Saturday, 8 March 2014

Facts and Context Be Damned

Moazzam Begg & Philo-Salafism

Moazzam Begg - From Terror Suspect to Amnesty International Poster Boy and Back Again...
The arrest of former Guantanamo Bay detainee Moazzam Begg has prompted a surly response from Glenn Greenwald and Murtaza Hussain over at the Intercept.

Begg was arrested - along with a woman and two other men - on the morning of 25 February on suspicion of attending jihadi training camps in Syria. Begg has since appeared at Westminster Magistrates Court and been formally charged with "providing instruction and training for terrorism and facilitating terrorism in Syria."

In a piece entitled "The Moazzam Begg Arrest: Part of the Effort to Criminalize Muslim Political Dissent" (published after Begg was arrested, but before he was charged), Greenwald and Hussain argue that this is part of a campaign on the part of Western governments and security services to harass, intimidate and silence Muslims engaged in what they describe as "aggressive political dissent".


To understand what this deliberately imprecise term actually means in relation to Begg, one would need to be aware of his views and activities to date, which the authors of the article nonetheless neglect to include.

The Intercept is a site which professes a dedication to disclosure, transparency and truth. In the spirit of which, then, a few redacted facts:

1. In 1993, Moazzam Begg flew to Pakistan where he crossed the border into Afghanistan. There he met Pakistani jihadis from the Islamist group Jamaat-i-Islami and was introduced to and, by his own admission, inspired by the notion of violent religious jihad. He describes this experience as "life-changing". Later that year, Begg travelled to Bosnia and was briefly a member of the Bosnian Army Foreign Volunteer Force. A subsequent attempt to travel to Chechnya in 1999 to take part in jihad there ended in failure.

2. Back in the UK in 1994, Begg was arrested and charged with Social Security Fraud. The charges were later dropped, but a search of his house by anti-terror police turned up a flak jacket, night-goggles and extremist Islamic literature. His friend and alleged co-conspirator, Shahid Akram Butt, did 18 months after pleading guilty to obtaining money by deception. Butt was later jailed in Yemen for his part in a bomb plot, along with Abu Hamza's son, Mustapha Kamil.

3. In 1998, Begg opened the Maktabah al Ansar bookshop in Birmingham, which soon became one of Europe's most notorious purveyors of Islamist and jihadi propaganda. It was raided twice by MI5, in 1999 and 2000, even before 9/11 had caused a spike in security service interest in bearded religious fanatics. An investigative report by Newsweek published in 2004 [and excerpted here] found that:
Anyone who believes the war on terror has shut down terrorist propaganda centers in US-friendly countries should visit the Maktabah al Ansar bookshop in Birmingham, England. Amid shelves of Qur’anic tomes and religious artifacts are bookshelves and CD racks piled with extreme Islamist propaganda: recordings of the last testaments of 9/11 hijackers, messages from Osama bin Laden and jihad pamphlets by Sheik Abdullah Azzam, the late Palestinian activist who was a bin Laden mentor and early apostle of suicide bombing.
4. Two months before 9/11, Begg moved his family from Birmingham to Kabul to live under Taliban rule:
I wanted to live in an Islamic state - one that was free from the corruption and despotism of the rest of the Muslim world . . . The Taliban were better than anything Afghanistan has had in the past 25 years.
He remained an unapologetic Taliban supporter as recently as the publication of his memoir Enemy Combatant (2006), in which he reaffirmed his support for the pure Islamic society they hoped to build in Afghanistan and expressed his regret that this project was thwarted by the American invasion. This is, needless to say, an eccentric position for a soi-disant human rights activist to take.

(The Intercept article, by the way, refers to Begg as the author of "books", plural. He has to my knowledge only written this one. It's a small, petty exaggeration, but a telling one, nonetheless.)

5. The Beggs' relocation was at the suggestion of Moazzam's friend and associate Mahmoud Abu Rideh, a UK-based Palestinian and bagman for al-Qaeda. Rideh was arrested in 2001, accused of raising £100,000 for al-Qaeda and funnelling the money through two London-based bank accounts. Following a prison sentence Rideh was handed a control order in 2005 and forced to leave the UK in 2009. In 2010, he was finally despatched to the hereafter by an American drone whilst fighting with the insurgency in Afghanistan.

6. Following the terror attacks on New York and Washington, Begg and his family moved to Islamabad in Pakistan. Begg returned to Afghanistan intermittently, and recounts in his memoir how he was taken to see the front line by a group of Pakistani jihadis he had met. The fall of Kabul precipitated a collapse of Taliban positions, and Begg found himself joining the retreat of al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters as they fled to Pakistan through the Tora Bora mountains. (Begg claims he only joined jihadi fighters on that route because he got lost.)

None of the above is disputed. I will return to the significance of these omissions later.


Moazzam Begg was arrested in Islamabad on 31 January 2002 and taken to Bagram Airbase for interrogation by the FBI. It is only now that Glenn Greenwald and Murtaza Hussain pick up his story. But they pass over what Begg was actually doing in Afghanistan and how his name first came to attention of American authorities there.

Begg claims that he travelled to Afghanistan, at Mahmoud Abu Rideh's suggestion, to help with a school-building project there. He likes to cite this as evidence of his humanitarianism. The details of this project, about which Begg is invariably evasive, belie his innocuous account.

The schools on which he and Rideh were working were exclusively for Arab speakers. And the enrolment of girls (which Begg and Rideh also liked to emphasise) was permitted at a time when the Taliban regime, for which both had professed much admiration, had closed all girls' schools. These facilities were in fact being purpose-built for the indoctrination of the children of foreign fighters stationed at nearby jihadi training camps. In a moment of unguarded candour, Abu Rideh admitted as much when he bragged that among the fathers of their pupils were "some of the world's most wanted men."

When Jalalabad fell on November 13 2001, Jack Kelly, a reporter with USA Today was allowed to inspect the al-Qaeda training camps nearby. He reported:
Plastic explosives, timing devices and sketches of the best places to hide a bomb on an airplane filled the files of Osama bin Laden's terrorist training camps near here. Gas masks, cyanide and recipes for biological agents lined the shelves of his chemical weapons laboratory. Kalashnikov rifles, silhouetted targets and lesson plans teaching children to shoot at their victims' faces lay among the toys and near the swing set at the elementary school bin Laden established. 
Elsewhere he describes:
The evidence shows that recruits at bin Laden's two main camps, at least those visited by USA TODAY, were trained in conventional, biological and even nuclear warfare, according to class manuals. They came from at least 21 countries, including Bosnia, Egypt, France, Great Britain, Jordan, Kuwait, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and other U.S. allies, enrolment records show. Nearly all the students were told to return to their countries after training and "await orders" to carry out attacks against the United States, class notes reveal.
At the Derunta camp, where Begg later confessed to acting as an "instructor", Kelly reports finding a wealth of terrorist training material detailing bomb-making techniques and identifying civilian targets in the West for attack; counterfeit passports, travel documents and...
. . . a photocopy of a money transfer requesting that a London branch of Pakistan's Habib Bank AG Zurich credit the account of an individual identified as Moazzam Begg in Karachi for an unspecified sum of money. U.S. and Pakistani officials say they do not know who Begg is but will try to find him.
Six weeks later, Begg was found and placed under immediate arrest.


While at Bagram, Greenwald and Hussain report that "[Begg] suffered torture". Even this is misleading. More accurate would be to report that Begg claims he suffered torture. These claims were repeatedly subject to detailed official investigation and review and no evidence was found to support them.

Begg's allegations were first made in July 2004 to the United States Forces Administration, and later the same month to the Combatant Status Review Tribunal. In December 2004, Begg was twice interviewed about his allegations by the Naval Criminal Investigation Service, and again in May 2006, in the presence of his attorney, by the Office of the Inspector General [OIG] of the US Department of Justice as part of a wide-reaching review of detainee treatment.

The Department of Defence [DOD] conducted no less than three separate investigations into Begg's allegations and, in the absence of any evidence supporting his claims, concluded they were baseless.

The OIG Report entitled A Review of the FBI's Involvement in and Observations of Detainee Interrogations at Guantanamo Bay, Afghanistan and Iraq, published in May 2008, devoted a section of its findings exclusively to Begg's allegations [pp. 266-76]. It states:
The DOD provided the OIG with a Report of Investigation prepared by the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command dated July 23, 2005. According to this report, the Army reviewed correspondence and statements by Begg and interviewed over 30 witnesses who were stationed at the facilities at which Begg claimed the abuse occurred. The report concluded that "the offences of Communicating a Threat, Maltreatment of a Person in US Custody, and Assault did not occur as alleged." Many of the witnesses interviewed by the Army investigators said that Begg co-operated with military investigators by assisting with translations, that Begg received comforts such as reading and writing materials, and that Begg never complained about mistreatment while at he was Bagram.
The Intercept article's additional claim that Begg actually witnessed the torture and subsequent death of innocent Afghan taxi driver Dilawar firsthand, while indubitably serving to make the account of his time at Bagram more harrowing and traumatic, is also unsubstantiated.

On 2 February 2003, Moazzam Begg was transferred to Guantanamo Bay.

Greenwald and Hussain report that Begg calls his time there "torturous". They neglect to mention that while there he signed an 8 page confession, countersigned by his Bagram interrogators FBI agent "Bell" and New York City Police Detective "Harrelson" (both names are pseudonyms) as well as two DOD CID agents. Inter alia, the OIG investigation (linked above) found that:
Begg’s signed statement indicates, among other things, that Begg sympathized with the cause of al-Qaeda, attended terrorist training camps in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and England so that he could assist in waging global jihad against enemies of Islam, including Russia and India; associated with and assisted several prominent terrorists and supporters of terrorists and discussed potential terrorist acts with them; recruited young operatives for the global jihad; and provided financial support for terrorist training camps.
Every paragraph is initialled by Begg at the beginning and end to indicate his assent. Deletions and changes requested by Begg are noted on the document in his handwriting. For example, the OIG report notes that:
. . . [o]n page 3, Begg apparently changed the statement "I am unsure of the exact amount of money sent to terrorist training camps of the many years I helped fund the camps'" by replacing the word "many" with the words "couple of".
Begg now claims this confession was coerced. However, the OIG again found no evidence to support his claim, adding that the additions and deletions provided by Begg "support its voluntariness". Why, after all, request minor changes to a document which is a wholesale fabrication? Furthermore, "Begg even acknowledged that Bell and Harrelson had mentioned the possibility of a plea bargain, witness protection and cooperation with the government" which appeared to support Bell's professed strategy of "building rapport with Begg to obtain his cooperation with other prosecutions".

Greenwald and Hussain will of course dismiss such investigations as self-serving and worthless. But such a dismissal is itself of no value. If, on the other hand, they think they can prove the OIG and DOD investigations were not competent, they must do so.


And what of CAGE (formerly Cageprisoners), the organisation founded by Begg in 2005 upon his release from Camp Delta and return to the UK?

Greenwald and Hussain describe CAGE as a human rights organisation, and produce a handful of pithy quotes from its own website which testify to the nobility of its campaigning.

But CAGE is not a human rights organisation. An investigation by Meredith Tax and Gita Sahgal at the Centre for Secular Space found that...
[J]udging by the cases Cageprisoners highlights, its principle of selection has less to do with universal, indivisible human rights than with the desire to support activists in jihadi networks . . . And it does not distinguish between prisoners held at Guantanamo whose rights to habeas corpus and due process of law have been violated and prisoners who have been tried and found guilty in a normal courtroom setting.
In a post over at Left Foot Forward, Rupert Sutton protests what he describes as the contempt for due process displayed by Begg's supporters, many of whom are demanding his immediate and unconditional release. Sutton points out that:
Given CagePrisoners' repeated demands for due process, it is very revealing that when that process begins against one of their members it is reflexively portrayed as unjust, and as a government conspiracy to criminalise Muslim charitable work and political activism.
Alas, this contempt for due process is a feature not a bug. The Intercept article notes with approval that CAGE's describes itself as "one of the leading resources documenting the abuse of due process and the erosion of the rule of law in the context of the War on Terror."

Following the controversy surrounding Sahgal's dismissal from Amnesty International for publicly criticising their ties to Cageprisoners, the organisation overhauled its site's design and content, deleting controversial and inflammatory articles, statements, campaigns and interview materials. But until comparatively recently, their ostensible commitment to due process was qualified in the "About Us" section of the site with a declaration [cached here] that:
Cageprisoners relies on Islamic doctrines relating to due process. 
Which was, in turn, explained like this:
It is not only the right to a fair trial that Cageprisoners promotes, rather the morality of the law. Thus even though national legislation in various jurisdictions may be given a veneer of legality, in reality they go against the conscience of the law. Thus our understanding of due process goes to the very heart of the counter-terrorism policies that are implemented, whether legally or illegally.
What this awful prose means is that, in the eyes of CAGE and its activists, secular notions of justice are subordinate to their own perceived religious obligations. Given that Salafi-jihadi ideology sees jihad as a religious duty, it follows that anyone incarcerated as a result becomes a prisoner of conscience, irrespective of their criminality in the eyes of secular law.

Meredith Tax's assessment is blunt:
The whole structure of human rights is based on the rule of law . . . A group that explicitly disregards the rule of law cannot be considered a human rights group. 

Greenwald and Hussain's misrepresentation of Begg and CAGE, as a human rights advocate and organisation respectively, is an example of what I have decided to call 'philo-Salafism' - a hatred for the West so vehement, it leads the sufferer to become a partisan of Islamist fanatics; to rehearse, without embarrassment, the justifications and excuses they offer for their depredations, and to recycle their anti-Western propaganda.

Were the Intercept article protesting Begg's incarceration at Guantanamo, its authors could reasonably argue that his views and previous activities are irrelevant. And, although their account would still be one-sided, I'd have to agree. The indefinite detention of terror suspects and the denial of legal counsel and due process is a disgrace, unmitigated by the professed views and alleged actions of the accused.

But the article is not about the injustice of Begg's detention in Guantanamo in 2003. It is about the alleged injustice of Begg's detention in Belmarsh today. By omitting any mention of Begg's jihadi connections, sympathies and experience, its authors are attempting to both exonerate Begg of any taint of suspicion in the reader's perception, and to discredit counter-extremism operations and prosecutions in general by making them seem arbitrary, vindictive and racist.

I take no position on the validity of the new charges Begg is facing. How can I? I have no idea as to the nature or reliability of the evidence against him. The wisdom of this prosecution will stand or fall when he gets his day in court. But there doesn't seem to me to be anything particularly sinister or surprising about the arrest of someone with a long history of self-professed extremist beliefs and connections on charges relating to political and religious extremism.

Greenwald and Hussain, however, are scandalised. And they want us all to feel scandalised with them. So instead of truthfully recording his past associations and views, they reprint (and implicitly endorse) some conspiratorial speculation offered by CAGE's own spokesperson and a "human rights investigator" about the "timing" of the arrest, and they provide some conjecture of their own about attempts to silence critics of government wrongdoing. No actual evidence is provided for any of this because of course there isn't any, and all the rhetorical questions they ask about the basis for the arrest are thus moot until we get to trial.

That doesn't prevent Greenwald and Hussain from supporting Begg's claim to persecution without equivocation. And having established his innocence - at least to their own satisfaction - they then explain that this is all part of an authoritarian campaign of intimidation against what they call:
. . . Muslim political activists who have been arrested and detained for their public criticisms of the conduct of the War on Terror — usually under the guise of highly-tendentious terrorism charges.
The four examples of said 'political activists' then provided are:
  • Tarek Mehanna - Sentenced to 17 years in April 2012 by a Massachusetts court of conspiracy to kill American soldiers, providing material support to al-Qaeda by publishing propaganda online, and lying to the FBI.
  • Fahad Hashmi - Pled guilty to one count of abetting terrorism, for knowing assisting in the provision of supplies to al-Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan. In April 2010 he was sentenced to 15 years by a Manhattan court. 
  • Jubair Ahmad - Sentenced to 12 years in December 2011 for making and publishing a propaganda video for Lashkar-e-Taiba, the foreign terrorist organisation responsible for the 2008 Mumbai attacks in which 164 people lost their lives and over 300 were wounded.
  • Emerson Winfield Begolly - Pled guilty in August 2011 to soliciting others to carry out acts of jihadi terrorism within the United States. He was sentenced 102 months by a Pittsburg court.
Whether or not the incitement to kill American soldiers or the dissemination of bomb-making materials in jihadist web forums ought to constitute protected speech in post-9/11 America is a perfectly legitimate free expression debate. However, it is one that takes place at the absolutist end of the spectrum. The imprisoning of Muslims - and only Muslims - who happen to disagree with American foreign policy does not.

By misrepresenting the former as the latter, Greenwald and Hussain imply there is no meaningful difference between the two, thereby dissolving the distinction between democratic dissent and the incitement of hatred, terror and violence. Counter-extremism measures designed to protect citizens from the kinds of "Muslim political activists" who fly airliners into skyscrapers and blow men, women and children to bits in marketplaces and pizzerias, are then 'Islamophobic' by their very nature.

The authors confirm this when, in their most brazen profession of philo-Salafi sympathies, they complain:
[America]’s largest Muslim charity was prosecuted on terrorism charges for the crime of sending money to Palestinians deemed terrorists by the U.S. Government.
By this point, one doesn't have to follow the link to realise that the "Palestinians" being referred to here are Hamas.

Philo-Salafis never appear unduly troubled that their refusal to distinguish between Islamist jihadis and dissenting Muslims committed to democratic debate and activism only stokes the anti-Muslim bigotry and paranoia they claim to oppose.

Nor do they seem concerned that the vast majority of Salafi-jihadi victims are not Western at all. In her pamphlet on Cage Prisoners and Moazzam Begg, Meredith Tax cites a study by the Combatting Terrorism Centre which concluded "that between 2006 and 2008, the most recent period the study examined, fully 98% of al-Qaeda's victims were inhabitants of Muslim majority countries."

Tax concludes her pamphlet by expanding upon "5 Wrong Ideas" advanced by Salafis like Begg and those who indulge them:
  • The Muslim Right Is Anti-Imperialist
  • "Defence of Muslim Lands" Is Comparable To National Liberation Struggles
  • The Problem Is "Islamophobia"
  • Terrorism Is Justified By Revolutionary Necessity
  • Any Feminist Who Criticises The Muslim Right Is An Orientalist & Ally Of US Imperialism
What Tax has here summarised as a list of misapprehensions and errors of understanding that lead anti-Imperialist Westerners to support Islamofascism might also form the basis of a philo-Salafist manifesto.

Foreign and domestic terror atrocities, it is held, are caused by the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq and counter-insurgency drone warfare. Of the Middle East's many barbaric Islamic regimes, the philo-Salafi only ever criticises those with whom the West have formed economic and strategic alliances. They blame Orientalism and cultural imperialism for Muslim oppression. And neoliberalism, neocolonialism, and neoconservatism. They denounce Israel as an illegitimate ethnocratic colonial outpost and an intolerable affront to Muslim dignity, and they excuse even its most vicious, racist enemies in the name of resistance. They denigrate those who embrace and defend so-called 'Western values' as traitors - inauthentic "House" Muslims and "Uncle Toms".

And so on.

Conquest of Muslim Lands abroad; Islamophobia and bigotry at home. Grievance. Victimhood. Resistance. Moral equivalence. Every box on the Salafi's propaganda checklist gets a reassuring tick.

These philo-Salafis are the Imran Khans. The Judith Butlers. The George Galloways and Seumas Milnes. The people who insist that the West's democracies bring terror on themselves, but who have nothing to say about the daily slaughter of Muslims in the name of the same hideous supremacist ideology.

People, in other words, like Glenn Greenwald, who in April last year wrote this in defence of Tarek Mehanna:
He was found guilty of supporting al-Qaeda (by virtue of translating Terrorists’ documents into English and expressing “sympathetic views” to the group) as well as conspiring to “murder” U.S. soldiers in Iraq (i.e., to wage war against an invading army perpetrating an aggressive attack on a Muslim nation).
Greenwald valourises those who would murder him for his homosexuality, his Jewishness, and any number of his libertarian views were he ever to find himself at their mercy. It's all rather squalid and pitiful, really. Philo-Salafism at its most perverse, spiteful and masochistic.

Although Murtaza Hussain exhibits many of the symptoms associated with philo-Salafism, the condition is not, as in Greenwald's case, chronic. In the past, Hussain has at least shown himself capable of recognising the utter moral turpitude of the Taliban and its allies, and he is not in the habit of redescribing their cruelty and barbarism as a noble and defiant reply to American power.

However, the fact remains that, in this instance, he's jointly responsible for a nasty piece of philo-Salafi propaganda. As editor at the Intercept, Greenwald has boasted that he has been promised complete autonomy to indulge his obsessions, unfettered by the hierarchical checks and balances on which good journalism tends to rely. So, in short, we can expect a lot more of this garbage.

I'll close this long piece by quoting Greenwald and Hussain's comically inept grasp of the Syrian conflict, which they offer as evidence yet more Western hypocrisy:
[T]he bizarre spectacle of charging [Moazzam Begg] with “terrorism” offenses for allegedly helping rebels which the U.S. government itself is aiding and for whom intervention was advocated by the U.S. president as recently as last year. Indeed, in 2012, the year Begg made his trip, the widespread view in the West of Syrian rebels was that they were noble freedom-fighters who deserved as much help as possible, not “terrorists” whom the law made it a crime to assist. In the same year another major visiting supporter to the opposition movement was John McCain – an indication of how much mainstream Western support the uprising enjoyed at the time.
I'm afraid that this kind of confusion is inevitable if one refuses to distinguish between different kinds of Muslim "dissent". But hey ho. It's all grist to the West-hating mill, so facts and context be damned.

The pamphlet "Double Bind" by Meredith Tax, which includes a detailed case study on Moazzam Begg and CAGE and expands on much of the above, may be purchased here. It is not only a valuable polemic about the embrace of the Muslim Right, but its text & footnotes provide a useful resource of links and information relating to the Begg controversy for which I was very grateful whilst drafting this post.