x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

British army reservist found guilty of spying for Iran

An army reservist, who worked as the personal interpreter for Britain's Nato commander in Afghanistan, has been found guilty of spying for Iran.

Gen David Richards, right, with Daniel James in Kabul.
Gen David Richards, right, with Daniel James in Kabul.

LONDON // An army reservist, who worked as the personal interpreter for Britain's Nato commander in Afghanistan, has been found guilty of spying for Iran. Iranian-born Daniel James, a voodoo-practising salsa dance instructor before being called up by the Territorial Army to serve in Afghanistan, could have cost British lives and "threatened the interior national security of the UK" had he not been stopped, a jury at the Old Bailey in London was told.

During a three-week trial, where the evidence was often as bizarre as the implications were serious, the jury was told that James, 45, had sent coded messages to an Iranian military attache in Kabul, saying: "I am at your service." Although the information that James passed on before he was caught after serving for only two months in Afghanistan was not significant, he was found to have collected information, including two "sit-reps" (situation reports) on Nato tactics, on a computer memory stick.

"The concern in this case is not so much the actual damage done by the known disclosure of information, but in the potential damage that could have occurred if the defendant's activities had not been curtailed by his early detection and arrest," said Mark Dennis, QC, prosecuting. "He turned his back on those with whom he was serving in Afghanistan and sought to become an agent for a foreign power."

James, who denied the charges and said that anyone who thought he was anything but a loyal Briton was "mad", was said to have volunteered to spy for the country of his birth when he was overlooked for promotion from corporal to sergeant because of what he regarded as jealousy and racism among his officers. Born Esmail Mohammed Gamasai in Tehran, James came to Britain when he was 15 and now has dual UK-Iranian citizenship. He changed his name by deed poll and "made myself Danny James, the king of salsa" after opening a dance school in Brighton, he told the jury.

In 2006, James - now heavily in debt over property deals in Brighton - was sent to Afghanistan as the personal translator for Gen David Richards, now head of the British army and, at the time, the commanding officer of the International Security Assistance Force, a Nato-led, 37-nation coalition of 35,000 troops stationed in Afghanistan. Gen Richards described James as "a Walter Mitty character" who, in dealings with top Afghan military commanders and government officials, tried to pass himself off as a general, rather than a corporal.

James, who also worked as a nightclub bouncer and casino croupier, subsequently explained to the jury, "I think the audience did not understand General Richards. They were watching me and I thought I should act like a general. I was acting good, the public respected me." However, soon after arriving in Afghanistan he contacted Col Mohammad Hossein Heydari, military assistant at the Iranian Embassy in Kabul, and offered to spy for Iran in an act that Mr Dennis described as "the height of betrayal".

In one email, which was signed "Esmail the Interpreter", James told Col Heydari that a military camp was being set up on the Iran-Iraq border near al Amara and added: "Take care of that side." On Dec 16 2006, while James was on a visit to Britain, he emailed Col Heydari promising him "a very good present", the court was told. But British intelligence was monitoring all the correspondence and the following day, as James prepared to fly back to Afghanistan, he was arrested.

James denied that he was planning to spy for Iran and described himself as a peacemaker and a patriot. He told the court that, as a Yoruba priest practising black magic, he had cast spells that had protected Gen Richards from evil in Afghanistan. He claimed he had only contacted the Iranians in a bid to arrange a deal under which Iran would supply Afghanistan with gas and oil - a plan that Mr Dennis dismissed as "pure fiction".

Described more than once during the trial as "a fantasist", James "would no doubt find his new clandestine role [as an Iranian spy] as something exciting and special", Mr Dennis said. The jury found James guilty under the 1911 Official Secrets Act of communicating information that was "calculated to be or might be or is intended to be directly or indirectly useful to an enemy". He will be sentenced at a later date. dsapsted@thenational.ae