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”.

Related Articles:

The BBC, jihadists and Islamists

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

Confusing and conflicting messaging on Jabhat al Nusra in BBC reports

Inaccuracies in BBC’s Jabhat al Nusra profile

 

The BBC, jihadists and Islamists

Back in December 2014 the BBC News website published a backgrounder titled “What is jihadism?” which included the following section:

islamists-vs-jihadists-backgrounder

In other words, audiences can apparently conclude that when the BBC uses the term ‘jihadist’ it is telling them that the group described as such uses violence and that when the term ‘Islamist’ is employed, they can understand that those described in that way are non-violent.

With that in mind, it is interesting to see how an article published on January 26th under the headline “Syria war: Rebels unite after attack by Idlib jihadists” describes differing factions in Syria. [all emphasis added]ahrar-al-sham-art

“Insurgent factions in Syria have joined together to fight off an assault by a powerful jihadist group which launched an attack on rebels this week.

Several militias formed an alliance with key Islamist group Ahrar al-Sham amid some of the worst inter-factional clashes in recent times.

Jabhat Fateh al-Sham has accused the rebels of conspiring against it at peace talks in Kazakhstan this week. […]

JFS has been involved in clashes with rebels in Idlib and neighbouring west Aleppo since Tuesday.

Ahrar al-Sham, which has rejected calls by outside powers to dissociate itself from JFS, blamed the jihadists for starting the fighting. […]

On Thursday, Ahrar al-Sham said JFS had rejected its attempts to mediate. The Islamists warned JFS that any attack on its members would be considered a “declaration of war”, according to Reuters news agency.”

The Reuters article also provides more detail:

“Rebel factions Alwiyat Suqour al-Sham, Fastaqim, Jaish al-Islam’s Idlib branch, Jaish al-Mujahideen and al-Jabha al-Shamiya’s west Aleppo branch said in a statement they had joined Ahrar al-Sham.

The Ahrar al-Sham statement also mentioned a sixth group, the Sham Revolutionary Brigades, and said “other brigades” had joined.”

In other words, based on the information previously provided in the BBC’s backgrounder, audiences are encouraged to believe that while Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly Jabhat al Nusra) is a jihadist group that uses violence, Ahrar al-Sham is an ‘Islamist’ group which – by the BBC’s definition – does not. That is clearly not the case at all and obviously the terminology used by the BBC in this report is not sufficiently accurate.

Meanwhile, since that January 26th BBC report was published, Reuters and other outlets have reported the formation of another ‘coalition’ in Syria.

“An online statement issued by the Islamist factions announced the formation of the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (Liberation of the Levant Committee).

It said the alliance was formed to mend splits among insurgent groups and strengthen opposition to the Damascus government.

The signatories were Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, formerly al Qaeda’s Nusra Front, the Nour al-Din al-Zinki group, Liwa al-Haqq, Jaish al-Sunna and Jabhat Ansar al-Din.”

The FDD reports that the leader of that new coalition – which the BBC would presumably have described as ‘jihadist’ had it reported on the topic – was previously the head of the group it portrays as ‘Islamist’.

“In a statement released online, the joint venture partners say they have merged to form Hay’at Tahrir al Sham, or the “Assembly for Liberation of the Levant.” It is led by a jihadi known as Abu Jaber (also known as Hashem al Sheikh), the former head of Ahrar al Sham, which continues to operate under its own name in Syria. […]

Some reports have identified Abu Jaber as a former member of al Qaeda in Iraq. […]

The establishment of Tahrir al Sham comes after weeks of reported clashes and fierce disagreements between different jihadi factions and other insurgents in northern Syria. It is difficult to discern how the situation unfolded, but JFS and Ahrar al Sham have reportedly disagreed over the direction of the insurgency, leading to some clashes. The two groups have long fought side-by-side against the Assad regime and others. Indeed, Ahrar al Sham has its own links to al Qaeda and openly models itself after the Taliban.”

Clearly audience understanding of this complex topic is not enhanced by the BBC’s use of inaccurate and confusing labels.

Related Articles:

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