After His Mysterious Death, the Media Scrambles to Get its Story Straight About White Helmets Founder James Le Mesurier
On November 11, 2019, the British founder of the notorious White Helmets, James Le Mesurier, died in Istanbul, Turkey. The circumstances surrounding his death immediately elicited a flurry of Turkish and corporate media reports, many of them contradictory, as the details of his final hours came to light.
Mark Urban, the diplomatic editor at BBC Newsnight, immediately tweeted that “a former colleague” had told him it was impossible to “fall from that balcony,” referencing Le Mesurier’s reported cause of death and intimated that there may have been “state involvement.” Urban did not identify his mysterious “former colleague” or explain what made him sufficiently qualified to conclude that Le Mesurier’s death may have been a state-sanctioned hit.
Urban deleted his tweets soon after, maintaining that “there is a good deal of suspicion it may be murder by a state actor, but others suggest he may have taken his own life.” Did Urban jump the gun? Was he instructed to delete the tweets, and if so, by whom?
In the tangle of media reports that ensued, a pattern of denials and misdirection became apparent. The overriding response from the narrative curators in corporate media was to blame Russia for everything. Russian Foreign Office spokesperson Maria Zakharova was vilified for her description of Le Mesurier as a British intelligence agent and for condemning his previous association with al-Qaeda in Kosovo in 1999. The author and investigative journalist, Whitney Webb, previously exposed those connections for MintPress News.
Part one of this series will attempt to bring a greater degree of transparency and context to the Le Mesurier affair by examining his role in Syria and his financial responsibility as founder of Mayday Rescue, an NGO he established in 2014 to act as the UK Foreign Office’s (UK FCO) implementing partner, responsible for the management of the White Helmets. Suspected collusion between Le Mesurier, his Mayday Rescue colleagues and UK state media to crush dissent or questioning of the establishment narrative on Syria will also be examined.
As the corporate media rushed to file reports on Le Mesurier’s death, two narratives emerged that effectively attempt to revise his career history.
Disconnecting Le Mesurier from the White Helmets
Raed Saleh is the “chairman” of the White Helmets. Saleh has connections to extremist armed factions and individuals inside Syria. In fact, he was refused entry into the United States in April of 2016 because of these “extremist connections.” Saleh writes for The Guardian, although he does not speak a word of English. His appearances at UN-sponsored events and in the corporate media appear heavily scripted and managed. So, when Saleh announced that Le Mesurier was not the founder of the White Helmets, alarm bells rang. Why would a spokesperson for the White Helmets deny something that Le Mesurier himself had admitted many times? That he founded the group while contracted to Analysis Research and Knowledge Group (ARK), even Le Mesurier’s Wikipedia entry doesn’t dispute the fact.
In April of 2017, the online news outlet The Middle Ground interviewed Le Mesurier. In its background for the interview, they described the founding of the White Helmets thusly:
“The White Helmets was started by Mr Mesurier when he was working for ARK, a for-profit international contracting firm based in Turkey.”
Le Mesurier confirmed his role in founding the organization in the interview, stating:
“ARK was funded by Friends of Syria, a coalition of about 35 different countries who provide support to those that are in opposition to the Assad Government.”
Le Mesurier not connected to “any” British intelligence
Chris York of the Huffington Post sprang to the defense of the White Helmets immediately after Le Mesurier’s demise. York, who prior to 2017 had written a number of superficial commentaries about the Syrian conflict, began a campaign of attacking anyone exposing the White Helmets’ links to terrorist groups and their criminal activities alongside those groups.
York’s campaign gathered momentum in 2017 and continued in 2018, attacking, smearing and attempting to discredit independent journalists and academics who were countering the state-established narratives on Syria coming mostly out of Washington and London.
One of York’s articles, published three days after Le Mesurier’s death, bore the title, ‘This is why James Le Mesurier’s White Helmets are the target of a Russian disinformation campaign’. Beyond the multiple inaccuracies in the report, York’s heavy-handed blame-Russia approach effectively disappeared the voices of those Syrians who reject the White Helmets and who have accused them of organ trafficking, child abduction and abuse, torture, murder, theft, and collaboration with the armed groups that persecuted civilians in the areas they occupied.
In reality, Russia’s role has been to provide those voices with a media platform and to give them a chance to speak. But York would prefer they keep quiet. If he really were interested in truth or impartiality, he would support a public inquiry into the White Helmets to allow evidence against them to be legally reviewed.
There is one point in York’s article that curiously echoes a statement made by the UK representative to the UN, Karen Pierce. Under the subheading, “James Le Mesurier was a spy”, York writes:
“Russian authorities have never provided any evidence that Le Mesurier was a spy or worked for any intelligence agencies and have only repeated unsubstantiated claims made by bloggers that write about the White Helmets.” (emphasis added)
One day before York’s article was published, The Guardian quoted Karen Pierce’s statement that (Russian) claims that he worked for British Secret Services were “categorically untrue.”
Apart from the fact that Le Mesurier was active in various areas of NATO intervention, suggesting he had links with British intelligence agencies, The Guardian itself previously stated categorically that Le Mesurier was working for British military intelligence during his time in Kosovo in 1999.
Wiping the slate clean for Le Mesurier
Almost immediately after Le Mesurier’s alleged plunge to his death from the window of his Istanbul apartment, reports began to emerge of tampering with video reports and of the removal of links to articles detailing the career of the controversial “private security” operative. A Men’s Journal article which detailed Le Mesurier’s career path was removed from the Mayday Rescue website as well as the White Helmets Wikipedia page. The Men’s Journal article opens with the following description:
“Sweating in the 104-degree heat in Adana, Turkey, former British infantry officer James Le Mesurier is training a group of average Syrians to become members of the U.S.-funded Syria Civil Defense (SCD) team”
But the whitewashing of Le Mesurier’s past was not confined to traditional media. RT’s Murad Gadziev reported on the frantic cleaning of controversy from Le Mesurier’s Wikipedia page by the notorious Philip Cross. Cross has a history of obsessively stalking and editing Wikipedia pages belonging to journalists or academics challenging influential Syria narratives.
There certainly appears to be a concerted campaign to remove specific data from the public domain and to obfuscate, omit and redirect information regarding a valuable asset for British intelligence agencies – whether Le Mesurier was directly working for them or not.
Disregarding details of Le Mesurier’s death
In its reporting on Le Mesurier’s death, certain details were released in the Turkish media that do not appear to have been picked up or emphasized by corporate media. Some of those details provide insight into the possible reasons for Le Mesurier’s death.
One week before he died, Le Mesurier allegedly told his colleagues in the White Helmets: “in Turkey, we’re done, we are leaving.” Le Mesurier and his wife, Emma Winberg, Chief Impact Officer at Mayday Rescue since January 2017, had also allegedly “fought violently” while they were dining in Beyoglu, an upscale Turkish cafe and bar, one day before his death.
In the week before the incident, another Turkish media outlet reported that deliveries made to the offices of Mayday Rescue, a White Helmets partner organization that even shares its headquarters, addressed to Mary Salvatore were returned to sender because nobody was available to take delivery. The same thing had allegedly been happening to previous deliveries for a few weeks according to the report. Salvatore was the office manager at Mayday Rescue, her contact details appear on a 2016 employment advertisement for a chief operating officer position at Mayday Rescue, as well as other positions in the organization based in Ankara, Turkey.
Another Turkish media report stated that Mayday Rescue is now “persona non grata in Turkey” and that the White Helmets have “distanced” themselves from Mayday, “the building remains closed despite the fact that both organisations share offices in the same building” (emphasis added). One article reiterates how Le Mesurier informed his White Helmet colleagues that he would be leaving Turkey. Another quotes him as saying, “our business in Turkey is over.”
Among the other significant yet overlooked facts reported by Turkish media was that “research maps and sketches” belonging to James Le Mesurier were removed from his home by investigators from the Istanbul Homicide Bureau and Anti-Terrorism and Intelligence Branch Directorates and that Emma Winberg was questioned by police regarding seven electronic devices, including PCs, tablets and mobile phones that were found and seized for examination at the home she shared with Le Mesurier.
Yet perhaps the most damning report that graced the pages of Turkish media came from the pro-Erdogan Daily Sabah. That piece stated that:
“According to recent information, the source of Le Mesurier’s stress was him not being able to pay back a large amount of financial aid he had received. It was also found that Le Mesurier planned to leave Turkey just before his death.” (emphasis added)
These details paint a very different, and much more intriguing, picture of the possible drivers for Le Mesurier’s allegede suicide and certainly render claims that Russia was behind the death both questionable and precipitative.
Former UK Ambassador to Syria weighs in
Peter Ford, the United Kingdom’s former ambassador to Syria and Bahrain, doubts the official narratives over the mysterious death of Le Mesurier. Ford told MintPress the following when asked to weigh in on the burgeoning controversy.
It is sad for anyone to be so stressed that they take their own life. But if Le Mesurier was stressed, how do we know it wasn’t because he was afraid that the truth about financial irregularities he was suspected of was beginning to leak out? Fear of being uncovered in impropriety has sent many over the edge. Le Mesurier’s company Mayday Rescue was coming under the microscope.
Last year the Dutch government stopped funding Mayday because they weren’t sure what Mayday were doing with the money. That’s in the public record.
Le Mesurier sat at the centre of a tangled web of money laundering companies. The wheels were beginning to come off his operation.
With so much money passing through his hands – Western governments sent upwards of $200 million to the White Helmets – and such lax controls the temptation to defraud must have been immense.
Are we sure Le Mesurier was not under investigation by the British authorities? The British Foreign Office statement following his death was strangely tight-lipped:
“We are deeply saddened by the news of the death of James Le Mesurier. Our condolences go out to his family and friends at this difficult time.”
Why no mention of his wonderful work? Funny, that.”
Considering that Le Mesurier was awarded an OBE (Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) in 2016 for his “life-saving work,” it is a strange statement, bereft of the plaudits one might expect under the circumstances.
Emma Winberg and the UK-funded PR machine for terrorists
Some may consider it harsh to include Le Mesurier’s grieving widow in an investigation over her own husband’s death, but exploring Emma Winberg’s role in Mayday Rescue and its associated organizations provides much-needed context to such a complex and convoluted case.
According to her LinkedIn profile, Winberg worked as a political officer for the UK’s FCO (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) for seven years, until 2014. In January of 2015, she co-founded a company called Incostrat, presumably with Paul Tilley, who like Le Mesurier, had a British military background.
Incostrat was effectively established as an outsourced public relations contractor for the “moderate armed opposition” in Syria and was funded by the UK FCO Conflict Stability and Security Fund (CSSF) – which also heavily funds both Mayday Rescue and the White Helmets.
An Incostrat contracting document seen by The Guardian named the Saudi-backed Jaish Al Islam (JAI) as one of the “suitable moderate opposition” groups to have received media advice and guidance on promotional strategies from Incostrat.
JAI was one of the most brutal extremist groups to occupy Syria’s Eastern Ghouta. The group, alongside the al-Qaeda affiliated Nusra Front, was responsible for the 2013 massacre of civilians in Adra that included burning prisoners alive in huge bread furnaces. In 2015, JAI caged religious minorities in Douma and paraded them through the streets as human shields. I previously covered some of the many atrocities that the group committed against civilians in Douma during their occupation of the Damascus suburb. In that article, I also explore the close collaboration between the White Helmets and JAI.
One video circling the internet was ostensibly a part of the JAI’s foreign-funded media blitz. It was a promotional short made to showcase the military prowess of the group, which at the time was occupying areas of Eastern Ghouta, Damascus – including Douma, the scene of an alleged chemical weapon attack in 2018.
In January of 2017, according to her Linkedin page, Winberg became chief impact officer of Mayday Rescue. Her Skoll Foundation profile presents her as a Director of Mayday Rescue. Winberg describes her role as “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” (emphasis added)
She describes her background in the familiar “security, stabilisation and peace building”. Her postings “have been in Kabul, Damascus, East Jerusalem, Istanbul and Erbil with shorter postings in Yemen and East Africa” – a very similar posting map to Le Mesurier – while Winberg was employed as a political officer for the UK FCO.
Political officers can be described as UK FCO scouts, information gatherers and community networkers tasked with identifying “opportunities for UK engagement,” a euphemism for political, economic or proxy military intervention under the faux pretext of humanitarian war known as the Responsibility to Protect doctrine, particularly when taking into consideration the specific nations prospected by Winberg.
Peter Ford described political officers as follows:
The most famous ‘political officers’ were Lawrence (of Arabia) and Gertrude Bell. A term redolent of imperialism it has been brought back into use by the [UK] FCO for its agents who control, in the field, the UK’s various local proxies in Syria. Mostly based in Turkey they act as handlers for armed groups and their auxiliaries such as the White Helmets and local councils.”
The integration of the Skoll Foundation into the complex network of billionaire financing and directing the promotion of the White Helmets and driving the war in Syria has been investigated extensively by this author and journalist Whitney Webb.
Winberg’s other connections to the NATO alliance include appearances alongside Eliot Higgins, an activist and publisher of the Atlantic Council-aligned Bellingcat blog, at an Atlantic Council DFR Lab event called, “Archiving atrocities in Syria.”
The DFR Lab is also a recipient of UK FCO funds and clearly included in the British government’s drive to silence diverging views and undermine genuine anti-war movements or individuals when it comes to Syria.
During her talk, Winberg makes scant reference to the atrocities carried out by the extremist armed groups working alongside the White Helmets in the areas they occupy. This policy of revisionism and whitewashing of the terrorist threat facing Syria extends to the White Helmets, a group that has reported on atrocities by the Nusra Front only once out of its 4,354 tweets according to research carried out by author Mike King.
Instead, Winberg focuses on the White Helmet “high profile” work with the OPCW (Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons) and their role in the burial of the dead and “maintaining records and identities of those who have been killed.” Again, this claim does not seem to be evidenced by the White Helmets themselves:
More will be examined on the role of the White Helmets in producing evidence and the staging of events that were then utilized by the OPCW in part two of this series.
Winberg also presents evidence of a “sustained disinformation campaign” waged against the White Helmets by Russia, independent journalists and academics. This is important because of the apparent connection between Winberg joining Mayday Rescue in January 2017 and the subsequent campaign of disinformation waged in the media against journalists and academics who expose the inner workings of the White Helmets and their affiliation with extremist groups in Syria.
A propaganda campaign against researchers and journalists
In January of 2017, three months after Winberg arrived at Mayday Rescue, Chris York of the Huffington Post launched a media campaign to attack the critics of the White Helmets. York produced a series of articles attempting to discredit this author and other independent journalists. York rarely engaged in any constructive debates on social media, instead favoring the Russia-centric or “Assadist” tropes that have become the hallmark of attacks on dissidents and genuine anti-war activists alike.
York’s attacks were soon reinforced by Olivia Solon at The Guardian, The UK’s Times newspaper, former Guardian correspondent, Brian Whitaker, Bellingcat, the BBC, journalist Nafeez Ahmed, academic Idrees Ahmad, and a 48-page report from the White Helmet PR agency, Syria Campaign.
The Syria Campaign report appeared to be in direct response to this author’s presentation on the White Helmets at the Geneva Press Club that received unprecedented threats of censorship and disruption. These are not the only attempts to smear and discredit dissenting voices, but they are the most notable.
It may also be that Winberg joined Mayday Rescue after Russian media finally intervened to platform voices that were critical of the White Helmets. Contrary to the “blame Russia” memes circulated by the majority of state-aligned media in the West – the first RT program to give a platform to any such criticism was Cross Talk in October of 2016.
Prior to that, Russia had not paid much attention to the White Helmet operating in ever-dwindling areas of Syrian territory. Perhaps Winberg was drafted by her UK FCO colleagues to counter the perceived threat to the supremacy of the established narratives in the Syrian information war.
The most compelling evidence that this campaign may have been orchestrated by Le Mesurier and Winberg came from Oliver Kamm, a Times newspaper columnist and online bully with a history of endorsing and protecting British neo-colonialism and globalist policies worldwide, including in the former Yugoslavia and Libya.
Two days after Le Mesurier died, Kamm tweeted that, in 2018, Le Mesurier had “reached out to this newspaper to urge us” to keep on the case of “academics at UK universities” who were confronting Le Mesurier with the inconvenient facts surrounding the alleged chemical attacks in Syria. Kamm later deleted those tweets.
Le Mesurier’s White Helmets were the primary producers of evidence to corroborate the UK FCO and U.S.-led narratives that the Syrian government was “gassing its own people.” Notably, this “gassing” was taking place at the same time that Syrian Arab Army soldiers were sacrificing their lives to liberate those same Syrian civilians from the clutches of extremist groups, most recently in Douma, Eastern Ghouta in March of 2018.
The academics that Le Mesurier was referencing were members of the Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media who have been instrumental in exposing the gaping holes in the chemical weapon narratives disseminated without question or deviation by the majority of corporate media outlets.
Were Mayday Rescue funds diverted to extremists in Syria?
In September of 2018, the Dutch government withdrew funding from Mayday Rescue, and by default, the White Helmets.
A comprehensive review of Mayday Rescue and White Helmets monitoring systems was carried out by an IOB evaluation team which concluded that the payment system used to transfer donor funds to the White Helmets was “problematic.” The IOB team also identified the close collaboration between Mayday Rescue and the White Helmets already mentioned in this article:
The White Helmets are formally an independent organisation registered in Turkey, but in practice they are closely tied to Stichting Mayday Rescue Foundation (Mayday), the implementing partner for the majority of the White Helmets’ donors. Both organisations have their headquarters in the same office building.”
The use of the “Hawala” system to move money around raised concerns over the amounts of money involved and the lack of systematic monitoring of the funds’ recipients. A worrying lack of transparency was identified which led to the Dutch government’s withdrawal of funding, as there were no guarantees that funding was not being funneled to armed extremist groups inside Syria.
The Hawala system relies on personal connections between various agents in different locations and in different countries. Because the various agents manage cash pools in these different locations, there is no need for physical border crossings. Transactions therefore cannot be viewed in isolation, but are part of the wider system. Single transactions are managed by various layers of agents, and because the system is based on trust, it does not leave a paper trail. [..]
There exists a risk of diversion of funds by armed groups, since it does not provide insight into who receives payments and taxes along the way or how the money is used. In addition, by using the wider system, organisations may indirectly facilitate harmful or illicit trade.”
Systems in place to detect terrorist infiltration were not adequate and the report concluded that the existing automated screening could not pick up on false information that would be used by terrorists or “non-sanctioned” individuals.
Donors were dealt with separately, with no overlap of financial information (in other words each donor had no idea who the other donors were, how much they were donating, or where the money was being assigned). Furthermore, there were no real insights into the White Helmet’s “achievements”.
“Reports only include progress on activities directly funded by the separate donors, and donors seem to have little insight into who else finances which other parts of the project.”
While the Dutch government was concerned about the misdirection of funding into the pockets of terrorist groups, perhaps Peter Ford has identified another reason to be concerned about the lack of transparency in Mayday Rescue’s system of accountability. Certainly, the IOB report identified loopholes that could just as easily be exploited by dishonest brokers elsewhere within the organization.
Emma Winberg’s former associate at Incostrat, Paul Tilley, has branched out into a new venture that appears to be connected to the financial dealings of Mayday Rescue and the White Helmets, a possibility that will be explored in part two of this series.
Many questions remain unanswered
To date, no official autopsy has been completed on Le Mesurier. Many questions remain unanswered. Why was his body repatriated so quickly to the UK while the Turkish investigation was presumably still ongoing?
The media clamor to hold Russia, independent journalists and academics responsible for Le Mesurier’s death has been strident but has largely failed. How can anyone be held responsible for the death of a former British military intelligence officer when the cause of death is not yet known?
No amount of media spin is going to make the questions go away. There is an apparent effort to disconnect the White Helmets from Le Mesurier, perhaps because the results of a possible UK FCO investigation will come to light, as Peter Ford suggests. Under such circumstances, the UK FCO would be able to protect its propaganda construct while distancing it from any further loss of reputation as a result of potential financial misdemeanors committed by the primary implementing partner, and from its own founder.
A survey of the UK FCO’s monthly funding in excess of £25,000 ($32,000) revealed that Mayday Rescue has received only one payment of £1.8 million ($2.32 million) in July of 2019 while other related organizations, including Incostrat, have received regular payments throughout 2019. In fact, Incostrat received £4.76 million ($6.1 million) between January and September of 2019. This may suggest a throttling back of funding for Mayday Rescue, pending, perhaps, an investigation into their financial practices.
The United Nations, for its part, has funded the Mayday Rescue Foundation to the tune of $607,311 according to its own financial tracking services analysis. Ford suspects that Mayday Rescue may have been a money-laundering hub receiving donor contributions and distributing them with very little internal or external monitoring or transparency, a theory that is becoming increasingly feasible as the facts trickle out.
Le Mesurier played a pivotal role in organizing the witnesses used in OPCW inquiries into the alleged chemical attacks blamed on the Syrian government. As British academic, David Miller pointed out, “the process of ‘witness’ selection was contaminated by an operative (JLM) paid by several of the belligerents in the conflict most obviously the UK government.”
As details continue to emerge, the possibility of a correlation between recent revelations of OPCW corruption and Le Mesurier’s demise is becoming increasingly plausible, a possibility that will be covered further in part two of this series. Certainly, the pressure was building and Le Mesurier must have been feeling the heat as the Douma chemical attack narratives were collapsing under the weight of the exposure of manipulation, obfuscation, and staging by the White Helmets.
One very important question remains and perhaps it was haunting Le Mesurier. Who murdered the children and civilians who were used as macabre props in the White Helmet “chemical weapon” scenes in Douma? Where are the bodies? White Helmets leader Raed Saleh claimed that he disclosed their location to the OPCW. Where are they and how were they killed if indeed there was no chemical attack?
Claims of organ trafficking have been levied against the White Helmets by Syrian civilians and the death of Le Mesurier appears to have been exploited to redirect blame to the Turkish proxies now occupying areas of north-east Syria, a possibility that will be explored in part two of this series.
Le Mesurier’s death may well be an important watershed. What happens next will determine the future of the White Helmets and other important elements of the war against Syria. Le Mesurier’s creation, the White Helmets, has been instrumental in maintaining the propaganda that underpins the U.S. Coalition’s military adventurism in Syria. And as that narrative, carefully constructed over the course of a nine-year-long propaganda war, begins to crumble, governments and corporate media alike are circling the wagons in a last-ditch effort to save face.
Feature photo | Feature photo | Graphic by Claudio Cabrera
Vanessa Beeley is an independent journalist and photographer who has worked extensively in the Middle East – on the ground in Syria, Egypt, Iraq and Palestine, while also covering the conflict in Yemen since 2015. In 2017 Vanessa was a finalist for the prestigious Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism which was won by the much-acclaimed Robert Parry that year. In 2018 Vanessa was named one of the 238 most respected journalists in the UK by the British National Council for the Training of Journalists. In 2019, Vanessa was among recipients of the Serena Shim Award for uncompromised integrity in journalism. Vanessa contributes regularly to Mint Press News, Russia Today, UK Column, The Last American Vagabond, Sputnik radio, 21st Century Wire and many other independent media outlets. Please support her work at her https://www.patreon.com/vanessabeeley Patreon Page.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect MintPress News editorial policy.