The idea that Britain promotes terrorism would be an oxymoron in the mainstream political culture. Yet state-sponsored terrorism is responsible for more deaths in more countries than the “private” terrorism practised by groups like al-Qaeda.
And many of the worst offenders are British allies like Turkey and Russia. Equally, British military policies are extending the promotion of state terrorism into new areas. The fact is, Britain is one of the leading supporters of terrorism in the world today.
First, let us briefly consider direct British involvement in acts of terrorism. One of the major terrorist acts of the 1980s was the Beirut car bombing in March 1985. The bomb was placed outside a mosque and timed to explode when worshippers left. The aim was to kill Hezbollah leader Mohammed Hussein Sheikh Fadlallah, who was accused of complicity in terrorism. Around 80 people were killed, and over 200 wounded. Fadlallah escaped. The bombing was organised by the CIA and Saudi agents with the assistance of Britain’s MI6.
Previously, Britain had set up pseudo-terrorist ‘counter gangs’ in Palestine in the 1940s and Aden in the 1960s. The gangs consisted of former terrorists and, in Aden, loyal tribesmen, and were led by British officers disguised as locals. They were sent out in twos and threes to target those suspected of terrorism against British targets. In Palestine the squads were given a free hand to kill Jewish terrorists seeking an end to British rule.
In the mid-1960s an MI6 officer noted that his organisation was helping local security services in the Middle East neutralise threats to their regimes. ‘Killer squads’ were also used in the colonial war in Malaya. In the 1980s a British private security firm conducted (with a probable nod and wink from Whitehall) sabotage operations in Nicaragua and took part in Oliver North’s gun-running operations.
Trying to assassinate foreign leaders is a British tradition. Various attempts were made to kill Egyptian president Nasser in the mid-1950s. In one attempt MI6 injected poison into chocolates. Nerve gas, an SAS hit squad and firing a poisoned dart from a cigarette packet were also considered. Evidence suggests that MI6 planned the assassinations of Albanian president Enver Hoxha in 1948, Cypriot guerrilla leader Colonel Grivas in the late 1950s, Indonesian president Sukarno in the 1950s and Ugandan president Milton Obote in 1969.
In 1998 archbishop Desmond Tutu revealed possible British involvement in the death of UN secretary-general Dag Hammarskjold in 1961. Hammarskjold’s plane exploded when it was about to land in Rhodesia; he was on his way to mediate a peace agreement between Congo and the breakaway province of Katanga. Documents described meetings between MI5, the CIA and a South African military front company, and plans to place TNT in the wheel bay of the aircraft.
In addition, former MI6 officer Richard Tomlinson revealed that MI6 put forward a paper entitled ‘the need to assassinate president Slobodan Milosevic of Yugoslavia’ in 1992. Subsequently, Nato aircraft specifically targeted Milosevic for assassination during the war against Yugoslavia in 1999.
And in 1998 MI5 whistleblower David Shayler alleged British funding and support for an assassination attempt against Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi. A leaked MI6 cable later stated that “one officer and 20 men were being trained especially for this attack” in February 1996. The coup plotters had obtained 250 British pistols; their leader was Abdal Muhaymeen, a former member of the Afghan mujahideen who was possibly trained by MI6 or the CIA. Gaddafi survived the coup attempt, but six innocent bystanders did not.
Let us now consider two examples of terrorism committed by favoured British allies, and the importance of the London connection.
During its war against Kurds in the southeast of Turkey, the Turkish government destroyed 3,500 Kurdish villages, made 1.5 million people homeless and killed thousands more. During the peak period of the atrocities, between 1994 and 1996, John Major’s government actually increased arms exports to Turkey – delivering £68m worth in 1994 (the year Ankara began major offensive operations). Export credits for arms and military equipment reached £265m in 1995.
Atrocities decreased by the late 1990s as the scorched earth policy succeeded in terrorising the population and pacifying the region. However, abuses against Kurds continue. Hundreds of thousands of people forced out of their homes are unable to return; government-appointed “village guards” occupy much of their land. Several displaced villagers were recently shot dead for attempting to return to their homes. Human Rights Watch (HRW) says: “Most abandoned settlements remain no-go areas.”
Since 2002 there have been major improvements in human rights elsewhere in Turkey. The Turkish parliament has lifted many restrictions on the use of the Kurdish language in broadcasting and education. Yet numerous human rights abuses continue: Turkish law continues to heavily constrain free expression; former Kurdish parliamentarians remain in jail after unfair trials; police torture is systematic.
Meanwhile, British arms exports to Turkey were worth £179m in 2001, and Turkish military officers and police (the latter being responsible for many of the worst human rights abuses) receive training in Britain. London also aids Ankara by labelling the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) a “terrorist organisation”. While the PKK has certainly committed atrocities, the Turkish government has a much worse record. Britain also closed down the Kurdish TV station Med-TV in 1999.
The Labour government is also bending over backwards to support Turkey’s bid to join the EU. Former foreign secretary Robin Cook has said that “the question of rejection does not arise” – it being inconceivable that Britain would invoke human-rights atrocities to block Turkish entry. While its EU ambitions have forced Turkey to improve its human rights performance, London is more concerned with bringing a strategic ally into the Western orbit.
Another of Tony Blair’s greatest current allies is Russian president Vladimir Putin. The Blair-Putin relationship is one of the most extraordinary in recent British foreign policy, and is hailed by the Foreign Office as a great success. Ever since Moscow’s intervention in Chechnya in September 1999, Britain has been complicit in some of the worst horrors of our time.
Between November 1999 and February 2000 the Russians submitted the Chechnyan city of Grozny to a ferocious bombing campaign. Grozny was turned into a wasteland, and thousands of people died. The Guardian’s Maggie O’Kane wrote: “Usually in war there are some rules. But in Chechnya no one is saying sorry or even pretending that they are not dropping 1,000-pound bombs on houses, hospitals and schools.” While Grozny was being flattened, British defence minister Geoff Hoon said: “Engaging Russia in a constructive bilateral defence relationship is a high priority for the government… We wish to continue to develop an effective defence relationship with Russia.”
A week before Blair met Putin in March 2000, The Observer revealed the slaughter of 363 Chechens by Russian forces in the village of Katyr Yurt. Vladimir took Tony to the opera, prompting HRW to state: “this is absolutely the wrong signal to be sending… at a time when war crimes are being committed with impunity by Russian forces in Chechnya.” HRW accused the Russians of “mass executions of civilians, arbitrary detention of Chechen males, systematic beatings, torture and, on occasion, rape”.
After 11 September Britain, Nato and the EU abandoned all pretence of concern at continuing Russian atrocities in Chechnya. In Moscow the following month Blair said: “I would like to pay tribute to the strength and leadership of president Putin at this time.” He added that Britain and Russia were “working through problems in the spirit of friends and true partners”. This was Blair’s eighth meeting with Putin in under two years – “a very good indication”, Blair noted, “of the strengthening relationships” between Blair and Putin and Russia and Britain.
Thus Blair proposed creating a “Russia-North Atlantic Council” to bring Moscow closer to Nato. No wonder that in December 2001, Putin could say of Russia’s attempts to deal with terrorism (meaning Chechnya) that “we felt and we saw and we knew that our voice was being heard – that the UK wanted to hear us and to understand us and that, indeed, we were being understood”.
Late last year, Blair said that in view of the “terrorism coming from extremists operating out of Chechnya… I have always taken the view that it is important that we understand the Russian perspective on this”. He added: “I have always been more understanding of the Russian position, perhaps, than many others.” This came a week after a further (futile) attempt by HRW to urge Blair to press Putin on human rights abuses. HRW states that the human rights situation in Chechnya remains “abysmal”, with violations increasing and torture endemic. It recently reported on the highest rate of “disappearances” since the war began, but the hundreds of disappearances documented represent “only a fraction of the actual number”.
Whitehall claims it lacks levers to press the Russians to stop the worst abuses. In fact, Britain gives Moscow £30m in aid a year, as well as military assistance and training. In addition, British exports to Russia are worth £300m; the trade in the other direction is worth £700m. The truth is that Britain is the fifth largest foreign investor in the country; the two nations signed a trade and investment agreement in 1997. So, rather than pressing Moscow, London has been stepping up contacts – especially with the Russian military.
Yet British promotion of state terrorism goes even deeper; it now applies to its own basic military policy. The military attacks involving British forces on Afghanistan and Yugoslavia were justified in terms of Britain’s political objectives overseas. In recent years Britain’s armed forces have changed their ostensibly defensive role for an overtly offensive one. The military now has a “new focus on expeditionary warfare”, the all-party House of Commons Defence Committee comments approvingly.
This change was the major accomplishment of the government’s “strategic defence review” (SDR), which was concluded in 1998 (long before 11 September). The SDR stated: “In the post-cold war world we must be prepared to go to the crisis, rather than have the crisis come to us… Long-range air attack [is] an integral part of warfighting and a coercive instrument to support political objectives.” This “coercive instrument” is the modern version of imperial “gunboat diplomacy” – ie, the doctrine that Britain may threaten countries failing to do what “we” (or, more likely, the US) want. It is consistent with any reasonable definition of terrorism.
Britain is now using “the war against terrorism” to put its expeditionary aspirations into practice. The Foreign Office refers to “an effective doctrine of early warning and, where necessary, early intervention”. Foreign secretary Jack Straw has said: “Our aim must be to develop a clear strategy to head off threats to global order and to deal with the consequences within the evolving framework of international law.” (Britain will, in other words, conduct military interventions to preserve Western supremacy, while pressing for “evolution” in international law to make such intervention easier.)
The Defence Committee notes that Britain must “be free to rapidly deploy significant forces overseas”, and calls for “pre-emptive military action”. It says: “Operations in central Asia, East Africa, perhaps the Indian subcontinent and elsewhere will become necessary as part of an integrated political and military strategy to address terrorism.”
The new interventionism is backed by the most terrifying weapons. The Trident nuclear weapons system has a “sub-strategic” role intended for use on the battlefield as well as to deter all-out nuclear war. Like the Thatcher government, Blair’s administration says that “the credibility of deterrence… depends on retaining the option for a limited nuclear strike”. In March 2002 Geoff Hoon said: “I am absolutely confident that in the right conditions we would be willing to use our nuclear weapons.”
Current policies are seriously frightening. There is a much simpler way of countering some terrorism at least, and that is by changing policy closer to home. If we were honest, this is where the “war against terrorism” would begin.
This is an adapted extract from Mark Curtis’s new book, Web of Deceit: Britain’s real role in the world, (Vintage, £7.99).