by Mark Curtis
Mark Curtis is an independent author, journalist and consultant. He is the author of ‘Unpeople: Britain’s Secret Human Rights Abuses’ and ‘Web of Deceit: Britain’s Real Role in the World’, amongst other works. He spoke to NLP on the topic of British collusion with radical Islam.
Can you tell us what your new book – ‘Secret affairs: Britain’s collusion with radical Islam’ is about. What do you want to convey? What are your hopes for the book?
The book tells the story of the long history of British collaboration with radical Islam, including terrorist groups. 7/7 and the present broader terrorist threat to Britain is to some degree a product of British foreign policy – the bombings derived from a terrorism infrastructure established by a Pakistani state long backed by Whitehall and involving Pakistani terrorist groups which had benefitted from past British covert action.
Throughout the postwar period Britain has covertly supported radical Islamic groups in Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Libya, the Balkans, Syria, Indonesia and Egypt, and the book aims to documents this drawing on the declassified British files.
British funding of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt began in the 1940s; the following decade Britain was conniving with the organization to kill Nasser (and also to overthrow nationalist governments in Syria). The reason for supporting Islamist organizations in the early postwar period was to counter popular nationalism, and Whitehall regularly sided with the Muslim Brotherhood throughout the Middle East.
The covert war in Afghanistan in the 1980s in support of the mujahidin, which of course gave birth to al-Qaida, was simply an extension of already-existing British policy, but this was Whitehall’s biggest covert operation since world war 2 involving support for various of the Afghan/foreign groups fighting the Soviets (against some of whom Britain is now fighting in Afghanistan). Since then, there have been a plethora of similar operations involving Britain working alongside Islamist forces to counter enemies – Milosevic in Yugoslavia, Qadhafi in Libya, Saddam in Iraq, for example.
To a certain extent, the policy is still continuing in Iraq and Afghanistan, although in different form – the British are now reliant on doing a deal with the Taliban to secure an ‘honourable exit’ for example, and in Iraq Britain de facto empowered Islamist militias throughout its occupation of southern Iraq.
I also think that the policy of “Londonistan” – allowing London to act as a base for jihadist terrorist organizing around the world – has been intimately related to securing British foreign policy goals. The book also documents Britain’s extremely deep strategic alliance with the two major state sponsors of radical Islam – Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. Whitehall’s special relationship with Riyadh is one of the most remarkable features of postwar British foreign policy – the files show that Britain struck several investment deals with the Saudis in 1973 (around the oil price crisis) and basically appended the British economy to the Saudi at this time, from which Britain has never recovered.
The roots of all this are in the ‘divide of rule’ policies of empire when Britain used Islamic forces to promote imperial interests in various countries such as India, Palestine, Jordan and Yemen. The book tries to show how British collusion with radical Islam is intimately related to its postwar imperial decline – policy-makers have been expedient and pragmatic, lacking any moral compass, and have aimed to counter nationalist forces in a desperate attempt to uphold their power in a changing world.
Given the mainstream “war on terror” narrative the idea that Britain colludes with radical Islam will seem counterintuitive to many. How do you justify such claims?
The reality is often the exact opposite of mainstream discourse – in fact, this is not far off being a general rule, on major issues. The ‘war on terror’ has clearly been a war on targets specially designated by London and Washington, not a war on terrorism. After 9/11 the objective case for bombing Riyadh and Islamabad was as strong as bombing Kabul and infinitely stronger than bombing Baghdad.
The fact that Britain’s allies have been at the centre of global terrorism for at least three decades is simply a fact, and is rarely mentioned in the mainstream. The US and British ‘war’ has left many of the real sources of terrorism in the world untouched. In my view, there’s a strong argument for promoting a war on terrorism (although I don’t like the word war), but if serious it would focus on some interesting places, including London.
When attempting to justify such policies it is often argued that Britain is supporting lesser evils. What do you make of such claims?
I’m not sure I completely understand the question since few attempts are made to justify such policies – they are either not known about or simply taboo. I’m not sure there’s much that is more evil than terrorism. When Britain connived with the Muslim Brotherhood to kill Nasser in the 1950s, the Brotherhood at that time had a secret apparatus responsible for various assassinations and bomb attacks in Egypt; their aim was to remove a basically popular (though far from angelic, and increasingly authoritarian) government.
In the Kosovo war to defeat Milosevic, Britain was training Kosovo Liberation Army Forces linked to al-Qaida that the British government recognized were terrorists. And so on.
If foreign policy is not dictated by ethics what is it dictated by?
The collusion with radical Islam has been dictated by utility. Beyond the special relationships with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan – which are deep strategic alliances – Britain’s policy has been 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.
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, the major champions of radical Islam; 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.
When it comes to broader foreign policy, the declassified files are very clear – the two basic goals are to maintain Britain’s power status in the world and to ensure that the global economy functions in the interests of British and Western corporations. The latter goal has a variety of serious impacts, most importantly a grossly exploitative international trade and financial order which keeps hundreds of millions of people in poverty.
These two goals are sometimes referred to as ‘national’ interests but this is of course misleading – they are the interests of a commercial and political elite. The policy making system in Britain is so undemocratic that decision-makers are simply able to get away with these policies.
Why is analysis such as yours so marginalised? Why do we not hear similar analysis from the mainstream media?
These are inconvenient truths that the elite have no interest in revealing. Snippets of reality are often captured in part of the mainstream print media (often buried within much longer articles with a misleading title), but they are often drowned out by a chorus of more convenient reporting. I say print media since television and radio news/current affairs are virtually completely totalitarian.
The BBC, for example, is simply a joke, in my view; it is impossible to watch for anyone with a basic knowledge of Britain’s real role in the world except as a study of propaganda – to regard it as a source of information is simply delusional. Journalists working in the mainstream seem to me to be one of two kinds – there are those who absolutely know how the system works, but just feel they have no choice but to do what they can within it, and then those who literally do not understand that anyone could possibly believe they are serving an ideological function. There is some hope with the former, but the latter are invariably the editors.
Can you tell us a bit about the writing of your book – you were able to access declassified government documents how useful was this material? How much material on such topics is in the public domain?
Government files housed at the National Archives are meant to be declassified after 30 years, but the reality is that many remain classified (at the whim of the government department) and some, eg. those for MI5 and MI6, are completely closed. All my books have drawn on these files and they are certainly useful.
You just have to read these files to discover the vast gulf between how mainstream analysts in academia and the media present British policy, and the reality. But the files are presently declassified only up to 1979. For the later episodes, I’ve relied on drawing together information from an array of publicly-available sources.
The internet is of course a wonder, but one has to be careful especially on this issue of terrorism. There’s a lot of nonsense or just slack analysis around, on some internet sites and articles, which confuse some groups with others and impugn a British or US role to supporting this or that group when it doesn’t stand up.
My main concern, as always, has been to be completely accurate and objective. In Secret Affairs, I’ve raised doubts about some of the theories and ‘evidence’ that some have written about on the internet, including when they support the overall thesis of collusion. There is also, of course, the theory that 7/7 and 9/11 were inside jobs – I looked at these in detail, and the contention is complete nonsense.
There are a lot of gaps in Secret Affairs and I hit a lot of dead-ends. I hope that more and more information comes out by insiders who have played a role in these events.
If as you say the theory that the 9/11 and 7/7 attacks were “inside jobs” is nonsense why do you think so many seem to believe in such theories?
First, I’m not sure how many people really believe those conspiracy theories, at least in Britain. But in a way, it’s understandable because elites behave so immorally and, encouragingly, people know that, despite the nonsense they are subjected to in newspapers and on TV, which routinely tell us of our leaders’ noble intentions.
My objection to the theories is not that elites would never do such things and thus that they are inconceivable – rather, they are perfectly conceivable, and there are various examples where attacks on ‘us’ or on allies have been staged in order to blame enemies. I note some of these episodes in Secret Affairs, but in the cases of 9/11 and 7/7 the evidence for this just doesn’t stand up at all.
You’ve written a great deal about how British foreign policy serves the interests of state-corporate power, rather than the interests of the general public. What are the specific concentrations of socio-economic power that shape British foreign policy? What forms of influence do they bring to bear on government? And how do the relevant influential vested interests vary from one policy area to the next?
This question would be worthy of a book-length study. British elites have of course long shaped their foreign policy to promote commercial (trade and financial) enterprises overseas. Obviously, this was central to the period of formal imperialism and colonialism and to a large extent the role of British companies in the global economy is a legacy of that. A large number of major British companies are dependent on the global economy and financial order and thus have a major interest in ensuring that the shape of that order functions in their interests.
British banks, mining companies, food companies, oil companies, and, more recently, sectors such as supermarkets – to name but some – occupy many dominating positions in global supply chains. There is also a big ‘revolving door’ of executives in the key corporations (especially in the mining and arms sectors) and Whitehall. This degree of dependence on ‘succeeding’ in the global economy is more marked for Britain than probably for any other Western country, with the exception of the US.
Not surprisingly, the giant corporations exert huge influence in Whitehall – if ‘influence’ is really the right word for a system that they have themselves helped shape and are part of. Various foreign policy episodes I have studied bear this out. The war in Malaya in the 1950s was partly a war to defend British rubber interests in the country, the 1953 coup in Iran was undertaken to promote the Anglo-Iranian Oil Corporation (the forerunner of BP), and the big British push in central Asia in the early 1990s was at the behest of oil and gas companies. Again, just to name some episodes.
Britain (including under New Labour) has for decades been arguably the world’s leading champion of global trade liberalisation and financial deregulation, precisely to benefit its corporations. The aim has been to ensure that states/governments around the world play only minor roles in economic policy – thus economic nationalism has been seen as a similar enemy as political nationalism. The structure of British foreign policy, and its key alliances, is very largely the product of these interests.
We should also remember that one of the major reasons for the special relationship with Washington is the huge British financial investment in the US, and vice versa, involving various sectors and including arms (BAE systems, Britain’s largest arms companies, has become increasingly dependent on US military orders and benefits significantly from the US military industrial complex and military adventurism abroad).
One of the areas where New Labour seems to have come in for the least criticism from progressive people is on international development. Does the government deserve its benign reputation in this area?
On the face of it, Britain has promoted some positive development policies in the past decade. But look more closely, and a somewhat different picture emerges. For example, Britain has led international calls for the write-off of developing country debt, but debt relief has long only been provided on condition that countries promote World Bank-authorised economic policies, which invariably include further privatisation and liberalisation of their economies.
In the past few years, Britain has pushed the World Bank, more than other countries, to end such conditionalities in its lending (loans linked to formal requirements to promote certain policies), and to pull back from promoting outright global trade liberalisation, but this is after 20 years of these policies being imposed – there’s now little left to privatise or liberalise.
Britain has certainly increased its aid budget over the past decade, but I don’t regard this as a serious indicator of commitment to development since there are numerous problems with British (and other countries’) aid, most notably that it is part of a push to promote a certain kind of economic model not necessarily in the interests of most developing countries.
This is not say that Britain does not promote some good aid projects, it does, and there are some skilled technical staff in DFID, but they are working in a broader context that tends to impoverish developing countries still further.
The question is admittedly more complex since of course numerous states around the world are also hardly benign – it is not simply that developing country governments are great and donors horrific, rather that ordinary people in developing countries (at least those not progressing, as in most countries in Africa) are the victims of an unstrategic mix of both poor government and donor policies.
The countries that have developed the most have not followed Western ‘advice’; they have tended to use a strategic combination of state-led policies with a certain degree of economic liberalisation, very different to the shock therapy liberalisation previously promoted by the World Bank and Northern governments like the UK, and different also to their more recent paradigm of the state simply playing a minor, ‘enabling’ role.
If British governments were serious about eradicating poverty, there are various policies that would fundamentally change. One is that there would be a serious push to regulate corporations to ensure a much tougher set of formal, legally-binding international standards to shape their behaviour, meaning on human rights, the environmental and labour conditions.
On this issue, Britain has been totally silent, again defending its companies. Also, Britain would help make global supply chains much fairer. In commodities such as tea, sugar and cocoa – just to take three examples of numerous others – British companies are making huge profits through their dominating role in production, marketing or retailing, while the growers of those commodities – the poor farmers at the bottom of the chain – continue to earn a fraction of the sales price and barely eke out a subsistence living in poverty.
The commodities’ trade remains perhaps the starkest example of ongoing exploitation of the poor by the rich in the global economy, and British companies are often at the centre of this. British governments continue to do precisely nothing about this state of affairs and until they do we should continue to regard them as complete hypocrites when they speak of championing the eradication of poverty.
I have written before that the government’s public relations work on development issues is at least as sophisticated as the propaganda campaign on Iraq. I’ve watched in amazement as the government, since 1997, has received such a good press on development issues, notably Africa. It would make a good case study of the ideologically functioning of the mainstream media.