On her majesty's secret disservice

February 9, 2007

To combat terror, intelligence services need good research. But US calls to help with a situation in the Sahara-Sahel led Jeremy Keenan to believe academics were being used to support illegal and unethical policies

In 2006, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the Economic and Social Research Council set up the Combating Terrorism by Countering Radicalisation research programme. Its aims were: to ask academics to "scope the growth in influence and membership of extremist Islamist groups in the past 20 years"; to "name the key figures and groups"; and to "understand the use of theological legitimisation for violence" in Europe, Central Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, North Africa and the Gulf, and five countries - Jordan, Nigeria, Somalia, Sudan and Turkey. TheMI5-6 Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre participated in the design of the programme.

The programme was based on the premise of a link between Islam, radicalisation and terrorism, but nowhere within it was "radicalisation" (the new buzzword in intelligence circles) defined. A more serious concern is the programme's irresponsibility. Researching the sort of questions it poses in most of these regions and countries involves considerable danger to the reputation and the physical wellbeing of the researcher. The UK's international reputation in these countries has sunk as a result of the Bush-Blair alliance and the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Lebanon. The ESRC and AHRC should be condemned for encouraging such irresponsibility. But the ESRC denies that the project, now being revised, is intelligence led, while the FCO rejects the suggestion that it is using academics as spies to help to counter terrorism.

The project is not an entirely British affair. The FCO appears to have been careful not to admit to the ESRC how it has been designed to meet the needs of its US ally, whose counterterrorism initiatives have been running into an increasing number of difficulties. In the Sahara-Sahel region (and West Africa), the area in which I have specialist knowledge, the US ran into intelligence problems from the outset as a result of its lack of familiarity with the region. From as early as autumn 2003, intelligence officers were approaching academics familiar with the region to help them "make sense" of "tribal/ethnic" issues. America's European Command, Eucom, was irked by my publication of articles exposing the US-Algerian fabrication of "terrorist" incidents and their implications for the peoples of the region. As a result of these articles and a conference presentation in November 2005, I was requested by three branches of the US Government to help them shift towards a more "developmental" counterterrorist strategy. I declined, as I knew that US-Algerian forces were still engaged in what I regarded as state terrorism in the region.

I received a further invitation from the US State Department in July to brief it on the situation in the Sahara-Sahel, which I accepted, as by that time I wanted to confirm my impression that Washington had lost control of the situation in the region and was looking for a way out (a repeat of the Iraq scenario on a much smaller scale). At these meetings, I briefed US State Department, Pentagon and FBI officials on the fact that local people knew that 100 or more US Special Forces had been flown into Tamanrasset (the capital of Algeria's extreme south) and transferred into northern Mali to back Algeria's support for the Tuareg rebellion at Kidal (northern Mali) on May 23, 2006. The presence of US troops was emphatically denied by the State Department and the Pentagon, which is not surprising as the involvement of US troops in support of such a rebellion has serious legal implications. If it was a genuine rebellion against the Malian Government, as reported, then the US is guilty of being party to an attempted overthrow of a foreign government. If, on the other hand, the Malian authorities knew of the ploy, then the US is party to state terrorism, since a number of innocent people were killed in the fabricated rebellion.

What does all this have to do with the FCO and our research councils? Shortly after my Washington briefing I received e-mails and a telephone call from an FCO member whose counterpart had attended my briefing. He explained how the FCO had been asked by the Americans to help in their counterterrorist efforts in the Sahara-Sahel and asked me to advise them. Our conversation gave me the firm impression that the US had requested the UK, because of its experience in "development work", to help clear up the mess that the US had created in the region through its war on terror there. I was also given the impression that the Department for International Development had been contacted and was on board.

I advised that the UK authorities should have nothing to do with the US request. I also warned that if the UK were to get involved there could be international legal consequences. I suggested a meeting with the FCO official where I then pointed out that the US had been asking for counterterrorism assistance in the Sahara-Sahel for almost 12 months; that the US had, in effect, lost control of the intelligence situation there and was looking for an "exit strategy"; that US forces were involved in the fabrication of the Mali rebellion and subsequent skirmishes between Tuareg "rebels" and alleged terrorists; that he had confirmed that the US had asked the FCO for help in counterterrorism; and that the FCO was now asking the ESRC and AHRC to get UK academics involved in the same operation. His reply was a semantic shift. He denied that the "US had asked the UK for support", as I had been told a couple of months earlier. Rather, it was explained to me, "the UK's priority is to help our allies, in this case the US, in whatever way we think we are able, which in this particular case is to assist in counterterrorism in the Sahara-Sahel".

In spite of being aware of the evidence to the contrary that I have provided on the Sahara-Sahel, the British Government seems determined to be proactive in rendering counterterrorism assistance. Given the specific, intelligence-led nature of the terms of reference, the ESRC is being disingenuous in claiming that its research programme was not initiated at the behest of the FCO, which, as a major funder (£500,000 in a budget of £1.3 million), is a key stakeholder in the programme.

In fact, one of the universities preselected by the ESRC to bid for the programme requested that I take responsibility for putting together its bid for the North African region. An integral part of this bid was to prioritise the compilation of a 5,000-word report for the FCO. I was told that the remaining funds could be used for writing "academic books in the normal way". There are serious ethical and legal implications in the compilation of such reports on behalf of the FCO. The ESRC and AHRC were remiss in not picking up these issues at the outset.

For the benefit of those who still believe "my country right or wrong", let me explain how this research would have been disseminated. It was to go from the ESRC-AHRC to the FCO, where it would have been made available to our intelligence services. From there, it is likely to find its way to the Base Alliance, a top-secret intelligence centre set up in Paris in 2002 and funded largely by the CIA's Counterterrorist Center, but headed by a French general assigned from the Direction Generale de la Securite Exterieure. The "Base" is multinational, with case officers from the UK, France, Germany, Canada, Australia and the US, who, in addition to sharing information, plan operations.

France's main contribution to the Base is that it brings its harsh laws, surveillance of radical Muslim groups and their networks in Arab states and its intelligence links to its former colonies, including France's close relationship with Algeria's military intelligence services. Through this triangulation of US-French-North African intelligence services, UK intelligence (and hence the FCO) has access to knowledge of the various phases of the war on terror in North Africa and the way in which they have been conducted. This, of course, raises the question of the complicity of the US allies in North African counterterrorist operations, including extraordinary rendition and torture in some of these countries. Unpalatable as it sounds, there is a direct route from the ESRC-AHRC to the FCO, MI5 and the Base Alliance, and from there to disappearances, rendition and torture.

There is another reason why the FCO's involvement in this project should not be tolerated: the British Government has done much to undermine and weaken the positions and interests of many of Africa's indigenous and marginalised peoples. It is perceived as having done this by acting increasingly as the handmaiden of US foreign policy. For instance, the UK has not only failed to use its considerable influence, as Washington's ally, to prevent the US from being the only country in the world to vote against the UN Arms Trade Treaty and the UN Declaration of Indigenous Rights, two of Africa's most urgently needed measures, but the UK's own highly spurious positions on these issues have in effect lent support to the USapproach.

Academics should be reminded that the first formal request received by the UN Working Group on Indigenous Populations came from the Tuareg peoples of the Sahel objecting to the US presence and actions in their region. The FCO knows the US has been fabricating and exaggerating terrorism in that area. And yet the FCO is asking academics to assist it in furthering its counterterrorism policy in the region. Moreover, while John Bolton, US Permanent Representative to the UN, voted in a minority of one against the UN Arms Treaty, his colleagues at the Pentagon were busy rebranding the mostly innocent, "indigenous" peoples of the Sahara-Sahel as "terrorists", "rebels" and "putative terrorists" on the basis that they carry and supposedly traffic illegal arms. If the US is concerned that arms traffickers are terrorists, or that they aid such groups, why does it oppose UN moves to end such trafficking? The duplicity of the US and British governments in using the war on terror for their own agendas is dangerous. British academics should have nothing to do with the Combating Terrorism by Countering Radicalisation research programme or related agendas.

Jeremy Keenan is teaching fellow, department of anthropology and archaeology, Bristol University, and visiting professor, Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, Exeter University. This is an edited version of an article published this month in Anthropology Today .

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