By Kit Klarenberg for Grayzone
White Helmets founder James Le Mesurier falling to his death from the top floor of his Istanbul home in uncertain circumstances in November 2019 created a myriad of extremely serious problems for a great many powerful people.
At the time, the White Helmets’ intimate ties to jihadist groups were being probed and publicized ever-more widely, and the group’s – and Le Mesurier’s – seemingly central role in the staging of phony chemical attacks and sabotage of subsequent Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons investigations into the alleged incidents was becoming increasingly apparent. Mere days before his death, Le Mesurier even confessed to the overseas governments funding his company Mayday – and by extension the White Helmets – that widespread allegations of financial impropriety on his part were true.
To clean up the mess that Le Mesurier’s plunge left, a rehabilitative, exculpatory narrative was rubber-stamped by the BBC. It arrived by way of a 15-part podcast series, Mayday, that elevated the White Helmets’ British founder to the status of a secular saint, thoroughly drenched his critics in slime, whitewashed the OPCW’s cover-up scandal while denigrating its whistleblowers, and lifted its presenter and producer Chloe Hadjimatheou to mainstream media prominence.
However, the dubiously sourced, factually flawed, and often slander-filled series raised far more questions than it answered – chief among them the nature of Hadjimatheou’s relationship with British intelligence, via the omnipresent ARK, a shadowy contractor which has reaped untold millions from waging covert information warfare operations across the globe on Whitehall’s behalf.
Many of these efforts have been centered on the Syrian conflict. And in far too many cases, ARK’s assorted infowar projects have had fatal consequences for the locals it has employed, exploited, and targeted.
The man called ‘Uncle’
On 27 December 2015, journalist Naji al-Jerf was shot dead in broad daylight in Gaziantep, Turkey by ISIS operatives, as he, his wife, and two daughters were preparing to flee the country and seek asylum in France.
Jerf, locally nicknamed “Uncle” due to his extensive mentoring of Syrian opposition activists, was widely obituarized in the Western media, including the BBC, and presented as a righteous symbol of the “moderate” wing of the Syrian “revolution.”
In this capacity, Jerf helped run Basma, “a Syrian media production and distribution platform” created by ARK that was “capable of directly messaging inside Syria to promote the moderate opposition,” said to have delivered “impactful media content through TV, FM radio, social media and print material [including] posters, magazines and comics.”
He also trained and coordinated a vast network of “stringers” in Syria, who produced multimedia propaganda related to the ongoing conflict for domestic and international broadcast.
Jerf moreover edited Hentah, an ARK-funded magazine distributed in both opposition- and government-held areas, as well as Hentawi, a slick “counter-recruitment” comic aimed at 9-to-15-year-old Syrians that featured animated strips slyly extolling equality, democracy, and other values, along with quizzes, games, and inspiring stories of athletes, celebrities, and the like.
ARK was well-aware such activities put Jerf and those with whom he collaborated in the Islamic State’s crosshairs. In a leaked file submitted to the UK Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office (FCDO), the company actively boasted that Hentah had “so provoked the ire of ISIS that it burnt copies in Aleppo in 2013.”
It was seemingly Jerf’s involvement in Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (known as Raqqa SL for short) that was his final undoing. He co-founded the group, an ostensible citizen journalist collective reporting on abuses by ISIS in the Syrian city it claimed as its de facto capital, and thereafter served as the organization’s key spokesperson and filmmaker. Another leaked ARK file framed the endeavor as part of its “Countering Violent Extremism” operations in Syria, boasting that locals had “co-opted ARK’s messages as their own to further shared objectives.”
Raqqa SL’s coverage didn’t solely focus on ISIS, though – for instance, its reports alleging Russian airstrikes in and around Raqqa mainly targeted civilians, not Islamic State, were perhaps predictably amplified by the Western media. Conversely, no mention was ever made of US airstrikes on the area – ostensibly intended to liberate it from ISIS rule – devastating the civilian population.
‘Getting people killed’
The UK’s Independent newspaper, among a great many others, hailed the “quite extraordinary” bravery of individuals involved in this endeavor, alleging that Raqqa SL’s work “[prevents] people inclined toward [extremist] ideology actually going to Syria” – a key aim of covert Whitehall psyops projects conducted domestically at the time. In 2015 the organization won the Committee to Protect Journalists’ International Press Freedom Award.
Furthermore, in April the next year, BBC World Service produced an elaborate five-part online series about the group, Islamic State’s Most Wanted, which combined on-screen interviews with some of its key founders – by then exiled in Europe – video footage, and animation.
In 2017, the documentary received One World Media’s Digital Media Award, with an accompanying blurb hailing its “big impact with audiences.” Chillingly, one such “impact” was potentially putting the lives of Raqqa SL activists and their collaborators at even greater risk.
The program’s lead presenter and producer, BBC journalist Chloe Hadjimatheou, acknowledged this to be an almost inevitable upshot of her reporting. In a contemporaneous blog detailing her experiences of working on the project, she expressed “fear” that the series “may have raised their profiles and made them more of a target.”
Jerf was far from the only individual who may have died as a result of the British state’s clandestine meddling in Syria. An associate of his was likewise slain in November 2015 in the Turkish province of Urfa, and two months earlier ISIS killed two opposition activists in Idlib. All three victims were involved with Raqqa SL.
The dangerously counter-productive and utterly ineffectual nature of the organization was starkly exposed by journalist James Harkin in November 2016. He recorded how the exiled leaders of the organization relied on “scouring Facebook” for content, and tapping friends and relatives in the city for information, which made anyone known or even suspected of being connected in any way with Raqqa SL mortal enemies of ISIS.
In turn, the extremist group began kidnapping and murdering dozens of people not merely in Raqqa, but across the area it controlled. Many activists in the region reserved outright contempt for Raqqa SL, with one quoted by Harkin as saying the organization was “generally considered a ‘Facebook event’, whose chief consequence is that it gets people killed,” and that while the group may be “media heroes”, they had “a very small impact at the community level.”
Another accused Raqqa SL of “publishing publicity-seeking propaganda with no reporting depth,” blaming Western media outlets and NGOs for “encouraging daredevil agitprop with money and garlands,” while yet another “was unable to contain his anger” over the group’s machinations.
“This is bad work, what they do, and not journalism… Anyone can connect with young guys and teenagers in a bad situation in Syria and pay them a few hundred dollars a month. Raqqa SL are responsible for all these deaths. And after a year and a half what is the impact? IS killed their people,” the nameless activist fulminated.
It is uncertain whether Islamic State’s Most Wanted produced further bloodshed within and without Raqqa, just as Hadjimatheou feared – both she and her employer have refused to answer questions on this point. Whatever the truth of the matter, it may be significant that the program was commissioned and financed by BBC World Service’s Digital Storytelling Fund, launched in 2015 to “encourage the production of cutting edge, in-depth digital content for a global audience.”
That same year, the British state broadcaster received an unprecedented £289 million cash injection from the central government following publication of Whitehall’s National Security Strategy, Strategic Defence, and Security Review. This document described the World Service as an integral part of London’s soft-power projection overseas, calling for the “global reach” of its “digital, TV, and radio services” to be greatly expanded.
“The BBC currently reaches 308 million people worldwide, and its goal is to reach 500 million by 2022. World Service reaches into some of the most remote places in the world, providing a link to the UK for individuals and societies who would otherwise not have this opportunity,” the Review bragged.
It seems certain the Digital Storytelling Fund arose from this national security-directed bankrolling bonanza. Strikingly, in her aforementioned blog post, Hadjimatheou indicated spending on Islamic State’s Most Wanted was lavish, stating “it’s not often that BBC budgets can accommodate such an expense.”
A not insignificant portion of this wellspring reportedly went on numerous unrecorded, informal meetings between Hadjimatheou and the exiled Raqqa SL representatives in their adopted home countries to cultivate trust, spread over many months – a vast investment of time and money in the project apparently before its production had begun, let alone was even confirmed. Clearly, this was a tale she, and BBC World Service, was determined to tell no matter the cost, or risk to her interviewees.
Hadjimatheou attempted to explain her dogged resolve in her blog, asserting that, “like many journalists with an interest in the war in Syria”, she had heard of Raqqa SL and followed the group’s posts online to “learn about life under jihadist rule”, in the process becoming “fascinated by how they operate as a group.”
Yet, little to no trace of any “interest” in the Syrian crisis can be detected from Hadjimatheou’s journalistic output prior to Islamic State’s Most Wanted. Indeed, the bulk of her work focused on esoteric “lifestyle” topics and profiles of political figures. Nonetheless, she was said to be the “driving engine” of The New Jihadism: A Global Snapshot, published by the War Department of King’s College London, which analyzed “all reported deaths caused by jihadist groups and networks during November 2014.”
‘He’s good, isn’t he?’
Despite her documentary’s plaudits, Hadjimatheou remained largely unheard of until November 2020, when the BBC broadcast a 10-part podcast series, Mayday, of which she was again sole presenter and producer.
The serial explored the ever-mysterious life and death of British military intelligence veteran-turned committed “humanitarian” James Le Mesurier, and the numerous allegations which had dogged the White Helmets founder for many years prior to his apparent suicide, and only became further amplified thereafter.
Entirely credible suggestions that Le Mesurier was a UK intelligence operative, that the White Helmets were a bogus humanitarian organization linked to murderous jihadists serving as a front for regime change in Syria, and that Mayday Rescue was engaged in widespread financial impropriety – which Le Mesurier in fact confessed to international donors three days before his death – among other extremely serious charges, were all portrayed in the podcast series as malign “disinformation”.
In the process, any and all critics of Le Mesurier, and the group he founded, were smeared by Mayday as deranged and/or malicious agents of the Russian and Syrian governments – whether witting or unwitting – who bear significant responsibility for his demise.
Hadjimatheou’s attack on Grayzone editor Max Blumenthal, in which she insinuated that he had been recruited to launch this outlet by the Russian government – absolutely false slander for which there is no evidentiary basis – was preceded by a menacing email sent by Hadjimatheou to The Grayzone’s public email account on October 12, 2020. The email consisted largely of invective addressed to Blumenthal, such as the following statement: “you are one of the most prominent pro-Assad, anti-White Helmets bloggers on the internet.”
The podcast’s protagonist, Le Mesurier, was presented in the most fawning terms imaginable, as a buccaneering, roguish force of nature with a heart of gold and predilection for practical jokes. Many individuals who knew him, including his third wife, Emma Winberg – a veteran UK Foreign Office political officer, and founder of Foreign Office psyops contractor Incostrat – effusively praised Le Mesurier throughout the series. Their plaudits were neither questioned by Hadjimatheou nor balanced by dissenting voices.
In this capacity, the aforementioned Alistair Harris also made an appearance, describing his deceased friend as “Lawrence of Arabia-esque” in the podcast’s second episode, “The Pizza in the Suitcase”. The ARK chief’s overly-chummy rapport with Hadjimatheou was as palpable as it was peculiar.
“How are you planning to describe me, out of interest?” Harris asked.
“I want you to decide how you want to be described!” she responded, her interviewee chuckling.
Harris opted to designate himself as “former UK diplomat”, a vague characterization that doesn’t withstand scrutiny. For instance, his biography on ARK’s website doesn’t describe him as a diplomat, instead stating he “spent 20 years working in conflict zones from Northern Ireland and the Balkans to Afghanistan, the West Bank and Lebanon”.
An actual UK diplomat by definition would not be deployed to Northern Ireland, given the province is part of the country itself, and therefore does not have a British embassy on its soil. This glaring inconsistency tends to suggest Harris was – and potentially still is – affiliated with MI6.
In any event, Hadjimatheou then “cut to the chase” and asked Harris outright whether the Mayday chief was a spy. Predictably, he stated that he “knew for a fact” Le Mesurier “was never in the security and intelligence services.” A July 2018 Guardian article begs to differ, noting he “held a military intelligence post while on peacekeeping operations in the Balkans.”
In return, the presenter inquired if Harris himself had ever been part of any such agency, which he evasively denied in a highly incongruous exchange.
“Would you tell me if you were?”
“No, I wouldn’t tell you.”
“You’re not allowed to, are you?
“…You’d have to ask someone who was,” Harris equivocated, a riposte eliciting giggles from Hadjimatheou, before she asserted rhetorically via voiceover, “he’s good, isn’t he?”
Harris made no mention of ARK, and at no point during the 10-part podcast was the company referenced, an extraordinary oversight given Le Mesurier worked at the company from 2011 to 2014, and Mayday Rescue was spun out of the firm. Prior to his departure, ARK reaped vast sums promoting the White Helmets at the FCDO’s behest, developing “an internationally focused communications campaign to raise global awareness” of the group in order to “keep Syria in the news.”
Under this campaign’s auspices, ARK produced a documentary on the White Helmets and ran their various social media accounts, including the Facebook page for Idlib City Council, at one time proposed as a potential interim government to replace Bashar al-Assad. When local Al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra overwhelmed the city, the White Helmets were filmed celebrating the “victory” in its main square.
Le Mesurier’s second wife, Sarah, worked at ARK from 2013 to 2020, while Emma Winberg’s Incostrat, similarly unmentioned in the Mayday series, shared staff with ARK. The firm ran numerous information ops in Syria, which may have included producing slick propaganda for notoriously brutal jihadist group, Jaysh al-Islam (the Army of Islam).
This militia ran the assorted areas it occupied under draconian interpretations of Sharia law, kidnapping, imprisoning, torturing, and executing innocent men, women, and children for even the mildest infringements of strict Islamist code. Atrocities perpetrated by the group include parading caged Alawite families in the streets, using hostages as human shields, and attacking Kurdish civilians with chemical weapons.
Intriguingly, Abdul Kader Habak, an ARK employee from 2013 to 2019, was credited as having provided “Arabic translation and additional research” to every Mayday podcast episode. In a statement issued to The Grayzone, the British state broadcaster denied that this fact represented a conflict of interest, and seemingly attempted to distance itself somewhat from Habak in an email exchange with me, stating he merely contributed research to Mayday “at an early stage in its production.”