On Thursday, 7 November 2019, four days before his death, James Le Mesurier has an appointment at the Novotel Bosphorus in Istanbul. Le Mesurier has earned international prestige with his work in Syria. He trains rescue workers, the ‘White Helmets’. After a bombardment they hurry into the rubble with stretchers, looking for victims. In their war-torn country they save numerous lives.
But now the laurelled aid worker has a problem. Because of a few receipts.
In the hotel lobby the 48-year-old Brit meets his auditor, a Dutchman. Le Mesurier trains and supports the White Helmets from a Dutch foundation: Mayday Rescue. The multi-million subsidies from European governments, Canada, and Qatar all go to Mayday’s bank accounts in Amsterdam.
This is why an auditor versed in Dutch law was flown in to take a critical look at the foundation’s finances. The auditor has already been working for a full week at the Istanbul office of Mayday, the organisation’s nerve centre. And now he’d like an answer to a question. A question that has been growing like a dark cloud, hovering over the organisation over the course of this week.
What happened to the 50,000 dollars in cash that were taken by Le Mesurier over a year ago?
One thing is certain: it all started with Operation Magic Carpet. It’s the name of a daring international evacuation from war zones in Syria. It sums up everything James Le Mesurier is good at: military planning, diplomatic negotiations at the highest level and, finally, a cool-headed operation in the dead of night at an ordinarily hermetically sealed border in the Arab world.
The White Helmets work in opposition-controlled areas in Syria. They rescue victims of bombardments carried out by the air force of the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Russia. Assad hates them. If they fall into the hands of his secret services, torture and possibly death awaits them.
But Le Mesurier, who has served in the British Army for many years, is not one to leave his people behind. When Assad regains control of parts of southern Syria, the time has come to rescue the rescue workers themselves.
Operation Magic Carpet evacuates almost a hundred White Helmets and their families in a single night, on 21 July 2018, bypassing the advancing forces of Assad and cells of ISIS, across the Golan Heights to the evacuation points Tom, Dick, and Harry – named after the tunnels in the movie The Great Escape, which is based on true events.
The Israeli army brings the White Helmets to safety along the border, which is normally closed to Syrians. Israel gives the rescue workers—who feature in an Oscar-winning documentary and have been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize twice already—free passage to Jordan, pending their new life in the Western world.
‘An absolutely extraordinary international rescue operation’, Le Mesurier will say later to the American monthly Reader’s Digest.
Unfortunately, fewer White Helmets than intended were rescued. And so it turns out that 50,000 dollars taken by Le Mesurier from the Mayday safe in Istanbul four days before the evacuation, are not spent.
And then the money disappears.
In early 2019, a British auditor already asks for an explanation. Le Mesurier then says that the bank notes have been put in a separate safe, for an emergency.
But now the Dutch auditor has doubts.
So, the question is: what happened to the 50,000 dollars?
It’s not the first time that questions are raised about financial transactions at Mayday. James Le Mesurier, founder, chairman, and director, is described by others in the organisation as a leader with a great vision. An innovator who inspires people. He works continuously and firmly defends the White Helmets trained by him. James is Mayday, his colleagues say.
But Le Mesurier cannot ‘sit at a desk’, says a former fellow administrator. ‘Not a financial man’, says one of his former financial colleagues. Even Le Mesurier himself reports to the donor countries that it is often ‘a chaos’ at Mayday.
At Mayday they prefer saving lives in Syria to spending time on bookkeeping. ‘It was always about keeping the field operations running’, says a former employee. Someone else says that Mayday should be regarded as a start-up.
Meanwhile, huge sums of donor money flow into the foundation: roughly a hundred million euros over the course of four years. Donor countries are practically queueing to support Mayday. Whereas other Western aid projects in Syria are working on long-term goals, such as boosting democracy, the White Helmets make a difference on the ground: saving fellow citizens from death. In addition, the organisation has roots in Syria itself. Inhabitants of Daraa, Homs, and Aleppo were already adapting their improvised ambulance services to the conditions of a horrible war in which Assad drops barrel bombs on residential areas, when Le Mesurier brings them into contact with Turkey’s search and rescue experts, in 2013.
For the donor countries, rescue workers also serve another, more strategic interest: the White Helmets are their eyes and ears in the war zone. With the cameras on their helmets they film the air raids by Assad’s forces. The video material may later be used as evidence of war crimes.
When Russia starts bombing Syria in 2015, Mayday reports to the Dutch government every day for six weeks in order to ‘inform the government – at a strategic level’. Later, ‘The Hague’ pays them compliments for their ‘invaluable work’. In Great Britain Le Mesurier is awarded a royal honour.
The counter propaganda from Damascus and Moscow is meanwhile running wild. If one is to believe the mouthpieces of Assad and Putin, Le Mesurier is a spy for the British intelligence service MI6 and the White Helmets are part of the Syrian branch of Al Qaeda who stage rescue actions and fake attacks with chemical weapons.
While the smear campaign gains force, Mayday remains the darling of the donor countries. In late 2017, Dutch civil servants become aware that almost half a million euros of subsidy for Mayday has ended up with an unknown aid organisation in Istanbul. It turns out to be a subsidiary company of Mayday that no one in The Hague has ever heard of.
But then the web of Mayday organisations is rather complex. In addition to the foundation in the Netherlands there are commercial Mayday companies in Istanbul and Dubai. The man behind all these Mayday branches is James Le Mesurier, who is also active in a limited company in the Netherlands and in a Turkish organisation behind the White Helmets.
However, the fuss at the Dutch Foreign Affairs Department is soon over. Mayday is a ‘relatively young and learning organisation’, the civil servants conclude. They have little experience with acquisition and administration, and working in war zones in Syria does have its inevitable risks.
What happened to the 50,000 dollars taken from the safe for Operation Magic Carpet? In March 2019, a British auditor wants an explanation about what happened. After all, the money was never used ‘for the intended purpose’, as this auditor concludes. But then where did Le Mesurier put it?
The world of Mayday is a world of safes and bags full of bank notes. Because of the war, most payments to Syria are necessarily done in cash. Sometimes through ‘a hole in the border’. And frequently through hawala, the system of alternative banking via intermediaries.
For a foundation that handles millions, and a lot of it in cash, Mayday’s bookkeeping is messy. Until 2018, revenues and expenditure were registered in handwritten cashbooks. Because of the jumble of subsidies from various countries, the books don’t add up. ‘The financial reports do not accurately reflect the real situation’, says an employee involved at the time. ‘There are so many donors, and so many budgets.’
But after searching the mass of paperwork Le Mesurier can reassure the auditor about the 50,000 dollars. The money isn’t gone. He has found the receipts.
In an email to the British auditor he explains what, on closer inspection, transpires to have happened. Upon leaving Jordan after the evacuation, he handed the money to a local associate, who signed a receipt for it. She then turned over the money to a fellow administrator, who also signed for receiving it. Then Mayday created an Operational Emergency Centre in Istanbul, to be prepared for any future evacuation missions. The 50,000 dollars are there, in the safe. So, should more rescue workers need to be extracted from Syria in the middle of the night anytime soon, the cash would be ready.
The British auditor lets himself be convinced. After all, the receipts are in the attachment of the email sent by Le Mesurier. Black-on-white. Signatures and all.
But then, in November 2019, during the second day of his inquiry at the Istanbul Mayday office, the Dutch auditor makes a nasty discovery: the receipts are a forgery.
One of the employees involved tells the auditor the truth: at the request of Le Mesurier, she and another colleague have written out the receipts, and backdated them. In reality, the 50,000 dollars were never seen again after the evacuation on the Golan Heights.
By signing the forged receipts, she wanted to help ‘the good cause’, the auditor notes in his report.
In July 2018, Le Mesurier marries for the third time, this time with Emma Winberg, a former diplomat. The wedding party lasts a full weekend and is held on one of the Princes’ Islands in the Bosporus where the couple resides in an apartment in an old Ottoman villa. This is where Europe mingles with the Arab world. The guests are treated to a Persian lamb dish and Lebanese mezze, served with Italian wines.
Winberg is not only Le Mesurier’s life partner, but also his right hand at Mayday. At the time of their wedding she is co-administrator of the foundation. The Dutch auditor will later point out that this may lead to a conflict of interest.
To pay the caterers of the fairy-tale wedding, the piles of banknotes at Mayday come in handy. Winberg and Le Mesurier take tens of thousands of dollars in cash from the moneybox.
They are quite open about these cash withdrawals. The auditor later sees entries in the cashbook labelled as ‘James for wedding’ and ‘loan to Emma’.
Later, when everything has gone wrong, the Amsterdam court will compare the foundation with a honeypot, because of these large cash withdrawals for private use. Internally at Mayday they don’t understand this criticism. Okay, maybe personal loans are not really according to the book, but they are always paid back.
On the island in the Bosporus there are also diplomats from the donor countries raising their glasses to the happy couple. Yet, behind the screens, cracks began to appear in the relationships. Later that year, the Netherlands end their partnership with Mayday following a critical report by the internal audit department of Foreign Affairs. And in the International Donor Group, in which the donor countries are represented, one issue keeps cropping up: Le Mesurier, Winberg, and a third administrator, former military man Rupert Davies, demand higher salaries. They complain to the donor countries about being ‘relatively underpaid’.
At first sight, though, the three administrators are making extremely good money. According to a list sent by Mayday to the Dutch Foreign Affairs Department in 2017, Le Mesurier is receiving 24,000 euros in salary each month. In 2018, one of the administrators even received 320,000 dollars for that year.
That is way above the approved salary ceiling of a subsidised organisation in the Netherlands. But that is of no concern to Winberg and Le Mesurier. When it is convenient, Mayday presents itself as ‘young and learning’, but it is being run by two former soldiers and a former diplomat with experience in the international corporate world. When it comes to saving lives in Syria, money is no object.
After all, the work never stops. Even at his own wedding Le Mesurier is busily making calls about Operation Magic Carpet. Exactly two weeks later, the evacuation on the Golan Heights is a fact.
Why is there a trail of forged receipts concerning the 50,000 dollars that disappeared when Operation Magic Carpet was over? At the Novotel Bosphorus the auditor asks Le Mesurier for his side of the story. The Mayday executive admits the fraud. After the previous auditor asked his inconvenient questions a ‘document trail’ was created because he and his financial colleagues ‘didn’t know anymore what exactly had happened’.
However, Le Mesurier has searched his memory and now thinks he can reconstruct the course of events. The banknotes did not end up in the safe of the Operational Emergency Centre – he has kept the money himself.
According to him, the 50,000 dollars were spent on ‘remuneration benefits’. This concerns the money that he, Winberg, and Davis pay themselves every month, sometimes in cash, on top of their salaries.
The discussions with the International Donor Group about a raise in salary have not ended well. Together with Canada, the Netherlands state to even have demanded a substantial reduction in salaries. But, in Mayday’s opinion, the donor countries don’t have a say when it comes to bonuses. And Mayday does not have a supervisory board to ask any critical questions.
Le Mesurier and Winberg can use the money for sure. By now they are dividing their time among three houses. On workdays they stay in the apartment above the Mayday office in Istanbul. For weekends they have the Ottoman villa on the island in the Bosporus. And, since February 2018, they own a double apartment of 1.6 million euros in Amsterdam, where they intend to take up residence eventually.
The auditor concludes that the 50,000 dollars that now appear to have been used as a personal bonus for Le Mesurier, was charged to the British-Danish budget for the White Helmets: subsidy Batal (‘Hero’) 18. The money was in fact intended for the rescue workers in Syria who are risking their lives there for 150 dollars a month.
It should not have happened, says Le Mesurier to the auditor. He hopes that ‘all these things from the past’ will not catch up with him. The auditor advises to have a forensic specialist do an inquiry into possible personal enrichment.
The next day, Friday 8 November, Le Mesurier sends an email to the donor countries. The 50,000 dollars that disappeared? He comes straight to the point: it was ‘fraud’. Even though he claims it was not done on purpose. ‘I take full and sole responsibility for it.’
The email is lengthy, and personal. The Mayday executive mentions that he fears a second investigation by a forensic auditor. This might bring ‘mistakes and internal failures’ to light that were not discovered this time. Also, everything could be leaked to the media, which would be ‘a victory for Russia and the pro-Assad trolls’.
On the very day that Le Mesurier writes the email that will seal the fate of his organisation, the spokesperson of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs lets fly on Twitter. Le Mesurier would be a ‘former MI6 agent’ who has been chums with ‘terrorists’ ever since the war in Kosovo.
Le Mesurier lists the findings of the auditor. The ‘excessive’ salaries, the extras for the administrators, the opaque finances of the tangle of Mayday organisations, and the conflict of interest because his wife also works for Mayday. According to the auditor, he and Winberg may have been in the wrong by not paying taxes in the Netherlands.
Le Mesurier leaves it up to the donor countries to decide. They can end the donations to Mayday immediately. In that case it will all end, including perhaps the work of the White Helmets. They can replace the administrators. If so, he is prepared to step down. Any unjustified expenditures will of course ‘be paid back by me personally.’.
‘With my regrets, James.’
On 9 November, a Saturday, his wife takes Le Mesurier to the hospital. He is panicking, his blood pressure is too high, and he is given a sedative. The same day, he sends a WhatsApp message to his financial director, the man who urged him to have an auditor look at Mayday’s books. Previously, Le Mesurier didn’t see any need for that. What did an auditor from a Dutch provincial town know about his mission in Syria?
Now he repents. ‘I owe you an enormous apology', he writes to the financial director. 'You recognized the risks and tried to explain them to me, and tried to resolve them.'
On Sunday 10 November, Le Mesurier makes a phone call to another employee, who happens to be staying in his apartment in Amsterdam. They know each other from the British Army.
‘He said: “I’m sorry that Mayday is finished.” James was Mayday. The findings of the auditor would mean that the donors would end the subsidies. His world collapsed.’
No one foresees that he will take his own life. Do not assume too lightly a connection between the uncovered wrongdoings at Mayday and his probable suicide four days later, warns someone involved and close to him. It may have been the trigger, but not the cause. Le Mesurier had been under enormous mental pressure for much longer.
Le Mesurier and Winberg spend the night of Sunday 10 to Monday 11 November in their apartment above the Mayday office. In the early hours of Monday morning, James Le Mesurier dies from a fall from the building. He is found in the street.
His death leads to worldwide speculations. The Syrian president Assad states in an interview that ‘the secret services’ are behind it. Anglo-Saxon media hint at Russian involvement. The Turkish police questions his widow, Emma Winberg. The authorities conclude that suicide is the most probable explanation. An employee who was involved in the financial administration at Mayday remembers Le Mesurier as a wonderful administrator and visionary who single-handedly brought the rescue work in Syria to a higher level. But he was ‘absolutely clueless’ about finances. ‘What he did understand, though: if he needed cash, he first had to sign for it.’
The Secret Forensic Inquiry Report
After the death of James Le Mesurier in November 2019, the donating governments invited the firm of Grant Thornton to do a forensic audit of Mayday’s books. Their report has not been made public. The current Mayday chair Cor Vrieswijk says that the donor countries do not wish to share the information.
De Volkskrant did have access to the summary of the inquiry. It says that much information is missing from the financial administration of the Mayday foundation. The auditors also conclude that they found no evidence of financial abuse. The cash withdrawals by Le Mesurier and his wife Emma Winberg were accounted for, it says. The course of events surrounding the disappeared 50,000 dollars, reported by Le Mesurier himself as fraud, is the result of a ‘misunderstanding’, according to the auditors.
The sources for this story
This article is based on interviews with a dozen employees and former employees of the Mayday Rescue Foundation and associated organisations, and other directly involved individuals. Among other things, this paper has the email sent by James Le Mesurier to the donor countries on 8 November 2019, the findings of the British accountancy firm BDO, and the discussion report of the Dutch firm SMK Audit. In addition, public sources were used such as the verdict of the Amsterdam court of 30 June 2020 concerning the employment conflict with the financial director, and documents about Mayday that were made public by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs in April 2020 after a so-called WOB (Government Information Act) request by an unknown applicant.