The logistics experts from "Mayday Rescue were unable to stop the advance of the troops that overran two southern Syrian provinces in summer 2018. But by way of an astounding operation, they were at least able to save a couple hundred of those people who stood even higher on the attackers’ priority list than the opposing fighters: the emergency first responders and rescue workers from the White Helmets – the aid organization that had become legendary around the world for saving people in rebel-held areas of Syria from bombed out homes and providing medical care to the wounded.
It was that period of the war after Moscow had begun sending warplanes and troops to Syria to prop up the dictatorial regime of Bashar al-Assad, bringing years of stubbornly immovable front lines to a rapid end. Every day, Assad’s armored "Tiger Forces" advanced further and further, with the help of Russian air support. "Mayday Rescue" contacted the Russians’ liaison officer to request safe passage for the White Helmets to Jordan, but the answer was clear, said James Le Mesurier at the time, the former British military officer and founder of Mayday: "They said the White Helmets were vermin who should be eradicated."
The very fact of their existence – that they used their helmet cameras to document thousands of air strikes on residential areas, schools and hospitals – made them a threat to Assad’s wartime narrative. After the White Helmets won the Alternative Nobel Prize in 2016, and a Netflix documentary about the group won an Oscar in 2017, Russian propaganda channels and other pro-Assad sympathizers on the right- and left-wing fringes began spreading increasingly horrific stories about the erstwhile overlooked aid workers. It was said they were working together with al-Qaida and Islamic State. They were accused of staging their rescues. They were, alleged others, on the CIA or MI6 payroll or were just a cover for the illegal organ trade.
Even if it was completely illogical that terrorists involved in organ smuggling would be financed by the British secret service, it didn’t matter. The main point was to destroy their reputation. Indeed, Syrian warplanes flew what were called "double-tap" strikes with the specific goal of killing the aid workers – they would return a few minutes after the first attack to fire off a second round to kill those who had rushed to help the initial victims.
Best in Class
There were two wars being fought in Syria, the first with weapons and the second with lies. And Le Mesurier, then 47, found himself in the middle of the propaganda war thanks to his efforts in building up the White Helmets into an internationally admired unit. The former British officer was once honored by the queen as best-in-class at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. The group he helped establish included around 3,000 men and women from Aleppo in the north to Daraa in the south, rushing in after attacks with heavy equipment, first-aid supplies and generators to save anyone who could be saved.
Syria's White Helmets saving someone in the village of Benin.Foto: OMAR HAJ KADOUR/ AFP
But in summer 2018, the focus was on saving the saviors – a race against time, and against the advancing tanks. Le Mesurier’s weapons were his charisma and his list of contacts. A short time before in Istanbul, at his wedding to Emma Winberg, a former diplomat and fellow campaigner, a number of the diplomats in attendance spoke with the newlyweds about plans for getting the White Helmets out of the country. They were able to successfully obtain guarantees from the foreign ministries of Canada, Britain and Germany that they would provide asylum to some of the White Helmets. Jordan pledged to allow the around 1,200 White Helmets from the southern provinces of Daraa and Quneitra to enter the country as long as the third countries were prepared to take them in. But by the time they finally agreed to the plan, all routes to Jordan had been cut off. Israel was the only route left, but the country adamantly refused to open its borders to the desperate escapees. Only when Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and U.S. President Donald Trump appealed directly to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did he accede. But only if the whole thing remained strictly secret. If just a single unauthorized person showed up at the border, Netanyahu said, the entire operation would be stopped.
Despite the ongoing fighting, identification documents and birth certificates had to be transmitted. Many of the aid workers were traveling on foot and could hardly be reached. Then, Islamic State fighters also turned up near the border, lighting fire to a White Helmet ambulance and blocking the path of a number of them.
Finally, on the evening of July 21, 98 White Helmet members with their families managed to make it into Israel via two border crossings – a total of 422 people, with the youngest being born under the open sky that same night.
A Minor Yet Deadly Error
In the sleepless chaos of these weeks, James Le Mesurier would make a mistake that would drive him to despair 16 months later and play a role in his death: He took $50,000 in cash from the safe in Mayday headquarters in Istanbul – the organization’s emergency reserve – and brought it with him to Jordan. He would end up spending $9,200 of it, but would later no longer recall that he immediately instructed the accounting department to offset the rest against his salary.
The military conflict in Syria would slowly evolve in the ensuing years into a stalemate – a de-facto partitioning of the country with the northwest under Kurdish control, Idlib and parts of the northwest as a region of final refuge for the rebels under the control of the Turkish military and secret service. The rest of the country remained under Assad’s rule, propped up by Russia and Iran.
But the war over the interpretation of the murderous decade – one which cost the lives of around half a million Syrians and drove around half the country’s population from their homes – continued. The fight over the larger questions of who were the terrorists and who were the heroes, whether Le Mesurier and Mayday saved lives or merely enriched themselves, would develop its own momentum despite definitive clarification – a momentum that would continue until the present day and lead to a bitter public debate, even in the far-away Netherlands.
The Slow Poison of Disinformation
Mayday was registered in the Netherlands in 2015, although the organization’s headquarters remained in Istanbul. Le Mesurier founded Mayday in 2014 after having spent some time organizing aid for the civilian Syrian opposition via a different aid organization based in Dubai. He arranged initial training sessions for Syrian emergency responders in Turkey, but was dissatisfied with the sluggishness of international organizations. So, together with Mayday, he focused his energies on building up a professionally trained, well-equipped rescue organization "that saves lives, no matter whose," and which maintained a distance from all armed groups. It proved impossible to procure enough red fire department helmets in Turkey for the "Syria Civil Defence," the group’s official name, so Mayday bought white helmets, which would later become their trademark.
Syria's White Helmets pulling a child out of rubble in Idlib in 2019.Foto: OMAR HAJ KADOUR/ AFP
The White Helmets quickly managed to fill a gap in Syria itself, but also among the governments in the West. Those who were afraid to remain in rebel-controlled areas had long since fled, and those who wanted to fight were already doing so. But the few who were prepared to risk their lives to save others but who were unwilling to fight – they joined the Civil Defence. Starting in 2014, DER SPIEGEL reporters in Idlib and Aleppo started encountering these rescue workers after air strikes, long before they grew famous and subsequently became a target of defamation.
For the governments in London, Berlin and Ottawa, meanwhile, Mayday was the perfect partner through which they could become active on behalf of the opposition without getting militarily involved or joining hands with the radicals. Between 2014 and 2019, Western governments would provide around 120 million euros in support to Mayday, about 20 million of it coming from Germany. The organization grew extremely quickly, "but the atmosphere was more like that in a startup," recalls co-founder and head of personnel Ed Bicknell. Expenses were recorded in Excel spreadsheets, with transfers into the Syrian war zone having to be made in cash or through Hawala transfer offices. The group’s financial backers, though, began insisting on a more professional bookkeeping operation.
What the New Bookkeeper Didn’t Divulge: His Background
"But what bookkeeper comes to an aid organization whose partners only work in war zones?" says Bicknell in describing the search. "An organization about which the craziest rumors are circulating in the media, that we are involved in organ harvesting?" The candidate they wanted ultimately withdrew his application at the last moment, whereupon Johan Eleveld was hired in August 2018, a man who had gained his experience working for private companies. Eleveld is from the Netherlands, which was helpful given that the organization was registered there. It was his task to revise the organization’s bookkeeping such that it conformed to international standards so the others could focus their attentions elsewhere.
He was erudite, had a charming side and was initially noteworthy primarily for the fact that he seemed to have little appreciation for Mayday’s main mission, that of providing assistance to the White Helmets in Syria. Nor did he display much awareness for the daily horrors experienced by the rescue workers. He was, essentially, just a harmless bookkeeper.
Eleveld, though, did not tell his new colleagues the whole story about his professional background. By the time he joined Mayday, he had been part of the management team of two companies that had gone bankrupt, as had his previous employer Enforsa, a foundation that was supposed to have built solar power facilities in Romania. The foundation had been "properly looted," said its new leaders, who went on to declare bankruptcy in November 2017. The Dutch investigation into what happened to the 190,000 euros that Eleveld wired from Enforsa to the company 3C BV, on whose supervisory board Eleveld sat, is still ongoing today. He has also never paid back a loan of 10,000 euros that he gave himself. Several attempts by DER SPIEGEL to reach Eleveld with questions about his activities at Enforsa and Mayday went unanswered.
As had been the plan from the beginning, Eleveld was promoted to the position of Mayday’s finance director after a few months, but by then, some in the organization had begun wondering how, exactly, he had been spending his time. Eleveld had hired a software developer and two men who were supposed to optimize fund disbursement, but who were apparently unable to do so. One of them was apparently a neighbor of Eleveld’s in the Netherlands. Eleveld also bought incompatible bookkeeping software without consulting with others in management and spent most of his time in the Netherlands – where he used Mayday funds to buy himself a Privium membership, giving him access to airport lounges and business-class check-in at Schiphol Airport.
Damage from an air strike in Idlib in February 2020.Foto: OMAR HAJ KADOUR/ AFP
But nothing of substance actually happened. It was Eleveld’s job to finally put an end to the bookkeeping chaos that had become so problematic for the donor countries. In spring 2019, auditors arrived at Mayday, sent by the British government, and demanded a more professional administration. Mayday, the auditors said, needed to find a consulting company to help them with the process. Eleveld insisted on a Dutch company, and also on being allowed to hand out the contract at his discretion, which led to a long dispute with Ed Bicknell. "It was in complete violation of our policies and breaching all internal, contractual and UK government rules," he says.
It was, though, Bicknell who had become closest to Eleveld in those initial months of his employment at Mayday, often going out for a beer with him in Istanbul. "He didn’t understand the environment in which we were operating and thought he saw criminal activity everywhere," Bicknell says. One evening in August, he muttered to me that if the donors realized that Emma Winberg, who also worked for Mayday, was James’ wife, we would be in deep trouble. I looked at him incredulously and said: Johan, most of the people we deal with from the donor countries were at their wedding! There is nothing secret."
Eleveld ultimately commissioned SMK, an auditing firm from the eastern part of the Netherlands with hardly any experience with clients operating internationally, much less with funding recipients in a warzone. But when the SMK team traveled to Istanbul in early November, their focus was not on optimizing Mayday’s administration, but – under instruction from Johan Eleveld – on the private finances of James Le Mesurier and Emma Winberg. Especially: What was the deal with the withdrawal of $50,000 the previous summer?
The SMK auditors didn’t ultimately write a conclusive report, but a final meeting on Nov. 7 in the Istanbul Novotel in combination with the SMK minutes were cause for significant concern for Le Mesurier. Especially given that, according to witnesses, Eleveld said that Le Mesurier would likely end up in prison if it came out that he had backdated a receipt for the $50,000. He had, indeed, done so several months previously, having forgotten that the remaining $40,800 had long since been properly documented.
Attacks Out of Nowhere
On Nov. 8, Le Mesurier wrote an email to the organization’s donors. He admitted to having backdated the receipt and offered to resign from his post. The donors rejected his offer, but demanded a "forensic audit," an especially rigorous form of checking the books. The attacks came out of nowhere, a desperate Le Mesurier would tell his friends. He reproached himself for having put the organization at risk that he and his team had invested so much energy into over the years.
James Le Mesurier: The news of his death caused significant consternation in northern Syria.Foto: AP Content/ AP
The night of Nov. 10 was a restless one for James and Emma. Unable to sleep well despite having taken sleeping pills, Emma woke up at 4:30 a.m. to see him smoking at the window of their rooftop apartment located above the Mayday offices, but she dozed off again. She was woken up later by the hammering of Turkish police at the outermost of two security doors. James Le Mesurier had plunged from the platform in front of the window down to the street. Passersby hurrying to morning prayers had found him on the street. Emma Winberg ran down the stairs, but was held back by five police officers before she could run out to James lying on the street. "Later, someone told me that I was screaming no! no! no! and that I had grabbed a blanket to cover him. But the police pushed me back upstairs. Only then did I begin to understand. It was the worst moment of my life."
News of James Le Mesurier’s death quickly spread around the world. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was informed that morning and the news was met with shock in northern Syria. In Russia, it was garnished with the usual lies, and claims began circulating in Moscow that the British secret service had murdered Le Mesurier because he allegedly knew too much.
But it soon became clear that all such stories were nonsense: Nobody had come through the two, heavy security doors and the camera footage also showed no intruders. Le Mesurier either jumped or he fell. The final report from the British coroner from July 2021 reported that there were no indications of suicide.
The End of the Rescue Workers
Mayday employees were all under shock – all of them, that is, except finance chief Eleveld. Bicknell and others saw him a few days later sitting in a café around the corner, contentedly chatting away with a few other employees. He said he had always known that James was a bad person. Ethan Wilson, the Mayday program director at the time, says that Eleveld hadn’t understood that without Le Mesurier, Mayday was finished. "We still had money to run the programs for the next three months, but we couldn’t plan beyond that because we wouldn't be receiving any more funding until the investigation was concluded," Wilson says.
Even before Le Mesurier’s death, many salaries hadn’t been paid for several months because of Eleveld’s chaotic bookkeeping. Once he was gone, though, that lack of payment became systematic and hardly anyone received money aside from Eleveld and Mayday’s lawyers – who Eleveld turned against Mayday’s furious staff. In December, just a few weeks after James’ death, Emma Winberg received a memo from the lawyers informing her that she had been suspended on orders from Eleveld. "A first investigation was recently conducted into the actual financial and legal situation," allegedly revealing that she had "unlawfully enriched yourself and others at the expense of the foundation" with cash withdrawals of $55,000.
A member of the White Helmets next to a body bag in Idlib Province.Foto: Omar Haj Kadour / AFP
In January 2020, at the request of Mayday’s donors, Dutch executive Cornelis Vrieswijk was appointed as chair of the foundation’s board of directors. "Eleveld told me all these horror stories," Vrieswijk would later recall, "about a 90,000-euro wedding dress, a speedboat worth $250,000, a year-long honeymoon and of additional payments to James and Emma to the tune of $50,000, all of it illegally taken from Mayday accounts. My first impression was: This is a mobster couple."
But as soon as he began speaking with the other 30 or 40 employees and examined the books, Vrieswijk’s view of the situation changed completely. "The accusations were absurd and false, but Eleveld had apparently convinced himself that his fantastical fabrications were true." The well-respected accounting firm Grant Thornton, which was tasked with examining Mayday’s books for the preceding several years had the same experience: "The cash management was a disaster, to be sure. It took several months to reconstruct the precise bookkeeping for three years," says on person with knowledge of the complete report. "As such, initial suspicions were certainly justified."
But the accountants likewise found no proof of misappropriations. "Aside from a few thousand dollars that were lost due to exchange rate fluctuations, the millions in funds were correctly entered into the books." Regarding the allegedly missing $55,000, which Johan Eleveld used as justification for the suspension of Emma Windberg, the accountants said it was "absolutely malicious: Eleveld himself had forwarded an email from the local bookkeeper in Istanbul to auditors saying that the amount would be offset against her salary." Eleveld did not respond to attempts by DER SPIEGEL to contact him.
The boat, the extended honeymoon, the 90,000-euro wedding dress: "None of it was true," says Vrieswijk, "it was simply invented, and it was so blatant that it was soon discovered in the audits conducted by us and by Grant Thornton." The rest of the $50,000 that Le Mesurier withdrew for the rescue operation in Jordan but never spent had been offset against his salary – just as Le Mesurier had requested in an email to bookkeepers a few days after taking the money. An email that he forgot amid all the stress.
Johan Eleveld tried to limit the auditing period for Grant Thornton to the time up of Le Mesurier’s death. But Vrieswijk and the donor nations had become mistrustful and expanded the mandate to include the ensuing months under Eleveld’s leadership. Ultimately, their confidential closing report identified one employee who had unjustly enriched himself: finance chief Eleveld, the left over member of the management board who had given himself a hefty raise, paid himself additional bonuses and reimbursed himself for allegedly unused vacation days which, the auditors are convinced, he actually took. On June 30, 2020, a court in the Netherlands ordered Johan Eleveld to pay back 18,000 euros.
White Helmets in Idlib Province, 2021Foto: Izzeddin Kasim / Anadolu / Getty Images
By then, he had already been fired by Vrieswijk, and Le Mesurier’s reputation had been rehabilitated, but the multi-year disinformation campaign from Moscow and Damascus had established a climate in which even the disproven lies from the former finance chief found new life in Europe. On July 17, 2020, an article appeared in the Dutch daily de Volkskrant under the headline "The Black Side of the White Helmets." Apparently a headline considered far too clever by the paper’s editors to be ruined by overly meticulous reporting.
The accusations from Eleveld were recounted with relish, with the finance chief himself clearly the primary source for the story. The article focused primarily on the $50,000 withdrawn by Le Mesurier – a sum the location of which "a Dutch accountant" kept wondering about. In a small box next to the article, it was noted that Grant Thornton had examined the accusations against Le Mesurier and found them to be unfounded, a rather strange method for declaring one’s own work to be inaccurate upon publication.
A week and a half before the article’s publication, de Volkskrant had confronted Vrieswijk with an initial draft of the story, whereupon he told one of the two writers that their revelations weren’t worth the paper they were printed on. "When I read the text, I immediately knew where the accusations came from. Of the hundreds of people I had spoken to at Mayday, in the ministries of the donor countries and with the White Helmets, only one would say something like this: Johan Eleveld. I asked the journalist if he was her source, and she just flinched and said nothing." Vrieswijk told her that the detailed audit report disproved the premise of her story in its entirety, but he was unable to show her the report before getting permission from the auditors.
Character Assassination on Installment
On July 16, Vrieswijk again met with the reporter from de Volkskrant. Grant Thornton had said it was prepared to make public the decisive details pertaining to Le Mesurier’s cash withdrawal from July 2018. "But the reporters weren’t interested at all in the results of the audit," says an exasperated Vrieswijk. "I can understand that they would be disappointed that their hypothesis was disproved by a report and which debunked the allegations of their source. But I really can’t understand why they're still publishing." Even worse: To give their story about the "black side of the White Helmets" even more credence, the reporters were interviewed by their own paper. The interviewer gushes over the "splendid scoop" that the two had landed about the "fraudulent founder of Mayday Rescue." Fraud and financial abuse are mentioned seven times in the story and headline, as is the "enjoyment" the two reporters found in "stirring up the muck." It was nothing more than journalistic character assassination with a tinge of regret for how "sad" it was "to write a story with a main character who is dead."
In the ensuing months, in-depth articles in the Guardian and the Daily Mail, along with a 12-part podcast series on the BBC, dismantled the core allegation of the Volkskrant story, while the Netherlands weekly De Groene Amsterdammer enlightened its readers about Eleveld’s background and the bankruptcies of the prior companies he had worked for. But instead of owning up to its errors or simply remaining silent, de Volkskrant doubled down and filed a complaint against De Groene Amsterdammer in November 2021 with the Netherlands Press Council because the weekly’s reporters had allegedly quoted from de Volkskrant without giving them the opportunity to comment.
The paper also claimed that the "Dutch accountant" referred to the auditing firm SMK. When contacted, SMK denied ever having responded to questions from the newspaper about Mayday. De Volkskrant did not immediately reply to questions from DER SPIEGEL about this contradiction. Only after several questions sent to the paper went unanswered, and after the German version of this article was published, did de Volkskrant respond to DER SPIEGEL, saying they continued to stand behind their reporting. They claim their story was based on interviews with a dozen of individuals with direct involvement as well as on a variety of documents. They insist that they had "no doubts about the accuracy of our reporting" and continue to believe in its veracity.
Mayday has since been dissolved, though the White Helmets are continuing their operations in northern Syria with backing from some of the former donor countries. "It is tragic,” says Vrieswijk, who stumbled into the conflict as an outsider, "how all the lies and false accusations destroyed Mayday and drove James to despair. I also thought at the beginning that he had enriched himself in a disgusting manner. Until we came to realize that neither he nor Emma had embezzled even a single penny. My impression shifted 180 degrees. Today, I see him as somebody I really admire."
Correction: The headline of this story has been corrected. It previously incorrectly stated that James Le Mesurier had been the founder of the White Helms. The error was introduced in the editing of the headline for the English version of the article and did not appear in the original German version. We apologize for the error.