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I agree with Tony Blair…

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…albeit only on his claim that western countries have been “outspent, outmanoeuvred and out-strategised” by Islamist extremism.

But what’s missing from Blair’s analysis is an acknowledgement of how much of this funding comes from elites in countries which successive UK governments, including his own, have failed to challenge.

There is nothing unique about the tendency of Islamist demagogues to incite hatred by demonising a particular national or ethnic group, fan resentments by scapegoating a caricatured foreign enemy for domestic problems, entrench inequalities by aggressively enforcing “traditional” social codes, and promote fear by seeking to link unconnected events into some vast global conspiracy.

Elites the world over propagate such extremist ideas as a means of manipulating people and increasing their own power. Sometimes they will sincerely believe their own propaganda. Often, as in the former Yugoslavia, Burundi, and, according to some sources, Iran, the private behaviour of many in power suggests that they have little or no regard for the ideas they are promoting to others with such vigour.

But in a great many cases, a major driving force behind the propagation of these ideas is that they serve a specific political (and often economic) purpose for someone, somewhere. “Challenging the narrative”, to paraphrase Blair, can only get us so far if we refuse to acknowledge this dimension.

As Mark Curtis makes clear in his excellent book “Secret Affairs“, when it comes to militant Islam, no country can match the money poured into propagating an extreme form of “Wahabbism” by Saudi Arabia. Money gained, in large part, through the country’s vast oil reserves.

Like Iran, Saudi Arabia is a fundamentalist dictatorship run by a tiny, corrupt elite that uses militant Islam as a tool for manipulating people. Unlike Iran, that corrupt elite is on very good terms with a number of western governments, notably the UK.

While Prime Minister, Blair personally helped broker a £40 billion arms deal with the Saudi elite. He also sought to scupper, ostensibly on grounds of national security, a major corruption investigation implicating the Saudi royal family in bribery.

It’s no coincidence that corruption and extremism often go hand in hand. For starters, the kind of person who will kill, torture and rape his way into power will tend to have fewer scruples than most about looting the national treasury for his own enrichment when he gets there. And once a corrupt elite has been installed – the enormous financial benefits for the dictator and those in his favour will provide an overwhelming incentive to do whatever it takes to hang onto power. Promoting batty extremist ideas is a tried and tested method.

The distinguishing feature, it seems to me, of the corrupt elite that seized control of Saudi Arabia in the early 20th century is less the particular flavour of their extremism, than the fact that they were lucky enough to take power shortly before the discovery of the country’s vast oil reserves.

In seeking to position itself as the leader of the Islamic world, the Saudi state has spent an estimated $70 billion promoting “Wahhabism” around the globe. One US think-tank describes this as the “largest worldwide propaganda campaign ever mounted”.

If we’re serious about understanding how Islamic extremism grew to be such a powerful global force – and how that power can effectively be “challenged”, then this seems like quite an important fact to overlook.

Saudi Arabia’s vast oil wealth has not only funded militant Islam – it has helped to protect the country’s elite from the consequences of its actions. Western governments seem largely content to focus on the secondary problems of Saudi-funded terrorism in Afghanistan and Pakistan, rather than risk jeopardising lucrative trade deals and energy supplies by facing up to the root cause.

Blair’s indulgence of Saudi Arabia’s hardline Islamist dictatorship continues even now. Earlier this year the Saudi government reported that the former Prime Minister had held another meeting with “The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz”, this time to discuss their plans to “achieve a just and comprehensive peace” in the Middle East. Well good luck with that one…

This post is partly a (tangential) reponse to an excellent piece from Heresy Corner.

Written by Richard Wilson

October 7, 2010 at 1:16 pm

Posted in terrorism

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Review of “Secret Affairs” by Mark Curtis

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By me, from the New Humanist

Secret Affairs: Britain’s Collusion with Radical Islam by Mark Curtis (Serpent’s Tail)

When Iran’s last democratically elected Prime Minister set about nationalising the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, Britain sought to replace him with a “dictator” – in the words of our then Ambassador to Tehran – who would “settle the oil question on reasonable terms”. In the process, the Foreign Office actively supported a man they saw as “a complete political reactionary,” Ayatollah Kashani, whose hard-line followers organised the large-scale protests that preceded the 1953 coup, which installed the arch-conservative – but pro-Western – Shah. Kashani went on to mentor Ruhollah Khomeini, who in 1979 overthrew the Shah and installed the repressive theocracy that continues in power today.

In Secret Affairs, Mark Curtis delivers an unsettling verdict on the conduct of British foreign policy over the last hundred years. In pursuit of our national interest, the UK has repeatedly sided with the most brutal and conservative forces of political Islam – and aggressively conspired against democratic governments around the globe. While this has yielded temporary gains, in the long run the policy has proved enormously costly, even in its own cynical terms.

Across the Muslim world, for most of the past century, Britain’s chief enemy has been not religious extremism but the secular nationalists who sought to wrest back control of their country’s resources from the former colonial powers. Time and again, from Egypt to Iran to Indonesia, we have sought to undermine such leaders by arming and training their extremist opponents, while giving generous support to Islamist dictators willing to do business on favourable terms. In the process, we have contributed directly to the growth of radical Islam worldwide, and the consequences are now coming home to haunt us.

Eager to retain a strategic foothold in South Asia – in Churchill’s words, to “keep a bit of India” after independence in 1947 – Britain was instrumental in the creation of Pakistan, an artificial state with little to hold it together but its identity as a Muslim nation. In recent decades, successive Pakistani governments have sought to bolster their power by fanning religious fervour at home, and backing militant Islamists across the region. Yet Pakistan has long been treated as a key UK ally, and a favoured recipient of military aid – even as, so Curtis claims, Pakistani intelligence services have continued backing the jihadi groups now fighting British forces in Afghanistan.

Closer still has been our relationship with Saudi Arabia, whose modern form Britain also helped shape, at the close of the colonial era. Seeking to position itself as the leader of the Muslim world, the Saudi state has, since the 1970s, spent an estimated $50 billion promoting its fundamentalist brand of “Wahhabism” around the globe, in what one US think-tank describes as the “largest worldwide propaganda campaign ever mounted”. In positioning the UK as a favoured trading partner for Saudi oil, arms and, latterly, financial investments, Labour and Conservative governments alike have systematically played down the true character of the regime, and its links to global terror.

The picture that emerges is of a nation locked into a series of uncomfortable alliances – of questionable overall benefit even to our narrow self-interest – whose nature our government is unable fully to acknowledge. The issue seems exacerbated by the extraordinary levels of secrecy around UK foreign policy, hindering effective debate about the decisions being taken in our name. Many of the files surrounding Britain’s abortive intervention in Suez, for example, still remain classified half a century later. Due to the UK’s controversial “30-year rule”, much of the more recent historical record is simply missing.

Curtis seems nonetheless to have done an excellent job with the sources available, assembling an impressive array of leaks and government admissions, to argue that, at least in ethical terms, UK foreign policy has changed little in recent decades. He makes a compelling, if somewhat disheartening, case.

Written by Richard Wilson

July 22, 2010 at 8:00 pm

Posted in Book reviews, terrorism

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UK “citizens” to be known as “suspects” from July 1st

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From The Independent

Civil liberties campaigners have condemned as “chilling” UK government plans to replace the term “citizen” with “suspect” on all passports and driving licences from July 1st.

The amendment was one among a number of changes approved by MPs last week as part of the controversial Coroners and Justice Reform Bill, which will also increase data sharing between government departments, and allow some inquests to be held in secret.

A Home Office spokeswoman, who asked not to be named, told the Independent that staff will be working around the clock to ensure that the changes are implemented smoothly. UK passport and driving licence holders will be asked to begin handing in their documents within the next few weeks.

The Home Office insists that the change enjoys broad public support, and merely formalises a policy that the government has been operating in practice for several years.

“Nothing is more important to us than the safety and security of the British public. This vital amendment clarifies our relationship with the people we are working so hard to protect, and will enable us to streamline our intelligence-gathering activities. Those raising questions clearly do not understand the nature of the threat we are facing.”

Update – 2nd April 2009 – As readers may have deduced, this article is somewhat less than wholly accurate, but perhaps it’s just a matter of time…

Written by Richard Wilson

April 1, 2009 at 11:00 am

UN condemns UK government over torture complicity

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From The Guardian:

Britain is condemned today in a highly critical UN report for breaching basic human rights and “trying to conceal illegal acts” in the fight against terrorism.

The report is sharply critical of British co-operation in the transfer of detainees to places where they are likely to be tortured as part of the US rendition programme. It accuses British ­intelligence officers of interviewing detainees held ­incommunicado in Pakistan in ­”so-called safe houses where they were being tortured”.

It adds that Britain, and a number of other countries, sent interrogators to Guantánamo Bay in a further example of what “can be reasonably understood as implicitly condoning” torture and ill-treatment. It said the US was able to create its system for moving terror suspects around foreign jails only with the support of its allies.

Written by Richard Wilson

March 10, 2009 at 5:24 pm

Was this why the UK Ministry of Defence decided to smear Human Rights Watch?

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A couple of weeks ago, anonymous Ministry of Defence Officials were accused of smearing Human Rights Watch by suggesting, falsely, that the HRW researcher in Afghanistan had improperly obtained official secrets by becoming (to use the standard euphemistic term)  “close” to a British army officer.

Now it’s been revealed that HRW are shortly to release a report giving detailed evidence of complicity in torture by UK government officials in neighbouring Pakistan.

From the Observer:

Among the 10 identified cases of British citizens and residents mentioned in the report is Rangzieb Ahmed, 33, from Rochdale, who claims he was tortured by Pakistani intelligence agents before being questioned by two MI5 officers. Ahmed was convicted of being a member of al-Qaida at Manchester crown court, yet the jury was not told that three of the fingernails of his left hand had been removed. The response from MI5 to the allegations that it had colluded in Ahmed’s torture were heard in camera, however, after the press and the public were excluded from the proceedings. Ahmed’s description of the cell in which he claims he was tortured closely matches that where Salahuddin Amin, 33, from Luton, says he was tortured by ISI officers between interviews with MI5 officers.

Zeeshan Siddiqui, 25, from London, who was detained in Pakistan in 2005, also claims he was interviewed by British intelligence agents during a period in which he was tortured.

Other cases include that of a London medical student who was detained in Karachi and tortured after the July 2005 attacks in London. Another case involving Britons allegedly tortured in Pakistan and questioned by UK agents involves a British Hizb ut-Tahrir supporter.

Rashid Rauf, from Birmingham, was detained in Pakistan and questioned over suspected terrorist activity in 2006. He was reportedly killed after a US drone attack in Pakistan’s tribal regions, though his body has never been found.

Hasan said: “What the research suggests is that these are not incidents involving one particular rogue officer or two, but rather an array of individuals involved over a period of several years.

“The issue is not just British complicity in the torture of British citizens, it is the issue of British complicity in the torture period. We know of at least 10 cases, but the complicity probably runs much deeper because it involves a series of terrorism suspects who are Pakistani. This is the heart of the matter.

“They are not the same individuals [MI5 officers] all the time. I know that the people who have gone to see Siddiqui in Peshawar are not the same people who have seen Ahmed in Rawalpindi.”

Last night the government faced calls to clarify precisely its relationship with Pakistan’s intelligence agencies, which are known to routinely use torture.

Written by Richard Wilson

February 22, 2009 at 10:18 pm

Ex-MI5 head accuses UK government of exploiting public terror fears

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45 minutes from attack

In “Don’t Get Fooled Again” I highlight the extent to which politicians – and the media – exploit public fears about terrorism in order to sell newspapers and ill-conveived government policies. Now the former MI5 head Stella Rimmington has joined those raising concerns, arguing that “It would be better that the Government recognised that there are risks, rather than frightening people in order to be able to pass laws which restrict civil liberties”.

From The Telegraph:

Dame Stella Rimington, the former head of MI5, has warned that the fear of terrorism is being exploited by the Government to erode civil liberties and risks creating a police state.

Dame Stella accused ministers of interfering with people’s privacy and playing straight into the hands of terrorists.

“Since I have retired I feel more at liberty to be against certain decisions of the Government, especially the attempt to pass laws which interfere with people’s privacy,” Dame Stella said in an interview with a Spanish newspaper.

Written by Richard Wilson

February 17, 2009 at 11:15 am

UK government implicated in torture

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From The Guardian

A policy governing the interrogation of terrorism suspects in Pakistan that led to British citizens and residents being tortured was devised by MI5 lawyers and figures in government, according to evidence heard in court.

A number of British terrorism suspects who have been detained without trial in Pakistan say they were tortured by Pakistani intelligence agents before being questioned by MI5. In some cases their accusations are supported by medical evidence.

The existence of an official interrogation policy emerged during cross-examination in the high court in London of an MI5 officer who had questioned one of the detainees, Binyam Mohamed, the British resident currently held in Guantánamo Bay.

Written by Richard Wilson

February 17, 2009 at 11:03 am