By Kit Klarenberg, an investigative journalist exploring the role of intelligence services in shaping politics and perceptions. Follow Kit on Twitter @KitKlarenberg
A fetishistic Guardian article seeks to rehabilitate the life and death of the former British soldier turned ‘humanitarian’, but cannot explain away his lavish lifestyle, missing money, and all the other financial irregularities.
On the morning of November 11, 2019, James Le Mesurier, founder of Syria’s controversial White Helmets, was found dead in Istanbul. Since then, the Western establishment has struggled to get its story straight on the man, his professional history, the group he founded, and how he died.
The latest example of mainstream media narrative management in the ever-mysterious case came in the Guardian on October 27, in the form of a 6,000-word hagiography of Le Mesurier, authored by its veteran Middle East reporter Martin Chulov.
Many at this point will be familiar with the idolatrous portrait it paints of its subject – a heroic humanitarian committed to benevolent causes who saved untold lives, tragically driven to suicide by a “disinformation campaign led by Russian and Syrian officials and peddled by pro-Assad bloggers, alt-right media figures and self-described anti-imperialists.” Nonetheless, it marks the first time the significant controversy surrounding his financial dealings has ever been explored, let alone mentioned, by a British news outlet.
In July this year, the Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant published a long-read of its own, explosively revealing how, three days prior to his death, Le Mesurier ‘confessed’ via email to the White Helmets’ many international donors, who’d funded the group to the tune of hundreds of millions over the years, that he’d committed fraud.
The disclosure was prompted by an internal audit by a Dutch accountant of the finances of Mayday, the foundation started by Le Mesurier to find, train, and support the White Helmets. The audit found, among other things, that he had been paying himself and his wife, long-time UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) operative Emma Winberg, “excessive” salaries and supplementing the totals with unjustifiably vast cash bonuses; that his employment of his wife represented a potential conflict of interest; and that he might be guilty of tax evasion.
While claiming this malfeasance wasn’t intentional, Le Mesurier took full and sole responsibility, and expressed fears that further investigation could expose yet more “mistakes and internal failures.”
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Damning stuff indeed, but De Volkskrant’s seismic disclosures have been curiously ignored by all other Western media outlets until now. The Guardian’s article deals with the damning revelations, both directly and indirectly – Le Mesurier, whom Chulov knew personally, and with whom he clearly maintained an intense affinity, is acquitted on all charges. Indeed, the White Helmets founder is said to have simply “unraveled under the weight of claims that would later prove to be false.”
The author is at pains throughout to frame “disinformation” as fundamental to Le Mesurier’s untimely demise, in terms of causing him immense “stress,” which led to him “disintegrating” mentally, damaging his reputation and that of the White Helmets in the eyes of world opinion, and, in turn, stoking erroneous suspicions in donor countries that he and his company were engaged in various improper activities.
The question of how a battle-hardened military veteran could be so deleteriously impacted mentally and emotionally by “attacks on Russian television and social media,” particularly if they were entire without substance, is unasked and unanswered.
There’s little doubt Le Mesurier wasn’t in a good state during his final weeks. It’s been widely reported he was taking sleeping pills and psychiatric medication. Less well amplified were Turkish news reports alleging he and his wife had “fought violently” while dining out together the day before his death.
Chulov alleges “a distressed Le Mesurier” told friends just before he died that claims of Mayday’s monetary misconduct “seemed to come from nowhere.” In fact, questions about what purpose the vast sums donated to the company were put to, and where they all ultimately ended up, had long circulated.
While his article states that donor countries maintained their support for the White Helmets “despite the disinformation surrounding the group’s work,” this isn’t true. In September 2018, the Dutch government ended its backing, after a damning Ministry of Foreign Affairs report outlined serious concerns about Mayday’s financial practices, including an almost total lack of oversight over, and even awareness of, how its money entered Syria, and precisely whose pockets it eventually lined.
However, Chulov feels confident dismissing any and all suggestions of embezzlement, for he’s in possession of a report by forensic auditors Grant Thornton, conducted at the request of Mayday’s donors, which concluded there was “no evidence of misappropriation of funds” by Le Mesurier and Winberg.
Except that he isn’t, because it hasn’t been made public, at donors’ express request. Instead, he relies on the claims of a nameless “source familiar” with the report – which could conceivably, of course, be Winberg herself.
Excessive salaries plus bonuses
It’s clear Grant Thornton’s report isn’t an unalloyed clean bill of health, either – the auditors found “significant gaps in the administrative organization and internal control environment of Mayday” and “identified significant cash transactions that have not been (fully) recorded in the cash books and/or general ledger.”
Moreover, due to Mayday’s “informal” working environment, many key discussions took place “orally and over WhatsApp,” meaning auditors “had to reconstruct a number of financial events and are unable to provide certainty in those cases.”
Chulov is quick to dismiss the significance of these failings as nothing more than “shoddy” bookkeeping, contending “auditors found nothing to support the far more serious allegations made” against Le Mesurier – despite apparently not having actually read the report himself.
Likewise, he concedes Mayday’s executive salaries had been “higher than industry standards”, although his anonymous source familiar with the report is on hand to reassure him, and readers, “they were not off-the-scale high.”In 2017, Le Mesurier informed the Netherlands’ Ministry of Foreign Affairs he was paying himself a salary of €24,000 per month, before bonuses – several orders of magnitude higher than the designated salary ceiling at other Dutch government-funded enterprises. And considerably more than the $150 a day the White Helmet rescuers on the ground received.
References to Le Mesurier founding three separate companies named ‘Mayday Rescue’ – Mayday Rescue FZ-LLC in Dubai, Mayday Search and Rescue Training and Consultancy Services Ltd in Turkey, and Stichting Mayday Rescue Foundation in the Netherlands – are predictably absent from the Guardian’s article.
Accounts aren’t publicly available for any of them – the Dutch entity, while not registered as a charitable organisation, is characterised as being ‘without commercial enterprise’, so doesn’t have to file accounts at all. Dutch ‘stichtings’, or foundations, are openly advertised by Dutch law firms as ideal ways for wealthy individuals and corporations to minimize tax liabilities and distribute funds internationally.
The company nonetheless complied with governance and transparency requirements, appointing a Secretary and Treasurer. As such, the UK government could plausibly claim that Mayday Rescue, to which London funneled £43 million between 2015 and 2018, was, to the best of its knowledge, fully above board.
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Tax havens and tangled webs
Except the £43 million actually went to Mayday Rescue FZ-LLC in Dubai – something only begrudgingly admitted by the FCO in March 2019, in response to a Freedom of Information request, after much heel-dragging and obfuscation.
Dubai is a notorious tax haven, and FZ-LLCs – Free Zone Limited Liability Companies – aren’t subject to any taxes on dividends, so they can be used to easily and opaquely repatriate profits. The entities are required to maintain accounting records, which can be inspected by authorities but aren’t required to file accounts of any kind.
It may be significant that one of Stichting Mayday Rescue Foundation’s three directors, alongside Le Mesurier and Winberg, was a British Army veteran, Rupert Davis, who, in April 2016, founded the company Chameleon Global. Dissolved in October 2020, it was categorised as dormant – that is, non-operational – for the duration of its existence. Le Mesurier also founded other companies, with indeterminate connections to his assorted Mayday entities. For instance, in April 2017 he established Sisu Global BV in the Netherlands. It has never filed accounts, in breach of Dutch law. Le Mesurier resigned in November 2018, but Winberg apparently remains a director.
In January 2019, Le Mesurier registered My Zahara Limited as a dormant company in northern England, at an address belonging to a company formation agent specializing in, among other things, compliance with money laundering regulations, suggesting he intended to use the firm to repatriate money from his overseas firms.
Davis was also, until April 2019, connected to Sisu Global BV, a company in the Netherlands founded by Le Mesurier in April 2017. It has never filed accounts, in breach of Dutch law. Le Mesurier himself resigned from it in November 2018. Winberg apparently remains a director.
Chulov also, again predictably, dismisses as “disinformation” allegations that the White Helmets were “created by governments determined to remove Assad from power”; that Le Mesurier was “an agent of western intelligence, using a rescue organisation as a Trojan horse for regime change”; and that the organization was in any way affiliated to violent extremist groups.
What are matters of public record, however, is that the White Helmets were funded by the very governments avowedly committed to ‘regime change’ in Syria via covert and overt means; that Le Mesurier’s professional history included spells as a military intelligence operative; and that the group has openly collaborated with the Al-Nusra Front, among other jihadist elements, and engaged in violent activity.
In a June 2015 speech discussing his founding of the White Helmets, Le Mesurier cited a market research agency study which found that, in fragile environments, security forces garner low levels of public trust while first responders have the highest as a key motivating factor in his decision to establish a “humanitarian aid group.”
Untold millions for propaganda
That the White Helmets’ benevolent image was very carefully constructed and promoted by a government attempting to achieve ‘regime change’ is amply underlined by FCO documents leaked by hacktivist collective Anonymous.
The documents reveal that ARK, a firm founded by FCO veteran Alistair Harris where Le Mesurier worked between 2011 and 2014, played a pivotal role in promoting the White Helmets, developing“an internationally focused communications campaign to raise global awareness” of the group to “keep Syria in the news.”
Along the way, ARK, among many other endeavors, produced a documentary on the White Helmets, and ran its various social media accounts, among them the Facebook page for Idlib City Council, at one time mooted as a potential interim government to replace Bashar Assad. When Al-Nusra took the city, the White Helmets were filmed celebrating the ‘victory’ with the group’s fighters in its main square.
ARK profited to the tune of untold millions of pounds from these and other information-warfare efforts. The same illicit file tranche also reveals InCoStrat, founded by none other than Emma Winberg, also reaped large bounties for manipulating public perceptions about Syria, within and without the country. In one file, the firm boasted of surreptitiously “initiating events to create media effect” and of “using media to create events.”
One example of the former strategy saw InCoStrat produce mock Syrian currency, in three denominations, imploring Syrians to “be on the right side of history.” It was intended to ensure that international opinion remained arrayed against Assad, at a time “media attention has shifted almost exclusively towards ISIS and some influential voices are calling for co-operation with the Syrian regime to combat ISIS.”
The file states: “The notes are due to be smuggled into regime-held parts of Syria once formal clearance has been authorized by HMG officials … We will engage the international media to create a story around the event … The message to the regime [is] covert but active resistance continues.”
Another document indicates that Winberg’s InCoStrat also established Basma – “a media platform providing human interest stories and campaigns that support [UK government] policy objectives” – and engaged in propaganda operations in the wake of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, training and maintaining a network of journalists who were “instrumental in reporting on events in Basra.”
On the subject of propaganda, establishment efforts to rehabilitate Le Mesurier are scheduled to continue apace in future.
Starting on November 9, the BBC will transmit a 15-part radio documentary on Mayday Rescue. Over the summer, Chloe Hadjimatheou, a reporter on the project, approached a number of journalists and researchers who’d publicly raised questions about the White Helmets, asking if they wished to contribute to the program.
Several of the individuals targeted subsequently published their correspondence with Hadjimatheou, showing that the program’s preordained agenda and objectives couldn’t be more blatant.
What is clear is that any suggestion Le Mesurier was a British intelligence operative surreptitiously attempting to foster regime change in Syria, or that the White Helmets weren’t an entirely benevolent, independent humanitarian organization will be rubbished, and all voices critical of the group will be smeared as witting or unwitting agents of the Russian and Syrian governments.