A Murder in the Kingdom

The unsolved killing of a photographer in Bahrain's forgotten Arab Spring.

In February of 2011, the Arab Spring uprisings that had swept through Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen in the preceding months arrived on the streets of the tiny island kingdom of Bahrain, nestled off the coasts of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, home to just over 1 million people. On Feb. 14, tens of thousands took to the streets, many of them from the country's Shiite majority, which has long felt marginalized in political and economic life. At the central Pearl Roundabout in the capital Manama, they demanded reforms that appeared modest by regional standards: broader powers for the parliament, new electoral districts, and an elected government under the monarchy. But after wavering over whether to allow the protests, Bahrain's leaders cracked down. The optimism that had given rise to the protests faded fast. At least seven died in clashes with the security forces in the first week; many more were arrested and tried in special security courts that left them little recourse. Three years on, the government has made some reforms, but the daily reality in many opposition-stronghold neighborhoods has only deteriorated.

As the buoyancy of the protests ground into routine, a 22-year-old store clerk named Ahmed Ismail Hassan al Samadi from a Shiite family living in one of the many villages just outside of Manama became a regular at the protests, documenting the clashes. Camera in hand, his pictures and videos became a window into a conflict that the international media covered only in bursts. By the first anniversary of the protests, there had been more than 60 deaths. Before the second, Ahmed would famously be one more.

A few days after he was killed, nearly a dozen witnesses to the murder gathered in a small, windowless room in a private home just outside of town. It was an informal, but still clandestine, meeting just a stone's throw from the place near Salmabad village, Bahrain, where the bullet hit Ahmed. Teenagers and young fathers, the witnesses formed a neat square along the edges of an Iranian carpet, where tea steamed in glass mugs. Many of these young men knew each other from protests, if only by sight. Only a handful had known Ahmed before his last night, March 31, 2012.

They had left their shoes at the door, and now many pulled their legs protectively toward their bodies. At first, the formality of fear meant that no one sipped their tea or took a date from the metal plate in the middle of the circle. No one wanted to be the first to speak, not knowing if they could they trust everyone in this room. These were neighbors, all dressed in the same casual jeans and t-shirt uniform, but several had already been called in to the police station for questioning, and the station wagon they used to drive Ahmed to the hospital had been confiscated. The men and boys who tried to save Ahmed were now suddenly suspects in his death.

Finally, one man began to speak: "He was the first of us to be called in," he said pointing to another, whose gaze sunk to the floor. "On Saturday, the police patrol came around asking for him by name, asking for his address."

"It's only a matter of time before they start arresting us all," someone else added.

Now everyone was eager to share. One man who had been questioned by police leapt into details of his time in the station: He was brought in at 1:30 p.m. and didn't leave until 2 the next morning. Four officers interrogated him for two hours, then he was taken away, only to be brought back before the police again and again.

Most of the questions had been not about Ahmed, he said, but about the location of his camera. "They just kept insisting. They want to know, 'Where is the video? Where are the pictures he took?'"

Another man said he was held for so many hours he could scarcely keep track, and was also questioned about the camera -- now back in the hands of the family, apparently unbeknownst to the police. He was shuffled in and out of interrogation before finally being let go. The man had only met Ahmed when he helped carry his wounded body to safety after the shooting. He kept insisting that it wasn't he who had dropped Ahmed at the hospital.

Then the talk shifted to that night.

It had begun as a faceoff -- a common scene in Bahrain. Anti-government protesters mark their territory on one side of the highway, piling palm trees, old fences, bricks, anything they can find into a makeshift barricade. Then they stare down the security forces on the other side, often shouting and throwing stones or even Molotov cocktails -- a game of chicken to see who moves first.

Down the road from where the demonstrators massed, one of the men gathered at the meeting that night said he remembered seeing three unmarked SUVs. The same cars had prowled through the village earlier that night, driving in ominous circles as if birds circling their prey. Now another car, a sedan, pulled up to join them now as they eyed the crowd.

"We heard shooting and we thought someone was attacking us from the back," one of the men recalled. There were five or six shots in all. Others nodded. They had darted sideways into the village, trying to get off the main road.

As the sun was setting on the night he died, Ahmed had taken his camera and slipped out of his family's modest home in the village of Salmabad to a protest along a dark highway just around the corner. After close to a year filming and photographing the clashes, the chaos of the standoffs wasn't new anymore. But that night, when the bullets started, and the usual defiance of the protests turned to panic, Ahmed ran -- until he couldn't anymore. He was hit. Slowing with each step as blood rushed from his hip, he could muster just one thing: "Carry me!"

If only it had been someone else that night in Salmabad, Ahmed's camera would have recorded every bit. Instead, on the night of March 30, 2012, they shot the cameraman.


By 2012, the media's coverage of the ongoing protests in Bahrain had thinned considerably. The reporters who remembered were often kept away, either by the need to chase other regional crises or by strict visa policies for NGOs and press. Ahmed knew that his work as a citizen journalist was risky -- two journalists had already been killed in 2011 -- but he and others like him, through their YouTube channels and Twitter accounts, had become a crucial way to see inside the troubled island kingdom.

As elsewhere in the Middle East, thousands of Bahrainis had viewed the Arab Spring of 2011 as a chance to demand change. Throughout mid-February, protesters flocked to the center of Manama and called for reform -- not the regime's downfall. Many of them were from Bahrain's Shiite majority, which has long felt marginalized by the ruling Sunni monarchy. When security forces cracked down, dispersing the protests, the movement didn't disappear; it splintered. Demonstrations erupted in Shiite villages daily, consuming everyday life. The more people took to the streets, the more security forces tightened their grip. In the two years between February 2011 and 2013, more than 90 people have died in clashes, according to the country's public prosecution. It is difficult to find any updated toll, but Shiite leaders put the figure well above 100.

Fear of arrest has crippled investigations into more than a few of those deaths. The Ministry of Interior insists that tips are treated anonymously, but witnesses who have come forward say talking to the police only leads to trouble. More than a year after Ahmed's death, his family says Salmabad has been drained of their son's former friends, including some of the witnesses. They are in and out of jail or in hiding to avoid being scooped up. Particularly for young men who have faced previous charges, like throwing a Molotov cocktail or illegal gathering (a charge levied for participating in protests that the government hasn't explicitly authorized), being around when a protester is killed is just another way to find themselves in jail.

In the dozens of Shiite villages surrounding Manama -- opposition neighborhoods like Salmabad, where Ahmed lived with his family -- the protests have become entwined with the daily rhythm of life. Morning is a time for work, lunch is a time for rest, and then the afternoon and evening offer two windows for defiance, just after noon and evening prayers. Every day at least one village rises to the streets, whether by the dozens or the hundreds. They march and revive, however briefly, the moment of ecstasy at the outset of the Arab Spring, when demonstrators enveloped the city's central Pearl Roundabout and it seemed possible that things might change. Then the protesters go to war, burning tires and hurling Molotovs as the police arrive. Pearl Roundabout exists only in their memories; in March of 2011, the government demolished the monument there and sealed off the area with barbed wire and tanks.

The men who gathered so tentatively that afternoon after his death were a hunted breed: Young, male, and Shiite, they were prime targets for arrest, and many changed households every few nights to avoid ending up in jail. Others simply hid their identities behind the ski masks and t-shirts they wore to the protests. In the streets, when they chanted for the end of the regime, it was hard to say just what that meant aside from an end to the arrests, the police raids, the tear gas, and the humiliation of daily life. A leaderless group called the Coalition Youth of the Revolution of February 14 -- or simply "February 14," the day of the first 2011 uprising -- has become a home for these discontents, and uses Twitter, Facebook, and a host of online applications and websites to coordinate protests and "operations": tire-burning, road-blocking, Molotovs. The mainstream opposition politicians can't condone much of what these young activists do, but they also cannot dismiss that it arises from a justified, undeniable anger.

Not that all Shiite men are willing revolutionaries. Maybe they have children, or steady jobs, or they just aren't political. Maybe they disagree with the methods of resistance. Maybe they just want peace. They scrub the sides of their houses, trying to remove the graffiti now so dominant in the opposition landscape. They stay home during protest hours, or better yet, they stay out of the neighborhoods, and yet are often just as much at risk of arrest if they find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. Many more fathers, brothers, mothers, and sisters had been converted to the opposition ranks by seeing one of their own swept up by the police -- as had happened to a few of the men who witnessed Ahmed's murder.

As for Ahmed's family, they've channeled their grief into a search for answers. At the urging of their lawyer, a well-known advocate named Mohammed al-Tajer, they have focused their efforts internationally, sending letters, photos, and case files about Ahmed's death to NGOs and U.N. bodies they hope can apply pressure from afar. At home, they make montages of his life and death, carry his photo in demonstrations, and hold events to salute the opposition-linked journalists of Bahrain. Ahmed's face is a familiar symbol now, amidst the growing constellation of martyrs across the tiny country.

There was an uproar when Ahmed was shot. Clashes between protesters and police flared, and the director-general of the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), Irina Bokova, called for an investigation of the killing. He was the third journalist killed during the demonstrations.

Ahmed's case has become emblematic of the risks for citizen journalists reporting on Bahrain, a country ranked in the bottom 20 in world for press freedom since 2011. At least six bloggers and photographers were arrested in 2013 facing charges such as "managing [electronic] accounts calling for the government's overthrow" and calling for others to disobey the law, according to Reporters Without Borders. While some of the journalists have since been released, other cases are ongoing. One freelance photographer, Qassim Zain AlDeen, has been sentenced separately to three months and six months in prison, and faces a further charge on Feb. 16.

Still, Ahmed's case stands out. His family believes he may have been killed by a plainclothes member of the security forces, or someone associated with them -- a suspicion shared by many members of the opposition. Tajer has focused some of his own digging on the license plate of the unmarked cars parked in the direction the bullet came from. He says they were linked to the security forces. Ismail Moussa, Ahmed's father and a former military man, suspects based on the wound that the gun used was an American weapon common in the Bahrain Defense Forces.

But a more sinister theory has also loomed over the case. If a civilian shot Ahmed, it would be an act of sectarian violence yet unseen on the island.

By and large, the lack of intersectarian violence in Bahrain has been striking from day one. Unlike the conflicts in Iraq or Syria, Bahrain's pro- and anti-government camps -- corresponding largely to sectarian lines -- have allowed security forces to mediate the worlds between them. Protesters might attack police, but they don't attack Sunni villages. Meanwhile, Sunnis might call for a harsher crackdown against the Shiite demonstrators, but they have avoided getting personally involved. The two sects simply avoid one another, frequenting different malls and coffee shops, following different accounts on Twitter, reading different newspapers. They even have different names for national holidays: What loyalists call National Day has been dubbed Martyr's Day by the opposition.

Yet the uncertainty around Ahmed's death foreshadows something darker. Three years of political détente, punctuated by daily clashes and unrest, has played into the extremes across society. There are those who want another crackdown against demonstrators. And there are those willing to unleash chaos to cripple the regime. The crisis has become increasingly cyclical, as each moment of humiliation, fear, or injustice feeds into an equal and opposite reaction, and like a band stretched from both ends, even the centrists feel the tension of something about to snap.

In recent months, the government has arrested top members of the moderate opposition, scooped up hundreds of men and boys in house raids, the opposition says, and passed harsh new anti-terrorism laws. Meanwhile, homemade bombs, likely planted by February 14 members, have moved closer to Sunni neighborhoods. In late July, a car bomb exploded in a mosque parking lot in the Riffa neighborhood, not far from royal family residences. Every weekend, cars are set ablaze, Molotovs thrown, and police confront mobs of angry young men. Violence started from the state, but now it has infected parts of society once thought to be immune.

There have been missed opportunities to pull out of this spiral. A political dialogue in the early days of the crisis was neglected and allowed to essentially collapse. There was an independent investigation into the uprising, ordered by the king in July 2011, but the government and opposition disagree as to whether its recommendations, such as police reform and an end to torture, were ever fully implemented. Though countless government reforms and opposition concessions were made, none proved enough to break the deadlock.

Hope has resurfaced again in recent weeks, against the odds. Bahrain's so-called National Dialogue talks were resurrected in February 2013, and had dragged on without agreement -- even on an agenda -- for almost a year, before ending in the fall. Now, a hopeful crown prince is looking to re-start them with an expanded set of issues up for negotiation, though the difficulty of getting both sides to the table is demonstrative of just how hard a breakthrough will be. The opposition's more-extreme elements are in no mood for discussion, and Sunni-led groups threatened not to participate in talks in January, feeling left out of the initial conversations between the crown prince's court and the opposition. The talks do look likely to happen, if only because the status quo is the only plan B.

Many analysts believe there are elements in the ruling family who blocked the exits to the crisis when they became clear. One theory blames a faction of disgruntled family hard-liners who control certain ministries and have silently blocked the reformist intentions of those like the crown prince and even perhaps the king. The security forces should surely also take blame for the hard-handed response. Pro-government supporters will also argue some blame falls to the powerful Shiite cleric, Isa Qassim, for promoting a culture of resistance and martyrdom. February 14, meanwhile, is fueling the conflict by instilling fear in the Sunni population and refusing political compromise.

Though courage is visible in the eyes of the young men on the streets every day, it is nowhere to be found in the country's political life. Perhaps that's what is to blame for Ahmed's death.

And not just Ahmed. Across Bahrain, thousands of lives have been upended by the events of the last two years. In January, in an incident eerily similar to Ahmed's death, 19-year-old Fadhil Abbas Muslim died of a gunshot wound to the head. The opposition says he was shot by police in the village of Markh. Tajer, the lawyer, in 2012 represented clients in 274 legal cases -- everything from prosecuting protester deaths to defending against charges like illegal gathering. Many of his colleagues are so overloaded that they have simply stopped taking new cases.

Meanwhile, almost two years after the investigation into Ahmed's death officially began, there are no announced leads or suspects in the case. The only good news, in fact, is that the case is still open. "It's a good thing that they haven't decided, like other cases, to simply announce that it's a closed file," Tajer said in late 2012. "Most victims' families never know who the killer is."

And so Ahmed's case is trapped, caught just like the young man himself, in a fight not wholly his. Ahmed's future was Bahrain's future; he hoped both would be bright. He wanted to contribute to it -- to bear witness. But the story was bigger than he could have captured through his camera lens.

Today, everyone in Salmabad knows the place Ahmed lived. His home is famous, not for what is there, but for what isn't. It is famous for a simple question that no one can answer: Who shot Ahmed?

Elizabeth Dickinson is author of the Kindle Single Who Shot Ahmed? A Mystery Unravels in Bahrain's Botched Arab Spring, from which this excerpt was adapted. She is a former FP assistant managing editor.



How Zionist Extremism Became British Spies’ Biggest Enemy

In World War II's aftermath, MI5 turned to fight a new threat. It wasn't the Soviets. It was bombers from Jerusalem.

The years after World War II were not kind to Britain's intelligence services -- especially MI5, its domestic counterintelligence and security agency. In the name of austerity, funding of the nation's intelligence services was slashed, their emergency wartime powers removed, and their staff numbers drastically reduced. MI5's ranks were reduced from 350 officers at its height in 1943, to just a hundred in 1946. Its administrative records reveal that it was forced to start buying cheaper ink and paper, and its officers were instructed to type reports on both sides of paper to save money. And there were some serious discussions within the government, as there had been after World War I, about shutting MI5 down altogether. Unfortunately for MI5, in the post-war years it faced the worst possible combination of circumstances: reduced resources, but increased responsibilities. After the war Britain had more territories under its control than at any point in its history, and MI5 was responsible for security intelligence in all British territories.

But MI5's most urgent threat lay not in its diminished resources, nor from its new Soviet enemy. Recently declassified intelligence records reveal that at the end of the war the main priority for MI5 was the threat of terrorism emanating from the Middle East, specifically from the two main Zionist terrorist groups operating in the Mandate of Palestine, which had been placed under British control in 1921. They were called the Irgun Zevai Leumi ("National Military Organization," or the Irgun for short) and the Lehi (an acronym in Hebrew for "Freedom Fighters of Israel"), which the British also termed the "Stern Gang," after its founding leader, Avraham Stern. The Irgun and the Stern Gang believed that British policies in Palestine in the post-war years -- blocking the creation of an independent Jewish state -- legitimized the use of violence against British targets. MI5's involvement with counterterrorism, which preoccupies it down to the present day, arose in the immediate post-war years when it dealt with the Irgun and Stern Gang.

MI5's involvement in dealing with Zionist terrorism offers a striking new interpretation of the history of the early Cold War. For the entire duration of the Cold War, the overwhelming priority for the intelligence services of Britain and other Western powers would lie with counterespionage, but as we can now see, in the crucial transition period from World War to Cold War, MI5 was instead primarily concerned with counterterrorism.

As World War II came to a close, MI5 received a stream of intelligence reports warning that the Irgun and the Stern Gang were not just planning violence in the Mandate of Palestine, but were also plotting to launch attacks inside Britain. In April 1945 an urgent cable from MI5's outfit in the Middle East, SIME, warned that Victory in Europe (VE-Day) would be a D-Day for Jewish terrorists in the Middle East. Then, in the spring and summer of 1946, coinciding with a sharp escalation of anti-British violence in Palestine, MI5 received apparently reliable reports from SIME that the Irgun and the Stern Gang were planning to send five terrorist "cells" to London, "to work on IRA lines." To use their own words, the terrorists intended to "beat the dog in his own kennel." The SIME reports were derived from the interrogation of captured Irgun and Stern Gang fighters, from local police agents in Palestine, and from liaisons with official Zionist political groups like the Jewish Agency. They stated that among the targets for assassination were Britain's foreign secretary, Ernest Bevin, who was regarded as the main obstacle to the establishment of a Jewish state in the Middle East, and the prime minister himself. MI5's new director-general, Sir Percy Sillitoe, was so alarmed that in August 1946 he personally briefed the prime minister on the situation, warning him that an assassination campaign in Britain had to be considered a real possibility, and that his own name was known to be on a Stern Gang hit list.

The Irgun and the Stern Gang's wartime track record ensured that MI5 took these warnings seriously. In November 1944 the Stern Gang had assassinated the British minister for the Middle East, Lord Moyne, while he was returning to his rented villa after a luncheon engagement in Cairo. Moyne's murder was followed by an escalation of violence in Palestine, with incidents against the British and Irgun and Stern Gang fighters being followed by bloody reprisals. In mid-June 1946, after the Irgun launched a wave of attacks, bombing five trains and 10 of the 11 bridges connecting Palestine to neighboring states, London's restraint finally broke. British forces conducted mass arrests across Palestine (codenamed Operation Agatha), culminating on June 29 -- a day known as "Black Sabbath" because it was a Saturday -- with the detention of more than 2,700 Zionist leaders and minor officials, as well as officers of the official Jewish defense force (Haganah) and its crack commandos (Palmach). None of the important Irgun or Stern Gang leaders was caught in the dragnet, and its result was merely to goad them into even more violent counteractions. On July 22, the Irgun dealt a devastating blow, codenamed Operation Chick, to the heart of British rule in Palestine when it bombed the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, which housed the offices of British officialdom in the Mandate, as well as serving as the headquarters of the British Army in Palestine.

The bombing was planned by the leader of the Irgun, Menachem Begin, later to be the sixth prime minister of Israel and the joint winner of a Nobel Peace Prize. On the morning of July 22, six young Irgun members entered the hotel disguised as Arabs, carrying milk churns packed with 500 pounds of explosives. At 12:37 p.m. the bombs exploded, ripping the facade from the southwest corner of the building. This caused the collapse of several floors in the hotel, resulting in the deaths of 91 people. In terms of fatalities, the King David Hotel bombing was one of the worst terrorist atrocities inflicted on the British in the twentieth century. It was also a direct attack on British intelligence and counterterrorist efforts in Palestine: both MI5 and SIS -- the Secret Intelligence Service, also known as MI6 -- had stations in the hotel.


In the wake of the bombing, the Irgun and the Stern Gang launched a series of operations outside Palestine, just as the reports coming into MI5 had warned. At the end of October 1946 an Irgun cell operating in Italy bombed the British Embassy in Rome, and followed this in late 1946 and early 1947 with a series of sabotage attacks on British military transportation routes in occupied Germany. In March 1947 an Irgun operative left a bomb at the Colonial Club, near St Martin's Lane in the heart of London, which blew out the club's windows and doors, injuring several servicemen. The following month a female Irgun agent left an enormous bomb, consisting of 24 sticks of explosives, at the Colonial Office in London. The bomb failed to detonate because its timer broke. The head of Metropolitan Police Special Branch, Leonard Burt, estimated that if it had gone off it would have caused fatalities on a comparable scale to the King David Hotel bombing -- but this time in the heart of Whitehall. At about the same time, several prominent British politicians and public figures connected with Palestine received death threats from the Stern Gang at their homes and offices. Finally, in June 1947, the Stern Gang launched a letter-bomb campaign in Britain, consisting of 21 bombs in total, which targeted every prominent member of the cabinet. The two waves of bombs were posted from an underground cell in Italy. Some of those in the first wave reached their targets, but they did not result in any casualties. Sir Stafford Cripps was only saved by the quick thinking of his secretary, who became suspicious of a package whose contents seemed to fizz, and placed it in a bucket of water. The deputy leader of the Conservative Party, Sir Anthony Eden, carried a letter bomb around with him for a whole day in his briefcase, thinking it was a Whitehall circular that could wait till the evening to be read, and only realized what it was when he was warned by the police of the planned attack, on information provided by MI5.

The problem for MI5 in London, and local security forces in Palestine, was the extremely difficult nature of detecting and countering the Irgun and the Stern Gang. Both groups were organized vertically into cells, whose members were unknown to those in other cells, and whose extreme loyalty meant they were nearly impossible to penetrate. As one of MI5's leading officers dealing with Zionist terrorism, Alex Kellar noted in one MI5 report, "these terrorists are hard nuts to crack, and it is by no means easy to get them to talk." To complicate matters further, they also frequently made use of false identities and disguises. Female agents used hair dye or wigs to alter their appearance, while male agents were known to dress as women to elude security patrols.

Menachem Begin was known to travel under several aliases, and in the wake of the King David Hotel bombing he managed to elude the Palestine police and the bounty on his head by a series of clever disguises. In November 1946, the Palestine police produced alarming reports that he might be traveling incognito to Britain. Then, in early 1947, the alarm reached fever pitch when SIS sent a report to MI5 warning that Begin was thought to have undergone plastic surgery to alter his appearance, though as the report dryly concluded, "we have no description of the new face." The story soon leaked to the press, with the News Chronicle running the headline "Palestine Hunting a New Face," and sarcastically noting that although Begin might have changed his appearance, it was "likely that the flat feet and bad teeth have remained." As it turned out, the reports of Begin's plastic surgery were inaccurate: they were caused by confusion within the Palestine police (CID) when comparing photos of him. Begin had not actually left Palestine, but had grown a beard and disguised himself as a rabbi, evading the local police by concealing himself in a secret compartment in a friend's house in Jerusalem. When he agreed to give a secret interview to the author Arthur Koestler, he did so in a darkened room: Koestler vainly attempted to counter this by drawing heavily on his cigarettes, hoping to generate enough of a glow to catch a glimpse of Begin's appearance.

The situation was made all the more alarming for MI5 by the fact that members of the Irgun and the Stern Gang were known to have served in British forces during the war. With bitter irony, some of them had been trained by Britain's wartime sabotage agency, SOE, and its foreign intelligence services, SIS, while serving in the elite Palmach commando unit of the Jewish paramilitary organization, the Haganah. Just like the former members of a number of other guerrilla groups the British armed during the war, such as communist forces in Malaya, the Irgun and the Stern Gang used their training in explosives and other paramilitary warfare against their former masters. Reports landing on MI5's desks throughout the summer of 1946 warned that Irgun and Stern Gang fighters were likely to be still serving within British military ranks, and were planning to use that as a cover to travel to Britain. MI5 was thus faced with the real possibility that terrorists could arrive in Britain wearing British military uniforms.


With these startling reports coming into its London headquarters, MI5 devised a range of measures to prevent the extension of Zionist terrorism from Palestine to Britain. These have left few traces within records previously in the public domain, but as we can now see from MI5's own records, they were often extremely elaborate. The front line of its counterterrorist defense was what was termed "personnel security," which involved making background checks and scrutinizing visa applications for entry into Britain. On MI5's recommendation, all visa applications made by Jewish individuals from the Middle East were immediately telephoned through to MI5 for checking against its records before the applicants were permitted entry. MI5 also conducted a series of background vetting checks against its records on approximately 7,000 Jewish servicemen known to be in the British armed forces. This led to the identification of 40 individuals with suspected extremist sympathies, 25 of whom were discharged from the armed forces. MI5's security measures also involved heightened inspections at ports and other points of entry to the United Kingdom, to each of which an MI5-compiled "Index of Terrorists" was distributed, while on its advice Scotland Yard ratcheted up its protection of many leading political and public figures, and increased the number of officers detailed to guard Buckingham Palace. In October 1947 a senior Palestine police CID officer, Maj. John O'Sullivan, traveled to London and provided MI5 with microfilm photographs of terrorist suspects that were added to the index. Some of these mug-shots are today held with unconcealed pride by former Irgun and Stern Gang members.

At the same time as these "personnel security" measures, which were designed to frustrate the entry of terrorists or terrorist sympathizers into Britain, MI5 embarked on the intensive surveillance of extremist Zionist political groups and individuals who were already there. Its assumption in doing this was that Irgun or Stern Gang operatives who succeeded in gaining entry to Britain would at some point make contact with these organizations or individuals, and therefore scrutinizing their activities could provide crucial leads to tracking them down. MI5 also assumed that agents would make contact with elements of the diaspora Jewish community in Britain. These assumptions would prove correct.

To investigate Zionist groups and individuals in Britain, MI5 used the full repertoire of investigative techniques at its disposal. At the heart of its investigations were Home Office Warrants, which allowed for mail interception and telephone taps. In the post-war years MI5 imposed HOWs on all the main Zionist political bodies in Britain: the Jewish Agency for Palestine, the Jewish Legion, the Jewish-Arab Legion, the Zionist Federation of Jewish Labor and the United Zionist "Revisionist" Youth Organization. The last of these, in particular, caused a good deal of alarm within MI5. Some of its members addressed local Jewish clubs in North London with firebrand speeches against the British, fusing religion with politics. Another source of concern was the Jewish Struggle, a Zionist "Revisionist" publication based in London that frequently reprinted extremist Irgun propaganda from Palestine, typically denouncing the British as "Nazis" and advocating the use of violence. MI5's fear was that the Jewish Struggle would act as a recruiting platform for future terrorists in Britain. In December 1946 Alex Kellar and MI5's legal advisor, Bernard Hill, met the director of public prosecutions, and decided that, although there was insufficient evidence to prosecute, they would officially warn the editors of the Jewish Struggle that if they continued to publish Irgun material, their periodical would be shut down. The Jewish Struggle appears to have ceased publication soon after.

Another major source of MI5's counterterrorist intelligence in the post-war years were moderate Jewish and Zionist groups, both in Palestine and Britain. It forged close links with the body officially responsible for representing Zionist wishes to the British government, the Jewish Agency. In fact, MI5's policy toward the Jewish Agency was duplicitous: it cooperated with it, but at the same time kept it under close surveillance, running telephone and letter checks on its London headquarters even while it was liaising with its officers. The reason for this was that although MI5 trusted the agency's security officials, it suspected that its broader staff and membership might contain Irgun and Stern Gang supporters. The willingness of the agency to provide the British with intelligence on the Irgun and the Stern Gang reveals the extent to which those groups' activities were not supported by the majority of the Jewish population in Palestine -- and this, it should be noted, has no parallel in contemporary Arab and Islamist terrorism. The bombing of the King David Hotel brought the coordinated Hebrew Resistance Movement, which had been forged between the Haganah, the Irgun and the Stern Gang, to an end. The Irgun's bombing operation was not approved by the Haganah, and after July 1946 it therefore began providing the British with intelligence on the Irgun and the Stern Gang, and helped British security personnel to hunt them down.

In Palestine itself, MI5's liaison officer stationed in Jerusalem in the post-war years, Henry Hunloke, a former Conservative MP, maintained close liaison with Jewish Agency officials, and acquired valuable intelligence from them, for example on suspected terrorists clandestinely entering or leaving Palestine. One of the agency officials from whom both MI5 and SIS (MI6) received counterterrorist intelligence was Reuven Zislani, who worked in the foreign intelligence department of the Jewish Agency. After 1948 Zislani changed his name to Reuven Shiloah and became the first head of Israel's foreign intelligence service, the Mossad.

In its efforts to establish contacts with Jewish Agency officials in Britain, MI5 used a series of go-betweens, or "cut-outs." Although the declassified documentation is presently incomplete, it seems likely that the Jewish Agency representative who met MI5's cut-out in London was Teddy Kollek, later a long-standing and celebrated mayor of Jerusalem, who during the war had become the deputy head of the Jewish Agency's intelligence department. Kollek is known to have provided MI5 with counterterrorist intelligence in Palestine: for example, in August 1945 he revealed the location of a secret Irgun training camp near Binyamina, and told an MI5 officer that "it would be a great idea to raid the place." The information he provided led to the arrest of 27 Irgun fighters, including the father of a later Israeli cabinet minister.

Some of the meetings held in March 1947 between the Jewish Agency official -- probably Kollek -- and MI5's cut-out, known in the declassified records by his codename, Scorpion, took place in London's finest restaurants. One was over a lavish meal of "oysters, duck and petit pots de creme au chocolat," while another featured gin and "rich red roast beef ." The meetings did produce some intelligence on Irgun and Stern Gang fighters suspected of being about to leave Palestine, whose names MI5 placed on "watch lists" at British ports and airports. Despite the value of this information, one MI5 officer could not help noting that his mouth started to water when he read Scorpion's reports. After all, this was a time when, in Austerity Britain, bread rationing was in place.


As the terrorist threat intensified, MI5 became increasingly worried about the support shown by foreign groups, and even foreign powers, to the Irgun and the Stern Gang. It did not take much detective work for MI5 to discover that the two groups were receiving technical support from the IRA. One Jewish IRA leader, Robert Briscoe, who was also a member of the Irish parliament, a "Revisionist" Zionist and a future mayor of Dublin, was known by MI5 to support the Irgun, and in his memoirs he recalled that he assisted them in every way he could. Briscoe, who in his own words "would do business with Hitler if it was in Ireland's good," made several trips to Britain before the war and met Irgun representatives there. He wrote in his memoirs that he elected himself "to a full Professorship with the Chair of Subversive Activities against England," and helped the Irgun to organize themselves on "IRA lines." In order to enhance the intelligence cooperation on IRA-Irgun-Stern Gang links, in October 1947 MI5 dispatched an officer and a Palestine police officer, Maj. J. O'Sullivan, temporarily in London to brief MI5 on Zionist terrorism, to Dublin. They liaised with the Irish CID, which kept Briscoe under surveillance and passed its findings on to MI5.

The former chief rabbi of Ireland, Isaac Herzog, was also an open supporter of both Irish Republican and Zionist terrorism. After his emigration to Palestine in 1936, Herzog rose to arguably the most important position in the Jewish religious world, the chief rabbinate of Palestine. MI5's DSO in Palestine and the Palestine police both apparently kept a close watch on Rabbi Herzog's activities. In a manner that encapsulates the tensions that existed between moderates and extremists in both Palestine and Ireland, one of Herzog's sons, Chaim, disapproved of his father's collusion with terrorism. In sharp contrast to his father, Chaim Herzog served in British military intelligence on D-Day, went on to help establish the Israeli intelligence community, and eventually became president of Israel.

The stance taken by the U.S. government over Palestine, and in particular the position of Jewish-Americans, sometimes made it difficult for MI5 to obtain cooperation from U.S. authorities on issues of Zionist terrorism. The unambiguous support shown by the U.S. administration toward Zionist aspirations was one of the main factors which led in February 1947 to the British government's decision to hand the entire matter of Palestine over to the United Nations. More specifically, MI5 knew that some extremist Zionist groups operating in the United States, such as the "Bergson Group" and the "Hebrew Committee for the Liberation of Palestine," were raising funds and logistical support for the Irgun and the Stern Gang, with explosives and ammunition sometimes being sent in food packages to Britain. MI5 established a useful working relationship with American military (G-2) intelligence in occupied zones of Europe over clandestine Jewish migration to Palestine and Zionist terrorism, but in general the relationship between British and U.S. intelligence over Zionism was difficult. In March 1948 the high table of the British intelligence community, the Joint Intelligence Committee, noted its reports on Palestine would inevitably be controversial in Washington, and should only be given to the head of the CIA in person, and not left with him. It also advised that other British intelligence reports on Zionist matters should be censored before they were passed on to U.S. authorities. Meanwhile, Operation Gold, run by U.S. Navy intelligence, was intercepting cable traffic with Jewish gun-runners, but this was not shared with Britain, nor was it acted upon by Washington.

One of the few ways in which MI5 was able to receive cooperation from the FBI on Zionist matters was by stressing many prominent Zionists' connections with communism and the Soviet Union. MI5 believed that several members of the Irgun and the Stern Gang had made their way to Palestine with the aid of Soviet intelligence. Menachem Begin and Nathan Friedman-Yellin, a leader of the Stern Gang, were both of Polish origin, and MI5 rightly suspected that the Soviets had helped them "escape" to Palestine during the war. Several Zionist leaders advocated cooperation with the Soviet Union, including the head of "security" for the Jewish Agency in Palestine, Moshe Sneh, who was aware of, if not actively involved, with planning the King David Hotel bombing. MI5's suspicions have been confirmed by subsequent research, which shows that on several occasions the Stern Gang appealed to Moscow for aid.

This makes the involvement of the notorious Soviet spy Kim Philby in SIS's investigations into Zionist terrorism all the more interesting. Philby -- Moscow's longtime agent in the British intelligence services -- was, at the time, the head of Section IX in SIS, Soviet counterintelligence. The position afforded him a legitimate interest in the Middle East -- an interest that he probably also inherited from his father, the noted Arabist, Harry St John Philby. During the war St John Philby had unsuccessfully attempted to broker a deal for the partition of Palestine, the so-called Philby Plan. Kim Philby's manipulative agenda in SIS's Zionist investigations is difficult to determine. On July 9, 1946 SIS circulated a report throughout Whitehall advising that the Irgun was planning to take "murderous action" against the British Legation in Beirut. Almost certainly this was an inaccurate warning of the King David Hotel bombing, which occurred two weeks later. It was Philby who circulated the report. Philby had less motivation for sabotaging British investigations into Zionist terrorism, however, than he did in other fields. He undoubtedly would have secretly welcomed the terrorist campaign waged in the British Mandate of Palestine as undermining the British empire, but when he was working on Zionist affairs for SIS -- and by extension for the KGB -- immediately after the war, the Soviet Union's policy toward Palestine had not yet crystallized. Moscow initially supported the creation of the state of Israel, hoping that it would be a thorn in the side of the "imperialist" West, and the Soviet Union was the first country in the world to recognize Israel when it was established in May 1948. However, Stalin miscalculated: Over the coming years, Israel built up a special relationship with the USA, not with the Soviet Union, and Stalin spent the final years before his death in 1953 consumed with anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. By this time Philby was no longer working on Zionist matters for SIS, and therefore not for the KGB either. In the absence of still-closed KGB archives, Philby's precise role in Zionist matters must remain a matter for speculation. Nevertheless, Moscow certainly would have been interested to learn, through him, that London suspected Soviet involvement in Zionist terrorism.


Together with its counterterrorist operations in Britain, in the immediate post-war years Britain's intelligence services were also assessing and countering Jewish "illegal" immigration to Palestine. In fact, MI5 and SIS helped to shape the British government's overall response to this immigration. In 1939 a quota system was established which limited the number of Jewish immigrants to Palestine to 7,500 per year. Immigration above that number was termed "illegal" by the British government. Then as now, "illegal immigration" was a term fraught with controversy, and a fierce debate about it raged between Zionist politicians and the British government. MI5's role in it was not to debate the moral and legal aspects of Jewish immigration into Palestine, but to produce dispassionate assessments for Whitehall about its security implications.

MI5's overall assessment was that mass Jewish immigration to Palestine would almost certainly cause civil war between Jews and Arabs, as it had threatened to do during the "Arab Revolt" in the 1930s. The main policy devised by the British authorities to prevent "illegal" immigration was to intercept refugee ships. Detention centers were established in Cyprus to house intercepted refugees, who were then permitted to enter Palestine through the quota system. This was, however, another public relations disaster for the British government, whose critics accused it of establishing "Nazi-style concentration camps." The British also deported some Irgun and Stern fighters to detention centers in Eritrea, which again attracted claims that they were no better than the Nazis. Such criticism sometimes came from surprising quarters, not least from the assistant secretary at the Colonial Office, Trafford Smith, who privately detailed his despair:  

The plain truth to which we so firmly shut our eyes is that in this emergency Detention business we are taking a leaf out of the Nazi book, following the familiar error that the end justifies the means (especially when the means serve current expediency). We are out to suppress terrorism, and because we can find no better means we order measures which are intrinsically wrong, and which, since their consequence is evident to the whole world, let us in for a lot of justifiable and unanswerable criticism.

Rather than pursuing the ill-conceived and counterproductive measures of deporting and detaining Jewish refugees, MI5 advised the cabinet and the chiefs of staff to concentrate their efforts on preventing "illegal" immigration "at source." With the assistance of SIS, MI5 identified a number of South American and Greek shipping companies that chartered vessels to Jewish refugees, and the Foreign Office was able to exert pressure on these governments to prevent companies registered in their countries from carrying out this practice. The operations appeared to have an impact. An MI5 report stated that by 1948 "only 1 out of some 30 ships carrying illegal immigrants reached their destination."

While MI5 made assessments and was involved in defensive measures to counter unrestricted Jewish migration to Palestine, Britain's other intelligence services attempted actively to subvert the flow of migrants. In February 1947 SIS carried out an operation, appropriately codenamed Embarrass, for "direction action." A small team, mostly comprised of former SOE personnel, was recruited to attach limpet mines to refugee ships and disable them before they could set sail. In the summer of 1947 the team mined five ships in Italian ports -- having first checked that no one was on board. Nevertheless, if Operation Embarrass had been made public, the fact that SIS agents were mining boats containing Holocaust survivors would have been disastrous for the British government.

Operation Embarrass did not stop there. When some of the mines were discovered, SIS blamed them first on a fictitious Arab opposition group, the "Defenders of Arab Palestine," and then on the Soviet government. It obtained typewriters that were known to be used by dissident Arab groups and Soviet authorities, and used them to type letters implicating both groups, which it then carefully leaked around Whitehall. In a further twist, SIS made it appear that the British government was using the traffic of Jewish refugees to get its own agents out of Europe, hoping thereby to get the Soviets to block the flow of migrants to Palestine. SIS therefore attempted to deceive not only Jewish refugees, Arab opposition groups and the Soviet government, but the British government itself. This was truly the stuff of smoke and mirrors. Britain's policy of limiting Jewish immigration to Palestine, both overt and covert, was beset with controversy and resentment. It was, however, symptomatic of a much deeper problem that undermined British rule in Palestine: Britain was faced with a range of contradictory demands regarding the future of the Mandate -- from Jews, Arabs and world opinion at large. In early 1946 an Anglo-American committee of inquiry was appointed to find a settlement in Palestine, but despite the best efforts of its members, who in April 1946 recommended that a compromise be found so that Jews should not dominate Arabs in Palestine, nor Arabs dominate Jews, the committee's findings were not accepted by either party. By September 1947 the JIC in London was painting a gloomy picture for the British government of the future of the Mandate, concluding that any settlement would be unacceptable either to Jews or Arabs. Britain found itself in a situation that was rapidly becoming ungovernable. In 1947 100,000 troops -- one-tenth of the military manpower of the entire British empire -- were tied down in Palestine, a financial burden that London could not afford.

Adapted from EMPIRE OF SECRETS Copyright © 2013 Calder Walton. Published by The Overlook Press. www.overlookpress.com. All rights reserved. 

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