The War on Terror is like any other war in that there are inevitable twists and turns. An enemy at the start of a war may for some remarkable reason be an ally by the gruesome end of the war. The War on Terror began as a war specifically against al-Qaeda, (which had its origins in Western support for fighters in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union in the 1980s), after they had allegedly attacked the United States in September 2001. Lately, in Syria the West was in a de-facto alliance with Islamist groups closely linked with al-Qaeda. It is within this inevitable context that one needs to appreciate the fate of former Guantanamo Bay detainee Moazzam Begg since his release from the notorious Caribbean detention camp in 2005.
In February 2014 he was detained and held on remand in Belmarsh by the British authorities only to be released in October of the same year uncharged. The previous years had seen him travelling to the war zone in Syria on ostensibly humanitarian pretexts. But according to a BBC report, British authorities alleged that Begg had attended a terrorist training camp between October 2012 and April 2013. Upon his release from Belmarsh he gave an interview to Channel 4 News where he acknowledged that British domestic intelligence, MI5, green lighted his journey to war torn Syria. When the reporter, Darshna Soni asked him whether he fought or trained anyone to fight, Begg replied,
“I’m neither a fighter or nor a trainer but I helped and assisted those who were, who were being massacred, who were being tortured, who were being killed by barrel bombs.”
After this categorical denial of fighting or training in Syria, Soni probes again with the following question:
“But did they [MI5] know who you were being associating with. The fact that you would be staying with training camps?”
Begg’s response is clever in the sense that he admits that he was associating with fighters but at the same time these fighters were former prisoners of the Syrian government:
“Well, what was clear was that at the time Syria was at war. So whoever would go to Syria would be connected to fighters in one way or another because fighters are everywhere. And the people I was meeting were prisoners who actually were leaders of various rebel groups.”
In October 2014 Cerie Bullivant, an employee of the human rights advocacy organisation founded by Begg, Cage and a personal friend told Foreign Policy Magazine that Begg was clearly training foreign fighters in Syria:
“He felt that here was a group of guys who were under attack and unfit. Western kids from cushy backgrounds — they’d be like lambs to the slaughter…”
Five years later in late 2019, in an interview with Mr. Dilly Hussain editor of the 5 Pillarz British-Muslim news website, Begg contradicted his Channel 4 interview and bemoaned one of the reasons he was detained was because he was merely training fighters or as says, “for giving them fitness training literally, press ups, sit ups and that sort of stuff…”
Again, later in the same interview he claims that if he was prosecuted in the courts, he was to successfully argue that “giving fitness training to the Free…to the rebels was not terrorism…” because he was assisting people to defend themselves against a “brutal regime”.
There’s clearly another contradiction here between what Begg is saying and what his colleague, Bullivent told Foreign Policy. Bullivent had claimed that Begg was training fighters from a comfortable western background i.e. foreign fighters while Begg implies he was training “rebels” who were under attack by a “brutal regime”. Why would western Muslims travel to Syria to be attacked by a “brutal regime”?
Furthermore, Charles Lister a sympathiser and champion for the jihadi war on Syria has written an encyclopaedic ‘Who’s Who’ type of book, whose title leaves the reader in no doubt about the nature of the Syrian rebels, “The Syrian Jihad”. Herein Lister introduces Begg as someone who, “has engaged extensively with the Islamist components of Syria’s insurgency”[i]One of these extensive engagements was with al-Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri appointee (or ‘delegate’) in Syria, a certain Abu Khaled al-Suri who in 2012-2013 was a “a senior leader within Ahrar al-Sham and a virtual right-hand man to its leader Hassan Abboud.”[ii] Begg informed Lister that in his meeting with Abu Khaled, he learned “that Ahrar [al-Sham] had people with clout and experience in the world…and hence were not easily dismissed…”[iii]Begg doesn’t elaborate on where or how they obtained their “clout and experience” but it is not a stretch of the imagination to say that he’s referring to the battlefields of either Afghanistan or Iraq. The actual leader of Ahrar al-Sham, as mentioned, was Hassan Aboud who Begg claimed to have known “fairly well” during his time in Syria and had “met several times and his group and his organisation.” It may well be Ahrar’s training camps that Begg visited although in the above Foreign Policy article it is claimed that Begg was involved with another Islamist group, Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar whose fighters, according to Lister, overlapped with ISIS – they jointly led the successful attack which captured the Menagh Air Base in Aleppo in August 2013.[iv]
As ironic as it may sound there is nothing extraordinary about a former Guantanamo Bay detainee joining the Western backed regime change operation against Syria either as a fighter or a trainer. Only the naïve and easily deceived would be oblivious or deny that allies in one sphere of war in one time and place may become allies in another sphere. For example, with all that has happened to Begg, on a personal level, at the hands of the United States he still praises their support for providing stinger anti-aircraft missile systems to the Afghan fighters (“mujahideen”) in the 1980s and glowingly refers to this unique American provision as a “game changer”. From the Cold War to today Western imperialism has successfully instrumentalised jihadis to do their bidding against nation-states they want to destroy and has persecuted and imprisoned them when they become surplus to geo-political requirements.[v] There is no sign of this satanic, Western imperialist-jihadi geo-political murderous collaboration abating.
On January 23rd 2020, Begg posted a maxim on his Facebook page, “Let us always be carriers of the truth, unfettered and unexaggerated”. In light of his contradictory statements about his time in Syria between 2012 and 2013, it may well be that he was much more “unfettered and unexaggerated” when interviewed by Dilly Hussain about his “dealings” with British intelligence and his time spent in Syria rather than when he was interviewed by Channel 4 News five years earlier.
[i] Charles Lister, The Syrian Jihad: the Evolution of an Insurgency, (London: Hurst & Company), 2017, pg. 65
[ii] ibid., pg.108
[iii] ibid., pg.109
[iv] ibid., pg.159-160 and pg183
[v] This point was made to me by the editor of this piece, Chathan Vemuri