James Le Mesurier: a reconstruction of his business activities and covert role
Paul McKeigue, Jake Mason, Piers Robinson, David Miller
Comments on this note may be posted here.
16 December 2019
- 1 Summary
- 2 Biography
- 3 Establishment of the White Helmets
- 4 Companies controlled by James Le Mesurier and his associates
- 5 Government funding of Mayday Rescue
- 6 Role of Le Mesurier in providing evidence to the OPCW Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) in Turkey
- 7 Role of Le Mesurier in media operations against critics of the White Helmets
- 8 Le Mesurier’s final months
- During the last few months, the Working Group on Syria Propaganda and Media was preparing a briefing note focusing on the publicly-funded business activities of James Le Mesurier. A near-final draft was ready when his death in Istanbul was announced on 11 November 2019. We have decided to publish it, with minimal updating, as the material is relevant both to understanding the role of the UK government in the Syrian conflict and also to the investigation of Le Mesurier’s death.
- Le Mesurier was founder of three companies named “Mayday Rescue”: Mayday Rescue FZ-LLC in Dubai (2014), Mayday Search and Rescue Training and Consultancy Services Limited in Turkey (2014) and Stichting Mayday Rescue Foundation in the Netherlands (2015). No accounts are available for any of these companies.
- After providing misleading answers to questions submitted under the Freedom of Information Act, the FCO has admitted that its payments to “Mayday Rescue” for support of the White Helmets – £43 million from 2015 to 2018 – were made not to Stichting Mayday Rescue Foundation but to the commercial company Mayday Rescue FZ-LLC in Dubai.
- Stichting Mayday Rescue Foundation is not registered as a charitable organisation (Algemeen Nut Beogende Instelling) and as it is “without commercial enterprise” it does not have to file accounts. In the Netherlands a Stichting is commonly used as a vehicle to disburse overseas investment income to undisclosed beneficiaries while minimizing tax liability.
- From September 2016 to February 2018, while Stichting Mayday Rescue Foundation was receiving payments from the Dutch Foreign Ministry, the Stichting complied with requirements for governance and transparency by appointing a Secretary and Treasurer. In April 2017 Le Mesurier founded what appears to have been a dummy company named R3Covery BV based in Amsterdam. This company has failed to comply with the legal requirement to file accounts. A possible intended or actual use for this company was to tunnel money out of the Stichting.
- In January 2019 Le Mesurier registered My Zahara Limited as a dormant company in northern England. As the address belongs to a company formation agent that specializes in business tax management and compliance with money laundering regulations, it is likely that the intended use of this company was to repatriate money from Le Mesurier’s overseas companies.
- OPCW inspectors have told us that during the investigations of alleged chemical attacks in opposition-held territory conducted by the Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) from 2015 onwards, Le Mesurier worked closely with Len Phillips, the leader of FFM Team Alpha, to select White Helmets as “witnesses” for interview by the investigation team in Turkey. We have set out elsewhere evidence that these alleged chemical attacks were staged, and that in at least three of these incidents the staging entailed mass murder of civilian captives. As an experienced military intelligence officer, Le Mesurier should have been able to assess this evidence.
- Le Mesurier’s activities during the final months of his life indicate that he was following (and possibly coordinating) efforts to smear and silence members of the Working Group on Syria Propaganda and Media. It is likely that by the end of October 2019 Le Mesurier was aware that both the business activities of Mayday Rescue and his connection with the increasingly controversial OPCW investigation of the Douma incident were coming under close scrutiny.
As links to many original sources such as a ZoomInfo biography of Le Mesurier have recently been deleted, reconstruction of his biography is based partly on published articles that cited these original sources: * Vanessa Beeley 23 October 2015, Whitney Webb 31 July 2017, Tim Hayward 20 December 2017, Vanessa Beeley and Whitney Webb 27 August 2018, Vanessa Beeley 2 December 2019.
- 1971: year of birth, named James Gustaf Edward Le Mesurier
- September 1990: 2nd Lt. (on probation) Undergraduate Cadetships
- August 1996: Captain (536239) in Royal Green Jackets, British Army.
- 1998 : seconded to the Office of the High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina under Carlos Westendorp, before being sent to Kosovo in the summer of 1999 after the deployment of KFOR (the NATO-led Kosovo Force).
- July 1999 – 2000: appointed Intelligence Coordinator for Pristina City, acting as liaison officer between intelligence officers of different national contingents in KFOR. A correction dated 3 August 2018 to an article in The Guardian confirmed this, stating that Le Mesurier “held a military intelligence post while on peacekeeping operations in the Balkans in 1999 for one year”.
- June 2000: still recorded as Captain in Royal Green Jackets, retires and is appointed to Reserve of Officers. There is no record of an appointment to the Intelligence Corps in the official British government source, The Gazette.
- January 2001 – February 2002: Deputy Head of the Advisory Unit on Security and Justice in the UN Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK). In this position, Le Mesurier acted as political advisor to the UN Police Commissioner and represented the Special Representative on civil-military-police coordination bodies.
- February 2002 – July 2003: advisor on economic crime with the EU Mission in Kosovo, supporting units countering money laundering, terrorism, smuggling, anti-corruption and financial disclosure.
- 2003: posted to Jerusalem where he “worked on implementing the Ramallah Agreement”
- 2005: Vice President for Special Projects at the Dubai-based security firm Olive Group, and Special advisor to Iraqi Minister of Interior.
- 2006-2010: Senior Principal at the security company Good Harbor Consulting, based in Abu Dhabi, where his work included training a gas field protection force.
- 2011-2014: worked with the former diplomat Alistair Harris at ARK. Ark-Lebanon had been founded in 2009 in Beirut, and ARK FZC was registered in Dubai in 2011.
3 Establishment of the White Helmets
Following a meeting in March 2013 in Istanbul with the Syrian National Council and the Qatari Red Crescent. With $300,000 in seed money from Japan, the United States and the United Kingdom, Le Mesurier worked with the Turkish disaster response team AKUT to set up a seven-day course to train and equip a 25-person rescue team, recruited by the SNC, for duty in opposition-held areas of Syria. The Syrian National Council made available two Syrian activists — Raed Saleh and Farouq Habib — to assist Le Mesurier in this. In a speech delivered in Lisbon on 26 June 2015 (recording now deleted), Le Mesurier cited a study by the market research agency GfK Verein showing that in fragile states security forces have some of the lowest levels of public trust, and that professions with the highest level of public trust are firefighters, paramedics, rescue workers and other similar types of first responders.
The White Helmets brand first appeared in August 2014 with the registration of the domain name
whitehelmets.org by Alison Weiner of Purpose Inc., a communications agency based in Brooklyn, New York. UK government support for the White Helmets since 2017 has been provided under the Syria Resilience Programme of the Conflict Security and Stability Fund (CSSF). In a Summary of this programme dated 18 July 2017 the FCO reveals some of the UK government’s objectives of this support. The Programme Summary notes that the White Helmets “provide an invaluable reporting and advocacy role”, which “has provided confidence to statements made by UK and other international leaders made in condemnation of Russian actions”. Metadata show that the document was saved by Amanda Harris, manager of the Joint Programme Hub of the CSSF.
4 Companies controlled by James Le Mesurier and his associates
4.1 Mayday Rescue FZ-LLC (2014)
The domain name
maydayrescue.org was registered on 8 August 2014. A business named “Mayday Rescue FZ-LLC” was registered in 2014 in the International Humanitarian City Dubai as a Free Zone Limited Liability Company (FZLLC). a legal designation for a commercial company in this zone. The International Humanitarian City website states that in January 2019 it had 81 members of which 9 were UN agencies, 63 were humanitarian organizations and 18 were commercial companies (FZLLCs). The IHC Special Regulations require FZLLCs to maintain records for accounting purposes that are available for inspection by an authorized person, but do not require accounts to be filed. Unlike an LLC, an FZLLC in Dubai does not have to have a local Emirati as sponsor. There is no withholding tax on dividends so an FZLLC can freely repatriate profits back to a parent company or foreign shareholders. On 11 July 2019 Mayday Rescue FZ-LLC placed an announcement in the Khaleej Times stating that the company “wishes to reinstate their license”. Soon after this, the registered name of the business was changed to “Mayday Rescue Foundation” though as Mayday Rescue Foundation is still listed under the category “commercial companies”, it must still be registered as an FZLLC.
4.2 Mayday Arama Kurtarma Egitim ve Danismanlik Hizmetleri Limited (2014)
A Turkish company Mayday Search and Rescue Training and Consultancy Services Limited is listed with Le Mesurier as director, startup date as 22 September 2014 and registered address in the suburb of Ataşehir on the Anatolian side of Istanbul. An article dated 14 September 2018 in the Turkish-language site of the Iranian Fars News agency gives some details of the accounts filed for 2017. The company is listed in the phone directory at 3 Ali Pasa Medresesi Sok. in Beyoğlu, a fashionable and historic district on the European side of Istanbul. This three-storey building, recently renovated with a cafe on the ground floor, was one of the residences of Le Mesurier and his wife during the last few months of his life. His body was found in the street outside this building on 11 November 2019.
4.3 Stichting Mayday Rescue Foundation (2015)
Stichting Mayday Rescue Foundation (64492915) was registered by Le Mesurier as sole founder in Breda on 5 November 2015 with registered address given as De Cuserstraat 93, 3e en 4e verdieping, 1081CN Amsterdam. The articles of association of Stichting Mayday Rescue Foundation state that “De Stichting beoogt niet het maken van winst” which translates as “The Foundation does not intend to make a profit”. This implies that Stichting Mayday Rescue Foundation is a Stichting “without commercial enterprise” that does not employ labour to generate profit via commercial activities and transactions. A Stichting without commercial enterprise is not required to pay taxes or file accounts. This is not the same as a charitable organization, which in the Netherlands would be registered as an Algemeen Nut Beogende Instelling (ANBI), translated as Public Benefit Organisation. While a Stichting can apply to be recognized as a Public Benefit Organization, this imposes requirements for transparency, including provision of a financial statement and the names of the directors on a website, that are not met by Stichting Mayday Rescue Foundation.
A Stichting without commercial enterprise is created for the benefit of specifically named persons or an identifiable group of persons who are called the “beneficiaries”. The founder donates assets to the Stichting, which remains the legal owner of the assets. The beneficiaries are issued with certificates through which dividends are paid. The Stichting’s board of directors administers the purpose and objectives of the Stichting and manages its assets. A Stichting has many advantages for protecting privacy and minimizing tax liability: foreigners can form foundations where all parties and assets are foreign, all passive foreign income received is non-taxable, and the identities of the beneficiaries remain private. Thus if Stichting Mayday Rescue Foundation in the Netherlands is the owner of the FZ-LLC in Dubai, it would be able to receive profits from the FZ-LLC free of tax and the directors would be able to pay dividends to the beneficiaries, whoever they are.
4.3.1 Directors of Stichting Mayday Rescue Foundation
The directors of a Stichting “without commercial enterprise” may not be in paid employment by the Stichting. A Kamer van Koophandel (Dutch business registry) document dated 21 October 2018 shows that three directors were appointed in September 2016:
- Thiessen, Per Fredslund (Treasurer). His LinkedIn profile records that he was Finance Director of “Mayday Rescue” from September 2015 to August 2018. As this does not correspond to the period (September 2016 to February 2018) for which he was Treasurer of the Stichting, he must have been employed by another entity named “Mayday Rescue”. In October 2019 Thiessen declined to answer questions about his role.
- Plathonoff, Katie Elias Dimitri (Secretary). From a job advertisement it appears that at this time she was employed by Mayday in Turkey. She had formerly worked for CISV (originally “Children’s International Summer Villages”).
- Davis, Rupert Charles Owen (born April 1979) / Chairman. This is Captain RCO Davis (556347) Rifles, who entered the British Army on a Short Service Commission on 7 April 1999 and retired on 11 January 2008, appointed to Reserve of Officers. His LinkedIn profile records that he worked for the BBC from 2008 to 2010 as Deputy and Acting Head of High Risk, then from 2011 to 2012 as Head of Capability and Special Projects for Aegis Defence Services Ltd, in which capacity he was responsible for diplomatic protection during the Libyan war. From 2012 to 2015 he was “functional head within Rio Tinto Exploration (RTX) Africa & Eurasia Region”. He has a protected twitter account
Davis, Thiessen and Platonhoff appear to have been the “Board of Supervisory Directors” that is mentioned on the Mayday Rescue website:
The Board of Supervisory Directors appointed James Le Mesurier as the Director of Stichting Mayday Rescue Foundation on 17 October 2016. James Le Mesurier receives an annual stipend of €14,207.00 ($15,000.00) for performing the duties of Director of Stichting Mayday Rescue Foundation.
Although these individuals were not in paid employment by the Stichting, it thus appears that they were employed by other companies named Mayday Rescue and controlled by Le Mesurier. On 13 February 2018 Thiessen and Plathonhoff were removed, Davis ceased to be Chairman but remained as director, and Emma Hedvig Christina Winberg was appointed as director.
Winberg’s curriculum vitae can be reconstructed from an undated biography as a “contributor” on the website of the Skoll Foundation (though a search of this site finds no other mention of her) and her LinkedIn profile.
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.
“Strategic communications” and “resilience” appear to refer to InCoStrat and Mayday Rescue respectively. InCoStrat was set up by former Lieutenant-Colonel Paul Tilley as the contractor for funds awarded by the UK government for media support of the “moderate armed opposition”, registered in Washington DC (L00004999639). Emma Winberg lists herself as co-founder. Tilley and Winberg’s time at Incostrat lasted till December 2016, when he left to set up a new company named IN2-Comms and she left to join Mayday Rescue as “Chief Impact Officer”. Her engagement to Le Mesurier was recorded on a genealogy website in September 2017 and recent media reports mention that they were married in 2018. In June 2018 Winberg gave a presentation at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab where she stated that “the high profile nature of this work has resulted in a sustained disinformation campaign against the White Helmets” and showed a slide listing ten supposedly disinformative points, without attempting to rebut them. A twitter account
@emmathielers created on 23 May 2017 appears to belong to Winberg. The output of this twitter account was markedly hostile to the journalist Vanessa Beeley who had investigated Le Mesurier’s career and the role of the White Helmets: one tweet enquired about the possibility of prosecuting Beeley for “inciting hatred”.
4.4 Chameleon Global Limited (2016)
Rupert Davis registered a company Chameleon Global at Office 32, 19-21 Crawford Street, London W1H 1PJ on 5 April 2016. 26 companies are registered at this address, which is a retail outlet of Mail Boxes Etc, a UK company that provides “virtual office solutions”. A single-page website states that:
Chameleon Global specialises in the creation of innovative, amplified and sustainable solutions, which address the critical threats and challenges within and from the worlds complex environments – be they national or trans-national.
Davis’s LinkedIn profile lists Director of Chameleon Global as his sole occupation since November 2015, though for each year up to 30 April 2019 he has filed accounts for it as a dormant company. In the UK it is common practice for privately held companies to file accounts as dormant when they are in fact trading.
4.5 R3covery BV (2017)
Le Mesurier, Davis and Winberg appeared in April 2017 as directors of R3covery BV based at Herengracht 282, Amsterdam. The domain name
r3covery.com had been registered on 7 November 2016. R3covery BV has a minimal website stating that “R3covery specialises in developing and implementing resilience solutions in stabilisation environments.” R3 denotes “rescue response resilience”. R3covery BV has filed no accounts though this is a legal requirement. In the Netherlands, unlike the UK, the company registrar does not take action to strike off companies that fail to file accounts. On 20 August 2018 the company name was changed from R3covery to Sisu Global BV (KvK 68510705), and on 6 November 2018 Le Mesurier resigned as director. Based on the identities of the directors, Sisu Global BV appears unrelated to a company named Sisu Global Limited, incorporated in Guernsey on 31 May 2012 and struck off by the registrar on 15 May 2015. The domain
sisuglobal.com had been registered on 5 December 2015; the server responds to a ping, but the website is down. Google cache shows a minimally informative web page with “Resilience against hybrid threats”, together with a definition of the Finnish word “sisu”.
The relationship of Stichting Mayday Rescue Foundation to this company is unknown. Between September 2016 and February 2018 Le Mesurier would not have been able to pay beneficiaries of the Stichting without the agreement of Thiessen and Platonhoff as treasurer and secretary. A possible motive for Le Mesurier to set up R3covery BV could have been to tunnel money out of the Stichting through purchasing “resilience solutions in stabilisation environments”.
4.6 My Zahara Limited (2019)
Le Mesurier registered a UK company My Zahara Limited on 2 January 2019, giving his own address as the virtual address of Stichting Mayday Rescue Foundation in Amsterdam. The company’s registered address is in Lancashire: Suite 14C, Link 665 Business Centre Todd Hall Road, Haslingden, Rossendale, BB4 5HU. 91 companies are registered in Suite 14C at this address. Of these, the only ones that appear to be physically present with phone numbers are two companies directed by Stephen O’Neill that provide company formation and compliance services: Business Tax Centre Limited and Money Laundering Compliance Limited.
5 Government funding of Mayday Rescue
An archived version of the the
mayday.org website shows the donors as:
- UK – Conflict Security and Stability Fund
- Kingdom of Denmark – Ministry of Foreign Affairs
- Kingdom of The Netherlands – Ministry of Foreign Affairs
- Germany – Ministry of Foreign Affairs
The Financial Tracking Services database hosted by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs shows funding of $607,311 during 2019 to “Mayday Rescue Foundation” from the French government.
A Review Memorandum from the Department for Stabilisation and Humanitarian Aid of the Dutch goverment dated January 2015 lists payments from other governments up to that time: US $6 million, UK £10.3 million, Denmark $4.5 million, and Japan $0.55 million. FCO expenditure records show payments totalling £43 million between May 2015 and October 2018. The Danish ministry of Foreign Affairs lists DKK 60 million (£7.2 million) to “White Helmets” beginning in 2016. The Evaluation report of the Policy and Operations Evaluation Department (IOB) of the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs reported in September 2018 that the Netherlands government had contributed almost €10 million to Mayday. US funding for the White Helmets is provided through a US-based company Chemonics.
5.1 UK Government support for Mayday Rescue FZ-LLC
An FCO response in 2016 to an FOI request for information about UK support of the White Helmets stated that:
the total value of funds committed between June 2013 and the end of the current financial year (31 March 2016) is £19.7m. All funds are accounted for in line with HMG guidelines, including the receipt and review of quarterly financial reports.
The Syria Resilience CSSF Programme Summary document shows CSSF funding for “May Day Rescue Foundation” as £9 million for the three years beginning April 2017. A letter dated 11 October 2017 from the FCO Near East Department in response to an FOI request dated 4 August 2017 stated that:
By way of background, UK support to the Syria Civil Defence (White Helmets) is provided through our implementing partner Mayday Rescue, which is a registered foundation in The Netherlands. Under applicable law it is required to maintain financial and administration records. And as a recipient of Conflict Stability and Security Fund money, Mayday Rescue is required to submit regular accounting for its support to Syria Civil Defence.
A request for the accounts submitted by Mayday Rescue received the following reply on 10 November 2017 from the FCO Near East Department:
I can confirm that as a recipient of Conflict Stability and Security Fund money, Mayday Rescue is required to submit regular accounting for its support to Syria Civil Defence. However, the information details fall under the exemption in section 43(2) of the Freedom of Information Act, which relates to commercial interests. In applying this exemption, we have had to balance the public interest in withholding the information against the public interest in disclosure. There is a public interest in the disclosure of commercial information to ensure effective, open and honest use of public money and the scrutiny of public authorities in accordance with published policy and to provide an environment where business can better respond to government opportunities. However, we consider that this transparency also poses risks in that companies and individuals would, if this information were disclosed, be much less likely to provide the FCO with commercially sensitive information.
This refusal in November 2017 to provide accounts citing “exemption in section 43(2) of the Freedom of Information Act, which relates to commercial interests” and “commercially sensitive information” suggests that the FCO was aware that the “Mayday Rescue” entity in receipt of FCO funding was a commercial company rather than a nonprofit foundation.
Having discovered that payments to “Mayday Rescue” in FCO expenditure records dated from March 2015, though Stichtung Mayday Rescue had not been registered till November 2015, JM submitted the following questions (FOI request 1185-18):
- With respect to the FCO’s payment of £825,342 to Mayday Rescue on 31 March 2015, please can you provide me with the full legal name of Mayday Rescue (including its legal company form e.g. LTD, PLC, LLC) and its full registered address?
- Can you confirm whether all FCO payments to ‘Mayday Rescue’ as listed in published government transparency data have been to the same company?
He asked also about payments to IncoStrat and Regester Larkin. The FCO Middle East and North Africa Directorate replied on 14 December 2018:
- Information relevant to company/organisation details can be found respectively at the following links: http://www.incostrat.com/; http://www.maydayrescue.org/; and https://www2.deloitte.com/uk/en/pages/press-releases/articles/deloitte-acquires-regester-larkin.html.
- Since 2013 the FCO has contracted Mayday Rescue to implement a project to support Syria Civil Defence (White Helmets). All FCO payments to Mayday Rescue listed in the transparency data have been made to the same organisation.
This reply did not explicitly state that the legal name and registered address of the entity paid by FCO were those on the website
www.maydayrescue.org: only that “Information relevant to company/organization details can be found” on this website. JM requested an internal review on the basis that the FCO had failed to provide the information requested. On 6 March 2019, the FCO finally admitted that they had been paying Mayday Rescue FZ-LLC.
While I am satisfied that every intention was made to respond to your request I am sharing the following information which I hope meets your request [for the legal name of Mayday Rescue and its registered address].
Mayday Rescue FZ-LLC: Suite 220, Building 1 International Humanitarian City, Dubai, United Arab Emirates
This attempts to pass off the letter sent three months earlier as an oversight (“While I am satisfied that every intention was made to respond to your request …”). The sentence as written does not make sense: the word “intention” may have been substituted for “effort”. It is difficult to read the wording of the letter dated 14 December 2018 as anything other than an attempt to mislead without resorting to an outright lie. It would be scarcely less disturbing if the FCO officials overseeing these payments – Christian Dennys, Amanda Harris, and Eleanor Szpona – had been unaware that the CSSF had paid more than £40 million to a commercial company in Dubai rather than to a foundation in the Netherlands.
5.2 Netherlands government support for Mayday Rescue FZ-LLC and Stichting Mayday Rescue Foundation
5.2.1 2015: contract with Mayday Rescue FZ-LLC
A Review Memorandum dated 4 Jan 2015 with the title “activity appraisal”, prepared by the Department for Stabilisation and Humanitarian Aid of the Dutch goverment, scores a proposal from Mayday Rescue against various criteria. The memorandum states that the contract is with Mayday Rescue FZ-LLC in Dubai and that this company is an afsplitsing (spinout) from ARK. The review memorandum lists other donors: US $6 million, UK £10.3 million, Denmark $4.5 million, and Japan $0.55 million. The total value of the Department for Stabilisation and Humanitarian Aid contract was €1.147 million, to run from 1 Apr 2015 to 31 Dec 2015.
5.2.2 2016-2017: payments to Stichting Mayday Rescue Foundation
The International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) records transactions for Stichting Mayday Rescue Foundation between 6 December 2016 and 31 December 2017 submitted by Per Thiessen, with the last submission on 31 January 2018.
- Incoming funds: two payments from the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, totalling €5.19 million.
- Disbursements: four payments totalling €2.61 million, with receiver-org given as “Syria Civil Defence”.
- Expenditure: €2.31 million.
Under IATI rules “disbursements” are outgoing funds that are placed at the disposal of a recipient government or organisation, or funds transferred between two separately reported activities. Under IATI traceability standards the recipient of a disbursement should also be required to report their activities to IATI. “Syria Civil Defence” does not appear in the list of IATI publishers. Outgoing funds that are spent on goods and services for the activity should be reported as “expenditure”. The recipients of expenditures fall outside of IATI traceability standards.
This indicates that at some time no later than December 2016 the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs began paying the Stichting in the Netherlands rather than the FZ-LLC in Dubai as in the 2015 contract. It is likely that this required Le Mesurier to take measures to give at least the appearance of transparency: the appointment in September 2016 of a Board consisting of himself, Thiessen, Platonhoff and Davis; and the submission of transaction records to IATI. Thiessen’s final submission to IATI was on 31 January 2018. By 6 February 2018 the services of Thiessen and Platonhoff were no longer required, and Winberg was appointed in their place.
5.2.3 Funding during 2018
On 7 September 2018 the Policy and Operations Evaluation Department (Directie Internationaal Onderzoek en Beleidsevaluatie, IOB) of the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs released an Evaluation report of the monitoring of the White Helmets project. The report refers to “Mayday” but without making clear whether this is the Stichting in the Netherlands, the FZLLC in Dubai, or Mayday Arama Kurtarma Egitim ve Danismanlik Hizmetleri Limited in Turkey.
Mayday and the White Helmets are two separate entities on paper. In reality, however, their responsibilities overlap. Until last year, the two organisations shared their M&E [Monitoring & Evaluation] desk in the past and many White Helmets have completed traineeships with Mayday. At present, the organisations continue to share the same building but are now working from separate floors.
The IOB complained that:
There is little coordination amongst the donors and important information is not shared; reviews from the British CSSF and the Danish have not been shared with other donors or with Mayday/White Helmets. For the Vision 2020 report, an annex was prepared solely for the British and that information has not been shared with other donors..
The report mentiond SREO and RMTeam as consultants hired “to collect data on perceptions and stipends from the field”. The founder of “RMTeam” is an opposition activist named Bassam al Kuwatli, a Canadian national resident in Turkey. The domain name of the website was registered in 2013, but the company was registered in the UK in March 2019, with Bassam as sole shareholder. SREO Consulting was founded in Turkey by Matt Trevithick and Daniel Seckman, and reported to have 26-50 employees.
On 10 September 2018 the Netherlands government announced that funding for the White Helmets would be discontinued after December 2018. This raises the question of what entity they were paying during 2018, as for Stichting Mayday Rescue Foundation no treasurer was in post after 6 February 2018 and no transaction records were submitted to IATI after 31 January 2018.
6 Role of Le Mesurier in providing evidence to the OPCW Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) in Turkey
From 2015 to 2018, FFM Team Alpha undertook investigations of alleged chemical attacks in opposition-held territory based on material gathered from opposition-linked NGOs in Turkey. It is clear that since 2015 these FFM investigations relied on White Helmets as witnesses and providers of samples and alleged munitions, though the FFM reports sometimes attributed this to other NGOs such as the Chemical Violations Documentation Centre in Brussels or the Syrian Institute for Justice. We have been informed by OPCW inspectors that during these investigations in Turkey Le Mesurier worked closely with Len Phillips, the leader of FFM Team Alpha, to select White Helmets as “witnesses” for interview by the FFM team. We have reported also that Phillips worked closely with his successor as leader of FFM Team Alpha, Sami Barrek, on the preparation of the interim and final Reports of the Fact-Finding Mission on the Douma incident. Le Mesurier’s role in providing purported witnesses for the FFM indicates that that he was closely involved in managing the FFM investigations and raises the possibility that he was involved in planning these incidents.
Of the alleged chemical attacks investigated by FFM Team Alpha, three were associated with civilian fatalities that were documented by images: six members of the Taleb family in Sarmin (2015), some 70 civilians in Khan Sheikhoun (2017), and at least 35 civilians in Douma (2018). In each of these incidents people dressed as White Helmets and endorsed by the leadership of that organization had a key role as purported first responders. We have reviewed elsewhere evidence that these incidents were staged and that the victims were massacred captives. The clearest evidence that the White Helmets were actively involved in managing a massacre of civilians is from the Khan Sheikhoun incident on 4 April 2017, where a Syrian jet was alleged to have dropped a sarin-containing munition on the town causing the deaths of at least 70 people. The Joint Investigative Mechanism’s subsequent investigation of this incident reported that a flight map (presumably provided by the US military) “indicated that the closest to Khan Shaykhun that the [Syrian] aircraft had flown had been approximately 5 km away”, effectively ruling out an airstrike as the explanation for the incident. The only possible alternative is that the Khan Sheikhoun incident was organized on the ground, and this must have required the active involvement of the White Helmets. Although the White Helmets are famous for videoing their activities, there were no images of a search and rescue operation from the Khan Sheikhoun incident. The first images of the incident were recorded from about 7 am onwards, showing victims being hosed down by the White Helmets outside their base in a cave complex near the town. Later they were seen laid out in morgues in the town. Images of the children who were laid out in morgues showed that several had recent head injuries. In at least two cases by arranging images in temporal sequence and matching identities it was possible to establish that they had received these head injuries after the time they were purportedly rescued by the White Helmets.
How much Le Mesurier knew about the planning of this incident as a managed massacre, and the role of the White Helmets in carrying it out, we do not know. It is however reasonable to state that as an experienced intelligence officer, he should have been able to assess the reliability of the testimony of the White Helmet witnesses that he selected to be interviewed by the FFM.
7 Role of Le Mesurier in media operations against critics of the White Helmets
From late 2016 reports from Syria by Vanessa Beeley and Eva Bartlett began casting doubt on the role of the White Helmets. In April 2017 a counter-attack against these critics was initiated by Chris York of the Huffington Post. Before then, York had written only a few brief articles about the Syrian conflict, from a neutral standpoint. York’s first appearance as a journalist, describing himself as “overqualified”, had been on 24 October 2011 as the author of a HuffPost article reporting how he had been denied entry to Palestine six days earlier. His LinkedIn profile gives no details of his curriculum vitae before 2012. On 6 April 2017, two days after the alleged chemical attack in Khan Sheikhoun, he posted an article that denounced “‘false flag’ accusations” as “totally wrong” and cited a purported fact-check of an article by Vanessa Beeley that had commented adversely on Le Mesurier and the White Helmets. In response to a question from us, York has stated that he had no contact with James Le Mesurier or Emma Winberg before writing this article, and that he met Emma Winberg only in March 2018. In October 2017 York attended an event in London at which Beeley spoke.
On 18 December 2017 an article in The Guardian by Olivia Solon denounced Beeley, Bartlett and others who had suggested that the White Helmets were an information operation, describing them as a “network of anti-imperialist activists, conspiracy theorists and trolls with the support of the Russian government”. This was followed two days later by a report from the Syria Campaign that described Beeley as “at the heart of this Russia-backed disinformation campaign” and quoted a study of Twitter conversations commissioned from the social media analytics firm Graphika:
The social media activity criticizing the White Helmets looks similar to other disinformation campaigns we have analysed and bears some of the same indications of coordination, and a number of the specific accounts attacking the White Helmets have played a role in other specifically Russian disinformation campaigns as well.
In response, the Working Group on Syria Propaganda and Media posted its first public statement, citing the Syria Resilience CSSF Programme Summary, and arguing that this document provided “grounds for considering the White Helmets as part of a US/UK information operation designed to underpin regime change in Syria”. This brief post by what was at the time an obscure group of academics was followed by a stream of online flak directed at members of the Working Group. In this onslaught George Monbiot of The Guardian and Idrees Ahmad of Stirling University appeared to have leading roles, apparently as triggers for a larger set of mostly anonymous accounts that piled in against their targets. From February to April 2018, hit pieces on the Working Group were published by Brian Whitaker on his blog, by York in the Huffington Post, and in The Times at the instigation of Oliver Kamm.
A report dated June 2018 written by four students at the Central European University in Budapest and posted by Bellingcat reveals that Le Mesurier had been studying closely the media activities of Vanessa Beeley and others who had expressed doubts about the White Helmets at around this time. The authors describe an interview with Le Mesurier and Winberg on 8 February 2018 in which Le Mesurier appeared to echo the Graphika study:
The Mayday foundation was a victim of a disinformation campaign released by actors calling themselves “independent journalists” such as Vanessa Beeley, a British blogger who made her way through Russian-controlled media outlets. The campaign tried to claim the White Helmets didn’t exist but were actors instead, or that they were a branch of Al-Qaeda in Syria. “We didn’t design ourselves to do that [counter-attack disinformation campaign],” said James Le Mesurier. He investigated these attacks on social media and found resemblances with Russian information warfare techniques getting disseminated by small segments of pro-Assad, pro-Russia, or anti-Western profiles on Twitter. The anatomy of his work shows prominent levels of coordination by these actors.
Le Mesurier had two twitter accounts –
@USARinwar– that followed 3270 other accounts by September 2019. These follows included not only the individuals mentioned above – York, Monbiot, Whitaker, Kamm, Ahmad – who had led attacks on those who question the role of the White Helmets, but also numerous anonymous accounts that appear to be triggered by their activities. These anonymous accounts generally repeat the same talking points, without adding any original material. It would be surprising for Le Mesurier to have been following them unless he had some role in coordinating or evaluating their activities.
8 Le Mesurier’s final months
Le Mesurier’s registration of My Zahara Limited in the UK in January 2019, using a company formation agent that specialized in compliance with money laundering regulations, suggests that he planned to repatriate money from his overseas companies and perhaps to wind them up as the role of the White Helmets came to an end with the return of opposition-held territory to Syrian government control. This is consistent with reports in the Turkish media that in the last few weeks Le Mesurier had told colleagues that he was planning to leave Turkey. In a briefing note posted on 26 June 2019, we included two items of new information about Le Mesurier’s activities: (1) that we had learned from OPCW inspectors Le Mesurier had met regularly in Turkey with Len Phillips, leader of OPCW’s FFM Team Alpha which deployed to Turkey from 2015 onwards to interview purported witnesses to alleged chemical attacks in opposition-held territory; and (2) that the FCO payments to “Mayday Rescue” had been to Mayday Rescue FZ-LLC in Dubai rather than to Stichting Mayday Rescue Foundation in the Netherlands. Two weeks later a change of name of Mayday Rescue FZ-LLC to “Mayday Rescue Foundation” was initiated, presumably by Le Mesurier.
In 2019 online information about Le Mesurier’s past began to disappear. Additions to Le Mesurier’s list of Twitter follows suggest that in the last few months of his life he was monitoring efforts to smear and silence members of the Working Group: Twitter accounts that he began to follow in September and October 2019 included student journalists in Bristol and Edinburgh who had published articles smearing members of the Working Group in their university posts, and a local councillor in Lewisham who had objected to a member of the Working Group being invited to speak. Confirmation of Le Mesurier’s role in media operations against the Working Group was provided on 13 November 2019 by Oliver Kamm, who tweeted a quote from a leading article in The Times that day (presumably written by him):
Last year The Times identified a small group of academics at British universities spreading pro-Assad conspiracy theories … Le Mesurier was ceaselessly targeted by conspiracy theorists, whose falsehoods have insinuated themselves into public debate. He reached out to this newspaper to urge us to keep on their case.
On 23 October the Courage Foundation released new information about the OPCW FFM investigation of the Douma incident that had been revealed by a “reluctant but credible whistleblower” to a panel including the first Director-General of the OPCW. At about this time we began contacting former employees of Mayday Rescue with questions about transactions between companies controlled by Le Mesurier. Thus by the end of October Le Mesurier would have had reason to believe that the net was closing on his role in the staging of alleged chemical attacks and on his business dealings.
One objective of our investigations into the information operations associated with alleged chemical attacks in Syria is to bring to justice the perpetrators of these incidents and those who colluded with them. From open sources combined with material from confidential informants, we have identified some of the key individuals involved, of whom Le Mesurier was one. We appeal to others who have information about these operations to come forward or to contact us in confidence. Documents that are covered by official secrecy laws can be passed securely to Wikileaks.
White Helmets group members admit to staging chemical attacks in Syria, Russian study finds