Moroccan Opposition Leader Mehdi bin Barka Was Spy, Cold War Records Suggest | Cold War


IIt is one of the great famous causes of the Cold War. Around noon on October 29, 1965, Mehdi ben Barka, leader of the Moroccan opposition and hero of the international left, was kidnapped when he arrived in a brasserie on the left bank of Paris.

Over the years, much of the truth about the murder of the 46-year-old dissident has emerged: how he was taken to a house south of Paris, tortured and killed by Moroccan intelligence agents. But many of Ben Barka’s activities before his death have remained shrouded in mystery. Today, new research in the archives of former Soviet satellite states has revealed that the charismatic intellectual, propagandist and political organizer may also have been a spy.

Previously classified files from Prague show that Ben Barka not only had a close relationship with Státní Bezpečnost (StB), the feared Czechoslovak security service, but received substantial payments from them, both in cash and in kind. .

“Ben Barka is often described as a fighter against colonial interests and for the Third World, but the documents reveal a very different picture: a man who played on multiple sides, who knew a lot and also knew that the information was very precious in the cold. war; an opportunist who was playing a very dangerous game, ”said Dr Jan Koura, assistant professor at Charles University in Prague, who had access to the file.

The findings will be controversial. Ben Barka is still a hero to many on the left, and his family categorically denies any accusation he was involved in espionage or had close ties to a state.

The possibility of a link between Ben Barka and the StB was first raised almost 15 years ago, although few paid much attention to the investigations carried out by a Czech journalist. But Koura was not only able to access the entire Ben Barka file in the StB archives, but also cross-checked its 1,500 pages with thousands of other newly released secret documents.

“There is no doubt about [the Czech connection]. All the documents confirm it, ”Koura told the Observer.

A tribute to Mehdi Ben Barka in Rabat, Morocco, in 2007, on the 42nd anniversary of his assassination. Photograph: Abdelhak Senna / AFP / Getty Images

According to the file seen by Koura, Ben Barka’s relations with the StB began in 1960, when he met his most senior spy in Paris after leaving Morocco to escape the increasingly authoritarian regime of King Mohammed. V. His homeland, a former French colony, had been pro-Western since the start of the Cold War, but had recently moved closer to Moscow. The Prague spies hoped that this eminent leader of the struggle for the independence of Morocco and founder of his first socialist opposition party would provide valuable information, not only on political developments in the kingdom, but also on the thinking of the rulers. Arabs such as Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser.

Ben Barka was also a major figure in the “anti-imperialist movement of African and Asian nations,” noted the StB, whose contacts included Malcolm X, Che Guevara and young Nelson Mandela. Shortly after their first meetings, the StB reported that Ben Barka was an “extremely valuable” source of information and gave him the code name “Sheikh”, records reveal.

In September 1961, according to the file, Ben Barka had received 1,000 French francs from the StB for reports on Morocco which he claimed were copied from the internal bulletin of the French intelligence service abroad. In fact, the material was accessible to the public, which caused anger and embarrassment in Prague when the deception was discovered. Ben Barka was nonetheless offered an all-expenses-paid trip to West Africa to gather intelligence on US activities in Equatorial Guinea. This mission was considered a success.

The Czechoslovaks soon began to suspect that Ben Barka also had relations with other actors of the Cold War, learning in February 1962 from an agent in France that “Cheikh” had met an American trade unionist at the bar L’Éléphant Blanc in Paris. and had received a check made in US dollars. This led to fears that Ben Barka had ties to the CIA, which was keen to support democratic reform in Morocco and secure the kingdom for the western camp. The StB was to receive further reports alleging that Ben Barka was in contact with the United States, although the Moroccan politician always denied this when confronted, Koura said.

Mehdi Ben Barka, right, with King Mohamed V in the late 1950s.
Mehdi Ben Barka, right, with King Mohamed V in the late 1950s. Photograph: AFP / Getty Images

The relationship continued, however. The Czechoslovaks invited Ben Barka to Prague, where he agreed to help influence politics and leaders in Africa in exchange for £ 1,500 a year.

Ben Barka was sent to Iraq to obtain information about the February 1963 coup, for which he was awarded £ 250, according to the documents. In Algeria, he met on several occasions Ahmed ben Bella, the president and a friend, and reported on the situation in the new independent state.

In Cairo, he was asked to gather information from senior Egyptian officials who could help the Soviets in the negotiations during a visit by Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet premier. Ben Barka’s reports reached Soviet intelligence, which judged the material provided as “very valuable.” As a reward for his services, he and his four children were invited on vacation to a spa in Czechoslovakia, Koura’s research reveals.

“Ben Barka never admitted that he was collaborating [with intelligence services], and the StB never listed him as an agent, simply as a “confidential contact”. But he provided information and was paid, ”Koura said.

“He was very smart, a very smart guy. There is no document with his signature, there are no samples of his handwriting. He was interrogated orally for hours … Sometimes he used a typewriter but refused to write anything by hand.

The motivations of Ben Barka, a committed activist arrested and imprisoned several times in Morocco, remain unclear.

His supporters say he was prepared to discuss the international situation on several occasions with Czechoslovak officials, as this was the best way to influence them. They also say that while Ben Barka’s analyzes may have been of use to the StB, that does not make him “an agent”, whatever ambitious bureaucrats and spies have written on internal memos.

They also argue that such a role would have been incompatible with Ben Barka’s commitment to preserve “the Third World movement from Soviet and Chinese influence.”

Bachir ben Barka, who lives in eastern France, told the Observer that his father’s relations with socialist states and others were simply those to be expected of anyone deeply engaged in the global struggle against imperialism and colonial exploitation at the time, noting that the documents Koura studied had been ” produced by an intelligence service, [and so were] perhaps edited or incomplete ”.

Koura is less convinced of Ben Barka’s altruism. “There was both pragmatism and idealism. I do not condemn it. The Cold War was not just black and white, ”he said.

Mehdi ben Barka, second from the left, arrives in Aix les Bains in France with members of his nationalist opposition party, Istiqlal, around 1955.
Mehdi ben Barka, second from the left, arrives in Aix les Bains in France with members of his nationalist opposition party, Istiqlal, around 1955. Photograph: Keystone / Getty Images

In his final months, Ben Barka was busy organizing the Tricontinental Conference, an event that would bring together dozens of liberation movements, revolutionary groups and their sponsors in Cuba. The conference would become a pivotal moment in the history of international anti-colonialism in the 1960s and 1970s, and the veteran activist wanted to chair the event.

But the Soviets suspected that he had grown too close to the Chinese, their rivals for the leadership of the world left. Soviet officials told the StB that Ben Barka received $ 10,000 from Beijing and pressured the service to withdraw all support or protection.

Nonetheless, the StB brought Ben Barka to Prague for a week of training in communications, codes, surveillance and counter-surveillance. It was too little, too late, however. A week after asking the StB for a handgun, Ben Barka was kidnapped and killed.

Although he ordered an investigation, President Charles de Gaulle denied any involvement of the French secret services and the police. France and the United States have yet to release key secret documents on the case.

Prague tried to blame the CIA for the apparent assassination of Ben Barka, new Czechoslovak documents reveal. It fooled a few. In a document obtained by the Observer under British freedom of information laws, London diplomats praise Paris’ “moderation” in the face of “overwhelming” evidence of responsibility for Moroccan intelligence services.


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