Leaked documents reviewed by The Cradle reveal the British Foreign Office is managing a number of covert projects to influence politics and perceptions across West Asia, by way of coopting the religion of Islam and its interlocutors – including local Imams, and their sermons and teachings.
Much of this clandestine activity is officially conducted under the auspices of “Countering Violent Extremism” (CVE) campaigns. A counter-terror strategy concocted by London, the program was forcibly exported across much of the world in the wake of the events of 9/11.
Core practical components of CVE doctrine include multi-channel on- and offline propaganda blitzes via ostensibly “independent” media and social media assets, the creation of “astroturf” NGOs and campaign groups, and funding community leaders to publicly perpetuate pre-approved “counter-narratives” intended to dent the purported appeal of extremist messaging in Muslim communities.
British state sponsorship is never disclosed, and participants themselves are frequently unaware they are being exploited in this manner.
In other cases, they are witting, although might not admit it. The globally-read Imams Online claims to be “a voice, information and career placement initiative aimed at prospective Islamic leaders, Imams, Chaplains, Alims, and Aalimah’s.”
“We aim to provide the necessary information to aspiring Muslim leaders that will enable and encourage them to become the future beacons of the communities they serve,” the website states.
In 2016, in response to suggestions that Imams Online could be receiving British state support, its parent company Faith Associates issued a firm statement declaring all the website’s content to be “authored by Imams and Scholars.” A leaked Foreign Office document related to CVE campaigns in Iraq, conducted by advertising giant M&C Saatchi and disgraced British government contractor Adam Smith International, strongly suggests this was an outright lie.
In a section listing “relevant experience and campaigns relating to CVE and/or Iraq,” Imams Online is cited among many other examples of ostensibly grassroots, organic Muslim community content secretly operated by the pair – management that was ongoing at the time of the document’s submission.
Elsewhere in that file, Adam Smith International and M&C Saatchi discuss ways of “[strengthening] the narrative around Sunni Arab self-governance in a positive manner,” such as “working with particular leaders to support them in articulating their ideas and vision through well-written articles, training them in how to deliver speeches and support on the organisation of events,” and launching an online media platform that “will harness and amplify credible and motivating Iraqi voices.”
The two firms name a prior example of a similar connivance. The “pan-regional” myislamis.me – a website “inspired by the Hadiths of the Prophet Mohammad” offering “a distinctive window into Islam” – was said to have “generated significant media coverage,” achieved “80 percent reach throughout the region,” and garnered over 2.1 million online supporters.
The pair also recommended engaging Imams to disseminate specific messaging, noting that they had recently “helped coordinate and amplify a collective response from British Imams to the threat of Daesh, online and through a series of high-profile government supported events and associated promotional activities.”
‘No More Palestines’
CVE projects conducted by the Foreign Office give every appearance of feeding off one another. One program concerned shaping propaganda messaging around “Palestinian issues” in order to stifle legitimate public anger at Israel’s western-supported ethnic cleansing, and deter violent retaliation against the Zionist state.
A review of Islam Online’s output on Palestine shows that while occasionally condemnatory of Israeli brutality in the West Bank and Gaza, articles overwhelmingly urge non-violence and the pursuit of peace as religious duties. A representative hagiography of UAE government-supported, supposed pacifist scholar Sheikh Abdallah bin Bayyah states that the “pain” of “our Muslim brothers and sisters [suffering]” overseas will “not be removed by additional destructive ideas.”
“On the contrary, our duty is to do whatever we can to prevent further destruction of the Muslim states and societies,” the article fawns. “The Muslims today don’t need more Palestines.”
The appeal of Imams to British intelligence is spelled out in some detail in a leaked Foreign Office file relating “lessons learned” on how to structure CVE campaigns effectively in Muslim-dominated East Africa.
“It is important to engage youthful charismatic imams in any initiative that is geared towards spreading alternative narratives to youth,” the document states. “Behaviour change takes time, and in programming, best undertaken with a long-term project. Different at-risk groups best respond to and are generally really influence by their individuals they feel are in some significant ways genuine peers.”
The granular records of a focus group conducted in Baghdad, in service of the aforementioned CVE project in Iraq, tells much the same story. When asked “whose opinion do you tend to trust,” one participant is reported as saying, “the only available news source after TV are the mosque Imams and Sheikhs,” and “they are 100 percent trusted sources. I have heard a lot of true news stories from them.”
If necessary to sidestep Imams for British-endorsed propaganda messaging to reach local residents directly, “print distribution at the hands of grassroots activists” was said to “likely resonate most strongly with the intended target audience.”
“Trust in ‘word of mouth’ and ‘friends and family’ over Sheikhs and Imams means messages should be resonant, relevant, local and perceptually organic,” the report concluded.
The Neverending Story
In a sense, it’s bizarre that research projects were conducted by London gauging the efficacy of Islamic scholars in promulgating British propaganda.
In February 2020, it was revealed that Information Research Department, a Cold War-era Foreign Office propaganda unit that acted in close coordination and shared staff with MI5 and MI6, had decades earlier conducted “religious operations” in the Arab world in order to weaponize Muslims against the Soviet Union, and further London’s interests in the region.
Along the way, the Department secretly distributed a series of pre-written sermons and pamphlets with “anti-Communist themes” across West Asia. University students were a particular target, on the basis that; “from among them come the Imams who preach the Friday sermon in every Egyptian Mosque; the teachers of Arabic in the secondary schools and all teachers in the village schools; and the lawyers specializing in Moslem law.”
One representative top secret memo sent to London from Cairo in February 1950 noted that Friday sermons “[have] always been recognised as one of the important way [sic] of spreading propaganda in the Moslem world,” and “we have now devised a scheme for ensuring that anti-Communist themes are adequately dealt with.”
Another, dispatched a decade later, from Beirut stated: “We hope to produce two short pamphlets or sermons a month on religious subjects. They will be written by Sheikh Saad al-Din Trabulsi…who is well-known as a pious Moslem.”
“Two thousand copies of each would be distributed unattributably throughout the Arabic-speaking world. Recipients will be Sheikhs, other leading Moslem [sic] personalities, Mosques and Muslim education establishments.”
The spy-infested Information Research Department closed its doors in 1978. Evidently though, the sun hasn’t since set on Britain’s “religious operations.” While there is no evidence to suggest London’s CVE approach is remotely effective in actually countering extremism, or that individuals being possessed of “radical” viewpoints leads to them perpetrating violence in the first place, these programs continue to be pursued by London at a cost of tens of millions annually, both at home and abroad.
That Britain remains committed to a strategy which has apparently failed in its core objectives, particularly given its vast expense, might suggest its true agenda is something rather different. It might be instructive to consider that, on home soil, CVE’s primary – if not sole – success has been the effective criminalization of legitimate dissent against state malfeasance, and suppression of inconvenient facts from mainstream discourse from the public via manipulation and lies.
Reinforcing that interpretation, in 2015, a CVE pamphlet distributed to private households in London listed alleged warning signs “specific to radicalisation” in children. They included: “showing a mistrust of mainstream media reports…belief in conspiracy theories [and] appearing angry about government policies, especially foreign policy.”
In the context of West Asia, such efforts serve to keep target populations pacified, looking the other way while London – and other post-imperial, neocolonial powers in the region – get away with at times literal murder. Few residents of the region surely know that those they trust most in their local communities and look to for guidance and understanding have been weaponized against them.
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