Islamic State: Giant library of group’s online propaganda discovered

Highlights the degree of sophistication and resources:
One of the largest collections of online material belonging to the group calling itself Islamic State has been discovered by researchers at the Institute of Strategic Dialogue (ISD).
The digital library contains more than 90,000 items and has an estimated 10,000 unique visitors a month.
Experts say it provides a way to continually replenish extremist content on the net.
But taking it down is difficult because the data is not stored in one place.
And despite counter-terrorism authorities in Britain and the US having been alerted to this growing repository, it continues to grow.

‘Better terrorist’

The discovery came after the death of the prominent IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in October 2019.
At the time, many social media posts supporting the organisation contained a short link.
It led researchers to documents and videos in nine different languages.
They included details of attacks, including those on Manchester Arena on 22 May 2017, in London on 7 July 2005 and in the US on 11 September 2001.
“[There’s] everything you need to know to plan and carry out an attack,” said ISD deputy director Moustafa Ayad, who discovered the archive.
“Things that teach you how to be a better terrorist essentially.”
The ISD named the library the Caliphate Cache.
For months the institute’s researchers have studied how it evolves, how it is being administered and who is visiting it.
The data is spread across a decentralised system, rather than a single computer server.
Anyone can share the content across the web, via servers based at multiple locations.
And this hampers any effort to take it offline.
But as long as the Caliphate Cache remains live, it aids IS by providing a means to continuously seed out content.

Pop singer

The material is added to social-media comments pages and spread via bot accounts.
Another technique has been to target Twitter accounts linked to celebrities and athletes.
For example, IS hijacked an account belonging to a fan of the pop singer Justin Bieber and used it to promote material from the cache.
In another case, the group managed to fool the English rugby team’s account into following one of its own by masquerading as a supporter.
“They understand how not just to game platforms, they understand the power of the content that is contained within the Caliphate Cache,” Mr Ayad said.

Runaway brides

Not all the cache’s content is violent.
Visitors also encounter philosophies of IS, religious texts and propagandised versions of what an IS lifestyle looks like.
The researchers say this includes material runaway brides such as Shamima Begum would have seen.
Most of those drawn to the Caliphate Cache are 18- to 24-year-old males in the Arab world, with 40% of the traffic coming from social media, largely via YouTube.

Extremist groups

The ISD has also discovered the Caliphate Cache is not unique.
There are smaller repositories belonging to other extremist groups, many of which are also using decentralised platforms.
“The attraction for jihadists of these platforms is that the developers of these decentralised platforms have no way of acting against content that is stored on user-operated servers or content that’s shared across a dispersed network of users, ” BBC Monitoring senior jihadi specialist Mina Al-Lami said.
“It’s really all about privacy, freedom and encryption.
“That’s what attracts jihadists.”
The researchers have alerted the US Attorney’s Office for Eastern District of New York, which prosecutes counter-terrorism cases, as well as the Met Police.
The authorities in New York have not commented.
But the Met acknowledged receiving the referral and said it was being assessed by specialist officers.

Source: Islamic State: Giant library of group’s online propaganda discovered

ICYMI: With Selective Coronavirus Coverage, China Builds a Culture of Hate

Of note:

Trevor Noah, the host of “The Daily Show,” has won praise on the Chinese internet for his searing criticism of the Trump administration’s mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic. So has Jerry Kowal, an American who makes Chinese-language videos chronicling the dire situation in New York.

China’s response to the virus has its own sharp-eyed critics at home, and they have found a vastly different reception. One resident of the virus-struck city of Wuhan who writes under the name Fang Fang documented despair, misery and everyday life in an online diary, and has endured withering attacks on social media. Three citizen journalists who posted videos from Wuhan in the first weeks of the outbreak disappeared and are widely believed to be in government custody.

The pandemic unfolded dramatically differently in China from the way it has in the rest of the world — at least, if one believes state-run Chinese media. Chinese news outlets used words like “purgatory” and “apocalypse” to describe the tragic hospital scenes in Italy and Spain. They have run photos of British and American medical workers wearing garbage bags as protective gear.

A lot of the same miseries happened in China, but those reports were called “rumors” and censored.

For the Communist Party, keeping up a positive image for the Chinese public has long been an important part of maintaining its legitimacy. That facade was broken during the outbreak in late January and February, as dying patients flooded hospitals and medical workers begged for protective gear on social media. Some people started asking why the government suppressed information early on and who should be held accountable.

The death of Li Wenliang, the whistle-blowing doctor in Wuhan, on Feb. 6 galvanized many Chinese people into demanding freedom of speech. Online sentiment became much more skeptical, and many young people openly challenged the party’s message.

Then the United States and other countries bungled their own responses, and China’s propaganda machine saw an opportunity.

Using the West’s transparency and free flow of information, state media outlets chronicled how badly others have managed the crisis. Their message: Those countries should copy China’s model. For good measure, the propaganda machine revved up its attacks on anybody who dared to question the government’s handling of the pandemic.

For many people in China, the push is working. Wielding a mix of lies and partial truths, some young people are waging online attacks against individuals and countries that contradict their belief in China’s superior response.

These tactics aren’t new. Many Chinese children of my generation read a newspaper column for students called “Socialism Is Good. Capitalism Is Bad.” Each week, it described the wonders of China alongside the hardships of capitalist societies. The lesson: Socialist China takes care of its people, while people in the United States go hungry and the elderly die alone.

Even if the stories were true, they didn’t represent the full picture. Chinese children like me pitied Americans even when almost all of China lived in poverty. How much would we have envied them if we had known that most could eat meat whenever they liked?

Such campaigns became much easier to sell when China’s economy took off, and we could see the country’s progress for ourselves.

Now that mission is getting tougher. Even before the pandemic, China’s economy wasn’t growing the way it once had, and the government has been intruding more and more into everyday life. China’s propaganda machine has ramped up the volume to deliver its message, encompassing all of Chinese official media and the country’s social media platforms.

If that newspaper column existed today, it would be called “China Is Great. Whoever Says Otherwise Is Our Enemy.” And it would be impossible to avoid.

The website of Global Times, a tabloid controlled by the Communist Party, added Chinese subtitles to a video from Mr. Noah’s show that featured President Trump and many Fox News personalities, showing how for weeks they played down the risks of the coronavirus.

The subtitled video was widely distributed by Chinese official news outlets. Many of them used the same headline: “Blood is on their hands and they should all be sued!”

The Chinese official media and online commenters loved Mr. Noah even more after Bill Gates, the billionaire philanthropist, said on his show that the ebbing of cases in China was “very good news.” Global Times subtitled a clip of the praise, which has been viewed nearly 18 million times and liked a quarter of million times on the tabloid’s official account on Weibo, a Twitter-like platform.

“Trevor has the correct value system,” said a comment on a social media article that not only posted the video but translated many angry comments by American viewers. “I love this guy,” another reader commented in English.

“Is he ‘kissing the ass’ of China?” another social media blog postasked rhetorically. “No, he’s just telling the truth.”

Many of the same people praising Mr. Noah have been slinging arrows and rocks at Fang Fang, whose real name is Wang Fang, for telling the truth about China.

Her diary was moderate and personal, and a place where many of us turned for comfort during the darkest hours of China’s epidemic. But after Harper Collins announced plans to publish it in English, tens of thousands of online users descended on her Weibo account, saying she was a traitor for supporting the enemy’s narrative.

In a commentary, Hu Xijin, the Global Times editor, wrote that Fang Fang’s diary would be used by political forces abroad and that the Chinese people might have to “pay the price for Fang Fang’s fame in the West.”

The online backlash has been so severe, Fang Fang wrote on Weibo, that it reminds her of the Cultural Revolution, the decade of political violence and chaos that she saw as a child. The only comfort, she wrote, is that “this type of Cultural Revolution is only conducted in cyberspace.”

More obscure people have also been subjected to hate. A woman in Wuhan who lost her daughter received what she described as a “Fang Fang-scale online attack” after she shared her grief on the internet and questioned whether the tragedy could have been avoided.

One user, who claimed to be a Wuhan resident, too, reprimanded her. “You can only represent the 1 percent who are dead,” the user wrote. “You can’t represent Wuhan. Do not disturb the 99 percent of us who are enjoying life.”

State-run media stands ready to elevate those who reinforce Beijing’s message.

Mr. Kowal, the American video blogger, won millions of views on Bilibili, a video site popular among young Chinese people, for his virus-related content out of New York. His videos also got him a 50-minute live appearance on China Central Television, the state broadcaster, to talk about the field hospital in Central Park and the shortage of personal protective equipment.

But such messages aren’t welcome when they’re about China. Three of Mr. Kowal’s Chinese counterparts, Chen Qiushi, Fang Binand Li Zehua, had tried to do the same thing in Wuhan during the peak of the outbreak. Their videos can’t be found online in China; they were able to upload their videos only to YouTube, which is blocked in the country. All three men have since vanished.

In his last video, which streamed his four-hour standoff with the state police outside his door, Mr. Li, a former CCTV anchor, compared young Chinese people to the protagonist in “The Truman Show,” the Jim Carrey movie in which the title character’s whole life is a lie.

But the lie they are living in is worse, because it is fueled by hatred. A generation of people is learning to hate not only people like Fang Fang but foreigners as well.

After Boris Johnson, the British prime minister, was admitted into intensive care with Covid-19, mocking comments from Weibo users — like “Can I laugh?” — received thousands of likes. When the United States surpassed China as the country with the most confirmed infections, many Chinese commenters gloated, “Congratulations!”

Gauging real sentiment in an authoritarian society is impossible. But the belligerent online environment has made many people uneasy.

Cui Yongyuan, a well-known former talk show host, in a recent article compared the online warriors to the fighters in the anti-foreigner, anti-Christian Boxer Rebellion in 1900.

“There are more and more Boxers online,” he wrote. “The Qing dynasty became the enemy of the world because of the Boxers’ evil behavior. One need not look far for a lesson.”

COVID-19: China tries to heal its coronavirus-hit image, but plan backfiring in the West

Good account:

As China in March became the first major country to recover from the coronavirus outbreak that spread from the central city of Wuhan, its officials kicked off another campaign: to heal its tattered international image.

President Xi Jinping held a flurry of phone calls with world leaders to promise aid. More than 170 Chinese medical experts were dispatched to Europe, Southeast Asia and Africa. State media outlets flooded the Internet with photos of Chinese masks arriving in 100 countries and stories questioning the epidemic’s origins. Ambassadors flooded international newspapers with op-eds hailing the sacrifices Beijing made to buy time for other countries without acknowledging how the outbreak erupted in the first place.

One month later, that campaign has yielded mixed results. In many cases, it has outright backfired.

In Britain, a parliamentary committee on foreign relations urged the government to fight a surge in Chinese disinformation. Officials in Germany and at least one state – Wisconsin – exposed quiet outreach attempts from Chinese officials hoping to persuade them to publicly praise China.

In Spain, the Czech Republic and the Netherlands, governments announced recalls of Chinese masks and testing kits after large batches were found to be defective, undercutting what China sought to portray as goodwill gestures. In Nigeria, the country’s professional medical association slammed a government decision to invite a team of Chinese doctors, going as far as claiming that they might carry the disease with them.

And on Twitter, Chinese diplomats have not only spread China’s message but gone on the counterattack. They publicly feuded with the Brazilian president’s son and his education minister, who accused Beijing of seeking “world domination” by controlling protective-equipment supplies. They tangled with Iran’s Health Ministry spokesman, who questioned the accuracy of Chinese epidemic data, and lashed out at a Sri Lankan businessman who criticized China’s epidemic response.

The wave of skepticism, sometimes from nations friendly toward China, underscores the size of the challenge facing foreign policymakers in Beijing as they look toward the post-pandemic global landscape. While governments from Washington to Brussels have been faulted for mismanaging the crisis or failing to galvanize an international response, China’s standing has taken a hit precisely at a moment when the country was positioning itself as an up-and-coming leader in world affairs.

“They know when the dust settles and people turn their eye toward whether Beijing was responsible, it’s going to be a very difficult situation,” said Nadège Rolland, a senior fellow at the National Bureau of Asian Research, who described China’s globe-spanning, hard-sell campaign in recent weeks as public relations “on steroids.”

“They’re trying to get ahead of that narrative” of blame, Rolland added. “It’s as much out of fear as it is confidence.”

Chinese officials have appeared frustrated by the emerging backlash to what they say is simply altruism. Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said this month that China was not using coronavirus diplomacy to burnish its image or extend its influence over countries. Chinese officials have also pledged to immediately crack down on shoddy medical equipment.

“We would like to share China’s good practices and experience with other countries, but we will not turn it into any kind of geopolitical weapon or tool,” Hua said. “Leadership is not gained by boasting or jostling.”

To be certain, many countries with growing investment ties with China, particularly across Southeast Asia, have responded positively. In Serbia, a billboard reading “Thank You, Big Brother Xi” went up in the streets of Belgrade. Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio, a member of the Euroskeptic Five Star Movement, uploaded a Facebook video showing him receiving shipments of Chinese medical equipment.

He said the Chinese aid validated his party’s decision to distance itself from the European Union.

“Joining China’s Belt and Road Initiative saved Italian lives,” Di Maio declared, referring to Xi’s signature policy to expand Beijing’s influence through infrastructure and loan programs, in comments widely reported in Chinese state media.

In several African countries, China’s reputation was bolstered by speedy donations made by Jack Ma, the billionaire co-founder of Chinese tech behemoth Alibaba.

“China led a master class in modern public diplomacy with its medical donations, leveraging a vast propaganda network that it built in Africa over the past 10 to 15 years,” said Eric Olander, co-founder of the China Africa Project.

China started to lose momentum in the “donation diplomacy” narrative after reports emerged that the quality of the masks may have been suspect, Olander added. But in the early weeks, the Chinese aid was “warmly received by the governing elites,” he said. “People were impressed.”

In many Western countries, it has not been so much China’s medical assistance that has drawn consternation, but rather Beijing’s departure from its traditional diplomacy into the realm of disinformation that had rarely been seen from China before the coronavirus emerged in Wuhan in late 2019.

Last month, when Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian and other diplomats questioned whether the virus was brought to China by U.S. military personnel, it provoked a furious response from Washington. A disinformation watchdog agency of the European Union rejected the Chinese officials’ conspiracy theory.

After Chinese state media widely reported that a renowned Italian researcher had said the coronavirus may have originated in Italy, not Wuhan, the nephrologist Giuseppe Remuzzi spoke to Italian daily il Foglio to correct the record, saying his words had been distorted for propaganda purposes.

Zhiqun Zhu, chair of international relations at Bucknell University and author of the book “China’s New Diplomacy,” said the coronavirus has sharpened a long-standing debate within Chinese diplomatic circles: Should China wage an all-out “discourse” war to beat back critics like Trump administration officials and assert its prerogatives as a world power? Or should it present a more humble, less confrontational face?

“There is no consensus in diplomatic establishment circles,” Zhu said. “Surely some diplomats know that outside, the world blames China, that the propaganda projecting China as its savior is counterproductive. But right now, the leadership also wants to boost nationalism at home.”

Zhu said more traditional-minded Chinese diplomats, including the long-serving ambassador to Washington, Cui Tiankai, have sought to tamp down the spread of fringe theories and the bureaucracy’s most combative impulses. In a couched essay in the Communist Party’s flagship newspaper this month, another senior official, former vice foreign minister Fu Ying, said Chinese diplomats should uphold “the spirit of humility and tolerance, and adhere to communication, learning, and openness.”

Chinese intellectuals have also worried about their country’s deteriorating image under the current diplomatic tack. A drumbeat has grown from conservative politicians in both the United States and Britain to demand economic reparations from China, although it’s not clear whether such an effort would succeed in international court.

In widely distributed essays, leading economist Hua Sheng warned China against spreading conspiracy theories about the origins of the virus or “gloating” when other countries were still struggling to overcome the pandemic. He urged China to have the courage to conduct an accounting of what went wrong in Wuhan.

“Some people say if we investigate our country’s culpability, we would be giving evidence to outsiders and give them a tool to hurt our national interests,” Hua wrote. “I must say, it’s precisely the opposite.”

Lucrezia Poggetti, a researcher at the Mercator Institute for China Studies in Berlin, said China’s internal dynamics and the emphasis on saving face for the domestic population meant it was highly unlikely that the government would thoroughly admit fault or show weakness on the international stage.

But even if Chinese diplomats successfully manage the near-term public relations crisis, they might struggle to counter the longer-term trends already set in motion by the pandemic. As an example, Poggetti said, European countries – including France, Germany and Britain – and the United States and Japan are reassessing their dependence on China for critical health and national security-related supplies.

“There will be a reckoning after the pandemic ends,” she said.

China’s Coronavirus Battle Is Waning. Its Propaganda Fight Is Not.

Not surprising:

For months the Chinese government’s propaganda machine had been fending off criticism of Beijing’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak, and finally, it seemed to be finding an audience. Voices from the World Health Organization to the Serbian government to the rapper Cardi B hailed China’s approach as decisive and responsible.

But China could not savor the praise for long. In recent days, foreign leaders, even in friendly nations like Iran, have questioned China’s reported infections and deaths. A top European diplomat warned that China’s aid to the continent was a mask for its geopolitical ambitions, while a Brazilian official suggested the pandemic was part of China’s plan to “dominate the world.”

As the pandemic unleashes the worst global crisis in decades, China has been locked in a public relations tug-of-war on the international stage.

China’s critics, including the Trump administration, have blamed the Communist Party’s authoritarian leadership for exacerbating the outbreak by initially trying to conceal it. But China is trying to rewrite its role, leveraging its increasingly sophisticated global propaganda machine to cast itself as the munificent, responsible leader that triumphed where others have stumbled.

What narrative prevails has implications far beyond an international blame game. When the outbreak subsides, governments worldwide will confront crippled economies, unknown death tolls and a profound loss of trust among many of their people. Whether Beijing can step into that void, or is pilloried for it, may determine the fate of its ambitions for global leadership.

“I think that the Chinese remain very fearful about what will happen when we finally all get on top of this virus, and there is going to be an investigation of how it started,” said Bonnie Glaser, the director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “They’re just trying to repair the damage that was done very early on to China’s reputation.”

The crux of China’s narrative is its numbers. Since late March, the country has consistently reported zero or single-digit new local infections, and on Wednesday, it lifted its lockdown in Wuhan, where the outbreak began. In all, the country has reported nearly 84,000 infections and about 3,300 deaths — a stark contrast to the United States, which has reported more than 399,000 infections, and Spain and Italy, each with more than 135,000.

The numbers prove, China insists, that its response was quick and responsible, and its tactics a model for the rest of the world. During a visit last month to Wuhan, China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, said that “daring to fight and daring to win is the Chinese Communist Party’s distinct political character, and our distinct political advantage.”

Terry Glavin: COVID-19: Beware the wartime propaganda as we battle this plague

On the lack of checks and balances regarding Chinese government propaganda:

It’s a terribly imperfect metaphor, and it’s already something of a cliché, but fair enough, too. The global struggle with the disaster of the coronavirus that first emerged last December in the Chinese city of Wuhan is, without question, something very much like war. And almost everybody who’s saying so is relying on pretty well the same formulation.

U.S. President Donald Trump has lately fashioned himself as a ‘wartime president,” determined to defeat a “horrible, invisible enemy.” French President Emmanuel Macron: “We are at war. The enemy is invisible and it requires our general mobilization.” Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis: “We are at war with an enemy that is invisible, but not invincible.” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: “This is a battle for public health … We are at war with an invisible enemy.”

So yes, fair enough. But we should be very careful that we don’t allow the confines of approved terminology and the banalities of official diction to leave us unmoored from the objective realities of the crisis we’ve all found ourselves stumbling through. Because that’s how colossally stupid public policy mistakes get made. It’s also how the powerful get away with occluding the truth and telling outright lies.

It’s how the powerful get away with occluding the truth

The official exertions dozens of nation states are taking to deal with the calamity of the virus are of the kind that are ordinarily made only in wartime. After all, in Canada’s case the statutory antecedent of the Emergencies Act, which Justin Trudeau’s cabinet is quite sensibly considering as a “last resort,” is the War Measures Act, which was invoked only once after the Second World War, during the October Crisis of 1970.

Naming the enemy precisely would help. And this is where things have already got off to a shabby and slightly sinister start.

Strictly speaking, the enemy is not COVID-19, as the disease has come to be named by the World Health Organization’s International Classification of Diseases group, “covi” being the short form of coronavirus, and ‘d” for disease, and 19 for 2019. It’s true enough that the herculean medical research efforts required to find effective treatments for the disease, and of course to develop a vaccine — an undertaking which is expected to take at least a year to complete — should put us all on a war footing. And that effort deserves the rapid marshalling of public resources and whatever measures are necessary to keep our hospitals from crashing and ensuring the safety and security of public health workers.

But the “invisible enemy” that’s showing up in the speeches of presidents and prime ministers, the thing that has forced wartime-type lockdowns and curfews and social mobilization, is the virus that causes the disease. The virus was named SARS-CoV-2 by the International Committee on the Taxonomy of Viruses. The SARS bit in the name comes from the virus’s genetic relation to the virus associated with the SARS outbreak of 2003.

It was perfectly sensible that “Wuhan virus” immediately and quite innocently emerged in the language of common speech, in China and elsewhere, But nobody wants their hometown named after a killer virus, and WHO guidelines are averse to the association of viruses with specific countries. So SARS-CoV-2 it was, and not “China virus.” For naming purposes it didn’t and shouldn’t have mattered that 99 per cent of all the eruptions from the virus at the time were occurring in China.

But then the Chinese Communist Party’s propaganda machinery kicked in. Faced with a population disaffected to a degree without precedent since the time of the nationwide pro-democracy insurrections that were crushed in the Tiananmen massacre of 1989, the CCP’s braintrust began to circulate lurid fictions to the effect that the virus didn’t originate in China at all, but was rather somehow smuggled into Wuhan by the U.S military.

The CCP’s braintrust began to circulate lurid fictions to the effect that the virus didn’t originate in China at all

The CCP was also keen on following Xi Jinping’s Feb. 3 instruction to recast China’s police-state efficiencies as the solution to the world’s hardships, and to recast Xi himself as a global medical-supply benefactor rather than the cold-blooded villain sensible people understand him to be. Because of all this, the regime’s state media and several senior propaganda ministry officials and diplomats were particularly determined to lay in an ambuscade for Trump over his use of the provocatively vulgar term “China virus.”

This all may seem trivial and petty, but it’s worth taking a moment here to notice a couple of things about the way wartime propaganda works.

The first thing is the classic strategy of exploiting divisions and anxieties in an enemy population in order to weaken public resolve and undermine the enemy’s leadership. If you don’t think the CCP sees the U.S.-led global order and the institutions of liberal democracy as the enemy, you simply haven’t been paying attention. And if you don’t think the Chinese Communist Party intends to exploit the coronavirus disaster as an opportunity to advance its interests against its enemies around the world, you’re not taking the CCP at its own word.

It’s the democratic world’s ill luck that the inflammation of domestic divisions and anxieties just happens to be both the cause and the purpose of Trumpism itself, and a significant body of American opinion will not grant Trump the time of day. Neither does it help matters that the Americans are in the bitter throes of an election year, when they all tend to give the impression of being at one another’s throats at the best of times.

The second thing is that controlling the terminology of the conflict and the subversion of vocabulary are crude wartime propaganda methodologies, and Beijing is taking matters to absurd extremes, with its ambassadors around the world instructing everyone in what we are allowed to say and how we are allowed to say it.

China’s embassy in Peru, for instance, has initiated a thuggish attack on the celebrated Peruvian novelist and Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa, a former president of PEN International, owing to a March 14 essay Llosa wrote in the Spanish national newspaper El Pais. Llosa merely noted that the coronavirus originated in Wuhan, and that the Chinese authorities had suppressed early efforts to alert the public about the disease — a catastrophic error that a free society would not so readily make.

The embassy went so far as to deny that the virus even originated in China, and admonished Llosa for having the cheek to criticize the Chinese government. Immediately, Llosa’s novels started getting pulled from China’s e-book platforms.

Every reasonable person understands that Donald Trump is a buffoon, but his torrents of false claims and imbecilities are routinely fact-checked and corrected by a robust American news media, and sometimes even by Trump’s own officials. The Chinese people enjoy no such liberties and China’s brutal state-capitalist system allows no such corrections. With the world divided more or less into two camps, with Xi Jinping on one side and Donald Trump on the other, any retreat into a facile “both-sidesism” would be a mistake the democratic world can’t afford to make.

We’ve had quite enough of that already, to disastrous result, and it would be the height of folly to try to salvage the relics of a broken global order that treated China like a normal country. That world is gone. Besides, it would be a peacetime activity, and as crude as the metaphor is, the predicament we face at the moment, in this time of plague, is very much like war.

Source: Terry Glavin: COVID-19: Beware the wartime propaganda as we battle this plague

‘Religious operations’: How British propagandists used Islam to wage cultural Cold War

And one wonders why conspiracy theories take hold:

British government propaganda unit ran covert campaigns across the Middle East for several years at the height of the Cold War, distributing Islamic messages in a bid to counter the appeal of communism.

Recently declassified official papers show that the Information Research Department (IRD), a then-secret division of the UK Foreign Office, commissioned a series of sermons that were reproduced and distributed throughout the Arabic-speaking world.

The papers show that the unit also arranged for articles to be inserted in magazines published by Al-Azhar University in Cairo, “to ensure that every student leaves the University a resolute opponent of Communism”.

In an attempt to reach as wide an audience as possible, the IRD also published and distributed across the region a series of Arabic-language romantic and detective novels, within which anti-communist messages were embedded.

These stressed that Soviet communism was essentially atheistic in philosophy and practice, and claimed that Moscow aimed to sow political disorder and economic chaos in the Middle East.

Information Research Department

The papers also shed new light on the way in which the British government covertly controlled or influenced many of the radio stations and news agencies in the Middle East from the 1940s to the late 1960s. Some details of these operations became public after the IRD was shut down in 1977.

However, the latest tranche of declassified papers appear to show the IRD to have been particularly sensitive about what its officials termed “religious operations”, in which they attempted to utilise Islam as a bulwark against communism.

Marked Secret or Top Secret, many of the papers are being declassified after 50 or 60 years; nevertheless, some passages were blacked out by government censors before they were made public at the UK National Archives.


Subterfuge, bribery and sermons

The IRD was set up in 1948 in order to continue the work of a wartime body called the Political Warfare Executive. For the next 29 years it ran a number of newspapers, magazines, news agencies, radio stations and publishing houses, in order to spread unattributed anti-communist propaganda across much of the world.

Its favoured method, however, was to place stories in established newspapers and to covertly brief opinion formers. This was achieved on occasion by subterfuge or bribery, although early on, a senior IRD official, John Peck, warned that bribery might not always work.

“I have serious doubts about the value of bribery as a means of getting anti-communist articles in the press,” he wrote.

“I am told that except in Jordan and possibly in Syria the circulation of those Middle East newspapers which are open to bribery is small and their individual influence negligible.”

In the same memorandum, he summed up the reason for IRD material being distributed without attribution: “However valid our arguments may be, the fact that they are our arguments makes them suspect to the Arabs. We can only overcome this difficulty by presenting the same arguments through an Arab intermediary.”

Despite Peck’s wariness, bribery continued to be used as a means of distributing propaganda material across the region.

Although financed through the same unpublished budget as Britain’s intelligence services, the newly-released papers show that the IRD also received funding from the oil industry.

“It is true that in the last year we have been receiving clandestine financial assistance from oil companies,” a memo to IRD director Ralph Murray, marked Top Secret, noted in 1954.

But the Middle East was seeing “the emergence of a state of total ideological warfare”, the author claimed. “And while such help is appreciated, the amount is completely inadequate to our vital needs.”

Information Research Department

The newly declassified papers contain a number of references to “religious operations”. Frequently these references are concerned with the financing of such propaganda campaigns, rather than the means of delivery. “You will note that we are including new budgetary provision for £1,000 to cover ‘Religious Operations’” is one typical entry.

Some details of the campaigns do emerge, however. In February 1950, for example, two years after the IRD was set up, its representative at the British embassy in Cairo informed London: “The Friday sermon has always been recognised as one of the most important way [sic] of spreading propaganda in the Moslem world.

“We have now devised a scheme for ensuring that anti-Communist themes are adequately dealt with. A series of sermons has been written here.”

This was still happening 10 years later, as a top-secret memo from Beirut from August 1960 makes clear: “We hope to produce two short pamphlets or sermons a month on religious subjects. They will be written by Sheikh Saad al Din Trabulsi, formerly of the Beirut Moslem Tribunal (sharia) and now of Zahle Moslem Tribunal, who is well-known as a pious Moslem.

“Two thousand copies of each would be distributed unattributably … throughout the Arabic-speaking world (less Iraq). Recipients will be Sheikhs, other leading Moslem personalities, Mosques and Muslim education establishments.”

The intermediary between the IRD and Trabulsi is named in the files as a man called Rivera, although this is possibly a codename.

Another intermediary between the IRD and individuals described as “religious operators” is named in the files as Talaat Dajani, a Palestinian refugee living in Beirut. Dajani later moved to London, where he received a medal of honour from the Queen in 1979, and died in 1992.

The whole Trabulsi operation, the IRD representative explained to London, would cost around 8,800 Lebanese pounds, or around £1,000 sterling, a year.

Information Research Department

Although Iraq was excluded from that campaign, the country was on occasion the subject of IRD religious operations. In 1953, for example, IRD headquarters wrote to its man in Baghdad, saying: “We would like to know more about your ‘pilot’ scheme for the covert dissemination of propaganda in the Shia holy places since it may suggest ideas which could be used outside Iraq.

“Is the scheme connected with the working party’s proposal to make Friday sermons prepared in Beirut available to certain Shia divines?”

IRD officials saw another chance to make use of “religious operations” in Iraq following the attempted assassination of the country’s prime minister, Abd al-Karim Qasim, as he was being driven through Baghdad in October 1959.

There had been a “remarkable religious revival” following the attempt, the unit noted. “Workmen engaged in demolition work near the site of the attempted assassination had discovered the tomb of a Moslem holy man; this story had been widely publicized and had given substance to the popular belief that the Premier had been miraculously preserved. It was agreed that there would be an advantage in giving wider circulation to the story.

“Religious stickers have been appearing in Baghdad and the possibility of augmenting them is to be considered.”


Disruption and influence operations

The following April, a conference of Middle East-based IRD officers was held in Beirut. The minutes of what was described as a “restricted session on covert propaganda” show that Ralph Murray “listed the targets at which we should aim to disrupt or influence”.

Those to be disrupted included communist parties and hostile propaganda agencies. This was at a time when printing presses inside Soviet embassies were thought to be producing 10,000 copies of a newspaper entitled Akhbar every day.

Those to be influenced, on the other hand, included young people, women, trades unions, teachers’ organisations, the armed forces and religious leaders.

The representative from the British embassy in Baghdad explained that Iraq “was now an important target for religious material”, at which point, the minutes say, IRD officers based in Amman and Khartoum “also pressed strongly for supplies of sermons and religious articles, which they said they could easily place”.

The files make clear that several governments in the region connived with the IRD and would assist in the distribution of sermons and the placement of newspaper and magazine articles.

The IRD’s man in Baghdad also “emphasised that the Iraqi army was an important target” and suggested that arrangements might be made for selected officers to visit the UK, with the trip appearing to be arranged by bodies with no clear connection to the British government.

He also noted that in Basra, the same press was being used to print both communist and non-communist newspapers, and said that “the judicious use of some financial inducement would probably make it possible to put the Communist paper out of business if that were thought to be desirable”.

Information Research Department

Delegates were briefed on the propaganda efforts of other members of the Baghdad Pact: the Cold War alliance of Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Pakistan and the UK that was dissolved in 1979. The IRD enjoyed extensive contacts with Baghdad Pact governments, offering both propaganda materials and technical support.

“In practice,” the delegates were told, “only the Turks are really active, having achieved the publication in the Turkish press of 25-30 articles a month prepared by a writers’ panel.”

Finally, the secret conference was informed that HMG [Her Majesty’s Government] was running two newspapers published in Bahrain: al Khalij and its English-language sister paper, the Gulf Times.

One paragraph in the minutes of the session notes that delegates were told that these newspapers were “exceptional”, in that IRD “preferred to work through staff of established newspapers”.

These minutes are among the papers that have been declassified and handed to the UK National Archives. But, 60 years after the conference, the subsequent paragraph remains blacked out.


Nasser and the Suez crisis

From the end of the Second World War to the late 1960s, successive British governments appear to have used intelligence and propaganda in an attempt to preserve strategic and economic interests in the Middle East at a time when they were struggling to retain influence.

Earlier disclosures about the IRD’s activities have shown that while some senior British diplomats in the region were highly enthusiastic, others were sceptical, fearing that exposure would exacerbate anti-British sentiment.

This is exactly what did happen, at a time and place where the British were about to take their last fling of the imperial dice: in 1956, in Egypt.

The IRD had been highly active in Egypt from the organisation’s inception. As an IRD paper written in Cairo in 1950 noted: “Conditions in Egypt are such as to make it eminently suitable breeding ground for Communism.”

The author went on to highlight “acute maldistribution between rich and poor” and the concentration of land in the hands of a small proportion of the population.

Information Research Department

Nevertheless, he wrote: “This paper deals with the use of British-inspired propaganda. It does not deal with the more important problem of positive action to remedy the social and economic conditions likely to assist the spread of Communism.”

Instead, the author explained, the IRD was targeting the students at Al-Azhar University on the grounds 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”.

The organisation was also arranging for “the production in drafts in English of short love or detective novels, or thrillers, embodying anti-Communist propaganda but following their local counterparts as closely as possible in presentation etc.

“The Information Department, Cairo, would arrange for the drafts to be rewritten in Arabic by local hacks, and for them to be published locally.”

The unit would also “investigate the feasibility of producing short love or thriller magazine stories (of about 2,000 words) with an anti-Communist twist”.

The jewel in the IRD’s crown in Cairo was the Arab News Agency (ANA), one of several media organisations that British intelligence had set up during the Second World War.

Like other news agencies and radio stations that had been established in Beirut, Tripoli, Sharjah, Bahrain and Aden, ANA came under the control of the IRD after that organisation was founded in 1948.

To those on the outside, ANA appeared to be part of Hulton Press, a large company owned by Edward Hulton, a Fleet Street media baron. In fact, Hulton had allowed his company to give cover to the IRD and Britain’s overseas intelligence agency, MI6.

As well as distributing genuine news stories, gathered by Egyptian and British journalists, the agency disseminated propaganda produced by IRD, and became a base for MI6 officers masquerading as journalists.

In March 1956, with relations between the UK and Egypt deteriorating sharply, the UK Foreign Office instructed the IRD to switch its focus away from communism and towards the government led by Gamal Abdel Nasser – who had been engaged in propaganda operations against the British for some years.

The following July, after Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal Company – taking control of the waterway that the British considered to be the jugular vein of their empire – the UK’s propaganda and espionage efforts under the cover of ANA rapidly picked up pace.

Anthony Eden, the British prime minister, had long been convinced that Nasser was under the influence of the Kremlin – although the British ambassador in Cairo, Humphrey Trevelyan, disagreed – and MI6 began considering whether the Egyptian president could be assassinated.

Poison gas was one favoured option; an exploding electric razor was another.

Instead, as the Suez Crisis began to unfold, Eden vetoed the murder plot and the British decided to engage in several months of psychological warfare in Cairo, followed by military intervention.

A powerful new radio transmitter was erected in Iraq, broadcasting programmes from Arabic stations around the region that were covertly under British control, an operation that was for a while given the codename Transmission X.

As the British, French and Israelis plotted to invade Egypt and occupy the area around the canal, a steady stream of IRD and MI6 propaganda specialists began to appear at the ANA’s offices in Cairo.

This had not gone unnoticed by the Egyptian government, however, and in August, just weeks before the invasions, all of the agency’s operations – news reporting, spreading propaganda and gathering intelligence – were brought to an abrupt halt.

Egyptian secret police raided its offices and the homes of several of its staff. Eleven Egyptians were accused of being spies working for MI6 officers based at the agency; one, Sayed Amin Mahmoud, a teacher, was executed, and his son, a naval officer, was jailed for life.

Two MI6 agents who helped to manage the agency were subjected to lengthy interrogation and jailed. Others were tried in their absence, and two British diplomats and four journalists were expelled.

However, the British head of the agency – who was also a correspondent for the Economist and the London-based Times newspapers, escaped arrest: it appears that the Egyptian government may have been feeding him disinformation, and wished to continue.

Information Research Department

In the event, IRD simply set up a new Arab News Agency, from offices in Beirut, with staff in London, Cairo, Amman and Damascus.

By 1960, according to one of the recently-declassified files, few people working at the agency’s Beirut headquarters were aware that it was controlled by the British government; IRD staff were warned “therefore to be cautious in their dealings” with them.

In March that year the senior IRD officer at the British embassy in Beirut wrote to London to say: “Of our secret information operations, I … attach the greatest importance to the Arab News Agency. There is no doubt they are doing the most useful work throughout the area and they run a good office here.”


Reuters and the BBC

The recently declassified documents also shed new light on the way in which in the 1960s the British government persuaded Reuters, the international news agency, to take over the operations run by two IRD fronts, Regional News Service (Middle East) and Regional News Service (Latin America). The relationship between Reuters and the IRD was first exposed in the 1980s.

The government funded these Reuters operations through the BBC. It began paying the BBC enhanced fees for its World Service operations, and the BBC in turn paid Reuters extra sums for receiving its news feed.

While the IRD accepted that it could not exercise editorial control over Reuters, the declassified papers show it did believe that it would gain “a measure of political influence”.

Some of the IRD’s Cold War activities in the Middle East and North Africa remain secret, however, with many of its old files remaining classified on national security grounds.

Not all of the papers on Reuters and the Arab News Agency have been transferred to the UK National Archive, for example. One dating from 1960, with the catalogue description “renegotiation of contract between Reuters and the Arab News Agency”, is among the IRD files that remain classified.

Another that has been withheld by the UK Foreign Office is known to contain papers from 1960 and is entitled “Information Research Department: Jordanian television”.

Other withheld files concern efforts to distribute IRD material through the Maghreb Arab Press news agency after it was set up in 1959, or have titles like “Information Research Department: Arab trade unions”.

Many of the titles of the classified IRD files are themselves classified: the UK National Archives catalogue simply lists them as “Title withheld”.


Reputational damage?

The United States was also an enthusiastic purveyor of propaganda in the Middle East throughout the Cold War. Material created and distributed by the US Information Service tended to promote the idea of common western and Islamic values rather than attack Communism.

The recently declassified files are all concerned with British campaigns, however.

With the IRD being shut down in 1977 – in part, because too many people had become aware of its existence and activities – two questions remain.

The first is: did their campaigns have an impact on people’s attitudes and behaviour?

Throughout the Cold War, many British diplomats in the Middle East were sceptical about the IRD’s efforts. Some argued repeatedly that communism had only limited appeal in the region, and that Arab nationalism posed a greater threat to the UK’s interests than Moscow.

‘In our experience, it is barely possible to interest the politically conscious Iraqi in the Communist system at all’

– British diplomat, Baghdad, 1955

Even in Iraq – which the IRD appears to have believed to be more susceptible to communist influence than Egypt – some of Britain’s envoys had their doubts.

One diplomat wrote from Baghdad to the IRD in 1955 to explain: “The Arabs have no means of checking the accuracy of our allegations about the iniquities of the Communist system … but they have the means, as they believe, of checking Russian propaganda about French and British wickedness in the Persian Gulf and North Africa.

“In our experience, it is barely possible to interest the politically conscious Iraqi in the Communist system at all.”

Looking back, a number of historians remain equally sceptical.

Vyvyan Kinross, author of Information Warriors, a forthcoming book about the battles for hearts and minds in the Middle East, believes that Eden’s attempts to demonise Nasser in 1956 left him looking hopelessly out of touch, and propelled Britain into disastrous military action.

The failed propaganda war contributed to “a general collapse of Britain’s reputation for honesty and fair dealing in the region”, Kinross says.

James Vaughan, lecturer in international history at Aberystwyth University in Wales, who has extensively studied western Cold War propaganda in the Middle East, concludes: “The history of British propaganda in Egypt demonstrates how the decline of British influence was a well-advanced phenomenon, several years before Nasser’s decision to nationalise the Suez Canal Company.”

The second question is: what happened after the IRD was closed in 1977?

An intriguing answer to this question was provided by Adnan Abu-Odeh, who served as information minister in the government of King Hussein of Jordan.

Abu-Odeh would have been on MI6’s radar at the time. He was Palestinian who had risen through the ranks of the Jordanian secret police and been handpicked for the job by the king.

At the time the kingdom was going through a major crisis, which became known as Black September, when the Jordanian Armed Forces attacked and expelled the PLO under the leadership of Yasser Arafat from the refugee camps in Jordan.

The crisis was resolved when Palestinian fighters known as the fedayeen were escorted to Syria.

In an interview with Middle East Eye in 2018, Abu-Odeh explained how he was sent to England in the early 1970s, to be trained by the IRD.

‘The king was preparing me to become minister of information, on the advice of MI6. The IRD taught me their tactics and methods’

– Adnan Abu-Odeh

While working as an intelligence officer, Abu-Odeh said, he was approached by the country’s newly-appointed director of intelligence. “He said to me: ‘His Majesty wants you to go on a course in London at the IRD.’

“I said to him: ‘What is the IRD? I didn’t know.”

Later, he was sent back to England to study psychological warfare at a military academy.

“The king was preparing me to become minister of information, on the advice of MI6. The IRD taught me their tactics and methods.

“When I became minister of information, I trained one or two people how to do it.”

Although there is no confirmation in the recently declassified IRD files, it seems entirely possible that before it was disbanded, the organisation trained other government officials across the region.

Source: ‘Religious operations’: How British propagandists used Islam to wage cultural Cold War