Analysis Depressing evidence that the US news big deals have jumped the rails flows daily in the war on terror. Take 60 Minutes' recent special on "jihad.com." Reported by Scott Pelley and produced by Harry Radcliffe, the 800lb gorilla of US journalism led with the tired story of al Qaeda in cyberspace.
It was so poor one could easily reconstruct how it must have gone down. "Get the interns to Google 'al Qaeda' and 'the Internet,' then skim from the first page of returns," someone commanded. And so it was done, returning a couple of dated pieces on Younis Tsuli, aka irhabi007, and a small cast of anti-terror industry shills who've turned jihadi websites and their electronic scribbles into a cash crop to be fed to intelligence agencies and other interested parties.
"Jihad.com" seemed primarily a redo of a story published by NewsFactor magazine in July of last year, to the extent 60 Minutes should simply pay the magazine for doing its legwork. Entitled "The Man Who Put al Qaeda on the Web," the original told the story of Tsuli, now in jail, as the preposterously named irabi007. Why exactly Tsuli was a ridiculous individual was not entertained by Pelley and company. Being only as familiar with terrorist materials as their assistants can make them from trolling Lex-Nex and adding five minutes of web search, they didn't read jihadi texts, relying only on the usual cherry-picked expert or two as interpreters and retellers. They reliably uttered wisdoms along the lines that al Qaeda has taken a big lead in the use of the Internet over us dunderheads.
But if one takes a gander at the infamous manual taken off an old Afghan jihadi recce man, Nazib al Raghie, living in semi-retirement in Manchester in 2000 before he disappeared, one finds it contains straightforward text making clear holy warriors ought not to draw attention to themselves. That means putting the signature "007" into the middle of your Arabic e-documents, or scrawling "ricin" in English in another, à la Kamel Bourgass, are probably out. One could reason that bin Laden would have little need or regard for someone, like "terrorist007," who amounted to a warez d00D undone partly as a consequence of getting into Internet fights with a citizen from middle America who took it upon himself to be the fellow's private stalker/harpy.
Readers can guess that little of this understructure made it to television. For 60 Minutes, Tsuli - although never shown - was the man who brought networked information distribution to al Qaeda. One year prior, the Washington Post had published a similar grand noise, making the claim that al Qaeda was now e-Qaeda. It asked readers to entertain the conceit that having your playground blasted in the real world, Afghanistan, made no difference to the organization and was possibly even very good for it, hastening the relocation of its training grounds into cyberspace.
In fact, 60 Minutes - like the terror war coverage by many of their news competitors - generally edits out any material critical while taking pains to leave in that which is purely sensational. For the segment, an irhabi007 document with the ominous acronym "CBRN" - for chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons - was flashed across the screen.
One of the sources for the 60 Minutes-style fear-the-terror farce is the SITE Institute. Directed by Rita Katz, SITE delves jihadi websites for their e-papers, does translations and sells them to clients as a professional service. In the past, 60 Minutes has been an advertiser for SITE and in this segment it was said the company had tracked a jihadi on the Internet who was preparing for battle, turned over his Internet particulars to authorities, whereupon he was grabbed. Who this was no one would say.*
The war on terror has afforded opportunity for large and small enterprising private sector firms to enter the business of furnishing intelligence product. And over the past few years, the newsmedia has regularly publicized terror materials supplied by such operations.
But the book is far from in on this as a crucial service. Frequently, such materials have suggested that talent for terror is low and that al Qaeda, although certainly inimical, is sifting a bagful of human sand for the rare killer diamond. The security industry and newsmedia gloss it over, preferring to always attribute the organization with Fu Manchu-like knowledge and skill.
By recent example from February, Bruce Hoffman of Georgetown University delivered "Challenges for the US Special Operations Command Posed by the Terrorist Threat: Al Qaeda On the Run or On the March" to the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Terrorism, Unconventioanal Threats and Capabilities." (A basic summary of it was also published as an opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times.)
Yes was the answer, al Qaeda was marching, particularly if one didn't recognize the bodies buried in the footnotes.
Looking closely one noted citations of the London ricin plot and Operation Rhyme. The latter constituted gas-limos plotter Dhiren Barot's ludicrous computer files, heavily redacted by authorities except for idiotic parts on making dirty bombs from smoke detectors or, possibly, an exit sign containing trivial amounts of the radioactive isotope of hydrogen, tritium. This was certainly real treasure from al Qaeda's vaunted cyberspace division. Further, this reading of the terror tea leaves came from culling news items in big newspapers.
60 Minutes found a general, John Custer, to put it in perspective. "... [W]ithout a doubt, the Internet is the single most important venue of radicalization for Islamic youth," he said. Custer added "we" see the terror-inspired youth on the battlefield where they are subsequently killed. As head of intelligence for Central Command, it's an interesting claim since the man's in Tampa, FLA, which as far as can be determined, is not in the grip of a sectarian civil war.
In any case, while there appear to be a few degrees of truth to Custer's statement, like the claim that a steady diet of hip-hop videos seems to have inspired young white boys to act stupid and buy ill-fitting clothes, it's also more than fair to say that declarations from the war-on-terror apparatus are served with helpings of exaggeration for effect.
Custer maintained that al Qaeda was waging a war of perception on the Internet. We don't get it, they do, and we better start learning.
That's true, too, but backwards, which is consistent and even expected from those who got everything wrong in Iraq. The newsmedia and terror assessment industry do understand wars for perception. They use al Qaeda's websites and their files as virtual ammo for their terror infotainments at a pretty fair clip. And it's not something anyone can have missed.
After all, have you ever seen a news program from the States showing even one terrorist as an incompetent, if troublesome, dreamer? Ever read an opinion piece that said al Qaeda might be having trouble? Ever heard a terror expert say, "Hmmm, the signs aren't clear, ask again later."
How absurd. That would mean no viewers or readers. Worse, what's a terror expert without an utterly remarkable menace to tell about?
* Editor's note: A previous Katz 60 Minutes outing, allegedly involving a wig and a false nose, prompted lawsuits from Saudi charities and a Georgia poultry company. Katz, by a remarkable coincidence, was one of the star witnesses in Peter Taylor's woeful The New al Qaeda, broadcast by the BBC almost two years ago. By even more remarkable coincidence, Taylor claimed that after being bombed out of Afghanistan al Qaeda had transformed itself into a media- and Internet-savvy organisation, and trotted out a general in support. But his was John Abizaid. Taylor also produced an amateur sleuth who'd entrapped a dysfunctional national guardsman into a long stretch for wannabe terrorism, but we surely can't be talking about the same jihadi as Katz's here, can we?
George Smith is a Senior Fellow at GlobalSecurity.org, a defense affairs think tank and public information group. At Dick Destiny, he blogs his way through chemical, biological and nuclear terror hysteria, often by way of the contents of neighborhood hardware stores.