Guantanamo Files: was Bin Hamlili really an MI6 source?

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.

Film Review of “Secrecy” on Cinepolitics, January 2009

Over the last few years I have been a reg­u­lar guest on polit­ic­al dis­cus­sion pro­grammes on the rap­idly grow­ing Press TV.  Occa­sion­ally I am invited onto the film review show, “Cinepol­it­ics”, by the host (and film maker) Rus­sell Michaels

The film under review is a doc­u­ment­ary called “Secrecy”, look­ing at the stifling effect cen­sor­ship and the creep­ing concept of nation­al secur­ity have had on demo­cracy in the USA under the former pres­id­en­tial régime.  When this was filmed in Janu­ary, there was hope that the new pres­id­ency might roll this back.  How­ever, “Secrecy” is just as per­tin­ent now that the issue of tor­ture and Guantanamo Bay is being addressed more openly by the media.

Gareth Peirce talks to Moazzam Begg

An inter­view between Guantanamo detain­ee, Moazzam Begg, and human rights law­yer Gareth Peirce.

I have writ­ten before about the appalling treat­ment of people like Moazzam, who are kid­napped, tor­tured, and held illeg­ally without charge in Amer­ica’s secret pris­on camps and Gitmo. Here he has the chance to inter­view Gareth about this and the wider implications:


Gareth Peirce has worked indefatig­ably over many years to defend vic­tims of mis­car­riages of justice in the UK courts and bey­ond. The roll call of those she has helped, not just leg­ally but also with emo­tion­al sup­port and a gentle and humane approach, includes: the Guild­ford Four, the Birm­ing­ham Six, Samar Alami and Jawed Bot­meh (the Israeli Embassy Two), Dav­id Shayler, the Bel­marsh internees, Judith Ward, the fam­ily of Jean Charles de Menezes, and now the Guantanamo victims.

Gareth is a true hero of our times. 

British Spies and Torture

On 30th April, The Guard­i­an news­pa­per repor­ted that yet anoth­er man, picked up in a Brit­ish counter-ter­ror­ism oper­a­tion in Pakistan, has come for­ward claim­ing that he was tor­tured by the Pakistani intel­li­gence agency, the ISI, with the col­lu­sion of Brit­ish spooks

This is part of a grow­ing body of evid­ence indic­at­ing that Brit­ish intel­li­gence officers are con­tinu­ing to flout the law in one of the most hein­ous ways pos­sible, the pro­longed tor­ture of anoth­er human being. Alleg­a­tions have been emer­ging for years that detain­ees of notori­ous camps such as Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib have heard Brit­ish voices either dur­ing the inter­rog­a­tion ses­sions or dir­ect­ing the line of ques­tion­ing. Many of these detain­ees are also the vic­tims of “extraordin­ary rendi­tion”, in itself an extraordin­ar­ily euphemist­ic phrase for the kid­nap­ping and trans­port­a­tion of ter­ror­ist sus­pects to Third World coun­tries where they can be held indef­in­itely and tor­tured with impunity.

This is a situ­ation that haunts me. I worked as an intel­li­gence officer for MI5 in the 1990s, before leav­ing to blow the whistle. Per­haps I worked with some of the people now dir­ectly involved in tor­ture? Per­haps I was even friends with some of them, met them for drinks, had them round for din­ner? How could young, ideal­ist­ic officers, com­mit­ted to pro­tect­ing their coun­try by leg­al means, make that per­son­al mor­al jour­ney and par­ti­cip­ate in such bar­bar­ic acts?

These ques­tions ran through my head when, in 2007, I had the hon­our to meet a gentle, spir­itu­al man called Moazzam Begg. He is a Brit­ish cit­izen who went to Pakistan with his fam­ily to help build a school. One night, his door was broken down, and he was hooded, cuffed and bundled out of his home by Amer­ic­ans, in front of his hys­ter­ic­al wife and young chil­dren. That was the last they saw of him for over 3 years. Ini­tially he was tor­tured in the notori­ous Bagram air­base, before end­ing up in Guantanamo, which he said was a relief to reach as the con­di­tions were so much bet­ter. Need­less to say, he was released with out charge, and is now suing MI5 and MI6 for com­pens­a­tion. He has also writ­ten a book about his exper­i­ences and now spends his time help­ing the cam­paign, Cage Pris­on­ers.

Bri­tain was the first state to rat­i­fy the European Con­ven­tion of Human Rights, which includes Art­icle 3 — no one shall be sub­jec­ted to tor­ture or to inhu­man or degrad­ing treat­ment or pun­ish­ment. It is impossible for a state to derog­ate from this art­icle. So how and why has Bri­tain stooped to the level that it will appar­ently par­ti­cip­ate in such activ­ity? The “apo­ca­lyptic scen­ario” much loved by apo­lo­gists of tor­ture, where a ter­ror­ist has to be broken to reveal the loc­a­tion of the tick­ing bomb, occurs only in fant­ast­ic­al TV dra­mas like “24”, nev­er in real life.

In the 1990s the accep­ted MI5 pos­i­tion was that tor­ture doesn’t work. This was a les­son the UK secur­ity forces had learned the hard way in 1970s North­ern Ire­land. Then, IRA sus­pects had been roun­ded up, interned without tri­al and sub­jec­ted to what the Amer­ic­ans would no doubt nowadays call “enhanced inter­rog­a­tion tech­niques”. But the secur­ity forces got it wrong. The vast major­ity of internees were arres­ted on the basis of the flim­si­est intel­li­gence and had no links what­so­ever with the IRA. Well, at least when they entered pris­on. Intern­ment proved to be the best pos­sible recruit­ing drive for the IRA.

So why has this think­ing changed? I would sug­gest this is part of a core prob­lem for MI5 – the shroud of secrecy with­in which it con­tin­ues to oper­ate and the com­plete lack of account­ab­il­ity and over­sight for the organ­isa­tion. There is no vent­il­a­tion, no con­struct­ive cri­ti­cism, no debate. Once a new doc­trine has been adop­ted by the lead­er­ship, in slav­ish imit­a­tion of US policy, it rap­idly spreads through­out the organ­isa­tion as officers are told to “just fol­low orders”. To do any­thing else is career sui­cide. This leads to a self-per­petu­at­ing olig­archy where illeg­al or uneth­ic­al beha­viour is accep­ted as the norm.

Of course, you may well argue that a spy organ­isa­tion has to oper­ate in secret. Well, yes and no. Of course it needs to pro­tect sens­it­ive oper­a­tion­al tech­niques, ongo­ing oper­a­tions and the iden­tit­ies of agents. How­ever, bey­ond that it should be open to scru­tiny and demo­crat­ic account­ab­il­ity, just as the police anti-ter­ror­ism branch is. After all, they do vir­tu­ally the same work, so why should they be any less accountable?

The tra­di­tion of UK spies oper­at­ing in abso­lute secrecy is a hangover from the bad old days of the cold war, and is utterly inap­pro­pri­ate to a mod­ern counter-ter­ror­ist organ­isa­tion. Increased open­ness and account­ab­il­ity is not only essen­tial in a mod­ern demo­cracy, it also ensures that the spies can­not con­tin­ue to brush their mis­takes and crimin­al­ity under the car­pet. Bri­tain deserves bet­ter from those charged with pro­tect­ing its nation­al security.