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?

Confusing and conflicting messaging on Jabhat al Nusra in BBC reports

Inaccuracies in BBC’s Jabhat al Nusra profile

 

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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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Confusing and conflicting messaging on Jabhat al Nusra in BBC reports

 

 

 

 

Looking back at the sourcing behind BBC reports on Qatar – part one

Qatar is – to put it mildly – not one of the most frequently covered countries on the BBC News website’s Middle East page and its domestic issues in particular usually remain far away from the BBC’s spotlight. On the comparatively rare occasions upon which BBC News does publish an article about Qatar, it is sometimes worth taking a closer look at the source of the information provided to BBC audiences – as the examples in this series of posts will show.Qatar 1

On March 6th 2015 the BBC News website’s Middle East section published an article by Dr David Roberts of King’s College London titled “Is Qatar bringing the Nusra Front in from the cold?“. Readers were informed in the article’s opening sentence that the Jabhat al Nusra militia operating in Syria was “rethinking its allegiance to al-Qaeda, in a move allegedly partly engineered by Qatar”. Later on the article states:

“Being a directly affiliated al-Qaeda group, the Nusra Front is nearer the IS end of the spectrum.

Yet, while the Qatari relationship with the Nusra Front appears to be far from straightforward with some of the state’s initiatives failing, indicating some distance between the two, according to recent reports, Qatar appears to want to reform this relationship.”

As the link to a Reuters article provided in that latter paragraph shows, the BBC was not the only media outlet at the time promoting the claim that Qatar was about to steer Jabhat al Nusra into the fold of ‘moderate’ Syrian rebel groups – a claim which appears to have had origins among assorted Qatari sources . Roberts later wrote:

“If the state [Qatar] 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.”

Making no mention of Qatar’s material and ideological support for the Islamists of Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, Roberts’ contextualization of Qatar’s alleged links with Jabhat al Nusra included the following:

“…the fact remains that Qatar is a key Western ally. It hosts a critical US military base, it grafted US and UK higher-education institutions and ideas onto its education system, and has long promoted the Middle East’s most visible and powerful woman, Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser al-Missned, the Emir’s mother.

These are transparently not the policies of a state with sympathies for the likes of IS or al-Qaeda. Indeed, there is no chance that Qatar is doing this alone: the US and UK governments will certainly be involved in or at least apprised of Qatar’s plans.”

And:

“Qatar is not the first state to reason that it is time to talk to groups that are unpalatable and extreme, but who are, nevertheless, influential.”

The literal bottom line of this article was to persuade readers that:

“…in a context where the best that can be hoped for is the “least worst” solution, Qatar’s plan is as viable as any other.”

Three days after the appearance of this article Jabhat al Nusra reaffirmed its allegiance to al Qaeda and denied the Qatari promoted claims of a potential split.

So how come BBC audiences were fed obvious Qatari spin by a British academic described as “a lecturer in the Defence Studies Department at King’s College London”? Perhaps if readers had also been alerted to the fact that Dr Roberts’ department currently holds a contract with Qatar apparently worth £26 million, their ability to put the information promoted in this article into proportion and context would have been enhanced. 

Confusing and conflicting messaging on Jabhat al Nusra in BBC reports

On December 9th an article by State Department correspondent Kim Ghattas appeared on the BBC News website under the title “Syria war: Southern rebels see US as key to success“. Despite its title, the report is illustrated using a photograph taken in Damascus in February 2013 rather than in southern Syria.Ghattas art

The article opens by informing readers that:

“Rebels in southern Syria are working to convince Washington to provide more decisive support as they continue to make small but steady gains against government forces.

While most of the world’s attention and the Syrian government’s forces have been focused on Kobane and Aleppo in northern Syria, moderate rebels south of Damascus have successfully taken territory and held it over the last three months, in the Deraa province, along the Jordanian border and along the Golan Heights.” [emphasis added]

Audiences will of course be likely to conclude that those “moderate rebels” differ essentially from the Jihadists profiled two days later in the BBC’s special feature on “Jihadist attacks”. One of the groups named in that feature is Jabhat al Nusra which, according to the BBC’s data, was responsible for 36% of the Jihadist attacks in Syria during the month of November.

Jabhat al Nusra attacks

Much later on in Ghattas’ long article, however, readers discover that one in ten of the rebels operating in southern Syria she previously described as “moderate” actually belong to the Al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al Nusra.

“Abu Majd el-Zoubi, a spokesman for the Southern Front, acknowledged that the Nusra Front operated in the region but insisted they were only 10% of the fighting force and that the rebels were all “100% Syrians”.”

That information in turn conflicts with a previous statement (still uncorrected) made by the BBC in its profile of Jabhat al Nusra (not updated since its publication in April 2013), according to which the Free Syrian Army does not cooperate with the Jihadist group.

“Al-Nusra’s connection to al-Qaeda has led the Free Syrian Army (FSA) opposition to distance itself from the movement.

“We don’t support the ideology of al-Nusra,” FSA spokesman Louay Meqdad said.

“There has never been and there will never be a decision at the command level to coordinate with al-Nusra.””

The take-away message for BBC audiences in Ghattas’ report is that the ability of the rebels in southern Syria to challenge the Assad regime is being hampered by a lack of American support.

“The growing coalition of 58 US-backed rebel groups south of Damascus known as the Southern Front of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) is inching closer to the capital but with restricted military supplies and only half-hearted political support from the White House, they admit their progress will be limited.

“For three years most factions in the opposition have been asking Washington ‘what can you do for us?'” said one activist speaking by phone from the Middle East.

“We want to make Washington want to help us because of what we achieve on the ground,” added the activist, who is close to the rebel groups.”

Notably, Ghattas backs up her message by linking to an article produced by Charles Lister of the Doha branch of the Qatari-funded Brookings Institute.

“There are growing warnings that the US is on the verge of losing the last remnants of influence it has on the ground in Syria.

Reluctant backing has led to a lack of trust by the moderate rebels, and the newly announced Pentagon programme to train and equip new rebel recruits only starts in the spring of 2015.

So the southern front is even more crucial for any short-term Western strategy in Syria, especially if it still envisages putting the squeeze on the government in Damascus.”

However, Ghattas fails to inform BBC audiences that as well as funding the think-tank which produced that article, Qatar has also funded some of the extremist groups promoted by Lister as ‘invaluable actors’ in the battle against the Assad regime; Jabhat al Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham.

Jabhat al Nusra is currently designated as a terrorist organization by Australia, Canada, France, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the UAE, the UK and the US. Ghattas’ simplistic (though revealing) admonishment of American policy towards “moderate rebels” in southern Syria fails to mention the very relevant fact that those forces include a designated terrorist organization defined by the BBC itself as a Jihadist group.  

BBC playing wingman for Qatar’s damage control in the UK?

The lead article on the BBC News website’s Middle East page on October 27th (also appearing on the site’s main homepage) was headlined “Qatar officials dismiss IS funding claims“. Coincidentally or not, the report appeared just hours before the Emir of Qatar is due to arrive in the UK for a three-day official visit aimed at “enhancing bi-lateral relations” between the two countries.Qatar art on HP

BBC audiences are reassured in the report’s opening sentences that:

“Senior officials from Qatar have strongly denied claims the country is supporting terrorist groups in Syria such as Islamic State.

They told the BBC that Qatar had only provided support to moderate militants, in co-ordination with the CIA and other Western and Arab intelligence agencies.

Strict financial controls had been put in place, they added.”

So that’s alright then. Or maybe not….

The article goes on to state:

“In the past, wealthy individuals in the emirate are believed to have made donations and the government gave money and weapons to hardline Islamist groups in Syria. Doha is also believed to have links to the al-Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda affiliate.

But officials, including Qatar’s director of Intelligence, told the BBC the country had nothing to hide over its support for groups in Syria fighting President Assad’s regime.

The BBC’s Frank Gardner said the officials conceded that there had been constant shifts in allegiances in Syria’s civil war and some people previously considered moderate had later joined hard line Islamist militias.

They said since Qatar’s intelligence agency had taken over responsibility for its Syria policy in 2012, the new financial controls had been brought in and a number of suspect financiers had been arrested.”

So is the BBC trying to tell us that the Al Qaeda-linked Al Nusra Front with its known (not “believed” as the BBC claims) links to Qatar should be viewed as one of the groups of “moderate militants” which Qatar says it supports rather than as a terrorist organisation? Notably Frank Gardner did not find it necessary to inform readers that the UN, US, UK, Australia and Turkey have all designated the Al Nusra Front. 

Clearly readers of this report are being herded towards the belief that lax Qatari regulation which gives a green light to terror financing is now a thing of the past. However, the US obviously does not believe that is the case, as the WSJ reported just four days before the publication of this BBC report.

“The U.S. said Qatar and Kuwait aren’t doing enough to block the financing activities of the extremist group Islamic State, exposing a sore point in a coalition formed to fight the militants. […]

But Qatar and Kuwait are still “permissive jurisdictions for terrorist financing,” said David Cohen , Treasury undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence. […]

In the Gulf region, Kuwait has set up a financial intelligence unit, and Qatar has passed a law regulating charities blamed for funneling cash to extremists. Kuwait arrested one of its citizens on the list as he returned from Qatar in August, as well as at least two other financiers, Kuwaiti officials have said.

But Mr. Cohen said the countries are still enabling financiers designated by U.S. and United Nations sanctions.”

And as the Telegraph reported at the beginning of this month:

“An al-Qaeda financier jailed for his role in funding the mastermind behind 9/11 is once again raising money for Islamist terrorists after being freed by the Qatari authorities, The Telegraph can disclose.

Khalifa Muhammad Turki al-Subaiy – a Qatari citizen who was said to have provided ‘financial support’ for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed – was jailed for terrorist offences in 2008 but released after only six months.

He is now accused of funding Islamist terrorists fighting in Syria and Iraq.”

Of course the very pertinent issue of Qatar’s financing of radical Islamists in the Middle East is by no means limited to Syria and Iraq or to the activities of individuals.Qatar art

“Few outsiders have noticed, but radical Islamists now control Libya’s capital. These militias stormed Tripoli last month, forcing the official government to flee and hastening the country’s collapse into a failed state.

Moreover, the new overlords of Tripoli are allies of Ansar al-Sharia, a brutal jihadist movement suspected of killing America’s then ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, and of trying to murder his British counterpart, Sir Dominic Asquith.

Barely three years after Britain helped to free Libya from Col Gaddafi’s tyranny, anti-Western radicals hold sway. How could Britain’s goal of a stable and friendly Libya have been thwarted so completely?

Step forward a fabulously wealthy Gulf state that owns an array of London landmarks and claims to be one of our best friends in the Middle East.

Qatar, the owner of Harrods, has dispatched cargo planes laden with weapons to the victorious Islamist coalition, styling itself “Libya Dawn”.”

And as readers are no doubt aware, Hamas (designated by the US and the EU, among others) is also on the list of Qatari protégés, with Fatah apparently also now angling for Qatari cash.

Whilst Qatari officials may well be delighted by this latest BBC-supplied opportunity to amplify their denials of funding of the West’s current bête noire – ISIS – the emirate’s policy driven approach to the funding of Islamist extremists should be seen in the context of a statement made by the country’s Emir during an interview with CNN last month.

“We don’t fund extremists,” the Emir told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour on Thursday. “If you talk about certain movements, especially in Syria and Iraq, we all consider them terrorist movement.”

“I know that in America and some countries they look at some movements as terrorist movements. … But there are differences. There are differences that some countries and some people that any group which comes from Islamic background are terrorists. And we don’t accept that.”

Qatar’s selective and opportunistic approach to defining terrorism – and hence what constitutes terror financing – should of course also be viewed in the context of its financial relations with the West.

“… it is vital to remember Qatar’s role as a provider of natural gas to Europe, and its investments in both Europe and the U.S. Qatar sits on 26 trillion cubic meters of natural gas—the world’s third largest reserve. It has a sovereign wealth fund of $85 billion. And European countries are currently seeking private investment as they emerge out of austerity into growth.

The Qataris have money to spend, and have already invested heavily. They own, for example, London’s tallest skyscraper, the Shard, and London’s most exclusive shop, Harrods. This is a friendship which the British and other Europeans naturally wish to preserve. If this means permitting Qatar to play the outsize role it seeks in Mideast diplomacy, there are few signs of objection from the Europeans. If it includes championing an organization the European Union considers a terrorist group, at least one aligned against Israel, this doesn’t seem to present too much of a problem either.

Among Western European countries, the notion that the appropriate response to terror groups is dialogue, or at least keeping the possibility of dialogue open, is prevalent. Thus the Qatari desire to promote Hamas is easy to accept.”

It seems that the self-styled “standard-setter for international journalism” is quite happy to go along with Qatar’s attempts at damage control intended to mitigate the growing political pressure on the Emir’s British hosts by failing to fully inform BBC audiences on the topic of Qatari funding of Hamas, Jabhat al Nusra and other terrorist organisations or the activities of individuals with links to the Qatari regime.   

 

Inaccuracies in BBC’s Jabhat al Nusra profile

The BBC News website’s profile of Jabhat al Nusra (aka al Nusra Front) recently appeared as one of the related articles suggested to readers on its Middle East page.

Profile al Nusra on HP

 

Titled “Profile: Syria’s al-Nusra Front“, the article is dated April 10th 2013 and has apparently not been updated in the past eighteen months.

Included in the profile is the following paragraph: [emphasis added]

“The Front’s leading figure, Abu Mohammed al-Jawani, assured Syrians that the “good behaviour” they had experienced from al-Nusra on the ground would continue unchanged.”

Accepted spellings of the nom de guerre of the Nusra Front leader include al-Julani, al-Joulani, al-Jolani, al-Jawlani and al-Golani, with the name being a reference to the Golan Heights. Later on in the profile a side box appears in which – confusingly for readers – the name is presented differently and without the above spelling error.

Profile al Nusra sidebox

The profile informs BBC audiences that:

“Al-Nusra’s connection to al-Qaeda has led the Free Syrian Army (FSA) opposition to distance itself from the movement.

“We don’t support the ideology of al-Nusra,” FSA spokesman Louay Meqdad said.

“There has never been and there will never be a decision at the command level to coordinate with al-Nusra.”

Mr Meqdad did, however, acknowledge that that [sic] there had been co-operation between FSA brigades and the Front on “certain operations”.”

Reports on recent fighting in south-western Syria, however, present a somewhat different picture than the one promoted in this BBC profile.Profile al Nusra

“The Free Syrian Army has recently allied with Islamist rebels fighting in al Harah, a town in the southern Syrian province of Deraa. Elements from the Free Syrian Army coordinated their efforts with the Islamist Syrian Revolutionaries Front, the Islamic Front, and the Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda’s official affiliate in Syria, to take the al Harah Hill and the surrounding town.

The Free Syrian Army utilized several BGM-71 TOW anti-tank missiles during the fighting, which the United States supplied to “vetted groups” in April. […]

The Long War Journal has previously noted that Western-backed groups continue to operate with the Al Nusrah Front, Ahrar al Sham, and the wider Islamic Front coalition. Last month, the moderate Syrian Revolutionaries Front coordinated efforts with Al Nusrah and Ahrar al Sham to take several villages in Quneitra province. In August, elements from the Syrian Revolutionaries Front and the Free Syrian Army worked with Al Nusrah and Ahrar al Sham to take the Quneitra border crossing with the Israeli-held Golan Heights.”

Obviously the BBC’s profile of al Nusra Front is in need of both updating and correction.

 

 

 

BBC’s Knell shoehorns Israel into report on Syria and the Gaza Strip

On January 2nd a filmed report by the BBC Jerusalem Bureau’s Yolande Knell titled “The young Palestinians fighting in Syria” (also shown on BBC television news) appeared in the ‘Watch/Listen’ video section of the BBC News website’s Middle East page. 

Knell filmed report Gaza Syria

Previously, on December 15th 2013, a very similar written report by Knell had appeared in the ‘Features & Analysis’ section of the website’s Middle East page (where it remained for four consecutive days) under the title “Gaza fighters head to Syria as refugees flow in“. 

Knell written report Gaza Syria

Both reports relate to the subjects of refugees from Syria who have arrived in the Gaza Strip and residents of the Strip who have travelled abroad to join Jihadist militias in Syria.

In the filmed report, Knell opens her narration against a background of images of a Hamas military parade.

“Palestinian militants show off their weapons at a parade in the Gaza Strip. Islamist groups here are committed to armed struggle against Israel. But these Gaza fighters are different. They joined rebels fighting in Syria’s civil war. This is a message that Fahd al Habash left for his family, telling them to celebrate if he was killed as he’d be a martyr. Just afterwards, he was shot dead near Homs. He never saw his youngest child.”

Habash’s brother is then interviewed.

“The situation in Gaza is calm. There’s no fighting with Israel right now and some people see how Bashar al Assad and Hizballah are killing people in Syria. They decide to go for that reason.”

Knell continues:

“But in Gaza many people are still surprised at the idea of young men going overseas to fight Jihad. About thirty Palestinians from the Gaza Strip are believed to have headed to Syria since the war started. But the movement is not just in one direction. Syrian refugees and Palestinian refugees who were living in Syria have also come here. These snacks are a taste of home for a Syrian chef in Gaza City. He recently opened this restaurant with a long-time Palestinian friend. As the conflict in Syria has heated up, many of the half a million Palestinians who used to live there have fled, with hundreds arriving in Gaza. Hamza was born in Damascus.”

The camera then cuts to Hamza Issa:

“A lot of people have been killed, even some of my friends. The situation is chaotic. There is no work, you can’t study, it’s terrible. That’s why we left.”

Clearly not appreciating the irony of what she is about to say after having presented an entire report on movement of hundreds of people in and out of the Gaza Strip, Knell rounds off:

“Gaza is also a tough place to live with high poverty rates and border restrictions imposed by Israel and Egypt. But refugees working here say they feel welcomed. They share their food and their stories of Syria.”

In the written version of this report Knell also injects the seemingly obligatory mention of Israel.

“However, recent arrivals have found out fast that Gaza is a tough place to live.

There are high rates of poverty and unemployment in the small, overcrowded coastal strip.

Tight border restrictions are imposed by Israel and Egypt. In the past five years residents of the Palestinian territory have endured two short but intense conflicts with Israel.”

Both these reports by Knell feature sympathetic portrayal of Fahd al Habash (aka Fahd Nizar al Habbash) as an example of the Gaza Strip residents who have travelled to join one of the Jihadist militias fighting in Syria – in Habash’s case, Jabhat al Nusra. In neither of them does Knell mention the fact that before his departure for Syria, Habash worked for the Hamas-run police force and prior to that was a member of Hamas’ Al Qassam brigades. 

“Al Habbash, a former member of Hamas’ police force in Gaza, was killed fighting with the Al Nusrah Front in mid-July 2013. According to the narrator of an ITMC production released in late August, al Habbash was born in the northern Gaza Strip in 1985 to a “good family.” After he completed his schooling in 2006, he got married and had two children. “He fought often alongside the Palestinian resistance against the criminal Jews,” the narrator said.”

In the written report, Knell recounts the story of an additional man killed in Syria -Mohammed Qanita (aka Muhammad Ahmed Qanitah) who was also previously a member of the Al Qassam brigades and who, according to one of his obituary videos:

“… grew up with a religious family and was raised to hate the ‘Jewish enemy,'” […] “He learned martial arts and threw stones at the enemies and was injured when he was 12 years old.”

The narrator of the video said Qanitah joined Hamas’ Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades of Hamas in 2003. “He came to know its leaders and worked with them and trained its fighters, and he participated in many jihadi actions and attacks against the settlements.” He fought against the Israeli military during Operation Cast Lead in Gaza in 2009, “and he continued participating in al-Qassam Brigades and the ‘cleansing’ of Gaza to live under Shariah-based governance,” […]”

Whilst Knell does note Qanita’s membership in the al Qassam brigades, she avoids any deeper exploration of the sliding scale of Islamist extremism upon which a range of terrorist organisations are located, including both Hamas and Jabhat al Nusra, and the basic shared ideology which enables the phenomenon of movement from one to the other. Instead, Knell opts to amplify the tactical distancing promoted by Hamas.

“In keeping with the popular mood, Hamas celebrated him as a “martyr” after news emerged of his death.

Yet the Islamist group, which governs Gaza, had been trying to distance itself from involvement in the Syrian conflict.

Its early support for Sunni Muslim rebels fighting President Assad put a heavy strain on relations with Tehran, a key ally of Damascus.

The movement’s exiled leadership, which used to be based in the Syrian capital, was forced to leave and Iranian funding for Hamas was cut.”

Likewise, Knell’s written report makes no attempt to inform audiences of the real status of Palestinian refugees in Syria and instead uncritically reproduces the words of her interviewee.

“Hamza Issa was brought up in Yarmouk refugee camp on the edge of Damascus but decided to leave for Gaza a few months ago.

“I came here directly because Gaza is my homeland. It was the obvious choice because I am Palestinian,” he says.

“We used to have a good life in Syria. We were treated as well as citizens.”

Syrians of Palestinian ethnicity are, in fact, subjected to restrictions which differentiate between them and other Syrians.  

“The 1965 Casablanca Protocol, which Syria ratified, stipulates that Arab countries should guarantee Palestinian refugees rights to employment, residency, and freedom of movement, whilst maintaining their Palestinian identity and not granting them citizenship. This is echoed in the Syrian legislation (Citizenship Law no. 276, 1969), which stipulates that the granting of Syrian citizenship to a person of Arab origin normally depends on habitual residence in Syria and demonstration of financial support or livelihood, but that Palestinians, in spite of fulfilling this condition, are not granted citizenship in order to “preserve their original nationality”. “

“Until 1968, Palestinians were not allowed to own any property in Syria. After 1968, this law was changed so that Palestinians were allowed to own one house per person, but they are still not allowed to own farm land.”

These two reports by Knell could have provided a good opportunity for the BBC to inform its audiences with regard to both the extremist Islamist ideology which similarly fuels Hamas and Jihadist militias in Syria and the discrimination against the descendants of Palestinian refugees in Syria. Knell, however, elected to go with a superficial presentation of the subject and predictably was unable to resist dragging Israel into an unrelated story. 

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