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Castles Made of Sand: A Century of Anglo-American Espionage and Intervention in the Middle East

Castles Made of Sand: A Century of Anglo-American Espionage and Intervention in the Middle East

by Andre Gerolymatos

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With roots in imperialism and the nineteenth-century mindset of the "Great Game," Western nations have waged an intricate spy game this past century to establish control over the Middle East, secure access to key resources and regions of commerce, and prevent the spread of Soviet communism into the region. From the Suez Canal to the former Ottoman Empire, British


With roots in imperialism and the nineteenth-century mindset of the "Great Game," Western nations have waged an intricate spy game this past century to establish control over the Middle East, secure access to key resources and regions of commerce, and prevent the spread of Soviet communism into the region. From the Suez Canal to the former Ottoman Empire, British and American intelligence communities have conspired to topple regimes and initiate Muslim leaders as pawns in a geopolitical chess game fought against Marxist expansion.

Yet while the Iron Curtain was doomed to fall near the end of the twentieth century, this pattern of tunnel vision has created a different monster. The resulting resurgence of Muslim radicalism, and the induction of Arabs and other Muslims into the dark arts of espionage and sabotage, have only served to fan the flames in an already incendiary region and deepen the tensions between the Middle East and the West today.

An authority on international studies and the history of guerilla warfare, André Gerolymatos offers the contemporary reader insight into the intelligence game that is still waged internationally with lethal intent, and into the Middle Eastern terrorist networks that had evolved over the decades. In this definitive account of covert operations in the Middle East, the author brings to life the extraordinary men and women whose successes and failures have shaped relations, and he reveals how the explosive nature of the region today has direct roots in the history of American and Western intervention.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Gerolymatos (Red Acropolis), a historian at Simon Fraser University, explores the problematic nexus of British and U.S. espionage and diplomacy in the Middle East in this provocative history. Surveying a century of Anglo-American efforts to secure political and economic interests in the region--primarily through the spy craft of Britain's MI6 and America's CIA--the author finds a dismal pattern of policy "held hostage by ephemeral notions and self-delusion." Following the collapse of the Ottoman caliphate after WWI, first the British and later the Americans sought security by "supporting Islamic militancy--including such groups as Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood-- as a counterweight to nationalism and later communism." If the policies were ad hoc, the results were often unintended. Anglo-American support for Islamic extremists inadvertently "stimulated forces that... ultimately spun out of control." The Soviet Union was defeated, but "the new threat to the Middle East would be seen to be the rapidly expanding influence of political Islam." Extensively researched--with detailed source notes and an expansive bibliography--and cogently argued, Gerolymatos's study of diplomacy by espionage is timely and instructive. (Dec.)
Library Journal
The first Western incursion into the Middle East was the Crusades. Using them as a symbol of ongoing aggression and intervention, Gerolymatos, a Canadian historian, looks at the struggle for national independence in the Middle East and South Asia and American and British efforts to manipulate and control the region for their economic and political goals, especially to assure the flow of oil and block the influence of Communism. Gerolymatos examines multiple cases, starting with the political reconfigurations spurred by World War I, and focuses on the growing drive for independence of the Arab states after World War II, complicated by the establishment of Israel. He shows that much Western intelligence was founded on personal relations and romantic delusions rather than factual analysis, leading to support for militant Islam as a barrier to Communism and anti-Western nationalism, eventually contributing to the current attacks by al-Qaeda and worldwide terrorist threats. VERDICT While Gerolymatos covers a wide range of events in several Arab countries, Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan and draws on extensive secondary sources as well as some archives, the result is episodic and lacks a coherent framework. This book is only moderately useful in clarifying an important and complex political issue.—Elizabeth R. Hayford, Evanston, IL
Kirkus Reviews

A chronicle of the failures of Western intelligence operations in the Middle East.

Gerolymatos (History/Simon Fraser Univ.; Red Acropolis, Black Terror: The Greek Civil War and the Origins of Soviet-American Rivalry, 1943–1949, 2004, etc.) delivers an often jaw-dropping account of a century of failure in clandestine attempts to influence Islamic nations. While nearly everyone agrees that the United States rushed into Iraq and Afghanistan ignorant of their politics and culture, the author points out that ignorance of Islamic culture is a hallmark of Western policy. A profound intelligence misstep occurred after World War II when nationalist leaders assumed leadership of newly independent Egypt, Syria and Iraq. None were religious, but they showed a disturbing friendliness toward the Soviet Union. In response, Western policymakers covertly supplied money and military training to their growing, fiercely anticommunist opposition: Islamic fundamentalists. This support flagged in the face of 1970s terrorism but proved irresistible after the 1979 Russian invasion of Afghanistan. Readers may shake their heads in disbelief, but they will keep turning the pages as Gerolymatos recounts disastrous plots to overthrow the supposedly procommunist Syrian government or Egypt's President Nasser. The author also looks at how the U.S. military recruited ex-Nazi military and intelligence officers, supposedly (but not in reality) expert in anti-Soviet espionage. Even successful covert operations turned out badly. For decades after the 1953 Anglo-American–backed coup ousted the democratically elected government of Iran and installed the Shah, U.S. leaders considered it a triumph. Since the Shah's overthrow in 1979, it's become an embarrassment.

Those who suspect espionage is a mug's game will find plenty of evidence here, as well as a great deal of amusement.

Product Details

St. Martin's Press
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
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6.50(w) x 9.40(h) x 1.30(d)

Read an Excerpt

Castles Made of Sand

A Century of Anglo-American Espionage and Intervention in the Middle East

By André Gerolyma

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2010 André Gerolymatos
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-1372-0



"What's all this nonsense about isolating Nasser? I want him destroyed, can't you understand?"

Anthony Eden to Anthony Nutting

At 7:31 P.M. on a pleasantly cool evening with a light breeze from the sea, Gamal Abdel Nasser stood on the podium and began to speak — slowly and quietly at first. Then he grew excited, waving his right hand in sweeping gestures, and soon the crowd responded. Torrents of applause washed over him each time he recalled the past, to highlight Egypt's struggle for independence. Close to 250,000 spectators had jammed into the Midan el Tahir (Place of Liberation) in Alexandria on Tuesday, October 26, 1954, to hear Nasser proclaim the end of British rule in Egypt. Earlier, on October 19, Nasser had signed the formal Evacuation Agreement with Britain's representatives, but Tuesday was reserved for jubilation with the people of Egypt.

As Nasser progressed through his speech, in the eighth row in front of the podium, a round-faced man with a clump of black hair hanging down over his forehead stood up. His hand shook slightly as he aimed a .36 caliber Italian revolver at Nasser and began shooting. The first bullet went wild. The second hit an electric light globe near Nasser's head. The man fired six more times, but remarkably he missed the Egyptian strongman. Nasser heard the deadly explosions streaming past him, blinked, and brushed pieces of the shattered light globe from his shoulders. Despite the near-death experience, he remained calm and, looking at the crowd, shouted over and over: "This is Gamel Abdel Nasser speaking to you. My blood is your blood. My life is yours. You are all Gamel Abdel Nassers. If I had been killed, it would have made no difference, for you would carry on the struggle. You are all Gamel Abdel Nassers."

Initial reports on Mahmud Abd al-Latif could not agree if the would-be assassin was a tinsmith, a carpenter, or a plumber. Eventually the authorities determined that he was a thirty-two-year-old tinsmith from Cairo and had been a Muslim Brother for sixteen years. After torture, he confessed that he had not acted alone but was part of a greater conspiracy organized by the Muslim Brotherhood to kill Nasser and eventually other members of the Revolutionary Command Council. According to Latif, the MB contacted him in early October, and he had chosen to act on October 19, the day that Nasser signed the new Anglo-Egyptian treaty, which was condemned by the Brotherhood as an act of treason because it afforded the British the opportunity to reoccupy the Suez Canal in case of war. But he could not find the appropriate opportunity to execute the plan until October 26. Although the treaty infuriated the Muslim Brothers, the failure of the Free Officers, who had seized power in 1952, to transform Egypt into an Islamic state was the primary motive for the plot to kill Nasser and overthrow the government.

The Muslim Brothers were not the only ones who despised Nasser enough to kill him. Anthony Eden, Britain's last imperial prime minister, had developed an almost pathological hatred for Egypt's new hero. In a fit of fury, Eden had ordered MI6, the British intelligence service, to kill Nasser at all costs. Nasser, however, was convinced that the British were in collusion with the MB and said so in a victory speech on December 21, 1965, in which he accused the Brotherhood of holding conspiratorial meetings at the British embassy in Cairo.

There may have been a grain of truth in this accusation, because MI6 had never quite developed sufficient expertise to deal with assassination and often outsourced such activity. During the course of the Second World War, for example, MI6 employed third parties to eliminate problematical Axis agents, but special operations and killing were practiced with considerable skill by its wartime equivalent, the Special Operations Executive (SOE). After the war, MI6 absorbed some sections of the SOE that included individuals who had experience in assassination into its Special Operations Branch, but elimination of unwanted elements was still farmed out to third parties. Although the British government had abandoned assassination as part of clandestine warfare by 1950, it continued to receive credence within certain ranks of MI6.

Overall, the British attempts to kill Nasser, with one possible exception, bordered on the ludicrous. One plan involved flooding the ventilation system in one of Nasser's headquarters with nerve gas, but Eden rescinded it in favor of a joint French-Israeli operation that failed to bear fruit. Another effort relied on using a group of renegade Egyptian officers, but that too collapsed when the weapons to be used proved defective. MI6 also contemplated using a dart tipped with poison and fired from a cigarette pack, but that also was scrapped because it would have been impossible to avoid a direct link between the British and Nasser's death.

In 1956, a German mercenary was hired to murder the Egyptian leader. When he arrived in Cairo, however, the Egyptian authorities received an anonymous warning about him, and he surreptitiously left the country. Other comic-book-style endeavors included giving Nasser a box of spiked chocolates and finding someone willing to lace his food with strychnine.

Remarkably, after almost seventy years of dominion over Egyptian affairs, by the early 1950s the British presence in that country was rapidly fading. MI6 controlled a handful of agents in place, but few in senior positions in the Egyptian military and political establishment. Operating out of the well-respected Arab News Agency (ANA), however, Britain's intelligence service did manage to establish links with radical student and religious groups, as well as with cashiered officers. Other contacts included ties to the ousted royalist groups and exiled politicians.

Unfortunately, in 1956, what was left of MI6's intelligence network collapsed. In August of that year, the Egyptian security service raided the British-controlled ANA and arrested thirty of its staff, as well as expelling two members of the British embassy. The ANA not only served as a cover for MI6 in Cairo but also for intelligence operations throughout Egypt and the Middle East. Some of its agents were Britons working in Egypt as businessmen, journalists, or teachers, while the Egyptian agents were royalists and opponents of the Nasser regime.

According to the Egyptian secret police, the Mukhabarat, those arrested constituted an espionage ring that, in addition to conducting intelligence work, was also planning the overthrow of the government. Of the thirty arrested, two Britons were eventually acquitted, while James Swinburn, the business manager of the ANA, was convicted in May 1957. Some of the Egyptians were executed, and others faced long prison sentences. Other Britons, such as the representative of the Prudential Assurance Company, John Stanley, along with Alexander Reynolds, George Sweet, and George Rose, had already left for Britain and were tried in absentia.

Swinburn, the accused ringleader of the plot, was subjected to intensive interrogation and confessed to collecting information on military deployments, confidential political meetings, Alexandria's defenses, and coordinating missions to communist countries. The Mukhabarat also claimed that documents found in Swinburn's house included reports on the disposition of Egyptian military units, information on new Soviet-built tank transports, antitank weapons, and considerable details on a new radar station on the outskirts of Cairo. Other agents working under journalistic cover provided by the ANA reported on communist activities in the Middle East. The head of the ANA, Tom Little, who was a correspondent for The Economist and The Times, was the senior MI6 officer in Cairo, but the Egyptians left him free and fed him considerable disinformation, so that he could pass it on to MI6.

J. G. Gove, head of the visa section of the British embassy, and J. B. Flux, commercial first secretary, had supervised the clandestine network and were expelled by the Egyptian government. Mohamed Heikal, Nasser's confidant and longtime friend, writes that the two British diplomats had also been in contact with "student elements of a religious inclination" with the purpose of instigating Islamic fundamentalist riots and thus provoking foreign military intervention to protect the Europeans. There is little doubt that the student elements were members of the Muslim Brotherhood or had links to the remnants of the organization.

Although the British lost a major intelligence network in Cairo and the Middle East, they persisted in trying to destabilize Egypt's government by a coup or by the assassination of Nasser. In 1953, MI6 recruited Mahmud Khalil, after he was appointed head of the intelligence directorate of the Egyptian air force. Khalil was first approached in August by Hussein Khayri, former deputy head of Egypt's military intelligence prior to the overthrow of the monarchy in 1952. Khalil remained cautious and noncommittal.

A few weeks later, the two men met at the Riviera Hotel in Beirut, and on this occasion Khayri introduced the Egyptian officer to John Farmer of MI6. During the course of this meeting, Khalil agreed to form a secret organization of Egyptian officers, with the aim of implementing a coup against the Nasser regime. Khalil, however, set one nonnegotiable condition — that he be in charge and the go-between for the British and the conspirators. Farmer accepted and handed over to Khalil an envelope containing £1,000. However, Khalil insisted that he would require at least £100,000 to maintain his organization, so Farmer agreed that sometime in the future this sum would be made available.

Meanwhile, MI6 continued to hatch a variety of means to terminate Nasser, including Operation Unfasten, an unorthodox plan to be executed by Khalil's secret organization in Cairo. This particular plot was a cross between a comic-book fantasy and a James Bond movie. In actual fact, Operation Unfasten revolved around Nasser's beard. The Egyptian strongman had a heavy beard, which forced him to shave several times a day. The MI6 plan called for giving Nasser a Remington electric shaver filled with plastic explosive that would detonate the moment he switched the shaver on.

In the meantime, MI6 wove an elaborate scheme to protect Khalil as a source. In order to justify Khalil's frequent journeys (secret meetings with representatives from MI6) to foreign countries, the British passed to him valuable intelligence about Israel, as well as providing substantial funds to maintain the secret organization of Egyptian army officers. Although bilateral relations between Britain and Israel were good, as they were between Mossad (Israel's intelligence service) and MI6, the British had few qualms about divulging material detrimental to the Israelis to Khalil, in order to make their agent look good. Later, Yaacov Caroz, deputy chief of Mossad, wrote: "Harming Israel's security by handing over secret information about her did not apparently trouble the conscience of the British." However, in the murky world of espionage, to paraphrase an oft-quoted maxim, "there is no such thing as a friendly intelligence agency, only rival agencies of friendly countries."

The plan to kill Nasser was shelved temporarily, although MI6 continued to shop around for a coup. From late August to early September 1957, Julian Amery and Neil "Billy" McLean, accompanied by two MI6 officers, held several secret meetings in the south of France with exiled Egyptian royalists and members of other groups hostile to Nasser. Amery and McLean were both participants in the so-called Suez Group, a collection of backbenchers, ex-ministers, former members of Britain's intelligence community, and young and newly elected MPs opposed to any proposed changes in the Anglo-Egyptian relationship affecting the Suez Canal.

Julian Amery was the son-in-law of Harold Macmillan and secretary of the Suez Group. Both McLean and Amery had been officers in the SOE during the Second World War and took part in several special operations in the postwar period. In the late 1940s, Amery had been involved with the joint MI6-CIA operation to overthrow the communist government of Albania. Amery and McLean were not the only ex-intelligence officers either; others from Britain's wartime clandestine agencies, such as Fitzroy Maclean and Lord Hankey, the father of the British modern intelligence community, were members of this imperial caucus, and they cast a long shadow over MI6.

In 1958, together with John Bruce Lockhart, another former MI6 officer, Amery had helped to organize covert operations in Cyprus against the local insurgents. In particular, Amery had blackmailed Archbishop Makarios, the Greek Cypriot prelate and political leader, about his homosexuality, and had forced Makarios to make concessions to the British. In effect, the Suez Group was both a customer of MI6's intelligence product and an instigator of covert operations.

After their meetings in France, Amery and McLean traveled to Geneva to meet with representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood, although they informed MI6 that they kept this part of their trip secret from other members of the Suez Group. Their efforts resulted in the establishment in Cairo of a "shadow government" ready to seize power at the first opportunity. It is not certain what took place at this encounter in Geneva between Britain's lingering imperialists and Egypt's fundamentalist Muslims, but it was not the first time that these unlikely allies had collaborated against a common enemy.

On October 29, 1956, after the Israelis, based on a prearranged secret agreement, had attacked Egypt, the British and the French seized the Suez Canal. The military attempt failed, in large measure thanks to U.S. opposition, and finally brought the curtain down on imperial Anglo-French ambitions in Egypt and the Middle East. The invasion had placed a hold on any of the covert plans, but, after the debacle, MI6 reactivated the assassination plot.

In October 1957, an MI6 courier delivered the lethal razor to Khalil, along with £166,000. The Saudis may have provided part or all of the money — not the first time that Arab petrodollars would be used to finance a coup. The razor failed to explode. Then, on December 23 at a massive rally in Port Said celebrating the first anniversary of the Anglo-French withdrawal from the Suez Canal, Nasser unmasked the so-called Restoration Plot and claimed Khalil was a double agent who had been working for Egypt's security service. Nasser donated the £166,000 that Khalil received to Egyptians whose property had been damaged by the British naval bombardment of Alexandria during the Suez Crisis. Nasser's revelation effectively gutted what was left of Britain's intelligence capability in Egypt.


Excerpted from Castles Made of Sand by André Gerolyma. Copyright © 2010 André Gerolymatos. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

ANDRÉ GEROLYMATOS is a member of the Department of History at Simon Fraser University, a former lecturer at McGill University, and a member of Canada's Advisory Council on National Security. His previous books include Red Acropolis, Black Terror and The Balkan Wars.

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