Berlin Group 21, 'Ivan's' Emails and Chemical Weapons Conspiracy Theories
In March this year, a new website for a group set up by two former diplomats and an Ivy League academic concerned about the activities of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) blinked into life.
The Berlin Group 21 (BG21), read a “Statement of Concern” that graced the site’s landing page, had “deep concern” about an OPCW investigation into a chemical weapons attack on the Syrian town of Douma in 2018 that killed more than 40 civilians. Signatories included prominent journalists, academics, a former US Congresswoman and presidential candidate as well as a former head of Britain’s Royal Navy.
The group was “represented” by three eminent individuals: José Bustani, Richard Falk and Hans von Sponeck, the site noted.
Bustani is a former director general of the OPCW, Falk is an emeritus professor of international law and practice at Princeton while von Sponeck is a former UN assistant secretary general and humanitarian coordinator for Iraq.
Yet a few weeks on, questions about whether there is more to BG21, as well as how its Statement of Concern came to be, are in the spotlight.
Last month, Newlines magazine reported that BG21 was a “front” organisation for another body, the Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and the Media (WGSPM). An email sting, meanwhile, saw a member of the WGSPM boast of arranging media coverage for BG21 to an individual he mistakenly took to be a Russian intelligence officer.
The WGSPM has been widely criticised for the beliefs of its members, primarily a group of UK academics and bloggers. The group has, among many other things, posited that chemical attacks in Syria were staged by Syrian rebels despite a mountain of evidence pointing to the Syrian government being responsible — as it has been for hundreds of other chemical weapons attacks.
BG21 subsequently posted a statement that said accusations it was a front were “false” and that it was “entirely independent of any other group or organisation.” Those claims were similarly rejected in phone interviews by von Sponeck and Piers Robinson, a co-founder of the WGSPM who, like many others in the group, has backed damaging conspiracy theories relating to events in Syria and beyond.
Yet other elements of Bellingcat’s conversations with von Sponeck and Robinson reveal what would appear to be close contact between the pair over the activities of BG21 and engagement around the Statement of Concern.
On top of this:
- Piers Robinson told Bellingcat he had access to the BG21 website, although he said he did not set it up, was not running it and was not involved in getting material onto it. He also said he had looked at the Statement of Concern at various stages of its drafting but that this involvement had not been in any way significant and was “no secret,” despite the fact it was not publicised.
- Hans von Sponeck told Bellingcat that Robinson had helped identify people to sign the Statement of Concern. But Robinson said any help he had given had been in a personal capacity rather than as part of the WGSPM. Von Sponeck said a number of people were consulted over the Statement of Concern.
- Von Sponeck, one of the listed representatives of BG21, appeared to not be aware of key details surrounding the OPCW’s Douma report, despite the organisation’s raison d’etre being “concern” at how that investigation was carried out. He stated that he was simply seeking clarification and that the aim of BG21 was to ensure scientists were heard and that the integrity of the OPCW was preserved. Responsibility for the Statement of Concern lay with him, Falk and Bustani and there was no coordination with groups like the WGSPM, he said.
- Lord West, a member of the UK parliament’s intelligence and security committee said he was asked to sign the Statement of Concern by Peter Ford, a former UK ambassador to Syria who is currently listed as the co-chairman at the British Syrian Society (BSS), a lobby group run by the father-in-law of Syrian President, Bashar al Assad. How Ford became aware of the statement is unclear. Lord West also said he was unaware of Ford’s association with the BSS. Ford has previously said his role at the BSS is unpaid.
- Paul McKeigue, another co-founder of the WGSPM, claimed in emails with an individual he took to be a Russian intelligence officer that he and Robinson had been involved in organising media coverage for BG21. Although, he later said he had embellished his correspondence, his purpose for doing so is not entirely clear. Robinson also pointed to McKeigue’s comments that he had embellished his emails.
- The Courage Foundation, a trust founded by Wikileaks that aims to support whistleblowers, has also published and promoted the Statement of Concern as well as further documentation at the same time as BG21. How or why the Courage Foundation came to be involved in publishing the statement is unclear, and the organisation did not respond to a request for comment.
Nader Hashemi, Director of the Center for Middle East Studies and Associate Professor of Middle East and Islamic Politics at the University of Denver, told Bellingcat that if Robinson or any of his WGSPM colleagues were in any way engaged with BG21 or the Statement of Concern it would raise serious questions about the legitimacy and independence of both. It would also be damaging for BG21 given Robinson’s history of engaging with conspiracy theories, he added.
Scott Lucas, who has closely followed arguments around the Douma incident and is Emeritus Professor of International Politics at the UK’s University of Birmingham, agreed and said Robinson’s academic reputation had been “buried” by his support for an array of disinformation narratives such as the “managed massacres” of civilians who were actually killed in chemical attacks.
To begin to grasp the full complexities of this story, however, it is first important to understand how a mysterious individual named “Ivan” was able to elicit boasts from a WGSPM co-founder about what he claimed was the reach and impact of the WGSPM.
Paul McKeigue got considerably more than he bargained for when he struck up an email correspondence with “Ivan” earlier this year.
As well as being a WGSPM co-founder, McKeigue is a professor of genetic epidemiology at Edinburgh University. McKeigue came to believe that Ivan, who had emailed him out of the blue, was a Russian intelligence officer.
After a cagey beginning, the pair began sharing information on what McKeigue said some WGSPM figures had been up to. He soon wrote to Ivan that WGSPM founder Piers Robinson had “worked over the last few months to coordinate this initiative (https://www.heise.de/tp/features/Glaubwuerdigkeit-und-Integritaet-der-OPCW-wiederherstellen-5078562.htmlhttps://www.heise.de/tp/features/Glaubwuerdigkeit-und-Integritaet-OPCW-wiederherstellen-5078562.html).”
The link connected to an article about the BG21’s Statement of Concern on the OPCW Douma investigation in the German online publication, Telepolis.
In response, Ivan stated he did not know that the statement regarding the OPCW was Robinson’s work and asked why neither Robinson nor McKeigue had associated themselves with it.
McKeigue replied that “Piers thinks that it’s best for him to stay behind the scenes, as our WGSPM is somewhat controversial and we have been smeared in the media.” McKeigue also noted: “The group taking forward the Statement of Concern is now named the Berlin 21 Group”.
Robinson, a former professor of journalism at the University of Sheffield and co-founder of the WGSPM, has long courted controversy for promoting conspiracy theories relating to Syria and beyond.
He gave glowing praise for a book that suggested explosives were used to destroy the World Trade Center on 9/11 and claimed that COVID-19 was a “low lethality virus” no different to annual flu outbreaks. He has also stated that the “Mission Accomplished” banner present behind President George W. Bush when he declared major combat operations in Iraq over in 2003 was “imposed” on images of the event and not actually there.
The WGSPM, meanwhile, have questioned whether Russia ever actually produced the Novichok nerve agents. On Syria, Robinson and the WGSPM have long sought to claim chemical attacks were staged by rebel groups opposed to Assad, with the help of the search-and-rescue organisation, the Syrian Civil Defence, often known as the White Helmets. One of their members has claimed that the White Helmets are a “legitimate target”.
In another portion of the email exchanges, McKeigue appeared to further point out his and WGSPM’s seeming foreknowledge and participation in the activities of BG21. “We are arranging media coverage for this,” he wrote in apparent reference to the BG21’s Statement of Concern.
This particular email was sent on 4 March, a full week before BG21’s website was registered on 11 March.
Unfortunately for McKeigue, however, Ivan was not a Russian intelligence officer. Rather, he was a member of the Commission for International Justice and Accountability (CIJA), an NGO that has documented rights abuses in Syria.
McKeigue had previously been seeking to investigate the activities of CIJA as well as its founder, William Wiley, whom he falsely believed to be a CIA operative. These emails have previously been reported by the BBC and some of them are embedded in this story.
McKeigue also appears to discuss the importance of having figures such as Lord Alan West, a former British Navy admiral, sign the BG21 Statement of Concern because he “is not a friend of Russia. Or President Assad.”
McKeigue further boasts of the impression he believes he made in an appearance before legislators at the UK parliament and his hope that investigations would be launched into how the country’s intelligence services briefed the prime minister about the Douma attack.
He named Julian Lewis, the chair of the UK parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee as being “an independent-minded sceptic who came to hear me, Piers and David Miller [another WGSPM member] speak at the House of Commons last year.”
In response to this, Lewis told Bellingcat that he only arrived at the end of that meeting and was not aware of what had been said before he was present. He also said he was unaware of the BG21 initiative and had not been in contact with anyone from the WGSPM, nor had he been asked to sign the BG21 Statement of Concern.
However, Lord Alan West, a former head of the UK’s Royal Navy and a fellow-member of the same intelligence and security committee, did sign the Statement of Concern. He told Bellingcat he was invited to do so by Peter Ford, a former UK ambassador to Syria and now the co-chairman at the British Syrian Society (BSS), a lobby group founded and also co-chaired by Fawaz Akhras, the father-in-law of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Bellingcat managed to reach Peter Ford by phone to ask about BG21 and the Statement of Concern. He confirmed who he was, although said we were asking the wrong person as he knew very little about BG21. He then said: “I know who you are. Don’t call me again,” before hanging up. Ford has previously written that the Douma chemical attack was probably fabricated and said that the White Helmets are “jihadi auxillieries.” He has also stated that he is not paid for his work at BSS.
Lord West, who once described President Assad as “ghastly,” said that he was not aware of Ford’s affiliations with the BSS. He also said he had not read all of the OPCW reports in full but believed if there was any doubt about the group’s work, it should be looked at carefully. He was not aware that the Investigation and Identification Team (IIT), a group at the OPCW separate to the Fact Finding Mission (FFM) that put together the Douma report, is currently re-examining the incident and has a mandate to assign responsibility for attacks. When informed of the IIT investigation Lord West noted his approval.
Lord West added that he was not aware of the work of the WGSPM or Piers Robinson’s past comments. When a selection was relayed to him, he said: “I’m not a great fan of conspiracy theorists at all. Completely barking mad, as far as I’m concerned.”
Yet according to McKeigue’s emails, the WGSPM was not just focussed on the UK parliament.
At one point, McKeigue stated that Robinson was working as a researcher for the German political party Die Linke and that two of the party’s Bundestag members, Heike Hänsel and Sevim Dağdelen, had been “helping us by putting down parliamentary questions to the German Foreign Ministry on the OPCW fraud.”
In the same email, McKeigue details theories about globalism, the financier and philanthropist George Soros and argues that Bellingcat is part of a network of “Syria narrative enforcers.”
Neither Die Linke, Hänsel or Dağdelen responded to Bellingcat’s request for comment on the contents of McKeigue’s emails pertaining to them prior to publication. Robinson also did not respond when asked specifically about this point by email. McKeigue, however, has subsequently claimed that he embellished much of his email correspondence.
There is no mention of whether the Statement of Concern was raised with any German politicians in McKeigue’s emails. But the publicity the emails garnered, as well as the details within them — foreknowledge of BG21 activities, plans to arrange coverage from behind the scenes and the sharing of information with a fake Russian intelligence officer — certainly appeared to cause concern within BG21.
A Request for Correction
Shortly after Newlines published its article in which it linked BG21 and the WGSPM, a statement appeared on the BG21 website that said the claims made in the piece were “entirely false”.
The statement detailed how “the Berlin Group 21 has been established by Ambassador José Bustani, Professor Richard Falk and Hans von Sponeck and is entirely independent of any other group or organisation.”
“A request for correction has been addressed to the journalists concerned,” it concluded.
The two journalists responsible for the Newlines article did indeed receive an email on 20 April claiming that their story was “entirely false” and requesting a correction.
But it did not come from a named representative of BG21.
Instead, they were emailed by Paul McKeigue, who claimed that: “The Statement of Concern and the BG21 are entirely independent of both me and the WGSPM.”
Von Sponeck told Bellingcat that he had asked McKeigue to respond to the Newlines piece and make clear he had nothing to do with BG21. He also contacted the authors himself a few days later.
Von Sponeck shared the email he had sent to McKeigue with Bellingcat. This was the first contact between the pair and he had not previously been aware of who McKeigue was, he said. The email stated: “As you are aware, both the Statement of Concern and the BG21 are totally independent of you and the WGSPM.” It also contained the note von Sponeck said he planned to send to the journalists.
Bellingcat reached out to McKeigue to ask about his emails to Ivan, and whether BG21 was a front for the aims of the WGSPM, as alleged by the Newlines piece.
McKeigue did not respond before publication.
However, in a statement on the WGSPM website after the “Ivan” emails were first reported, McKeigue said that he had “embellished” certain aspects to give the impression of a coordinated network “that in reality does not exist”.
Why McKeigue would have sought to embellish his emails with Ivan is not entirely clear, although his statement appears to suggest it may have been to tease more information from “Ivan.” McKeigue added that the WGSPM “does not exist as an entity other than a loose group of people who occasionally co-author articles or comment on each other’s drafts.”
Yet the impression there were connections and correspondence between a key WGSPM member and at least one of those in BG21 does not appear to be one of the aspects that was “embellished” in the emails.
“I’m nobody’s useful idiot”
In a phone call with Bellingcat, von Sponeck said that he had corresponded with Robinson over the BG21 initiative.
He initially characterised this as “nothing more, nothing less than chatting back, getting some reactions, as we do from other people.”
Yet he went on to describe how Robinson had been in touch “fairly regularly” and had helped in “answering questions” as he was not a Syria specialist. He said that Robinson had pointed him to documentation that he should read and noted that Robinson was someone he turned to when “arrangements need to be in place,” although he did not specify exactly what that meant.
Von Sponeck said he consulted a number of people about the Statement of Concern, of whom Robinson was just one. When Robinson was asked about this on a separate call with Bellingcat he said: “Yeah, I might have done, but not in any significant way” He also said that he “didn’t help to draft it [the statement]” but “looked at various points.” Von Sponeck also said that Robinson had helped to identify potential signatories.
Yet claims that the Berlin Group consisted of more than three people (von Sponeck, Bustani and Falk) who wanted to ensure the OPCW is protected against misuse and who had sought the support of similarly concerned individuals, were misguided, von Sponeck said.
When von Sponeck decided he wanted to put a statement on the BG21 website rejecting Newlines’ allegations, however, it was to Robinson he turned for help in getting it online. Robinson told Bellingcat he has access to the BG21 website. Although, he said he did not set it up, was not running it and was not involved in getting material onto it. Accessing the website was only something von Sponeck was able to do some weeks after its launch.
Robinson said he knew the identity of the person, a US citizen, who had registered the website, a detail which von Sponeck did not know.
Despite this, von Sponeck rejected the suggestion that Robinson’s involvement had been in any way “heavy” or that he was being used by people with ulterior motives. “I would ask you in earnest not even for a moment to imagine that Bustani, Falk and I have in any way been misled or have not insisted on the highest standards of review in our efforts to find the truth for a complex matter such as Douma,” he later followed up by email.
Von Sponeck said he was aware that Robinson had been accused in the media of being a conspiracy theorist, including on issues such as 9/11, but saw no problem with consulting him over the BG21 initiative. When told about some of Robinson and the Working Group’s other previous activities, he said: “I don’t even know what Piers Robinson and his working group are doing. I do not know. I don’t need to know.” His focus, he said, was on the Statement of Concern and “not what people may do in some other context.”
Von Sponeck also stressed that he had never met with any embassy on this matter. McKeigue stated in his emails that Robinson and other members of the WGSPM coordinated with three separate Russian embassies in London, New York and Geneva. McKeigue further noted in his emails that a Russian diplomat in Geneva named Sergey Krutskikh “has occasionally passed information to the WGSPM via Piers”.
On a call with Bellingcat, Robinson repeatedly noted that McKeigue has claimed his emails to Ivan were “embellished” while also stating that “this thing about me being a contact and somebody who can supply information through Russian Federation contacts is just inaccurate. This is not my role or arrangement in any way, nor would I do that.”
Robinson later said via email that “to assume the [Ivan] emails are accurate is foolhardy on your part and to suggest that either Paul McKeigue or the WGSPM are behind the Statement of Concern or the Berlin Group 21 is false. Both are independent of Paul McKeigue personally and the WGSPM.
“With respect to me, as both Hans and I have explained, I am proud to have been able to provide help and support to Hans von Sponeck, José Bustani and Richard Falk; It has truly been an honour. I have done so in my own personal capacity and not as a representative of groups or organisations I am also involved in. I am one of a number of people providing help and support. To suggest my role and function is more than this is false.”
Von Sponeck also noted that he had “no impression that Piers Robinson tried to pull me over into an ideological camp or the camp of a fanatic” and that he was “nobody’s useful idiot.” The integrity of the OPCW and allowing scientists to be listened to was the primary concern of BG21 group, he said, and that himself, Bustani and Falk were “honest” individuals. If he felt people were trying to “play games” or have “intentions … that are not known to the public,” he would “drop out very quickly.”
The Douma Reports
When discussing the Douma attack with Bellingcat, however, von Sponeck focussed his concerns not on the specifics of the incident but on the disagreement that has played out between Brendan Whelan, a former OPCW employee and the organisation itself.
This is part of the story where much controversy and misinformation has played out. Documents leaked to Wikileaks by Whelan in 2019 appeared to show disagreement within the OPCW as to whether there was sufficient evidence to state chlorine gas was used in the Douma attack. However, it has since transpired that the leaked documents provided an incomplete picture of what had happened at the OPCW.
Whelan was initially part of the OPCW’s Fact Finding Mission (FFM) and contributed to its interim report, which he signed off on after originally expressing concerns. But Whelan then left the OPCW. A full seven months would pass before the investigation was completed, a period in which the OPCW says the bulk of the investigatory work was conducted. That later work was, the OPCW said, highly protected and not something Whelan had access to. Whelan also did not go on site in Douma as he had not received the relevant training to do so, the OPCW has stated.
An independent investigation backed up this version of events and the head of the OPCW described claims made by Whelan and Ian Henderson — another OPCW employee who was not part of the core FFM mission but alleged details had been suppressed in the final report — as “erroneous, uninformed and wrong.”
The head of the OPCW also noted that Whelan had, after leaving the organisation, referred former colleagues to one of the WGSPM briefing notes which posited a “managed massacre” had taken place at Douma. Whelan referred to this article as “very interesting and insightful”.
Despite this, von Sponeck said: “What swayed me, deeply, moved me and made me very upset is when I read the two interim reports, and when I read the fact-finding mission report that omitted reference to the fact that there were disagreements in the team. That made me very worried and [ask] do I need to know more?”
Von Sponeck was unaware that Whelan had agreed, in writing, with the interim report.
Whelan also declined to answer on whether he received money from Wikileaks as a result of his disclosure of OPCW documents when contacted by a BBC Radio documentary earlier this year. He also did not respond to Bellingcat requests for comment on the same subject last year. Wikileaks announced the offer on Twitter after the attack. Von Sponeck was also unaware of this.
Von Sponeck pointed to the fact that several former members of the OPCW had signed as a reason to trust the contents of the statement. Yet all of these individuals had, as far as Bellingcat can tell, left the OPCW by the time it started its investigation into the use of chemical weapons in Syria.
What can be said from speaking to von Sponeck and Robinson is that at least one WGSPM member had access to the BG21 website, had identified signatories for its key documentation and had played at least a passing role in looking at the Statement of Concern before it was published.
However, Robinson says that any help he has provided to BG21 has been “no big secret” and in a personal capacity rather than in his role at any other organisation.
This would appear to be in contradiction to at least some of Paul McKeigue’s emails with “Ivan,” although since their publication he has sought to distance himself from the words he wrote, stating they were “embellished”.
The WGSPM have long sought to use their credentials as academics to lend credibility to their theories about chemical attacks in Syria, despite having no relevant formal qualifications. In McKeigue’s own words, negative media reports have helped to undermine this credibility.
Berlin Group 21 has managed to gather a group of eminently respectable figures to sign its Statement of Concern. But if BG21 was receiving information and feedback from individuals who have a history of engaging in conspiracy theories and pushing incomplete and false information about the Douma attacks, it raises questions about the quality of the information subsequently published by BG21 .
The emails of Paul McKeigue also raise clear questions for politicians, such as those from Die Linke, about whether they have engaged with WGSPM members on the issue of the Douma attacks.
Bellingcat sought to speak to Richard Falk, José Bustani, The Courage Foundation, Die Linke, Sevim Dağdelen and Heike Hänsel for this piece but did not receive a response from any before publication.
Eoghan Macguire contributed additional reporting