The Role of UK Intelligence Services in the Abduction, Murder of James Foley

by | Nov 28, 2022

The Role of UK Intelligence Services in the Abduction, Murder of James Foley

by | Nov 28, 2022

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On 19 August, 2014, ISIS released a video of the beheading of American journalist James Foley who was kidnapped by the terrorist organization in 2012 while reporting on the conflict in Syria.

Foley’s shocking execution became one of the most widely followed news stories of the Syrian war. Foley’s killer, Mohammed Emwazi, popularly known as “Jihadi John” by the western media, was a Kuwaiti-born Brit from West London. In the Foley execution video, Emwazi’s unmistakable London accent can be heard.

James Foley execution video

However, what is less known about the notorious ISIS member, was that he travelled to Syria as part of a “terror-funnel” established by British intelligence, and abducted Foley while fighting for an armed group known as Katibat al-Muhajireen—or the Emigrants Brigade—which enjoyed direct support from British intelligence. Many members of al-Muhajireen, including Emwazi, then helped lay the foundation for the rise of ISIS by joining the terror group with its establishment in April 2013.

Further, for a period of Foley’s captivity he was being held in a prison jointly controlled by another armed group, Liwa al-Tawhid, or the Monotheism Brigade, which operated under the Free Syrian Army (FSA) umbrella and received aid directly from US intelligence. Some of this included arms being sold onto ISIS, including to the group leader holding James Foley.

In other words, although James Foley’s murder occurred in the deserts of Raqqa, it arguably began in more familiar places, namely London and Washington.

The Terror-Funnel

In 2009, former French Foreign Minister Roland Dumas was told by top UK officials that “Britain was organizing an invasion of rebels into Syria.”

Roland Dumas, former French Foreign Minister

This involved sending British jihadis to Syria through a pipeline established by UK intelligence decades before, to fight in Bosnia and Kosovo against Serbia. According to former U.S. federal prosecutor John Loftus, British intelligence had used the London-based Al-Muhajireen Movement to recruit Islamist militants with British passports for the war against the Serbs.

The Al-Muhajireen, later known as al-Ghurabaa and Islam4UK was a Salafist religious movement established in Britain in 1996 by exiled Syrian cleric Omar Bakri Mohammed, who, as journalist Nafeez Ahmed details, was a long-time informant for UK intelligence, meeting regularly with MI5 agents throughout the 1990s.

Bakri himself acknowledged his role in training jihadists to be dispatched abroad, in an interview with The Guardian in May 2000.

A month after the 7 July, 2005 attacks in London, in which suicide bombers targeted the city’s transport system, killing 52, Bakri left the UK for Lebanon. Although former Muhajireen members participated in the attack, the British Home Office did not prevent Bakri from leaving the country but did ban him from ever returning.

By 2009, Lebanese security forces were accusing Bakri of training Al-Qaeda members, while Bakri himself boasted: “Today, angry Lebanese Sunnis ask me to organize their jihad against the Shi’ites…Al-Qaeda in Lebanon…are the only ones who can defeat Hezbollah.”

Jihadi John

But who was Mohammed Emwazi? As the Guardian reported, Emwazi came to Britain with his family from his native Kuwait as a young boy. After attending the University of Westminster to study Information Technology, Emwazi became politically active as part of a group of West Londoners who followed an Islamic preacher named Hani al-Sibai. Some members of the group took part in jihadi training camps in Northern England and Scotland and were being monitored by M15.

In 2009, Emwazi traveled to Tanzania with two friends from the group, Bilal el-Berjawi and Mohamed Sakr. Assumed to be traveling to Somalia to join Al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Shabab, MI5 had the men detained in Dar es Salaam and subjected them to lengthy interrogations before forcing them to return to the UK. Both Berjawi and Sakr later succeeded in traveling to Somalia and were killed in US drone strikes.

Emwazi continued to be monitored by MI5 and was prevented from traveling to his native Kuwait in 2010, where he allegedly wished to marry. Emwazi claimed he was interrogated and harassed at Heathrow Airport by MI5, and complained of his treatment to CAGE, a London-based advocacy group led by former Guantanamo detainee Moazem Begg which focuses on Muslim detainees. CAGE then began an advocacy campaign on Emwazi’s behalf.

Yet Emwazi was then somehow later able to travel to Syria. The DailyBeast reported that this seemed odd, given that Emwazi had been “described as a core member of an extremist network linked to the al Shabab group in Somalia during a court hearing as far back as 2010” and had been tracked by MI5 for at least five years. “His links to terror networks were well known—and yet, he was released by the authorities” to travel to Syria.

Journalist Nafeez Ahmed reports that according to former British counterterrorism intelligence officer Charles Shoebridge, British authorities “turned a blind eye to the travelling of its own jihadists to Syria, notwithstanding ample video and other evidence of their crimes there,” because it “suited the US and UK’s anti-Assad foreign policy.”

Ahmed notes this “terror-funnel is what enabled people like Emwazi to travel to Syria and join up with [the Islamic State]—despite being on an MI5 terror watch-list. He had been blocked by the security services from traveling to Kuwait in 2010: why not Syria?”

Upon arriving in Syria in August 2012, Emwazi joined an armed group known as Katibat al-Muhajireen. Journalist James Harkin reports that according to Jejoen Bontinck, a Belgian jihadi that fell out with his brigade and was imprisoned for a time with Foley, most British jihadis traveling to Syria joined Katibat al-Muhajireen.

“Deep Embarrassment

Crucially, Katibat al-Muhajireen enjoyed support from UK intelligence services. This is evidenced by the terror trial of Swedish citizen Bherlin Gildo, who according to The Daily Mail fought for Katibat al-Muhajireen as well.

The Guardian reports that Gildo was detained while transiting through Heathrow Airport having been accused by British authorities of attending a terrorist training camp and receiving weapons training between August 31, 2012, and March 1, 2013—as well as possessing information likely to be useful to a terrorist.

However, the terror trial collapsed “after fears of deep embarrassment” to the British security services. This was because, as Gildo’s lawyer explained: “British intelligence agencies were supporting the same Syrian opposition groups as he [Gildo] was.”

British intelligence support for Katibat al-Muhajireen was further confirmed when former Guantanamo detainee Begg of CAGE was also tried on terror charges. Begg had also traveled to Syria several times in 2012 and provided physical training to foreign fighters from Katibat al-Muhajireen in Aleppo, as reported by Foreign Policy. Begg made his latest trip to Syria in December 2012.

As a result, Begg was later detained by British authorities and accused of attending a terrorist training camp. The Guardian reported, however, that Begg was freed after MI5 “belatedly gave police and prosecutors a series of documents that detailed the agency’s extensive contacts with him before and after his trips to Syria,” and which showed that MI5 told Begg he could continue his work for the so-called opposition in Syria “unhindered.”

In short, Emwazi traveled to Syria through a pipeline established by UK intelligence, and then joined an armed group, Katibat al-Muhajireen, that was supported by British intelligence, but which was viewed as a terrorist organization by the British police.

Kidnapped By the One Who Killed Him”

James Foley was an American freelance journalist who reported from Iraq and Afghanistan before traveling to Libya in 2011 to cover the NATO-led war on Muammar Gaddafi’s Libyan government. While in Libya, a close colleague of Foley’s was shot and killed by Libyan security forces, who also detained and imprisoned Foley for 44 days.

In 2012, Foley began making trips to Syria to report on the conflict for the Global Post and AFP, including in July when armed opposition groups, the Al Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front and the FSA’s Liwa al-Tawhid, invaded the city.

In October 2012, Foley published an article from his time in Aleppo suggesting that the opposition armed groups enjoyed little popularity among the city’s residents. Foley noted that “many civilians here are losing patience with the increasingly violent and unrecognizable opposition,” which was “deeply infiltrated by both foreign fighters and terrorist groups.”

This ran contrary to mainstream narratives about the Syria conflict, which suggested the armed opposition groups were comprised of army defectors fighting for democracy and enjoying strong popular support.

In November 2012, Foley was returning to Turkey after a reporting trip with British journalist John Cantlie. After stopping at an internet café in the town of Binnish, the pair’s taxi began heading for the border when it was overtaken on the road and forced to stop by a van full of armed men. Among them was Muhammad Emwazi.

James Harkin explains that according to two European hostages who had been held with Foley but later freed, the kidnapping gang that took Foley and Cantlie was led by Emwazi. “[Foley] was kidnapped by the one who killed him,” one of the freed Europeans told Harkin: “I am sure of that.”

Emwazi participated in Foley’s abduction just two months after arriving in Syria. Note that this was during the period Katibat al-Muhajireen was receiving support from British intelligence, as shown by the periods when Gildo and Begg attended Katibat al-Muhajireen training camps.

According to a U.S. Department of Justice indictment, Emwazi was joined by two of his fellow Brits, Alexanda Amon Kotey and El Shafee Elsheikh, in the operation to abduct Foley. Emwazi, Kotey, Elsheikh, and one other Brit, Aine Davis, were later collectively known as the “Beatles,” initially by their captives due to their British accents, and later by western media.

Foley’s critical coverage of the U.S. and UK-backed armed groups occupying Aleppo, coupled with the British Foreign Office effort to control the narrative of the war in the media—including by “waging information warfare in Syria by funding media operations for some rebel fighting groups”—raises the question of whether UK intelligence officials ordered the Muhajireen militants to kidnap Foley. On this point we can of course only speculate.

Collaborations with ISIS

According to the Belgian jihadi Bontinck, Emwazi and his fellow Beatles continued serving as Foley’s guards at various times, and passed him to Aleppo’s ISIS leader, Abu Athir, sometime in the late spring or early summer of 2013. By this time, they had pledged allegiance to ISIS.

This raises the question of whether Emwazi, and the other British Muhajireen fighters continued to enjoy support from UK intelligence after joining ISIS as well.

By August 2013, Foley was being held by ISIS in a prison in the basement of the Aleppo Children’s Hospital, along with several other foreign hostages.

Another American journalist, Theo Padnos, had previously been held in the same prison, but as a captive of the Nusra Front. As The Washington Post reported, Nusra had established a headquarters at the Aleppo Children’s Hospital in 2012, which it shared with Liwa al-Tawhid, the U.S.-backed FSA faction.

According to The New York Times, after ISIS “caliph” Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi announced the creation of ISIS, the Nusra brigade sharing the children’s hospital headquarters with Liwa al-Tawhid pledged loyalty to ISIS.

Liwa al-Tawhid then continued to share the headquarters with ISIS, and its leader, Abd al-Qader al-Salah was criticized for his cooperation with ISIS. Killed by a Syrian government airstrike in November 2013, The New York Times noted that Salah “ultimately made accommodations with ISIS that, to some of his allies, were at best disappointing and at worst ugly. Though he had welcomed journalists and aid workers, when Islamist groups began kidnapping them, even holding hostages at a compound he shared with ISIS in Aleppo, he made no public moves to stop it.”

Liwa al-Tawhid’s collaboration with ISIS had come into the spot-light in August 2013, while Foley was languishing in prison in the two groups’ Aleppo headquarters.

On August 4, Tawhid commander Abd al-Jabbar al-Okaidi, who also served as the head of the FSA’s Aleppo Military Council, was filmed celebrating the capture of the Menagh Air Base in the Aleppo countryside with ISIS commander Abu Jandal. Okaidi praised the ISIS fighters and referred to them as “brothers” for their help in capturing the airbase.

The video of Okaidi celebrating with the ISIS commander proved embarrassing to the Obama administration, because U.S. ambassador to Syria Robert Ford had crossed the border to Syria to meet with Okaidi a few months before, in May 2013—and because Okaidi was considered the main conduit for U.S.—provided non-lethal aid to armed opposition groups in northern Syria.

McClatchy reports that in response to the Menagh video, Ford called Okaidi directly to complain, saying that it had created “a public relations nightmare for the Obama administration, which was trying to show Congress and the American public that it was boosting moderates and isolating extremists on the battlefield.” However, as McClatchy notes, “When the importance of the jihadis became undeniable, Obama administration officials were irate.”

Okaidi had also previously spoken openly of his collaboration with ISIS, again referring to ISIS commanders as “brothers” and indicating that he communicated with them daily in an interview with pro-opposition Orient TV.

Buying Weapons From the FSA

Abu Athir, the ISIS leader in Aleppo holding Foley, had similarly kind words for Okaidi’s FSA. Al-Jazeera quoted Abu Athir as stating in July 2013 that, “We are buying weapons from the FSA. We bought 200 anti-aircraft missiles and Koncourse anti-tank weapons. We have good relations with our brothers in the FSA.”

The Koncourse missiles had in turn been provided to Okaidi’s Liwa al-Tawhid courtesy of the CIA. According to reporting by the Los Angeles Times, Koncourse missiles were provided to FSA groups such as Tawhid via the CIA’s regional allies, while CIA officers trained FSA fighters in the use of these weapons in Jordan and Turkey starting in November 2012.

In August 2013, a month after ISIS leader Abu Athir boasted of buying Koncourse missiles from the FSA, a video emerged of Okaidi’s Liwa al-Tawhid fighters also using Koncourse anti-tank missiles in the fight at Menagh airbase.

This suggests that Okaidi was receiving Koncourse missiles from his CIA handlers, and was then selling some of them to his ISIS counterpart, Abu Athir.

Ambassador Ford had himself been involved in the CIA effort to provide these weapons to Okaidi and the FSA. According to journalist Michael Gordon of The New York Times, Ford traveled to Langley, Virginia in 2012 to meet with then-CIA director David Petraeus to plan providing weapons covertly to the Syrian opposition.

Recall that U.S.-favorite Okaidi was the FSA leader in Aleppo and claimed to communicate daily with his ISIS counterparts during this time. If pressed by Ambassador Ford, Okaidi could have therefore inquired with Abu Athir about Foley and the other foreign hostages held by ISIS in August 2013.

Dragging Their Feet

In January 2014, a civil war broke out between ISIS on the one hand, and Nusra, Liwa al-Tawhid, and other opposition factions on the other, in which ISIS was expelled from Aleppo city but took full control of Raqqa, which would go on to serve as its de-facto Syrian capital. Foley and other foreign hostages were then moved to Raqqa, while ISIS massacred most of the Syrian prisoners it had held in Aleppo before evacuating.

In the following months, ISIS freed 15 European hostages after receiving ransoms averaging some two million euros, whether from the captives’ governments, families, or insurers. However, the U.S. government refused to pay a ransom for Foley.

Further, Ambassador Ford’s State Department threatened to prosecute Foley’s parents if they paid a ransom, which deterred them from raising funds for that purpose.

ISIS pointed to this in their English-language magazine, Dabiq, explaining that “As the American government was dragging its feet, reluctant to save James’s life,” other hostages had been spared after ransoms were paid.

British-Backed Militants 

On August 19, 2014, Foley was beheaded by Emwazi, who shortly thereafter also executed journalist Steven Sotloff, and aid workers David Haines, Alan Henning, and Peter Kassig, as well as 22 Syrian soldiers. John Cantlie’s fate is still unknown.

Emwazi was killed in a U.S. airstrike in Raqqa on in November 2015. However, two of his fellow Beatles, Alexanda Amon Kotey and El Shafee Elsheikh, were later captured alive, and stood trial in the U.S. Both were convicted of participating in Foley’s abduction and killing and sentenced to life in prison.

It is no coincidence that Kotey and Elsheikh were tried in U.S. courts. Any effort to prosecute them in the UK would have quickly collapsed, because British intelligence were supporting the very same armed group—Katibat al-Muhajireen—in which they and Emwazi were members when they abducted Foley. A UK trial would have proved a “deep embarrassment” for British intelligence, just as the attempted prosecutions of Bherlin Gildo and Moazem Begg had been.

In short, James Foley was abducted, held captive, and later murdered by militants from an armed group that received direct support from British intelligence. These militants fought in a dirty war to topple the Syrian government orchestrated by US planners, including Ambassador Ford.

Weapons sent by Ford and his CIA counterparts were given to another armed group, Liwa al-Tawhid, which shared a prison with ISIS during the time Foley was held there, and which sold some of these weapons to the ISIS commander then holding Foley.

Not only Foley but hundreds of thousands of Syrians have been killed as a result of the U.S. and UK-led dirty war on Syria. The murder of James Foley is just one atrocity among countless others for which both Washington and London are responsible as a result of their effort to effect regime change in Syria.

This article was originally featured at The Cradle and is republished with permission.

About William Van Wagenen

William Van Wagenen has a BA in German literature From Brigham Young University and an MA in Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School. You can read his other writings on Syria for the Libertarian Institute here. Follow him on Twitter @wvanwagenen.

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