Confused and conflicting BBC reporting on Syrian jihadists

When the Syrian group Jabhat al-Nusra rebranded itself as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham in late July 2016, the BBC told its audiences that the group had “split from al-Qaeda“:

“Syrian jihadist group Jabhat al-Nusra, also known as the Nusra Front, has announced it has split from al-Qaeda.

Leader Abu Mohammed al-Julani, in his first recorded message, said its new name would be Jabhat Fateh al-Sham [Front for the Conquest of Syria/the Levant].”

The BBC News website published an additional article on the same topic by an outside contributor titled “What drove Syria’s Nusra Front to detach itself from al-Qaeda?“.

At the time we asked “Is the BBC’s report of Jabhat al-Nusra ‘split’ from al Qaeda too simplistic?” and a subsequently published BBC profile of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham used rather more guarded language.

“The Syria-based jihadist group al-Nusra Front changed its name to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (Front for the Conquest of Syria/the Levant) at the end of July 2016, reportedly cutting ties with al-Qaeda at the same time.

It is thought that the public severing of links with al-Qaeda may not be as total as portrayed…”

However, when the BBC News website reported a double terror attack in Damascus on March 11th, the article included the following statement:

“A double suicide bombing in the Kafr Sousa district of the capital in January killed at least 10 people.

Former al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat Fateh al-Sham said it was behind that attack.” [emphasis added]

The next day – March 12th – the BBC News website published a follow-up report concerning the claim of responsibility for that terror attack.

Titled “Syrian Al-Qaeda affiliate claims twin bombing in Damascus“, the report opens:

“A Syrian jihadist group affiliated with al-Qaeda has claimed responsibility for a twin bombing on Friday [sic] in the capital Damascus that killed at least 40.

Hayat Tahrir al-Sham said the attack was “a message to Iran” over the country’s support for Syrian president Bashar al Assad.” [emphasis added]

Later on readers were told that:

“Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (Liberation of the Levant Organisation) is a new group formed from Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (previously al-Nusra Front) and four smaller factions.”

Readers of this article would therefore understand that the BBC is telling them that Hayat Tahrir al-Sham – including its Jabhat Fateh al-Sham faction – is “a Syrian jihadist group affiliated with al-Qaeda”.

However, just one day before the same website had told them that the largest faction in Hayat Tahrir al-Sham was a “former al-Qaeda affiliate” and less than eight months prior to that it had told them that the same faction had “split” from al-Qaeda.

Although (as noted here at the time) Hayat Tahrir al-Sham was formed around the end of January 2017, the BBC did not cover that story until a month later when, on February 28th, BBC Monitoring published an article titled “Tahrir al-Sham: Al-Qaeda’s latest incarnation in Syria“. Confusingly, however, that report opened:

“The Syrian jihadist group Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS), which was known as al-Nusra Front until it broke off formal ties with al-Qaeda last July, has rebranded itself again.

A statement issued on 28 January announced that it had agreed to merge with four smaller factions and form a new alliance, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (Liberation of the Levant Organisation). […]

On 9 February, Abu Jabir delivered a message in which he insisted Tahrir al-Sham was an “independent entity and not an extension of former organisations and factions”.

It appeared to be an attempt to further distance the group from al-Qaeda.” [emphasis added]

Less than two weeks later, we now see the BBC describing Hayat Tahrir al-Sham as being “affiliated with al-Qaeda”.

Clearly there is a great deal of confusion among BBC reporters regarding this topic and obviously the appearance of conflicting and confusing information on the BBC News website is not contributing to meeting the BBC’s public purpose remit of building “global understanding of international issues”.

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Is the BBC’s report of Jabhat al-Nusra ‘split’ from al Qaeda too simplistic?

Those visiting the BBC News website’s Middle East page on the morning of July 29th learned the following:

Nusra on ME pge

The article to which that link leads is titled “Syrian Nusra Front announces split from al-Qaeda” and readers are told that:

“Syrian jihadist group Jabhat al-Nusra, also known as the Nusra Front, has announced it has split from al-Qaeda.

Leader Abu Mohammed al-Julani, in his first recorded message, said its new name would be Jabhat Fateh al-Sham [Front for the Conquest of Syria/the Levant].

He said the move was intended to remove the pretext used by powers, including the US and Russia, to bomb Syrians.”

But is the repeated claim that Jabhat al-Nusra has “split from al-Qaeda” an accurate representation of what actually happened? A senior fellow at the FDD doesn’t think so and his analysis (which includes a mention of this BBC article) is well worth reading in full.

“…Al Nusrah’s overt relationship with al Qaeda made it easy for Russia and the US to justify bombing Syria. For this reason, others in the Syrian insurgency objected to Al Nusrah’s status as an al Qaeda branch. (To date, American airstrikes have mainly targeted individual al Qaeda leaders embedded in Al Nusrah’s ranks, not the organization’s overall paramilitary force. However, the proposal for cooperation with Russia may have led to a change in that focus.)

Julani and Al Nusrah’s other leaders are sensitive to the complaint and so they wanted to eliminate this supposed pretext.

“For the aforementioned reasons, we declare the complete cancellation of all operations under the name of Jabhat Al Nusrah, and the formation of a new group operating under the name ‘Jabhat Fath Al Sham,’ noting that this new organization has no affiliation to any external entity,” Julani says.

Press outlets and many analysts seized on this phrasing to argue that Julani had announced Al Nusrah’s “split,” or “break” from al Qaeda. Some even reported that Julani had thanked “commanders of al Qaeda for having understood the need to break ties.”

But that is not what Julani actually said. His remarks were far more nuanced and require careful analysis.

Julani did not explicitly say that Al Nusrah had broken or split from al Qaeda, which is the language used by the press. He made no such claims.

Instead, Julani said Jabhat Fath Al Sham would have “no affiliation to any external [or foreign] entity.” If Julani wanted to argue that he and his men no longer had any ties to al Qaeda, he could have said so. He didn’t. And his precise wording allows for a considerable amount of wiggle room.”

Later on in the BBC’s article readers are told that:Nusra art

“Analysts say the Nusra Front decided to rebrand itself after the US and Russia stepped up their military efforts against the group.

It is understood the group hopes to form closer alliances with other Islamist groups fighting in Syria.”

The article goes on to offer readers a link to a previous BBC report from March 2015.

“Al-Nusra first announced its existence in a video posted online in early 2012, some months after the Syrian civil war began.

It has been claimed that Qatar has relatively close ties with the group, probably through intermediaries.”

In that article (previously discussed here) audiences were told that:

“This is why Qatar is hoping to bring the Nusra Front in from the cold. If the state can get the group to eschew its al-Qaeda affiliation and adhere to a broadly moderate Islamist platform, Qatar can officially commence, with Western blessing, the supply of one of the most effective fighting forces in Syria.” [emphasis added]

But does Jabhat al-Nusra’s rebranding and potential “closer alliances” with additional groups really signal a step down the road to ‘moderation’? Analyst  Jennifer Cafarella does not think so:

“The cancellation of Jabhat al Nusra’s operations and rebranding of Jabhat al Nusra fighters does not remove the group from the global Salafi-jihadi movement, which believes in the use of violence to establish shari’a-based governance. Jabhat al Nusra will continue to fight to advance Syrian Salafi-jihadi interests under its new name. It has not renounced its vision of establishing an Islamic emirate in Syria. It has instead improved its chances of success by removing obstacles to unify the opposition under its leadership. 

 Syrian Salafi-jihadi groups want to unify opposition groups to increase the effectiveness of their war against the Assad regime. U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper today noted that the formation of Jabhat Fatah al Sham likely aimed to “create the image of being more moderate in an attempt to unify and galvanize and appeal to other oppositionist (sic) groups in Syria.” […]

The decision to form Jabhat Fatah al Sham removes the primary source of the opposition’s resistance to a merger. Opposition groups have been hesitant to merge with Jabhat al Nusra for fear that affiliation with an al Qaeda branch would justify Russia’s air campaign and cause the U.S.-led coalition to target them. […]

It was certainly part of a plan coordinated with al Qaeda’s central leadership. Al Qaeda sanctioned the decision to form a new group in a message released today. This was no break from al Qaeda, but rather the execution of a deliberate global strategy on behalf of the movement. The al Qaeda statement emphasized that “the brotherhood of Islam that is between us is stronger than all the finite, ever-changing organizational links.” “

At the time of writing, the BBC’s profile of Jabhat al-Nusra has not been updated to include this latest development or to correct previously noted inaccuracies.

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Terror cell exposed in Jerusalem: BBC promotes context-free quote from Hamas

Visitors to the BBC News website’s Middle East page on January 23rd may have noticed the seemingly incongruous inclusion of a statement from Hamas in a report titled “Israel arrests three-man ‘al-Qaeda cell’ in East Jerusalem“.

AQ cell art

The report begins:

“The Israeli Shin Bet security service has arrested three alleged members of an al-Qaeda cell.

The prime minister’s spokesman said the men were planning to attack targets including the US embassy.

Shin Bet said the men were recruited by an al-Qaeda operative in the Gaza Strip and that their other targets included a large conference centre in Jerusalem.

The Hamas movement which runs the Gaza Strip reportedly rejected Shin Bet’s claims.

Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri described Shin Bet’s account as “silly fabrications”, saying it was an attempt to justify Israeli military strikes in Gaza, Reuters news agency reports.”

Beyond the decidedly bizarre scenario of the BBC choosing to quote and promote the views of the spokesman of a terrorist organization on the subject of the exposure of a cell belonging to another terrorist organization, the question which immediately springs to mind is of course why was inclusion of that statement by Abu Zuhri deemed by BBC editors to be part of the story at all?

In order to get some insight into that, we have to refer to the Reuters article from which the BBC got the information. There we find that Abu Zuhri’s statement does not so much refer to the subject of the cell’s recruiter being located in the Gaza Strip as the BBC article would have readers believe, but to other issues.

“Citing the alleged recruitment work by al Qaeda in Gaza, the Shin Bet accused Hamas authorities of “allowing Salafis to carry out terrorism as long as it is not against them”.

Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said Israel was seeking a pretext for its attacks in Gaza. […]

Abu Zuhri said the Shin Bet statement was “silly fabrications,” adding: “Facebook is not a Hamas network.” “

The Jerusalem Post has additional information:

“It [the investigation] is also evidence of the fact that the Gaza Strip is a terrorism base for al-Qaida-affiliated elements, in addition to Hamas and Islamic Jihad, the source said.

Hundreds of Salafi-jihadis in Gaza have access to rockets and arms, and travel to Sinai to attack both Egypt and Israel, the source explained.

Hamas has reached an understanding with these elements, according to which, they must not directly harm Hamas by provoking an Israeli response against the Islamist rulers of the Strip, but are otherwise free to act as they please. There have been no recent arrests by Hamas of Salafi jihadis in Gaza. Rather, Hamas engages with these groups by deploying its own forces to rocket launching grounds to prevent attacks on Israel, and through dialogue with the al-Qaida-affiliated elements.

Outside of Gaza, Hamas supports global jihadi activities in Syria and in the Sinai Peninsula, the source continued. Hamas would prefer to avoid a confrontation with smaller terror groups in Gaza, while also avoiding a head-on clash with Egypt and Israel.”

The phenomenon of collaboration between Gaza-based Salafist Jihadis and like-minded groups operating in the Sinai – at best with the turning of a blind eye by Hamas – is one which has not received much attention from the BBC. The flow of Jihadists from Gaza to Syria has been the subject of one BBC report in the past year. Hence, the BBC’s decision to quote Hamas’ Abu Zuhri without providing details of the background information which prompted his statement (and, notably, without informing readers of the context of Israeli air-strikes mentioned by him having been carried out in response to missile fire from the Gaza Strip) actually obstructs audience understanding of the issue.

At the end of the report another old BBC story is resurrected.

“In November it was revealed that Israel had been holding a suspected al-Qaeda biological weapons expert since 2010.

A military court placed Samir Abdul Latif al-Baraq in “administrative detention”, which allows indefinite detention without charge or trial, after he was arrested in July 2010.”

As was pointed out here at the time, whilst that information may indeed have been “revealed” to the BBC in November, it certainly was not news to a whole variety of other organisations.

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BBC reveals the ‘secret’ detention which wasn’t

On November 18th 2013 the Middle East page of the BBC News website ran an article with the sensational headline “Israel secretly detained al-Qaeda suspect Baraq“. 

al Barak

The report’s opening lines are no less dramatic:

“Israel has secretly held a suspected al-Qaeda biological weapons expert since 2010, it has been revealed.” […]

“His detention was revealed on Monday when lawyers petitioned the Israeli Supreme Court for his release.”

Whilst Samer Abed a-Latif al-Barak’s (also Baraq or Barq) detention may indeed have been a “secret” only recently “revealed” to the BBC, it certainly was not to members of his family who visited him in prison, to the NGOs Addameer (which visited him in June 2012) and Amnesty International (which has been campaigning on his behalf for well over a year) or to the Palestinian Prisoner’s Club which, according to AI, provided him with a lawyer.

Clearly then, the BBC’s implication of some sort of covert, shadowy goings-on is entirely redundant and inaccurate.

The BBC report goes on to give some biographical background on al-Barak:

“According to court documents disclosed on Monday, Mr Baraq was born in Kuwait in 1974 and moved to Pakistan in 1997 to study microbiology.

The following year, he attended a militant training camp in Afghanistan, and in 2001 was recruited by Ayman al-Zawahiri, the current leader of al-Qaeda, the documents say.

He then allegedly acquired “knowledge and experience” in non-conventional weaponry.

Israeli prosecutors said Mr Baraq spent three months at the US military detention camp at Guantanamo Bay in 2003, and was imprisoned in Jordan between 2003 and 2008 for “terrorist activity” and involvement in an al-Qaeda biological weapon project.

He was expelled from Jordan on 11 July 2010 and was subsequently arrested by Israeli troops at the Allenby Bridge border crossing while trying to enter the West Bank.”

In addition to neglecting to point out that al-Barak’s time in Guantanamo Bay was preceded by his arrest in Pakistan by the US authorities due to his Al Qaeda affiliations, the BBC’s account of al-Barak’s activities in Jordan – which resulted in his arrest and imprisonment there – is vague, with the use of scare quotes around the phrase terrorist activity implying that BBC audiences should be sceptical of that description of his activities. The same court documents quoted by the BBC actually include further information:

“According to the report, al-Barq was involved in planning attacks on Jews and Israelis in Jordan and also planned to teach Palestinian terrorists how to manufacture poisons.”

A report from Channel 10 includes some details from al-Barak’s questioning. [translation: BBC Watch]

“Al-Barak was born in Kuwait and in his youth travelled to Pakistan in order to study biology. From there he continued to Afghanistan and there, according to the version he gave to investigators, was trained in biological warfare. “I practiced the manufacture of explosives and poisons, such as cyanide and nerve gas”, he recalled.

During the questioning he told them about an experiment he carried out on a dog, which he put into a crate into which he introduced nerve gas which he had made. “The dog died within minutes”, he recounted coldly. “I discussed with friends the possibility that we would return to the [West] Bank and carry out terror attacks against Israel.”

The terror activist also told of his recruitment to Al Qaeda by the organisation’s leader, Ayman a-Zawahiri. “I met him in Afghanistan and he said I must be in touch with him and learn about anthrax”, he said to the investigators. According to him, a-Zawahiri “spoke of the possibility that a suicide bomber would spread the poison using a sprayer in a public place”. 

The BBC’s account also neglects to mention the fact that efforts have been made by Israel to find a country willing to take al-Barak – as noted in a document from the Ministry of Justice.

“It should be noted that several attempts were made to transfer Mr. Al Barq to several Arab countries, however up to date no Arab country has agreed to accept him.”

The remainder of the BBC’s report largely focuses on a partial view of the subject of administrative detention – one which the BBC has often visited before – and includes the quotation of mostly later added figures from B’Tselem.

Thus, BBC audiences are shepherded towards focusing their attentions on specific aspects of the subject of administrative detention (also known as preventative detention in some of the other democratic countries in which it is employed as a counter-terrorism measure or for other reasons – as in the EU) rather than on the issues of public safety presented by a previously imprisoned, Al Qaeda-affiliated, unconventional weapons expert in a region in which Salafist violence has dramatically spiked in recent years.