Britain’s departing spy chief Alex Younger has revealed how he outmanoeuvred the CIA for audiences with Afghanistan’s then-president by giving him a regular supply of jam, in a move that “compensated for some billions of dollars of security assistance”.
When he was MI6 station chief in Kabul, Mr Younger was in charge of briefing President Hamid Karzai, who won Afghanistan's first presidential election after the fall of the Taliban.
While the US was also competing for Mr Karzai’s time, Mr Younger became aware that the president often liked mixing jam in his tea to keep colds away.
"I employed my mother-in-law's jam and afforded him a ready supply which I think, at a casual estimate, would have compensated for some billions of dollars of security assistance," Mr Younger told the Financial Times.
The 57-year-old still keeps a jar of homemade blackberry jam in his office at MI6 headquarters in London.
Mr Younger, who has headed up Britain's foreign intelligence service for six years and previously served as head of counter-terrorism at the agency, is stepping down from his role as "C" this week. He joined MI6 during the First Gulf War after his military service had ended.
"I'm basically a romantic. I believe in human agency. I love the fact that individuals can make a difference; in however small a way, I wanted to be one of those people," he said.
He will be replaced by Richard Moore, who served as the political director at the British foreign office and as ambassador to Turkey. Mr Moore was born in Libya and speaks fluent Turkish.
Looking back on his time as a spy, Mr Younger said it could be a lonely yet very exciting role. But rather than his work taking place on a distant battlefield like it would for a soldier, often it took place in normal, mundane places such as supermarkets.
“At a personal level, when I was serving in the Middle East we were seeking to get inside an organisation that was proliferating weapons and I had to go and approach someone and talk to them and we did it in a shopping mall,” he said.
“As I went up to this person I realised I was in a familiar environment and had been in that place with my children the weekend before. So I had gone from talking about Pingu to talking about proliferation and it’s just an extraordinary contrast.”