It’s a year since the founder of the White Helmets James le Mesurier took his own life by jumping from the third floor bedroom window of his Istanbul flat. The Daily Mail and the Guardian both have long articles this week on the subject, which is not surprising. The rightwing Daily Mail is naturally sympathetic to stories of bravery by a British ex-Army Officer, and the leftwing Guardian long ago transformed itself into the house magazine of MI6. (Our spies were always masters of disguise.)
The Mail’s angle is that, contrary to what you might think, le Mesurier wasn’t murdered by the Russians.
Le Mesurier’s work in Syria quickly drew international recognition, much to the irritation of Russian and Assad. In 2016, the White Helmets were nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. As his profile grew, so too did the increasingly outrageous propaganda attacks from Moscow, who labelled the White Helmets a ‘fake humanitarian group’ that was run by Western spies and was ‘pro-jihadist’ […] Given that many opponents of the Kremlin have met an untimely death by falling from windows, it was natural that Le Mesurier’s death would be greeted with suspicion […] However, the latest BBC documentary confirms the official narrative favoured by the Turkish police, which is that the humanitarian worker died by his own hand after being subjected to prolonged stress.
The Guardian’s story is mainly about the baseless accusations of fraud and embezzlement that pushed le Mesurier into depression and suicide, accusations which are treated in painstaking detail.
[See Appendix for more on the financial aspects of the Guardian’s story.]
But it also mentions the Russians, and thickens the plot:
In the years before Le Mesurier’s death, he and the White Helmets had become the focus of an online disinformation campaign led by Russian and Syrian officials and peddled by pro-Assad bloggers, alt-right media figures and self-described anti-imperialists.
Later, the article speaks of:
..the constant disinformation. “But it was always there. James, without knowing it, had woken an army,” said Eliot Higgins, the founder and CEO of Bellingcat, an investigative journalism organisation that has focused on Russian influence in Syria and elsewhere. “The core of the provocateurs was a fringe anti-imperialist community that existed for a while alone. Russia took these people under their wing and used them to start lying constantly about the White Helmets.”
The reaction of the average curious reader to both articles must be: “Why are they telling me this? Why protest so much? Why do the Mail and the BBC make such a big deal of the fact that it wasn’t the Russians that did it, given that no-one has suggested they did? Why is the Guardian devoting this long, meticulously researched article to a minute examination of a few thousand dollars allegedly missing from the accounts of an international mission with an annual budget of tens of millions?” (The UK government alone provided £43 million over three years.)
Both stories rely heavily on interviews with le Mesurier’s widow, Emma Winberg. She was sleeping when her husband jumped from the terrace. She suffered from the same accusations of financial irregularities as her husband before his tragic death, then from the terrible event itself, and finally from the inevitable investigations by the Turkish police, before taking up the reins of the Mayday Rescue operation where her husband left off. Her story is equally tragic. She is a central figure in the history of the White Helmets.
So who is Emma Winberg? The website of the organisation which runs the White Helmets, the Mayday Rescue Foundation, doesn’t mention her. It still lists James le Mesurier as its director.
However, on the website of the Skoll Foundation she is listed as strategy director for Mayday Rescue and describes herself thus:
As a Director of Mayday Rescue Foundation my focus is on developing new solutions for building upstream grassroots community resilience in the context of global threats from issues such as forced migration, violent extremism and climate change.
I believe that by empowering vulnerable communities and equipping them with a basic and versatile toolkit of skills and means to prepare for, respond to and adapt to the man-made and natural threats that they face, we can increase their intrinsic resilience. By fostering networks of these communities through the shared language, philosophy and approach of community resilience-building we can help transcend ethnic, sectarian and cultural divisions.
My background is in security, stabilisation and peace building in states that are entering, enduring and emerging from conflict. My postings have been in Kabul, Damascus, East Jerusalem, Istanbul and Erbil with shorter postings in Yemen and East Africa.
I have been working in the Middle East and South Asia for the past ten years, first as a member of the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office and subsequently in the fields of strategic communications and community resilience. I am fluent in English, Swedish and Arabic.
ARRESTING DEFORESTATION: ECONOMIC OPPORTUNITY: ENVIRONMENTAL SUSTAINABILITY: HUMAN RIGHTS: INTERNATIONAL JUSTICE: LIVELIHOODS: PEACE: PEACE AND HUMAN RIGHTS: WOMEN’S AND GIRLS’ EDUCATION: YOUTH JOB SKILLS
(Links in the last paragraph are by Skoll and not by me.)
That’s ten areas of expertise exercised in seven areas of the Middle East. Quite a workload. The Guardian takes up the story:
From the moment that Emma Winberg first sat down with Le Mesurier, their lives changed. It was March 2016, and Winberg had sought a meeting in Istanbul with a man to whom she had twice been briefly introduced to at garden parties, and had considered charming, and intense. Winberg, a former British diplomat, arrived at Mayday’s Istanbul offices with work in mind. At the time she was working for a communications firm in northern Iraq, devising grassroots strategies to disrupt Isis, which was running rampant through the region. She hoped to convince Le Mesurier to help with a project raising teams of locals to safeguard communities above the Mosul dam, which engineers had feared might collapse.The plan went nowhere, but the meeting lasted long into the night. “By the time we finished our fourth bottle of wine, I knew we were going to be together,” Le Mesurier said in late 2018. “She was the partner I wanted.”
A few observations:
– Mosul is in Iraq, which wasn’t mentioned as one of her postings. You’d think that someone whose job had been to disrupt Isis would have mentioned it in her CV
– Mosul is a hell of a long way away from the areas where the White Helmets were working, which include Syria, the Lebanon, and Somalia, according to their website
– If a dam was in danger of collapse, wouldn’t you want to protect communities below the dam, and not above it?
– Is it wise for the Foreign Office to employ foreign nationals who knock back two bottles of wine in a single meeting, especially a meeting that went nowhere?
More on Emma Winberg can be found in this article by Kit Klarenberg
Apparently Emma is a director of a Dutch company founded by le Mesurier – Sisu Global BV – which has never filed accounts, in breach of Dutch law. Winberg also founded InCoStrat, a mysterious company whose website lists no names of directors or employees, and is extremely vague about what it does:
What we do
We believe that the success of any given policy hinges on its communication: how we articulate our policy intent internally and externally, the actions we choose to realise that intent and the meaning we create around those actions. For a policy to achieve its desired effect, all three must be mutually consistent, harmonious and resonant
Our mission is to use our nuanced cultural and political understanding of the environments in which we operate to develop campaigns that help our clients achieve their overarching policy objectives
We define our success by the value and impact we deliver on behalf of our clients
According to Klarenberg:
InCoStrat also established Basma – “a media platform providing human interest stories and campaigns that support [UK government] policy objectives.”
Once a Foreign Office “Political Officer,” always a Foreign Office “Political Officer.” And if you can also offer expertise in climate change, environmental sustainability, and arresting deforestation, so much the better.
They talk of little else in Kabul and the Yemen.
Appendix: The Financial Irregularities
From the Guardian article:
In the last week of Le Mesurier’s life, the years of stress came to a head. On 7 November, four days before he died, he sat with a new team of auditors for a fateful meeting […] “There were allegations of remuneration benefits being extreme, of unauthorised cash payments for personal reasons, of differences between the amounts received and disbursed […] Not long before he died, a distressed Le Mesurier had told friends that the claims had seemed to come from nowhere.[…] the nature of the issues it flagged shocked Le Mesurier to his core.
One transaction in particular had remained unresolved since the June audit […]: $50,000 in cash that Le Mesurier had withdrawn from the Mayday safe in July 2018, to support a mission to evacuate up to 400 White Helmets members and their families from southern Syria to Jordan. Whether that money had been properly accounted for was flagged earlier […] and was now being scrutinised once more. In a wartorn country like Syria, where everything runs on cash, the lack of electronic records made old-school bookkeeping essential. According to Mayday’s former head of compliance, Nadera al-Sukkar, the balance of the money that Le Mesurier had not used – $40,800 – was returned, but was recorded in a ledger that had made it hard to locate on Mayday’s books. Le Mesurier had not kept receipts for the incremental sums, comprising the $9,200 he had spent in Jordan, and he couldn’t remember returning the balance. In late May 2019, Le Mesurier met his finance team to try to resolve the issue, and decided to backdate a receipt to provide to the auditors. “It was not illegal, but it was shady,” al-Sukkar told me.
In a wartorn country like Syria, where everything runs on cash, the lack of electronic records made old-school bookkeeping essential. According to Mayday’s former head of compliance, Nadera al-Sukkar, the balance of the money that Le Mesurier had not used – $40,800 – was returned, but was recorded in a ledger that had made it hard to locate on Mayday’s books. Le Mesurier had not kept receipts for the incremental sums, comprising the $9,200 he had spent in Jordan, and he couldn’t remember returning the balance. In late May 2019, Le Mesurier met his finance team to try to resolve the issue, and decided to backdate a receipt to provide to the auditors. “It was not illegal, but it was shady,” al-Sukkar told me.
Let’s leave aside the fact that the Guardian article, while quoting at length the two Dutchmen closely involved, somehow fails to mention the source of the story, which was an article in the Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant, summarised in English here.
Let’s instead look at the figures.
They make no sense. How can you transport 400 White Helmets members and their families from southern Syria to Jordan (say, 2000 men, women and children) across a frontier in a war zone (presumably into refugee camps) for $9,200 – less than five dollars a head? How can the Dutch auditors (who are the villains of the Guardian story) possibly expect receipts? If le Mesurier wanted to embezzle $40,800, what was to stop him? Or do warlords, Jihadists, coach companies and motorway cafeterias in wartorn Southern Syria, not to mention Jordanian customs officials, automatically provide receipts for all transactions?
The long and the short of the Guardian article (and it’s a very long article) is that le Mesurier took his life because he’d been caught out backdating a receipt for money that should have been spent helping a couple of thousand people to escape probable torture and beheading, but unaccountably wasn’t; money that existed when it shouldn’t have. Peanuts in a war that has cost billions of dollars and the lives of hundreds of thousands of Syrians, and caused the displacement of millions.
While we’re talking dollars, let’s consider for a moment the socio-economic aspects of living in a country with a four thousand year history, a relatively high level of sophistication (compared to its neighbours) which is suddenly reduced to rubble, with most of its population dead or displaced. The White Helmets are reported to be paid either 30 dollars or 150 dollars a day. (Given that they don’t get bombarded every day, the difference is immaterial to the argument here.) A soldier in the Syrian army is paid five dollars a day. It is in the interest of an able-bodied Syrian male to live in a Jihadist-controlled area, and risk being decapitated by his protectors or bombarded by the Syrian Air Force, rather than in a government-controlled area, with the certainty of being enlisted and paid a pittance, and with the same risk of being captured and decapitated. Particularly if he can get rich being photographed carrying babies out of bombed buildings. In these circumstances, the Jihadist don’t even have to fight. They just have to let the dollars keep flowing in.