By Kit Klarenberg, an investigative journalist exploring the role of intelligence services in shaping politics and perceptions. Follow Kit on Twitter @Kit Klarenberg
An extraordinary, concerted establishment campaign to rehabilitate the reputation of White Helmets founder James Le Mesurier has unfolded over recent months.
Emma Winberg, Le Mesurier’s spouse and Mayday’s Chief Impact Officer, played a starring role in both efforts, in the process breaking the public silence she’d rigidly maintained since her husband’s mysterious death in November 2019.
Strangely though, discussion of her professional history was almost entirely absent. The Guardian was slightly more informative on this point than the BBC, sparingly describing Winberg as “a former British diplomat” working for a “communications firm in northern Iraq” when she became romantically involved with Le Mesurier in March 2016, before joining Mayday in January 2017.
‘Some of the funds will go missing’
The communications firm in question was Innovative Communications and Strategy (Incostrat), cofounded by Winberg in November 2014 with military intelligence veteran Paul Tilley, former director of Strategic Communications for the UK Ministry of Defence in the Middle East and North Africa. Like Le Mesurier, he attended Sandhurst Royal Military Academy.
Media references to Incostrat are sparse, although in December 2016 Rania Khalek revealed the company had approached a Middle East journalist and offered them US$17,000 per month to produce pro-opposition propaganda.
Private correspondence between the reporter and Incostrat indicates the company positioned itself as one of “three partners” of the UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) “working on media surrounding the Syrian conflict.”
Incostrat’s work was funded by the FCO’s Conflict, Stability and Security Fund (CSSF). In February 2017, a parliamentary report stated CSSF had “substantial allocations” in Syria, amounting to £60 million.
The same report noted there was significant risk the CSSF was “being used as a ‘slush fund’ for projects that…do not collectively meet the needs of UK national security,” and some of the financing it afforded “will go missing or be linked to groups that may carry out human rights abuses.”
‘Using media to create events’
Significant light was shed on Incostrat’s cloak-and-dagger activities in September, when ‘hacktivist’ collective Anonymous dumped a vast number of FCO files on the web, exposing a variety of covert information warfare actions undertaken by the UK government against the Syrian state over many years.
The overriding objective behind all the initiatives was to destabilise the government of Bashar Assad, convince Syrians, Western citizens, foreign governments, and international bodies the Free Syrian Army (FSA) was a legitimate alternative, and flood media the world over with pro-opposition propaganda.
In one document, Incostrat boasts of surreptitiously “initiating events to create media effect” and of “using media to create events.” One example of this dual-strategy saw the company create mock Syrian currency in three denominations, imploring citizens to “be on the right side of history.”
The campaign was intended to ensure international opinion remained arrayed against Assad, at a time “media attention has shifted almost exclusively towards ISIS and some influential voices are calling for co-operation with the Syrian regime to combat ISIS.”
“The notes are due to be smuggled into regime-held parts of Syria once formal clearance has been authorized by [UK government] officials,” the file states. “We will engage the international media to create a story around the event…The message to the regime [is] covert but active resistance continues.”
Another saw Incostrat produce “postcards, posters and reports” to “draw behavioural parallels” between the Assad government and ISIS, and dishonestly further the conspiracy theory that “a latent relationship exists between the two.”
Incostrat also provided “a credible, Arabic-English speaking Syrian spokesperson” to the media to further the campaign’s messaging, securing interviews in “major news outlets” such as Al-Jazeera, Buzzfeed, CNN, The Guardian, New York Times, Times, and Washington Post.
‘Human interest stories’
Another document indicates the company was staffed by veterans of covert Whitehall-funded psyops, noting Incostrat partners previously established a local media platform in Iraq “immediately following the fall of Saddam Hussein,” training “a cadre of journalists” who were “instrumental in reporting on events in Basra.”
The same file also makes clear Incostrat personnel had been providing support to Syrian media platforms and civil society organisations since 2012, before the firm was founded.
In the process, Incostrat operatives played a role in creating eight FM radio stations and six community magazines across the country, developing and managing the Syrian National Coalition’s media office, and helped establish Basma – “a media platform providing human interest stories and campaigns that support [UK government] policy objectives.”
Other files leaked by Anonymous indicate Basma was the primary creation of ARK, a shadowy “conflict transformation and stabilization consultancy” headed by veteran FCO operative Alistair Harris, implying significant overlap between the pair.
Le Mesurier himself worked at ARK 2011 – 2014, and Mayday Rescue was spun out of the company – yet The Guardian’s lengthy elegy alleges Winberg had only been “briefly introduced” to him twice at “garden parties” prior to their formal March 2016 meeting.
Moderate torturers and murderers
As with other FCO contractors operating in Syria, including ARK, Incostrat produced propaganda promoting extremist groups as credible alternatives to the Assad government, and whitewashing their barbarous nature.
One document refers to the firm “providing strategic communications support to the moderate armed opposition.” An FCO tender for the project indicates some of the “moderate” groups to which Incostrat may have provided “strategic communications support” — “the Free Syrian Army, the Supreme Military Council, Revolutionary Forces Syria and…mid-level units such as Syrian Revolutionaries Front, Jaysh al-Islam [and] Harakat al-Hazm.”
The inclusion of Jaysh al-Islam (JAI) on this list is striking, for more reasons than one. While none of the collectives mentioned would adhere even vaguely to any definition of the term ‘moderate’, except perhaps broadly relative to the most murderous ‘rebel’ elements in Syria — with which each group regularly collaborated in any event — JAI was an especially and notoriously brutal fraternity.
For years, it ran the assorted areas it occupied under extremely vicious interpretations of Sharia law, kidnapping, imprisoning, torturing and executing innocent men, women and children for even the mildest infringements of strict Islamist code. Along the way, JAI carried out many atrocities, including parading caged Alawite families in the streets, using hostages as human shields, and attacking Kurdish civilians with chemical weapons.
While the UK government denies providing any backing to JAI, the files released by Anonymous confirm the other groups mentioned by the FCO all did receive Whitehall support of various kinds. Moreover, independent journalists who visited areas the group occupied found JAI worked closely with the White Helmets, which received tens of millions in funding from London.
Other files released by Anonymous indicate ARK reaped vast sums promoting the Helmets at the FCO’s behest, developing “an internationally focused communications campaign to raise global awareness” of the group in order to “keep Syria in the news.”
Along the way, ARK produced a documentary on the Helmets and ran their various social media accounts, including the Facebook page for Idlib City Council, at one time mooted as a potential interim government to replace Bashar Assad. When Al-Nusra overwhelmed the city, numerous Helmets were filmed celebrating the ‘victory’ in its main square.
The linkage between JAI and the Helmets gains an acutely sinister dimension given the former’s primary base of operations was the city of Douma, the site of a highly controversial alleged chemical weapons attack 7th April 2018.
The Helmets were central to Western news reporting in the initial hours and days following the contested strike, its operatives claiming two Syrian Air Force helicopters dropped barrel bombs containing the nerve agent sarin on the city.
Images they provided of cylinders embedded in buildings circulated widely on social networks and media platforms the world over, along with footage of local residents being hosed down in hospitals, children foaming at the mouth, and piles of dead bodies in a housing complex.
Paris, London and Washington claimed to possess secret proof Assad’s forces had attacked the city with chemical weapons, and in response launched a series of military strikes against multiple government sites in Syria 14th April 2018.
In March 2019, the Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) issued a final report on the incident, which concluded there were “reasonable grounds” to believe a chemical weapons attack had occurred in Douma, and “the toxic chemical was likely molecular chlorine.”
However, a number of the organization’s previously suppressed files are now in the public domain — they make clear the report’s findings were directly contrary to the overwhelming majority of evidence collected by investigators who actually visited Douma, which pointed strongly to a staged ‘false flag’ incident.
An illicit affair
The documents imply witness and forensic evidence contradicting the notion a chemical weapons attack occurred in Douma, excluded from the OPCW’s final report on the incident, was collected in Turkey. The BBC’s radio series on Mayday confirmed this evidence was provided to investigators by Le Mesurier and the White Helmets.
While the OPCW website makes no reference to this assistance, not merely in respect of the Douma investigation but its probes of at least three other alleged government chemical weapon attacks in Syria, in June 2018 Mayday’s deep and cohering ties with the organization were exposed by none other than Emma Winberg.
Speaking at an Atlantic Council event alongside Bellingcat founder and chief Eliot Higgins, she described how the Helmets had in 2015 specifically been provided with OPCW-standard training and equipment to collect samples from the scenes of airstrikes for the organization. The ease with which this privileged position could be abused was apparently not considered, or indeed of no concern.
This followed two years in which the group’s status as ‘first responders’ in the Syrian crisis had become ever-more firmly established in the mainstream, thanks in no small part to the endless deluge of footage posted on the group’s social media channels, which was frequently broadcast by Western news platforms subsequently.
In 2014, Winberg said, human rights organisations began “taking an interest” in the footage and reaching out to Mayday directly, seeking witness testimony from Helmets among other things.
She also suggested the attention generated by the group’s video clips was serendipitous, as the helmet-mounted cameras they wore were originally intended to be a “training aid” — it wasn’t until later, allegedly, they thought to publicise the content captured.
Fittingly, Winberg’s brief talk fed into a speech by Higgins, in which he demonstrated how Bellingcat and other media organisations made use of the White Helmets’ footage.
‘How communications influence’
It’s highly implausible the FCO-funded information warfare specialists that trained and promoted the Helmets weren’t well-aware in advance of the propaganda value of imagery from the conflict.
Yet, Winberg’s narrative is even more incredible given ARK, the firm so intimately intertwined with Incostrat and Mayday, extensively tutored and equipped hundreds of Syrians in “camera handling, lighting, sound, interviewing, filming a story,” post-production techniques including “video and sound editing and software, voice-over, scriptwriting,” and “graphics and 2D and 3D animation design and software.”
ARK’s students were also instructed in practical propaganda theory, such as “target audience identification, media and media narrative analysis and monitoring, behavioral identification/understanding, campaign planning, behavioral change, and how communications can influence it,” and more. Such disciplines would no doubt be extremely effective in the staging of a ‘false flag’ attack.
The FCO continued funding Incostrat to the tune of millions after Winberg’s departure, and does so to this day. Cofounder Paul Tilley also left the company at around the same time, and founded IN-2 Comms, which“provides a more tailored product to the public and private sector focussing on specialised communication campaigns.” The firm has likewise reaped vast sums from Whitehall ever since.
One wonders whether the FCO’s extensive network of psyops cutouts played any role in the recent propaganda blitz surrounding Le Mesurier, Winberg, and the Helmets.
The BBC’s Mayday series credits Abdul Kader Habak as having provided “Arabic translation and additional research” to the project. According to his Facebook page, he worked for ARK 2013 – 2019.
Chloe Hadjimatheou, the documentary’s producer and presenter, has previously reported on events in Syria. In 2016, she produced a five-part documentary, Islamic State’s Most Wanted, on citizen activist collective Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently.
The group was founded by journalist Naji al-Jerf, who subsequently served as its primary spokesperson — he was also an ARK employee, playing a pivotal role in training and coordinating the firm’s vast network of stringers in Syria, and managing its distribution networks. He was murdered by ISIS operatives for these activities in December 2015.
On 18th November, Winberg announced her retreat from the public eye via Twitter, saying she would be “offline for the foreseeable” in order to “get to work”. It’s not certain what this “work” will entail, but mainstream efforts to deify her husband and obscure the reality of his professional history, the group he founded, and how and why he died, are evidently ongoing.