Wednesday, 4 May 2016


The British government is waging information warfare in Syria by funding media operations for some rebel fighting groups, in the foreign front of what David Cameron has called “the propaganda war” against Islamic State. 

The campaign aims to boost the reputation of what the government calls the “moderate armed opposition”, a complex and shifting alliance of armed factions.

Deciding which factions to support is risky for the government because many groups have become increasingly extremist as the five-year civil war grinds on. Contractors hired by the Foreign Office but overseen by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) produce videos, photos, military reports, radio broadcasts, print products and social media posts branded with the logos of fighting groups, and effectively run a press office for opposition fighters.

Materials are circulated in the Arabic broadcast media and posted online with no indication of British government involvement. 

As the Guardian has reported, the Home Office’s Office of Security and Counter-Terrorism is running a parallel effort within the UK, aiming to bring about “behavioural and attitudinal change” among British Muslims by producing anti-Isis messaging “at an industrial pace and scale”.

In both the foreign and domestic campaigns, the government’s role is often concealed.

Messages are put out under the banner of apparently independent groups – community organisations in the UK, and armed groups in Syria. 

The UK regards information as a vital element of modern conflict.

The MoD has drawn up a doctrine describing information as “so prevalent, potent and unavoidable that it forms as much a part of the strategic environment as the terrain or weather”, and saying how it should be managed through “strategic communications”. 

The UK’s propaganda effort for the Syrian armed opposition began after the government failed to persuade parliament to support military action against the Assad regime

In autumn 2013, the UK embarked on behind-the-scenes work to influence the course of the war by shaping perceptions of opposition fighters. 

Contract documents seen by the Guardian show the government appears to view the project as a way to maintain a foothold in the country until there can be greater British military involvement, offering “the capability to expand back into the strategic space as and when the opportunity arises”. 

Through its Conflict and Stability Fund the government is spending £2.4m on private contractors working from Istanbul to deliver “strategic communications and media operations support to the Syrian moderate armed opposition” (MAO). 

The contract is part of a broader propaganda effort focused on Syria, with other elements intended to promote “the moderate values of the revolution” and help mould a Syrian sense of national identity that will reject both the Assad regime and Isis.

The documents call for contractors to “select and train a spokesman able to represent all the MAO groups as a single unified voice”, as well as providing media coaching to “influential MAO officials” and running a round-the-clock “MAO central media office” with “media production capacity”.

One British source with knowledge of the contracts in action said the government was essentially running a “Free Syrian army press office”.

The contract to support the moderate armed opposition was briefly held by Regester Larkin, an international communications consultancy, where it was headed up by a former lieutenant colonel in the British army who had also worked as a strategic communications specialist at the MoD. 

He set up a company called Innovative Communications & Strategies, or InCoStrat, which took over the contract from November 2014, a Regester Larkin spokeswoman told the Guardian. 

An InCoStrat spokesman confirmed: “InCoStrat is providing media and communication support to the moderate Syrian opposition to assist Syrians to better convey the reality of war and those involved in it.” 

Both emphasised the close supervision of the work by the British government.

An insider also described “tremendous oversight”, with handlers from the FCO and MoD meeting contractors up to three times a week. 

“They had the last say in everything,” the source said. 

Much of the material produced under these contracts is day-to-day wartime propaganda, aimed at Syrian civilian and military audiences.

It includes bulletins of successful military engagements, or videos of opposition fighters handing out food. Some media, however, serve an additional military purpose, two sources familiar with the projects said.

For example, a video of a shoulder-to-air missile shooting down a regime helicopter signals to those inside Syria that the group is well-armed and effective.

But it also sends a message to those arming the group. “That’s good PR to go back to the Pentagon,” the insider said. 

An MoD spokeswoman emphasised that the groups the UK supports are moderate. 

But identifying which groups really are is fraught with risk, as they can commit unpalatable acts or ally with groups considered unacceptably extremist. 

The contracting document seen by the Guardian lists several “mid-level units” as examples of groups considered to be part of the “moderate armed opposition”. 

These include Harakat al-Hazm, which received military assistance from the US, and Jaysh al-Islam, a group reportedly set up with Saudi backing.

But six months before the document was written in November 2014, Human Rights Watch identified Jaysh al-Islam as the likely kidnappers of four human rights activists in December 2013. 

The four are widely assumed to have been murdered. 

The group has also been criticised for using imprisoned civilians as human shields, and for releasing a glossy video last June showing the grisly murder of 18 captive Isis fighters, a war crime under the Geneva convention. 

The government initially denied that the group was referenced in its contracting documents. 

It later acknowledged that it was mentioned but said it was referenced in the document as part of a description of how other groups had described the moderate armed opposition.

An MoD spokeswoman said: 

“Jaysh al-Islam has never been given any assistance by the MoD, FCO or any contractors working on HMG’s [Her Majesty’s government] behalf … All recipients of our assistance are rigorously assessed to ensure they are not involved in any extremist activity or human rights abuses.” 

A source said contractors had provided media support for Harakat al-Hazm, but the group collapsed in March 2015 and its weaponry, including anti-tank missiles provided by the US, fell into the hands of the al-Nusra Front, a group that has pledged allegiance to al-Qaida. An MoD spokeswoman said:

“The UK has been a longstanding supporter of themoderate opposition in Syria, who are standing up to both the tyranny of the Assad regime and the poisonous and murderous ideology of Daesh [Isis].” 


A government propaganda unit has been covertly running a humanitarian campaign that helps funnel aid to Syrian refugees, confidential documents seen by the Guardian reveal.

Help for Syria appears to be an independent campaign to provide shelter, water and education to Syrians who have fled their homes during the civil war.

However, the the leaked papers show how the propaganda unit has been secretly using the campaign as a counter-radicalisation scheme, targeting Britons who want to help fellow Muslims suffering in the war.

The unit sought to divert British Muslims into becoming involved in UK-based charities instead of travelling to Syria to join the jihad or become an aid worker.

Its involvement in Help for Syria has been concealed from the public by the government.

The humanitarian campaign was promoted in universities around the country where thousands of students were not told that it was part of the government’s counter-radicalisation work.

One graduate hired to work on the campaign without being told of the propaganda unit’s involvement said the government was being “quite devious” by “going behind people’s backs”.

The campaign says it has disseminated adverts to more than 1 million Facebook users and sent out regular messages on Twitter.

The leaked papers show that it has delivered leaflets to 760,000 households across the country.

Help for Syria styles itself as an “online resource providing advice and guidance for anyone who wants to raise money and aid for Syria”.

On its website, it declares its purpose as advising the public about how to organise fundraising events in Britain while recommending a number of approved UK-based charities.

However, it has not openly advertised the government’s involvement since it was set up three years ago.

According to the leaked documents, Help for Syria was designed and delivered by a commercial contractor, Breakthrough Media Network, at the behest of the government’s propaganda arm, the Research Information and Communications Unit (Ricu).

Based at the Home Office, Ricu has organised an elaborate propaganda effort in recent years to combat the threat of jihadi terror attacks.

Breakthrough also described how it “continues to maintain and expand the Help for Syria campaign” for Ricu and the Foreign Office.

According to the papers, Ricu research had shown that “British Muslims were motivated to travel to Syria for two principal reasons – for jihad or to provide humanitarian support to fellow Muslims”.

Films, Facebook and freshers’ fairs

Behind the scenes, Breakthrough ran what it called a multi-channel campaign to encourage British Muslims to become involved with UK-based charities as an “alternative route of satisfying the desire to help the Syrian people”.

Breakthrough was “responsible for the strategic planning, brand design, web build, content generation, social media activity and event delivery of the Help for Syria campaign”, according to a 2014 document.

Its target audience is mainly Muslim men aged 15 to 39.

One prong of the campaign entailed sending Breakthrough staff and freelancers to talk to students at freshers’ fairs in 2013 and 2014 at “targeted universities”.

Breakthrough has privately calculated that the campaign distributed its merchandise and content to more than 10,000 students across Britain in 2013 alone.

“Of these, 2,900 people had a direct conversation with us about the campaign,” it said.

“Following each event, we responded to hundreds of inquiries and messages on how to help the people of Syria,” it noted in one of the leaked documents.

In 2014, the Help for Syria campaign went to 24 freshers’ fairs – including at University College London, Leeds, Hull and Kingston universities – and other public events such as festivals.

A student, Amy Mills, was hired to work on the Help for Syria stall at Cardiff University in September 2014, shortly after graduating.

She said the stall attracted many Muslim students, and flyers and wristbands were distributed to about 1,000 people.

She was told it was a promotional campaign to direct people to the Help for Syria website.

She had no idea that Help for Syria was being used as a counter-radicalisation scheme until she was contacted by the Guardian.

Mills said: “It seems they are going behind people’s backs and getting people involved with the government, which they might not want to do. It’s quite devious.

“It’s a big propaganda machine really, and using people for government who aren’t necessarily aware that they are being used for government, it’s quite worrying.”

Breakthrough has estimated that Help for Syria has “engaged with 24,000 people” in total in “areas of geographic interest to Her Majesty’s government”, understood to be a reference to where its target audience of Muslims lives.

Of that total, according to Breakthrough, a quarter identified as Muslim and was “in the age range of the target audience”.

Breakthrough has privately cited Help for Syria as an example of how it has changed people’s attitudes and behaviour, adding that the campaign “demonstrated success in influencing people to reconsider travelling to Syria and to seek alternative ways of providing humanitarian assistance from the UK”.

A second prong is its social media strategy.

In the leaked documents, Breakthrough says its social media audience allows it “to reach up to 1,138,000 Facebook users per week who see a post from Help for Syria in their feed”.

The third prong of the campaign involved producing films – which were distributed on the Help for Syria website and its YouTube channel – that have been seen by more than 100,000 “targeted individuals”, according to Breakthrough.

The firm has been an integral part of the covert propaganda campaign run by Ricu in recent years.

“Breakthrough has extensive experience working on confidential and sensitive projects, including those for which content needs to be attributed to partner organisations, [including but not limited to Help for Syria],” it said in the papers.

Breakthrough declined to comment in detail.

It said: “Breakthrough Media is enormously proud to be able to provide a wide range of community groups with the help and support they need to tell their stories, confront extremism in all its forms and build stronger, safer communities.”

The Home Office said Help for Syria was a “campaign website developed at the request of the Humanitarian Group for Syria, an established umbrella group representing three registered aid charities”.

It added: “Representatives of the Humanitarian Group for Syria approached Ricu seeking communications support to bring the campaign to life given the shared aims of discouraging people from travelling to Syria and encouraging charitable giving to legitimate aid organisations.”

Two of the charities, Syria Relief and Hand in Hand for Syria, have told the Guardian that they were not aware of the nature of Ricu’s work.

The third, Human Care Syria, did not respond when asked for a comment.

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