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Adam Curtis | 15:54 UK time, Friday, 8 January 2010

What I find so fascinating about the reporting of the War on Terror is the way almost all of it ignores history - as if it is a conflict happening outside time. The Yemen is a case in point. In the wake of the underpants bomber we have been deluged by a wave of terror journalism about this dark mediaeval country that harbours incomprehensible fanatics who want to destroy the west. None of it has explained that only forty years ago the British government fought a vicious secret war in the Yemen against republican revolutionaries who used terror, including bombing airliners.

But the moment you start looking into that war you find out all sorts of extraordinary things.

First that the chaos that has engulfed the Yemen today and is breeding new terrorist threats against the west is a direct result of that conflict of forty years ago.

Secondly it also had a powerful and corrupting effect on Britain itself. To fight the war both Conservative and Labour governments in the 1960s set up international arms deals with the Saudis. These involved bribery on a huge scale which led to the Al Yamamah scandal that still festers today.

To fight the war in secret the British government also allowed the creation of a private mercenary force. Out of it would come today's privatized military industry that fights wars for dictators throughout Africa and is deeply involved in fighting against the insurgency in Iraq.

The key figure behind Britain's involvement was called Colonel David Stirling. He brought Britain into the war, created the mercenary amy, and set up the Saudi Arms deal. Stirling was one of the main characters in a documentary series I made called The Mayfair Set, and a large part of the first episode tells the inside story of Britain's role in the Yemen war in the 1960s. I thought I would put up that section plus a brief background to our whole involvement in Yemen.

Here is a map of Aden in the 1960s: 


And here is one of the Yemen:

yemenmapjpg.jpgAden had been a crucial part of the British Empire since 1839. In 1963 a rebellion began. A nationalist group called the National Liberation Front started an armed revolt against the British army. The NLF were followers of Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser who was the president of Egypt. Nasser was an extraordinary figure who inspired the whole of the Arab world. He wanted to unite all the Arab countries and use that power to force the western colonial powers out of the Middle East.

By the mid 60s the revolt had developed into a bitter and vicious insurgency as the NLF used terror against British civilians as well as attacking the soldiers. Here is some footage shot by the BBC Panorama programme of the aftermath of the killing of a British Civil Servant on a dusty road just outside the Crater district of Aden. As well as showing the details it also conveys the mood of a once confident imperial power caught up in something it doesn't fully understand and feeling its power slipping away.

It is also interesting how back then Panorama broadcast shots that lingered far longer on the dead body than we would be allowed to today.

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As the insurgency continued both sides turned to terror. An Amnesty report in 1966 alleged that the British were torturing prisoners including beating them and burning them with cigarettes. The British soldiers were also stripping the Arab prisoners naked to humiliate them.

Here is a short piece of film that was grabbed by a Reuters cameraman in 1967. It graphically shows the hatred of the local people that had built up in the British troops.

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The terrorists meanwhile had resorted to throwing grenades into childrens' parties and had blown up a DC3 civilian airliner over the Yemen killing everyone on board. Here is a news item where a BBC journalist shows some of the Improvised Explosive Devices that were being used against civilians.

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At the same time as the insurgency began in the south, in Aden, another revolution happened in the North Yemen. A group of republicans who were also followers of President Nasser overthrew the ruling royal family. Nasser then sent Egyptian troops to support the republicans. 

Many in the British government wanted to recognise the new regime, but a small group in the security services, led by David Stirling, persuaded the Prime Minister, Harold MacMillan, to let them organise a covert war in the deserts and mountains of Yemen in support of the royal family.

These men had a romantic and simplified view of the world. They did not see this war as a nationalist struggle but as part of a much wider fight against a communist takeover of the world. Engaging in this global conflict would be a way of recapturing Britain's power and greatness.

Stirling also believed that selling arms and planes to the Saudis would not only help fight the war, but would also re-establish Britain's influence in the Middle East in a new way - through the arms trade.

And he was right. Although the mecenaries failed to restore the royalists in Yemen, they did help defeat Nasser and destroy his anti-colonial project. But more than that, their secret war also helped re-establish western influence in the Arab world in a new way. In a post-imperial age the British returned to the Middle East by supporting and propping up regimes through selling arms and through mercenary armies. Just as Stirling had intended.

But it had a terrible price.

The regimes that Britain, and America, would support for the next forty years were mostly corrupt and despotic. The very regimes that Nasser had told the Arab world were a part of the past which the modern world would sweep away. The man who foresaw this was the British Prime Minister - Harold MacMillan. In 1963 he wrote privately:

"It is repugnant to political equity and prudence alike that we should so often appear to be supporting out-of-date and despotic regimes and to be opposing the growth of modern and more democratic forms of government."

The Islamism that we face today rose up in the 1970s precisely as a reaction to those corrupt regimes and their western backers. It too is an anti-colonial project that is very similar to Nasser's vision of a united Arab world free of western influence - but with religion bolted on. And now, to fight it, we are preparing to send arms and "intelligence advisers" to help prop up a corrupt regime in Yemen.

To the Arabs in Yemen it must seem like deja vu. We are the old ghosts who have returned.

Here is the section from The Mayfair Set. It begins with the owner of the Clermont Club in Mayfair, John Aspinall, musing on the group of entrepreneurs and adventurers who spent their time gambling in his club. Men like David Stirling.

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  • Comment number 1.

    Just wonderful. Nice to see you referring to your past work; The Mayfair Set is one of your best documentaries. I was curious about what you thought of the recent reportage of the Yemen bomber, and you seem to have answered that question quite nicely.

  • Comment number 2.

    The Mayfair Set is great, and because it just watched it a few days ago, it's nice to see an article that refers to it.

    Is the Western world really a ghost? This article talks about Stirling and the British fighting the National Liberation Front in Yemen and how that set conditions for the future. But what is going on today (I haven't been keeping up with news this is an actual question) What does America plan to do?

  • Comment number 3.

    This is so interesting and relevant, you make things clear that were confusing at the time. Hadn't heard of Stirling before. I've learned so much from your blogs and do hope they are widely read.

  • Comment number 4.

    This is, truly, the most informative, eye-opening blog I have ever seen. Adam Curtis is the greatest mind of our time. Cliche though it is, his work always makes me think of that old orwell quote about how in times of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act. If that's true, Curtis is like a modern Jefferson. His mind is a credit and a boon to the English speaking world, and damned if he doesn't deserve the Nobel Prize for his body of work.

  • Comment number 5.

    Only just found your blog, and co-incidentally have just finished re-watching The Mayfair Set this morning for the umpteenth time.
    Yes, modern conflict does seem to exist in an historical vacuum - there are GCSE students who could have told Blair Iraq was a bad idea (I look forward to seeing him in front of Chilton, by his recent comments he seems to have vanished up his own backside completely, and to now completely believe his own myths, so he should come out with some choice assertions)
    Thanks so much for all your films - watching The Power Of Nightmares in 2004 was like taking the red pill in The Matrix, everything made horrifying sense.

  • Comment number 6.

    Very interesting, nice to see you reacting quickly to current news in this way. Don't be afraid to go into more detail and make your posts larger - like you have said in interviews you have a more captive audience here that has more time to read and digest your work.

    September 11th was year zero for a lot of people, nothing of consequence exists before it and what we are experiencing now they feel is so totally new, such uncharted territory that colonial and post-colonial history is useless to them/us.

  • Comment number 7.

    After having doggedly read this blog, I would just like to say thank you so much, and I hope you will continue making the inaccessible accessible, and the misunderstood understood :]

  • Comment number 8.

    I served as a Political Officer in the Western Aden Protectorate for 7 years and know many of the people in Adam Curtis's article. This is far and away the best summary I have read of this ghastly period of British mis-rule. Britain shot itself in the foot in a big way; Aden was arguably the greatest disaster of the decolonisation period.

    Throughout my time in South Arabia Iwas guarded by Arab tribal levies and stayed in touch with them and their tribes subsequently. Many now live and work in the Gulf. Thank goodness we pulled out of the Gulf in time - the locals then stood on their own feet and didn't have to swing with the vagaries of British politics.

    Amazingly, the Yemenis retain a real affection for the British and yearn today for a Brtish counter-balance to US militarism. One tribal leader, now a senior officer inthe UAE armed forces, rang me just now to express support for Brown's initiative to call a conference on Yemen in London later this month. Yemen today faces horrendous problems - grinding poverty, corruption, a brutal and unpopular government. Dealing with Al Qaedaa by bombing alleged hideouts - one such raid recently killed 45 innocent civilians, according the the government's own account - will drive more into their arms.

  • Comment number 9.

    I live in Ecuador, and I can't check out the second video for some reason. The embedded video player's screen is grayed and it says "Not available in your area." In the BBC website normally this happens with certain copyrighted content, mostly pop music videos, but this is a newsreel just like the other two in this page - why is this?

  • Comment number 10.

    Carlos IE, The BBC does censor certain copyrighted content, But Adam Curtis said that he has asked the bbc not to do so with his. Although they agreed certain content is still blocked. But in this case I think it is blocked because it shows someone being killed (I think). I live in America and it is blocked here aswell

  • Comment number 11.

    Adam Curtis is, according to William Burroughs' definition, a paranoid: i.e., "a person," he once told me in Provence over a bottle of wine, "who is in possession of all the facts."

  • Comment number 12.

    I cannot see some of the videos because I live in Sweden. Terrible.
    I wish this blog was on an independent site.

  • Comment number 13.

    Just a brief explanation as why the second clip in the Yemen entry is blocked for international viewing. It's not because of the content - it's simply because the film is not BBC copyright. It was filmed by Reuters/ITN and I can't afford to pay for world rights on it - it's as simple as that - sorry.

  • Comment number 14.

    Thanks for the explanation. Keep up the excellent work.

  • Comment number 15.

    ...and now there's the Bin Laden tape. The plot thickens, as they say. What are people's thoughts on this brand new revelation? Proof that Al-Qaida does exist as a secret organized network, or wilful distortion by a group of Islamists bent on scaring people and making themselves look bigger than they are? No doubt this will give more fuel to those in the media and political elite who believe in the picture of Al-Qaida that has been sold to us for the past 9 years.

    I don't know what to think anymore, really; my instinct, informed as it is by Curtis' excellent work, says that it's all a load of inflated nonsense...but neither do I want to believe that the government and the media are conspiring to create an imaginary threat in order to keep us scared. Threat or no threat it feels so frustating to be stuck in this kind of Cold War attitude, where we are constantly under the siege and the war, both at home and abroad, never relents.

  • Comment number 16.

    I have really enjoyed Adam's documentaries. He provides a lot of information and insight that is hard to find in American corporate media. A book I highly recommend on the role of the Anglo-American oil companies on foreign affairs is "A Century of War" by William Engdahl. It would make one hell of a documentary.

  • Comment number 17.

    As a former U.S. Army Reserve Military Intelligence Analyst and DAT (i.e. Dumb _ss Tanker), I found Adam Curtis's report YEMEN - THE RETURN OF OLD GHOSTS to be a really rather amusing bit of historical reporting that perhaps puts a few things into context... even though I am generally rather skeptical of anything anyone says, including what my Uncle Sam and I might say. By the way, does anyone know if the Queen has considered Colonel David Stirling for knighthood? Quite frankly, in my opinion, he is about as worthy of it as the "pirate" Sir Francis Drake, who - if I'm not mistaken - was also working for the Queen of England.

    That, of course, is a joke. Before I'd recommend Colonel Stirling for knighthood, I'd recommend British Royal Army Corporal T.E. Lawrence "of Arabia" for his wisely warning the British Empire roughly 90 years ago that someday the Arabs would get upset at their treatment by the British and French Empires and seek their "revenge" or whatever one wishes to call it.

    Then, again, Lawrence was made a Companion of the Order of the Bath and awarded the Distinguished Service Order and the French Légion d'Honneur, however he REFUSED to be made a Knight Commander of the British Empire in 1918. And, after his in death in 1935, a bust of Corporal Lawrence was placed in Saint Paul's Cathedral, facing Nelson's sarcophagus. That was much more "honor" than he felt he was due after tricking his Arab friends into revolting against the Ottoman Empire in World War I.

    Perhaps if a stray Turkish bullet extinguished Lawrence's life much earlier, then perhaps we'd not currently be engaged in this relatively minor so-called "War on Terror" and we might be facing an angry, united Ottoman Empire instead. However, then again, as Lawrence knew, people do not like bowing to anyone else's empire, therefore... the Ottoman Empire would've fallen just as did the British and French Empires... perhaps...

    In any case, Adam Keith's report is "food for thought" and, when taken in light of other matters, such as how the British Empire and the United States of America (NOT to be confused with any sort of "an empire" as some liberal, anti-Americans - such as "Teddy" Roosevelt - have asserted :)... which reminds me of how "King George the Second," who is such a big fan of "Teddy," insisted that THE PHILIPPINES were the example of what the U.S. was doing in Iraq in 2003... which is ODD as "Teddy" himself referred to the Philippines as a part of "the American Empire"... COMPLICATED HISTORY!).... Circa 1953, the U.S. and Brits evidently cooperated in installing Shah Palavi (Spelling? Who cares?) in Iran and getting rid of parliamentary democracy there... despite the U.S. having told my father's generation of World War II veterans that We were fighting for "democracy"... and my grandfather's generation of World War I veterans that they were fighting for "democracy." Hardy-har-har! Very funny... NOT!

    Perhaps USMC Brigadier General Smedley Butler was correct when he stated in his book WAR IS A RACKET that his Uncle Sam was worse than Al Capone and had invaded more than one country for the purposes of ensuring U.S. corporations controlled other people's oil resources. Manifest Destiny and all that rot, what-what...


    Lest any of my fellow Yanks dismiss me as some "anti-American" or simply "stupid," perhaps I should note that I scored in the high top 1% on the USMC officer corps candidate exam when I tried to enlist in the early 1980s out of overly patriotic and zealous reasons... Okay, so the Communists obliterated my grandfather's hometown in Finland in 1939, and the Viet Cong killed my much respected neighbor Major Howard Henry of the USMC in 1969... on VETERANS DAY, 12 November of 1969... and subsequently the VC shot at and hit both my grandmother's bus and airplane when she was in Vietnam on a peaceful, religious mission with the Roman Catholic Blue Army.

    Ooops! I just realized that I'm probably going to be read by at least one or two Brits, ergo... perhaps I shouldn't mention my Catholic upbringing, however... I've drank with enough British soldiers (as well as a few IRA-suspects) to have a "vague idea" of what's gone on there between Ireland and England... i.e. people not playing "nicely" with one another and, then, calling the other side "bad names" and what-not... in an endless series of "revenge" and "reprisal."

    As my fellow American Rodney King once said, "Why can't we all just learn to get along together?," or something like that.

    $$$$$! That is one reason: Money makes the world go 'round and various people, such as Colonel Stirling, are willing to do almost anything to make a buck or a pound.

    However, such people also do such for allegedly "moral" and "ethical" reasons.

    Colonel T.E. Lawrence, I believe, was an honorable man and I can understand why he threw his bloody medals in a river and refused his King's highest honors... amusingly in front of 3,000 of his fellow soldiers. His service to humanity and the world probably will be remembered long after most other memories of the British Empire fade to dust. Colonel Lawrence certainly is much more widely known than any Colonel Stirling.

    However, what might we really learn from Yemen?

    Perhaps we - as a species - should learn that "Ike" (Eisenhower) was right to say, "War solves nothing." Perhaps instead of learning how to use machine-guns, explosives, and other amusing little "toys," we should instead concentrate our efforts as "soldiers" on what USMC Major Howard Henry told me were his "most powerful weapons"... more powerful than any hydrogen bombs or other WMDs: his WORD and his WORDS.

    . . . . . . . .

    I am not a theologian or a Islamic person at all, however I liked Mohammed's answer to the question about HOW can one "love" one's "brother" when one's "brother" was doing "evil." Mohammed answered that in such a case one "loved" one'e "brother" by stopping him from doing "evil."

    Words are more powerful than the machine-guns and explosives, with which my father and my father's father "played" with in the first and second World Wars. And, yes, my father was very good at using his words to prevent his children in general from doing "evil." Mere words...

    . . . . . . .

    By the way, back in the 1980s, I once asked a friend, retired U.S. Air Force Colonel "Chris" Desauer, if he thought there was "any truth" to the rumors that the U.S. had overthrown parliamentary democracy in Iran in about 1953 and his simple answer was, "I can neither confirm nor deny any such rumor." Desauer, by the way, was one of America's best Arabic, Farsi, and Turkish translators back in the 1950s and '60s, ergo... I would tend to give him some credibility... especially since I've checked his records. Furthermore, a couple of retired CIA agents, who were involved in the matter, have since come forward to verify it.

    By the way, this May will make the 30th anniversary of the Kwangju Incident in which America's allies in South Korea killed "upwards of 2,000" pro-democracy demonstrators. I was in Korea from 1981 to 1984, and drank with some of the Korean officers, who were there on the ground. Funny business.... really.

  • Comment number 18.

    Here is an article that details some of the evidence that Michael Ledeen(one of the neocons in "The Power of Nightmares") actually forged the Niger documents that were used as an excuse to invade Iraq.

  • Comment number 19.

  • Comment number 20.

    Interesting. Do you think we could find a way to deflect the fault of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to the Brits. We Americans would love to have the rest of the world blame someone else besides America.

  • Comment number 21.

    I think that, as with the BP affair, the appeal to nationalistic stances is only confusing the issue, as the actions are jointly undertaken. Those in charge are super-national, like the markets, and dragging up old divisions between the countries serves only to distract from this.

    They are not acting for one country or another, but one ideology. They believe that they are fighting fire with fire; unfortunately, we are the fuel.

  • Comment number 22.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.


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