Northern Ireland: Guinea pig for America’s Dirty Wars

Over the weekend I attended the UK premier of Jeremy Scahill’s provocative documentary Dirty Wars at the Ritzy Picturehouse in Brixton. It’s about America’s covert foreign policy operations in the Middle East and Africa. These are wars in which military units operate with direct orders from the White House to hunt down, capture or kill – without trial – those deemed as enemies in the ‘War on Terror’.

The documentary focuses on the rogue atrocities of America’s paramilitary special force Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), launching drone attacks, killing insurgents and large numbers of innocent civilians – often in countries with which the US is not officially at war. They are the force responsible for the killing of Osama bin Laden.

JSOC has long existed in an underworld of deniability. Formed in 1980, it represented a break in American counterinsurgency tactics of, say, Vietnam, and a move towards low intensity conflict.

Scahill’s film begins with a night-time raid which left several Afghans dead, including a pregnant woman. Ostensibly the targets were terrorists, but one survivor tells of how he was handcuffed as he watched bearded American soldiers dig bullets out of his dead wife’s body to remove forensic evidence, before arresting him on charges of being a member of the Taliban. As it turns out he was in fact pro-American invasion of Afghanistan and anti-Taliban. He was later released without charge.

During a Q&A session with Scahill at the Ritzy an audience member suggested the beginnings of the type of conflict America is waging are in its conduct in Latin America.

This is incorrect. What we’re seeing with America and the War on Terror is a typically British strategy.

In Scahill’s book of the same name, he talks about the influence for JSOC with only a quick quote from Colonel Walter Patrick Lang. Lang had spent much of his military career in dark ops. Early in his army service he helped coordinate the operation which led the capture and killing of Che Guevara in Bolivia in 1967.

Lang described Special Forces like the Green Berets as like “armed anthropologists”. In contrast, he said JSOC was envisioned as “a counterterrorist commando outfit modelled on the British SAS. And the SAS does not do ‘let’s get happy with the natives’ stuff. They don’t do that. They’re commandos, they kill the natives. These people are not very well educated about the larger picture of the effect that [their operations] have on the position of the United States in the world.”

I think we can take this point further.

A Very British War

Sure, the British Army pioneered many of what are now regarded as standard operating procedures for the United States. But JSOC is a direct result of the pioneering low intensity conflict/pseudo-gang tactics of Brigadier Sir Frank Kitson and his grisly military experiment, the Military Reaction Force (MRF) – a secretive branch of the British SAS who went on a rampage on the streets of Belfast and Derry over a 14-month period between 1971-3.

In a publication released earlier this year by the Pat Finucane Centre, they said:

Kitson did not invent concepts of counter or pseudo-gangs and pseudo operations, but he and Brigadier Richard Clutterbuck undoubtedly brought the issues to a wider audience through their academic publications on low-intensity techniques and methods.

While similar ideas appear throughout history in some form or other, he literally wrote the book on the type of dirty war America is waging called Low Intensity Operations (1971) with funding from Oxford University. In it he describes the necessity to regard the law as malleable and encouraged members of the military to shield their counter-insurgency actions behind a veneer of legality so that the courts can’t prosecute.

The ideas and techniques in the book were developed through his brutal treatment of Mau Mau in Kenya.  In a previous book Kitson describes stabbing an unarmed man to death with a bayonet because he suspected him to be Mau Mau. The very same brutality is seen throughout the Panorama episode ‘Britain’s Secret Terror Force’ aired on November 21st this year, where suspects are gunned down without any evidence of wrong-doing. In the episode we hear Kitson himself saying: “In order to put an insurgency campaign down, one must use a mix of measures – not just military measures – and it’s sometimes necessary to do unpleasant things.”

By spring of 1971, the British authorities were so desperate to penetrate the IRA that they adopted Kitson’s strategy, and ‘more aggressive tactics’ such as the formation of Q squads, the kind of mobile undercover units used by the British colonial Palestine Police Force.

By the end of the year there were plain-clothes officers driving around in an unmarked vehicle, with the objective of drawing the IRA into a shooting battle with loyalists. In the process they targeted suspected IRA members, but the majority of their victims were innocent.

Kitson essentially used Northern Ireland as a guinea-pig to hone his military philosophy of super-legal tactics. Much like with America today, these dirty tricks and running of pseudo enemy gangs crossed moral lines and resulted in a type of warfare with no rules or consequences.

His influence was so strong that General Mike Jackson describes him as “the sun around which the planets revolved, and he very much set the tone for the operational style”. His brutality was evident when he berated Col Derek Wilford after Bloody Sunday for not being aggressive enough.

The British Army got their green light from the Government Cabinet table to go the proposed Frank Kitson route to provoke and fight a low intensity war. Today it is the American president who sanctions provoking attacks and no target is off limits for Obama’s “kill list,” including, it emerges, US citizens.

The ‘kill list’ has grown from the size of a deck of cards to thousands of names. The list changes because the definition of the enemy also changes. And as events like Bloody Sunday increased IRA membership, America is employing tactics which, while designed to crush an insurgency, inevitably serve only to swell its ranks.

The 3 F’s

Later in JSOC’s life, during the disaster of Eagle Claw in Iran, it was reinvigorated with a Special Mission Units that would train and prepare for what were called “F” operations: Find, Fix, and Finish. In plain English, that meant tracking a target, fixing their location and finishing them off.

This is straight out of the MRF handbook. In 1978, a former soldier who had served with MRF detailed his experiences in Belfast:

One day in April 1972 I was on plain-clothes surveillance duties with two other soldiers. We drove along the Whiterock Road, Upper Falls. We had a death list with names and photos, with the orders ‘shoot on sight’. One of the soldiers saw James [Bryson], a man on the list, and another man whose name I forget [Thomas Tolan]. We swerved our car in front of them and leapt out, drawing our pistols, and opened fire. They tried to run down an alley. We ran after them and the patrol commander gave the order ‘bullets’. I scored several hits myself – both men were severely wounded. We radioed for a uniformed patrol. When it turned up, their commander said to ours, ‘You stupid bastards, you’ve shot the wrong fuckers’. The army issued a statement alleging that the men had shot at us and that the army had a pistol to prove it. This was a lie.

Such mistakes and cover-ups are rife among American forces too – such as the story above about JSOC digging bullets out of bodies.

Signature Strike

In the Panorama episode, we are told the story of the MRF shooting of Eugene Devlin and Aidan McAloon on May 12, 1972 while getting out of a taxi after a night at A disco. These men weren’t known to the shooters, but the decision was made that as they were walking by an IRA-manned barracade they therefore must be IRA members. They were not.

This is the same grotesque form of pre-crime Obama inaugurated called ‘signature strikes’. This is a euphemism for pre-emptively killing unidentified men who fit the profile of someone that might commit acts of ‘terrorism’ in the future because of their age, gender and other vague characteristics. It’s the blatant murder of military aged men, who may or may not be associated with people or groups the government condemns.

With ‘low intensity’ warfare, the question is ‘for whom?’ because for indigenous/local populations it’s not so low and there are many instances of human rights violations, torture, disappearances and massacres. Kitson’s tactics were at work in Kenya during the Lari Massacre of Mau Mau. They were at work at Ballymurphy and on Bloody Sunday, and when the innocent victims were found guilty at the Saville Inquiry. They were present in state collusion with paramilitaries. And they are at work today in America’s full-blooded dirty wars.

Underutilized politics and journalism graduate from Derry, now living in SE England.