During the first week of General Khalifa Hiftar’s so-called “Operation Dignity” in Libya ostensibly launched with the modus operandi to military rid the country of armed Islamist militias and to establish stability, it wasn’t too difficult to find some in the British media highlighting the General’s supposed proximity to American intelligence and specifically to the CIA.
‘Operation Dignity’ was launched on Friday 16th May, by the following Monday the Financial Times (FT) was informing its readers that after the General’s defection from the Libyan army a couple of decades ago, he moved to a Washington D.C suburb where “he is said to have cultivated contacts with Western agencies seeking to undermine” Colonel Muammar Ghadhaffi, the former leader of Libya.
On Tuesday 20th May, the FT once again reminded its readers that Hiftar “is believed to have links to the U.S.” On the same day the Guardian’s Middle East editor, Ian Black referred to him as a “US-linked figure”, while the British establishment’s anti-imperialist, Seamus Milne in the same paper later referred to the General as “CIA linked.”
This is all very well and the British media have every right to expose the links, tenuous or otherwise, between the General and American intelligence. However, when it comes to British state’s contemporary and historical links to Islamism and even violent jihadists their bombast in exposing proximities and links to their own intelligence services generally goes amiss. Take for example the response to Tony Blair’s much heralded recent speech, “Why the Middle East Matters” delivered in the midst of the Ukrainian crises.
In this speech Blair argues the Middle East matters because what is going on over there at the moment “represents the biggest threat to global security of the early twentieth century.” Temporarily putting aside that Blair, as one of the two main architects of the illegal war on Iraq, would, if there was any justice be tried for war crimes against humanity, proclaimed that there are four areas of concern in this region to the so-called ‘international community’. The first three are oil supply; the region’s geographical proximity to Europe and political sensitivity towards Britain’s Zionist project in Palestine, namely Israel. The forth area of concern to Blair is that he believes it is in the Middle East that the future of Islam’s relationship with politics will be decided.
Blair declared that a radicalised and politicised Islam is spreading across the world and its threat is not only far from abating but bemoans that the West seems “curiously reluctant to acknowledge it and powerless to counter it effectively.”
For Blair, the fact Great Britain has been one of the leading incubators and facilitators in the growth of radical and political Islam in last hundred years is immaterial. Before British imperialism openly and militarily entered the region during World War One there was no Muslim Brotherhood movement and the Saudi-Wahhabi clan, the wellspring of today’s violent jihadis, were an isolated grouping in the southern region of Basra province known as Kuwait and not as they are today, dictatorial and nepotistic rulers of a resource rich country. As Dr.Askar al-Enazy has shown, the clan’s geographical expansion across the Arabian peninsula in the early part of the twentieth century was in co-ordination if not total connivance with British imperialism.
The Muslim Brotherhood and Saudi-Wahhabis continued to collaborate with British foreign policy from the 1920’s right through to the modern era. Yet you rarely find British mainstream reporting referring to these two movements as ‘historically linked’ to Great Britain.[i]
Also, it totally eluded Blair and those that praised his speech that one of the reasons why the ‘Islamist threat’ has not abated is because that for many years London was a central hub for al-Qaeda linked individuals. As Mark Curtis wrote in his book on the collusion between jihadis and British intelligence, by the mid 1990’s London had become “along with Taliban-controlled Afghanistan which housed bin Laden, the principal administrative centre for the global jihad.”[ii]
According to a former governmental intelligence analyst, Crispin Black the British state made a peculiar agreement with exiled Islamist jihadi supporters in London known as the ‘Covenant of Security’, which refers “to the longstanding British habit of providing refuge and welfare to Islamist extremists on the unspoken assumption that if we give them a safe haven here they will not attack on these shores.”[iii]
It does seem that not only was there a ‘Covenant of Security’ but also an unabated tolerance as well as cooperation with at least six active jihadi supporters by British intelligence.
At last month’s Abu Hamza al-Masri’s trial in New York on terrorism charges the former London based cleric confessed to have been in liaison with Britain’s domestic intelligence services, MI5 “to keep the streets of London safe” during his time in the UK. Two London Times investigative journalists revealed that Abu Hamza, whose alias to British intelligence was ‘damson berry’, provided concrete information to the police that was said to have led “to the detention of two terrorist suspects.”[iv]
Another pro-jihadist preacher, Omar Bakri Muhammad, admitted to Pulitzer Prize winning author Ron Suskind the very nature of his former arrangement with the British state before he was forced into exile after the London tube bombings. According to Suskind, Bakri told him the British government, “whether they admit it or not,” appreciated his service to the domestic intelligence service on the basis that together they “were able to control the Muslim youth”. In return, Bakri was allowed to advocate his cause. On this basis, as Suskind says, the “radical preacher that allows a venting a point of view is preventing violence…” Bakri prevented violence by handing over the names of individuals who attended his meetings and his recompense was that he had access to the British state’s welfare system, i.e.“health benefits.”
Suskind opines that “Bakri enjoyed his notoriety and was willing to pay for it with information he passed to the police.”[v]
On the international scene, a certain Abu Anas al-Liby in the 1990’s was said to be involved in the joint MI6-al-Qaeeda assassination attempt on Colonal Ghadhaffi and on a different occasion in the assassination attempt on Husni Mubarak as well as being involved in al-Qaeda’s bombing of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania yet he had successfully claimed political asylum in the UK before recently being captured by the Americans last year in Libya.
Back in London, Britain’s foreign intelligence service, MI6, had originally turned to a leader from the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, Abu Abdullah Sadiq for assistance in the assassination attempt on Gadhaffi.[vi] Sadiq was an alias of AbdelHakim Belhadj, former Guantanamo detainee, former Libyan “rebel”, former head of the Tripoli Military Council after Gadhaffi’s overthrow and now a politician. A leaked MI6 cable from 1995 reveals that the assassination attempt on Colonal Ghadhaffi was to be complimented with orchestrated uprisings in Libyan cities led by Libyan colonels with “limited contact” to Islamist-jihadi veterans of the war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980’s.[vii]
Furthermore, Osama bin Laden’s original religious edicts threatening American civilians in the 1990’s were published through the London offices of his associate Khalid al-Fawwaz who has admitted to his contacts with British domestic intelligence, MI5, and wants his ‘handler’ to testify on his behalf at his trial for alleged involvement in the American embassy bombings in Africa.[viii]
One of the charges Abu Hamza was convicted of was trying to set up a jihadi training camp in Bly, Oregon. Another suspect the US authorities want to place on trial for attempting to set up this camp is Haroon Rashid Aswat who the British have quarantined at Broadmoor special hospital after apparently being diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. Yet according to former Justice Department federal prosecutor and terrorism expert, John Loftus, Aswat is not merely an occasional informer or collaborator but a double agent working for MI6.
Finally, when an Islamist clerical then said to be bin Laden’s right hand man in Europe, Abu Qatada, ‘disappeared’ on the eve of his planned arrest in December 2001, he re-emerged a year later having spent it in an apartment minutes walk away from MI6’s London headquarters. Furthermore, during his year ‘on the run’ “his wife and children regularly visited him.”[ix]But others claim to have exposed Abu Qatada as a double agent for MI5.
During the NATO military intervention in Libya in 2011 ostensibly launched to protect civilians but what turned out to be in reality air cover for the many Islamist and al-Qaeda militias it was rarely mentioned in the British media that Britain has worked with and cooperated with Islamists and Jihadist in the not too distant past. No one referred to some of these groupings and individuals as ‘connected with British intelligence’ in the manner that Hiftar’s connections with the Americans are portrayed.
Seamus Milne claims that in light of Blair’s speech there is now clearly an “incoherence” in Western policy towards the Middle East and especially in Syria because on one level the West condemns Islamism and violent jihadism but in Syria the west are in effect supporting the main fighting groups which are all Islamists.
However, on closer inspection it seems that the West is not as unified in its approach towards the Middle East as Milne would like to believe. When the uprising began in Libya, it was the British (along with the French) who revealed themselves far more enthusiastic for military intervention in support of the so-called “rebels” than the United States. Indeed, the British media was not short of anti-Obama abuse for his perceived foot dragging in not wanting to initially intervene.
And the same again now in Syria, Great Britain has proved it is more eager to military intervene, in what in effect will be collaboration with Islamists brigades, to overthrow the current Syrian government.
In conclusion, it may not be “incoherence” at all that explains the current Western policy in the Middle East but a conflict of strategies with the United States on one side and Great Britain on the other. The British are clearly historically disposed and remarkably at ease with contemporary Islamists (as long as they are not on the receiving end of their violence), while the Americans seem to have unleashed General Khalifa Hiftar on the Islamists militias in eastern Libya. As the Financial Times editorialised the General’s move “may appeal to those in the US who see the Brotherhood everywhere as an incubator of jihadist ideology.”
To return to Blair, the issue for the British state has never been to counter political Islam effectively, but to manage and utilise it effectively in the service of British interests.
In the meantime, the question is, whether the current military altercation in Libya is only the first episode of more proxy wars between the British and the Americans in the Middle East wherein the British back the Islamists and jihadis either directly or through one of its client regimes such as Qatar and the Americans support authoritarian army generals?
[i] Mark Curtis, “Secret Affairs: Britain’s Collusion with Radical Islam” (Serpant’s Tail: London, 2010),
[ii] ibid., pg. 223
[iii] Quoted in Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed, “The London Bombings, An Independent Enquiry” (Duckworth: London, 2006), pg. 65 and Curtis op cit., pg. 257
[iv] Sean O’Neill and Daniel McGrory, “The Suicide Factory: Abu Hamza and the Finsbury Park Mosque” (Harper Perennial: London, 2006), pg.144
[v] Ron Suskind, “The Way of the World:A Story of Truth and Hope in an age of Extremism” (Simon & Schuster: London, 2008), pg. 200-201.
[vi]Curtis., op. cit., pg.238.
[vii]Curtis. Op. cit., pg. Pg226-231
[viii] Sean O’Neill and Daniel McGrory, op. cit., pg.110-112
[ix] ibid., pg.108