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Propagandist for Syria terror proxies compromised Amnesty International, leaked docs show

Amnesty International was listed as a client of a professional propagandist for Syrian terror groups backed by the UK and US governments – the same militias once condemned by Amnesty.

This December, The Grayzone exposed how a shadowy communications firm, Valent Projects, enlisted a prominent YouTube influencer to front a covert state-sponsored influence operation designed to undermine critics of London’s pandemic policies. That company was founded by Amil Khan, a veteran of long-running and lavishly funded UK Foreign Office information warfare operations in Syria.

The overriding objective behind Khan’s involvement in the Syrian dirty war was destabilizing the government of Bashar Assad, while convincing Syrians and international bodies that the militant groups rampaging across the country were a “moderate” alternative. Media across the world was subsequently flooded with pro-opposition propaganda.

In fact, Khan ran communications for armed opposition gangs in the Syrian dirty war – the same militias that Amnesty had previously condemned for perpetrating egregious human rights abuses. He did so while maintaining a personal and professional connection with a top staffer at Amnesty International’s UK branch, Kristyan Benedict.

Amnesty had once covered the atrocities committed by those armed Syrian gangs, but as Khan entered its orbit by way of a UK government intelligence cutout, Amnesty became a dependable organ of regime change propaganda.

Though Amnesty recently infuriated the US Department of State and Israel lobby by accusing Israel of the crime of apartheid, The Grayzone can reveal that Amnesty International has been subverted and made a part of the malign effort to destabilize Syria – a key objective of NATO states and the government of Israel.

‘Shameful disregard for human life’

Though Amnesty International has become known for a steady supply of flashy, heavily promoted reports drumming up regime change narratives against Syria, it once highlighted atrocities committed by the violent gangs sponsored and armed by the West.

In May 2016 for instance, it published an excoriating report exposing how a number of terror groups had “repeatedly carried out indiscriminate attacks that have struck civilian homes, streets, markets and mosques, killing and injuring civilians and displaying a shameful disregard for human life” in militia-occupied Aleppo.

Between February and April, indiscriminate artillery shelling, rocket and mortar strikes targeting the Kurdish People’s Protection Unit (YPG) killed 83 civilians, including 30 children, and injured over 700 civilians in residential areas. On the “bloodiest day” ever witnessed by residents of the Sheikh Maqsoud suburb, one man alone lost seven members of their family, including his 18-month-old daughter, two sons aged 15 and 10, and eight-year-old nephew, when an improvised rocket struck his home.

Not long after, Amnesty followed up with another lengthy investigation documenting how armed groups – including terrorist factions such as al-Nusra – were responsible for widespread abductions, torture and summary killings throughout Aleppo. Ignored by mainstream media, these unprecedented exposés represented the first time a Western human rights source highlighted the daily misery and danger in which residents of the contested city had been forced to live for the past four years.

Rather than highlight how Aleppo was reduced to a hazardous wasteland overtaken by warring foreign-backed militias, major news outlets instead focused exclusively on attacks by government forces, while hailing the supposed heroism of opposition activists. 

This warped portrayal of the reality on the ground was the result of a massive propaganda effort waged by a host of UK Foreign Office-sponsored intelligence cutouts, financed to the tune of millions.

A key component of this constellation was InCoStrat, a firm founded by ex-Foreign Office political officer Emma Winberg and UK military intelligence journeyman Paul Tilley. Winberg left in 2017 to join Mayday Rescue, the parent “charity” of the bogus humanitarian group known as the White Helmets. She later married Helmets’ founder James Le Mesurier, who died in mysterious circumstances two years later.

In leaked files reviewed by The Grayzone, InCoStrat boasted of training and maintaining an “extensive network” of citizen journalists and activists in Syria, totaling over 120 figures who provided the company  “distribution capabilities into the majority” of the country, producing documentaries, talk shows, movies, public service announcements, and radio serials which were “successfully placed” in Arabic-speaking media.

The firm also claimed its team was in “weekly contact with a network of over 1,600 journalists and people of influence related to Syria” internationally, outlining a wide range of on-and-offline methods it exploited to “to achieve influence in Syria and the region.” For instance, it spearheaded an “innovative” two-pronged “guerrilla campaign” and “guerrilla tactics” strategy, “[using] the media to create [an] event” and “[initiating] an event to create media effect.”

Above: leaked internal files of UK Foreign Office contractor Incostrat

One notable example of this subterfuge was “[exploiting] the concentrated presence of journalists” during the Geneva II conference in January 2014 “to put pressure on the regime.” The company additionally produced “postcards, posters and reports” to “draw behavioural parallels” between the Assad government and ISIS, dishonestly furthering the baseless conspiracy theory that “a latent relationship exists between the two.”

According to internal Incostrat files, a “credible, Arabic-English speaking Syrian spokesperson” then toured major media outlets to spout talking points likening Assad to ISIS.

This particular psy-op was specifically intended to focus maintain media attention on alleged state atrocities, the firm stated, “at a crucial time when media attention has shifted almost exclusively towards ISIS and some influential voices are calling for co-operation with the Syrian regime.”

Khan “established relationships with, and embedded himself into terrorist organizations”

At precisely the same time Amnesty International was reporting on atrocities of armed opposition groups inside Damascus, InCoStrat was providing extensive “strategic communications support” to those same militias. Recipients of this support included armed gangs situated in “some of the most impenetrable areas in the country,” such as Syria’s “eastern front,” which at that time was predominantly occupied by ISIS.

Five “official spokesmen” for these groups were said in Incostrat documents to “appear several times a week on international and regional TV” thanks to the UK contractor. Incostrat also revealed its trained reporters “have had access to a variety of groups,” including Al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra.

Further, the company claimed to have “strong relationships” with 54 brigade commanders in Syria’s southern front, “involving daily, direct engagement with the commanders and their officers,” regular contact with “defected officers in Irbid and Amman who coordinate with local military councils,” established ties with “FSA brigades in Aleppo, Idlib and parts of northern Latakia,” and even “indirect engagement with small FSA units inside regime-held Damascus.” This was said to produce “added value all round” for the Foreign Office.

“[We] developed, and currently project manage three Syrian media offices across Turkey and Jordan,” InCoStrat wrote. “Campaigns from this office not only target domestic and international audiences via traditional and social media to promote the moderate armed opposition, but also focus on the placing of products to influence pro-regime audiences internally.”

Valent Projects founder Amil Khan

Valent Projects founder Amil Khan was central to efforts to cultivate fanatical, Al Qaeda-aligned armed gangsters as pro-Western information warriors. 

In a document detailing InCoStrat’s ability to “[develop] contacts in Arabic-speaking conflict affected states,” the company specifically drew attention to how, “in his previous career as a journalist,” he had “established relationships with, and embedded himself into terrorist organizations in the UK and the Middle East,” gaining “unique insight into their narratives, communication methods, recruitment processes and management of networks.”

An official profile of Khan from a December 2015 event at the House of Lords hosted by the elite Franco-British Society, where he spoke beside former MI5 head Eliza Manningham-Buller, notes he was at that time “providing political and media support to opposition political and military groups fighting the regime.”

The disclosure of Khan’s role in managing brutal armed gangs makes his simultaneous work on Amnesty’s Syria initiatives a scandalous conflict of interest – and another blight on the internationally esteemed human rights group.

More shockingly still, in a file outlining InCoStrat’s “experience of managing communications influence campaigns,” developing Amnesty International’s “media and communication strategy for Syria” is cited prominently in a numbered list of “supporting evidence” for the company’s prowess in the field.

Amnesty UK crisis response manager Kristyan Benedict

“Lots to plot” between regime change operative Khan and Amnesty’s Benedict

In August 2020, Amnesty’s official Twitter account promoted an Amazon Watch webinar featuring Roger Waters among others, intended to raise awareness both of Chevron’s pollution of an indigenous region of Ecuador, and the energy giant’s ruthless persecution of crusading environmental lawyer Steven Donzinger.

However, the endorsement was deleted within hours without warning or explanation, despite its sharing having been coordinated directly with Waters himself.

As The Grayzone’s Max Blumenthal revealed two months later, this retraction was orchestrated by Kristyan Benedict, Amnesty’s Syria campaign manager, due to the famed musician’s criticism of the White Helmets, and publicly declared skepticism over the alleged April 2018 Douma chemical weapons attack.

By that point, Benedict had established himself as a central figure among the online Syria regime change echo chamber, calling for sanctions to be imposed on Damascus – which came to pass in 2020, depriving citizens of food and crucial medical supplies in the process – and sponsoring a 2016 demonstration in London demanding NATO forces impose a ‘No Fly Zone’ over the country, a move which Hillary Clinton admitted would “kill a lot of Syrians.” It was not always this way though. 

Back in August 2012, when Whitehall announced it was sending lethal aid to the opposition, Benedict demanded officials “be crystal clear with the commanders of Syria’s armed opposition that they have a duty to prevent war crimes.” He reiterated this point several times, telling The Daily Telegraph armed actors were subject to the Geneva Conventions and thus guilty of war crimes, while lashing out at the “gross hypocrisy” of those who cheered the FSA’s unconscionable violence despite claiming to support human rights.

All such concerns evaporated around May 2013, when the aggressive push for Western intervention against Damascus was beginning to escalate. That month, Benedict took to Twitter to denigrate former British lawmaker George Galloway as “cartoonish” for suggesting London was financing “cannibals” in Syria.

The insult arrived shortly after footage emerged of an FSA brigade commander cutting out and eating the heart of a government soldier. Coincidentally, Benedict tagged his pal, Amil Khan, in that post. It was the first public evidence of their connection.

In January 2015, Benedict shared a “thoughtful” article written by Khan in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacres in Paris, to which the latter responded that Al Qaeda strategy would be part of his “next training curriculum.” His interest clearly piqued, Benedict commented, “we should get on that” as he was “planning out 2015 training dates now,” inviting his pal to email him an outline so “we can take [this] forward.” 

At this time, Douma was occupied by Jaish al-Islam, a Saudi Arabia-backed jihadist group responsible for multiple monstrous crimes against humanity, including kidnapping, imprisoning, torturing and executing innocent civilians – including children – for even mild infringements of strict Sharia code, attacking Kurdish enclaves with chemical weapons, and parading caged Alawite families in the streets of areas before placing them in public squares in a bid to deter airstrikes. 

These heinous practices were criticized by some Western rights groups, including the pro-rebel Syrian Observatory for Human Rights – but Amnesty never once issued any condemnation. The organization’s silence is rendered all the more suspect given that throughout 2015, Benedict tweeted extensively about Douma, although his exclusive focus was on the impact of the Syrian government’s blockade of the city, rather than horrors inflicted on the local population by Jaish al-Islam.

In fact, in November 2015, Benedict slammed Syrian government forces for continuing to bomb the city, “despite the use of human shields,” seemingly justifying this barbaric strategy – or at least letting its perpetrators off the hook and then some. At this precise time too, InCoStrat was producing slick propaganda videos for Jaish al-Islam, designed to portray the brutal militia as a unified, well-equipped, fearsome professional fighting force.

It is unclear if Benedict was aware that his friend and colleague was concurrently engaged in such propaganda activities. In November 2015, however, the Amnesty staffer journeyed to Boston, Massachusetts to “[develop] strategies with Syrian nonviolence activists,” declaring it “an insult to say all those against Assad are ‘extremists’.” Khan was there as well – presumably training attendees in the art of communicating with the media. 

Evidently, the information warrior’s expertise in the field is greatly valued by Benedict, and his employer. In September the next year, he again reached out to Khan, who’d briefly returned to London from the Middle East, suggesting they urgently “try and grab a coffee,” as there was “lots to plot for 2017.” 

Ignore professionals, listen to spooks

On August 21st 2013, two opposition-controlled areas in Ghouta, the suburban area surrounding Damascus, were allegedly struck by rockets fired by government forces containing the chemical agent sarin. Estimates of the death toll vary wildly, from at least 281 to over 1,700 – and questions about whether the entire incident was a fabricated false flag, designed to precipitate Western military intervention, abound to this day.

Numerous Western intelligence officials openly acknowledged that the case against the Syrian government was far from a “slam dunk.” Communications intercepted by German spies suggested the Syrian president did not order or have any knowledge of the attack, while subsequent articles by investigative journalist Seymour Hersh framed the incident as a covert action carried out by al-Nusra, designed to push Washington “over the red line.” 

However, Amnesty rejected any critical detachment and instantly amplified the narrative of regime change-hungry Western governments.

Within mere hours of the purported strike, Amnesty issued a strident press release demanding the UN be granted full access to the supposed crime scenes and its Security Council “refer the situation to the International Criminal Court.” It further declared the attacks to be war crimes if proven, and indicated it was “in contact with individuals and organizations in Syria to try and gather further information about the current medical condition of people in the area.”

It would be entirely unsurprising if Khan was involved in connecting Amnesty with those “individuals and organizations.” 

A leaked file names him as one of the key managers of the media office of the Syrian National Coalition, a parallel puppet government controlled by London’s assorted intelligence cutouts, while another refers to the Coalition specifically receiving “media handling advice” around the Ghouta incident. Benedict has frequently shared statements issued by the body over the years, which his friend likely wrote.

Amil Khan went on to publicly admit to “working with the Syrian opposition” at the same time, as well as during the alleged April 2017 Khan Sheikhoun poison gas attack – another curious incident which bore clear hallmarks of staging and justified another US-led missile attack on Syria. 

The latest chemical weapons drama prompted an even more robust response from Amnesty, with the group openly asserting that “evidence [points] to an air-launched chemical attack” by the Syrian government. Amnesty’s US director, Margaret Huang, went as far as writing an op-ed calling for “immediate action” against Damascus. Her piece was published in the esteemed foreign journal Teen Vogue. 

Immediate action did swiftly arrive in the form of 59 cruise missiles launched by Washington at the country. Amnesty’s Secretary General criticized the move, although in the most mealy-mouthed language possible, declaring “it’s one thing to have some airstrikes by the US on a one-off basis, but it’s not going to address this problem.” 

Fiery condemnation and widespread uncritical coverage of alleged Syrian government atrocities by ostensibly unimpeachable rights groups such as Amnesty has consistently been fundamental to directly and indirectly bolstering the West’s protracted dirty war against Damascus, framing the horrendous saga as a humanitarian effort. And shady deep state actors such as Khan have deliberately over many years exploited the organization for this precise purpose.

In the case of Ghouta, Khan’s then-employer ARK – yet another UK intelligence cutout – was clearly planning for all out war to erupt in the aftermath. A leaked document shows that the company “accelerated” its production of personal safety booklets to schoolchildren at that time, “to ensure that the message had been disseminated before any international intervention.”

Leaked internal file of UK Foreign Office contractor ARK

Following the April 2018 Douma false flag, Amnesty published a blog on how the organization has increasingly relied on “open source information” such as “videos and photographs posted on the internet or shared on social messaging networks…to support our research and campaigning,” and was constantly “[working] as hard as we can” to get first-hand interviews from victims and eyewitnesses the ground. 

Dependence on dubious anti-regime activists and Western-funded groups in official investigations is a growing trend across international institutions focused on conflict – including major intergovernmental bodies like the Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).

None other than Amil Khan unwittingly exposed the ominous rationale for this push following Douma. Noting the OPCW would not assign responsibility for chemical weapons attacks to “a specific country,” those seeking a “better and quicker idea of who is to blame” should consult the work of the NATO-backed “open source” journalism cartel known as Bellingcat. In other words, the media should dismiss academics, experts, and official verification mechanisms, and instead rely on laptop jockeys fiddling with Google Earth images.

As a longtime Bellingcat advocate, Kristyan Benedict has repeatedly amplified character attacks on OPCW inspectors who have leaked internal documents and made public statements attesting to how the Douma incident was staged. In doing so, Benedict reinforced the disturbing narrative that credentialed professionals should be ignored if their findings and perspectives contradict official narratives, and that testimony and evidence supplied by anti-government elements trained and funded by Western intelligence should be accepted instead.

For its part, Amnesty International seems to have consolidated its support for Western-backed regime change operations. The website of Amil Khan’s Valent Projects reveals his company “trained activists facing brutal authoritarian regimes [to] be more effective on social media” on its behalf. There are, to say the least, no prizes for guessing where in the world these “activists” are situated.

It can only be considered an indictment of Amnesty’s integrity, objectivity and credibility that it maintained such a close relationship with Khan, a professional propagandist who contracted with the British state, while he whitewashed the image of armed actors guilty of the very crimes Amnesty was supposed to expose.

Amnesty and Amil Khan have refused to issue any comment on questions submitted by The Grayzone. Perhaps no amount of spin can explain away the scandalous conflict of interest in which they were engaged.

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