The eagle interned as a Mossad agent, and other animal spies

Inside the bizarre world of animal espionage.

Earlier this month a stork was arrested in Egypt on suspicion of spying. The apparent spy devices were in fact monitoring equipment geologists had attached to the bird to track its migration path, but sadly the suspected spy never received a fair trial. Instead it was killed and eaten by villagers, which no doubt sent out a powerful message to other feathered agents.

It isn’t the only bird to have fallen fowl (sorry) of the law. One eagle was arrested in Sudan last year, and a vulture was detained in Saudi Arabia in 2011, both on suspicion of being Israeli spies. As with the stork, they had been electronically tagged by scientists. In India, a pigeon was arrested for spying for Pakistan in 2010. The pigeon fared much better than the spy stork, as it was reportedly given its own air-conditioned cell.

In 2010 Egypt blamed a series of shark attacks on the Israeli spy agency, Mossad, claiming it had deliberately introduced man-eating sharks to damage Egypt’s tourist industry.

While sharks are in cahoots with Israelis, squirrels are the preferred weapon of choice for the British intelligence services – or so the Iranians believed when they arrested 14 spy squirrels.

Animals can be criminal masterminds, too. In Nigeria in 2009, a goat was arrested for armed robbery. Police detained the goat after it was claimed the creature was in fact an armed robber, who had used black magic to transform himself into an animal after stealing a Mazda.

This all sounds very silly, but MI5 did consider using gerbils to identify spies and terrorists at airports in the 1970s, while the US is looking at inserting spy equipment into insects to create insect cyborgs and training bees to detect explosives. In the 1960s the CIA tried (and failed) to bug cats as part of Operation Acoustic Kitty.

But it is sea creatures you really have to be suspicious of. Dolphins and sea-lions have been trained by the US to locate and mark landmines, as well as suspicious swimmers.

This squirrel may be cute, but can you trust it? Photo: Getty

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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Meet the remarkable British woman imprisoned for fighting against Isis

The treatment of Silhan Özçelik shows how confused British policy towards the Middle East has become. 

Last week, a British court sentenced a woman to prison for attempting to join fighters in the Middle East. Silhan Özçelik, an 18-year-old from Highbury, London was sentenced to 21 months for her part in “preparing terrorist acts” under the Terrorism Act 2006. The judge called her a “stupid, feckless and deeply dishonest young woman”.  What all of this misses out is the most extraordinary fact: that Özçelik was not convicted for going to fight for the Islamic State, but for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party – better known as the PKK, one of the only effective and consistent opponents of Isis since the war began.

Volunteering to fight in foreign wars – so long as they are long ago enough – is a celebrated tradition in Britain. In the late 1930s, while the Spanish Republic battled on against a fascist coup led by General Franco, tens of thousands of volunteers from all over the world went to fight for the International Brigades, including 2,500 from the UK. They included future celebrities such as writer George Orwell and actor James Robertson Justice, and commemorative plaques and memorials can now be seen all over the country

Like the International Brigade volunteers, Özçelik allegedly volunteered to fight for an embattled state facing military defeat at the hands of a far-right insurgency. The combat units she might have joined have been the subject of moving portraits in the Guardian and even praise on Fox News. The PKK is a secular socialist organisation, with a streak of libertarianism and its own feminist movements. But because of its military opposition to the often brutal Turkish treatment of the Kurds, the western powers list the PKK as a terrorist organisation; and would-be heroes like Silhan Özçelik are detained as criminals by the British state.

On one level, what Özçelik’s conviction represents is a change in how the state relates to ordinary citizens who fight. In 1936, the rise of fascism was something on our doorstep, which was opposed most fervently not by official western governments but by ordinary folk, dangerous far left subversives and free spirited writers who sailed to Spain – often in spite of their own governments. In today’s wars in the Middle East, the state is absolutely determined to maintain its monopoly on the right to sanction violence.

What Orwell and other volunteers understood was that while western governments might promote values like liberty and deplore the rise of tyranny, they were also duplicitous and unreliable when it came to prioritising the defeat of fascism over the narrow interests of nation and profit. Then as now, western governments were  deeply uneasy about the idea of ordinary people taking up arms and intervening in global affairs, or deciding – by force – who governs them. If the Terrorism Act 2006 had applied in 1936, Orwell would surely have been arrested at Dover and sent to prison.

More pressingly for the current situation, the persecution of the PKK should make you think twice about the motivations and outcomes for military intervention in Syria. Cameron is on a march to war, and, following the Paris attacks, much of the political establishment is now lining up to support him.

At the same time, our court system is imprisoning and persecuting young women who try to take up arms against Isis. It is doing so at the behest not of our own national security, which has never been threatened by the PKK, but that of Turkey. Turkey’s military is actively targeting Kurdish forces, and has recently stepped up these attacks. There is a wealth of evidence, not least its behaviour during the recent siege of Kobane, to suggest that Turkey – Britain’s only formal NATO ally in the region – is tacitly collaborating with Isis in an attempt to defeat both Assad and the Kurds.

As the government rushes to war in Syria, much of the media attention will focus on Jeremy Corbyn’s awkward task of holding his anti-war line while persuading his party and Shadow Cabinet not to split over the issue. Others will focus, rightly, on the complexity of the situation in the region and the question of who western air-strikes are really there to support: is it Assad, the murderous dictator whose regime has itself been linked to the rise of Isis; Turkey, which is seemingly focussed entirely on defeating Assad and the Kurds; or the soup of organisations – including the Al-Qaeda franchise in Syria – which constitute the anti-regime rebels?

But Özçelik’s conviction should also raise a more fundamental concern: that the contradictions and complications that we are so used to associating with the Middle East lie at the heart of British and western policy as well. If the British state persecutes, rather than supports, the few secular and progressive organisations in the region who are fighting Isis, whose interests is it really serving? And if we don’t trust those interests, how much trust can we really place in it to act on our behalf in Syria?

You can sign a petition calling for Silhan Özçelik’s release here, and a petition calling for the decriminalisation of the PKK here.