This is an edited extract from Secret Affairs: Britain’s Collusion with Radical Islam
After 9/11, Pakistan appeared to withdraw its support for the Taliban in Afghanistan, and instead backed the Anglo–American war which destroyed the regime along with the al-Qaida bases in the country. General Pervez Musharraf’s military regime, which had taken power in a military coup in October 1999, was now seen in London and Washington as the frontline in the War on Terror. British leaders proceeded to shower praise on Musharraf for his ‘strong position’ on international terrorism and for being a ‘staunch ally’ and ‘key partner’. The Blair government’s backing of Pakistan in the face of the Taliban enemy recalled the Thatcher government’s alliance with another Pakistani military ruler, General Zia ul-Huq, in their covert war in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Both Blair and Thatcher accepted at face value Zia’s and Musharraf’s pledges to return Pakistan to democracy while they merely kept themselves in power. And both Blair and Thatcher saw the Pakistani military rulers as pro-Western forces of stability in their region, claiming they were the opponents of terrorism.
The reality was that Musharraf’s regime, which lasted until the general finally resigned in August 2008 under threat of impeachment, largely empowered the radical Islamic forces in Pakistan while undermining the secular, nationalist parties – a repeat of Zia’s rule. Although the regime tried to fight foreign al-Qaida militants in the Pakistan–Afghanistan border areas at US behest, it backed or tolerated the domestic Pakistani terrorist groups in order to promote Islamabad’s long-standing goal of ‘liberating’ Indian Kashmir. Neither did Musharraf really end Pakistan’s support for the Taliban, as we see later. London’s backing of Musharraf showed again how Whitehall was prepared, in the post 9/11 world, to collude with forces allied to radical Islam. Britain’s Pakistan policy had severe consequences, contributing to the London bombings in July 2005 and to the threat of terrorism currently faced by Britain.
From October 1999 to 7/7
In the first few months following Musharraf’s coup ousting elected Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, British ministers were sometimes critical of the new military regime, but soon reverted to type. Foreign Secretary Robin Cook said within a month of the takeover that ‘we cannot do business as normal with a military regime’ and that it was ‘important … that the international community does not provide any signal that it is willing to condone the military overthrow of a constitutional government.’ The British served notice to Pakistan that arms exports were being reviewed on a ‘case by case basis’, and for a while no exports were approved to Pakistan, although no formal arms embargo was put in place. This policy lasted for precisely eight months: in June 2000 the government started approving arms exports to Islamabad again, engaging in business as normal with the military regime.
The government saw Pakistan under Musharraf partly as an important market for arms exports, a policy that would not have been hindered by Musharraf’s long-standing relationship with Britain, including his two spells of military training in Britain before he became head of the army – evidence of the British policy of cultivating future leaders. By the end of 2000, Britain had issued 88 arms export licences to Pakistan worth £6 million. British military training continued as normal during the eight-month arms export review: government figures show that there were 36 Pakistani military officers undergoing training in Britain in 2000 and 49 in 2001. The Guardian reported that an SAS unit had been training in the mountains of Pakistan for several years. This was all before 9/11, and before Musharraf’s public declaration of support for the War on Terror, at a time when Pakistan was still the major provider of arms and other support to the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.
After 9/11, military relations deepened. By February 2002, Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon was saying that Britain was ‘taking appropriate steps to restore our defence relationship’ with Pakistan, which involved all three armed services conducting ‘military visits, Pakistani access to United Kingdom military training opportunities, participation in bilateral exercises and visits by senior military and civilian defence officials.’ When tension mounted between Pakistan and India in early 2002 over Kashmir, raising international fears of a nuclear confrontation, British arms continued to flow to both Pakistan and India. In the eight months up to May 2002, Britain issued 125 arms export licences to Pakistan, while approving nearly 500 to India.
When Jack Straw, who had succeeded Robin Cook as foreign secretary, was cursorily challenged about British arms sales in parliament, he replied that: ‘Some of the supplies that I have approved in the past, such as de-mining equipment, have been extremely benign, albeit that they are classified as arms sales.’ This was highly misleading – the government’s own reports show that Britain was providing a range of equipment that could have aided Pakistani offensive operations, including small arms ammunition and components for both combat aircraft and combat helicopters. Straw also said at this time that ‘to the best of my recollection … I have neither seen nor approved any arms control licence in respect of India or Pakistan in the past two months.’ Straw’s memory was clearly deficient: government figures released to parliament showed that twenty-three arms export licences had been approved to Pakistan in April and May 2002. By 2007, Britain had sold around £130 million worth of arms to Pakistan since the military coup.
British and US support of Musharraf’s regime was supposedly based on its willingness to confront terrorism. The Foreign Office stated: ‘The dilemma for President Musharraf is how to tackle terrorism and extremism whilst at the same time preventing alienation of his wider domestic constituency.’ Yet Musharraf took only very limited steps to curb the extremist groups in Pakistan, largely cultivating them, and was dependent on their support for countering his major enemies, who were the more liberal, secular, nationalist parties – a strategy typical of regimes lacking popular support backed by Britain in the Middle East. Far from confronting the Islamists, the International Crisis Group noted in an April 2005 report that in Pakistan’s history, ‘the mullahs have never been as powerful as now’, and that:
‘Instead of empowering liberal, democratic voices, the government has co-opted the religious right and continues to rely on it to counter civilian opposition. By depriving democratic forces of an even playing field and continuing to ignore the need for state policies that would encourage and indeed reflect the country’s religious diversity, the government has allowed religious extremist organisations and jihadi groups to flourish’.
Musharraf’s priority, like General Zia’s in the 1980s, was to consolidate his own grip on power, and to do so he played a double game when it came to dealing with the Pakistani terrorist groups. In January 2002, for example, Musharraf delivered a major speech, pledging to clamp down on terrorism, and saying that Kashmir should now be considered a bilateral issue between Pakistan and India, thus appearing to sideline the Pakistani jihadists fighting there. This stance, together with public support for the US’ War on Terror, was enough to make the regime a direct target of the Pakistani jihadists. Yet three years later the jihadi media was still flourishing while leaders of ostensibly banned groups such as the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LET) and Jaish-e-Mohammed (JEM) appeared ‘to enjoy virtual immunity from the law’ and were ‘free to preach their jihadist ideologies’. The LET, Pakistan’s best-organised and most powerful militant organisation, was proscribed by Musharraf in 2002, but ‘no step has ever been taken to dismantle or even disarm’ it.
Moreover, the Pakistani state directly sponsored these groups. The LET was, as we saw in Chapter 9, created in 1990 with the help of the Pakistani intelligence service, the ISI, which has supported its operations in Kashmir where Pakistan has managed an extensive infrastructure of training camps for militants since the early 1990s. The JEM, established in 2000, is also widely regarded as having been created by the ISI as a counterweight to the LET, which was viewed as having become too powerful in Kashmir. Meanwhile, another militant group, the Harkat ul-Mujahideen (HUM), worked alongside the regular Pakistani army, then headed by General Musharraf, to seize the strategic mountain positions in the Kargil region of Indian-held Kashmir in May 1999. Although the Pakistani government formally banned the HUM in September 2001, its leaders continued to openly visit mosques and madrassas in Pakistan while reports suggested they were being protected by the ISI in safe houses.
The Blair government was perfectly aware of Pakistan’s support for terrorism in Kashmir before 7/7. Foreign Office Minister Peter Hain said in December 2000 that ‘there is still far too much evidence …over the past year to 18 months … that cross-border terrorism is actively encouraged and, indeed, at times sponsored by agencies and elements closely aligned with the Pakistani authorities.’ The timescale mentioned by Hain is interesting, since this was the period in which Britain decided to start re-arming Pakistan. By May 2002, Trade Minister Baroness Symons publicly noted Pakistan’s ‘support for terrorism in Kashmir’, telling parliament that Musharraf must stop this, as well as ‘bringing an end to cross-border infiltration and taking action to dismantle training camps in Pakistani-controlled territory’. The following month Foreign Secretary Jack Straw went even further, telling parliament that:
‘A number of terrorist organisations – including Laskhar-e-Toiba, Jaish-e-Mohammed and Harkat Mujahideen … have been at the forefront of violent activity in the region [Kashmir] … Her Majesty’s government accept that there is a clear link between the ISID [ISI] and those groups … The fact cannot be avoided that over a period of years, successive governments of Pakistan have, through their Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, encouraged and funded terrorists – otherwise known as freedom fighters – to make incursions across the line of control as outsiders in that dispute, and to engage in mayhem and terrorism’.
Straw urged Musharraf to ‘stop supplies to militant groups’ and ‘close the militant training camps on Pakistan’s side of the line of control’. The following year, MI5 drew up a list of 100 terrorist suspects in Britain that included 40 Britons of Pakistani origin involved in the jihad in Kashmir.
Yet Pakistan’s sponsorship of this terrorist infrastructure in Kashmir did not stop, as we see later, and Whitehall applied no real pressure for it to do so – rather, it continued to arm, train and trade with Pakistan. It was Pakistan’s policies towards Kashmir and the domestic Islamist groups that combined with the invasion of Iraq in 2003 to help produce the events in London on 7 July 2005.
The London bombings
The four coordinated London bombings constituted the worst single terrorist atrocity ever in Britain, killing 52 people and injuring 700. They were the first ‘successful’ Islamist terrorist attacks in the country and were conducted by four British-born Muslims, three of them of Pakistani origin living in Yorkshire, one of Jamaican origin living in Buckinghamshire. The bombings came two years after the invasion of Iraq and followed concerns voiced by some security officials that the country was likely to be attacked by ‘home-grown’ terrorists.
That the invasion of Iraq in March 2003 would inspire British Islamists to target Britain was recognised by British planners. Three months before the London bombings, the Joint Intelligence Committee stated in a classified report, leaked the following year, that:
‘There is a clear consensus within the UK extremist community that Iraq is a legitimate jihad and should be supported. Iraq has re-energised and refocused a wide range of networks in the UK … The conflict in Iraq has exacerbated the threat from international terrorism and will continue to have an impact in the long term. It has reinforced the determination of terrorists who were already committed to attacking the West and motivated others who were not’.
This report followed a joint Home Office–Foreign Office analysis in 2004 – called ‘Young Muslims and Extremism’ – which was leaked in 2005. This stated that:
‘A particularly strong cause of disillusionment amongst Muslims … is a perceived ‘double standard’ in the foreign policy of Western governments (and often those of Muslim governments), in particular Britain and the US … This perception seems to have become more acute post 9/11. The perception is that passive ‘oppression’, as demonstrated in British foreign policy, e.g. non-action on Kashmir and Chechnya, has given way to ‘active oppression’ – the War on Terror, and in Iraq and Afghanistan are all seen by a section of British Muslims as having been acts against Islam’.
This ‘double standard’ had been pointed out by Osama Bin Laden in a speech five years before 7/7, in 2000. He had said:
‘The British are responsible for destroying the caliphate system. They are the ones who created the Palestinian problem. They are the ones who created the Kashmiri problem. They are the ones who put the arms embargo on the Muslims of Bosnia so that 2 million Muslims were killed. They are the ones who are starving the Iraqi children. And they are continuously dropping bombs on these innocent Iraqi children’.
Bin Laden’s views had a degree of accuracy about them, far more so than the justifications for the London bombings put forward by the ringleader of the gang, Mohammed Siddique Khan. A few months after 7/7, the TV station, al-Jazeera, broadcast a video made by Khan on the eve of the attacks. He claimed that they had been timed to coincide with the anniversary of Britain ignoring a truce offer from Bin Laden to withdraw troops from Iraq or else face a terror campaign. But Khan also made the argument that ordinary Londoners were a legitimate target since ‘your democratically elected governments continuously perpetuate atrocities against my people all over the world. And your support of them makes you directly responsible.’ Khan’s view was nonsense. Rather than being ‘responsible’ for the actions of their government, most Britons were against the invasion of Iraq – 58 per cent were opposed on the eve of the invasion, according to one poll, while Air Marshal Brian Burridge, commander of the British forces, noted that ‘we went into this campaign with 33 per cent public support’. Then there was Khan’s contention that the British government was opposing ‘my people’ (i.e., Muslims), part of the current refrain of jihadist recruiters that Britain is ‘at war with Islam’. In fact, and despite this perception, it is plainly untrue that Britain has been at war with ‘Islam’, notably in light of its its alliances with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan and, moreover, its regular collusion with ‘Islam’s’ most extreme adherents – indeed those like Khan.
This was the dirty secret at the heart of 7/7. The bombings were, to a large extent, a product of British foreign policy, not mainly since they were perpetrated by opponents of the war in Iraq, but because they derived from a terrorism infrastructure established by a Pakistani state long backed by Whitehall and involving Pakistani terrorist groups which had benefited from past British covert action.
The trail of the 7/7 bombers clearly goes back to Pakistan. Khan was trained in northern Pakistan in July 2003, learning how to fire assault rifles at a camp reportedly set up soon after Britain invaded Iraq. Three of the four 7/7 bombers – Khan, along with Shehzad Tanweer and Hasib Hussain – visited Pakistan between November 2004 and January 2005, while two of them, Khan and Tanweer, visited madrassas in Lahore and Faisalabad where they learned how to make explosives. The 7/7 group may also have received ‘advice or direction’ from individuals in Pakistan between April and July 2005, and it was shortly after their return from Pakistan in February 2005 that they began planning the attacks, according to official reports on the London bombings. Muktar Said Ibrahim, the ringleader of the 21 July 2005 bombing plot – the failed attempt by five British Islamists to attack London’s transport system – had been in Pakistan at a similar time as Khan and Tanweer, between December 2004 and March 2005, and had also attended a training camp there.
Moreover, it is possible that the 7/7 bombers and other would-be British terrorists were trained by the ISI. For example, Omar Khyam, a twenty-five-year old from Surrey, was the leader of a group of five men found guilty in April 2007 of a plot in Britain to explode bombs made of fertilizer. In 2000, he trained at a camp near Muzaffarabad – the capital of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir – where, he said, he saw the ISI instructing recruits in handling explosives. Khyam’s family had a history of serving in the Pakistani military and the ISI and it was by ‘using military connections’ that he was found in Pakistan and brought back to Britain. Similarly, Dhiren Barot, a British convert to Islam who was given a forty-year jail sentence in 2006 for plotting various bomb blasts in Britain and the US, reportedly underwent ‘lengthy training in Pakistan near the disputed region of Kashmir in 1995’, learning how to use an AK-47, grenades and chemicals. These techniques might have been used in his subsequent planned terrorist activities, which included setting off a radioactive ‘dirty bomb’ and gassing the Heathrow Express train. It is possible that Bharot was trained by the ISI, given its control over camps sending jihadists into Kashmir.
A camp run by the HUM terrorist group in Mansehra, a remote area in the Northwest Frontier province near the Kashmir border, had for years taken British volunteers from the Finsbury Park Mosque for training, principally to fight in Kashmir. Khan reportedly visited this camp in July 2001 while Tanweer was trained there in handling explosives and arms. Again, there is a significant British connection. The first batch of HUM volunteers who went to Afghanistan in the 1980s was trained in camps run by Jalaluddin Haqqani, of the Younis Khalis faction of the Hezb-e-Islami group to whom Britain provided military training and Blowpipe missiles; HUM cadres were also provided with Stinger missiles by the CIA, who also trained them in their use. Britain appears to have again connived with the HUM, now renamed the HUA, during the Bosnian and Kosovan jihads, by helping to send militants to fight against Yugoslav forces.
The JEM, a Pakistani state-sponsored offshoot of the HUM, from which it split in 2000, was another militant group with whom some British bombers reportedly had contacts when visiting Pakistan. Tanweer is believed to have trained with JEM militants at the Mansehra camp mentioned above. One JEM militant told the Pakistani authorities that he had met Tanweer in Faisalabad, southwest of Lahore, in 2003. Rashid Rauf, a Briton of Kashmiri descent who was allegedly involved in the August 2006 plot to bomb Heathrow Airport, was also a member of the JEM. Another JEM militant of British origin was Mohammed Bilal, a twenty-four-year-old from Birmingham, who in December 2000 drove a car full of explosives into an Indian army base at Srinagar, killing 9 people. The JEM is known to recruit in Britain among men of Kashmiri and Punjabi descent.
Then there is the LET, also a part-ISI creation in whose camps in Pakistan hundreds of young British jihadists have also received guerilla training. Some of the 7/7 bombers reportedly had contacts with the LET when visiting Pakistan. Tanweer is said to have spent up to four months at a madrassa in Lahore run by the Markaz Dawa al Irshad (MDI), the mother organisation of the LET, and may have been recruited for the London bombings there. He also spent a few days at the sprawling MDI complex at Muridke, just outside Lahore.
The nexus of terrorist links emanating from the London bombers very clearly points both to Islamabad and to current and past British foreign policy; indeed, 7/7 was partly a case of ‘blowback’.
Filed under: Afghanistan, Middle East, Pakistan, Terrorism, UK foreign policy | Leave a Comment
This is an edited extract from Secret Affairs: Britain’s Collusion with Radical Islam
While Osama 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. Benotman recounted how 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 first major LIFG attacks in Libya did not occur until 1995. 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 in 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 Beghazi, 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 Centre 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. This 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 Qadafi 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 stating 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 by the Home Office, acting on a request from the US; he left behind copies of jihad training manuals, but 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 Dasquie 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, Middle East, Terrorism, UK foreign policy | Leave a Comment
Published in the Huffington Post, 26 September 2016
The case for holding a public enquiry into the British military intervention in Libya is now surely overwhelming. The principles under scrutiny – whether Britain supports international law and whether Ministers tell parliament and people the truth – are as serious as over the invasion of Iraq. The recent Foreign Affairs Committee enquiry into the Libya intervention is partly an indictment of UK policy in Libya but is also partly whitewash.
There are three main cases for Cameron and the government to answer. First, British bombing in Libya, which began in March 2011, was a violation of UN Resolution 1973. This authorised member states to enforce a no-fly zone over Libya and to use ‘all necessary measures’ to prevent attacks on civilians. What it did not authorise was the use of ground troops or regime change. Yet Cameron promoted both.
General David Richards, then Chief of the Defence Staff, revealed during his evidence session to the Committee enquiry that Britain ‘had a few people embedded’ with the rebel forces, saying that they were ‘in the rear areas’ and ‘would go forward and back’. This is new information and means that Britain had ground troops in Libya.
In addition, Richards repeatedly told the enquiry that British policy amounted to regime change. Indeed, British bombing clearly went beyond preventing attacks on civilians – three weeks after Cameron assured parliament in March 2011 that the object of the intervention was not regime change, he signed a joint letter with President Obama and French President Sarkozy committing to ‘a future without Gaddafi’.
That these were policies were illegal is confirmed by Cameron himself. He told Parliament on 21 March 2011 that the UN resolution ‘explicitly does not provide legal authority for action to bring about Gaddafi’s removal from power by military means’.
The second case to answer is over Britain’s de facto collaboration with radical Islamists during the intervention. The Foreign Affairs Committee concluded that: ‘It is now clear that militant Islamist militias played a critical role in the rebellion from February 2011 onwards’. Yet this was known at the time. Indeed, Richards was asked in his evidence session whether ‘our intervention empowered extremist groups’. He replied: ‘Broadly – the same way that Saddam Hussein’s removal did’.
I documented the role of Islamists in the Libyan rebel forces in a 2012 book. Islamist elements were prominent in the National Transitional Council, which grouped various Libyan rebel forces and which was backed by Britain. Two former mujahideen who had fought in Afghanistan led the military campaign against Gadaffi’s forces in Darnah, to the east of Benghazi, for example. Abdel Hakim al-Hasady, an influential Islamic preacher who spent five years at a jihadist training camp in eastern Afghanistan, oversaw the recruitment, training and deployment in the conflict of around 300 rebel fighters from Darnah. Both al-Hasady and his field commander on the front lines, Salah al-Barrani, were former members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), the Islamist force that Britain covertly funded to kill Gadaffi in 1996.
Other commentators recognised the Islamist nature of some of the rebels at the time. Noman Benotman, a former member of the LIFG who had fought the Soviets in Afghanistan, estimated that there were 1,000 jihadists fighting in Libya. Former Director of MI6, Sir Richard Dearlove observed that the rebel stronghold of Benghazi was ‘rather fundamentalist in character’ and Admiral James Stavridis, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, said that US intelligence had picked up ‘flickers’ of terrorist activity among the rebel groups; this was described by senior British government figures at the time as ‘very alarming’.
Moreover, a massive $400million worth of arms was provided to the rebels by Britain’s ally, Qatar, much of which went to the Islamist radicals. Qatar also sent hundreds of troops to fight on the frontline and to provide infantry training to Libyan fighters in the western Nafusa mountains and in eastern Libya. Much of Qatar’s support went to the 17 February Martyrs Brigade, one of the most influential rebel formations led by Abdel-Hakim Belhaj, a leading member of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group who became the rebel military commander in Tripoli.
It is inconceivable that Qatar’s military support for Libyan Islamists was not known to British ministers, and backed by them, as they consistently supported Qatar’s prominent role in the campaign against Gadaffi, alongside deepening military and commercial cooperation. Indeed, Qatar’s chief-of-staff, Major-General Hamad bin Ali al-Atiya, later said: ‘We acted as the link between the rebels and Nato forces’. Qatar also played a key role alongside Britain in the ‘Libya contact group’ that coordinated policy against the Gadaffi regime; the first meeting of the group, in April 2011, for example, was convened by Qatar and co-chaired by Britain in Doha.
Cameron resigned as an MP two days before the Committee enquiry was published, which is hard to believe was coincidental. If MPs are concerned about being lied to and about whether Britain is a rogue state in international affairs, they should now demand a new public enquiry.
Filed under: Libya, Middle East, Terrorism, UK foreign policy, United Nations | Leave a Comment
Published in the Huffington Post, 13 September 2016
Britain has struck a new special relationship with the military rulers of Egypt which is as deep as it is worrying. As we approach the 60th anniversary of the British invasion of Egypt – known in polite circles as the ‘Suez crisis’ – Britons should reflect on their government’s relationship with this key Middle Eastern country.
Since the military coup of July 2013 that overthrew President Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically elected government, Egypt under General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has once again become a nasty, repressive regime. Torture, deaths in detention, forced disappearances, restrictions on civil society, the imprisonment of journalists and restrictions on freedom of expression, are now all common. Up to 40,000 Egyptians have been arrested by the regime since July 2013, mainly for involvement in demonstrations or opposition political activities. Some 1,000 people were killed during violence in July and August 2013 when the new regime conducted clearing operations to remove Muslim Brotherhood protesters from sit-ins in Cairo.
Yet for Britain, this all represents a new opportunity. Last month Prime Minister Theresa May spoke with el-Sisi and ‘discussed a new chapter in bilateral relations between the UK and Egypt’, according to the government press release. This is no under-statement since it follows a series of extraordinary meetings and extreme British apologias for the nature of the Egyptian regime.
In August 2015, when Defence Secretary Michael Fallon paid one of several recent visits to Egypt, the government stated that ‘during his visit Mr Fallon discussed Britain’s support for security and for economic progress and democracy in Egypt, as a vital element of restoring stability in the region’. These words are code and surely well-understood on both sides: what was meant was that ‘Mr Fallon discussed Britain’s support for the pro-Western regime (‘security’) and for British commercial interests (‘economic progress’) and authoritarianism (‘democracy’) as a vital element of maintaining repression (‘stability’) in the region’.
The following month, September 2015, Fallon entertained the head of Egypt’s military, General Mahmoud Hegazy, in London, while the government reported that ‘with growing instability in the region it more important than ever that the UK cements the already strong ties with Egypt’.
In November last year, relations deepened still further. El-Sisi was allowed by the government to visit Britain while then Prime Minister David Cameron said he was ‘delighted to welcome president Sisi to Downing Street’ and that Egypt was a ‘vital partner for us’ for economic and security ties. El-Sisi for his part noted that the UK was a ‘friendly country’. Cameron gave vague mention of the ‘need for political progress in Egypt’ but otherwise didn’t upset his visitor by any comments on just what was happening back home.
The day following the meeting between the two leaders, Michael Fallon met el-Sisi to discuss military cooperation while then Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond signed a memorandum of understanding with his Egyptian counterpart Sameh Shoukry. This will ‘launch a new stage in our British-Egyptian partnership for stability and reform’ involving ‘a regular strategic dialogue’. The government says that ‘the UK enjoys a strong security partnership with Egypt’ and holds regular discussions with the Egyptian military. Arms continue to flow the regime: in 2015 the UK approved £84m worth of military equipment to Egypt, including guns and ammunition. Britain is also forming a ‘small military operations team’ in Egypt to improve combatting Islamic State in Libya.
The primary reason for British backing of el-Sisi is that the regime’s repressive rule is creating good conditions for furthering British investment. Britain has long been the largest investor in Egypt, with deals worth over $5 billion, but ‘we are hungry for more’, British ambassador John Casson has said. In July 2016, a UK trade envoy to Egypt, the MP Jeffrey Donaldson, and the head of UK Export Finance, Louis Taylor, visited Cairo to discuss expanding trade and investment ties. Donaldson said that ‘the past few months have seen many enquiries from British companies wishing to do business in Egypt and their interest highlights the significant opportunities that are available across a range of Egyptian commercial sectors’. Louis Taylor pointed out that his organisation, which is the UK’s export credit agency, had finance available for projects in Egypt worth ‘hundreds of millions’ – in other words, the British taxpayer will subsidise British companies investing under the el-Sisi regime.
This visit followed a trade delegation to Egypt headed by Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond in March 2015, accompanied by big investors such as BP, Vodafone, Barclays and BG Group. The visit heralded the major prize for the British – the signing of a massive $12 billion investment deal by BP for an oil and gas project in the West Nile Delta offshore Egypt. The agreement is the single largest investment deal in Egypt’s history. At the same time, Hammond ‘met President el-Sisi to discuss a range of issues, including regional security and the global coalition’s fight against ISIL’.
The Morsi government and the Muslim Brotherhood represented a serious obstacle to this oil and gas deal. The BP-led consortium had been haggling over the terms for the West Nile project for years and was seeking direct ownership over the resources and accrual of 100 per cent of the profits. The Morsi government had thrown a spanner in the works, with some leading figures objecting to BP’s demands. Indeed, by mid-2013, just weeks before the coup, the Morsi government was engaged in talks with BP demanding far better terms. El-Sisi’s seizure of power changed all that. The new deal under the military regime now offers BP exceedingly generous terms and, most importantly, has moved Egypt away from a long-used production-sharing model in which companies and countries typically split profit 20:80, to a tax royalty scheme that essentially privatises Egypt’s gas sector and hands control and oversight of natural resources to private companies.
These deals have been signed while Whitehall has been fully aware that repression in Egypt has increased every year since el-Sisi seized power. In 2013, ‘the human rights situation in Egypt deteriorated’, the Foreign Office said in April 2014. In 2014, it noted that ‘the human rights situation in Egypt remained poor and deteriorated in some areas, particularly with regards to freedom of expression and association’. More recently, the Foreign Office’s Human Rights Report for 2016 notes that ‘in 2015, reports of torture, police brutality and forced disappearances increased’ and that ‘restrictions on freedom of expression also increased’.
Despite this knowledge, in August 2015, Michael Fallon offered a stunning apologia for repression by writing in an Egyptian newspaper that ‘Egyptians have rejected both extremism and authoritarianism’. Meanwhile, our man in Cairo, Britain’s ambassador John Casson, has apparently convinced himself that Egyptians ‘are building a more stable, more prosperous and more democratic country’. Casson was even quoted in the Egyptian media in June 2015 of approving of Egypt’s ‘tough security measures’. Whitehall does not support repressive regimes despite their being repressive but precisely because they are repressive and promote a pro-Western foreign policy and provide an attractive investment climate.
Britain has sometimes gone through the motions on protesting at Egypt’s lack of human rights under el-Sisi, such as by ‘expressing concern‘ at the Egyptian Court’s passing of 183 death sentences in 2014. Nothing, however, has been allowed to upset military and commercial relations. Witness the Foreign Office’s embarrassing analysis of el-Sisi’s seizure of power. It notes that el-Sisi was ‘elected’ to power in May 2014 with 96 per cent of the vote (a proportion that would have impressed Stalin), which ‘in some respects… fell short of compliance with the principles set out in… international standards for democratic elections’. Indeed.
Equally, the silence on the part of the British media, especially the BBC, on this level of support for repression is stunning. While everyone knows of China’s crackdown on Tiananmen square in 1989 which killed hundreds of people, perhaps up to 2,000, how many people are aware of the Egyptian security forces killing of 817 people in Rab’a al-Adawiya Square in Cairo in August 2014? The difference, of course, is that one was perpetrated by an official enemy, the other by an official friend. If these media simply did their job, and reported what their government is doing, it is likely that British governments would not be able to get away with lending their support to tinpot dictators around the world.
Filed under: Egypt, Middle East, UK foreign policy | 1 Comment
This is an edited extract from Secret Affairs: Britain’s Collusion with Radical Islam
In British mainstream commentary, the 1999 NATO bombing campaign against Slobodan Milosevic’s Yugoslavia is seen as a ‘humanitarian intervention’. Tony Blair still receives much praise for coming to the defence of the ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, whose plight was surely serious as they were subject to increasingly brutal abuses by the Yugoslav army towards the end of 1998 and early 1999. Yet the NATO bombing that began in March 1999 had the effect of deepening, not preventing, the humanitarian disaster that Milosevic’s forces inflicted on Kosovo. The bulk of the atrocities committed by Yugoslav forces took place after the NATO bombing campaign began. In fact, some NATO intelligence agencies, including Britain’s, knew in advance that any bombing might well precipitate the full-scale ‘ethnic cleansing’ which they used as the public pretext for conducting their campaign.
However, there is another critical aspect to this war that undermines its supposed ‘humanitarian’ motives, involving British collusion with the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), which fought alongside al-Qaida militants and essentially acted as NATO’s ground forces in Kosovo. The big debate in government and mainstream media circles during the war was whether NATO should put troops on the ground or whether Yugoslav forces could be sufficiently pounded from the air to stop their atrocities in Kosovo. The British and American governments were reluctant to commit ground forces, mainly for fear of incurring high casualties and getting sucked into a more protracted conflict; instead they turned to finding local allies and used these forces as a tool in their foreign policy. It was in this context that Islamist militants, working alongside the British-supported KLA, essentially took on the role of Western proxies, carrying out some of the dirty work that NATO could not. This story is, as we have seen, by no means unfamiliar in the postwar world.
Much later, in October 2006, then Chancellor Gordon Brown said in a speech on ‘meeting the terrorist challenge’ to an audience at Chatham House: ‘The threat from al-Qaida did not begin on September 11th – indeed the attacks on the twin towers were being planned as the United States was taking action with Europe to protect Muslims in the former Yugoslavia.’ Brown was right; in fact, the British were providing military training to forces connected to the very people planning the 9/11 attacks.
The nature of the KLA
The Kosovo Liberation Army comprised ethnic Albanians committed to securing independence for Kosovo and promoting a ‘Greater Albania’ in the sub-region. Consisting of a mix of radicalised youths and students, professionals such as teachers and doctors, members of influential families and local rogues, it took to armed struggle and made its military debut in early 1996 by bombing camps housing Serbian refugees from the wars in Croatia and Bosnia and by attacking Yugoslav government officials and police stations. By mid-1998 the KLA controlled parts of Kosovo and had armed and organised around 30,000 fighters; it was thus a formidable force on the ground when, amidst a growing civil war, the Yugoslav army launched a brutal full-scale offensive in Kosovo in March 1999.
From its inception, the KLA also targeted Serbian and Albanian civilians, especially those considered collaborators with the authorities. The US and Britain clearly recognised it as a terrorist organisation. In February 1998, the Clinton administration’s special envoy to Kosovo, Robert Gelbard, described the KLA as ‘without any question a terrorist group’. British ministers were equally unequivocal. Foreign Secretary Robin Cook told parliament in March 1998: ‘We strongly condemn the use of violence for political objectives, including the terrorism of the self-styled Kosovo Liberation Army.’ Indeed, in November 1998, and again in January 1999, Cook said that ‘most of the killings’ in Kosovo recently had been carried out by the KLA, whose activities against ordinary Kosovars were only serving to ‘prolong their suffering’. Parliamentary statements by British ministers make clear that they continued to regard the KLA as a terrorist organisation right up to the beginning of the bombing campaign in March. The KLA was also widely known to be involved in heroin trafficking into Britain while MI6 was investigating its links to organised crime.
Moreover, the KLA had also developed connections to al-Qaida. Bin Laden reportedly visited Albania and established an operation there in 1994. In the years preceding the NATO bombing campaign, more al-Qaida militants moved into Kosovo to support the KLA, financed by sources in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. By late 1998, the head of Albanian intelligence was saying that Bin Laden had sent units to fight in Kosovo while the media noted CIA and Albanian intelligence reports citing ‘mujahideen units from at least half a dozen Middle East countries streaming across the border into Kosovo from safe bases in Albania’.
US intelligence reports were also noting that al-Qaida was sending funds and militants to join the KLA, while numerous KLA fighters had trained in al-Qaida camps in Afghanistan and Albania. One of the ‘links’ between Bin Laden and the KLA identified by US intelligence was ‘a common staging area in Tropoje, Albania, a centre for Islamic terrorists.’ The KLA was helping hundreds of foreign fighters to cross from Albania into Kosovo, including ‘veterans of the militant group Islamic Jihad from Bosnia, Chechnya and Afghanistan’, carrying forged passports. One KLA unit was led by the brother of Ayman al-Zawahiri, Bin Laden’s right-hand man, according to a senior Interpol official later giving evidence to the US Congress. One Western military official was quoted as saying that the Islamist militants ‘were mercenaries who were not running the show in Kosovo, but were used by the KLA to do their dirty work.’
Asked in parliament in November 1998 about a media article stating that mujahideen fighters had been seen with KLA forces in Kosovo, Robin Cook stated: ‘I read that report with concern.’ His deputy, Foreign Office Minister Baroness Symons claimed, however, that the government had ‘no evidence’ that Bin Laden was funding the KLA. In March 1999, another Foreign Office minister, Tony Lloyd, told the House of Commons that the government was aware of media reports of contacts between Islamic terrorist groups and the KLA but ‘we have no evidence of systematic involvement’; the use of word ‘systematic’ was likely instructive, implying that the government did indeed have some knowledge.
The covert war
At some point in 1996 British intelligence, along with the US and Swiss services, made its first known contact with a senior KLA official in Albania, likely to have been Shaban Shala, a commander who would not only fight in Kosovo in 1999 but also inside Serbia in 2000. Formal contacts between the KLA and the US took place in July 1998 when Chris Hill, the US special envoy for Kosovo, met KLA officials; the following day a British diplomat also met KLA officials in their headquarters in the central Kosovan village of Klecka. The British government later claimed that ‘an initial meeting’ between an official in the British embassy in Belgrade and KLA leaders was held on 30 July 1998. If so, this came two days after Baroness Symons recognised in an answer to a parliamentary question that the KLA was a ‘terrorist’ organisation and that ‘it was clear’ that it had ‘procured significant quantities of arms in Albania’. By October, Robin Cook was making clear that Britain was opposed to the KLA’s political objective of forging a greater Albania: ‘There is no place on the international map for a greater Albania – any more than there is for a greater Serbia or a greater Croatia.’
Yet it was around this time that Britain started to train the forces it recognised as terrorists, whose political agenda it was opposed to and which had documented links to al-Qaida: a level of expediency that would have impressed British officials collaborating with the Muslim Brotherhood or Ayatollah Kashani in the 1950s, for example.
At some point in late 1998, the US Defence Intelligence Agency approached MI6 with the task of arming and training the KLA, the Scotsman newspaper later reported. A senior British military source told the newspaper that: ‘MI6 then subcontracted the operation to two British security companies, who in turn approached a number of former members of the (22 SAS) regiment. Lists were then drawn up of weapons and equipment needed by the KLA.’ ‘While these covert operations were continuing,’ the paper noted, ‘serving members of 22 SAS regiment, mostly from the unit’s D squadron, were first deployed in Kosovo before the beginning of the bombing campaign in March.’
A few weeks into the bombing campaign, the Sunday Telegraph reported that KLA fighters were receiving SAS training at two camps near the Albanian capital Tirana, and at another near the Kosovan border, most likely near the town of Bajram Curri. This was the centre of the KLA’s military operations, where a series of training camps were dotted in the hills and from where arms were collected and distributed. Crucially, it was also where jihadist fighters had their ‘centre’ and common staging area with the KLA, as noted by the previous US intelligence reports. The British training involved instructing KLA officers in guerrilla tactics and weapons handling, demolition and ambush techniques, as well as conducting intelligence-gathering operations on Serbian positions. The whole covert operation was funded by the CIA while the German secret service, the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), provided weapons and training. The BND had been providing covert support and training to the KLA since the mid-1990s.
British ministers consistently denied any knowledge of the KLA’s sources of arms or training when asked in parliament. On 13 April, three weeks after the bombing campaign began, and just days before the Telegraph reported the British training, Tony Blair told parliament that ‘our position on training and arming the KLA remains as it has been – we are not in favour of doing so … We have no plans to change that.’ Sometimes ministers used revealing language. Baroness Symons stated on two occasions, in March and May 1999, that there was ‘no firm evidence’ and ‘no reliable information’ on the KLA’s sources of weapons and training – the use of the words ‘firm’ and ‘reliable’ being usual ways in which officials feign ignorance of issues they are perfectly aware of. One reason for secrecy was that such training was in violation of UN Security Council Resolution 1160, which forbade arming or training forces in all Yugoslavia.
James Bissett, a former Canadian ambassador to Yugoslavia and Albania, later noted that the US training of the KLA in 1998 involved ‘sending them back into Kosovo to assassinate Serbian mayors, ambush Serbian policemen and intimidate hesitant Kosovo Albanians.’ ‘The hope’, he wrote, ‘was that with Kosovo in flames NATO could intervene and in so doing, not only overthrow Milosevic the Serbian strongman, but, more importantly, provide the aging and increasingly irrelevant military organisation [NATO] with a reason for its continued existence.’ KLA leaders similarly explained that ‘any armed action we undertook would bring retaliation against civilians [by Serbian forces]’ and that ‘the more civilians were killed, the chances of intervention became bigger.’ It seems that the KLA’s escalation of ethnic tensions was an integral part of London and Washington’s strategy – a familiar theme of postwar covert action in relation to collusion with Islamist groups.
The KLA certainly proved useful to Anglo–American planners. Tony Blair stated a month into the bombing campaign that ‘the KLA is having greater success on the ground in Kosovo and indeed has retaken certain parts of it’. Described in media reports as NATO’s ‘eyes and ears’ on the ground in Kosovo, the KLA was using satellite telephones to provide NATO with details of Serbian targets. Some of this communications equipment had been secretly handed over to the KLA a week before the air strikes began by some US officers acting as ‘ceasefire monitors’ with the Organisation of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE); they were in reality CIA agents. They also gave the KLA US military training manuals and field advice on fighting the Yugoslav army and police. It was reported that several KLA leaders had the mobile phone number of General Wesley Clark, the NATO commander. Robin Cook, meanwhile, held a joint press conference with KLA representatives at the end of March and was in direct telephone contact with its commander in Kosovo, Hashim Thaqi; the latter would in February 2008 go on to become the first prime minister of post-independence Kosovo.
By early April 1999, more than 500 Albanians living in Britain had volunteered to go to fight in Kosovo, according to KLA representatives in London, though who were likely exaggerating the numbers. Just as during the Bosnian War a few years earlier, Britain and the US allowed, and may have facilitated, British and other Muslims to travel to Kosovo volunteering for the jihad. Indian intelligence analysts B. Raman notes that Pakistani militants associated with the Harkat ul-Mujahideen (HUM) terrorist group who had fought in Bosnia were diverted to Kosovo by the CIA.
Following the 2005 London bombings, John Loftus, a former US Justice Department prosecutor and US intelligence officer, claimed that MI6 worked with the militant Islamist organisation al-Muhajiroun (The Emigrants) to send jihadists to Kosovo. Al-Muhajiroun was founded in Saudi Arabia in 1983 by Omar Bakri Mohammed, who in 1986 fled to Britain after Saudi Arabia banned the organisation, and set up its British branch in early 1986. By the mid-1990s Bakri was being described in the British media as the ‘head of the political wing of the International Islamic Front’, founded by Bin Laden in 1998, and openly supported Bin Laden’s calls for jihad; he told the media he was raising funds for the KLA and supporting their struggle in Kosovo. Loftus told a US television station that al-Muhajiroun leaders ‘all worked for British intelligence in Kosovo’ and that ‘British intelligence actually hired some al-Qaida guys to help defend Muslim rights in Albania and in Kosovo.’ He claimed the CIA was funding the operation while British intelligence ‘was doing the hiring and recruiting’. These claims were, Loftus said, based on an interview given by Bakri himself to al-Sharq al-Awsat, a London-based Arabic-language newspaper on 16 October 2001. However, despite extensive research, I have not been able to locate this interview on this or any other date; Bakri also denies (not surprisingly) ever working alongside British intelligence.
Loftus also claimed that one of the Britons recruited for Kosovo by al-Muhajiroun was Haroon Rashid Aswat, a British citizen of Indian origin who later became Abu Hamza’s assistant at the Finsbury Park Mosque, and who would later crop up in the investigations surrounding the 2005 London bombings. According to Loftus, Aswat was a ‘double agent’, working both for the British in Kosovo and after, and for al-Qaida. Soon after Loftus made the claim, a Times report on Aswat’s possible connections to the London bombings of July 2005 noted that questions were being asked about whether Aswat was a ‘useful source of information’ to British intelligence and noted that ‘senior Whitehall officials … deny “any knowledge” that he might be an agent of MI5 or MI6’ – a cautious formulation that can only add to suspicions.
One Briton who can be more definitively linked to the Kosovo camps was Omar Khan Sharif, who in 2003 would become notorious for his aborted attempt to blow himself up inside a Tel Aviv bar: he pulled out at the last minute, but his accomplice detonated a bomb, killing himself and three others. According to a BBC documentary, Sharif spent three weeks at a camp in Albania during the Kosovo jihad, but the film (predictably) failed to mention that covert British training was also taking place in Albania at the time. Sharif had attended al-Muhajiroun meetings in Britain and was an admirer of Abu Hamza, who became his mentor; he also met Mohamed Siddique Khan, the 7/7 bomber with whom he tried to recruit other jihadists in 2001.
US covert support of the KLA guerrillas did not stop when NATO’s Kosovo campaign was brought to an end in June 1999, or even with the fall of Milosevic in October 2000. After the Kosovo conflict, KLA forces launched new wars in southern Serbia and Macedonia to promote their aim of a greater Albania, both of which were initially supported by the US – but, not apparently, by Britain. The BBC reported in January 2001 that ‘Western special forces were still training’ the KLA as a result of decisions taken before the fall of Milosevic. Now the KLA was reported to have several hundred fighters in the 5-kilometre-deep military exclusion zone on the border between Kosovo and the rest of Serbia, and were fighting to promote the secession of certain municipalities from Serbia. Moreover, ‘certain NATO-led’ forces ‘were not preventing the guerrillas taking mortars and other weapons into the exclusion zone’, and guerrilla units had been able to hold military exercises there, despite the fact that NATO was patrolling the area. Other media reports noted that European officials were ‘furious that the Americans have allowed guerilla armies in its sector to train, smuggle arms and launch attacks across two international borders’, and that the CIA’s ‘bastard army’ had been allowed to ‘run riot’ in the region.
Of interest from the perspective of British foreign policy is that when, in March 2001, the guerillas began another war, this time across the other nearby border with Macedonia, it was led by several commanders previously trained by British forces for the Kosovo campaign. Now fighting under the banner of the National Liberation Army (NLA), formed in early 2001, two of the Kosovo-based commanders of this push into Macedonia had been instructed by the SAS and the Parachute Regiment at the camps near Bajram Curri in northern Albania in 1998 and 1999. One was organising the flow of arms and men into Macedonia, while the other was helping to coordinate the assault on the town of Tetevo in the north of the country. Another NLA commander, Gezim Ostremi, had been previously trained by the SAS to head the UN-sponsored Kosovo Protection Corps, which was meant to replace the KLA.
NLA forces were being called ‘terrorists’ by Foreign Secretary Robin Cook and ‘murderous thugs’ by NATO Secretary-General Lord Robertson, just as they had been before the March 1999 bombing campaign, when, as with the KLA, the British were cooperating with them. The NLA’s ambushes and assassinations in Macedonia were little different from those perpetrated as the KLA. It also, initially at least, continued to be covertly supported by the US, which in one operation evacuated 400 NLA fighters when they became surrounded by Macedonian forces, and whose arms supplies helped the guerillas take control of nearly a third of Macedonia’s territory by August 2001; it was only after this that Washington, under pressure from its NATO allies, started to rein in its proxy force and throw its weight behind peace talks.
The following month, al-Qaida struck New York and Washington.
Full references are in the book version.
Filed under: Kosovo, Terrorism, UK foreign policy, United States | 1 Comment
An extract from Secret Affairs: Britain’s Collusion with Radical Islam, by Mark Curtis
Britain’s willingness to work with Islamist forces has been evident in Libya, where it took a brutal civil war between armed opposition forces and remnants of the regime to overthrow Libyan ruler, Muammar Qadafi, who was killed in October 2011. Massive NATO air strikes, mainly by Britain and France, were conducted during March-October in support of the rebel forces and significantly contributed to the rebel victory. What concerns the story here is not a review of the whole intervention but the extent to which it involved an Islamist element being supported by Britain in furtherance of its objectives in the Middle East.
The Islamist forces were only part of the military opposition that overthrew Qadafi, but were an important element, especially in the east of the country which was where the uprising began and which provided the centre of opposition to Qadafi. The episode, to some extent, echoes past British interventions where Islamist actors have acted as among the foot-soldiers in British policy to secure energy interests. That the British military intervention to overthrow Qadafi was primarily motivated by such interests seems clear – in the absence of access to government files – to which we briefly turn later. Such oil and gas interests in Libya, however, has been downplayed by ministers and largely ignored by the media, in favour of notions of Britain being motivated by the need to support the human rights of the Libyan people and promote democracy: concerns completely absent when it came to defending the rights of other Middle Easterners being abused at precisely the same time, notably Bahrainis.
Britain provided a range of support to the rebel Libyan leadership, which was grouped in the National Transitional Council (NTC), an initially 33-member self-selected body of mainly former Qadafi ministers and other opposition forces, formed in Benghazi in February 2011 to provide an alternative government. UN Security Council Resolution 1973 was passed on 17 March, imposing a no fly zone over Libya and authorizing ‘all necessary measures…to protect civilians’ under threat of attack. In an echo of Kosovo in 1999, it was certainly questionable whether civilians in Libya were under the extent of attack described by British ministers as justification for their military intervention, such as David Cameron’s claim that ‘we averted a massacre’.
Subsequently, British policy went well beyond the narrow strictures of the UN resolution, clearly seeking to target Qadafi personally and overthrow the regime. British air strikes and cruise missile attacks began on 19 March and within the first month of what became a seven-month bombing campaign NATO had flown 2,800 sorties, destroying a third of Qadafi’s military assets, according to NATO. The RAF eventually flew over 3,000 sorties over Libya, damaging or destroying 1,000 targets, while Britain also sent teams of regular army, SAS and MI6 officers to advise the NTC on ‘military organizational structures, communications and logistics’. Britain also assisted NATO airstrikes by deploying SAS troops to act as ground spotters and supplied military communications equipment and body armour. Whitehall also aided the NTC’s ‘media and broadcasting operations’ and invited the NTC to establish an office in London.
Military operations were coordinated with France while the US, which played no overt part in the military intervention, authorised $25 million in covert aid to the rebels in April. British ministers denied that they provided arms and military training to the NTC (given that an international arms embargo was applied to Libya) but media reports suggested that the US gave a green light for the new Egyptian regime to supply arms and also asked Saudi Arabia to covertly do so.
The NTC’s military forces were led by various former Libyan army officers, such as Colonel Khalifa Haftar who had set up the ‘Libyan National Army’ in 1988 with support from the CIA and Saudis and who had been living for the past 20 years near Langley, Virginia, home of the CIA, which also provided him with a training camp. But Islamist elements were also prominent. Two former mujahideen who had fought in Afghanistan led the military campaign against Qadafi’s forces in Darnah, to the east of Benghazi, for example. Abdel Hakim al-Hasady, an influential Islamic preacher who spent five years at a jihadist training camp in eastern Afghanistan, oversaw the recruitment, training and deployment in the conflict of around 300 rebel fighters from Darnah. Both al-Hasady and his field commander on the front lines, Salah al-Barrani, were former members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), the Islamist force that had long targeted Qadafi, and which Britain covertly funded to kill Qadafi in 1996.
It was also reported that Sufyan Ben Qumu, a Libyan army veteran who worked for Osama bin Laden’s holding company in Sudan and later for an al-Qaida-linked charity in Afghanistan, ran the training of many of Darnah’s rebel recruits. Qumu spent six years at Guantanamo Bay before he was turned over to Libyan custody in 2007; he was released, along with al-Hasady, from a Libyan prison in 2008 as part of Libya’s reconciliation with the LIFG. Al-Hasady, who had fought against the US in Afghanistan in 2001, had been arrested in Pakistan in 2002 and turned over to the US, imprisoned probably at the US base at Bagram, Afghanistan, and then mysteriously released. The US Deputy Secretary of State, James Steinberg, told Congressmen he would speak of al-Hasady’s career only in a closed session.
In an interview with an Italian newspaper in late March 2011, al-Hasady said he had previously recruited ‘around 25’ men from the Darnah area to fight against coalition troops in Iraq. Some of them, he said, were ‘today are on the front lines in Adjabiya’, a coastal city in north-central Libya which saw some of the heaviest fighting against Qadafi’s forces. Wikileaks cables obtained by the British media revealed US files highlighting supporters of Islamist causes among the opposition to Qadafi’s regime, particularly in the towns of Benghazi and Darnah, and that the latter area was a breeding ground for fighters destined for Afghanistan and Iraq.
Captured al-Qaida documents that fell into American hands in 2007 showed that Libya provided more foreign fighters to Iraq in per capita terms than any other country and that most of the volunteers were from the country’s northeast, notably Benghazi and Darnah. Former CIA operations officer Brian Fairchild wrote that since ‘the epicentre of the revolt [in Libya] is rife with anti-American and pro-jihad sentiment, and with al-Qaida’s explicit support for the revolt, it is appropriate to ask our policy makers how American military intervention in support of this revolt in any way serves vital US strategic interests’.
Other commentators recognised the Islamist nature of some of the rebels. Noman Benotman, a former member of the LIFG who had fought the Soviets in Afghanistan, estimated that there were 1,000 jihadists fighting in Libya. Former Director of MI6, Sir Richard Dearlove observed that the rebel stronghold of Benghazi was ‘rather fundamentalist in character’ and Admiral James Stavridis, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, said that US intelligence had picked up ‘flickers’ of terrorist activity among the rebel groups; this was described by senior British government figures as ‘very alarming’.
Shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander said in parliament that since there was evidence of the presence of al-Qaida-linked forces among the rebels, Britain should ‘proceed with very real caution’ in arming them. In response, William Hague downplayed the concern, saying that ‘of course we want to know about any links with al-Qaida, as we do about links with any organisations anywhere in the world, but given what we have seen of the interim transitional national council in Libya, I think it would be right to put the emphasis on the positive side’. Following a Freedom of Information request by the author to the Ministry of Defence, asking for the latter’s assessment of the presence of al-Qaida forces or their sympathisers in the Libyan rebel forces, the MoD replied that it did not even want to disclose whether it held such information because this would be contrary to the ‘public interest’.
The extent to which these Islamist and al-Qaida-linked elements may have received weapons or military support from the British, French, Egyptians or Saudi Arabians is not yet known, but officials in Chad and Algeria repeatedly expressed concerns that the al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb organisation might have acquired heavy weapons, thanks to the arms supply. What is known is that the state of Qatar was a major financial backer of the Libyan rebels, providing them with a massive $400 million worth of support, much of which was provided to the Islamist radicals. Moreover, Qatar also sent hundreds of troops to fight on the frontline and to provide infantry training to Libyan fighters in the western Nafusa mountains and in eastern Libya. Much of Qatar’s support went to the so-called 17 February Martyrs Brigade, one of the most influential rebel formations led by Abdel-Hakim Belhaj, a leading member of the LIFG who became the rebel military commander in Tripoli.
Qatar’s support for the Islamists in Libya was surely known to British ministers, as they consistently supported Qatar’s prominent role in the campaign against Qadafi, alongside deepening military and commercial cooperation, as we see in the next section. Indeed, Qatar’s chief-of-staff, Major-General Hamad bin Ali al-Atiya, later said: ‘We acted as the link between the rebels and Nato forces’. Qatar also played a key role alongside Britain in the ‘Libya contact group’ that coordinated policy against the Qadafi regime; the first meeting of the group, in April 2011, for example, was convened by Qatar and co-chaired by Britain in Doha. After Qadafi was overthrown, Libya’s new oil minister, Ali Tarhouni, issued a rebuke to Qatar saying that ‘anyone who wishes to come to our house should knock on the front door first’; this was described by the Economist as ‘a thinly-veiled warning to Qatar to stop favouring ambitious Islamists at the expense of the shaky central government’.
What is especially intriguing about this episode relates to the past British support for the LIFG to overthrow Qadafi and whether the British still saw LIFG fighters and other Libyan Islamists as, in effect, their boots on the ground, similar to the way the British saw the Kosovo Liberation Army, then working alongside al-Qaida, in the Kosovo war of 1999. This is surely likely but again the details are murky. Certainly, there were plenty of LIFG fighters available to challenge Qadafi both in Britain and Libya, helped by a reconciliation process between the regime and the LIFG begun in 2007 and presided over by Saif al-Islam al-Qadafi, the son of the ruler. This process resulted in 2009 in dozens of LIFG members being freed from jail in Libya in return for giving up their war against the regime. In July 2009, 30 LIFG members living in Britain, some of them senior figures in the group, signed on to the reconciliation process. British Home Office Control Orders imposed on them, having been regarded as posing a danger to UK national security, were, in some cases at least, dropped. Many of the released LIFG fighters are likely to have taken part in the uprising against Qadafi alongside those who had never been captured by the regime. A series of documentaries shown on the al-Jazeera news channel followed a group of Libyan exiles in London return to Libya to take part in the overthrow of Qadafi.
In mid-March 2011, when the Qadafi regime was still clinging to power in Tripoli, Libyan authorities paraded in front of the world’s media a British citizen captured in Libya and branded an Islamic terrorist. Salah Mohammed Ali Aboaoba said he was a member of the LIFG and had moved from Yemen to Britain in 2005, where he stayed until 2010, having been granted asylum, living with his family in Manchester and raising funds for the LIFG. There is no evidence that the British authorities facilitated the despatch of LIFG fighters from Britain to Libya, which may have been a re-run of the Kosovo conflict. Yet there is the suspicion that the Libyan reconciliation process could have enabled the British, and US, to maintain contacts with the LIFG and to regard them as potential future collaborators to remove Qadafi.
At the very least, Britain in 2011 once again found that its interests – mainly concerning oil – coincided with those of Islamist forces in Libya. By now, however, the British relationship with the LIFG was clearly quite complex. Blair’s government had been so keen to curry favour with Qadafi that in 2004 MI6 was involved in the seizure of LIFG leader Abdel-Hakim Belhaj and his deputy Sami al-Saadi. Belhaj was captured at Bangkok airport and claims he was handed over to the CIA, who he alleges tortured him and injected him with truth serum before flying him back to Tripoli for interrogation. Belhaj subsequently spent six years in solitary confinement at Tripoli’s notorious Abu Selim jail, and claims that he was questioned by three British agents, who ignored his complaints about mistreatment.
MI5 sent a delegation to Tripoli in 2005, apparently to cement relations with the Qadafi regime at a time when the British were concerned with the potential threat posed to British security by other dissident members of LIFG living in the UK, whom they believed were increasingly inspired by al-Qaida. MI5 also gave the Libyan regime the names, personal details and addresses of 50 LIFG members living in the UK. Once again, the episode highlights how expedient British policy towards the LIFG was – covertly supporting the organisation in the mid-1990s and acquiescing in its presence in London as a counter to the Libyan regime, then taking action against it at the behest of Qadafi, while later finding itself on the same side again and working alongside those, such as Qatar, providing significant military and financial support to it.
Filed under: Libya, Middle East, UK foreign policy | 1 Comment
Huffington Post, 22 August 2016
British wars abroad have two enemies. First, the official enemy, portrayed as a monster whom we always battle with noble intentions. But second is the enemy within – us, the public. The danger posed by the public is that we may stop elites doing what they want, hence we are subject to state ‘information operations’ to convey messages and obscure facts, usually via compliant media organisations. Current British policy in Syria, which is having the effect of prolonging the terrible war by supporting forces fighting the regime, involves outright lying by ministers at a level similar to that over Iraq in 2002-3.
Also in June 2015, Defence Secretary Michael Fallon told MPs that the UK had ‘begun’ training Syrian forces in bases outside Syria. In fact, this programme started three years earlier. The Guardian had earlier reported that UK intelligence teams were giving Syrian army officers ‘logistical and other advice’ at bases in Jordan in a US-led programme begun in 2012. The report noted that while the government denied providing direct military training to the rebels, special forces were training the Jordanian military.
American journalist Seymour Hersh wrote about an arms ‘rat line’ authorised in early 2012 that funnelled weapons and ammunition from Libya via southern Turkey and across the Syrian border to the opposition. MI6 supported this operation while funding came from Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, according to Hersh, who added that ‘many of those in Syria who ultimately received the weapons were jihadists, some of them affiliated with al-Qaida’.
Filed under: Middle East, Syria, Terrorism, UK foreign policy, Uncategorized, United Nations | 2 Comments