How British intelligence penetrated and captured EU counter-terrorism policy
A new report from Spinwatch shows that a key element of the EU’s flagship counter-terror forum, was actually penetrated and directed by a British intelligence agency.
The Radicalisation Awareness Network (RAN) has been at the forefront of pushing the idea that ‘radicalisation’ was behind the alleged “terror threat” in Europe. The RAN brings together “practitioners” and “experts” to research and share experiences in countering radicalisation. The idea is that radical ideas foster “extremism” which promotes terrorism. As a result, there is a need to develop “counter narratives” and encourage civil society groups to use them for “de-radicalisation”. To pursue this, the RAN created the Civil Society Empowerment Programme (CSEP). Examining the CSEP reveals something startling about how the RAN operates.
In the keynote address at a CSEP, Campaigns Event in Dublin in 2019, a communications advisor called Elliot Grainger argued that civil society needed to “fight back” against the “narratives” of the extremists “with our own narratives”.
Grainger was listed as from the European Strategic Communications Network (ESCN). But is the ESCN a “civil society” initiative? Official EU documents referred to it as “a network of member states funded by the European Commission” and as a “Belgian-led project”. But since the defining quality of a civil society is that it is not the state, the ESCN cannot be “civil society”. Nor does Grainger himself hail from a civil society background, so the references to ‘we’ and ‘our’ are ambiguous at best. In fact, Grainger himself was, at least between 2013 and 2019, a British intelligence officer.
How do we know? An archived version of his LinkedIn profile from 2020 stated that in 2015 he worked in the Research, Information and Communications Unit (RICU), part of the Homeland Security Group, in the UK Home Office. The HSG is officially listed as part of the UK intelligence “community”. Grainger’s archived LinkedIn page states that after his role at RICU he worked at the United Nations (Jan 2016 - Dec 2016) and the ESCN (Jan 2017 - Dec 2019). He says he was “seconded” to the UN presumably from main employment, but no other job to be seconded from was listed. This seeming mystery is resolved in the current (2022) version of the page where it is admitted that he was at the Home Office from Jan. 2013 to Dec. 2019, covering the period of both the UN and ESCN roles. It looks, therefore, as if he worked at RICU – for British intelligence - the whole time.
What is RICU?
RICU is the strategic communications arm of the HSG. It has attracted some coverage in the press for its secretive work. Essentially this involves working closely with a public relations contractor in providing civil society groups with campaigns that pump out messages desired by RICU.
RICU pays the PR firm to produce the campaigns which are then launched by the group as if they were the group’s own idea. In reality, the contract with the PR agency specifies in minute detail that editorial control at each stage of production rests with the ultimate “client”: British intelligence. The firm that RICU has worked closely with was called Breakthrough Communications (now known as Zinc Network).
The Network Hub
Among the operations that RICU has developed with Breakthrough Media is the idea of a ‘hub’, which produces PR campaigns but appears to have no connection with RICU or indeed Breakthrough. This is despite, according to leaked documents, it being staffed by up to six Breakthrough staff together with space to allow “up to 2 RICU team members” to work there (covertly) as well. Internal Breakthrough documents reveal:
In light of the sensitive nature of RICU’s objectives and involvement and the need for Hub content to be attributable to partner organisations rather than Breakthrough, the Hub or RICU… media, data, physical access and documentation would be managed so as to keep RICU’s involvement in the production of Hub content and the nature of RICU and Breakthrough’s collaboration in operating the hub strictly confidential.
Later internal documents from the Zinc Network give a retrospective account of the creation and operation of such hubs:
In 2012, ZINC pioneered a network management model … ZINC has since adapted this model … and has developed network hubs in Bangladesh, Somalia, and Pakistan supporting a total of 50 organisations to engage over 10 million people.
It appears that a “network hub” was created through which the ESCN operated.
The ESCN was initially known as the Syria Strategic Communications Advisory Team (SSCAT). It was renamed the ESCN in October 2016. With a budget of around €20 million between 2017-20, the ESCN has been handsomely funded. SSCAT emerged following the Paris attacks of January 2015. A joint statement of EU interior ministers urged “all Member States to make maximum use” of the SSCAT “to be established by Belgium with European funding.” This official version has been adhered to in all EU statements drawing no attention to the role of intelligence agencies. Nevertheless, UK government briefings given back in January 2015 did reveal that “British intelligence, … is slated for a key role in a new office under the Belgian government” called the SSCAT “which is ‘to combat terrorist propaganda’”.
But the best evidence that the ESCN is being directed by British intelligence is to be found in the LinkedIn profiles of those involved in the operation. In addition to Elliot Grainger, discussed above, are the following:
1. Richard Chalk was head of RICU from 2012 and in 2017 Head of the ESCN. Chalk is sole director of REOC Communications Limited, registered in 2006.
2. Tony McMahon, The Network Hub (2017-19). This role was accomplished while McMahon worked at Breakthrough Media (2013-19). From April 2019 McMahon was a ‘consultant’ for REOC Communications.
3. Simon Theis Jensen, ESCN (2016-17). He joined ESCN after a year-long spell (2014-15) at Breakthrough Media.
4. Hugo MacPherson was Head of Network at ESCN (2015 – 2020). He was previously a Deployable Civilian Expert (standby) for the UK Government’s Stabilisation Unit.
6. Louis Brooke SSCAT (2014-15). Prior to that, Brooke worked for Breakthrough Media and afterward at Zinc Network. He worked for Breakthrough throughout the period he was at SSCAT.
7. Alex Lawrence-Archer SSCAT (2015-16). After that, UN Centre for Counter-Terrorism in New York (Apr-Dec 2016) (at the same time as Elliot Grainger); director of a PR firm Raedan Associates from October 2016. The other director is SSCAT colleague Louis Brooke.
8. Jamie Harbour ESCN (2015-16); Previously, UKRep to the EU.
We identified a total of thirteen staff associated with the ESCN, eight of whom had a recent or ongoing relationship with RICU or the Zinc Network/Breakthrough Media. Four worked at the Belgian interior ministry, at least two with the Coordination Unit for the Threat Analysis (CUTA), an intelligence agency, which formally co-ordinated the ESCN.
The Civil Society Empowerment Programme
The Civil Society Empowerment Programme is a key development coming out of the RAN and the EU Internet Forum. In 2017, a Joint Activity Plan with the ESCN, included very significant roles for the ESCN, including permission for ESCN staff to work on a consultancy basis for their “own organisation” or work as “independent experts”. This passage indicates the institutionalisation of a structural conflict of interest, where ‘experts’ advise communications solutions which they then provide as ‘consultants’.
The irreverent observer Harald Weilnböck discusses a ‘coup d’état’ by interior ministries of member states. As evidence, he noted ‘for instance in Q&A sections at international conferences one could sometimes hear emphatic and ominous sounding statements like: “No, this is not a coup d’état”’. But, as we have seen, any such coup was not organised by the ministries, but by British intelligence.
Civil society disempowerment
The role of the British, with collaboration from the Belgian intelligence agency CUTA, is a clear pointer that the objective of the ESCN and CSEP is not the empowerment of a vibrant civil society, but rather the disempowerment of genuine and organic civil society groups, most notably Muslim civil society. It is, rather, encouraging the penetration of civil society groups by intelligence agencies to carry state propaganda messages and undermine - especially Muslim – opposition to the aggressive foreign policies of Western states.
The European Commission should come clean about its penetration by British intelligence and shut down the activities related to it.
The full report is available here: The Radicalisation Awareness Network – Policy network in search of an evidence base or covert propaganda platform? (Public Interest Investigations, 2022)
Launch of the report: ‘The Radicalisation Awareness Network – Policy network in search of an evidence base or covert propaganda platform?’ Hosted by Clare Daly MEP (GUE/NGL) in collaboration with IHRC & Spinwatch 31st May 2021.