide of rule’ – rooted in the Empire – have used Islamic forces to promote imperial interests in India, Palestine, Jordan and Yemen. Similar British policies continue today in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Mark Curtis shows how British collusion with radical Islam is intimately related to its postwar imperial decline. Expedient and pragmatic, and lacking any moral compass, policy-makers have aimed to counter popular, nationalist forces in a desperate attempt to uphold their power in a changing world.
Filed under: Afghanistan, Africa, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Middle East, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Terrorism, UK foreign policy, Yemen | 8 Comments
Cabinet Office, Steering Committee, “British Obligations Overseas”, 14 April 58, Secret
“The last fifty years have seen a drastic diminution in our world status…Our trading position has suffered a relative decline; we no longer have a virtual monopoly of the industrial export markets, and our balance of payments has worsened accordingly. Two world wars have sapped the UK’s economic strength and also, to some extent, our will to dominate events”.
“In Europe…the security of the UK is paramount; in the Middle East, access to oil; in other parts of the world, the maintenance and promotion of the UK’s trading position. This should not be taken to imply that every obligation in, say, the Middle East, must be subordinated to one major interest there and assessed only by its contribution to it. The UK’s membership of the Baghdad Pact, for example, serves other aims besides protecting our access to oil, and could not perhaps be justified by this criterion alone. But access to oil is nevertheless an overriding consideration in the sense that our membership of the Pact must be compatible with it or, at least, not militate against it, and it seems realistic to measure the value of all our obligations in the Middle East in this way. Similar considerations apply to other areas”.
“In the last analysis, all parts of the world are not equally important to the aims of the UK and in some parts the main burden must fall upon the United States. Most of the Far East and Latin America, though not without importance to us, come into this category. These areas are those in which most of our interests are general, eg the containment of Communism and the maintenance of conditions in which trade can be carried on, rather than specific, eg, the defence of UK colonies. We can therefore afford to leave them to the US, whose resources are great enough to manage them… At the other end of the scale come Europe and the Middle East, where the UK has specific interests, home defence and access to oil… In between come South and South-East Asia and Africa, in which the UK has specific interests which she cannot afford to abandon or transfer to another power, but which are not immediately threatened or directly of such vital importance as those in Europe and the Middle East”.
“The basic task which confronts the United Kingdom in the Middle East is thus to pass smoothly from the previous patron-client relationship, suitable to our former strategic needs, to a new and more equally balanced commercial relationship which will preserve for as long as possible the continued supply of oil as a mutually advantageous basis of trade… in the most advanced countries, the problem is to convince the newly-arisen ruling classes that their interests lie with and their independence is not threatened by cooperation with us [sic]; in the most backward, to continue to support the present regimes without irrevocably associating ourselves with them in the eyes of the people who will one day supplant them, and with whom we must then be in a position to do business”.
Source: National Archives, T234 / 768
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