On 19 August the militants of the Islamic State (IS) released a video showing the beheading of an American journalist, James Foley, who had been captured in Syria two years previously. Since their offensive into Northern Iraq in June 2014 IS has committed shocking atrocities against captured Iraqi soldiers and civilians. Foley’s killing attracted international political and media attention not just because of its brutality, or because of the victim’s nationality; the footage released by IS appeared to show that a British-born jihadi was responsible for decapitating the reporter. On Tuesday 2 September, apparently the same individual was seen murdering a second American journalist, Stephen Sotloff.
In February 1976 atrocities committed by another UK citizen fighting in a foreign conflict scandalised political and public opinion in Britain. Costas Georgiou was one of over a hundred foreign mercenaries who had travelled to Southern Africa to fight for the National Liberation Front of Angola (FNLA) in its war against its rival, the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA). Georgiou, who adopted the nom de guerre ‘Colonel Callan’, made headlines when he had 14 fellow Britons shot for desertion. ‘Callan’ was subsequently captured and himself executed by the MPLA, along with three fellow mercenaries (two British, one American). His decision to murder several of his compatriots – and other war crimes committed against Angolan nationals – caused a domestic furore which took the Labour government by surprise, which I examined in a recent article in the International History Review.
The Callan scandal left the Prime Minister Harold Wilson and his ministers with the political and legal challenges caused by the involvement of British nationals in the Angolan war. Like the current conflict in Syria and Iraq, the Angolan civil war was a brutal one fought by mutually unpalatable factions. The FNLA was supported by apartheid South Africa and Mobutu Sese Seko, the Zairian dictator, and its fighters had raped and plundered their way across Northern Angola. The MPLA was backed by the Soviet Union and its allies, and its takeover of Angola had Cold War ramifications. There are parallels here between the Labour government’s dilemma and the Coalition’s current one over Syria, where revulsion over Bashar al-Assad’s regime coexists with the fear of an IS takeover in a second Middle Eastern state.
Just as Cameron has to prevent any more British citizens joining the estimated 500 compatriots who have joined IS, the Wilson government tried, and failed, to devise laws which would stop Britons from volunteering to fight for potentially unsavoury regimes and insurgent movements. The Diplock Inquiry convened in response to the Angolan affair recommended a ban on mercenary recruitment in the UK. This proposal faltered because of inter-departmental wrangling in Whitehall – the Home Office being concerned about violating the principle of freedom of movement, the Ministry of Defence being adamantly opposed to any measures which could block the recruitment of foreigners into the British armed forces (notably the Gurkhas), or from sending loan service personnel to assist the militaries of Oman and other Gulf Arab states.
Two key differences between the Britons who fought with the FNLA and those currently with IS need to be emphasised. Callan and his peers were mercenaries who had no emotional attachment to their employer’s cause. ‘John’ (Foley’s and Sotloff’s apparent killer) and his fellow jihadis are clearly committed to the radical Islamist ideology of IS; one so extreme that even al Qaeda considers it beyond the pale. Secondly, although Wilson conflated the Angola mercenary problem with his fears of domestic subversion and right-wing ‘private armies’, MI5 and British police forces did not consider that British ‘dogs of war’ would be a threat to their fellow citizens. It goes without saying that their current counterparts are far less nonchalant about IS.
Yet there are also noteworthy similarities, not just because of the viciousness characterising both IS violence against Iraqi and Syrian civilians and the war crimes committed by some of the Angolan mercenaries. The common difficulties that ministers shared today and nearly forty years ago in stopping Britons from fighting overseas is worth noting, as is the fact that as abominable as it may sound, both the jihadis and the FNLA recruits were seeking adventure in a foreign war. Callan had been dishonourably discharged from the British Army, but several of his fellow mercenaries had no military experience, much like the IS volunteers today. Furthermore, in much the same way that the FNLA’s foreign legion had little understanding or interest in the complexities of Angolan politics, the fervour of today’s jihadis coexists with a superficial knowledge of Islam, or for that matter the societies in Northern Iraq and Eastern Syria currently languishing under the IS’s ‘caliphate’.
My article concluded with the grim observation that there would be ‘more Callans’ in the future, but I admit that I got part of this judgement wrong. I had assumed that any of my fellow countrymen who would shed innocent blood in a controversial foreign conflict would be contractors in a private military company or freelance guns-for-hire. With hindsight, I should have considered that the Callans of today would kill not for money, but because of their fanaticism.