As you may or may not have heard, tomorrow is Everybody Draw Muhammad Day, which has pissed off half the internet and even got Pakistan to block Facebook. I think the most recent trigger was a (double) episode of South Park that either displayed or mocked the image of the prophet, but I’m not really sure. What I have found interesting about this whole controversy is its possible origin: more than one former Russian spy has claimed that it’s a ploy by the Russian secret services to drum up anti-American resentment, as part of a broader campaign of active measures dating back to Soviet times.
This all sounds pretty outlandish, but here is what Thomas Bogart, a historian at the International Spy Museum and Oxford Ph.D. recipient had to say:
Contemporary active measures are not confined to Russian soil. In fact, the recent controversy over cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammad may well have been choreographed by the SVR, Russia’s foreign intelligence service. The evidence is circumstantial but compelling. For one, Kalugin says, the KGB has a history of using Danish journalists to plant disinformation in the Western press. And Flemming Rose, the Jyllands Posten cultural editor who commissioned the cartoons in 2005, happened to serve for several years as a correspondent in Moscow where, Kalugin observes, he published a spate of obviously government-sponsored, anti-Chechen articles. According to Litvinenko and journalist Adlan Beno, Rose also happens to be married to the daughter of an ex-KGB officer. This does not per se make Rose a Russian agent, of course, but Russian intelligence may well have availed itself of this “in-house” connection to influence the Danish journalist. “This guy may have been used,” Kalugin says.
As the cartoon controversy spread across the globe, scores of brand new Danish flags turned up mysteriously all over the Middle East just in time to be set ablaze by enraged demonstrators at internationally televised protests. Predictably, Muslim anger quickly turned toward the West at large. “Some obscure Danish newspaper [prints these cartoons], and all the sudden across the Western world, everybody knows what’s it all about. Who organized it? Who ignited the process?” asks Kalugin, identifying a top suspect himself: The SVR. It wouldn’t have been the first active measure of this kind. When a Jewish militant went on a rampage at Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem in 1981, the KGB planned to stage an anti-American Muslim rally in New Delhi, says Kalugin. At 5,000 rupees, the proposed operation was ridiculously cheap.
Kalugin is not alone in suspecting Moscow’s hand behind the recent cartoon controversy. Says Peter Earnest, a former senior CIA clandestine service officer who served in the Middle East: “As a way of fueling anti-western feelings among Muslims, publishing of cartoons ridiculing the Prophet Mohammad in an obscure Danish journal was a no-brainer, if it was done deliberately, particularly if you are prepared to use resources elsewhere to keep the controversy alive and pulsating.” And what’s in it for Moscow? The Kremlin seeks to compromise and undermine the United States and “make Russia look [like] an alternative” international partner to Middle Eastern nations, says Kalugin. Emphasizing the continuity between Soviet and Russian active measures, he concludes: “It’s a tradition, it’s not something new. That’s important to see the pastprojected onto the present—and the future.”
That’s one former American spy (Peter Earnest, director of the museum), one author (Adlan Beno), and two former Russian spies. One of those spies was Alexander Litvinenko, who was assassinated (almost certainly by the Kremlin), and the second was Oleg Kalugin, a very well known former FSB director who supported Boris Yeltsin against the hardliners’ attempted coup early in the ’90s and later turned against Vladimir Putin and is now a well-known critic of the regime and its secret services. And while the article doesn’t directly quote Litvinenko and he died before the article was published, a Salon article written posthumously article also cites his claims of Russian involvement.
While this would be disturbing in and of itself if true, I think the bigger worry is that this is a resurgence of the Russian secret services. They mostly fell into disarray immediately after the collapse of the USSR, but the rise of Putin (himself a former FSB director) has signaled to many that the KGB is back.