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Linking Iraq To Terrorism At Expense Of Refugees

'They Were All Asylum Seekers': The Propaganda Campaign To Link Iraq To Terrorism At The Expense Of Refugees.


By David Miller
Stirling University

In the spring of 2003 three separate currents of ideology collided, or rather, were brought together. The ongoing spasms about asylum seekers and immigration flowed into the same ideological pool as the campaign on the war on terror. At the same time the government propaganda campaign aimed at winning public opinion to support the war in Iraq attempted to present Iraq as linked to Al Qaeda and Islamist 'terrorism'. In the event the government campaign failed to convince the public of the need for war, but the main effect of the campaign was to increase hostility towards asylum seekers.

Asylum has been linked to terrorism in particular because of the wave of arrests under the new Terrorism Act. These arrests are accompanied by a great fanfare in the media. A number of those arrested have been found to be asylum seekers. In the case of the alleged discovery of 'traces' of the poison Ricin and the stabbing of a police officer in a subsequent arrest, the Daily Mail triumphantly revealed that 'they were all asylum seekers' [1]

Only in the context of a campaign against asylum seekers and refugees could this be thought significant. Assuming that all asylum seekers were banned from Britain and 'terrorists' used tourist visas to enter Britain could we look forward to headlines like 'They were all tourists'? To ask the question is to answer it. But what have the asylum preoccuptions of the Mail got to do with the War on terror? The reporting of the arrests and those of a rash of others in the past six months have consistently linked them to al-Qaeda.

In a series of scares in late 2002 it was reported that there was a link between those arrested and Iraq, or at least Al Qaeda. The case of the London Underground is instructive in that the arrests occurred on 9th Nov with little fanfare. Two days later Tony Blair made his Lord mayor's speech in which he stated that there was a ‘real’ threat. The following weekend the Sunday Times following briefings from MI5 linked the arrests to a 'suspected Al Qaeda terrorists' gas attack plot. [2]

Fleet Street scrambled to follow up the sensational tale… The Independent on Sunday said the Algerians may have been planning to place a dirty nuclear bomb 'on a ferry using a British port'. [The Observer] said they had been charged with plotting to 'release cyanide on the London Underground', as did pretty much everyone else. Broadcasters repeated the story. [3]

The story was boosted by the 'green light' from No 10 to follow it up, leading the Sunday Times to defend its story as being based on 'reputable security sources'. [4] Reputable maybe, But how accurate are they? This link surprised the lawyer for one of the suspects since as he put it: ‘none of the allegations which had entered the public domain over the past few days had been put to his client’. [5] The Algerians were eventually charged with having false passports and no evidence whatsoever of gas or dirty bombs was produced. Some commentators such as Simon Jenkins, the former editor of the Times complained:

I was outraged by the smallpox scare story [of December 3rd 2002]. It was a clear repeat of the previous weekend’s lobby story of “gas horror on London Tube”, itself an echo of the Home Office “dirty bomb” story two weeks earlier. These Whitehall officials are panic happy; careless of the cost and worry they cause others… This is the third weekend in a month that a terrorism threat has emanated from Whitehall. Terror stories are always the easiest for government to sell. Headlines write themselves and the pictures always “burn or bleed”. . [6]

The former Labour spin doctor Charlie Whelan has written that the government 'PR machine… believes it will help public opinion go in their favour over the intended war with Iraq'. [7]

For some commentators the combination of repression and media frenzy stirs uncomfortable memories of Ireland. Faisal Bodi argued: 'For all the hysterical headlines warning of a Bin Laden in our backyard, the reality is a picture of political repression of Muslims that is starting to resemble the experience of Northern Ireland's Catholics throughout the Troubles'. [8] Like Ireland the arrests are high profile and the outcomes usually much less dramatic. Also like Ireland the media coverage ensures the possibility of a fair trial will be prejudiced, leading most probably to a series of unsafe convictions. By May last 2002 official figures showed one hundred and forty-four arrests under the Terrorism Act 2000, of which 46 were charged with offences. By January 2003 the figure was closer to 200 and 'the fact still remains that there has yet to be a single conviction'. [9]

It seems that the wave of arrests signals the confusion and panic in the police and intelligence services. Under the cloak of the terrorism act the police are simply sweeping the Muslim community in the hope that they strike it lucky against an unknown threat. According to press reports 'From the beginning, senior officers privately recognised there would be 'collateral damage' - petty criminals or even innocent individuals temporarily detained in the police trawls. But they decided it was a price worth paying' [10]

Where there is 'intelligence' the quality of it has reportedly been suspect. The strongest connection between the people arrested in the past few months has been that many have been from Algeria. It is well known that two key Algerian opposition groups have been active in the UK since the 1992 election was cancelled for fear that it would be won by Islamists. The 'intelligence' on some of the Algerian suspects arrested in the UK has reportedly emanated from Paris and some experts say the information comes from 'tainted official sources in Algiers'. In addition neither opposition group 'has ever been directly connected to bin Laden.' [11]

****************

Spook spin?

In a deportation case last year against nine men detained without trial for over 7 months, the defence asked Martin Bright, Home Affairs editor of the Observer, to analyse the prosecution evidence linking the defendants to terrorism. In a piece submitted to the court and available only on the Observer website he notes that 'by far the largest proportion' of evidence was simply press cuttings reporting such links. In 'almost absurdly circular' fashion these were based largely on unattributable briefings from intelligence sources.

Information from intelligence briefings from foreign or the domestic services becomes common currency and is then repeated by journalists who are starved of any real information. Reputable journalists report the denials of the Islamists themselves, but the fact that someone denies being a terrorist is never considered to be much of a story. As increasing numbers of dissidents have been rounded up in Britain and elsewhere it has become increasingly difficult for journalists to check their stories properly... We have therefore been thrown back on an increasingly narrow set of sources: essentially the police and the intelligence services. [12]

In recent years MI5 and MI6 have overhauled their information operations and now have named press officers who deal with designated reporters in each media outlet. Bright notes that 'In the case of the Observer, I deal with MI5'. As Bright notes: 'Most journalists feel that, on balance, it is better to report what the intelligence services are saying, but whenever the readers see the words 'Whitehall sources' they should have no illusions about where the information comes from'. [13]

Of course it would be wrong to see this as a wide ranging conspiracy in which the government, the police the secret state are all engaged. Key elements of the state clearly do genuinely believe the briefings they get and in fact much of the state apparatus has to act as if the briefings are true regardless of what they actually believe. A useful way of looking at it is proposed by Martin Bright of the Observer:

I believe that the police and intelligence services are genuinely concerned and that the threats are largely real (in their minds at least they really believe an attack is imminent and inevitable)… But I do not know for sure and I don't believe the police have any understanding of Islamist politics and so what they perceive as a threat may be nothing of the sort. [14]

As Bright notes in his court submission the same goes for MI5's press officer. He has 'no expertise in Islamic or Arab affairs and simply acts as a conduit'. Furthermore it may well be that Tony Blair is genuinely convinced that there is a threat. As he put it in an interview with Newsnight 'I mean this is what our intelligence services are telling us and it's difficult because, you know, either they're simply making the whole thing up or this is what they are telling me' (6 February). And it doesn't seem likely that they are making all of it up. Nevertheless, there are reasons to doubt the genuine mistake line of argument at least some of the time. One good reason for scepticism is the past record of the intelligence and defence establishment. As Bright himself notes in the past information was slipped out informally and 'Sometimes the stories that resulted were true and sometimes not'. Others have revealed the deceptive information operations of intelligence agencies. [15] But the best reason to doubt the Prime Minister is that there is abundant evidence that Downing Street and MI5 have engaged in both spin and deliberate mendacity. The day after Blair's Newsnight interview Downing Street had to apologise that the government dossier said to be based on intelligence sources, was in fact plagiarised from a student thesis and compiled by Downing Street spin doctors. [16] Moreover, as the case of the London underground showed, MI5 have themselves been engaged in deception on the terror 'threat'.

****************

The Iraqi connection

It was only in late January that the UK government attempted to openly link Iraq with all this. In a key address to the House of Commons Liaison Committee, Tony Blair said: 'I think it is important that we do everything we can to try to show people the link between the issue of weapons of mass destruction and these international terrorist groups, mainly linked to al-Qaeda'. The media coverage of 'terrorist threats' does suggest that the government has been doing what it can to make that linkage. But every piece of 'information' the US and UK come up with has been almost immediately shown to be at best over-optimistic and at worst flagrantly false. These claims have included the alleged meeting between the 9/11 plotter and Iraqi intelligence in Prague, the presence of an ill man in a Baghdad hospital and the presence of an alleged Islamist in an area of Iraq not even controlled by the government. [17]

But not even Blair appears to believe the link to exist. Seconds later in the House of Commons Blair acknowledged that 'I know of nothing linking Iraq to the September 11 attack and I know of nothing either that directly links al-Qaeda and Iraq to recent events in the UK.' This will come as a surprise to those people who get their news from the mainstream media.

But let's be clear, the spooks are not all on-side for the battle. MI5 seems keener on the internal scare operation than MI6 who in turn appear, along with the military establishment, to have grave doubts about the war. This was graphically illustrated when Blair tried to link Al Qaeda to Iraq. The next morning MI6 let it be known that there are 'no known links between the Iraqi regime and the al-Qaeda network'. [18] Nevertheless Downing St persisted with the spin campaign, attempting to keep just on the right side of truth in Blair's public pronouncements and briefing the media with far more dramatic tales off the record. The final position seemed to be that although there was no connection it was dangerous to leave weapons of mass destruction in the hands of Hussein in case at some future date these ended up with terrorists. The 'link' in other words is a hypothetical one. Via the medium of spinthis is deliberately translated into a real link. Some ministers either don't know or don't care that the link is only notional and persist in claiming that the threat is real and present rather than hypothetical and in the future.

From all of this it can be concluded that the link between Iraq and Al-Qaeda is non existent and is simply a propaganda device to massage public opinion. The terror threat, if there is one, has little to do with 'al-Qaeda'; the 'suspects' arrested are likely to be a collection of activists and innocents. If any of them are engaged in planning attacks, these are not likely to be in the UK, but in France or Algeria. But in any case this has nothing at all to do with Iraq.

While this propaganda onslaught may well have worked with some in the population it has signally failed to convince the majority as can be seen from both the opinion polls and the largest ever demonstrations in British history on the 15 February. Moreover the attempt to link asylum and terrorism have also failed in propping up support for the war. Opinion poll data show that, if anything, the mounting fear has pushed people into the anti war camp. The propaganda campaign has, though had (possibly) unintended but wholly predictable consequences in further ratcheting up racism and hostility towards refugees and asylum seekers. As Simon Jenkins puts it:

I resent the Government trying to terrify me, week after week, to dominate the news agenda... Scaremongering is not a spin-doctoring pastime; it plays on the basest human instincts of group paranoia, xenophobia and ghoulish panic. [19]

This is not merely short sighted but is a clear means by which the government's foreign policy aims have in practice sacrificed the safety and well being of refugees fleeing from (amongst other places) Iraq in the name of fighting tyranny in Iraq.

****************

ENDNOTES:

1. Stephen Wright and David Williams 'THEY WERE ALL ASYLUM SEEKERS' Daily Mail January 18, 2003 Pg. 1
2. Hala Jaber and Nicholas Rufford 'MI5 foils poison-gas attack on the Tube' Sunday Times November 17, 2002, P. 1
3. Nick Cohen 'How to stitch up a terror suspect' The Observer Sunday January 12, 2003 http://www.observer.co.uk/comment/story/0,6903,873043,00.html; Kim Fletcher, 'Why poison gas story was a load of hot air Gone to press' The Daily Telegraph, November 22, 2002, Pg. 20
4. Cohen Ibid.; 'Confused terror signals' Sunday Times November 24, 2002, P. 18.
5. Patrick Wintour and Jamie Wilson 'Pledge by Blair on terror warnings: PM says he will let public know about specific threats' The Guardian Tuesday November 19, 2002 http://www.guardian.co.uk/guardianpolitics/story/0,3605,842873,00.html
6. Simon Jenkins, 'Poisoned by terror made and sold in Whitehall' The Times, 4 December 2002 http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,482-501952,00.html
7. Charlie Whelan, 'Labour PR machine not as clever as it likes to think' PR Week November 22, 2002 P. 8
8. Faisal Bodi 'Fear and loathing' The Guardian Tuesday January 21, 2003 http://www.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,3604,879016,00.html
9. Bodi, Ibid.
10. Jason Burke and Martin Bright 'Britain faces fresh peril from the 'clean-skinned' terrorists' The Observer, Sunday January 12, 2003. http://www.observer.co.uk/uk_news/story/0,6903,873105,00.html
11. Burke and Bright ibid.
12. Martin Bright 'Terror, security and the media ' The Observer, Sunday 21 July 2001 http://www.observer.co.uk/libertywatch/story/0,1373,758265,00.html
13. Bright ibid.
14. email to the author 25 February 2003.
15. David Leigh, ‘Britain’s security services and journalists: the secret story’, British Journalism Review, Vol. 11, No. 2, 2000: 21-26; http://www.bjr.org.uk/data/2000/no2_leigh.htm. Stephen Dorril MI6: Inside the Covert World of Her Majesty's Secret Intelligence Service, The Free Press, New York, 2000, pp. 783-800.
16. MEDIA LENS MEDIA ALERT, Media Lens Alert: Blair's Betrayal Part 2 - The Newsnight Debate - Dismantling The Case For War', 11th February 2003, http://www.medialens.org/alerts/030211_Blairs_Betrayal2.html
17. Ed Vulliamy, Martin Bright and Nick Pelham 'False trails that lead to the al-Qaeda "links"' The Observer Sunday February 2, 2003, http://www.observer.co.uk/international/story/0,6903,887207,00.html
18. BBC Online, 'Leaked report rejects Iraqi al-Qaeda link' Wednesday, 5 February, 2003, 10:05 GMT http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/2727471.stm
19. Simon Jenkins, 'Poisoned by terror made and sold in Whitehall' The Times, 4 December 2002 http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,482-501952,00.html

****** ENDS ******

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