APPROACH WITH CAUTION: REVIEW OF RAFFAELLO PANTUCCI ‘WE LOVE DEATH AS YOU LOVE LIFE: BRITAIN’S SUBURBAN TERRORISTS’ HURST 2015 £15.99
(extract from Notes From the Borderland issue 11 pages 19-29)
Pantucci's book is a dense book full of facts, names, dates, dealing with a complex phenomenon. This perhaps explains why to date there have been few reviews that we have noticed. If your attention span is short, don't bother reading the book, or this review, until you have extended it. For those of you still with us, reading both is worthwhile. We welcome critical comments, and offer the author himself the right to reply. If you like the review, visit our shop and buy the magazine: the more people that do, the more often we can come out! Enjoy!
Jihadism is an enduring phenomenon of our times, and this important book covers many recent key moments, actors, and plots. It should not, however, be taken at face value, even less treated as a sole reference source. Read this detailed review/critique to find out exactly why that is the case.
UPDATE AS OF 4/3/17: the below review of Pantucci's book by myself on Amazon, along with the detailed content below, is hopefully self-explanatory. Pantucci struts about the media feted as an impartial 'expert', but cannot/will not answer the serious charges laid against him below. You can reach your own conclusions as to why this is.
While not the comprehensive reference book for British Jihadism it might appear to be at first sight, and Pantucci believes it is, nonetheless this attempt to “stitch the whole narrative together….trying to tell the whole story”1 is worth reading by anyone interested in the subject matter: which should include all perusing this magazine for a start! Some serious questions are raised herein about Pantucci’s research, and academic integrity. He is welcome to exercise a right to reply should he so wish.
This review falls into four sections. First, I look at what is useful and interesting. Next, I outline problems with the book, both factually and in interpreting the jihadist phenomenon. Third, I flag up things not in the book but should be. Before concluding I (fourthly) attempt some explanation based on what is known about Pantucci and the body he works for, the quintessentially establishment Royal United Services Institute (RUSI). This last point is important due to ongoing blurring of the lines between genuinely independent academic research on the one hand, and tailored bespoke research which might appear academic but isn’t on the other. All references in brackets are to the book itself: footnotes cover other sources. To dispel any ambiguity: I am no parlour liberal, and do not deny his claim that “most of the most dangerous and ambiguous recent terrorist acts and plots in the UK are perpetrated by people professing an Islamist outlook” (p.4). While there are certainly fascist bomb-plotters out there, they pale into insignificance in number and seriousness besides Islamist plots, even though, by the law of averages, one is again bound to get through to fruition sooner rather than later. A word on terminology: like others in this field, Pantucci uses the term radicalisation to refer to individuals becoming Islamist Jihadists, and terrorism as a description of what they (seek to) get up to. Neither terms am I comfortable with, nor the absurd oxymoron (which he does not affect thankfully) ‘Critical Terrorism Studies’ either. Such deconstructive arguments are for another day...
(1) THE BOOK’S GOOD POINTS
Pantucci has amazing sources: both human (if mostly anonymous) in the shape of police and security officials, and court transcripts, which as those outside the charmed circle who have tried to obtain such will know, are ruinously expensive or just not available. The sheer number of transcripts, and the book’s general tenor, leads me to believe he got these from the prosecution (in its broadest sense) rather than defence. One familiar name graces the acknowledgements: Nigel Inkster, of the International Institute for Strategic Studies. Inkster (a former Director of Intelligence and Operations) was, it is widely believed, Richard Dearlove’s chosen successor as MI6 chief, elbowed out of the way by Blair lickspittle John Scarlett, infamous both for being complicit in the ‘dodgy dossier’ justifying war with Iraq, and knowing rather a lot about the suspicious death of WMD expert Dr David Kelly. I have no objection to Pantucci cultivating spook/ police sources: though the narrow spectrum limits the book’s depth if not range. Accessing sources is one thing: using them well another. Pantucci commendably crams much detail into the book. He passably outlines 2004 Operation Crevice (p.160-77), the 7/7/05 (p.185-99), 21/7/05 bomb plots (p.207-14), 2006 Operation Overt (p.214-23), 2007 Doctor’s plot (p.232-8) and so on: the index at the back is functional and informative. Allied to this he has interesting (if at times scathing) sketches of key individuals: Abu Hamza (p.110-15), Omar Bakri Mohammed (p.88-98), Abu Qatada (p.131-4), Abdullah El Faisal (p.134-40) and Dhiren Barrot (p.176-83) for example. Some sketches are more value than others, but it is hard to disagree when he says of Hamza his “gift seems to have been an ability to reach out to troubled young men of any background, to provide them with leadership and guidance supplemented with real world support in the form of a roof over their heads and a role to play in his part of the global struggle to establish a Caliphate” (p.130). At times the relentless detail can overwhelm: it reads like (and probably came from) many merged condensed police/intelligence reports emphasising links between Jihadists in general and specific plot personnel in particular.
Pantucci does not confine himself to reportage, worthy though that would have been. He also (following his King’s College supervisor Peter Neumann) attempts to explain Jihadism by positing three important ‘drivers’ of such, ideology grievance and mobilisation. How they “coalesce is dictated by random events and how they respond to a given situation, factors that are all difficult to forecast, much as a fruit machine, with three wheels spinning in tandem and occasionally lining up, is hard to predict” (p.7-8). This fruit machine analogy he attributes, intriguingly, to Nigel Inkster, Driver one, ideology, “in many ways the most important of the three drivers…[is] the philosophy that enables individuals to become involved in extremist Islamist terrorism, a supremacist Takfirist ideology that seeks to impose a global Caliphate” (p.8-9). In the section on ideology, Pantucci includes something that while perhaps true is not really ideological: “the notion of becoming an international terrorist, a figure imbued with a sense of cool” (p.11). This is more of a personal driver, reflecting the selfie-centredness of our times. Where the IRA issued terse communiques signed by the eponymous P O’Neill, today’s bombers compose personal rambling narcissistic2 monologues designed for post-mortem dissemination on You-Tube.
Next comes grievance, “a sense of not being able effectively to participate in society may indeed play a role in some cases; according to conclusions reached by MI5, the loose terms ‘blocked mobility’ apparently features as a running theme through the biographies of Britons who get involved in terrorist activity” (p.13). Slightly undermining this, Pantucci stresses that “care must be taken not to over-interpret grievance to suggest that social deprivation is necessarily at the root of terrorism” citing Leon Trotsky as an authority (p.13). Inasmuch as Trotsky (and his epigone Pantucci) are talking about one ‘root’, social deprivation, correct, but there are many roots, and this may be one. Another ‘grievance’ is foreign policy: in some cases pre-dating 9/11 and the US-led invasion of Afghanistan (p.291).
The third driver is mobilisation; which “enables this blend of ideology and grievance to mutate into action” (p.13). In common parlance the word mobilisation is not just used militarily, but also politically, by various movements for change (or against it) therefore using the word here is troubling, especially as Pantucci cites the example of Omar Saeed Sheikh (who later went on to murder American journalist Daniel Pearl) engaging in relief support work for Bosnian Muslims as his first step: mobilisation (p.13). This presages a constant in Pantucci: elision of essential distinctions between non-violent and violent political action. Had Pantucci wanted to make the distinction, he could have (but did not) used an alternative word like ‘activation’ or ‘implementation’.
These drivers (terminology apart) may be necessary but are not sufficient: as Dr Paul Stott has pointed out, such characteristics apply to many organised sub-cultures, for instance football hooligans. Even more relevantly, the (international) Ploughshares movement of anti-nuclear activists are deeply committed (usually Christian), risk arrest or serious injury, and mobilise together as a group. Thereby fulfilling Pantucci/ Neumann’s three ‘drivers’—and showing the limits of such in explaining ‘terrorism’.
Pantucci well apprehends some key factors in ‘radicalisation’, such as the alienation of youth from imported Mullahs who barely speak English (p.64) and the concomitant development in the early 2000s of ‘alternative spaces’ in the form of Islamic bookshops as instanced by Moazzam Begg for example in Birmingham (p.72) and that in Beeston.
It is hard to disagree with Pantucci’s insightful periodisation of four stages thus far in the development of British Islamism:
1) Large networks stirred up to go abroad and fight/train
2) Large networks redirected by Al Qaeda back to the UK to take action
3) Shadow networks developed in response to security service activity to replace the broader more public ones.
4) More recently the internet allowing recruits to experience a common narrative drawing them towards violence (p.290)
Regarding the internet, Pantucci is surely right (even if merely the messenger) when recounting that “by the mid-2000s the British security services began to note the increasing importance of the internet as a vehicle to supplant and even displace extremist forums in mosques, bookshops and community centres that until now had been the loci of radicalisation in the UK” (p.251). After the book, he seemed to say something different, that “while the internet does play an accelerant role…I don’t think it plays a universal role, and I think most cases, when you look at it, that individuals who appear to be radicalised [by the internet alone] actually did have some contact with radical individuals. There is usually some level of connection that you find”3. I could be splitting hairs here—both statements are not necessarily inconsistent. In any event, spooks ‘noting’ the internet’s role is not the same as negating it. To be fair Pantucci does not deny this, concluding that while the security services understand the networks much better “there is still very little understanding of how to counter and de-radicalise” (p.292). It might be, as with some other minority currents, political failure and old age could produce such an effect, individually at least.
Pantucci realistically argues the threat has “mutated into a variety of forms in different parts of the globe” (p.230), and even more strongly that (with reference to Syria) “the crest of the first wave of British jihadism may have been broken, but undercurrents of a new storm are building” (p.293). Poetic license perhaps, but beats naïve triumphalism, and this was before the November 2015 Paris, March 2016 Brussels and Bastille Day 2016 Nice attacks showed the storm has truly arrived.
Finally, Pantucci is onto something when stating “jihadist ideas within the UK are becoming the default anti-establishment movement for an increasingly diverse community of individuals” (p.292). That this might be so is not just an indictment of the Last Century Left in general, but the failure of specific currents (like the Socialist Workers Party for instance) to confront homophobia and misogyny within Islamism or indeed Islam itself. A big issue, but worth noting nonetheless—the absence of a credible total vision forcibly argued for by the Left makes it difficult to counter Islamism’s allure
If the above was all there is to be said about Pantucci, we could end now, with qualified praise for a detailed and fascinating book. That is the line taken in Prospect magazine by Sameer Rahim, whose brief review says “the writing is a touch dry but the detail fascinating”4. Owen Bennett-Jones in the London Review of Books, has more to say about himself, and fingers the UK Deobandi community. Of the book itself, rather less, his principal criticism being Pantucci underestimates the importance of “the underlying factor that helps explain radicalisation: identity”5. On the contrary, Pantucci is attempting to explain the process by which jihadists assume/acquire their identity, it being one of many competing in the fragmented identity market-place that is modern life. As Bennett-Jones is a veteran BBC journalist, it is no surprise that such complexities would elude him.
(2) PROBLEMS WITH THE BOOK
(A) POINTLESS SNOBBERY
Pantucci is quick to deny the importance of racism: which “cannot be the sole cause; quite aside from the involvement of white converts, it is also possible to find anecdotal evidence of individuals who do not appear to have faced a constant onslaught of racism in their upbringing” (p.52). This caricatures how racism can operate: it need not be a ‘constant onslaught’ or have been primarily faced in one’s ‘upbringing’. It is also setting up a straw man argument in that on the contrary racism can be seen as one cause, but not necessarily the sole cause. This lack of comprehension means Pantucci does not consider possible racism in two cases others might think constitutes such. Speaking of those (many from Crawley) arrested in Operation Crevice (the 2004 fertiliser bomb plot), he writes “all of them can be easily characterised as well-assimilated individuals born to immigrant families…at the time of arrest, none of them was advancing far in his career” (p.166). About the 7/7/05 (London) bomb plotters Pantucci notes that “many public accounts suggest that all the members of this cell suffered from a basic social immobility due to their roots in Beeston” (p.188). It is not fanciful to suggest racism might have played a part in both cases and more (though not necessarily all), experienced individually as ‘frustrated mobility’. Blocking can range from actual (direct discrimination) through to perceived—someone blaming their own lack of progress on discrimination as a means of avoiding self-scrutiny.
Beneath a patina of pseudo-academic respectability, Pantucci harbours the petty prejudices of a low-grade cop. Tel Aviv bomber Asif Hanif he waspishly remarks “appears to have done little to distinguish himself academically” (p.173). Mohammed Atif Siddique, who helped establish numerous jihadist web-sites is described (paradoxically) as an “aimless and dim youth” (p.256). A common theme is that many are portrayed as losers, implicitly due to personal deficiencies. Those implicated in the abortive 21/7/05 London plot are depicted as “for the most part relatively new migrants to Britain, none of these individuals held down particularly glamorous or steady jobs. All had only recently become practising Muslims. None had entered further education and a number had troubled pasts involving drugs or petty crime…an archetypal selection of individuals would be drawn to this group: former drug addicts, petty criminals, men who had encountered difficulties in life” (p.210).
There are three problems with this negative stereotyping, which echoes the way far right activists are often described by critics (or the far left by the mainstream media):
First, it undermines understanding and can go hand in hand with underestimating capability.
Second, it is incapable of coming to terms with, much less countering, the good work (in its own terms) performed by Islamism in giving the marginalised real self-worth.
Third as Pantucci acknowledges elsewhere not all bombers fit such stereotypes, some such as Saeed Sheikh, and especially the two ‘Doctors Plot’ bombers in 2007 (Bilal Abdullah and Kafeel Ahmed) were men of an “integrated nature…they had strong roots in the country and were qualified medical doctors and research engineers” (p.232). The Iraq War is mentioned as a driver here (as was Bosnia for Saeed Sheikh), so perhaps there is an implicit division, with the (further) educated granted higher order grievances about foreign policy as a driver in a way not afforded plebs.
One important recruitment strand is believed (by Mark Rowley national police counter-terrorism lead) to be teenagers who would otherwise have been attracted to gangs, with 20% of terrorism arrests in the year ending March 2015 falling into that age category6. That said, while there may well have been a sharp decrease in gang activity since 2008, this in itself wouldn’t prove the recruits would otherwise have been in gangs. More evidence is needed here.
On the other hand, and relevantly given Pantucci’s snobbery, the significant number of students/ex-students implicated in Islamist activity (liquid bomb plotter Waheed Zaman was a serving President of London Metropolitan University Islamic Society when arrested7 clearly demonstrates British Jihadism can recruit from the aspirant and successful, something corroborated by a 2014 London University study into 600 Muslim men and women8.
(B) LONE WOLVES OR MISGUIDED MUTTS?
Pantucci sometimes abandons without acknowledgement his ostensible central argument, the primacy of ideology (then grievance) as drivers. While he states all three drivers are necessary to drive an individual to action (p.15), and concludes that “wider foreign policy was a forceful driver in motivating established jihadist networks in Britain to turn against their host nation” (p.291), important sections of the book contradict this, most significantly his take on the ‘Lone Wolf’ phenomenon.
Lone Wolves are defined as “individuals who attempt to carry out an act of random violence using a mask of political justification as his or her driving motivation” (p.261). Nicholas Roddis, Nicky Reilly and Andrew ‘Isa’ Ibrahim are men who “claimed at some point to be converts to Islam, and all three attempted or appeared to be on the road to carrying out acts of public disorder in the name of their interpretation of violent Islamism” (p.261). Pantucci is acting as thought-policeman, able to determine whether people really believe or not in ideas, or whether it is a pretext: “none of the men can be considered to have felt in a particular personal way the larger narrative that has been painted in this book. None of them was anywhere near the large migratory communities where radical ideas had been incubated around the country; none of them was born into Muslim families, or even into the families of Middle Eastern or South Asian origin…none of them really had any contact with any of the extremist communities that have thus far been listed in the UK” (p.268). In Ibrahim’s case, untrue: the concerned Bristol Muslim community reported him to the police before his plans took tangible form. As for ideology, elsewhere the most important driver, these “unfortunate young men whose lives appeared to be going nowhere” (p.262) “chose the ideology to give their lives a sense of direction” (p.269). While there may be grains of truth in all this, rather than situate it within the complexity of how ideology works, Pantucci’s stark and dismissive picture lacks subtlety and nuance. Pantucci is saying that because ‘Lone Wolves’ don’t fit his pre-ordained explanatory schema, they cannot believe in ideas they claim to believe in. This crass reductionism is misguided and dangerous: it ill behoves any serious researcher to dismiss the motivations or sincerity of people prepared to die for their beliefs.
(C) DECEITFUL NAIVETY?
In some ways Pantucci comes across as naïve, with little grasp of the real world beyond Spook Central and Think-Tank Towers. No more so than when he says of Dhiren Barot—author of the ‘Army of Madinah in Kashmir’, associate of Khalid Sheikh Muhammed, possibly involved in pre-9/11 reconnaissance—that his “remaining silent” in prison means he is “thus largely an enigma to investigators” (p.181). Has it not occurred to Pantucci that Barot considers himself a prisoner of war, under no obligation to co-operate with ‘investigators’, a weasel synonym for cops and spooks?
More important than any Pantucci naivety is the way he routinely dissembles, or creates a snow-storm, when discussing Jihadists who may (or may not) be spook assets. He does it so often, and predictably, it calls into sharp question his reliability as a historian of events, which as we have seen is perhaps the book’s strongest feature.
First there is reference to James McClintock and Martin Abdullah McDaid, both white converts associated with the Iqra bookshop in Beeston (Leeds), seed-bed of the 7/7 bomb plot. Not a hint that these two may have been spooks, which would mean incompetence at the very least (p.170/188). As an aside, it is interesting that all this was going on in Leeds: readers of this magazine will be aware there has been a long history of suspected malign secret state activity in the area, so much that West Yorkshire could in some sense be seen as a laboratory for dirty tricks9.
Then there is Mohammed Junaid Babar, unquestionably an FBI informant from 2004, who provided much of the evidence against those jailed for Operation Crevice (2004). Was he an asset even earlier? A question not broached (p.167).
Third, and just to show Pantucci can stir it when necessary (or directed?) consider this characterisation of Hassan Butt “later denounced as a fantasist after he told a reporter that he made up considerable portions of a story…this does not detract from the fact that he appears to have been operating quite openly on the periphery of a terrorist network” (p.156). Maybe so, but for whom? An answer (of sorts) came 70 pages later, with a bit more detail and the aside that despite being frequently questioned, Butt “appeared to have somehow avoided trouble or prosecution” (p.226-7). Hardly a substantial answer: there are many other possibilities as to why a possible asset might not have been prosecuted, that maybe Agent Stake-Knife in the IRA (Frank Scappaticci) might also be aware of, or indeed Tim Hepple/Matthews, whom I have chronicled as extensively involved in agent provocateur activities, but who has never even been questioned by police10.
Fourth if Butt is unmistakeably put in the frame, however elliptically, others are deftly taken out. Writing in 2008 about Abu Qatada, while pointedly declining to comment on the allegations, Pantucci at least reported that it was alleged “Qatada was an informant for Britain’s Security Service MI5”, referencing claims he met MI5 and his mysterious disappearance from MI5’s surveillance just before his proposed December 2001 arrest, reappearing 10 months later “a few minutes walk from MI5’s headquarters”11. Tepid as this non-committal 2008 reference was, by the 2015 book despite 14 pages mentioning Abu Qatada, four being a profile (p.131-34) Pantucci makes no mention of even the possibility. Yet the facts of what happened in 2001-2 had not changed between then and Pantucci’s book. The only things that had were his deportation to Jordan 7/7/13 and acquittal in subsequent trials 26/6/14 and 24/9/14 of the terrorist charges he was extradited to face. These facts (not mentioned), and Qatada’s more recent criticism of Islamic State, might lead some to reasonably conclude he was an asset all along. A hypothesis that would never occur to anybody relying on Pantucci’s book as their definitive source.
Fifth, consider also this reference to Abu Qatada’s erstwhile colleague Abu Hamza, whose son was notoriously involved in the Yemen kidnap of UK and US tourists12, with father’s knowledge and perhaps even instigation. “It is also likely that Abu Hamza was feeding information to the security services dampening their view of him as a threat” (p.122). Was not Hamza perhaps more, even a directed source to some extent, with spooks at least aware of the Yemeni kidnap in almost real time, but deliberately turning a blind eye to it for reasons of state?
(D) RAUF TALES: SORCERY ABOUT SOURCES?
Rashid Rauf was an important British-Pakistani Al Qaeda co-ordinator, reportedly in contact with the 7/7 and 21/7 bomb plotters, as well as those implicated in the 2006 ‘liquid bomb’ plot. His arrest in Pakistan 7/8/06 was the trigger for those plotters being arrested in the UK. A warrant was sought for his extradition on charges of murdering an uncle in Birmingham April 2002. In December 2007 he managed to escape from police custody in Pakistan in bizarre and suspicious fashion, through a toilet window while all his guards were conveniently praying.
Reported as having been killed by a US drone strike in November 200813, Rauf is important for two reasons.
First, his lawyer, and family, believe he was not killed in that drone strike, but died in another strike years later. To confuse matters, he still appears on the Interpol ‘Red List’ today as wanted (for the 2002 murder)14.
Second, a supposed account of the 7/7, 21/7 and liquid bomb plots written by Rauf in two documents is extensively referred to by Pantucci as if fact, which of course it may (or may not) be (p.186).
Despite its central importance to his narrative, we have to turn to a footnote (p.322) for Pantucci’s explanation of the documents provenance. Supposedly a post-operation debrief, they were allegedly found on a memory stick in the possession of two militants (Maqsood Lodin/Yusuf Ocak) arrested in Germany April and May 2011 for Islamist activity. Pantucci says “German, British and American authorities all believe the documents were written by Rashid Rauf, and biographical information within them seems to confirm this”, and shyly refers to “an assessment of the documents received by the author” (p.322). Leaving aside for the moment these same ‘authorities’ fingered Libya for Lockerbie and Saddam Hussein for having Weapons of Mass Destruction, questions abound. Did Rauf write the documents? Who exactly for? Was he working for British (or perhaps Pakistani?) intelligence when writing them, or indeed while liaising with the bomb plotters? Depending on the answers in this case, not just a can of worms, but a seething cauldron of the same would be opened. Raising this possibility is not mindless conspiracism, but to exhibit what Pantucci lacks: an open mind, especially where state assets may be involved.
There is a fundamental methodological problem with Pantucci here. The footnote refers to an “assessment of the documents received by the author. From here on they are referred to as the ‘Rauf’ documents’” (p.322). Any reasonable-minded person who hasn’t looked at and then deconstructed this footnote (let’s face it, few will look beyond the claim lots of spooks think them genuine) would think he is using them as a primary source. Introducing the documents, the main text (p.186) refers to a document “purportedly written” by Rauf—and without saying more there, the documents are used as unquestioned primary texts very soon (p.189/196 for example) with no qualification whatsoever. Yet that assessment from which Pantucci summarises is (if extant) actually only a secondary source, something he lacks the honesty to emphasise in the main text, or indeed anywhere. No page numbers are given for any citation—so the possibility of differentiating between each document as regards reliability or even consistency is precluded a priori.
Earlier reference (outside the book) to the same documents by Pantucci extensively quotes secondary (journalistic) sources missing by the time we reach the book, and enigmatically states “subsequent quotes attributed to Rauf are drawn from author read-outs”15. This does not make even grammatical sense: an ‘author read-out’ is in common parlance a public reading from your own work, clearly not the meaning here. Or is he saying he has had read only access without direct quotation rights, a common spook tactic to keep mouthpieces on side? All gloriously opaque. Pantucci compounds the error (casuistry) in the article by stating these journalistic sources are “referred to as the ‘Rauf documents’”. Once we reach the book the assessment has now become those same Rauf documents. If they ever came into the public domain, how would he refer to them—a third set of Rauf documents?
Not understanding (or rather dissimulating about) the difference between primary and secondary sources would be no minor infringement, but the action of an academic charlatan. If Pantucci eventually got read only access without direct quotation rights he owes readers such an admission. Not wanting somebody to take the documents away raises questions about legitimacy to a new level. If Pantucci has never seen the documents, but only a secondary (but undeniably important) spook assessment (and earlier journalistic reportage), he owes readers that admission too, not least disclosure which agency this assessment was written for. Then we might judge its provenance ourselves, even if only in outline. Does this matter? Yes! Ask yourself how valid would any analysis of Nazism be without the author having read Mein Kampf, but instead relied on excerpts released by critics. Especially given Rauf’s preposterous 2007 escape, no intelligence agencies are impartial observers, trusted to reveal all relevant facts (or quotes).
Rather ironic then, that in speaking of confronting (or rather advising avoiding confronting) ‘conspiracy theorists’ he has recently claimed they “will pivot on a wisp of information into a spiral of obfuscation and confusion”16. For is not Pantucci’s ostensible legerdemain over the Rauf documents a veritable spiral staircase of obfuscation and confusion? As for conspiracy theorists, specifically the UK July 7th Campaign who think 7/7/05 was an ‘inside job’, in this very magazine I confronted them in 2009: they still haven’t dared respond17.
The charitable view, putting to one side his snide comments about some jihadist’s lack of further education, is that maybe I am too harsh on Pantucci here. As an English Literature graduate who spent time as a visiting scholar in the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences (hardly an oasis of academic freedom and razor-sharp scholarship as opposed to material science research elsewhere in China I’d surmise) there is only his War Studies MA at King’s College where Pantucci might have reasonably picked up the basics of academically rigorous research. Alas, even here Pantucci was never stretched, at the time he blogged his course was “three classes for a grand total of three and a half hours per week; the rest of the time I am off supposedly reading, I am not entirely sure I am getting my value for money”18. I am inclined to agree: and a PhD has eluded him. Easy to figure out why.
In fact, Pantucci understands very well the difference between primary and secondary sources, and the importance of such. This can be gleaned from his post on the ICSR ‘Free Radical’ Blog 19/3/12 entitled ‘The British End of the Al Qaeda Documents’. When put on his own blog raffaello.pantucci.com it was prefaced by the admission that this article was “exploring in some depth documents I have not managed to see first-hand yet, hint, if anyone feels like sharing or has more information about them, please don’t hesitate to write. An admittedly slightly premature piece consequently”. The section in bold linked to his email address, so Pantucci was aware of their importance, but didn’t have them, hence begging.
The ICSR piece is also important because he links to two sites that reference the documents. The first, by Abu Susu19, contains an analysis remarkably similar to that of Pantucci: that Rauf wrote two of the documents based on the biographical data and intimate description of plots (both of which may be true). Even more interesting is another site he references, where Florian Flade is described as merely “providing a slightly different description of the same documents” which hardly does Flade justice. Flade describes all five documents in some detail and clearly attributes views on their provenance to German Federal police20. Why does Pantucci excise mention of these sources by the time we get to the book? The suspicion is that not only did Pantucci never see the original documents (pretty well established as fact by now) but he never saw any assessment, just cribbed lines from Abu Susu and Flade’s blogs, and passed these off as an “assessment”, which they were, though not the covert spook one he implies. I am not saying Pantucci did this, but he lays himself open to such a charge by evasiveness and inconsistency. Why not use direct quotes from this claimed ‘assessment’? The uncharitable view has to be hasn’t seen any but is trying to con readers. He can clear this all up by citing the exact source of the assessment, using direct quotes, and/or putting it online.
There was a long time-delay (a couple of years) between Pantucci’s book being announced and actual publication. Given the importance of Rauf to his narrative of British Jihadism, might continued fruitless attempts to get the Rauf documents, then finally giving up on them, explain the wait? There are good reasons why spooks would not release the Rauf documents even to a sycophant like Pantucci—the important operational information they contain might well be of great strategic use to autonomous self-mobilising jihadists, especially as Al Qaeda’s original structure fragments. It is noteworthy that the (very well-informed) Daily Telegraph’s Duncan Gardham’s article on the supposed Rauf documents does not claim he had seen an assessment, but speaks of “a secret document prepared for al-Qaeda by the commander and disclosed to the Daily Telegraph by sources with knowledge of the contents” (patently spooks)21. If Gardham didn’t get the written assessment, why would Pantucci: his maternal grandmother’s connections wouldn’t be sufficient surely22?
Pantucci’s evasiveness regarding truth when spook interests are at stake (although elsewhere he has criticised the FBI for entrapment23) is chronic. He dismissively states that for Rauf’s lawyer “the entire story of his escape and death are part of an elaborate conspiracy” (p.224-5), a ‘conspiracy’ Pantucci does not discuss, despite the centrality of Rauf for his narrative. In the 2015 news media, Pantucci baldly stated Rauf was killed in 200824. Yet in early 2014, Pantucci was more ambiguous, stating that his death has “never been officially confirmed, presumably as the corpse and DNA were never identified. Given the fact that plots connected to him continued to be uncovered almost two years after his reported death, confusion continues to dominate his narrative”25. Squirrelled away in a footnote, where few will see it (like the Rauf documents provenance) Pantucci concedes that while “senior official sources in both the US and UK seem quite convinced he is dead…the lack of any DNA evidence and the seeming complexity of his story cast some doubt on this” (p.327). ‘Senior official sources’—this neutral phrase actually means spooks, but for Pantucci their position in the hierarchy is what counts, not transparency as to function. As for Rauf, his family now think he is dead, announcing in 2012 they planned to sue the British government for providing the US with intelligence on his whereabouts26. If alive Rauf may not be keen on family reunions: especially bumping into cousins with fond memories of his late uncle. The official Brit spook line certainly seems to be that he was picked up as a result of GCHQ intercepts, though the 2015 review by David Anderson did not mention his actual death27. Whatever the truth of anything concerning Rauf, one thing we can be sure of: Pantucci won’t break it first.
(E) THE EXTREMISM SLUR
Until recently (what with Syriza, the 2015 SNP land-slide and the Corbyn phenomenon, not to forget the rise of UKIP to third-party status votes wise) the arena of legitimate political discourse has been getting smaller and smaller in recent years, so it is no surprise that, like many others in this field, Pantucci shows an alarming ignorance of extra-parliamentary politics, seeing it as merely low-level proto-terrorism. That is not, unfortunately, a misrepresentation of Pantucci’s perspective, would that it were. Speaking of the 1995 Manningham and 2001 broader Bradford riots, he tells us “many of the social drivers are similar to those that underlie the alienation we see in evidence on those who are drawn to terrorist activity. This is not to say that public affray and rioting are equal to self-immolating mass murder, but there are parallels in the motivations” (p.55). Too late—he has already made the linkage, something repeated when talking of the Beeston Mullah Boys self-defence activities against racism “while this may not be a causal link, such rationalisation is similar to that espoused by extremists who involve themselves in terrorism, claiming that their actions are an attempt to protect the global Ummah of believers” (p.68). At best, sloppy, at worst, sinister, equating political activity of a sort many (like me) would approve of with ‘terrorism’. In any event, it isn’t even clear Pantucci is right about the Mullah Crew: Kenan Malik describes them as “little more than a street gang with pretensions”28, something echoed by another report which hints at inter-racial street violence29. Though to be fair all agree the Crew had a direct ‘cold turkey’ approach to victims of hard drug dealers and little time for the dealers themselves.
Just to show his linking street activity with terrorism was no flash in the pan, Pantucci recently penned a tendentious article for aspirant spook magazine Hope Not Hate on ‘Reciprocal Extremism’30, whereby “extremisms feed off one another…a narrative that has remained fairly constant over time”31 He includes here the Southall Asian Youth Movement as a counter-reaction to fascists, and again references the 2001 Bradford riots, before looking at Al Muhijaroun and the English Defence League. The Bradford Black United Youth League are cited for “apparently preparing a series of petrol bombs to use against the fascist groups they saw as threatening their communities”32. There was no ‘apparently’ about it, the Bradford 12 did not deny making the petrol bombs, but a jury unanimously acquitted them because they accepted this as legitimate33. I am proud that my organisation, Big Flame, fully supported their defence efforts34.
Blurring boundaries between political groups by categorising them as reciprocally related, and then further equating politics with terrorism, is disturbing in many ways.
First, it equates unlike with unlike, thereby closing down discussion of the content of politics by making it a security matter, which ironically is more likely than not to drive people in a violent direction.
Second, it falsifies history for propaganda capital, and so impoverishes political discourse generally. A crucial difference between political activists engaging in self-defence like this and Islamists is that while the former wanted integration into society on non-racist terms, Islamists reject that society. If Pantucci cannot see this there is little hope for him.
Third, it disempowers citizens, leading them to rely on spooks/the state generally to counter a mythical extremism to keep us all in the fabled centre ground. Especially pernicious in that (like in Pantucci’s book) an alibi is thereby given to possible state assets.
Fourth, it fails to comprehend the real dynamics of social and political change, exemplified by Pantucci’s caricature of the Bradford Asian Youth Movement as a group that “attempted to unite all minority communities not simply Pakistanis. It was, however, a short-lived experience. Different community interests tore it in different directions” (p.62). The ‘tearing in different directions’ was no chance happening but a matter of deliberate policy, whereby both the police (via prosecutions) and the local state (via funding strategies favouring separatism) actively intervened to bring about this state of affairs, a thesis substantiated (separately) by Kenan Malik and Anandi Ramamurthy35.
(F) TAINTED SOURCES?
That Pantucci derived much material from police/spook sources is illustrated by copious footnotes and unsubstantiated insinuations regarding individuals and court cases. Of Zeeshan Siddiqui, one of the Crevice accused, Pantucci states diaries found in his possession by Pakistani authorities appear to confirm an interest in suicide, commenting “Siddiqui has disputed the authenticity of the documents” (p.200). And? Any proper researcher owes their readers an opinion—not so Pantucci, who allows the state version to prevail by default, concluding with the snide comment this “remains one of the most cryptic pieces of the British Jihad still at large” (p.201).
After mentioning a pre-7/7/05 trip to London by Mohammed Shakil and Waheed Ali, Pantucci states that the Crown Prosecution Service believe this was a reconnaissance trip linked to 7/7, “a conclusion that two successive juries disagreed with, the second clearing the men of any involvement in the 7th July attack, though Ali and Shakil were both convicted of attempting to attend a terrorist training camp in Pakistan” (p.196). In other words, using cop logic, guilty of the latter so probably the former too.
At times, Pantucci’s craven acceptance of the police/spook line is laughable, for instance he states of the liquid bomb plot “aside from those who were found guilty, it is difficult to draw any definitive conclusions about many of those believed to be involved in this plot” (p.223). Happily, juries can still definitively conclude some accused may be innocent, this being simply the wrong definitive conclusion for Pantucci’s sources. It is worth noting here Pantucci simply ignores the July 2005 execution of Jean Charles De Menezes shot by police on the mistaken assumption he was a 21/7 bomb plotter. Over and above the rights and wrongs, this event was for some drawn to jihadism (and many not!) a significant milestone—not for Pantucci though, which matters if this book purports to be a journal of record.
It is difficult to tell whether some Pantucci errors are sloppiness or deep prejudice, as when he states (p.219) citing a public police source “Rashid Rauf’s family had worked hand in hand with Al Qaeda and been ‘flagged red for months”. Not Al Qaeda as such, but Kashmiri Jihadists Jaish E Muhammad. Yet by p.223 an “investigation into a charity established by his father led to nothing”. Actually not quite the exoneration it might seem; the Charity Commission Inquiry (not referenced by Pantucci) concluded that while there was “no evidence that the trustees had diverted charitable funds for unlawful or non-charitable purposes…the trustees were unable to verify satisfactorily the end use of funds in both Indonesia and Pakistan”36. Evidence the charity was evasive can be found in the fact they did not tell the Commission they even had a bank account in Pakistan, despite the UK accounts being frozen in 200637, and various supposed trustees denied they were such38. All in all, the Charity Commission Inquiry did not draw a blank, but blatantly downplayed evidence any impartial observer would think might result in closure. This phenomenon, whereby highly suspect charities are given carte blanche, will not surprise readers of this magazine39. That Rashid Rauf married into jihadi royalty (the daughter of Ghulam Mustafi a famous Deobandi madrasa) is perhaps relevant here, as too that Pantucci elsewhere merely describes Rauf’s family as coming from “a long line of distinguished religious leadership”40.
(3) TWO SIGNIFICANT OMISSIONS FROM THE BOOK
No proper consideration of British jihadism can take place without mentioning the Covenant of Security: “the long-standing British habit of providing refuge and welfare to Islamic extremists on the unspoken assumption that if we give them a safe haven here they will not attack on these shores. French intelligence call this policy—with contempt—‘Londonistan’”41. Yet, amazingly, Pantucci manages to do just that, merely mentioning that for many Arab dissidents “the priority was to instigate action in the Muslim world” (p.47). The nearest he gets to Londonistan is the admission that “while the freedom that London afforded meant that it flourished as a centre for Arab media, this fact also attracted the wrath of Arab governments, who regarded London as a home for radical publishing and a haven for dissidents who continued to instigate trouble at home” (p.31). It is not that this is untrue: it is the fact Pantucci does not mention political and spook complicity in this that grates. It was also not just Arab governments who complained: Abu Hamza’s presence alone attracted the ire of Algeria, Belgium, Egypt, France, Germany, Netherlands and Spain for example42. Which makes all the more galling his specious comment with reference to Finsbury Park Mosque attenders Germaine Lindsey Mohammed Siddique Khan (of 7/7 infamy) that “missing the importance of Reid and the others, British intelligence focussed on the apparent danger that was emerging from the mosque and its community of North African radicals” (p.148). Inasmuch as most convicted in the UK post 9/11 were Algerians, this danger was not just ‘apparent’. He compounds this glib dismissal by saying investigations into the ricin plot “missed a crucial element in the story of the Islamist radicalisation in Britain, happening both within the mosque but more prominently in cities just outside London and among Britain’s Muslim South Asian Community” (p.151). The Covenant of Security impinges on both cases because it (falsely) led British spooks to think there was little of UK domestic (threat) interest going on in these circles, because if there had been assets like Abu Hamza (or Abu Qatada) would have told them of such. More fool them! As for Pantucci, he really is too wise by half, as befits many with no real life experience outside academe, or in his case pseudo-academe.
(ii) SAUDI ARABIA AND JIHADISM
Another signal absence in the book is any examination of Saudi Arabian links to, and early encouragement of/funding for, jihadism in Britain or elsewhere. That 15 of 19 9/11 hijackers were Saudi is an inconvenient fact Pantucci would rather we forgot. The censored passages from the US 9/11 Commission Report now finally released are certainly bad news for Saudi apologists43. Even earlier the Wikileaks-released 30/12/09 cable from US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to US Embassies world-wide stated that despite some co-operation with the US, “while the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia takes seriously the threat of terrorism within Saudi Arabia, it has been an ongoing challenge to persuade Saudi officials to treat terrorist financing emanating from Saudi Arabia as a strategic priority…donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide…Saudi Arabia remains a critical financial support base for al-Qa’ida, the Taliban, [Lashkar e-Tayyiba], and other terrorist groups, including Hamas, which probably raise millions of dollars annually from Saudi sources, often during Hajj and Ramadan”44. Questioned at the Foreign Affairs Select Committee in March 2013 about this cable, Pantucci’s boss, Dr Jonathan Eyal, RUSI Director of International Security Studies, admitted “there is absolutely no doubt that a lot of the funding that came for various terrorist organisations came from various Saudi sources”. He immediately qualified this by stating (without evidence) “I don’t think it was ever government-sanctioned money and I believe that the Saudis have realised that this whole activity is a cancer to themselves”45. Eyal is no impartial witness but a UK government mouthpiece, illustrated by his response to another question about UK: Saudi co-operation that “far from aiding and abetting a dictatorship using repressive measures, we have paradoxically, given the media coverage of Saudi Arabia, engaged with a Government who have tried to be very innovative on the subject of counter-terrorism”46a. Yet Saudi Arabia, a dictatorship, finds little difficulty in cracking down on other religions or even drinking alcohol—one might think ‘terrorist funding’ not beyond them if the will existed. Saudi ‘innovation’ has included sending 1,500 troops to Bahrain to suppress pro-democracy protests in March 2011, and more recently adapting British police training to identify future torture victims46b.
Staying on Saudi Arabia, but moving onto the Sunni group ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria), ex MI6 head Richard Dearlove spoke at the RUSI itself in July 2014 citing funding and encouragement from Saudi Arabia and Qatar as central to ISIS growth. While the Saudi Embassy vigorously denied supporting ISIS “financially morally or through any other means”, and urged the media to “take an in-depth look into the financial backing and organisational structure” of ISIS47, one can surmise they did not mean this. Dearlove’s speech, and this exhortation, sunk like a stone in the British media48. It does nonetheless seem plausible that until the abrupt dismissal of Saudi Head of Intelligence Prince Bandar bin Sultan in March 2014, from 2012 while he was in post Saudis pursued a pro-ISIS line. Which puts in perspective Eyal’s apologetics of March 2013…The key point is that (as Craig Unger has put it) “the complex, impenetrable, and unregulated system of Islamic charities actually enabled Saudis to have it both ways. Through their generous charitable donations they could both establish their bona fides as good Muslims and even buy ‘protection’ from militants. And thanks to the unregulated nature of the charities, they could do so in a way that gave them plausible deniability to the West”49.
Aside from funding specific groups, difficult to prove beyond a shadow of doubt in many cases, the more general influence of Saudi-funded religious intolerance creating a pool within which jihadists swim is easier to substantiate. As far back as 2007 the detailed influence of Wahabbism in the UK was chronicled by scholar of Islam Dennis Maceoin, replete with misogyny, homophobia and religious sectarianism of the most visceral kind50. Yet Wahabbism barely features in Pantucci’s book; the founder gets a couple of name-checks (p.9/10) and then a final reference to a 1990s recruitment drive of fighters to go overseas (p.96). You would be forgiven, reading Pantucci, for thinking Wahabbism, ideology of the Saudi ruling house and propagated abroad through massive funding programmes51, is of little current significance. Yet, as Pantucci states in his conclusion “with events in Syria it appears that the threat may be growing once again” (p.292).
The ‘threat’ is radical Islamism, and in any dispassionate treatment the fact ISIS and the Saudi rulers have Wahabbism in common would be considered significant. There are two versions of this argument; the simplistic neo-con equation of Saudi Arabia and ISIS, underestimating antagonism between the two52, and the more sophisticated take, as provided by, for example, Abdel Bari Atwan, who after tracing connections (and pointing to reports the Saudis have spent $5 billion arming Syrian rebels), ends with the salutary warning that “the Saudi regime, rightly, feels that the declaration of the caliphate, and the overt criticism levelled at the House of Saud by the extremists, constitute a very real threat to its existence. That the challenge is mounted within the unique framework of the House of Saud’s own construct—Wahabbism—makes it all the more potent”53.
If Pantucci can perhaps be forgiven for not mentioning (even if critically) the allegation Saudis sponsored ISIS in the book for reasons of timing (going to press deadlines), later articles have no excuse. In neither August 201454 nor an October 2014 paper Pantucci co-authored mention such. This RUSI ‘Threat Assessment’ inelegantly titled ‘The Threat of ISIS to the UK’ mentions ISIS splitting from Al Qaida, but not Wahabbism (or Saudi Arabia). Their ‘narrative’ is described in geographical terms—“protection, consolidation and further expansion of its declared caliphate’s borders”55 and social terms—“providing social services, law and some semblance of state order”56. Wahabbist theology is conspicuously absent. Here Pantucci is mirroring the British state, anxious to downplay any religious element in Islamism…
(4) EXPLAINING RUSI
(A) AVOIDING THE SAUDI CAMEL IN THE ROOM
I have already mentioned Pantucci’s RUSI tenure, and his boss Jonathan Eyal’s unimpressive response regarding Saudi Arabia before the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee. In case it be thought the two are not parroting a common (evasive) line, consider other RUSI contributions on the Kingdom, which follow an obsequious pattern. A January 2014 RUSI analysis of Iran’s nuclear programme is explicitly couched in terms of considering the Kingdom’s military (and other) options; no such coverage of Israel’s nuclear programme. While this can be excused on the grounds the paper’s author is a Saudi academic57, another contribution cannot. This is the (unintentionally) amusing piece on a promotion (fittingly 1/4/14) by Michael Stephens with an opening paragraph “even though he may be 68 years old, the appointment of Muqrin bin Abdulaziz al-Saud to Deputy Crown Prince suggests that Saudi Arabia is paving the way for a careful transition of power to a younger generation of princes”58. As if more proof of RUSI toadying to repressive regimes were needed, how about this gem from ‘Research Associate’ Matthew Willis in the RUSI Journal (that I suspect the late Ian Tomlinson’s family disagree with) “training courses for Bahrain defence personnel…from the UK is more likely to promote a measured and discriminating approach to crowd control—something in line with British policing standards—than training received from Saudi Arabia or any number of other providers”. Warming to his theme, Willis opined that “suppressing dissent is not something most countries have problems with; it is doing so in an acceptable manner that poses the challenge, and that is where the UK’s efforts in Bahrain can help”59. Indeed so: the paradoxically-named (government-backed) ‘Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry’ put the number of dead protesters at 30, opposition forces claim 88. While Michael Gove baulked (in October 2015) at a £5.9 million contract for training Saudi prison warders60, the Conservative government still sees Saudi Arabia as a ‘priority market’61.
RUSI were so concerned Richard Dearlove used their manor to criticise Saudi Arabia in July 2014 that ‘Senior Research Fellow’ Shashank Joshi sprang to the Saudi’s defence, not refuting Dearlove but warning that he was likely to “irritate his former colleagues in the intelligence services and the Government itself…these are exceptionally strong words for a former intelligence chief”62. It is important here to distinguish between Dearlove’s forward threat assessment minimising the Syrian jihadi phenomenon (wrong) and his take on how ISIS grew in the first place: another matter. Joshi absurdly states Dearlove recalling Prince Bandar, head of Saudi intelligence, telling him before 9/11 “the time is not far off in the Middle East when it will be ‘God help the Shia’. More than a billion Sunnis have simply had enough of them” is an “extraordinary anecdote”. Most memorable anecdotes usually are: a fatuous thing to say, unless Joshi is implying Dearlove was lying? What vexes Joshi, and no doubt the RUSI generally, is the PR fall-out from Dearlove’s speech: “for someone of Dearlove’s status to cast Saudi Arabia in such a critical light is therefore highly unusual”. That may be so, but is hardly the point: what matters is Saudi actions, something RUSI want to avoid proper discussion of. Not just RUSI: we are again indebted to Wikileaks for revealing the British government traded votes with the Saudis in 2013 to ensure the UK and Saudi Arabia were both elected to the UN Human Rights Commission63. They certainly have experience: Saudi Arabia executed 423 people between 2007-2012, 79 in that last year alone64.
There are three key problems for any attempts to close down discussion about Saudi support for ISIS: the November 2015 slaughter in Paris, that of March 2016 in Brussels and July 2016 in Nice. While it is to be expected Douglas Murray of the Henry Jackson Society attacked the Saudis65, he was not alone: Saudi funding of mosques in Belgium has also been criticised66, and one provocative New York Times piece described Saudi Arabia as ‘An ISIS That Has Made It’67. More tellingly, German Vice-Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel has publicly denounced Saudi Arabia for funding Wahabbi mosques because “many Islamists who are a threat to public safety come from these communities in Germany”. In this he was echoing a BND (German intelligence service) assessment that Saudi Arabia is at risk of becoming a destabilising force in the Arab world68.
These arguments Saudi apologists like RUSI cannot sweep under the carpet indefinitely. Which is not to say they aren’t trying. In response to a January 2016 announcement the British government was going to examine foreign funding and support for UK jihadist groups, Shashank Joshi (as featured above) tried to muddy the waters, stating the UK didn’t have the power to investigate financial flows alone and such an inquiry would be “a little bit of navel gazing”69. How convenient. Yet even the UN is critical of the UK supplying arms to Saudi Arabia70 used to brutal effect in the Yemen, where airstrikes have systematically targeted civilians71. Needless to say, such actions barely feature on the BBC, yet equivalent strikes by Russia in Syria do, in great detail. What matters, it seems, is not so much the fact of carpet-bombing, but whether those doing it are allies or not. Quite straightforward once you get the hang of it. And RUSI certainly have, it would appear.
(B) TIME FOR HARD QUESTIONS
Having established, I trust, that Pantucci’s blind spots, including deference to powerful sources and interests, apply to the RUSI generally, all still needs explanation. Quite rightly, Spinwatch has drawn attention to the lack of transparency shown by the Henry Jackson Society, especially regarding their funding sources72. Yet Spinwatch’s allied ‘powerbase wiki’ (following the form of that fool’s encyclopaedia Wikipedia) lets the RUSI massively off the hook—entry last updated in August 2013 with no criticism whatsoever, or questions about finances.
Asking questions does not guarantee answers, even to the most obvious one, how much does the RUSI rely on Saudi (and Qatari) money to function? In this respect, their accounts are virtually useless. The latest published73 show business is booming, with a jump in research income from £2,303,089 to £3,104,260 in 2014-15, and of subscriptions from £507,434 to £520,952 in the same period (p.8). Things are going so well that in 2015 RUSI purchased the freehold of their 61 Whitehall premises. As to who exactly is providing RUSI with this research/subscription income, the accounts say not a word. The 2014-15 Annual Report gives away little concerning the Middle East either, though the fact RUSI now has a Qatar office is indicative. RUSI has contributed to recent UK Defence Reviews, and developing counter-extremist ‘resilience’ measures shows which side of the tracks they are on.
A roll-call of RUSI luminaries past and present reads like a spook/military bean-feast. Senior Vice-President is General David Petraeus (always available for female reporters), the Chair (until his replacement 1/9/15 by William Hague former Foreign Secretary74) was Lord Hutton, whose report whitewashed David Kelly’s death. John Scarlett ex-MI6 is an international adviser, Jonathan Evans (ex-MI5 DG) is a Senior RUSI Associate, and even Richard Norton-Taylor of the Guardian gets in on the act, as Council member and journal contributor75. Norton-Taylor fits the bill as RUSI ‘useful idiot’—-he persistently and uncritically uses the Guardian to plug RUSI material and quotes personnel with no hint he is in their orbit. Yet if he wants to say something ‘radical’ Norton-Taylor uses CAAT (Campaign Against the Arms Trade) instead!76. Perhaps the deferential old duffer was in the audience on 15/6/15 when Petraeus presented Henry Kissinger with the 35th RUSI Chesney Gold Medal for being (in the former’s words) a “statesman of extraordinary accomplishment”. Whereas for me, and others aware of the history well-marshalled by the late Christopher Hitchens, Kissinger was (and remains) a war criminal like George Bush and Tony Blair, albeit with more gravitas77, not difficult I concede.
(C) RUSI CORRODING THE DEMOCRATIC PROCESS
That the RUSI, established by Wellington in 1829, is an establishment fiefdom is unremarkable, but a disturbing closeness to government and spooks allows RUSI to imperceptibly (and corrosively) influence public discourse on security matters in a way unhealthy for democracy. RUSI uses its establishment legitimacy, and proximity, to steer debates in spook-friendly directions, along the way incorporating sections of the liberal intelligentsia. A good example is their July 2015 Panel Report ‘A Democratic License to Operate’ which essentially called (in the post-Snowden era) for mass state surveillance to be accepted, but merely put on a legislative basis. The likes of Heather Brooke and Martha Lane-Fox were overwhelmed by input from Jonathan Evans, Sir David Omand, John Scarlett and John Grieve, himself well-known to NFB readers78.
RUSI’s corrosive role is further illustrated by a crucial article on opendemocracy.net in June 2015 by David Wearing of CAAT. Citing specific cases, he amply shows how RUSI is certainly not the impartial think-tank it is presented as, not least on the BBC (and as we have seen in the Guardian). A BBC article by Michael Stephens, Director of RUSI Qatar, on Qatar and Islamic State, “describes Saudi Arabia and Qatar’s goals in Syria in broadly uncritical terms, with questions only raised over the competence of how policy was executed”. Another Stephens article for the BBC “followed a similar pattern, explaining the Saudi point of view, accepting its priorities essentially uncritically, and merely commenting (in this case approvingly) on the policy’s effectiveness”. Wearing goes on to say that “research for this article did not identify any RUSI pieces for the BBC News website that took a similar approach to the Iranian regime, Hamas, Hezbollah, Yemen’s Houthi rebels, or any other opponent of the West and its regional allies, explaining their point of view, accepting their priorities essentially uncritically, and merely commenting on questions of competence and policy effectiveness”79. This captures accurately RUSI methodology, on the BBC and elsewhere. If this review spurs those who have hitherto ignored RUSI to put it on the investigative radar, I will be satisfied.
RUSI have positive and negative reasons for circumspection regarding Saudi Arabia/Qatar. Positively, lucrative revenue streams accrue in this key market from such judicious evasion. Negatively, the threat of being sued, as happened80 to Rachel Ehrenfeld after her book ‘Funding Evil: How Terrorism is Financed—and How to Stop it’. She reported (including his denial) the allegation that the “former chairman of the National Commercial Bank (NCB) in Saudi Arabia, Sheikh Khalid Bin Mahfouz, for example, is alleged to have deposited tens of millions of dollars in London and New York directly into terrorist accounts—the accounts of the same terrorists who were implicated in the 1998 bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, in which 224 people were killed, including 12 Americans”81. For that, the (late) Bin Mahfouz prosecuted Ehrenfeld in the British libel courts, on the pretext 23 books were sold to the UK, but did not (as far as I know) go after the author of the article she cited82. Mahfouz himself is the subject of a fascinating chapter in neglected classic ‘Forbidden Truth’ by Brisard and Dasquie83. As for the Ehrenfeld libel case, a British court awarded large costs which she doughtily refused to pay, resulting in the August 2010 US ‘Securing the Protection of our Enduring and Established Constitutional Heritage Act’ designed to protect US authors and publishers from the British libel courts. Then there was the 2006 book by J Millard Burr and Robert O Collins ‘Alms for Jihad’ pulped by the Cambridge University Press. Little danger of that fate befalling Pantucci on the Saudi account.
CONCLUSION: THE BOOK, AND PANTUCCI, SUMMED UP
The book, as we have seen, has good points, but major flaws also. I would welcome clarification from Pantucci regarding the ‘Rauf papers’ and his access to them (or not). Far from the free-wheeling dashing (Raffles?) figure ‘Raff’ Pantucci might imagine himself to be (especially when strutting his stuff as meritocratically-appointed ‘Consultant At Large’ for literary agents Artellus his father co-founded84a), he is a mundane inhabitant of Grub Street. Pantucci’s LinkedIn profile is explicit—“my career has mostly been in the think-tank industry, but I have done freelance journalism and tailored research for the private sector. I am open to commissions on both”.
Pantucci is not genuinely open-minded, he simply takes the side of the most powerful in any situation. Graphically illustrated by his defending MI5 when criticised by SO15 insiders in August 2016 for repeatedly preventing them arresting radical Islamist Anjem Choudhury. He commented “I would be very surprised if you found a directive somewhere in [MI5] or somewhere else that said ‘Don’t touch him because he’s more useful out there than he is inside”84b. No way does he know that: but he just wants to appease MI5.
He is only really ‘Open’ to whoever pays the most, hence his recently branching out beyond UK ‘terrorism’. Pantucci was well on-message with the ‘Osborne Doctrine’, whereby Britain sought to repair the PR damage wrought by David Cameron meeting the Dalai Llama in May 2012 by abasing itself towards the Chinese regime of President Xi Jinping. As a visiting scholar at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences while Xi was Shanghai Communist Party boss (Xi Jinping 2007-12, Pantucci 2009-13)85, Pantucci is ideally placed to participate: his laudatory empathetic articles on the Chinese regime’s problems (re-posted on the site he runs with RUSI research fellow Sarah Lain and former HSBC China executive Sue Anne Tay chinaincentralasia.com) are puke-inducing.
Using Wearing’s methodology critiquing the RUSI subservience to British state interests (deference/competence and effectivity analysis only), Pantucci achieves the same result with China as the beneficiary. Sample rhetoric “China and India are two rising Asian giants…the time is right to strike and lay out a joint agenda for Afghanistan’s future post-2014”86. A January 2014 article in line with the Osborne Doctrine suggested the UK “address” the “human rights component” of China’s counter-terrorism policy by exporting the UK’s CONTEST counter-terrorism strategy, as “engaging now offers a moment to influence the situation positively”87. Yet in the book Pantucci admits that the security services have “still very little understanding of how to counter and de-radicalise” (p.292). Hope Chinese spooks with cheque-books missed that.
Pantucci might also hope Chinese observers have forgotten his robust article co-authored in 2007 calling for NATO to be used as a “forum for engaging Europe in Asia in a way that enhances transatlantic cooperation and creates a countervailing force to Chinese dominated regional organizations”. Rather confrontational, urging the EU to “draw up a list of items, with American consultation, of what items should be prohibited from export to China…and rephrase the stipulation of the [arms] embargo that prohibits members from selling ‘whole’ weapons and weapons systems to include some reference to weapons parts that are sold”. As the article put it “this last requirement is increasingly crucial, especially in the light of reports coming out of the UK that strategic export licenses (which are needed to sell arms abroad) worth $131 million (£70 million) were granted to China in the period between July 2005 and June 2006”88.
Another article Pantucci co-wrote in 2011 stated the “crackdown that has followed the Arab revolutions puts in doubt China’s commitment to political reform…China …is likely to continue to suppress demands for democracy at home…the EU will have to remain vocal and consistent on China’s human rights and internal reform processes, even if it incites Chinese anger and results in a reaction in other fields”89. These pieces pre-dated the Osborne doctrine, Pantucci’s tune has changed since.
Consider Pantucci’s January 2014 aside about “particular violence” in Tibet in 2008, the clear implication (as it is bracketed with 2009 Xinjiang violence central to his subsequent advice on CONTEST) being that the UK has no problem with China’s illegal occupation of Tibet. As for advising the Chinese government on ‘counter-terrorism’, a suggestion both grotesque and laughable.
Not so funny was the Met Police raiding the homes of three anti-Xi Jinping demonstrators during his 2015 visit to Britain90. Even less amusing is China cracking down on dissidents including anybody printing or selling books the regime does not like. This includes abducting booksellers from Hong Kong91, a conscious strategy, spelt out in the leaked ‘Guangdong Action Plan’ circulating in the middle of January 201692.
The chronology is relevant here. In late December 2015 the Chinese regime announced ‘anti-terror’ legislation creating a new counter-terror agency, response forces, and extended censorship93. Days after the legislation, Pantucci weighed in, deferentially, his most substantive criticism being that there is “seemingly no discussion about how to tackle the underlying causes of radicalisation”94. Given this was early January, Pantucci could be forgiven for not mentioning the ‘Guangdong Action Plan’. However by the 1st March 2016, when he asked ‘Can the EU and China work together on violent extremism?’95 Pantucci had no such excuse. While accepting that the EU and China disagree on whether the World Uyghur Congress are terrorists Pantucci claims “discussion around these questions in Beijing is in fact a fairly sophisticated one, with some advocating for a more nuanced response than others”96. The 2011 emphasis on human rights (see above) has vanished, instead Pantucci concludes by suggesting the “EU and China can cooperate…dealing with a problem that menaces nationals from both countries in an increasingly equal manner”97. To not mention what China is actually doing to dissent within and without is unpardonable. As one commentator put it “the party’s investigators have sweeping powers of detention, interrogation and asset seizure. They operate above and beyond China’s façade of a legal system. Some old men die awaiting due process, targets of all ages have jumped from buildings, taken overdoses or hanged themselves”98.
Pantucci’s mentor Nigel Inkster (and he is not alone99) has criticised “a propensity on the part of some areas of the UK government to see China as little more than a giant hypermarket…it does not represent an adequate assessment of what it is we’re dealing with…if the UK demonstrates any vulnerabilities, these will likely be taken advantage of”100. Hardly a ringing endorsement of the Cameron government’s plan to have China help run Hinkley Point nuclear power plant, initially delayed by his Sino-sceptic successor Theresa May. Though the deal eventually went ahead, May replacing Cameron as PM (and Osborne’s departure to the dustbin of history) in July 2016 creates problems for Pantucci’s pro-China apologetics, definitely not flavour of the month101.
A symbolically fitting end; might I suggest for Pantucci’s ‘tailored research’ dictatorships with money form an orderly queue (behind the Saudis and Chinese), taking care not to speak to any ‘Free Tibet’ activists demonstrating outside, or bump into mules delivering court transcripts and spooks slithering back into the shadows. The rest of us should approach this book with due caution, reading between the lines. But do buy it.
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1) Raffaello Pantucci speaking at Henry Jackson Society event to publicise his book 20/4/15 transcript at henryjacksonsociety. org
2) Kenan Malik is particularly cutting in this respect regarding 7/7 bomber Mohammad Siddique Khan’s video in ‘From Fatwa to Jihad’ Atlantic Books 2009 p.117-19
3) Raffaello Pantucci speaking at Henry Jackson Society op. cit.
4) Prospect Magazine 23/4/15
5) London Review of Books Vol. 37 No. 16 27/8/15 p.10
6) Cited in The Times 15/5/15 (Fiona Hamilton: who else!)
7) Crown Prosecution Service Press Release 8/7/10
8) The Independent 25/9/14 (Emily Dugan)
9) See for example my articles ‘Again Plucking The White Rose: Yorkshire Revisited’ Notes From the Borderland issue 2 1998 p.34-43, Notes From the Borderland issue 4 2000 p.54, Notes From the Borderland issue 8 on the revived ‘Redwatch Revisited especially pages 10-19
10) see ‘At War With the Truth’ (1993) and ‘At War With the Universe’ (1999) on Age0nt Hepple/Matthews. Both NFB pamphlets
11) Quote from Sean O’Neill and Daniel McGrory ‘The Suicide Factory’ Harper Collins 2006 p.108 (see also p.151) and earlier ‘Abu Qatada’s Comfortable British Jihad’ (Jamestown) Terrorism Monitor Vol.6 issue 14
12) On this see Sean O’Neill and Daniel op. cit. p.155-71
13) Daily Telegraph 23/11/08 (Andrew Alderson)
14) www.interpol.int accessed 9/11/15
15) Counter-Terrorism Command’s CTC Sentinel Vol.5 issue 74 ‘A Biography of Rashid Rauf’ (Raffaello Pantucci) footnote 34
16) ‘Extremism: Focus on the Positive’ Prospect Magazine blog 8/10/15 (Raffaello Pantucci)
17) Notes From the Borderland issue 9 (2009) p.17-24 has the (uncensored) J7 Campaign critique and my (unanswered) reply.
18) ‘British Students Struggle With Rising Tuitions’ Field Report (Raffaello Pantucci) genprogress.org 10/4/07
19) AbuSusu.blogspot.co.uk ‘(Alleged) Qaida-Documents Surface in German Trial’ 12/3/12
21) Daily Telegraph (no by-line)1/5/12
22) Madeleine Gardner was a US Women’s Army Corps Major during World War 2, she died in 1983
23) Raffaello Pantucci ‘Counter-Productive counter-terror’, The Guardian Comment is free 30/11/10. Some FBI cases are so poorly constructed, entrapment seems a logical explanation, not least the original World Trade Centre bomb plot in 1993.
24) ‘The fuse lit by the 7/7 bombers’ Sunday Telegraph 5/7/15 (Raffaello Pantucci)
25) Birmingham Mail 17/2/14 quote (Amardeep Bassey)
26) Sunday Mercury 27/10/12
27) ‘A Question of Trust: Report of the Investigatory Powers Review’ David Anderson QC June 2015 p.339 (Case Study 1) states “bulk data enabled GCHQ to trigger a manhunt for a known terrorist linked to previous attacks on UK citizens…GCHQ was able to pick up the trail by identifying patterns of activity online believed to be unique to the suspect…a network was successfully disrupted before any attack could take place”. Rauf was not named, but Sean O’Neill in The Times 13/6/15 identifies Rauf and the 2006 liquid bomb plot.
28) Kenan Malik ‘From Fatwa to Jihad’ Atlantic Books 2009 p.99 (98-104 covers the Mullah Boys)
29) Ian Herbert The Independent 2/4/09
30) Hope Not Hate July-August 2015 p.27-9
31) Hope Not Hate July-August 2015 p.27
32) Hope Not Hate July-August 2015 p.28
33) See the excellent ‘Black Star: Britain’s Asian Youth Movements’ (Anandi RamaMurthy) p.120-47 Pluto 2013 on all this.
34) ‘Black Star’ (op. cit.) p.79/118/134 references Big Flame’s involvement, see also for example ‘Bradford 12: The Resistance Continues’ Big Flame 100 November 1981 p.16, and for the underlying approach ‘The Past Against Our Future’ (Big Flame) 1980
35) ‘Black Star’ p.148-70 traces this process, as does ‘From Fatwa to Jihad’ p.36-79, both in Bradford and nationally.
36) Inquiry Report (Crescent Relief) Charity No. 1087724 29/9/11 p.3
37) ibid. p.9
38) ibid. p.11
39) See the article on the (fascist) International Third Position by Matthew Kalman & Larry O’Hara Notes From the Borderland issue 1 1997 p.3-6. ‘Adopting The Position’ Notes From the Borderland issue 4 2001 p.3-4 covers the Charity Commission’s pathetic response. Also the ongoing Hope Not Hate charity scam, covered this issue and last.
40) ‘A biography of Rashid Rauf’ (Raffaello Pantucci) Combatting Terrorism Center (USA) 24/7/12
41) Crispin Black ‘7-7 The London Bombs—What Went Wrong?’ Gibson Square 2005 p.31
42) See Paul Stott UEA PhD Thesis ‘British Jihadism: The Detail and the Denial’ 2014 p.159
43) Before the event: ‘9/11 Secrets could turn Saudis into pariahs’ (Michael Burleigh) The Times 23/4/16. The documents themselves were reased 15/7/16. They are on-line at intelligence.house.gov, see also 28pages.org.
44) On-line at theguardian.com/world/us-embassy-cables-documents/242073 [last accessed 13/9/15]
45) Jonathan Eyal answer to Question 186 Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee 5/3/13
46a) Jonathan Eyal answer to Question 184 Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee 5/3/13
46b) ‘British Police sccused of helping Saudi torturers’ The Times 8/6/16 (Catherine Philp/Michael Savage)
47) Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia (London) Press Statement 8/7/14
48) The exception was Patrick Cockburn in The Independent 12/7/14, see also his ‘The Rise of Islamic State’ Verso 2015 p.105-110
49) Craig Unger ‘House of Bush House Of Saud’ Gibson Square 2005 p.181 (see p.177-83/272-4 on Al Qaeda funding), see also Jean-Charles Brisard & Guillaume Dasquie ‘Forbidden Truth’ Thunders Mouth (New York) 2002 p.79-93
50) Reported in The Independent 1/11/07 (Paul Vallely)
51) ‘Saudi Arabia funding fuels jihadist terror’ Vancouver Sun (on-line) 28/5/13 (Jonathan Manthorpe)
52) See the occasionally polemical, but nonetheless fascinating, overview by Salim Mansur ‘ISIS, Saudi Arabia, Iran and the West’ 14/6/15 gatestoneinstitute.org [last accessed 7/10/15]. James Woolsey (ex-CIA) is on the Advisory Board, and ex-Bush UN Ambassador John Bolton prominent.
53) Abdel Bari Atwan ‘The Digital Caliphate’ Saqi 2015 quotes from p.94 and p.215 (see p.200-215 on the Saudi-Wahabbi relationship), also ‘Saudis fund Sunni army to curb Iran and topple Assad’ The Times 13/5/15 (Tom Coghlan/Hugh Tomlinson/Michael Evans/Ahmad Dawood)
54) ‘Is ISIS a Threat to the UK?’ RUSI Analysis 21/8/14
55) Raffaello Pantucci and Clare Ellis ‘The Threat of ISIS to the UK’ RUSI Threat Assessment October 2014 p.4
56) Pantucci and Ellis op. cit. p.5
57) ‘Iran’s Nuclear Diplomacy: A Response from Saudi Arabia’ Dr Saud Mousaed Al Tamamy (King Saud University) RUSI 26/1/14
58) ‘Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Crown Prince: A Sign of Real Transition Ahead?’ Michael Stephens, RUSI Analysis 1/4/14
59) ‘Britain and Bahrain in 2011’ RUSI Journal Vol. 157 No.5 October 2012 Point 8 (Matthew Willis)
60) In The Guardian 14/10/15 Alan Travis takes issue with Gove and ends with sentiments favouring the contract. As usual, Guardian liberalism is not even skin-deep.
61) The Observer 18/10/15 (Jamie Doward)
62) ‘Islamist Terror is little threat to the West. And Saudis are backing Iraqi jihad’: is this former spy chief right? Daily Telegraph blog 8/7/14 (Shashank Joshi).
63) ‘UK & Saudi Arabia in secret deal over human rights council place’ The Guardian 30/9/15 (Owen Bowcott)
64) International Business Times 18/2/14 (Ludivica Iaccino)
65) ‘Why are the Gulf States bankrolling IS barbarians?’ The Sun 18/11/15 (Douglas Murray)
66) ‘How the influence of Saudi Arabia sowed the seeds of radicalism’ The Independent 24/11/15 (Leo Cendrowicz)
67) New York Times 20/11/15 (Kamel Daoud)
68) Quoted in Daily Telegraph 7/6/15 (Justin Huggler)
69) The Observer 17/1/16 (Mark Townsend)
70) Ban Ki-moon speech reported in The Guardian 6/2/16 (Patrick Wintour)
71) See summary of report in The Independent 28/1/16 (Charlie Cooper) and in the same paper a critique of Foreign Office apologetics for the Saudis (Chris Green)
72) ‘The Henry Jackson Society and the degeneration of British neo-conservatism : liberal interventionism, Islamophobia and the ‘war on terror’’ 11/6/15 available on spinwatch.org. (thankfully no sub-title)
73) Charity No. 210639 signed off 25/6/15, covering period ending 31/3/15
74) ‘William Hague to be next Chairman of RUSI’ RUSI News 28/7/15
75) See for instance ‘Spy Fiction & Intelligence in the Post-War World’ RUSI Journal Vol. 159 No. 5 October 2014
76) See (all on-line at The Guardian) ‘RUSI Report on extremism’ 15/2/08, ‘The Lessons of Costly Conflicts’ 23/4/14, ‘Who needs Trident’ 28/9/15, and using CAAT (but not RUSI when surely relevant) ‘UK-Saudi Arabia: the new special relationship’ Guardian defence and security blog 7/10/15.
77) Christopher Hitchens ‘The Trial of Henry Kissinger’ Atlantic Books 2012 [originally 2001]
78) See ‘The Thieving Magpie, A Peacock & One Lesser-Spotted Grieve’ Notes From the Borderland issue 4 2001 p.25
79) ‘Why is the BBC presenting RUSI as objective analysts of the Middle East?’ David Wearing opendemocracy.net 12/6/15
80) Published by Bonus Books Chicago 2005
81) Rachel Ehrenfeld ‘Funding Evil’ p.22
82) Kevin Dowling ‘The Ties that bind: Barclays, A Bin Laden Relative, the Carlyle and the BCCI boys’ Online journal 3/11/01, Rachel Ehrenfeld ‘The chill of libel tourism’ The Guardian Comment is Free 9/6/09, and ‘Funding Evil’ p.xi-xv
83) Jean-Charles Brisard and Guillaume Dasquie ‘Forbidden Truth: US-Taliban Secret Oil Diplomacy and the Failed Hunt for Bin Laden’ Thunders Mouth (New York) 2002 p.115-39. That the book may have extensive French intelligence input does not invalidate the content.
84a) See artellusltd.co.uk
84b) quoted in ‘MI5 stopped Scotland Yard taking Choudary down, sources claim’ Daily Telegraph 22/8/16 (Martin Evans/Ben Farmer)
85) Information from LinkedIn profile
86) ‘China and India: Time to Cooperate on Afghanistan’ 23/10/13 chinaincentral asia.com
87) ‘The Route to Better Relationships with China Lies Along the Silk Road’ 10/1/14 chinaincentralasia.com
88) Quotes from Christopher Griffin and Raffaello Pantucci ‘A Treacherous Triangle?: China and the Transatlantic Alliance’ SAIS Review (John Hopkins University) Vol. XXVII No. 1 Winter-Spring 2007
89) European Council on Foreign Relations Policy Memo ‘China’s Janus-Faced Response To the Arab Revolutions’ June 2011 p.4/5 (Jonas Parello-Plesner and Raffaello Pantucci)
90) ‘Demands for Met to be investigated for raid on Chinese dissident’s home’ The Independent 27/10/15 (David Connett/Nigel Morris/Jamie Merrill)
91) ‘Thousands protest in Hong Kong over publishers; booksellers worried’ Reuters 10/1/16 (Donny Kwok/Kalum Chen)
92) ‘China Plan to hit rebels overseas’ Sunday Times 24/1/16 (Michael Sheridan), also see his article in the Sunday Times magazine 15/5/16 p.12-19
93) ‘China passes controversial new anti-terror laws’ BBC on line 28/12/15 (Steven Evans)
94) ‘Will China’s new law tackle terror?’ (Raffaello Pantucci) BBC on line 2/1/16
95) Euobserver.com 1/3/16 (Raffaello Pantucci)
98) Sunday Times magazine 15/5/16 p.15/17 (Michael Sheridan)
99) ‘Supping With the Devil’ Daily Mail 24/10/15 (Dominic Sandbrook)
100) Quoted in ‘China and the Osborne Doctrine’ (Carrie Gracie) BBC on-line 19/10/15
101) ‘How To Avoid Nuclear Fall-out’ Telegraph online 4/8/16