Interesting Jihadist Iconography


So, an atrocious poem entitled in English “The Chechen Massacre” has appeared on the Ansar al-Jihad forum.  It comes with the following artwork:

I find it interesting that the artist–whose anti-American sympathies can be taken for granted, chose to use a version of one of the most famous patriotic American images in existence, the flag-raising at Iwo Jima by the US Marines:

The artist even rendered the figures wearing a reasonable approximatination of Marine uniforms of the time.  Interestingly, there is some echo in reality to this, because the Chechen mujahideen have frequently been photographed wearing American-style camouflage.

The late Emir of the Chechen mujahideen, Abu Walid.


It could be that somehow the “Chechen Massacre” artworks was meant ironically, but aside from some glancing references to Somalia, Bosnia, and Baghdad the United States doesn’t figure in this poem, so I rather think not.  This looks rather more like another of those moments like when the kid wearing the Coca-Cola t-shirt brandishes a photo of Bin Laden for the camera.

Published in: on December 5, 2010 at 11:10 PM  Comments (6)  

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!

Russia to Open Massive WWII Archive

Russia plans to open the world’s largest WWII archive, the size of which will “comply with the contribution of our country to the Victory.”  (The Russians have always insisted that they won World War II, not us.  The real answer is that we all won it.)  This archive project will apparently entail building new buildings to house the holding which will be brought in from numerous archives around the country.  The project will also include a major digitization effort and will apparently include some sort of commercial database dealing with Soviet casualties.  The article hints that similar efforts may be undertaken to assess German and Hungarian losses on the Eastern Front.

There are significant practicality issues associated with this project.  Furthermore, the desirability of taking war records out of existing archives and putting them into a purpose-built archive designed around an event as opposed to something that organically grew as out of an agency or other organization, is eminently debatable.  (For an excellent discussion of these issues, see the fine post at The Russian Front.)  On the other hand, many archives in Russia are in lamentable condition, so if the price of survival for these records is some disorganization, perhaps that is a price worth paying.  In addition, the digitization component of the project is certainly a good thing, though one does wonder what if any political criteria will be applied to select the documents and files that will be digitized.

Interestingly, Andrei Artizov, the head of the Russian Federal Archive Agency (Federal’naia arkhivnaia sluzhba Rossii aka Rosarkhiv) says that the new archive should include substantial German records “like those of Hitler’s chancellery, the Reich’s Security Services and others. In compliance with the existing legislation, they are part of Russia’s property.”  Meanwhile, a so-far very modest U.S. Government effort to do something similar with copies of analogous Iraqi records captured in 2003 generates accusation of malfeasance.

In any case, this will be an interesting story to follow.

New Evidence for Herbert O. Yardley’s Last Hurrah

Herbert O. Yardley is one of the most famous figures in American intelligence history.  He led MI-8, the War Department’s codebreaking shop, during World War I.  Then after the war he headed ‘The American Black Chamber’, a communications intelligence effort funded jointly by the War and State Departments.  When Secretary of State Henry Stimson shut that down in 1929, Yardley wrote the blockbuster tell-all book, The American Black Chamber, which influenced countless future SIGINTers and intelligence scholars.  It also motivated Congress to pass the first law specially protecting America’s code and cipher secrets.

Yardley has been of interest for so long that one might think that everything worth knowing was already known about him, particularly since the publication of David Kahn’s fine biography, The Reader of Gentlemen’s Mail.  However, at least one mystery remains.  In 1998, Lou Kruh brought to the attention of Cryptologia readers tantalizing information suggesting that there may have been a final, hitherto unknown, chapter in Yardley’s intelligence career.  Eleven years after Kruh’s article appeared new information has come to light that tends to support the suggestion.

Kruh pointed out that one Colonel John V. Grombach had claimed in the forward to his obscure 1980 true-crime book, The Great Liquidator, that Yardley had been among the members of the little-known espionage organization that Grombach had headed from 1942 to 1955 under various names, most notably “The Pond.”  This period postdates Yardley’s last known involvement in intelligence, his short stints working for Chiang Kai-Shek, and then the Canadians.  The latter appointment was very brief and ended unhappily in January 1942.

Kruh noted that the evidence for the story was conflicting.  On one hand, Yardley’s employment during this period appeared to be well documented: he had run an unsuccessful restaurant and then worked in the Office of Price Administration.  Moreover, Yardley’s widow, herself a codebreaker under William Friedman, had stated that her husband had not been in the intelligence business during World War II. 

On the other hand, in support of Grombach’s claim, Kruh cited the comments of a William S. Hart, Jr. of the Army’s Signal Intelligence Service, interviewed in 1989 and again in 1998, who said that he had seen Yardley in 1944 in situations that seemed to imply that the famous man had a security clearance to do intelligence work.  Hart’s only elaboration was to suggest that perhaps Yardley was providing information or consulting services but may not have been officially connected with military intelligence.  In short, the question remained a mystery.

Who was this man for whom Yardley may have worked?  Colonel John V. Grombach had a background in radio.  During the 1930s, he had worked for Paramount producing radio programs and he later started his own radio production company which produced entertainment featuring diverse stars such as Nelson Eddy, Eugene Ormandy, and Babe Ruth.  He also had an amateur interest in cryptology.  In 1940 he wrote an article for Infantry Journal describing how secret messages could be concealed in innocent-sounded radio broadcasts, a technique he called “cryptophony.”  Grombach was also a member of the New York National Guard.  With war looming he was called to active duty and before long found his way to the War Department’s Military Intelligence Division (MID), the G-2.  However, during the first half of 1942 the War Department loaned him on a part-time basis to William Donovan’s Office of Strategic Services (OSS) where he was in charge of standing up FBQ, the OSS’ short-lived signals intelligence organization.

Though Grombach’s work for OSS extended well into the summer of 1942, by late April Donovan had had enough of this troublemaker.  In a memorandum to Colonel M. P. Goodfellow, Grombach’s OSS superior, Donovan expressed his concern that Grombach “has talked and acted in such a way as would jeopardize our [relations] with the Navy” and directed that he not be made a regular member of the OSS, and thus that he be allowed to return to the exclusive control of the MID.

Despite his flirtation with signals intelligence, Grombach’s real inclinations were in the field of human intelligence and espionage and it is here that we should look for the any Yardley-Grombach link.  Even while Grombach was working part-time for Donovan, he was spending the balance of his time setting up an espionage organization for the War Department.  When he was finally released back to the MID in 1942, he devoted his full attention to this work.

Grombach was conspiratorial by nature and thought himself surrounded by incompetents and ideological opponents.  He also scoffed at the high public profiles of the war-time Office of Strategic Services.  He believed firmly that for an espionage agency to be most effective its very existence must be unknown.  He went to obsessive lengths to protect the Pond’s security during the war, even forbidding his subordinates to tell other members of G-2 what their real duties were.

But was Yardley part of this secretive espionage organization?  Recently, evidence has surfaced that suggests that in fact he was.  Alongside Yardley’s name on Grombach’s list of his alleged one-time subordinates in the Pond was John Bakeless, a Balkans expert and author of popular histories such as Spies of the Revolution and Spies of the Confederacy.  Bakeless’ diaries survive and though they deal primarily with gardening, other topics occasionally intrude.  In particular, on February 24, 1970, Bakeless wrote:

John Grombach called up tonight to talk about books and then switched off to discuss Herbert O. Yardley, author of the AMERICAN BLACK CHAMBER.  He says the British had a ‘down’ on Yardley because he exposed them as double-crossers, apparently at the time of the Washington 1922 Naval Treaty.  After Stimson closed down Yardley’s State Department Black Chamber, he eventually went to work for Chiang Kai-Shek, who took him over to China, established him with plenty of drink and concubines and set him to work decrypting—mostly Japanese code, I gather.  Eventually, British pressure forced Chiang to let him go.  In World War II, Grombach took him into his own G-2 outfit for use as a decrypter but eventually the British found out about him and Grombach was again forced to let him go.  (He thought General Strong winked as he gave the order.)  Grombach accordingly fired him, but hired him back under another name and got more work out of him, work of high quality.  But again the British got on to his whereabouts and again he was forced out.  Yardley now has a very bad persecution complex but it is no wonder, considering he was persecuted.  Grombach (quite rightly) thinks Yardley a wonderful cryptanalyst.

According to Bakeless, Grombach then opined that Yardley’s work on the Japanese codes had indirectly opened the way for William Friedman’s later work against Japanese cipher systems that became so important during World War Two.  The diary entry closes with the following two sentences: “Grombach also used Yardley when Grombach’s organization was working on Soviet code or cipher.  [Recorded this a half hour after the conversation.]”

Given this final sentence, it is reasonable to assume that the entry in the diary is a good summary of what Grombach actually said.

This brief passage, then, appears to give us the first tangible information about the circumstances of Yardley’s mysterious alleged employment, the dates of this employment, and even what he was actually doing.  The reference to General Strong, the Army G-2, suggests that at least some of Yardley’s service was between May, 1942 and February, 1944, the period of Strong’s tenure at the helm of the MID. 

Yardley took his job at the Office of Price Administration on November 9, 1942.  It has always been difficult to imagine how Yardley could have done his job at the OPA while simultaneously doing intelligence work.  The simplest explanation is that he had ceased working for Grombach before then.  If this were the case, then Yardley departed Grombach’s employ between May and November 1942 and thus he only worked for Grombach for a few months in that year.  Such a brief period of employment may explain why Yardley does not show up in the MID’s organizational charts and telephone directories.  On the other hand, William Hart said that he saw Yardley in 1944 in circumstances suggesting that Yardley held a clearance.  Certainly, Hart may have misremembered when interviewed more than forty years later, but his other comment that Yardley may merely have been providing information or consulting services offers an explanation other than faulty memory.  The latter hypothesis might again help explain why Yardley is not in the organizational charts and telephone directories. 

Bakeless also wrote in his diary that after being “fired” the first time, Yardley worked under a false name.  It is hard to imagine how the famous Yardley could have showed up in the MID offices and plausibly claimed to be anyone other than who he was.  In fact, work under a false name strongly suggests work not formally for the US Government, but rather for Grombach personally, perhaps through a part-time consulting relationship of some sort. 

A third, least likely possibility is that Yardley’s work at the OPA was simply cover for his work for Grombach and the Pond.  The Pond did use a variety of cover mechanisms, including diplomatic cover, an arrangement under which an intelligence fills a foreign service position while also having intelligence responsibilities.

Whatever the precise timing of Yardley’s employment, it is difficult to imagine how the British would have found out that their bête noir, Yardley, was working for Grombach, giving them a reason to renew their “persecution” of the cryptologist.

There are other problems with the account, as well.  Grombach certainly confused the story of Yardley’s work for Chiang Kai-Shek with the story of his short-lived work for the Canadians.  Yardley was not forced out of the former job due to British pressure.  However, that was precisely the reason he left the latter job in January 1942.  So in this case Grombach does not have his story entirely straight, but it is easy to understand how he could have made such an error.

What of the claim that Grombach used Yardley “when Grombach’s organization was working on Soviet code or cipher”?  During World War II Grombach’s organization did, indeed, collect intelligence on the USSR.   However, the Pond was by all accounts a human intelligence organization and did not do communications intelligence work.  What Soviet codes or ciphers, then, would Yardley have been working on?  It may be that he tackled written materials collected by Grombach’s overseas agents much as in an earlier era he had occasionally been called on to attack coded or ciphered materials found on suspected enemy agents or transmitted through the US mail.  But this is sheer guesswork.

In short, while we cannot make a definitive judgment, the available evidence may now allow us to be more confident that Yardley actually did make one last foray into the world of intelligence during World War II.

Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World

Last month the Cold War International History Project hosted an interesting event entitled “Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World.”  Through the magic of streaming video, you can watch the event.  The following is excerpted from the CWIHP’s promotional description.

During World War II, Nazi Germany waged an extensive propaganda campaign in the Middle East and North Africa in an attempt to spread Nazi ideology to the Arab world. University of Maryland, College Park Professor Jeffrey Herf and American University Professor Richard Breitman will discuss this protracted campaign and its after-effects.  Jeffrey Herf is professor of modern European history at the University of Maryland, College Park. His most recent book, Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World examines the Nazi regime’s efforts to spread its ideas to North Africa and the Middle East during World War II and the Holocaust. This work is a sequel to his book, The Jewish Enemy: Nazi Propaganda during World War II and the Holocaust.


Published in: on January 13, 2010 at 6:10 PM  Leave a Comment  
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