British Books That I’ll Probably Have to Buy

The new official history of MI-6 by Keith Jeffery has hit and (hardback and paperback).  The book will be out in September, except for the paperback edition which will be September 2011.  Unlike Christopher Andrew’s official history of MI-5, which goes more or less to the present day, Jeffery’s book only goes to 1949.  Still, that’s four more years into the Cold War intelligence history than the Brits normally talk about in an official capacity.  I met a retired senior MI-6 official at an IISS event a few weeks ago and he explained the difference between the time spans covered by MI-5’s book and MI-6’s as follows: the sensitive stuff that must be protected is usually information pertaining to recruited agents.  Recruiting agents is the core business of MI-6, but not so MI-5.  In fact, he indicated that for a long time such business was sort of a backwater within MI-5.

By the way, Prof. Jeffery is going to be the external examiner in my dissertation defense in a month, so I have a double interest in this book.  As my dissertation is about American intelligence during World War I, I’ll be particularly interested to see what he has to say about MI-6 activities during that war.  Previously, the main work on that subject that I’ve used is Andrew’s Her Majesty’s Secret Service which is an excellent book, but dates all the way back to 1987.

Englandspiel: The England Game : SOE’s Worst Wartime Disaster is another forthcoming book in the UK that sounds interesting.  The blurb about it on says:

The England Game – ‘Englandspiel’- was SOE’s most humiliating spy disaster of the Second World War and Germany’s most successful counter-espionage operation. German counter-intelligence penetrated the Dutch SOE network and fooled London into believing their agents were free and sending genuine radio messages in 1942-43, resulting in the deaths of 47 SOE agents and hundreds of civilian helpers, and the loss of 12 RAF aircraft on SOE missions. MI6 could easily have helped SOE prevent the disaster that unfolded in Holland by passing on and acting on the intelligence they received – but it wasn’t in their interests to do so.

This disaster sounds rather like Operation Berezino which the Soviets ran against the Germans during World War II and the early Cold War WiN operation that the Communist Polish service ran against the Brits and the Americans.  (See Robert Stephan’s, Stalin Secret War: Soviet Counterintelligence Against the Nazis, 1941-1945 for Berezino.  For WiN see Steven Dorril’s book on MI-6 as well as this website and this nascent website.)

Finally, and on a much more personal note, I’m intrigued to discover at a book entitled The Last Englishman: The Double Life of Arthur Ransome.  The blurb about it says:

Arthur Ransome is best remembered as the author of the series of books that began with Swallows and Amazons and sold millions of copies around the world. But before he became the jolly Lakeland storyteller, offering idyllic images of brave children messing about in boats, Ransome had spent a decade in Russia and lived a very different life as a spokesman for authoritarianism and violence. He went there in 1913 as a struggling young freelance writer and made friends with leading Russian liberals, and wrote a fine book of tales based on Russian folk legends. But as the country sank into chaos and war, Ransome was caught up in the whirlwind of revolution. Always impressionable and eager to please, he gained the confidence of the Bolshevik leadership and became, for three crucial years, their main defender and propagandist in the West. His reports in the “Guardian” were uncritical and disingenuous. “MI6” considered him an agent of a foreign power; British officials argued that he should not be allowed to return to Britain. Yet at the same time, while Ransome was so intimate with the Communist leadership that he could get exclusive interviews with Lenin – who he portrayed as an avuncular, folksy, straight-talking politician – he was also offering to help elements of the British intelligence services with information about what was going on in Russia.

I spent my third grade year living in England and while I was there I discovered Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons series of children’s books in their 1960s Puffin edition.  I was immediately enthralled.  In terms of books that captured my imagination as a young boy, there are the Swallows and Amazon series, The Chronicles of Narnia, and J.R.R. Tolkien’s works.  Everything else is a distant also-ran.  This series is on my living room bookshelves even as we speak.  The picture of Ransome on the back of the books showed him as an avuncular bald man with round glasses and an enormous white moustache that the most manly walrus would have to envy.  When I became a little older and more historically savvy, the fact that his bio blurb on the books said he had reported from places like Russia and China suggested to me that he probably had an interesting life and interesting politics, but nothing more.  I’m delighted to find a book that talks about his life and describes his interaction with World War I, the Russian Revolution, and British intelligence.  Judging from the introduction to the book, which will show you in part, the connection to British intelligence appears to have been Sir Basil Thomson, the head of Scotland Yard’s Special Branch.  If Ransome’s writings were as pro-Communist as the blurb suggests it will be interesting to judge whether his contributions to British intelligence outweighed the propaganda value to the bad guys of his writings.

Happy reading!


Aeneas Tacticus Website

I’m not really much of an ancient world kinda guy, though I do admit to presently reading Victor Davis Hanson (ed.), Makers of Ancient Strategy. However, I thought I should pass on a link to a new website that I’ve found devoted to Aeneas Tacticus’ military manual, Poliorketika, or How To Survive Under Siege. The manual is thought to have been written about 350 BC by a man, still unidentified, who had military expertise and who lived in a relatively small, though also unidentified, city state in Greece.

The website is well organized, has some great explanatory material, a bibliography containing works in all sorts of languages including Russian and Czech, and a full copy of Aeneas Tacticus’ text.  Well, a full copy of all of it that exists.  The surviving manuscript is incomplete and the last sentence suggests that the author was about to take up the topic of naval warfare.  Oh well.  The text is short and can very easily be read in one sitting.  A comment on the site that I found particularly thought provoking was that Aeneas wrote about military affairs with a recognition that things don’t always work properly.  Clausewitz and friction, anybody?  For instance, he discusses the potential confusion that can arise from a poorly chosen password when one has a coalition force that speaks more than one dialect of Greek.

The website is the work of Dr. Maria Pretzler of Swansea University in the UK.  Her   She seems to be well-liked, which I don’t find surprising given the spritely prose on her website: her students have created a Facebook fan page entitled “I’d Go To Megalopolis with Maria Pretzler Any Day!”  (One student did post something comparing her to Severus Snape, however that comment may have been meant to be jocular.)

Kudos to Dr. Pretzler.

Anarchists, Bin Laden, and the Environment

Back in January, Osama bin Laden released one of his enigmatic audio recordings (in the form of a video) urging the people of the world to turn against the United States on environmental grounds, in particular that the U.S. was largely responsible for climate change.  (HOTEL TANGO to Charles Cameron for showing me where the English language transcript could be found.)

Anarchist News has just re-posted an item entitled “Environmental Jihad” (which originally appeared here) expressing dismay at Bin Laden’s posting.  On the one hand, the author, Micah White, agrees with Bin Laden’s environmental critique.  On the other hand, he admits that “hearing the ‘enemy’ express sentiments so similar to our own inner thoughts is challenging.”  “Bin Laden’s clarion call…marks the beginning of a holy war against the West that many Western environmentalists may come to endorse.”  Yet, “It is, of course, a highly suspect proposition that anyone in good conscience could rally behind bin Laden. He has blood on his hands that can never be washed off, no matter how green the water.”

Perhaps trying to psychologically wriggle himself out of agreeing with such a man, White even expresses some skepticism about Bin Laden’s actual existence, comparing him to 1984‘s enigmatic and elusive but hated Emma Goldstein.

He concludes:

There seem to be two possible scenarios that could prevent civilization’s collapse. One is that we continue the scientific-materialist project: Embrace geoengineering wholeheartedly and hope that an entirely unnatural synthetic world can save us. The other possibility – and the one that seems increasingly likely – is that a charismatic member of the mujahideen will arise to deliver a challenge that resonates with the materially poor and the spiritually wealthy of every nation of the world.

As of this writing, there are no particularly cogent comments on the piece, but I find it interesting how the ultimate superficiality of Bin Laden’s appeal is immediately evident to White, as sound as the Bin Laden’s critique arguably may be in itself.  However, I am slightly alarmed that White thinks that Bin Laden’s appeal “was the beginning of a new era of solidarity between those who have rejected consumerism and the five billion others who never had a choice.”  White presumably knows more about the environmentalist world than I, and certainly politics is seeing some very strange bedfellows these days.  That said, I’m not aware that other radical environmentalists have actually found inspiration in Bin Laden’s words.  Furthermore, the “five billion others” have yet to rally to Bin Laden’s cause on environmental grounds or others.

I’m tempted to say that this issue bears watching.  However, I bet that Bin Laden and the Salafi jihadists will not return to environmentalist issue anytime soon, so ultimately this may just be an uncomfortable moment for some people in the environmental and anarchist movements.

UPDATE 4/24: There are about 25 comments on this post now.  Most went off on a tangent, but I reprint two that are interesting, read the original posting a little differently from the way I do, and give a taste of what discussion is like on

f[…] you adbusters. ally with religious fundamentalists? you and your bourgeois luddism make me want to barf. leave the junk thought in berkeley where it belongs please, and leave radicalism to the radicals.


brilliant! why, this could be even more successful than the alliance with Stalin!

Published in: on April 24, 2010 at 10:41 AM  Comments (3)  

Revolution Muslim Threatens South Park and Sputters in Helpless Rage at Scholars of Jihadism

The Revolution Muslim website run by our friends in New York has gone down for the time being, apparently because the powers that be took exception to them posting something that walked at least right up to the line of being a death threat against the producers of South Park for portraying Mohammed in their latest episode.

Theo Van Gogh's body: Is this a death threat?

Theo Van Gogh's body: is this a death threat?

Here is the AP’s coverage of the story.  If you want to see what the offending RM blog post was, you can look here where Google cached most of it.  I thought the picture of Theo Van Gogh with a knife sticking out of his chest was particularly tasteful.

It’s rather a pity that the site has gone down because with it we also seem to have lost a very amusing post on “Fomenting Disunity in the Counterterrorism Movement” which criticizes the work of Jarret Brachman, Evan Kohlmann, and J. M. Berger.  Interestingly, RM urges Muslims to avoid debating with these experts under most circumstances because it’s hard for a jihobbyist to do so “without making a fool out of his or herself.”  The main thrust of the argument with regard to Brachman was that his views could be used to divide the community of counterterrorist analysts into factions.  What RM misses, of course, is the healthy aspect to debate and intellectual competition.  Kohlmann, RM suggests, can be exploited by pointing out that his views coincide with the views of many conservatives, hence he could be painted as a “wingnut.”  A recent Berger piece allegedly could be used to divide us all into pro-Janet Napolitano and anti-Janet Napolitano camps.  RM’s conclusion is that “We should strive to see Democrat CT experts and Republican CT experts in sha’a Allah.”

RM is struggling to have a good idea here, but can’t quite close the deal.  It is true, IMHO, that Democratic and Republican “experts” on national security issues tend to be at best useless attack dogs.  To that extent, RM has a point.  However, what RM misses is that the fact that trained attack weasels are going at it will never stop serious people from considering interesting and important questions from a non-partisan, intellectual perspective.  I’m sure that Brachman, Kohlmann, and Berger all have their personal political views.  However, were they ever to become seen as partisan hacks, other people would fill in behind them.  There’s a market niche there in the market place of ideas, if nothing else.  There are reputations and careers to be made doing calm, thoughtful work.

It’s all very funny.  Unless you’re the South Park guys.

UPDATE: Revolution Muslim has issued a statement through another blog run by one of its (RM’s) individual members in which they clarify that they are not against “a rational dialogue.”  The statement goes on to argue that the depiction of Mohammed (and Jesus and Moses) in South Park typifies American imperialism.  The statement is fairly predictable from there on out.  The proprietor of this other blog, Abu Talhah al-Amrike has previously tweeted on the topic of South Park as follows: “May Allah kill Matt Stone and Trey Parker and burn them in Hell for all eternity. They insult our prophets Muhammad, Jesus, and Moses…” and “The kuffar are starting to really pick up on the South Park story in sha’a Allah this can be the USA’s version of the Rushdie affair in UK.”  It seems to me that these tweets rather undercut the attempt to sound reasonable in RM’s new statement.

SECOND UPDATE (4/22): WordPress has taken down the “Mujahid Blog” on which Revolution Muslim issued their explanatory statement.  The reason is “a violation of our Terms of Service.”

Published in: on April 22, 2010 at 3:49 AM  Comments (15)  

Lesson Learning in the Indonesia Jihad

Some interesting thoughts are emerging from the Salafi Jihadist community in Indonesia.  In April, Indonesian police special forces did a number on a recently discovered jihadist training camp in Aceh.  These jihadists were a new group styling themselves as “Tanzim al-Qaeda Indonesia for Serambi Makkah.”  “Serambi Makkah” apparently means “the front porch of Mecca.”  (The International Crisis Group (ICG) did their usual bang-up job in describing the background and the government round-up.)  Though the jihadists were mostly killed and arrested, the ICG assesses that enough survived to reconstitute.

An interesting part of this reconstitution process is a multi-part essay entitled “Reflection on Aceh Jihad 2010” that is circulating on the web.  (Part 1 and Part 2.  For those who want the Bahasa Indonesian originals, try here and here.  Apparently more is forthcoming.)  This essay is very much in the instrumentalist tradition of Salafi jihadism.  Drawing on guerrilla warfare theory, its whole tone is one of frank self-criticism in the interest of improving the performance of the jihad.  “If the Aceh jihad 2010 could be [defeated] by the enemies only in a matter of weeks, it means that we must do some evaluations, what was wrong.”  As earlier precedents for such self-criticism, the author refers to Abu Musab al-Suri’s work, both his book about the jihad in Syria and also his 2004/2005 Call to Global Islamic Resistance.  (For the latter, see here and here.)

The author notes that after the roundup there had been a great deal of discussion of this newly emerged group and its unceremonious end.  General public opinion, the author says, fell into several general camps.

  • The first is the conspiracy theorists. These people said that the Tanzim al Qaeda Indonesia (TAQI) was a sham created by the Indonesian president to distract attention from a recent banking scandal.  Or, they said, that this somehow had something to do with enhancing security for President Obama’s now-postponed visit to the country.  The author argues that “A conspiracy theory in its essence is a mechanism to ‘blame’ the enemies by closing the eyes to the reality that the movement of a resistance in the midst of the Islamic ummah is real and cannot be refuted.”  He ridicules those who say that the Jews or the CIA or the Indonesian intelligence service control everything.  These conspiracy theorists are the captives of the mindset of inferiority inflicted upon the Muslims by the colonial powers.  Furthermore, the author argues, these conspiracy theorists forget that we have Allah on our side and that he can, for instance, blind America’s air defense systems when it is necessary to do so.
  • The second group is the Neo-Murji’ah.  These people, mostly Salafis, believe the Indonesian government’s line and slander the mujahideen as  khawarij.
  • Finally, there are those of the Middle Path who support the mujahideen.  These people apply the term “terrorist” to the mujahideen but they do it with “love.”  Nevertheless, and here is the important point, they do not look on the activities of the mujahideen and TAQI as flawless.

Having thus indicated the limited social bounds within which TAQI must maneuver, the author then goes on to critique the group’s performance.  “Jihad requires a ‘trigger’ which could attract the Islamic ummah to unite in a massive number. If the igniter is not strong enough, the society won’t be motivated to support jihad. The fact is that the executors did not think well about this igniter.”  TAQI relied on the inherent attractions of jihad and martyrdom, but it was not enough.  By contrast, the essay says, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi had the “igniter” of a foreign occupation to help him when he went to Iraq.  Moreover, TAQI did not have the support of the people in the surrounding areas of the countryside.  To these people, TAQI’s ideals of jihad and martyrdom appeared “absurd.”

Rather than confronting these shortcomings squarely, however, the author claims that too many people are blaming the enemy for the failure of TAQI.  This makes little sense.  He compares the situation to a soccer game.  If the Brazilian team beats the Indonesian team whose fault is it?  It’s not the Brazilian team’s fault, rather it’s the the fault of the Indonesian team for not playing well enough.  “The attitude of always blaming the enemies is a stupidity which will be laughed at by the world. A childish sentimentality.”

In the spirit, then, of self-criticism, it is necessary to choose the proper yardstick for success “because choosing the wrong yardstick would make a defeat seem as victory.”  Among the inappropriate and misleading yardsticks that the author examines and rejects are dying as martyrs, inflicting casualties on Indonesian government forces, getting arrested (? perhaps he is being sarcastic), and producing slick Al Qaida-style propaganda.   “Therefore, the yardstick for the success must be agreed[upon by us is] the sustainability of its jihad the support from the Islamic ummah and the ability to weaken the enemies until they are defeated.”   TAQI couldn’t do it this time, so more serious preparations are needed for next time.  In a passage remarkably reminiscent of the expression that “the Lord helps those who help themselves,” the author goes on to say, “True, we are not burdened by Allah with the obligation of defeating the enemies, but it cannot be denied that the Shari’ah of jihad is the best tool that Allah provides for us to defeat the enemies.”  The fundamental rule of this shariah is, “jihad surely results in victory if done right.”  In other words, Allah will be the one who provides victory, but he expects us to chip in ourselves.  He will withhold our victory until we do it right.

Doing it right, in the author’s opinion, means answering a fundamental question:

One of the stiff debates that is spreading amongst the jihad activists is; is jihad seen as a means to achieve victory or an objective and the last terminal from a series of servitudes to Allah? Though this debate does not stick out to the surface in the form of oral dispute, but it is reflected in the choice of actions.

In other words, are we in it to win it?  Or are we in it just to gain the glory of jihad and then bed down with the 72 virgins?  (As I have argued elsewhere, jihadist elites are endlessly wringing their hands over those who want to just do it and thereby implicitly ignore victory.)  Those who intend to win have to do certain things, the author says.  These include conducting dawah in “parallel” with jihad and providing social services.  In particular with regard to dawah and jihad, “both have to be done simultaneously, none is to be favored over another.”  Those who aren’t aiming to win, furthermore, neglect all the “little things” that also contribute to success.  “Jihad requires the support of da’wah, the funds, journalistic, communication and technology experts and other kind of expertises. It requires the continuity of the human resources that will carry the burden of this jihad.”

Though I’m disturbed that such clear thinking is going on in the jihad world, in a strange way it is sort of refreshing to read something this sensible, something that isn’t the same old tiresome diatribe about the Jews or a bombastic call to jihad. This is a very sensible critique and one which most jihadist groups would be well served to heed.  Given that fact, I rather think that the author should be identified and at the very least watched if a sound reason to bring him in can’t be found.  (The only attribution on this piece is a note that it comes from the “elhakimi” blog with which I am not familiar.)  I have long believed that keeping Salafi jihadists in a “just do it” mode, “unencumbered by the thought process,” can be a key step toward their defeat.  Essays like this move the jihadists in the wrong direction, as far as I’m concerned.