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My Favourite Planet > Blogs > Edwin Drood's Column > April 2014
back Edwin Drood's Column
15 April 2014
Diego Garcia atoll - Render unto Caesar at the Mysterious Edwin Drood's Column
In which Edwin wonders whether there could be any truth to a rumour currently
turning on the mill, and the way that ideologically or pragmatically driven decisions
made in the early post-colonial period come back to haunt us all.

Isn’t it odd, how the news only really has space for one “it” place or country at a time? For a while that place was Greece, then Egypt, then Brazil, then Syria, then Egypt again, then Ukraine (mainly Kiev), then Ukraine again (but the Crimean bit), now all of a sudden it’s Diego Garcia. “Diego whodafugg?” I hear you say … Garcia, like Jerry, but with aeroplanes.
Run, rabbit run!
Somebody somewhere released the rabbit of rumour that perhaps this tiny atoll was the intended destination or target for Malaysia Airlines MH370. Hardly has this theory time to gain a fanatical following of conspirazzi, than the US government begins, quite coincidentally, to declassify a few tons of documents covering the George W. Bush administration’s use of “special rendition” activities, despite screaming and kicking and cries of “betrayal” from the CIA. And some of these documents, according to pages conveniently leaked in advance, treat of the “full knowledge and cooperation” of the British government in the running of a “black site” prison for secret rendition holdover purposes on a certain tiny island: Diego Garcia, of course!

Quite early on in the hunt for MH370, when this jaded writer heard that some folk in the Maldives had seen a big plane with a red stripe flying low and fast to the south of their islands, he vaguely thought, while considering possible military objectives: “Isn’t that somewhere in the vicinity of Diego Garcia?” Well yes, Edwin, except that out there in the broad wastes of the Indian Ocean, nothing is much in the vicinity of anything. You’d have to be aiming for nowhere in particular to pass anywhere near the Maldives, unless you’re headed for the Seychelles, which really is nowhere in particular, or maybe Mogadishu, which is nowhere anyone wants to go. Although the Maldive Islands are its closest neighbour, the flight path to DG hardly takes you across their perfect beaches. That would be like aiming for Birmingham and hitting the moon, even given the curious nature of great circle geometry in aircraft navigation. But if you were trying to lay a false trail, well, a Maldive sighting might be a neat way to do it ... unless your intended destination were in Somalia, land of pirates and jihadists, after all.
Zones of interest
For this is a strange zone, where exotic tourist destinations, atomic test sites, failed states and tax havens rub shoulders ... without rubbing anything, really. You could live your entire life out in these waters and never cause offence to anyone, no matter how loud your parties. Indeed, the people of the Maldives have, at more than one reprise, neglected to claim the Chagos Archipelago, of which Diego Garcia is a part, mainly because it would simply have been too much trouble to administer. It may seem odd to us that 16th century islanders would even want to administer stuff, but one man’s dollar is another man’s cowry shell. There are no detectable boundaries here. Yet somewhere out in the middle of all that blue, the British defined a zone of interest in the 19th century, the British Indian Ocean Territory, that has recently become of geopolitical importance, despite or because of its isolation. The far larger French zone to the south, the French Antarctic Lands, which are about as far from Antarctica as County Cork is from Nova Scotia, remains another elephant in the colonial room.

 
The Chagossian flag

The flag of "the Swiss Committee in favour of the Chagossians"
(see note below)
DG and its attendant isles (one of which is called Danger Island, how cool is that?) have no native population. They used to be home to a non-native group, the so-called Chagossians *, probably Maldive islanders who got stranded there in the 1750s, but these were deported en masse by the British government in 1966, in order to make the place squeaky clean for its new tenants, the United States Military, who might just want to let off a few A-bombs there and would prefer not to have any local issues to deal with. Fortunately, the bomb tests never happened and nature has entirely re-conquered the islands, with the exception of DG itself, which is little more than a vast airstrip, a few mega hangers (built big enough for an aborted shuttle mission), a superb natural harbour and a military base.

Despite having a name straight out of Game of Thrones, the Chagossians have not been able to press their claim to return home to the archipelago with any particular force. Even a series of court victories in London and the Hague have not brought them much closer. The UK government was swift to point out that these people (in the 1960s one diplomat shamefully referred to them as a “few Tarzans and Man Fridays whose origins are obscure”) had not in fact lived on the islands very long, a mere 200 years. That’s nothing to the bearers of the Magna Carta. Those Chagossians, insisted HM government, were not a real nation and no indigenous culture either and, anyway, they were well compensated for their pains, weren’t they?
Lose your home and win the lottery
It’s true that the 2000 islanders got to share £14 million between them when they arrived in Mauritius, their new homeland. This was a very tidy sum in those days. In modern money it was like losing your home and then winning £100,000 in the lottery. It’s a toss-up which is the good news and which is the bad. Furthermore, they did “sign” a release order for their territory. But it’s not as if they ever had a choice. The American base was already a done deal. In return, Britain would not be paid rent, but would get US Polaris missile technology for its new line of nuclear submarines and thus cement its position as a major player in what was still the most exclusive club in the world. Incidentally, Britain was the first nation to consider building an A-bomb, so by then we were definitely up to speed with the physics, if not so much with the ballistics. We would provide our own warheads, as we had already done for the Victor and Valiant bombers, the Americans would underwrite the delivery system in return for the use of Diego Garcia as an Indian Ocean base from which to lever future events in Asia. Turned out pretty good for them too, right? The lease on DG runs out in 2016, which is also convenient, seeing that they should be fully disengaged from Afghanistan and Iraq by then.

The UK Government has not publicly said that it will veto the return of the Chagossians in 2016, but it is clear that the idea will not receive any support. This is quite obvious from their actions over the years. Soon after the islanders were lifted off, the slimy limeys cleverly moved the goal posts, declaring the entire area a Marine “No Take” Reserve and thus killing off any potential returnees’ dreams of earning a livelihood from fishing. The statute of the marine reserve has since been even further sharpened; in 1998 it was enhanced to become a Strict Nature Reserve, meaning no permanent human habitation or interaction with the wildlife whatsoever. Behind the scenes, all this fish and bird hugging (the islands are home to Brown Noddies and Red-Footed Boobies ... I kid thee not) was always understood to be a purely judicial and political manoeuvre to keep out the fuzzy-wuzzies, however much it pleased the green lobby, but the reality now is that the reserve is a massive success, at least scientifically speaking, as well as being the world’s largest, fully-protected, reef and marine environment. A handful of “Tarzans and Man-Fridays” will have a hard time getting a toe-hold, let alone starting an economy once the $US and the £UK are withdrawn.
Black site and black ops
So much for the back-story on DG: but since the kooky theory I mentioned at the start is already out there on the interwebs, we may as well ask why a Malaysian pilot would want to hijack his own plane and fly it to Diego Garcia? Here’s my reasoning (and I don’t think anyone else has been there yet), even though I have my doubts about whether it really holds water. No pun intended.

The best-known detainee to be briefly held on Diego Garcia was a former rebel military commander and opponent of Gaddafi, a certain Abdel-Hakim Belhaj, who was living in exile in ... wait for it ... yes, Malaysia. One day he and his pregnant wife were kidnapped by the CIA from under the noses of their friends and neighbours and the Malaysian security services, hustled onto an unmarked plane (don’t ask how it had permission to land. I’ve no idea, but in Asia all things are possible and I truly mean ALL) and returned to Libya for interrogation as part of a deal Tony Blair had made with the Libyan dictator. Wait a minute, isn’t that the evil Mr Gaddafi, our redoubtable enemy? Well, maybe not, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere in these columns **.

Remember, at the time the UK, the US and Libya were all trying to put the Lockerbie bombing business and the London embassy shootings behind them and move forward to a more civilized relationship. Gaddafi was becoming housetrained, or so some in Whitehall and Washington wanted to believe. He could be an ally in a difficult region. He needed our business; we needed his oil. It was time to turn the page. Part of turning the page was to offer Mr Gaddafi a few opponents, conveniently skewered on kebabs, as a sign of our good western intentions, hence the rendition of the Belhaj couple, among others.

But the unmarked plane needed to refuel, and it needed to do so in secrecy. Thus Mr Belhaj and his spouse spent a day or two held in isolation by the CIA on the island of Diego Garcia. Of course, the Americans told them nothing about where they were or who was holding them. It was the Gaddafi heavyweight, Moussa Koussa, head of Libyan intelligence, the man who “interrogated” Belhaj in prison near Tripoli who let him know, perhaps to intimidate him, that his kidnappers were CIA and that he had transited through UK territory in the British Indian Ocean.
Questions in the house
Now, this information surfaced officially in the context of questions in the UK parliament that initially came from Mr Belhaj’s lawyers. That all goes back as far as 2004 when the typical ministerial denials were issued – “Sorry, I must have been off work that day. Did you ask a question? I had some fluff in my ear. Talk to my secretary, maybe she can tentatively pencil you in somewhere” – In other words, the affair is not news in the purest sense. What is new is that the recent US leaks, and the possibility of almost immediate publication (Mr Obama wants this expedited fast), has suddenly made the British government jittery. It was easy enough to deny exact knowledge back then. DG was being used by CIA flights for black op purposes widely known to be under tight wraps. That has all changed now that Batman is insisting that Robin was kept on the same page all the time via regular consultations with the then foreign secretary Jack Straw. Of course, one might argue that the Americans want to spread the blame; elections are in the air again. But given the curious cosiness between Mr Blair and Mr Gaddafi in those halcyon years before the Arab Spring took everyone by surprise, it seems more likely that Mr Belhaj and co. were transited through Diego Garcia with the full approval and knowledge of HM government.

While this might raise a yawn among my readers – after all its nothing new that Blair played poodle to Bush (although I have pointed out elsewhere that actually it’s a bit the other way around where middle eastern politics is concerned) – it’s important to realize the significance of these truths coming out quasi-officially in Muslim nations where they have been the food of rumour for a decade. It’s exactly the kind of thing that can push an otherwise stable Muslim to want to strike a blow for his brothers, particularly if the kidnapped persons were guests of his Muslim nation at the time they were abducted. If I were such a previously mild Muslim whose eyes have been suddenly opened to some nasty facts his wilder brethren have been grumbling about for years, I might well feel duped and angry. I might just ask myself what I can do about it.
Blue lagoon
An airline pilot so aroused, and our man had Diego Garcia flight simulations on his computer, might consider whether, with a full payload of fuel on board, he would not be able to fly under the radar, let’s say at less than 5000 feet, and still reach an airfield everyone in his profession knows to exist. DG is on the emergency listings for all flights across the Indian Ocean and you can Google it any time you want to see satellite shots. You can even load the coordinates into your simulator to learn from which angle to make the least expected runway approach. Or your target may not be the airfield, but one of the giant hangers, or even something more important than a hanger ... that might, after all, be empty.

I mentioned satellite photos. Commercial airline pilots have the authority to access real-time updates. In the case of Diego Garcia such shots would clearly reveal the distinctive shape of a United States Navy aircraft carrier (I know; I’ve seen it myself) lying placidly in the blue volcanic lagoon of Diego Garcia atoll, her sailors splashing about in the crystalline waters of the nearby beach. Paradise: who wouldn’t want to spend a few days there? Abdel-Hakim Belhaj, that’s who … and kamikaze piloting is part of a noble tradition of suicide warfare in Asia.

But I speculate. Let’s see what the deep-sea robots tell us before we start following any white rabbits. Ping!


© Edwin Drood, April 2014


This blog is continued in Render unto Caesar II, Edwin Drood's Column 22 April 2014.


* www.chagos.org, the website of the Swiss Committee in favour of the Chagossians, claims to be "the Chagossian Official Site" and "the only internet site specifically dedicated to the Chagossians". However there are several other websites which deal with the history of the Chagossians and their current situation, some of which also call for the return of the Chagos Islands to their former inhabitants. See, for example, www.chagossupport.org.uk, the site of the UK Chagos Support Association.

See also:

Island of Shame: The Secret History of the U.S. Military Base on Diego Garcia, the book by David Vine. Details at www.press.princeton.edu/titles/8885.html. The author will donate all royalties from the sale of this book to the Chagossians.

Diego Garcia: Paradise Cleansed, article by John Pilger, 4 October 2004, at antiwar.com (originally published in The Guardian).


** For previous Droodian thoughts on Gaddafi, see Edwin Drood's Column 22 March 2011
and 30 August 2011



Illustration: US military aerial photo of Diego Garcia atoll. Source: www.navy.mil
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