The ex-spy who stepped into the cold

In 2007, an organization called Conflicts Forum, which at the time was being funded by the European Union, issued a report intended to promote a “positive assertion of Islamist values and thinking” in the West. It laid out a public relations campaign for rebranding “resistance movements” in the eyes of Westerners in terms of “social justice,” specifically promoting “Hamas’ and Hezbollah’s values, philosophy and wider political and social programmes.”

“We need to clarify and explain that Islamist movements are political and social movements working on social and political justice,” the report explained, “and are leading the resistance to the U.S./Western recolonisation project with its network of client states and so-called ‘moderates.’” The authors also asserted that “the progressive space of social movements [in the West] is empty” and asked “how the West can learn from the values and the notion of society that Hezbollah and Hamas have at the centre of their philosophy.”

Conflicts Forum, which received $708,000 from the EU between 2007 and 2009, is the brainchild of Alastair Crooke, a former long-serving British intelligence agent and adviser to the former EU foreign policy chief, Javier Solana. In recent years Crooke has emerged as the leading Western champion of Arab and Muslim extremists and anti-Western regimes. Conflicts Forum, in other words, does not seek to resolve conflicts but rather exacerbates them.

Crooke’s most recent intervention was a commentary in Asia Times in which he argued that the Syrian uprising is almost entirely the work of extremist followers of the late Al-Qaeda terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Crooke also affirmed that a large majority of Syrians back the dictatorship of President Bashar Assad, who they believe shares their desire for radical reforms. In this way he merely parroted the demonstrably false propaganda of the Syrian regime.

In an earlier essay for Foreign Policy, Crooke insisted that Assad was uniquely immune to the “Arab Spring” because of his championing of “resistance” movements – news, no doubt, to the 10,000 detained Syrians and the families of the 1,400 dead, who Crooke now expects us to believe are all followers of Zarqawi.

Crooke is noted for arranging back-channel meetings between Western officials and members of groups like Hamas and Hezbollah. But other than the grant from the EU, the rest of his funding remains mysterious, as do his core motivations, about which he is decidedly coy.

Crooke is a strong supporter of the Iranian ruling faction and its ideology, and has maintained “there’s absolutely no evidence the election [of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2009] was stolen.” He apparently believes that the radical Shiite Islamism espoused by Iranian hard-liners is the key to the future of the Middle East, as opposed to any form of liberalism or democracy, or the conservative Sunni Islam championed by Gulf Arab monarchies. He cites Hamas as a Sunni group positively influenced by Iranian notions of revolution and resistance.

Most of the publications on the Conflicts Forum website reflect official Iranian ideology and foreign policy, including articles explaining “Iran’s commitment to the Palestinian cause,” attacking the Palestinian Authority, strongly supporting Hamas, celebrating the “principled foreign policy of Ayatollah Khamenei,” and casting the Arab Spring as an Iranian-style “Islamic awakening.”

Conflicts Forum strongly advocates the narrative that the contemporary Arab world is the site of a macro-historical struggle between a “culture of resistance” and a “culture of accommodation,” meaning all moderate, secular and pro-Western forces in the region. Crooke’s attachment to Assad appears to be a function of the Syrian regime’s self-professed role as a supporter of “resistance” and its strong ties to Iran and Hezbollah.

Conflicts Forum’s documents do not reflect Western efforts to understand Islamist movements; rather, they speak in a clearly and unabashedly Islamist voice. Its advisory board includes Azzam Tamimi, a prominent Hamas sympathizer in the United Kingdom who has defended suicide bombings. It also includes Moazzam Begg, who, as London’s The Daily Telegraph recently reported, confessed in a signed statement to the FBI that he learned how to shoot guns and operate explosives at an Al-Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan.

Crooke’s and Conflicts Forum’s activities are alarming from a Western point of view, but even more so from the perspective of those interested in the spread of democracy and liberal values in the Arab and Islamic worlds, above all Arabs and Muslims themselves. What such activities champion are in fact ultra-right wing, reactionary and fundamentally totalitarian ideologies hostile to human rights in general, and more specifically to the rights of individuals, women and minorities. Crooke is evidently a spy who gladly stepped into the cold.

This man, his odious views, and his nefarious organization have had a free pass for far too long. It is time to recognize Conflicts Forum for what it is: a champion not of “resistance and revolution” but of violence, intolerant religious fanaticism and totalitarian ideologies. That should be enough to make Crooke and his organization anathema to anyone even remotely interested in a decent future for Arabs and Muslims.


Hussein Ibish writes frequently about Middle Eastern affairs and blogs at Michael Weiss is the communications director of The Henry Jackson Society. They wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 29, 2011, on page 7.




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