This is an edited extract from Secret Affairs: Britain’s Collusion with Radical Islam

Mark Curtis

The war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s was to mark the next phase in the development of global Islamic radicalism, building on the Islamic resurgence during the previous decade. Following the Soviet invasion of December 1979, tens of thousands of volunteers from around the Muslim world flocked to join their Afghan brethren and fight the communists. During the course of the war, they went on to form organised jihadi militant groups that would eventually target their home countries, and the West, in terrorist operations. These mujahideen, and the indigenous Afghan resistance groups to which they were attached, were bolstered by billions of dollars in aid and military training provided mainly by Saudi Arabia, the US and Pakistan, but also by Britain.

Britain already had a long history of supporting and working alongside Islamist forces by the time the Soviets crossed the Afghan border, but the collusion with the mujahideen in Afghanistan was of a different order to these earlier episodes, part of Whitehall’s most extensive covert operation since the Second World War. The problem with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, as Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher put it after six months in office, was that ‘if its hold on Afghanistan is consolidated, the Soviet Union will, in effect, have vastly extended its borders with Iran, will have acquired a border more than 1,000 miles long with Pakistan, and will have advanced to within 300 miles of the Straits of Hormuz, which control the Persian Gulf.’

In public, the prime minister and other British leaders denied British military involvement in Afghanistan and claimed to be seeking purely diplomatic solutions to the conflict. In reality, British covert aid to the Afghan resistance began to flow even before the Soviet invasion, while Whitehall authorised MI6 to conduct operations in the first year of the Soviet occupation, coordinated by MI6 officers in Islamabad in liaison with the CIA and Pakistan’s intelligence service, the ISI. British and US covert training programmes were critical, since many of the indigenous Afghan forces, and the vast majority of the jihadi volunteers arriving in Afghanistan, had no military training. It was a policy that was to have profound consequences.

One, two, three Afghan jihads

In the early 1970s, the ideas of the Muslim Brotherhood had gained wide circulation in Afghanistan, as Egyptian and Afghan students, studying at Cairo’s celebrated al-Azhar University, travelled to each other’s countries. One al-Azhar graduate was the most prominent of the Afghan Islamists: Burhanuddin Rabbani, a Tajik university professor who, in 1972, was elected head of the Jamaat-i-Islami (Islamic Society) in Afghanistan, a political party inspired both by the Muslim Brotherhood’s leading thinkers, Hassan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb, and by Abdul Ala Mawdudi’s party of the same name in Pakistan. Rabbani’s deputy in the Jamaat-i-Islami was Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, a Kabul University lecturer who also had affiliations with the Muslim Brotherhood, while a young Pashtun civil engineering graduate called Gulbuddin Hekmatyar was placed in charge of the party’s political activities.

The British regarded Afghanistan in the 1970s much as they had during the Great Game of the nineteenth century: it was a country where Britain’s commercial interests were small, but, officials noted, ‘it is worth taking some trouble to maintain the close relationship with the Afghan government’ since ‘Afghanistan is strategically located and the Afghan government often have interesting side-lights on the affairs of their neighbours’. A pro-British king, Zahir Shah, had ruled Afghanistan since 1933 with a regime acknowledged by the Foreign Office to be ‘weak and inefficient, hampered by an uncontrollable and irresponsible parliament, against a background of popular discontent, especially among students.’ Political parties were banned. At the same time, the Foreign Office continued, ‘our own relations with Afghanistan are now better than they have been for about 130 years’, mirroring the historical pattern of British support for unpopular regimes.

In July 1973, the king was overthrown in a military coup led by his brother-in-law, Mohammed Daoud Khan, a former prime minister. The coup was staged by left-wing officers, many of whom had been trained in the Soviet Union, though ‘Daoud was first and foremost a nationalist and determined to preserve Afghanistan’s independence and freedom of action’. Daoud instituted a republic, proclaimed himself President and made agreements on arms imports and military training with the Soviet Union. To shore up the regime, Daoud soon moved against a growing Islamist movement, jailing some leading figures, including Sayyaf, while others, including Rabbani and Ahmed Shah Massoud, a Tajik engineering student, fled over Afghanistan’s southern border to neighbouring Pakistan.

Pakistan, meanwhile, feared that Daoud would pursue the cause of ‘Pashtunistan’ – a territory under Kabul’s control, encompassing an area of a majority Pashtun population in southern Afghanistan and northern Pakistan; this region had been split in two by the Durand line, the British-drawn border imposed during colonial rule of India. The Pakistani government, under Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the founder of the Pakistan People’s Party who led a return to civilian rule in the country, moved to counter Daoud’s promotion of a Greater Afghanistan by backing an Islamist rebellion in the country. Bhutto’s government authorised a secret military training programme near Peshawar in Pakistan, where Afghans were given small arms and training by the elite Special Services Group under the auspices of the ISI. In July 1975, the ISI sent its Afghans into the eastern part of Afghanistan to conduct a wave of attacks on government offices and to inspire an uprising; however, this failed, owing to a lack of widespread support for it in Afghanistan.

Daoud’s regime became increasingly unpopular and repressive until another pro-Soviet coup was staged in April 1978 by Mohammed Taraki, of the main pro-Soviet political party in the country, the Peoples Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), which after gaining power signed a friendship treaty with the Soviet Union. During 1978, a popular rebellion against the new regime broke out during which the Islamic parties, described in US files as the ‘Muslim Brotherhood’, and backed by Pakistan’s ISI, tried to foment a second uprising by conducting a campaign of terrorism in Afghanistan, assassinating hundreds of teachers and civil servants.

In July 1979, President Carter, concerned about the new regime’s closeness to the Soviet Union, began sending covert aid to Islamist opponents of the regime, the third attempt by outside actors since 1975 to organise an uprising against a regime in Kabul. The operation was undertaken in liaison with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan and was part of a plan by an inter-governmental body established by Carter, the Nationalities Working Group, to promote unrest among the ethnic minorities in the Soviet Union, a strategy reminiscent of Britain’s age-old policies in the region. The secret aid was dispatched five months before the Soviet invasion; Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter’s national security adviser, later said that he told Carter of his hope that US aid would ‘induce a Soviet military intervention’ that would fail, and therefore ‘give the USSR its Vietnam War’.

In September 1979, after months of brutal infighting between two factions of the ruling PDPA, another coup brought Deputy Prime Minister Hafizullah Amin into power, seeking to control the PDPA as well as fight the US-backed mujahideen guerillas. With Amin’s regime under pressure from the insurgency, and with Moscow fearing that Amin was not sufficiently pliant to maintain a pro-Soviet government in Kabul, the Soviets invaded on 27 December, pouring troops and tanks into the country, killing Amin and installing former deputy prime minister, Babrak Karmal, as president. Immediately after the invasion, Brzezinski sent Carter a memo stating that ‘we should concert with Islamic countries both a propaganda campaign and a covert action campaign to help the rebels.’

Britain also appears to have begun to secretly support the Afghan rebels before the Soviet invasion. On 17 December 1979, a ‘special coordination’ meeting was held in the White House, chaired by Carter’s vice president, Walter Mondale, involving all key US government departments. As Soviet troops were amassing near the Afghanistan border, threatening to invade to shore up the communist regime, the meeting agreed to ‘explore with the Pakistanis and British the possibility of improving the financing, arming and communications of the rebel forces to make it as expensive as possible for the Soviets to continue their efforts’. Thus the British now began to play what had become their primary role vis-à-vis the Americans, that of junior partner in US-led covert action, a sharp contrast to the more equal role enjoyed by London in the 1950s; Britain would carry out specialist tasks such as training the Afghan resistance and dispatching covert operatives to support the fighting. Overall, the US plan was ‘to cast the Soviets as opposing Moslem religious and nationalist expressions.’

On 18 December, the day after the meeting, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, by now presumably informed of the request from the White House meeting, gave a keynote speech to the establishment US think tank, the Foreign Policy Association, in New York, entitled ‘The West in the World Today’. In it, she robustly championed Islam as an alternative to Marxism. Referring to the Iranian hostage crisis that had begun the previous month, Thatcher said that ‘I do not believe that we should judge Islam by events in Iran’, continuing:

‘There is a tide of self-confidence and self-awareness in the Muslim world which preceded the Iranian revolution, and will outlast its present excesses. The West should recognise this with respect, not hostility. The Middle East is an area where we all have much at stake. It is in our own interests, as well as in the interests of the people of that region, that they build on their own deep religious traditions. We do not wish to see them succumb to the fraudulent appeal of imported Marxism’.

Thatcher’s willingness to put aside the Iranian militants’ seizure of the US embassy in Tehran and her evocation of the contrast between Islam’s ‘traditions’ and ‘imported’ Marxism was striking. This was the speech – endlessly quoted in TV documentaries – where Thatcher, in response to those like the Soviets who accused her of being an ‘Iron Lady’, said: ‘They’re quite right, I am’. Yet a key part of Thatcher’s call to counter what she described as ‘the immediate threat from the Soviet Union’ was a very traditional British reliance on Islamist forces in the region.

The month after the invasion, Thatcher told parliament that the term ‘rebels’ being used by the newspapers ‘is a strange word to me of people who are fighting to defend their own country against a foreign invader. Surely they are genuine freedom fighters, fighting to free their country from an alien oppressor.’ She described Afghanistan in language referring to Islam and Muslims that was striking, saying that it was ‘an Islamic country, a member of the non-aligned movement and a country that posed no conceivable threat to their [the Soviets] country or their interests’, and that ‘the Soviet Union has driven a wedge into the heart of the Muslim world.’

On a later visit to a refugee camp near the Afghan border, Thatcher told her audience that ‘you left a godless country because you refused to live under a godless communist system which is trying to destroy your religion’, and that ‘the hearts of the free world are with you’. She added that ‘we shall continue, together with Pakistan, the Islamic conference, the non-aligned movement, with the vast majority of the world’s countries, to work for a solution.’ The invocations to Islam are again striking, showing that Britain, once again, was prepared to openly identify its own geo-strategic and oil interests with those of speficically Islamic forces.

Organisation of the jihad

The US’s key allies in the region – Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Pakistan – soon began organising the war of resistance, with US and British support. The Saudi regime, media and mosques drummed up support for the jihad against the godless communists all over the kingdom, while the Saudi-backed Muslim World League also played a key role in sending financial aid. The Saudis, along with the US, were the chief bankrollers of the war, each providing around $3 billion. Saudi funding was managed by Prince Turki, head of intelligence, who worked with, among others, Osama Bin Laden, the son of a wealthy businessman with close connections to the royal family. Using his own financial resources to aid the Afghan resistance, Bin Laden was among the first of the Arabs to join the jihad, arriving there in 1980 and staying for most of the war; though one analyst notes that Bin Laden also visited London in the early 1980s, delivering several sermons at the Regents Park Islamic Centre. Saudi King Fahd, who assumed power in the kingdom in 1982, and Crown Prince Abdullah – the present-day king – both also met with and funded Bin Laden.

Bin Laden used his own money to recruit and train Arab volunteers in Pakistan and Afghanistan and, under the approving eye of Pakistani ISI officers, cultivated good relations with Afghan commanders such as Hekmatyar and Massoud. There is no evidence of direct British or US support to Bin Laden, but one CIA source has claimed that US emissaries met directly with Bin Laden, and it was he who first suggested that the mujahideen be supplied with Stinger anti-aircraft missiles. American journalist John Cooley notes that ‘delighted by his impeccable Saudi credentials, the CIA gave Bin Laden free rein in Afghanistan’ to organise Islamist fighters.

A second major player was Sadat’s Egypt, which organised transport to Afghanistan for the Egyptian volunteers, including Muslim Brothers, who were to make up a large proportion of the anti-Soviet resistance. After Sadat’s assassination by Islamists in 1981, some of those who had been temporarily imprisoned later made the trip, including Mohamed Atef, who became a close aide of Bin Laden. Many of the hardline Egyptian Islamists fought with Hekmatyar’s Hezb-e-Islami.

Pakistan, which was now under martial law following General Zia ul-Haq’s July 1977 coup against the Bhutto government, organised and managed the Afghan resistance on the ground. Trained in the British Indian Army in the 1940s and subsequently at Fort Bragg in the US, and a favourite of the US Defence Intelligence Agency, Zia had also seen service in Jordan in 1970, leading mercenaries to crush the Palestinians on behalf of King Hussein during Black September. After seizing power, Zia proceeded to project himself and Pakistan as the champion of Islam, and ‘narrow and bigoted religiosity became Pakistan’s state policy’. Lacking a popular political base, Zia sought the support of the mullahs, and went even further than Sadat in ‘Islamising’ Pakistani society. Zia’s government implemented sharia law in 1979 and was backed by the powerful Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) which provided the main channel of Arab financial aid to the mujahideen in Afghanistan. The JI’s network of Deobandi religious schools, or madrassas, educated and radicalised tens of thousands of young people across Pakistan in the 1970s and ’80s, aided by the massive influx of money that poured in to support the Islamist militant cause in the region.

The covert arms deliveries to the Afghan rebels were organised by and routed through Pakistan, and specifically its ISI. At a meeting with Brzezinski in January 1980, General Zia insisted on the CIA providing no direct arms supplies to the Afghans, in order to retain Pakistani control over the operation. Of the huge quantities of arms exported to Pakistan, for supposed onward distribution to the Afghan groups, around a third were sold onto the black market by Pakistani forces, never reaching the intended recipients. From 1983 to 1987 the annual shipment of weaponry rose from 10,000 to 65,000 tonnes.

The Afghan resistance was organised into seven main groups, known as the Peshawar Seven, after the city in northwestern Pakistan where they were based. The four most important groups were all hardline, militant Islamists, professing holy war and committed to building an Islamic society. One historian has called them the Ikhwahabis – influenced both by the ideology of the Muslim Brothers (Ikhwaniism) and by the ultra-conservative ideology of the Saudis (Wahhabism). The Hezb-e-Islami was split into two factions. One was led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who had broken away from Rabbani’s Jamaat-i-Islami, and was dominated by Muslim Brothers as well as being the most powerful of the Afghan factions which received the largest share of external aid, notably from the ISI and Pakistan’s Jamaat-i-Islami. Hezb-e-Islami’s other faction was led by Younis Khalis, a sixty-year-old mullah and scholar whose military commanders included Jalaluddin Haqqani and Abdul Haq, whom we encounter later. Then there was Burhaneddin Rabbani’s Jamaat-i-Islami, whose military commander in the field was Ahmed Shah Massoud. The fourth group was the Ittihad Islami (Islamic Unity), led by Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, a Wahhabi with links to Saudi Arabia, which gave most of its support to Sayyaf along with Hetmatyar; it was Sayyaf with whom Bin Laden, and also Khaled Sheikh Mohammed, the architect of 9/11, first went into battle.

The non-Afghan Muslim volunteers were attached to these groups, most joining Hekmatyar’s and Sayyaf’s. Estimates of the numbers who trained and fought in Afghanistan vary widely, from 25–85,000. Although their contribution to the military effort against the Soviet occupiers was significant at times, it was negligible compared to the Afghan forces themselves, who numbered up to 250,000 at any time. The chief ideologue of the ‘Afghan Arab’ volunteers was Abdullah Azzam, the Palestinian Muslim Brother and university professor welcomed into Saudi Arabia in the 1960s whose teaching at Jeddah had influenced the young Bin Laden. Azzam had previously been in charge of education at the Muslim World League, which sent him to Islamabad in 1980 to teach at the International Islamic University, itself part-funded by the League and supervised by the Muslim Brotherhood. In 1984, Azzam moved to Peshawar after securing the League’s approval to open a branch there. This allowed him to set up the Maktab al-Khidamat (Afghan Services Bureau or MAK) to organise the jihadi volunteer force, manage its funds and propagate the idea of an international armed struggle. The Peshawar office was established with the help of Pakistan’s Jamaat-i-Islami and initially financed by Bin Laden together with large donations from Saudi Arabia. The MAK disbursed $200 million of Middle Eastern and Western, mainly American and British, aid destined for the Afghan jihad; its recruitment effort around the world often drew on the network of Muslim Brotherhood offices.

British covert action

The British role in the Afghan war mainly involved covert military training and arms supplies, but also extended beyond Afghanistan into the Muslim republics of the southern Soviet Union. Britain played a vital role in support of the US and acted as a de facto covert arm of the US government; its role often went beyond what US forces, faced with far greater congressional oversight than existed in Britain, were able or willing to undertake.

Thus, British covert forces, unlike those of the US, played a direct part in the war, undertaking scouting and back-up roles with the resistance groups they and their colleagues had trained. Indeed, during the early stages of the war British SAS commandos were going in and out of Afghanistan from Pakistan, moving supplies to the Afghan groups independently of the Pakistanis – and contrary to General Zia’s demands. Britain initially proposed to the US to ship Soviet-made arms to the Afghan forces in order to disguise their origin; President Carter agreed to this operation, apparently unaware that the arms were to be supplied through the network of Monzer al-Kassar, the British agent who was also supplying Palestinian radicals, noted in Chapter 6. It was at the request of the US that, from spring 1986, Britain shipped 600 ‘Blowpipe’ shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles, mothballed following their ineffectual role in the Falklands War, to the Afghan groups. MI6 also helped the CIA early in the war by activating long-established British networks of contacts in the country – a similar role, in fact, to that played by MI6 in the 1953 coup in Iran. Thus Britain could come in very handy, although, as one British intelligence expert noted, the Americans ‘paid most of the bills’; by now, the specialist British role in covert action depended on American largesse.

The SAS worked alongside US special forces in training Pakistan’s Special Services Group (SSG), whose commandos guided guerilla operations in Afghanistan. British and US instruction was intended to enable SSG officers to pass on their training to the Afghan groups and mujahideen volunteers. One SSG commander at this time was Brigadier Pervez Musharraf, who spent seven years with the unit and who is believed to have trained mujahideen. Musharraf had been chosen by Zia as a devout Deobandi and had been recommended by the JI, according to some analysts; it was then that Musharraf came into contact with Osama Bin Laden. Musharraf recently wrote in his autobiography that: ‘We helped create the mujahideen, fired them with religious zeal in seminaries, armed them, paid them, fed them, and sent them to a jihad against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.’ He claims that neither Pakistan nor the US realised what Osama Bin Laden ‘might later do with the organisation that we had all enabled him to establish.’

US instruction of the Pakistanis and senior Afghan commanders was in areas such as the use of explosives, automatic weapons and remote control devices for triggering mines and bombs, demolition and arson – practices that would later be used in terrorist operations. The CIA provided a variety of arms to the ISI, including plastic explosives, sniper rifles and sophisticated electronic timing and detonation devices that made it easier to set off explosions from a remote location – ‘dual use’ items that could be used both for attacking military targets and also in terrorist operations. Some training programmes also included instruction in how to stab a sentry from behind, murder and assassination of enemy leaders, strangulation and murderous karate chops. Brigadier Mohammed Yousaf of the ISI later noted that training ranged from striking a ‘knife between the shoulder blades of a Soviet soldier shopping in the bazaar’ to the ‘placing of a briefcase bomb in a senior official’s office’. Afghan educational establishments were considered fair game as targets, he explained, since they were staffed by ‘communists indoctrinating their students with Marxist dogma’.

Britain also directly trained Afghan forces, much of which was contracted out to ‘private’ security firms, a policy cleared in Whitehall; the main company was KMS – ‘Keenie-Meenie Services’, the name given to mercenaries fighting for Britain in the brutal war in Kenya in the 1950s. KMS training, led by former SAS officers, was provided to small numbers of Afghan commando units at secret MI6 and CIA bases in Saudi Arabia and Oman; the latter bases were also used as staging or refueling points for supply flights on their way to Pakistan. In 1987, the Observer reported a secret proposal from KMS to the CIA to send small teams of ex-SAS instructors into Afghanistan to train rebels in ‘demolition, sabotage, reconnaissance and para-medicine’.

Ken Connor, who served in the SAS for twenty-three years, says that he was part of a team of ‘ex-SAS’ soldiers who trained selected junior commanders in the mujahideen in Scotland and northern England in 1983. The Afghans were smuggled into Britain disguised as tourists, and trained in three-week cycles at secret camps. ‘They were well-armed and ferocious fighters, but they lacked battlefield organisation,’ Connor writes. Training involved various military activities, including the ‘planning of operations, the use of explosives and the fire control of heavy weapons – mortars and artillery’, ‘how to attack aircraft and how to lay anti-aircraft ambushes aligned on the centre of a runway’ and mounting ‘anti-armour ambushes’. Connor notes that there was ‘strong empathy’ between the British trainers and the mujahideen but that there was little warmth between the mujahideen and the British government; ‘it was strictly a marriage of convenience between two organisations that had nothing else in common.’

Various Afghan groups were supported by Britain. One initially favoured force was the Mahaz-i-Milli Islam (National Islamic Front of Afghanistan or NIFA). Unusually, it was led by a layman rather than a cleric, Sayyad Pir Gailani, and supported the restoration of the former king, Zahir Shah – a policy in tune with Whitehall’s historical preference for monarchs; Whitehall appears at first to have regarded Zahir Shah as a possible future leader once the Soviets had been defeated. The NIFA forces trained by Britain were commanded by Brigadier General Rahmatullah Safi, a former senior officer in the royal Afghan army who, after the king has been deposed, was living in exile in Britain. Safi later claimed to have trained around 8,000 men in NIFA’s camps; by the late 1990s, he was still living in London and had become the European representative of the Taliban, now in control of Afghanistan.

Britain also supported the Islamist groups. One of the MI6 officers in Islamabad coordinating British assistance to the mujahideen was Alastair Crooke who, it was later reported, ‘got to know some of the militants who would become leaders of al-Qaida’. He was described by Milt Bearden, CIA station chief in Pakistan in the mid-1980s, as ‘a natural on the frontier’ and ‘a British agent straight out of the Great Game’. Training was provided to the forces of Hadji Abdul Haq, a military commander with the Younis Khalis faction of the Hezb-e-Islami. As a favour to the CIA, MI6 ran the operation to supply Blowpipe missiles to Haq in 1986. Haq was one of those figures whom MI6 introduced to the CIA in 1981, which then had very few Afghan contacts; the CIA subsequently began a long relationship with Haq. After the latter had raised a fighting force, the CIA began shipping weapons to him and he became an intermediary between the CIA, MI6 and the Kabul front. Haq’s office in Peshawar, the organising centre of the resistance in Pakistan, was often full of MI6 and CIA operatives who supplied him with maps of new Soviet targets they wanted him to hit.

But Afghan resistance operations were not confined to Soviet military targets. In Hadji Abdul Haq, Britain and the US had backed somebody prepared to use terrorism to achieve his aims. In September 1984, Haq ordered the planting of a bomb at Kabul airport that killed 28 people, many of them students preparing to fly to the Soviet Union. Eighteen months later, in March 1986, he became the first Afghan commander to be welcomed to Britain by Margaret Thatcher, and subsequently held several meetings with US President Reagan. Responding to British criticism of his role in the airport blast, Haq said that the purpose of the bomb was ‘to warn people not to send their children to the Soviet Union’. A Downing Street spokesman said at the same time that ‘the prime minister has a degree of sympathy with the Afghan cause inasmuch as they’re trying to rid their country of invaders.’

Another of the military commanders in Younis Khalis’ faction of the Hezb-e-Islami was Jalaluddin Haqqani, who received a large quantity of US weapons, much of which were used to help equip the Arab volunteers. A later US Defence Intelligence Agency report noted that Haqqani was ‘the tribal leader most exploited by the ISI during the Soviet–Afghan war to facilitate the introduction of Arab extremists.’ Milt Bearden later wrote that Haqqani was ‘America’s best friend during the anti-Soviet war.’ The CIA and the ISI came to rely on him for testing and experimenting with new weapons systems and tactics. Haqqani would go on to become a leading military commander in the Taliban and the ‘Haqqani network’ is presently one of the major Taliban factions fighting the British in Afghanistan. Another of Khalis’s junior commanders in the 1980s was Mohammed Omar, who would go on to lead the Taliban as Mullah Omar.

Britain also backed Ahmed Shah Massoud, who had become a prominent military commander in Rabbani’s Jamaat-i-Islami group. British support for him began early in the war and involved money, weapons and an annual mission to assess his group’s needs. These missions – consisting of two MI6 officers and military instructors – also provided training to Massoud’s junior commanders and English lessons to his trusted aides. Britain also supplied communications equipment. One British official with knowledge of the operation spoke of how, with British help, Massoud’s forces ‘had a communication system which was very nearly priceless and acquired the knowledge of how to use it and how to organise. Those were subtle things but probably worth over a hundred planeloads of Armalites or Stingers.’ The CIA began to supply Massoud in 1984, and is said to have relied on MI6 for reports about him.

The SAS is also believed to have trained Massoud’s forces to use sophisticated weaponry such as US Stinger anti-aircraft missiles which replaced the British-supplied Blowpipes in 1986. These missiles were used by the mujahideen to shoot down several passenger aircraft, with heavy loss of life. Ken Connor notes that ‘newspaper reports linking Britain with the supply of the missiles led to furious Soviet protests, but “deniability” allowed the British government to maintain an air of injured innocence.’

After the Afghan War, the US would spend tens of millions of dollars in a belated attempt to buy back Stinger missiles that were proving lucrative on the black market. The British-supplied Blowpipes have also since resurfaced. A quantity were acquired by the Taliban after they took power in Kabul in 1996; following the Anglo–American defeat of the Taliban in February 2002, over 200 surface-to-air missiles, including 62 Blowpipes, were recovered by US forces. Even in 2005 – nearly two decades after they were first supplied – there were still reports of Blowpipes being unearthed in Afghanistan.

Britain also extended backing to the extremist Hekmatyar, who was invited to Downing Street in 1986 and met Foreign Office officials in London in 1988. Most US aid went to Hekmatyar – by conservative estimates, at least $600 million. Hekmatyar was also a ruthless killer, famed for skinning infidels alive, while his group was responsible for some of the most horrific atrocities of the war, such as the slaughter of members of other Afghan groups that were seen as rivals. Hekmatyar worked closely with Bin Laden and took a virulently anti-Western line: Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and Qadafi’s Libya were also funders. A US Congress task force described his group in 1985 as ‘the most corrupt’ of the Afghan parties.

British covert action in the region went beyond Afghanistan, and involved further conspiring with Hekmatyar’s forces in operations inside the Soviet Union itself. Beginning in 1984, CIA Director William Casey stepped up the war against the Soviets when the CIA, together with MI6 and the ISI, agreed to a plan to launch guerrilla attacks into the southern Soviet republics of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, from where Soviet troops in Afghanistan received their supplies. These were the first attacks inside the Soviet Union involving US and British covert action since the 1950s. Activities included sabotage operations such as rocket attacks on villages in Tajikistan, and on other Soviet targets like airfields and vehicle convoys in Uzbekistan. Some of these operations were led by Hekmatyar, and all were equipped by Pakistan’s ISI. ‘Scores of attacks were made’ up to twenty-five kilometres into the Soviet republics, reaching their peak in 1986, according to former Pakistani intelligence officer Mohammed Yousaf. He also wrote that ‘they were probably the most secret and sensitive operations of the war’, and that the Soviet Union’s ‘specific worry was the spread of fundamentalism and its influence on Soviet central Asian Muslims’.

Propaganda operations were also conducted, involving Afghan rebels distributing Korans in the Uzbek language, which had been printed by the CIA. MI6 funded the leader of Pakistan’s Jamaat-i-Islami, Qazi Hussain Ahmad – who had close links with Hekmatyar and Massoud – to pump money and Islamic literature into the Soviet republics of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan to incite the local religious circles to rebel against their communist governments. British expediency was again in evidence since officials could have had few illusions as to who they were supporting. British documents of the mid-1950s had described the JI, then led by its founder, Abdul Ala Mawdudi, as an ‘extreme right-wing Islamic party (comparable to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt)’:

‘[It] has tentacles all over the country, which might enable it to exert wide influence if a propitious occasion ever arose … This is a revolutionary and reactionary movement led by a clever, ambitious and unscrupulous man. In theory they wish to establish a state in Pakistan which will be run as nearly as possible in accordance with the tenets of the Koran and Sunnah … The state they would like to establish would be virtually a dictatorship ruled by an Amir following the precedents of the earlier Caliphs … The Jamaat-i-Islami is a potentially dangerous movement, comparable in many ways with the Muslim Brotherhood’.

The reckoning

After Soviet forces were expelled from Afghanistan in 1989, and the pro-Soviet government of Mohammed Najibullah was overthrown in 1992, Hekmatyar’s forces fought Massoud’s for control of Kabul in the ensuing civil war, killing thousands of civilians in the process. By 1996 the Taliban had driven Hekmatyar’s forces out of Kabul and soon taken control of the country, forcing Hekmatyar into exile. By now, the secular leftist political forces in the country had been eliminated and Afghanistan’s immediate future would be decided only by the Islamist groups.

Most importantly, by the end of the Soviet occupation, the foreign mujahideen veterans were forging a radical and violent utopianism that called for jihad as armed struggle. This was based on the ideology of the Saudi-sponsored Wahhabis and Abdullah Azzam’s call for martyrdom, and drew on personal experiences of brutal conflict and the belief that Islam alone had defeated the Soviets. Thousands of previously untrained volunteers had received military instruction in often sophisticated techniques while gaining first-hand experience of fighting. The Arab–Afghan volunteers, especially those from Egypt, Yemen, Indonesia, Algeria and Libya, now saw their primary objective as returning to their homelands to struggle against their own governments, while Bin Laden hoped to unite them in a global force.

Bin Laden’s al-Qaida organisation was a direct product of the war, set up in 1988 out of the networks that were developing between the Afghans and the foreign fighters. Tony Blair’s foreign secretary, Robin Cook, would later say that the name al-Qaida (meaning ‘the base’) derived from ‘the database’ – ‘the computer file of the thousands of mujahideen who were recruited and trained with help from the CIA’ – and, he might have added, MI6. Several of the Afghan camp networks built at this time with CIA, ISI or Saudi aid would be subsequently used by al-Qaida as bases for training and planning terrorist attacks, including Tora Bora, south of Jalalabad, which was constructed by one of Younis Khalis’ commanders. Al-Qaida would likely not have emerged at all, at least not in its extent, had it not been for the infrastructure of the Afghan resistance built partly with US and British backing. Specific British contributions included specialised military training provided to various forces, covert military supplies and support for the larger US covert role in the war; Whitehall thus made a British contribution to the imminent emergence of global Islamist terrorism.


This is an edited extract from Secret Affairs: Britain’s Collusion with Radical Islam

Mark Curtis

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’.


This is an edited extract from Secret Affairs: Britain’s Collusion with Radical Islam

Mark Curtis

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.


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’.

We are now meant to be believe that all this was beyond the knowledge of British officials at the time.

The third case to answer relates to the arms embargo, which was imposed on Libya in 2011. Resolution 1973 called on UN member states to ensure the ‘strict implementation’ of this embargo. The Foreign Affairs Committee concluded that the ‘international community’, without mentioning Britain, turned a blind eye to the supply of weapons to the rebels’. This is a very polite way of putting it. We might first ask what those ‘embedded’ British forces were actually doing in Libya and whether they were involved in supplying arms; it seems the Committee didn’t bother to.

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.


Mark Curtis

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.


This is an edited extract from Secret Affairs: Britain’s Collusion with Radical Islam

Mark Curtis

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.

 

 


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.




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