An extract from Unpeople: Britain’s Secret Human Rights Abuses
British planners’ economic goals are revealed with crystal clear clarity in the secret record. A July 1970 report entitled ‘Priorities in our foreign policy’, for example, notes that Britain needs ‘to act in support of our commercial and financial interests throughout the world’ and that:
‘We must contribute within our economic capability to international stability and the protection of our interests in the rest of the world from which so many of our raw materials derive… We shall need to pay particular attention to the Middle East, Southeast Asia and Southern Africa’.
The key to this basic aim is to ensure that other countries establish economic climates favourable to British, and Western, companies. A Foreign Office report from 1968 states that the primary goal of foreign policy is to make Britain economically strong, meaning that ‘we should bend our energies to help produce a world economic climate in which our external trade, our income from invisibles and our balance of payments can prosper’. The key to this is ‘freer’ global trade and ‘increasing our efforts to open up new markets in Europe, Latin America and the Far East’.
Ensuring a favourable investment climate was (and is) especially important for countries where Britain had important oil interests. The Cabinet Office noted in 1958, for example, that one of Britain’s aims was ‘to maintain political conditions favourable to our trading requirements throughout the world, and especially in the Middle East’. An interdepartmental Whitehall group noted in 1968 the ‘need in developing countries for an economic and political climate attractive to expatriate capital, and the advantages of the status quo both to security and to low prices’.
‘The broad aim’, the Foreign Office noted in 1968, ‘is to inhibit undue governmental interference in the international oil trade’. This meant that Britain should ‘oppose, or at least attempt to moderate’ resolutions in the United Nations that would encourage governments to ‘expropriate or acquire too direct a control over Western oil investments’.
British planners were at pains to counter the trend towards nationalisation since ‘expropriation nearly always results in a measure of loss for the UK interests involved’. This policy was promoted in the knowledge that nationalisation was undertaken in ‘the hope that a large share of the profits may be retained locally and increased funds be made available for local investment’. Thus British planners were perfectly aware that in opposing nationalisation they were also opposing likely improvements in the welfare of the people of those countries.
This aim of ensuring favourable investment climates for big business – and countering governments who do not – has been the primary goal of numerous postwar British and US military interventions, in Iran, Kenya, Indonesia, British Guiana, Central America and elsewhere. This is also the very basic root of Britain’s global economic policy, promoted in bilateral ‘aid’ programmes, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund’s ‘structural adjustment’ programmes and in the shaping of the rules of the World Trade Organisation. The consequences of promoting privatisation and liberalisation have often been devastating for hundreds of millions of people around the world as shown, for example, in the effects of ‘shock therapy’ programmes in Eastern Europe and Africa. The most basic of British goals in the world bears significant responsibility for maintaining, often deepening, global poverty – a fact unmentionable in the mainstream political culture.
The files indicate that strategies to address third world poverty are basically to be opposed except where they enhance British business interests. The Foreign Office noted in 1968, for example, that:
‘We should for the time being adopt a “heads down” attitude in regard to proposals which, however, desirable in themselves, would throw a significantly greater strain upon our balance of payments, eg commodity schemes directed primarily to raise prices rather than at stability of markets’.
Another report from the same year, 1968, noted that Britain should assist economic development in the poorest countries ‘especially those which are or can be expected to become important sources of raw materials or important markets for British goods and services’. Britain’s ‘aid’ programme was thus seen as ‘as a weapon in the armoury of foreign policy’, in the words of the Foreign Office in 1958. Ten years later, it similarly stated that:
‘We must ensure that our aid programme supports not only the developmental needs of recipient countries but also our own commercial and foreign policies… Wherever possible we should try to shape our aid programme to fit more appropriately the pattern of our trade and investment interests in different countries’.
This role for ‘aid’ has been long understood by planners: the forerunner of the modern aid programme was the Colonial Development Corporation, which was established after the Second World War ‘to promote and undertake the expansion the supplies for colonial foodstuffs, raw materials and other commodities’, a 1947 Cabinet memorandum reads.
Critical to achieving these basic economic goals is Britain’s political power – or ‘prestige’ or ‘status’ as it is variously referred to in the planning files. Promoting British ‘prestige’ is often seen as important in itself; indeed British planners have traditionally been obsessed with their standing in the world, and this factor has often been more important than economic goals in explaining policy.
The Foreign Office noted in 1958, for example, that ‘there is no alternative to remaining a Power with interests in many parts of the world’ for two reasons. The first is that ‘the UK is not self-sufficient’ and ‘must maintain and expand our level of trade or lose our standard of life’. The second is that ‘our prosperity is closely linked to the maintenance of the Sterling Area [the large part of the world where the pound was the then the dominant currency] and to the status of the pound’. Both of these depended on ‘our ability to preserve our influence in the world’.
As the Foreign Office noted in 1968:
‘For the foreseeable future our direct economic worldwide interests will require us to do what we can to maintain and increase our existing influence outside Europe. Indeed, in terms of stark economic interest, we cannot afford to lose such influence’.
In 1950, at a time when Britain was increasingly being forced to ‘decolonise’, the Foreign Office had warned:
‘If the United Kingdom were voluntarily to abandon her position or political influence in selected areas, she would probably find herself not only without economic access to those areas but unable, through loss of prestige, to prevent a further involuntary decline in her influence elsewhere and consequently a general decline in the strength of the Western powers’.
Eight years later, in 1958, the Foreign Office similarly warned of the dangers of decolonisation occurring too fast:
‘Our remaining colonial territories are likely to be in many, if not most years, net contributors to our gold and dollar reserves. Premature withdrawal would lead to collapse of markets and sources of supply for the United Kingdom’.
However, ‘timely grants of independence would not endanger economic links with the United Kingdom’ which were seen as ‘sacrifices to maximise long term investment in colonies’.
Maintaining such ‘great power’ status will only come at a price. The Cabinet Office noted in 1960, for example, that:
‘There are many desirable ways of using our resources at home, especially the improvement of our standard of living through better social services and the increasing of our wealth through productive investment. But we cannot exert influence in the world unless we devote resources sufficient to underwrite our external responsibilities’.
Therefore, the price for the British elite to maintain its global prestige will be paid by the general public. The £3 billion forked out for invading and occupying Iraq is but the recent cost.
Possessing nuclear weapons is another way British elites maintain their status in the world. The Cabinet Office in 1960, for example, noted that in the 1950s ‘our influence throughout the world was enhanced’ by ‘being a nuclear power with a significant potential both in weapons and delivery systems’. It noted that ‘unilateral nuclear disarmament is, of course, within our power’ but this would threaten Britain’s security and ‘would undermine our standing in the Atlantic Alliance and in the world as a whole’. It was largely to uphold the British position with the US that Attlee’s Labour government acquired nuclear weapons after the war.
The twin goals of ensuring favourable investment climates and maintaining ‘great power’ status have been especially important in three key regions – the Middle East, Southeast Asia and Southern Africa. In the Middle East, oil has of course been of paramount importance; the Foreign Office had described the region’s oil in 1947 as ‘a vital prize for any power interested in world influence or domination’. The need to maintain vast profits from the operations of British oil companies was considered in chapter 4. Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s private secretary, Oliver Wright, noted in 1964 that:
‘We have really only two interests in the Middle East. The first is access on reasonable terms to Middle East oil. The second is overflying rights across the Middle East barrier so that we may get to the other parts of the world where our presence is necessary’.
In the Middle East as elsewhere the British strategy under ‘decolonisation’ was to ensure that power passed to local clients. In this way, control over oil could be maintained. The Cabinet Office noted in 1958, for example, that in the Middle East many countries have:
‘… evolved to a point which makes it impossible to subject them to further tutelage… The basic task which confronts the United Kingdom in the Middle East is thus to pass smoothly from the previous patron-client relationship, suitable to our former strategic needs, to a new and more equally balanced commercial relationship which will preserve for as long as possible the continued supply of oil as a mutually advantageous basis of trade’.
Not only Arab countries but also Iran was important for oil. Indeed, Iran had a particular importance, as the Joint Intelligence Committee noted in 1961:
‘Iran is the only source of Middle Eastern oil which is not under the control of an Arab government, and present production could be considerably increased in an emergency. This strengthens the West’s hand vis-à-vis the Arab oil producing countries’.
Noticeably absent from the government’s planning record is anything about the concerns of the people of the region. Nowhere that I have seen in any of these files, covering several decades, are the interests or wishes of the inhabitants of the Middle East even considered, let alone a major factor in policy-making.
Southeast Asia was also recognised as critical, mainly owing to British investments in the region, notably Malaya. The war in Malaya in the 1950s was described by the Foreign Office as ‘very much in defence of [the] rubber industry’. It was fought at a time when Malaya was the largest net earner of dollars in the sterling area, due mainly to its rubber and tin exports, then partly in the hands of British companies. By 1962, British companies had invested £810 million in Southeast Asia. A Foreign Office paper noted two other interests in the region – that sea and air routes from Britain to Australia and New Zealand pass through it, and that it was a ‘conspicuous battlefield in the cold war’.
Southern Africa, and especially South Africa, has always been of primary importance to British planners as a field for commercial investment – a priority which was never seriously upset through the long decades of apartheid. A Foreign Office paper from 1964 notes that in 1961 the return on British investment in the region was £124 million – 26 per cent of the global total. A Cabinet Office study of 1959 summed up the role of Southern Africa:
‘General interests of the West will be: (1) excluding Sino-Soviet infiltration and keeping local governments and populations on our side or, at least, benevolently neutral; (2) developing trade and guarding access to raw materials’.
A 1967 Cabinet Office report noted two big political issues of the time – the international debates over the racist regimes in Rhodesia and South Africa – and stated that ‘apart from this our major interests in both Middle and Southern Africa in the long run are economic and are substantial’. ‘Our only political interest’ in the region, it added, ‘is to do what we can to create conditions… in which we can pursue our important economic interests to the best advantage’. This meant that ‘we should positively seek to create in Middle African states an atmosphere conducive to British trade and investment and to the presence of British nationals’.
As regards apartheid South Africa, ‘we should continue to make it clear… that we cannot contemplate economic or political warfare with South Africa’. Rather, South Africa ‘is likely to remain impregnable for a long time to come and must therefore be left to evolve in whatever way her own internal pressures dictate’, while ‘we are prepared to do business with South Africa and the Portuguese colonies’, referring to Mozambique and Angola. The most important issue overall was to ‘have regard to the protection of our investments and other economic interests’.
If anyone believes that the interests of mere Africans have ever had anything to do with British policy towards Africa, they should read these files.
Seeing Africa primarily as a source of raw materials and a field for investment was a direct continuation of pre-war and immediate postwar policy. Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin noted in 1948, for example, that the basic need was ‘to develop the African continent and to make its resources available to all’ (ie, us). This echoed the view of Field Marshall Montgomery, who the previous year had noted the ‘immense possibilities that exist in British Africa for development’ and ‘the use to which such development could be put to enable Great Britain to maintain her standard of living, and to survive’. ‘These lands contain everything we need’, he wrote, such as minerals, food and labour. But, he said, ‘there must be a grand design for African development as a whole’. Britain needed to develop the continent since the African ‘is a complete savage and is quite incapable of the developing the country [sic] himself’.
Latin America was even more starkly viewed as simply a source of raw materials. A 1958 Foreign Office paper noted, for example, two British aims:
‘(1) Promotion of trade and good relations. Latin America is an important source of raw materials for the United Kingdom and in some cases might become a vital one if the delivery of supplies from other parts of the world were to be interrupted, eg, oil, tin, copper and meat; (2) The retention in the Western camp of an economically rich area which has comparatively secure communications and is at present opposed to communist penetration’.
This is an extract from Chapter 8 of Mark Curtis’ book, Unpeople: Britain’s Secret Human Rights Abuses, where the full references can be found.
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D.Tatham, Middle East Department, FCO to FCO, 10 September 73
Notes his talk today with Mohammed Al Fawzan, the Director of Foreign Broadcasting in the Saudi Ministry of Information:
‘Mohammed had been very ably fielded by Mr Morris in our embassy in Paris who had advised the COI [Central Office of Information] of the collapse of his French tour. The COI had provided him with a large Jaguar and an attractively leggy blonde and Mohammed seemed in a thoroughly anglophile mood’.
National Archives, FCO 8 / 2105
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The British files remain largely censored on the SAS overthrow of the Sultan of Oman, Said bin Taimur, in July 1970, and the placement in power of his son, Qaboos. But some of the files from the National Archives that are available are outlined below. Qaboos, consistently backed by Britain for the past 46 years, remains in absolute control of Oman and is now one of the world’s longest serving rulers.
J.Gibbon, Head of DS 11, Defence Intelligence Staff, APS/S of S, 8 July 1970
‘You will already know’ from Bahrain telegram of 1 July that the Sultan’s son Qabus [Qaboos] ‘may attempt a coup in the near future’. The file attaches a telegram from Muscat reporting that a coup is planned for between 8 and 11 July. Notes that the Foreign Office agrees that ‘if a change of ruler occurred this would be on the whole less disadvantageous to British interests, and to the maintenance of peace and stability within the Sultanate, than a continuance of the present situation’.
Memorandum signed ‘JG, Acting Chief of the Defence Staff’ to Defence Secretary Peter [later Lord] Carrington, 16 July 1970, marked secret UK eyes only
‘As you will be aware a change of ruler in Muscat and Oman offers the best hope of winning the war in the Dhofar and of checking the deterioration of the situation in Oman. Such developments are important in order to preserve our position in Masirah. In his minute of 9 July the Head of DS 11 informed you that there was a possibility of a coup by Qabus against his father the Sultan of Muscat and Oman. You will recall that a signal was sent to the Commander British Forces Gulf authorising him to tell the Commander Sultan’s Armed Forces that should the coup fail Qabus was not be to handed over to the Sultan but to be held by the Sultan’s armed forces pending instructions from HMG. If for any reason this were to become too difficult, he was instructed to pass Qabus on to OC RAF Salalah for flying out. Colonel Oldham, the Military Secretary to the Sultan, was not to be told of these instructions. We have now heard that Colonel Oldham knows that we are ready to fly Qabus out of the country should the coup fail. Colonel Oldham now believes that in view of this, and the time it would take to accomplish, he cannot see how either he or the Sultan’s Armed Forces could maintain a viable relationship with the Sultan. A situation could arise where the coup fails and the Sultan remains in control expecting his instructions to be obeyed, and Qabus flees to the sanctuary of the Sultan’s armed forces or RAF Salalah. To meet this contingency Colonel Oldham has instructed the Commander, Sultan’s Armed Forces to prepare a plan to assist Qabus in gaining control of Salalah town and in deposing his father. Such a plan would include the suppression of any disorder or fighting which might follow a failed coup. PRPG [?] has recommended that we should support Colonel Oldham’s views on the need for a contingency plan in this eventuality. The Foreign and Commonwealth office are advising their minister to agree to this plan, subject to your agreement also…. Despite our misgivings at the possible use of British officers to assist in deposing a ruler to whom they are seconded, we have agreed to support the Foreign and Commonwealth Office approval of Colonel Oldham’s contingency planning…However, since our meeting yesterday, we have heard [ref to telegram from Muscat to Bahrain 16 July] that the coup against the Sultan may take place next Sunday 19 July. This means there is no time for us to examine the contingency plan… You will wish to know that, subject to your concurrence, we have agreed to the course of action set out above’.
Illegible signature on file, PS/Minister of State, MoD to PSO/CDS, 16 July 1970
Notes that it is established that Foreign Office Minister Joseph Godber ‘has agreed’ to the course of action outlined in the above provided that Lord Balniel, the Defence Minister, ‘is content’.
The coup went ahead on 23 July
P.England, Defence Intelligence Staff, to AUS(P)(Air) [?], 3 August 1970
Notes that the now former Sultan, Said bin Taimur, is in RAF hospital Wroughton. It adds that he has various wounds, the most serious being a bullet wound in his left foot which damaged the bones. The Sultan said he wished to stay in the UK ‘and asked Mr Mayall [hd of protocol dept of FCO, who visited the Sultan on 1 August in hospital] to find him a house with a staff, including some English staff’. The former Sultan and his four retainers have an upstairs floor room in a two- storey wing of the hospital. ‘The security arrangements are very tight… No public announcement has been made of the Sultan’s whereabouts’.
Source: National Archives files, DEFE 31/40
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Supporting the bombing of Yemen. Arming Israel. Occupying the Chagos Islands. Supporting US aggression. Arming Colombia. Maintaining the global network of tax havens. Conniving with the CIA in secret renditions. The special relationship with Saudi Arabia. Bombing Syria. Shell in Nigeria. British companies in occupied Western Sahara. Supporting Oman. British mining companies in Africa. Supporting the New Alliance for Food Security. Promoting the privatisation of health and education in developing countries. Little Englanders in Brussels. Lonmin at Marikana. Failing to support Palestine. Backing Turkey’s war on the Kurds. Opposition to a Financial Transactions Tax. Aiding forced relocations in Ethiopia. Dismantling of climate change policies. Backing Bahraini repression. Refusing to give up nuclear weapons. Rio Tinto in Madagascar, Mongolia and Indonesia. Championing free trade in Africa. Refusing to supporting binding legal regulation of corporations overseas. City of London as the home of global financial speculation. British corporate tax abusers in Zambia. Gun-running to Syria. British American Tobacco corruption. Pushing low corporate taxes in Africa. British private security companies. Secrecy in the British Virgin Islands. War in Helmand. The invasion of Iraq. Drone strikes in the Middle East. Complicity in torture at Bagram. Privatising the world. Anglo Platinum in South Africa. DFID supporting Monsanto and Syngenta. Tax avoiders SAB Miller, Glencore and Associated British Foods. Support for Paul Kagame. Refusing to provide justice for the Mau Mau war. Arming Pakistan. Championing corporate-focused investment liberalisation. DFID funding large-scale land grabs in Africa. British mining companies at Cerrejon, Colombia. The revolving door between officials and corporations. Vedanta in Zambia and India. The City of London as a tax haven. Aiding privatisation consultancies. DFID’s support for big business. Tate & Lyle in Cambodia. DFID working with Coca-Cola. Opposition to agro-ecological farming. Barclays promoting tax havens. British accountancy firms tax advice to corporations. Human rights abuses in Iraq. Acacia Mining in Tanzania. Supporting Guantanamo. BAE Systems. New Forests Company in Uganda. Following US policy towards Cuba. Support for the World Bank. Arming Ubekistan. Trafigura’s toxic waste in Ivory Coast. UK Export Finance Department as promoter of arms and debt. Support for the International Finance Corporation. Arming Indonesia. DFID backing the Gates Foundation. Backing the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. Treatment of Julian Assange. Agrica in Tanzania. British banks financing coal mining. Supporting the Investor-State Dispute Mechanism. BP in Colombia. Montericco Metals in Peru. Supporting al-Sisi in Egypt …..
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From the Introduction to Secret Affairs: Britain’s Collusion with Radical Islam
Britain’s contribution to the rise of the terrorist threat goes well beyond the impacts its wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have had on some individuals. The more important story is that British governments, both Labour and Conservative, have, in pursuing the so-called ‘national interest’ abroad, colluded for decades with radical Islamic forces, including terrorist organisations. They have connived with them, worked alongside them and sometimes trained and financed them, in order to promote specific foreign policy objectives. Governments have done so in often desperate attempts to maintain Britain’s global power in the face of increasing weakness in key regions of the world, being unable to unilaterally impose their will and lacking other local allies. Thus the story is intimately related to that of Britain’s imperial decline and the attempt to maintain influence in the world.
With some of these radical Islamic forces, Britain has been in a permanent, strategic alliance to secure fundamental, long-term foreign policy goals; with others, it has been a temporary marriage of convenience to achieve specific short-term outcomes. The US has been shown by some analysts to have nurtured Osama Bin Laden and al-Qaida, but Britain’s part in fostering Islamist terrorism is invariably left out of these accounts, and the history has never been told. Yet this collusion has had more impact on the rise of the terrorist threat than either Britain’s liberal culture or the inspiration for jihadism provided by the occupation of Iraq.
The closest that the mainstream media have got to this story was in the period immediately after 7/7, when sporadic reports revealed links between the British security services and Islamist militants living in London. Some of these individuals were reportedly working as British agents or informers while being involved in terrorism overseas. Some were apparently being protected by the British security services while being wanted by foreign governments. This is an important but only a small part of the much bigger picture which mainly concerns Britain’s foreign policy. Whitehall has been colluding with two sets of Islamist actors which have strong connections with each other. In the first group are the major state sponsors of Islamist terrorism, the two most important of which are key British allies with whom London has long-standing strategic partnerships – Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.
Foreign policy planners have routinely covertly collaborated with the Saudis and the Pakistanis in their foreign policy, while both states are now seen as key allies in what was until recently described as the War on Terror. Yet the extent of Riyadh’s and Islamabad’s nurturing of radical Islam around the world dwarfs that of other countries, notably official enemies such as Iran or Syria. As we shall see, Saudi Arabia, especially after the oil price boom of 1973 which propelled it to a position of global influence, has been the source of billions of dollars that have flowed to the radical Islamic cause, including terrorist groups, around the world. A good case can be made that al-Qaida is partly a creature of Britain’s Saudi ally, given the direct links between Saudi intelligence and Bin Laden from the early years of the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
Pakistan, meanwhile, has been a major sponsor of various terrorist groups since General Zia ul-Haq seized power in a military coup in 1977 – military support brought some groups into being, after which they were nurtured with arms and training. The 7/7 bombers and many other would-be British terrorists are partly the product of subsequent decades of official Pakistani patronage of these groups. Unless recently, it was the Pakistan-based networks which posed the largest threat to Britain and which were at the centre of global terrorism, having become perhaps even more important than al-Qaida, despite the Western media’s focus on Bin Laden.
Both Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are partly British creations: Saudi Arabia was bloodily forged in the 1920s with British arms and diplomatic support, while Pakistan was hived off from India in 1947 with the help of British planners. These countries, while being very different in many ways, share a fundamental lack of legitimacy other than as ‘Muslim states’. The price paid by the world for their patronage of particularly extreme versions of Islam – and British support of them – has been very great indeed. Given their alliance with Britain, it is no surprise that British leaders have not called for Islamabad and Riyadh to be bombed alongside Kabul and Baghdad, since the War on Terror is clearly no such war at all, but rather a conflict with enemies specially designated by Washington and London. This has left much of the real global terrorist infrastructure intact, posing further dangers to the British and world public.
The second group of Islamist actors with whom Britain has colluded is extremist movements and organisations. Among the most influential of the movements that appear throughout this book is the Muslim Brotherhood, which was founded in Egypt in 1928 and has developed into an influential worldwide network, and the Jamaat-i-Islami (Islamic Party), founded in British India in 1941, which has become a major political and ideological force in Pakistan. Britain has also covertly worked alongside the Darul Islam (House of Islam) movement in Indonesia, which has provided important ideological underpinnings to the development of terrorism in that country. Though Britain has mainly collaborated with Sunni movements in promoting its foreign policy, it has also at times not been averse to conniving with Shia forces, such as with Iranian Shia radicals in the 1950s, and before and after the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979.
Britain has, however, also worked in covert operations and wars with a variety of outright jihadist terrorist groups, sometimes linked to the movements just mentioned. These groups have promoted the most reactionary of religious and political agendas and routinely committed atrocities against civilians. Collusion of this type began in Afghanistan in the 1980s, when Britain, along with the US, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, covertly supported the resistance to defeat the Soviet occupation of the country. Military, financial and diplomatic backing was given to Islamist forces which, while forcing a Soviet withdrawal, soon organised themselves into terrorist networks ready to strike Western targets. After the jihad in Afghanistan, Britain had privy dealings of one kind or another with militants in various terrorist organisations, including Pakistan’s Harkat ul-Ansar, the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, and the Kosovo Liberation Army, all of which had strong links to Bin Laden’s al-Qaida. Covert actions have been undertaken with these and other forces in Central Asia, North Africa and Eastern Europe.
Although my argument is that Britain has historically contributed to the development of global terrorism, the current threat to Britain is not simply ‘blowback’, since Whitehall’s collusion with radical Islam is continuing in order to bolster the British position in the Middle East. Planners not only continue their special relationships with Riyadh and Islamabad, but they have also recently been conniving with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Islamists and their supporters in Libya. In a different way, the British are now also in effect collaborating with elements of the Taliban in Afghanistan in a desperate effort to find an exit from an increasingly disastrous war.
The roots of British collusion with radical Islam, as we will see in the first chapter, go back to the divide and rule policies promoted during the empire, when British officials regularly sought to cultivate Muslim groups or individuals to counter emerging nationalist forces challenging British hegemony. It is well known that British planners helped create the modern Middle East during and after the First World War by placing rulers in territories drawn up by British planners. But British policy also involved restoring the Caliphate, the leadership of the Muslim world, back to Saudi Arabia, where it would come under British control, a strategy which had tremendous significance for the future Saudi kingdom and the rest of the world. After the Second World War, British planners were confronted with the imminent loss of empire and the rise of two new superpowers, but were determined to maintain as much political and commercial influence in the world as possible. Although Southeast Asia and Africa were important to British planners, largely due to their raw material resources, it was the Middle East, due to its colossal oil reserves, over which London mainly wanted to exert influence. Yet here, a major enemy arose in the form of popular Arab nationalism, led by Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, which sought to promote an independent foreign policy and end Middle Eastern states’ reliance on the West. To contain the threat, Britain and the US not only propped up conservative, pro-Western monarchs and feudal leaders but also fomented covert relationships with Islamist forces, notably the Muslim Brotherhood, to destabilise and overthrow the nationalist governments.
As Britain withdrew its military forces from the Middle East in the late 1960s, Islamist forces such as the Saudi regime and, once again, the Muslim Brotherhood, were often seen as proxies to maintain British interests in the region, to continue to destabilise communist or nationalist regimes or as ‘muscle’ to bolster pro- British, right-wing governments. By the 1970s, Arab nationalism had been virtually defeated as a political force, partly thanks to Anglo–American opposition; it was largely replaced by the rising force of radical Islam, which London again often saw as a handy weapon to counter the remnants of secular nationalism and communism in key states such as Egypt and Jordan.
After the Afghanistan war in the 1980s spawned a variety of terrorist forces, including al-Qaida, terrorist atrocities began to be mounted first in Muslim countries and then, in the 1990s, in Europe and the US. Yet, crucially for this story, Britain continued to see some of these groups as useful, principally as proxy guerilla forces in places as diverse as Bosnia, Azerbaijan, Kosovo and Libya; there, they were used either to help break up the Soviet Union and secure major oil interests or to fight nationalist regimes, this time those of Slobodan Milosevic in Yugoslavia and Muammar Qadafi in Libya.
Throughout this period, many jihadist groups and individuals found refuge in Britain, some gaining political asylum, while continuing involvement in terrorism overseas. Whitehall not only tolerated but encouraged the development of ‘Londonistan’– the capital acting as a base and organising centre for numerous jihadist groups – even as this provided a de facto ‘green light’ to that terrorism. I suggest that some elements, at least, in the British establishment may have allowed some Islamist groups to operate from London not only because they provided information to the security services but also because they were seen as useful to British foreign policy, notably in maintaining a politically divided Middle East – a long-standing goal of imperial and postwar planners – and as a lever to influence foreign governments’ policies. Radical Islamic forces have been seen as useful to Whitehall in five specific ways: as a global counter-force to the ideologies of secular nationalism and Soviet communism, in the cases of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan; as ‘conservative muscle’ within countries to undermine secular nationalists and bolster pro-Western regimes; as ‘shock troops’ to destabilise or overthrow governments; as proxy military forces to fight wars; and as ‘political tools’ to leverage change from governments.
Although Britain has forged long-standing special relationships with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, it has not been in strategic alliance with radical Islam as such. Beyond these two states, Britain’s policy has been to collaborate with Islamist forces as a matter of ad hoc opportunism, though it should be said that this has been rather regular. Time and again, the declassified planning documents reveal that British officials were perfectly aware that their collaborators were anti-Western and anti-imperialist, devoid of liberal social values or actually terrorists. Whitehall did not work with these forces because it agreed with them but simply because they were useful at specific moments. Islamist groups appeared to have collaborated with Britain for the same reasons of expediency and because they shared the same hatred of popular nationalism as the British. These forces opposed British imperialism in the Middle East just as they do the current occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, but they have not generally opposed the neo-liberal economic policies pursued by the pro-Western, British-backed regimes in the region.
Crucially, British collusion with radical Islam has also helped promote two big geo-strategic foreign policy objectives. The first is influence and control over key energy resources, always recognised in the British planning documents as the number one priority in the Middle East. British operations to support or side with Islamist forces have generally aimed at maintaining in power or installing governments that will promote Western-friendly oil policies.
The second objective has been maintaining Britain’s place within a pro-Western global financial order. The Saudis have invested billions of dollars in the US and British economies and banking systems, and Britain and the US have similarly large investments and trade with Saudi Arabia; it is these that are being protected by the strategic alliance with Riyadh. Since the period of 1973–75, when British officials secretly made a range of deals with the Saudis to invest their oil revenues in Britain, as we shall see, there has been a tacit Anglo–American–Saudi pact to maintain this financial order, which has entailed London and Washington turning a blind eye to whatever else the Saudis spend their money on. This has been accompanied, on the Saudi side, by a strategy of bankrolling Islamist and jihadist causes and a ‘Muslim’ foreign policy aimed at maintaining the Saud family in power.
In promoting its strategy, Britain has routinely collaborated with the US, which has a history of similar collusion with radical Islam. Given declining British power, Anglo–American operations changed from being genuinely joint enterprises in the early postwar years to ones where Whitehall was the junior partner, often providing specialist covert forces in operations managed by Washington. At times, Britain has acted as the de facto covert arm of the US government, doing the dirty work which Washington could not, or did not want to do. This said, the British use of Muslim forces to achieve policy objectives goes back to the empire, thus predating the US. Equally, in the postwar world, Whitehall has sometimes acted independently of Washington, to pursue distinctly British interests, such as the plots to overthrow Nasser in the 1950s or the promotion of Londonistan in the 1990s.
My argument is not that radical Islam and violent jihadism are British or Western ‘creations’, since this would overstate Western influence in regions like the Middle East and Southeast Asia, where numerous domestic and international factors have shaped these forces over a long period. But British policy has contributed to the present threat of terrorism, although this dare not be mentioned in mainstream British culture. It is only the anti-Soviet jihad in 1980s Afghanistan that is well-known as contributing to the emergence of terrorist groups. Even here, much more attention has been paid to the covert US role than the British. As for the rest of history, there is virtually complete silence, similar to the darkness that prevails over other episodes in Britain’s recent foreign policy, where less than the noblest of intentions were in evidence. The British public has been deprived of key information to understand the roots of current terrorism and the role that government institutions, who pose as our protectors, have played in endangering us.
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Outside of North Korea, speeches by political figures are rarely universally showered with adulation. So the mainstream media’s ravings in reaction to Hilary Benn’s speech to parliament on Syria are especially noticeable. Across the spectrum, the speech has been reported as ‘riveting’ (Guardian), ‘extraordinary’ (Mirror), ‘great’ (BBC News at 6, 3 December) and that of a ‘true leader’ (Telegraph).
The reason for such lauding is obvious. Britain’s media is on a double-war footing. The first war is against Jeremy Corbyn, and is countering the threat that Corbyn’s more popular policies may gain even wider support (see my previous blog). The second war is for Britain’s ongoing right to bomb somewhere whenever elites want. The two agendas came together in Benn’s speech – in a single stroke, Benn achieved both the elite’s war aims: undermining Corbyn and helping to win the vote for bombing Syria.
I’ve been monitoring the mainstream media for 30 years and cannot remember a time like this: literally everything is being thrown at Corbyn. The BBC has simply become an attack dog, its reporting so extreme and so full of vilification that it does not even have a pretence of providing the balance that is required of it as a ‘public service broadcaster’. The people who pay for the ‘news’ service the BBC provides (us, of course) are its precise enemy, the target of its disinformation.
Reading the text of Benn’s speech, it is mainly notable for being so predictable. Whenever elites are set on military intervention, they tend to make fancy speeches that will make their actions seem noble (Blair’s Chicago speech in 1999 to justify bombing Yugoslavia is an obvious example; George Bush Senior prattled on about a ‘new world order’ as he gave the order to bomb Iraq back to the stone age in 1990). Hilary Benn’s key point was that Britain has a ‘moral and practical duty’ to bomb Syria and that the UN ‘is asking us to do something’. Thus he was seriously suggesting that Britain would be acting immorally it we didn’t bomb, a position even more extreme than the usual recourse to moralism.
Actually, UN Security Council Resolution 2249, to which Benn was referring, does not simply give Britain a licence to bomb. The text authorises ‘all necessary measures’ to ‘eradicate the safe haven’ that IS has established in Iraq and Syria and to ‘prevent and suppress terrorist acts’. But it does not explicitly authorise force (as in a chapter VII resolution) and also requires ‘compliance with international law’, meaning that countries must act in self-defence. How is bombing IS in Syria acting in self-defence? Given that the Paris attacks were organised in Belgium, maybe Mollenbeek would be a better military target. The likelihood is that if terror attacks are to occur in Britain – as they did after the bombing of Iraq – they may well be conducted by fanatical British Muslims living in Britain not in Syria.
Benn then immediately contradicted his professed moralism by saying that although he had ‘concerns’ about the ‘potential civilian casualties’, ‘unlike Daesh, none of us today act with the intent to harm civilians’. This view will come as great comfort to the mothers and fathers of British-bombed children in the region – “sorry we killed your kids, but we didn’t mean to”. Is Benn’s reference to simply ‘potential’ civilian casualties not a disgrace in itself?
Benn even had the audacity to quote in his speech a Kurdish leader apparently supporting British airstrikes. These are the same Kurds who have been nearly wiped out in the region in recent decades by Iraqi and Turkish governments being constantly armed and otherwise supported by Whitehall. The Kurds are once again being used as pawns, and will surely be dumped again when their present utility has run out.
‘Our party has always stood up against the denial of human rights and justice’, Benn also said, apparently with a straight face, in an appeal to fellow Labour MPs. He also said that ‘We believe we have a responsibility to one to another. We never have – and we never should – walk by on the other side of the road’. These claims are not just amusing for anyone with the remotest knowledge of Labour’s postwar and recent foreign policy. They are also tragic – given what Britain is currently doing in relation to Yemen (supporting slaughter), Egypt (supporting a dictator) Bahrain (supporting repression), and Saudi Arabia, to mention just some of the policies that Benn’s wing of the party are not seriously challenging, but could actually do so if they were seriously concerned about human rights. This is not to mention 50 or so other episodes in Labour’s postwar history where it has been on the side of human rights abusers.
The media adulating Benn chose not to ridicule such nonsense despite several other opportunities in the speech. Benn also evoked, for example, the need for ‘solidarity’ with Iraq – a country to which Labour has demonstrated its moral commitments so well these past few years – and even invoked solidarity with ‘our ally, France’ – something which again did not seem to trouble the media xenophobes now praising Benn who are otherwise pouring out malicious anti-European sentiment day in day out.
At the end of his speech, Benn termed IS fascists and called on Britain to stand up to it just like it did against Mussolini and Hitler (he also mentioned Franco, but I will pass by the myth that Labour stood up to Franco because it’s too much a deviation). I think IS are inhuman and monstrous, and are certainly out-an-out terrorists; they clearly have to be countered, but the issue is how. I am not a pacifist and there are times when, in extreme circumstances, military force can be justified as a last resort, in my view. 1939 was such a time. But the invocation of this now, and the idea that IS poses an existential threat is just self-serving war-mongering done to give a moral pretext to yet another unjustified British policy. Desperate British elites have since VE Day wheeled out the fascist threat every time they want to do something drastic that they know may well be unpopular (invading Iraq 2003, invading Egypt 1956 etc).
I have a view that the British people (and indeed, the people of the Middle East) are now sandwiched between two big, real threats – one is posed by actors like IS, who really are contemptuous of human life and much modern civilisation, but the other is the danger represented by the reaction to such threats, by those posing as our defenders. President Hollande’s declaration of ‘war’ against IS is something which fanatical terrorists will surely have appreciated, since it elevates their own cause. Britain’s bombing of Syria may also help IS in drawing Britain and others even further into the region (eventually sucking in more ground troops), to increase the cycle of violence and also help IS recruit more people, and indeed help them claim they are defending their lands from the crusaders. A stronger, more clever strategy is surely to downplay not elevate the IS threat and to pursue a range of ‘normal’ but strengthened economic, legal, political and other measures to combat it. It would also help if we did not support the forces in the region which have helped nurture IS in the first place.
Very sadly, we should fear terrorist attacks in Britain. But it is also the case that British leaders are not genuinely committed to stopping terrorism. They have special relationships with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, for example, which have been the two major state sponsors of global terrorism for the past 40 years (see Secret Affairs) whose money and support have spawned a variety of groups, not least al-Qaida. British elites have no moral consistency and are selective in their choice of enemies, just like Benn was selective in his choice of countering one human rights abuser (IS) but not others (Yemen? Saudi? Bahrain? Egypt? Not to mention Israel). By countering only one threat, others can arise. By allying with some forces to defeat one threat, we can empower others.
The Middle East is on fire and British policies can influence the situation for good or bad. History shows that British and Western policy in the Middle East is not about promoting democracy or human rights, or even peace, but is rather a set of ad hoc, short-termist and often violent reactions to the threat of the day or the ally of the moment- it is partly this lack of any moral consistency that contributes to the mess in the region. Little heed is being given to a broader, long term picture – basically because elites don’t much care about ‘our’ (national) interests, only theirs.
Britain’s air force began bombing the Middle East 100 years ago, soon after airplanes were invented. Whitehall basically invented aerial bombing and we have the longest track history of not only launching the weapons but managing the propaganda. We’re in another terrible cycle.
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Cabinet Office, ‘Future Policy Study 1960-70: Part III: The Main Objectives of the United Kingdom’s Overseas and Strategic Policy’, January 1960
‘…Unilateral nuclear disarmament is, of course, within our power. But, although it could be represented as setting a good example, any such action would be gravely damaging to our continued security and would undermine our standing in the Atlantic Alliance and in the world as a whole’.
National Archives, CAB 21/3847
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