A decade of dubious interrogations and moral judgement.
Over the last ten years British security personnel have experienced a tempo of operations unknown since the end of the Cold War. A global war, both overt and covert, has been waged against international terrorism and those that facilitate its development. Soldiers and spies have stalked the enemies of Britain all over the world from Helmand to Hong Kong. Often hidden behind a wall of secrecy, these operations have pushed the limit of what is morally acceptable and questioned more than ever the premise of Britain’s stance as a ‘force for good’.
The horror of September 11th 2001 alerted the British security apparatus to the lethality of a new form of terrorism, one that was relatively simple in its planning but deadly in its execution. Responding to this threat the government increased funding for the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), the organisation responsible for Britain’s foreign intelligence.
The organisation had been caught off-guard and lacked the readiness to effectively perform counter-terrorism operations. It was reported only months after 9/11 that only thirty of MI6’s 1,600 officers were actually involved in counter-terrorism operations. Recruitment, therefore, increased from around twenty agents per year prior to 2001, up to forty.
The commitment of the Tony Blair government to George W. Bush’s ‘War on Terror’ would also mean that MI6 would forge closer ties to its US equivalent – the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Like MI6, the CIA was unprepared for the attacks that America witnessed on 9/11. To justify its existence post-9/11 the CIA embarked on a prolonged clandestine offensive – as part of the ‘War on Terror’ – that saw it kill and capture top al-Qaeda members as well as other operatives.
The CIA would learn and develop new ways to fight this new kind of warfare. One of the most controversial tactics would be the abduction and transfer of suspected terrorists to countries known for human rights violations. It is thought that so-called ‘extraordinary rendition’ has been used on thousands of people. Both UK and US governments have denied that this has ever taken place. But the Arab Spring and the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime in Libya has questioned these assertions.
In a small Tripoli office belonging to the former Libyan head of intelligence Moussa Koussa, papers were found implicating MI6 in the rendition of a suspected Libyan terrorist. The Libyan was in fact Abdul Hakim Belhaj, a prominent rebel commander in the 2011 Libya Civil War and now the head of security in Tripoli.
The papers show that British authorities had been complicit with US rendition and also with the Gaddafi regime where people were at a ‘serious risk of torture’ according to Human Rights Watch. MI6 officers knew that suspects in Libya were likely to be tortured, but this did not deter them from liaising with their Libyan counterparts and using information that had likely been gathered under torture. This was not only illegal but also damaging for our security services; it is hard to imagine that Belhaj will now be comfortable working alongside MI6 in post-Gaddafi Libya.
The decision by Tony Blair to support the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 would also present serious moral and ethical dilemmas for our armed forces. Like MI6 and the intelligence services, British soldiers were exposed to a kind of warfare it had not experienced for nearly a generation. Frustrated and lacking direction soldiers were susceptible to illegal practices like those that MI6 had succumbed to across the world. But instead of contracting out the use of torture, elements of the armed forces chose to do it themselves.
In the early hours of 14 September 2003, British soldiers received their orders to carry out Operation Salerno, a mission to round up suspected insurgents around the southern Iraqi city of Basra. Since the invasion in March the city had descended into chaos after Saddam’s security apparatus had been dismantled. Much of the everyday public order was now the responsibility of the British, yet they lacked the equipment, training and numbers to effectively carry out this role.
When soldiers from the 1st Battalion Queen’s Lancashire Regiment (1QLR) arrived at the four-star Hotel Ibn Al Haitham to carry out Operation Salerno they found weapons and fake ID cards. This was enough to arrest the hotel staff and take them to a Temporary Detention Facility (TDF). What happened in the following days would lead to the first ever war crime conviction of a British soldier.
One of the men arrested was Baha Mousa, the receptionist at the hotel. For 24 hours he was beaten, along with his colleagues, and subjected to interrogation techniques that had been made illegal under the Heath government in 1972. On the evening of 15 September 2003 he stopped breathing and died while in custody. The post-mortem found that Mousa had suffered as many as ninety-three separate injuries which contributed to his death.
The death of Baha Mousa showed how unprepared the British army were when it came to carrying out operations that would inevitably involve detaining prisoners. The inquiry into his death found that the Ministry of Defence (MoD) had largely ‘forgotten’ that certain interrogation techniques had been banned almost thirty years ago. The MoD and army commanders were to blame for serious misconduct which, like MI6 rendition, has severely dented the reputation of our armed forces.
The ‘War on Terror’ and the invasion of Iraq strained what we would consider effective moral judgement. In light of revelations around rendition, torture and prisoner abuse it must be politician’s (who commit our forces) and military commander’s (who plan the use of force) responsibility to ensure that our security services always maintain the highest possible moral and ethical standards. The cases of Abdul Hakim Belhaj and Baha Mousa have damaged both MI6 and the army. If we wish to retain our influence across the world these stains on our institutions cannot be repeated.