My recent article in The Guardian newspaper about the strange, sad case of yet another Guantanamo victim.
Guantánamo Bay files: Was Bin Hamlili really an MI6 source?
With dirty tricks rife in the secret service we may never know the truth about the Algerian carpet-seller’s version of events.
Another cache of intelligence nasties has emerged, blinking, into the mainstream media daylight by way of WikiLeaks. This time, the information is drawn from official Guantánamo reports on detainees, drawing on information gleaned over the years of “enhanced” interrogations.
One case that caught my attention was that of Algerian carpet seller Adil Hadi al Jazairi Bin Hamlili, an alleged “al-Qaida operative, facilitator, courier, kidnapper and assassin” who also apparently worked as an agent of CSIS (Canadian Secret Intelligence Service) and our very own MI6. So was this man a double-agent, playing his own lonely game and caught between the demands of his al-Qaida contacts and his western handlers? Or has MI6 been employing its very own al-Qaida assassin?
The report states that this is Bin Hamlili’s story in his own words – no doubt freely uttered as he emerged, spluttering, from yet another interrogation. It appears that he entered the mujahideen world when he was a child in the 1980s, fighting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. An era when the group was very much an ally of the west, funded, trained and armed by the CIA and MI6 in the fight against the Soviet Union.
This could very well have led to MI6 and/or CSIS approaching Bin Hamlili as a potential source of human intelligence. Humint sources are the crown jewels of intelligence work – able to reach parts beyond the range of electronic surveillance. The downside, of course, is that they are merely human and need strong support and backup to survive their dangerous job, year after year. This is something that is not always provided to them and they can often end up feeling exposed, increasingly paranoid and in real danger, playing every side just to survive.
While some agents do indeed suffer a genuine revulsion towards their earlier allegiances – the basic ideological shift – and try to atone by helping the spooks, most are entrapped by the other three points in the classic spy acronym: money, ideology, compromise, ego. These are more shaded, compelled motivations that can lead to resentment and potential double-dealing, and require close agent handling and care. Unfortunately, this is often lacking.
So welcome to the classic intelligence “hall of mirrors”. Was Bin Hamlili really an MI6 source? Or was this just an attempt to stop the torture in Guantánamo, however temporarily? Perhaps he was playing both sides? Or perhaps he faithfully reported back to his CSIS/MI6 handlers but his reports were not effectively acted on – this happens in the intelligence agencies – and the culpable officers brushed these mistakes under the carpet by claiming “agent unreliability” or “lack of co-operation”.
Or, more worryingly, Bin Hamlili might indeed have had an effective working relationship with his handlers and was actually tasked in his work as provocateur or even terrorist, for some arcane intelligence purposes. But once caught, he was deemed to be politically embarrassing and hung out to dry.
This would certainly not be the first time this has happened to intelligence agents. Dirty tricks were intrinsic in the dirty war in Northern Ireland from the early 1970s, and agents such as Martin McGartland, Denis Donaldson (deceased) and Kevin Fulton have learned all too brutally what the phrase “hung out to dry” really means.
This was not restricted to Northern Ireland. In 1996, MI6 illegally funded an “al-Qaida” coup to assassinate Colonel Gaddafi, using as its agent a Libyan military intelligence officer. The attempt manifestly failed, although innocent people were killed in the attempt. This was all hushed up at the time, but now seems rather tame as we watch our defence secretary, Liam Fox, fly out to discuss with his US counterpart, Robert Gates, the overt assassination of Gaddafi using predator drones. State terrorism as the new diplomacy?
I doubt we shall ever now know the truth behind Bin Hamlili’s report. The exposure of the Guantánamo régime highlights once again that torture is counterproductive – it panders to the preconceptions of the interrogators and acts as a recruiting ground for future potential terrorists. This used to be the consensus even within our intelligence agencies, pre‑9/11. They need to re-remember the lessons of history, and their humanity.