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The threshold for a terrorism expert must be very low

By Benjamin Doherty – The Electronic Intifada –  07/23/2011

Immediately after news of the bombing of government buildings in Norway’s capital Oslo, the Internet buzzed with speculation about who might have done it and why. Most speculation focused on so-called Islamist militancy and Muslims. The urge to speculate after grave events is understandable, but the focus of speculation, its amplification through social media, its legitimization in mainstream media, and the privilege granted to so-called experts is a common pattern…

From the “experts” to The New York Times 

The New York Times originally reported:

A terror group, Ansar al-Jihad al-Alami, or the Helpers of the Global Jihad, issued a statement claiming responsibility for the attack, according to Will McCants, a terrorism analyst at C.N.A., a research institute that studies terrorism.

In later editions, the story was revised to read:

Initial reports focused on the possibility of Islamic militants, in particular Ansar al-Jihad al-Alami, or Helpers of the Global Jihad, cited by some analysts as claiming responsibility for the attacks. American officials said the group was previously unknown and might not even exist.

The source is Will McCants, adjunct faculty at Johns Hopkins University. On his website he describes himself as formerly “Senior Adviser for Countering Violent Extremism at the U.S. Department of State, program manager of the Minerva Initiative at the Department of Defense, and fellow at West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center.” This morning, he posted “Alleged Claim for Oslo Attacks” on his blog Jihadica:

This was posted by Abu Sulayman al-Nasir to the Arabic jihadi forum, Shmukh, around 10:30am EST (thread 118187). Shmukh is the main forum for Arabic-speaking jihadis who support al-Qaeda. Since the thread is now inaccessible (either locked or taken down), I am posting it here. I don’t have time at the moment to translate the whole thing but I translated the most important bits on twitter.

The Shmukh [no kidding] web site is not accessible to just anyone, so he is the primary source for this claim. McCants stated from the beginning that the claim had been removed or hidden, and on Twitter he even cast doubt on whether it was a claim of responsibility at all.

@will_mccants
Will McCants This is not necessarily a claim of responsibility. Could just be forum user blowing hot air. forum members also confused abt who this guy is
Jul 22 via webFavoriteRetweetReply

@will_mccants
Will McCants For those asking, the “claim” from the Helpers of the Global Jihad was posted to Shmukh, the most elite jihadi forum (it’s in Arabic)
Jul 22 via webFavoriteRetweetReply

@will_mccants
Will McCants @leialya it is a password protected forum. you won’t be able to access it without password. www.shamikh1.info
Jul 22 via webFavoriteRetweetReply

McCants later reported that the claim of responsibility was retracted by the author “Abu Sulayman al-Nasir.” Furthermore, according to McCants, the moderator of this forum declared that speculation about the attack would be prohibited because the contents of the forum were appearing in mainstream media. It does seem more than a little bit odd that genuine “jihadis” would post on a closed forum that a former US official and “counterterrorism expert” openly writes about infiltrating.

@will_mccants
Will McCants Shmukh forum administrator warning members not to speculate on who’s behind #oslo attacks. Says will cut threads that speculate
Jul 22 via webFavoriteRetweetReply

@will_mccants
Will McCants Shmukh members speculating that reason for admin shutting down speculation is due to media getting their info straight from the forum #oslo
Jul 22 via webFavoriteRetweetReply

It’s too bad McCants didn’t exercise the caution and restraint that he says the forum moderator did.

All of this comes only from Will McCants. In his original post, he named the source and identified the organization (in Arabic) but provided no context. Did he know who the author Abu Sulayman al-Nasir was? Had he heard of this group Ansar al-Jihad al-Alami before? These are the kinds of answers a “terrorism expert” should provide.

How media amplified a false claim

The media also failed. They reported on the claims McCants disseminated because his position and perceived expertise gave these claims credibility. Would The New York Times have required multiple sources and independent confirmation of the existence of the posting and its contents if it had not come from someone with McCants’ supposedly solid credentials?

For hours after McCants posted the update that the claim of responsibility was retracted, BBC, the New York Times, The Guardian, The Washington Post were still promoting information originally sourced from him. The news was carried around the world and became the main story line in much of the initial coverage.

The threshold for a terrorism expert must be very low…

Speculation hurts real people

A crucial absence in everyone’s concept of “terrorism expertise” is insight into the functioning of this knowledge in a sensationalistic, reckless media and political environment where Islamophobia is the norm. Even the Christian President of the United States is routinely suspected of being Muslim as if it were a crime, and accused of sympathy with Islamist “radicals” and “terrorists.”

Disseminating false, unverifiable information should be a blemish on McCants’ credibility, but what is more likely is that his failure will harm other communities elsewhere before it harms his career.

As the scale of the catastrophe to strike Norway was revealed, we also learned that Anders Behring Breivik, the only suspect to be arrested in the attack, had a history of disseminating anti-Muslim and xenophobic ideas on the Internet, and cited approvingly none other than Daniel Pipes, a notorious Islamophobe, Bush administration appointee to the United States Institute of Peace and self-described “terrorism expert.”

July 23, 2011 - Posted by | Deception, Islamophobia

1 Comment

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