Page last updated at 00:50 GMT, Thursday, 1 January 2009

Al-Qaeda 'quotes amateur historian'

By Angus Crawford
BBC News

US troops in Afghanistan
John McKenzie's website gives his accounts of many British battles
An amateur historian believes his website about the British Army in Victorian times is being used as propaganda by groups opposed to Nato's presence in Afghanistan, and may even have been used by al-Qaeda.

The site gives details of battles fought by British forces in the 19th century.

But it's been quoted word for word in blogs and on websites opposed to western policy, and he believes it may even have been used in a speech by the second in command of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri.

"What a disastrous war the first Afghan war was," says John Mackenzie, who's a solicitor and an amateur historian who's set up the website

"And what is so striking is that the aim is very much the aim we have in the present Afghan war", he continues.


The site gives potted histories of all the major wars fought by British forces in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, including the first two Afghan campaigns.

He explains how British forces tried to impose a new king, but after a disastrous defeat at Gandamak in 1842, were effectively driven out of the country.

They [al-Qaeda] are constructing historical continuities over centuries

Dr Peter Neumann, International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation

"They took over Kabul for a time, things began to go wrong, the army retreated and at Gandamak they were wiped out by the Afghans."

There was just one survivor, the medical officer Dr Brydon who escaped and became a hero in Victorian England.

"It was a disaster of unmitigated proportions, but is the sort of disaster awaiting any armed force that goes into Afghanistan," says McKenzie.

He set up the website in 2002, but found that four years later after British troops were deployed in large numbers to Afghanistan it started to attract a new kind of interest.

The Afghan wars section on the website started to get increasing numbers of hits from Pakistan.

Dr Ayman Al-Zawahiri, described as al-Qaeda's second in command, spoke about Dr Brydon in a speech in September 2006.

He warned "Dr Brydon will not be returning to India this time, because his corpse will be thrown to the dogs in Afghanistan".

'Historical continuities'

John Mackenzie was not altogether surprised by the comments.

"I saw the reports on the broadcast at the time and I formed the view that it was likely al-Qaeda had got their information from," he says.

Map of Afghanistan
He also began to find his website quoted word for word on sites and in blogs opposed to the presence of NATO in Afghanistan.

Dr Peter Neumann, director of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation based in London, isn't surprised either.

Islamists, he says, believe there's a direct connection between past victories and present day conflicts.

"People like Al-Zawahiri are sitting in their caves and are being given books with historical parallels and on every second page they're reading about some British imperial adventurer.

"They're constructing historical continuities over centuries," he says.

He explains that means they don't expect to win their battles in years or decades, or even their own lifetimes.

And he says Al-Zawahiri is also very aware of the power of the internet and by mentioning Dr Brydon, who most of his followers will never have heard of, he is almost setting homework for his listeners.

"Thousands of his followers will go to the internet, type it into Google, and will look up the story of that man, and search for any parallels with the situation we're in right now."


But Julian Farrance from the National Army Museum in London believes that the Jihadists are being highly selective in their use of history.

"They're ignoring the successes that Britain had in Afghanistan, and there have been many," he says.

Soldiers in Afghanistan
The country has been traumatised by recent war and conflict
"The second Afghan war was concluded very much in Britain's favour and the third Afghan war was a total washout for the Afghans."

John McKenzie continues to run his website determined to give "accurate and dispassionate" accounts of the battles he describes.

But he's not convinced the right lessons have really been learned and isn't surprised information from his website is being used by those opposed to Nato's involvement.

"It's exactly appropriate to use the account of the first Afghan war to point out the pointlessness of the current operations and the dangers that they run of a similar disaster," he says.

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