Leaked files: Britain’s secret propaganda ops in Yemen

Kit Klarenberg, The Cradle, April 17 2023 —

Leaked files reveal that British intel used local Yemeni NGOs and social media in a covert campaign to undermine the Sanaa government and influence the war-torn country’s peace process.

Yemen’s civil war, considered the world’s gravest humanitarian crisis, appears to be nearing its end due to a China-brokered detente between Iran and Saudi Arabia, who support opposing sides in the bitter conflict.

Early signs suggest that the rapprochement between Tehran and Riyadh may not only end hostilities in Yemen, but across the wider region.

The US, Israel, and Britain have the most to lose from a sudden onset of peace in West Asia. In the Yemeni context, London may be the biggest loser of all. For years, it provided the Saudi-led coalition with weaponry used to target civilians and civilian infrastructure, with receipts running into billions of pounds sterling.

During the entirety of the war, Yemen was struck by British-made bombs, dropped by British-made planes, flown by British-trained pilots, which then flew back to Riyadh to be repaired and serviced by British contractors. In 2019, a nameless BAE Systems executive estimated that if London pulled its backing for the proxy war, “in seven to 14 days, there wouldn’t be a jet in the sky.”

In addition to supplying weapons, the war also presented a golden opportunity for Britain to establish a military base in Yemen, fulfilling long-held fantasies of recovering the Empire’s long-lost glory days “East of Suez.”

Al-Ghaydah airport in al-Mahrah, Yemen’s far eastern governorate, has for some time quietly housed “a fully-fledged force” of British soldiers, providing “military training and logistical support” to coalition forces and Saudi-backed militias. There are even indications that this involvement could extend to torture methods, which is a troubling reflection of one of London’s leading exports.

The Cradle has obtained exclusive information about a previously undisclosed aspect of London’s role in the proxy war against Yemen’s Ansarallah-led resistance. It has been revealed that a multi-channel propaganda campaign, led by the intelligence cut-out ARK and its founder Alistair Harris, a veteran MI6 operative, has been operating in complete secrecy throughout the nine-year-long conflict – one that specifically targeted Yemen’s civilian population.

Anti-Ansarallah ops

Leaked Foreign Office documents have revealed that ARK’s “multimedia” information warfare campaign was designed to undermine public sympathy for the Ansarallah movement and ensure that the conflict would only end on terms that aligned with London’s financial, ideological, and geopolitical interests. 

For instance, public acceptance of the UN’s widely unpopular peace proposal required propaganda support from local NGOs and media organizations that “support UK objectives” to “communicate effectively with Yemeni citizens” and change their minds.

It was also necessary to counter “new actors” in the information space that were critical of the Saudi-led coalition’s brutal bombing campaigns and the illegitimate, US-backed puppet government that the aerial assaults sought to protect.

Considering the high rate of illiteracy in the local population, ARK conceived the creation of a suite of “visually rich” products extolling the virtues of a Riyadh-dominated peace plan. These products would be disseminated on and offline, would “deliberately include different demographics, sects, and locations to ensure inclusivity,” and would be informed by focus groups and polling of Yemenis. ARK’s campaign even extended to convening “gender-segregated poetry competitions using peace as a theme” and “plays and town hall meetings.”

Publicly, many of these propaganda products appeared to be the work of Tadafur – Arabic for “work collectively and unite” – an astroturf network of NGOs and journalists constructed by ARK. Its overt mission was to “resolve local level conflicts” and “unite local communities in their conflict resolution efforts.”

The campaign began initially at a “hyper-local level” across six Yemeni governorates, “before being amplified at the national level.” Activities “[in] all areas and at both levels” had unified messaging across “common macro themes,” such as the slogan “Our Yemen, Our Future.”

In each governorate, a “credible” local NGO was identified as a messenger, along with “well-known” and “respected and influential” journalists who served as “dedicated field officers” across the sextet, managed by ARK.

In Hajjah – “a site of strong Houthi influence” – the Al-Mustaqbal Institute for Development was ARK’s NGO of choice; in Ansarallah-governed Sanaa, it was the Faces Institution for Rights and Media; in Marib, the Marib Social Generations Club; in Lahij, Rouwad Institution for Development and Human Rights; in Hadhramaut, Ahed Institute for Rights and Freedom; in Taiz, Generations Without Qat.

These local NGOs were instrumental in promoting ARK’s agenda and advancing the narrative that aligned with Britain’s objectives in Yemen.

The company’s roster of “field officers” comprised of individuals with various backgrounds, such as:

“Human rights abuse” specialist Mansour Hassan Mohammad Abu Ali, TV producer Thy Yazen Hussain, Public Organisation to Protect Human Rights press official and “experienced journalist” Waleed Abdul Mutlab Mohammed al-Rajihi, producer from Alhadramiah Documentary Institute Abdullah Amr Ramdan Mas’id, editorial secretary of Family and Development magazine and the Yemen Times’ Taiz news manager Rania Abdullah Saif al-Shara’bi, as well as journalist and activist Waheeb Qa’id Saleh Thiban.

A Trojan Horse

Once ARK’s field officers and NGOs “successfully designed and implemented hyper-local campaigns,” coverage of “information around the related activities will then be amplified at the national level.” A key platform for this amplification was a Facebook page called “Bab,” launched in 2016 with tens of thousands of followers who were unaware that the page was created by ARK as a British intelligence asset.

Under the guise of a popular grassroots online community, ARK used the Bab page to broadcast slick propaganda “promoting the peace process,” including videos and images of “local peacebuilding initiatives” organized by its NGO and field officer nexus.

“Campaign content will highlight tangible, real-life examples of compelling peacebuilding efforts that all Yemenis, regardless of their political affiliation, can relate to,” ARK stated.

“These will offer inspirational examples for others to emulate, demonstrating practical ways to engage with the peace process at a local level. Taken together, these individual stories form the broader campaign with a national message: Yemenis share a collective desire for a peaceful resolution to the conflict.”

When “high engagement levels” with this content were secured, Bab users were invited to submit their own, which demonstrated “support for the peace process.” They were explicitly asked “to mirror content ARK has produced, such as voxpops, short videos, or infographics.” This was then “shared by the project and field teams through influential WhatsApp messaging groups, a key way of reaching Yemeni youth.”

ARK’s “well-connected communications team” would then “strategically share packaged stories with broadcast media or key social influencers, or offer selected journalists exclusive access to stories.” Creating a constant flow of content was a deliberate ploy to “collectively be as ‘loud’ as partisan national political and military actors.” In other words, to create a parallel communications structure to Ansarallah’s own, which would drown out the resistance movement’s pronouncements.

ARK’s role in Yemen’s peace process

While one might argue that the non-consensual recruitment of private citizens as information warriors by British intelligence was justified by the moral urgency of ending the Yemen war quickly, the exploitation of these individuals was cynical in the extreme. It amounted to a Trojan Horse operation aimed at compelling Yemenis to embrace a peace deal that was wildly inequitable and contrary to their own interests.

Multiple passages in the leaked files refer to the paramount need to ensure no linkage between these propaganda initiatives and the UN’s peace efforts. One passage refers to how campaign “themes and activities” would at no point “directly promote the UN or the formal peace process,” while another says concealing the operation’s agenda behind ostensibly independent civil society voices “minimizes the risk” that “outputs are perceived as institutional communications stemming from or directly promoting the UN.”

Yet, once ARK’s campaigns began “performing successfully at the national level,” the company’s field officers planned to “build a bridge” between its local foot soldiers and national “stakeholders” – and, resultantly, the UN. In other words, the entire ruse served to entrench ARK’s central role in peace negotiations via the backdoor.

Diminished western influence

At that time, the ceasefire deal proposed by the UN required Ansarallah and its allied forces to virtually surrender before Riyadh’s military assaults and economic blockade of the country could be partially lifted, along with other stringent requirements that the Saudis refused to compromise on. The US aggressively encouraged such intransigence, viewing any Ansarallah influence in Yemen as strengthening Iran’s regional position.

However, these perspectives are no longer relevant to Yemen’s peace process. China has now encouraged Riyadh to offer significant concessions, and as a result, the end of the war is within sight, with critical supplies finally allowed to enter Yemen, prisoners returned, Sanaa’s airport reopened, and other positive developments.

Evidently, Washington’s offers of arms deals and security assurances are no longer sufficient to influence events overseas and convince its allies to carry out its agenda. The failure of ARK’s anti-Ansarallah propaganda campaigns to coerce Yemenis to accept peace on the west’s terms also highlights Britain’s significantly reduced power in the modern era.

Whereas wars could once be won on the coat-tails of well-laid propaganda campaigns, the experiences of Yemen, Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan show that the tide has turned. Subversive information campaigns can confuse and misdirect populations but, at best, can only prolong conflict – not win it.

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