- In Alerts 2009
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Al-Qaeda - Who Else?
On March 23, BBC online reported another bloody day in Iraq:
“It was the second bomb attack in Iraq on Monday, with an earlier explosion near the capital. Baghdad, killing at least eight people.
“The BBC's Hugh Sykes, in Baghdad, says al-Qaeda have launched several attacks in Diyala since losing support in other parts of Iraq.”
The foe, naturally, was the global bad guy, “al-Qaeda”. Thirty years ago the BBC would have declared them “Communists” or “Marxists”. We wrote to the BBC’s “man in Baghdad” the same day:
Hope you're well. A BBC online report today says:
"The BBC's Hugh Sykes, in Baghdad, says al-Qaeda have launched several attacks in Diyala since losing support in other parts of Iraq."
What is the evidence that al-Qaeda, rather than some other insurgent group, were behind the attacks, please?
Sykes replied the following day:
No proof, but circumstantial evidence and reasonable presumption of AQI [al-Qaeda in Iraq] involvement - very much their modus operandum. Suicide attacks are their signature method, and this was a dramatic detonation suggesting a lot of explosive - again, very AQI.
And...who else would do this?
So, process of elimination, history of AQI attacks in Diyala etc.
And the logic of it Sunni Arab vs Iraqi Kurds. As a man in Jalawla told Reuters:
"Al-Qaida is targeting the Kurds because it believes that
we are involved in the political process and collaborating
with the Americans."
This was a speedy and amicable reply from Sykes. But we hesitate to call it serious journalism. “As a man in Jalawla told Reuters”! How to describe this level of evidence in response to a serious question on a matter of such importance?
Sykes wrote: "No proof, but circumstantial evidence and reasonable presumption of AQI involvement."
And yet when we asked why the BBC had failed to report the use of banned weapons by US forces in their November 2004 assault on Falljuah, the BBC’s director of news, Helen Boaden, told us:
“We are committed to evidence-based journalism. We have not been able to establish that the US used banned chemical weapons and committed other atrocities against civilians in Falluja last November . Inquiries on the ground at the time and subsequently indicate that their use is unlikely to have occurred.” (Email forwarded by numerous Media Lens readers, July 13 onwards, 2005)
The BBC later accepted that such evidence did indeed exist.
Sykes also asked: "And...who else would do this?"
There is no proof, just circumstantial evidence, presumption... and we can’t think of anyone else, so: "al-Qaeda have launched several attacks".
Sykes’s indifference to evidence is understandable. In a sense it is beside the point - enemies of the West are killing people, and enemies of the West are currently labelled “al-Qaeda”. It was ever thus. As Piero Gleijeses, professor of American foreign policy at Johns Hopkins University, said of Guatemala in 1988:
"Just as the Indian was branded a savage beast to justify his exploitation, so those who sought social reform were branded communists to justify their persecution." (Gleijeses, Politics and Culture in Guatemala, Michigan, 1988, p.392)
Sykes was simply stating a propaganda fact - the identity is defined by the action, not by the agent. Thirty second soundbites require Manichean propaganda: ‘We good, they bad.’
Venturing into the real world, we can speculate about, even investigate, the actual identities and motives of the suicide bombers.
On September 23, 2005, the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington released a report that accused the US of “feeding the myth” of foreign fighters (i.e. al-Qaeda) in Iraq, who accounted for less than 10 per cent of a resistance then estimated at 30,000. (http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2005/sep/23/iraq.ewenmacaskill)
In May 2007, the renowned investigative reporter Seymour Hersh told Democracy Now!:
“I do know that within the last month, maybe four, four-and-a-half weeks ago, they [the Bush administration] made a decision that because of the totally dwindling support for the war in Iraq, we go back to the al-Qaeda card, and we start talking about al-Qaeda. And the next thing you know, right after that, Bush went to the Southern Command — this was a month ago — and talked, mentioned al-Qaeda twenty-seven times in his speech...
“All of a sudden, the poor Iraqi Sunnis, I mean, they can’t do anything without al-Qaeda. It’s only al-Qaeda that’s dropping the bombs and causing mayhem. It’s not the Sunni and Shia insurgents or militias. And this policy just gets picked up [by the media], although there’s absolutely no empirical basis. Most of the pros will tell you the foreign fighters are a couple percent, and then they’re sort of leaderless in the sense that there’s no overall direction of the various foreign fighters. You could call them al-Qaeda. You can also call them jihadists and Salafists that want to die fighting the Americans or the occupiers in Iraq and they come across the border... there’s no attempt to suggest there’s any significant coordination of these groups by bin Laden or anybody else, and the press just goes gaga... It’s just amazing to me, you guys.” (http://www.democracynow.org/2007/5/24/ seymour_hersh_u_s_indirectly_backed)
Robert Pape, author of the book, Dying to Win: Why Suicide Terrorists Do It, wrote in 2006:
"Researching my book, which covered all 462 suicide bombings around the globe, I had colleagues scour Lebanese sources to collect martyr videos, pictures and testimonials and biographies of the Hizbollah bombers. Of the 41, we identified the names, birth places and other personal data for 38. We were shocked to find that only eight were Islamic fundamentalists; 27 were from leftist political groups such as the Lebanese Communist Party and the Arab Socialist Union; three were Christians, including a female secondary school teacher with a college degree. All were born in Lebanon.
"What these suicide attackers - and their heirs today - shared was not a religious or political ideology but simply a commitment to resisting a foreign occupation." (Pape, 'What we still don't understand about Hizbollah,' The Observer, August 6, 2006; http://www.guardian.co.uk /commentisfree/2006/aug/06/israel.syria)
And so the answer to Sykes’s question: “And...who else would do this?”? Any number of people committed to “resisting a foreign occupation” for any number of political and religious reasons. How ugly, how obviously convenient, to lump all opposition together under the name of the West’s great bete noire, “al-Qaeda.”
That’s What Makes Us Different To Them
As we have noted before, journalists are highly evolved intellectual herd animals. They possess sophisticated sense organs capable of detecting minute changes in the propaganda environment. Commentators are currently well aware, for example, that the United States has declared a willingness to negotiate with the Taliban in Afghanistan - the standard last resort when the costs of violence become so high that rational solutions are deemed preferable. No surprise, then, that the Guardian's Madeleine Bunting is able to perceive a level of complexity in that ruined country that so rarely features in reporting from Iraq:
“To add to the confusion we don't even know who is our enemy and who is our ally. Taliban is a crude catch-all term which is of little help in Afghanistan's immensely complex, fragmented politics of tribe, clan and region. These groupings judge how best to secure their position and shift their allegiances accordingly.” (Bunting, 'Leaders have not shown the courage to explain what the war really means,' The Guardian, March 23, 2009; http://www.guardian.co.uk/ commentisfree/2009/mar/23/afghanistan-military-terrorism)
Talking to the Taliban does not mean recognising their humanity, however. The BBC reported last month:
"The hospital at Camp Bastion, the UK's main military base in Helmand, occasionally treats enemy forces that have been wounded.
“Ms Gibbons said treating them was no different to treating any other patient but added that medics needed to be more alert.
"‘At the end of the day he could have been a normal person,’ she said.
"‘The Geneva Convention requires us to give the same level of medical treatment as our forces.
"‘We probably wouldn't get the same back but that's what makes us different to them.’" (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/ scotland/south_of_scotland/7912675.stm)
The BBC saw fit to publish this classic propaganda view of the enemy (no inverted commas required - they are the enemy of the state +and+ the BBC). Who would guess that Auntie Beeb is not Big Brother, but is ostensibly independent of state control?
The racist contempt is as deeply embedded as the reporting. Former BBC (now Al-Jazeera) reporter, Rageh Omaar, describes the BBC as “a white man's club”. But there is much more to it than that, as Omaar explained to the Guardian in 2007:
“It's the mentality. I'm in some ways guilty of this - I went to public school, I went to Oxford. I speak at a lot of schools with Somali kids and they say, ‘How do I become a journalist? We may be from the same community, but I don't have your accent.’ So it's a class thing rather than about being white necessarily. It's much more subtle.” (http://www.guardian.co.uk/ media/2007/feb/15/broadcasting.bbc)
To be fair to the BBC, Rageh Omaar’s observation generalises: the whole of British journalism is a “white man’s club” dominated by the “class thing”.
In March, media magnate Rupert Murdoch received the American Jewish Committee’s National Human Relations Award. The plaudits heaped on Murdoch recalled the words of the 4th century Buddhist poet, Aryasura:
“When virtue is given as a name to one devoid of virtue, it has a harsh and grating sound, as if it were contempt instead of praise.” (Aryasura, The Marvelous Companion, Dharma Publishing, 1983, p.127)
The man with so much influence over what the world knows and thinks gave an idea of his contribution to “human relations”:
“Hamas has been raining down rockets on Israeli civilians. Like all terrorist attacks, the aim is to spread fear within free societies, and to paralyze its leaders. This Israel cannot afford. I do not need to tell anyone in this room that no sovereign nation can sit by while its civilian population is attacked.” (http://www.ajc.org/site/c.ijITI2PHKoG/b.5018279/ k.7184/AJC_Honors_Rupert_Murdoch.htm)
David Bromwich, professor of literature at Yale university, puts the argument in perspective:
"We are offered an analogy: what would Americans do if rockets were fired from Canada or Cuba?... [But] the rockets are assumed to come suddenly without cause. The choking of the Gaza Strip by land, sea, and air, the rejection by the US of the Palestinian Unity Government, the coup launched by Fatah and bankrolled by the US, which ended in the seizure of power by Hamas — all of this happened before the rockets fell from the sky. It is as if it belonged to a pre-historic time." (http://www.zmag.org/zmag /viewArticle/20746)
The idea that Israel’s massacre of 1,400 Palestinians was intended to stop rocket attacks is hard to reconcile with the fact that Israel deliberately provoked those attacks when it broke the ceasefire with its November 4, 2008 attack killing six people in Gaza. As we have discussed, darker motives are hidden beneath the declared need to act in self-defence.
The Los Angeles Times reported last week:
“The winter assault on the Gaza Strip was officially portrayed in Israel as an attempt to quell rocket fire by militants of Hamas. But some soldiers say they also were lectured about a more ambitious aim: to banish non-Jews from the biblical land of Israel.
"‘This rabbi comes to us and says the fight is between the children of light and the children of darkness,’ a reserve sergeant said, recalling a training camp encounter. ‘His message was clear: “This is a war against an entire people, not against specific terrorists.” The whole thing was turned into something very religious and messianic.’" (Richard Boudreaux, ‘Israeli army rabbis criticized for stance on Gaza assault - Some Israeli soldiers say military rabbis cast the offensive against Hamas rockets as a fight to expel non-Jews,’ Los Angeles Times, March 24, 2009; http://www.latimes.com/news/la-fg-israel-holywar25- 2009mar25,0,3336606.story?track=ntothtml)
The LA Times added:
“In testimony reported by Israeli news media and in interviews with The Times, Gaza veterans said rabbis advised army units to show the enemy no mercy and called for resettlement of the Palestinian enclave by Jews.
"‘The rabbis were all over, in every unit,’ said Yehuda Shaul, a retired army officer whose human rights group, Breaking the Silence, has taken testimony from dozens of Gaza veterans. ‘It was quite well organized.’"
Little or none of this exists for the “white man’s club,” Murdoch included. He warned, instead, against the notion that Israel was in any way in the ascendancy:
“It’s true that Israel’s conventional superiority means it could flatten Gaza if it wanted. But the Israeli Defense Forces – unlike Hamas – are accountable to a democratically chosen government.
“No matter which party is in the majority, every Israeli government knows it will be held accountable by its people and by the world for the lives that are lost because of its decisions.”
And yet “the world”, notably the United States, allowed Israel to continue its massacre with impunity. He continued:
“Hamas knows that in some ways, dead Palestinians serve their purposes even better than dead Israelis. In the West we look at this and say, ‘It makes no sense.’ But it does make sense.
“If you are committed to Israel’s destruction, and if you believe that dead Palestinians help you score a propaganda victory, you do things like launch rockets from a Palestinian schoolyard. This ensures that when the Israelis do respond, it will likely lead to the death of an innocent Palestinian – no matter how many precautions Israeli soldiers take.”
As discussed in Part 1, “that's what makes us different to them”.
The Financial Times provided a reality check for Murdoch’s commentary, citing a “string of damning reports” published last week in Israeli newspapers of soldiers’ testimonies, including evidence that troops shot at unarmed civilians. Some reported that they had been issued with “lax rules of engagement that placed little value on the safety of Gazan civilians.”
The FT reported:
“Among the incidents which the Israeli army said it would investigate were the shootings of a mother and her two children, who were ordered to leave their house but, misunderstanding the soldiers’ instructions, strayed into a ‘no-go’ zone where they were killed by sniper fire. A separate shooting of another Gaza woman was described by one soldier as “cold-blooded murder”.
“On Monday, a report by a UN human rights panel made fresh allegations, including the claim that Israeli soldiers used Palestinian civilians as human shields during the fighting. ‘Violations were committed on a daily basis, too numerous to list,’ said one of the report’s authors.” (Tobias Buck, ‘Israel dismissive as fury mounts,’ Financial Times, March 24, 2009)
This was reported in the same week that Israel’s Haaretz newspaper published details of the images Israeli soldiers are having printed on the shirts they order to mark the end of training, or of duty in the field:
“A T-shirt for infantry snipers bears the inscription ‘Better use Durex,’ next to a picture of a dead Palestinian baby, with his weeping mother and a teddy bear beside him. A sharpshooter's T-shirt from the Givati Brigade's Shaked battalion shows a pregnant Palestinian woman with a bull's-eye superimposed on her belly, with the slogan, in English, ‘1 shot, 2 kills.’ A ‘graduation’ shirt for those who have completed another snipers course depicts a Palestinian baby, who grows into a combative boy and then an armed adult, with the inscription, ‘No matter how it begins, we'll put an end to it.’" (http://haaretz.com/hasen/spages/1072466.html)
Sociologist Dr. Orna Sasson-Levy, of Bar-Ilan University, commented:
"This tendency is most strikingly evident among soldiers who encounter various situations in the territories on a daily basis. There is less meticulousness than in the past, and increasing callousness. There is a perception that the Palestinian is not a person, a human being entitled to basic rights, and therefore anything may be done to him." (Ibid)
Readers may feel it is unfair to focus on Murdoch. He is of the hard-right and, after all, there is a spectrum. As Murdoch’s employee, Rod Liddle, commented in the Times:
“Proper western liberal democracy is about accommodating all forms of fabulous stupidity, even the sort of stuff which comes from people who, if we’re honest, might feel more at home hunkering down in a cave somewhere in the Afghan-Pakistani borderlands. They hate us, implacably. It is a visceral loathing...” (http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/ columnists/rod_liddle/article5908258.ece)
Again, “that's what makes us different to them”.
We can easily take the Spectrum Test by turning once more to the Guardian’s Madeleine Bunting, who comments from the more fragrant end of “proper western liberal democracy”. What is her take on the beasts in human form that are the Taliban?
"What is clear is that this is an easy war for the Taliban. They may lack military technology but they don't need it; all they need is patience, men and weapons, and they have plenty of all three. They have none of the constraints imposed by European electorates on body counts; careless of their own men's lives, they can use the deaths of opponents and civilians to their advantage." (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/ 2009/mar/23/afghanistan-military-terrorism)
The Murdoch view, in other words. This has been the one saving grace for all Third World opponents of high-tech Western firepower through the ages - they do not value life as highly as we do. We might think they are not having an “easy war” - we are blowing many thousands of them to kingdom come, after all - but this is merely to project our own human sensitivities onto the “children of darkness”. In truth, their indifference to the fate of their own people is probably beyond our powers of conception. In 2006, novelist Martin Amis described how Iran, “our natural enemy,” would be willing to accept a nuclear attack in order to realise its dark dreams:
"They feel they can absorb this hit and destroy Israel." (Amis, This Week, October 12, 2006)
After all, what would a few million incinerated men, women and children mean to an “enemy” so “careless of their men’s lives”? They have no feeling for the people we currently slaughter in the thousands and hundreds of thousands - they would be unmoved by the addition of a few zeros.
One does not need to be a highly paid therapist to perceive the actual projection: “They” could not care less for the lives of the people +we+ slaughter so casually. And so “they”, rather than we, are to blame. Corporal Matthew 'Des' Desmond of the UK’s 2nd Parachute Regiment described how he shot a Taliban fighter from two metres:
“There is no emotional attachment, you'd feel more anguish shooting a bunny rabbit.” (http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2008 /oct/26/military-afghanistan)
The comment was made, the Guardian noted, with a rueful smile.
How ironic - utterly unlike our “natural enemy”, we are united by a common indifference to their destruction.
Of course, “at the end of the day” he “could have been a normal person”. The British soldier, that is.
Iraq Epidemiologist Body Count
If there is a democratic constraint, it is on our body counts. Honest attempts to count the bodies of the “different” ones, the “children of darkness”, are perceived as threats to be attacked, smeared, denigrated and dismissed by “proper western liberal democracy”. Thus, some of the world’s greatest experts in the field of epidemiology find their careers joining a casualty count of hardball propaganda.
A BBC whistleblower wrote to us (asking to remain anonymous) quoting from one of our media alerts:
"Have journalists learnt nothing from recent history?"
The answer, I fear, is nothing.
I work at BBC World Service and this email was recently sent as a group to everyone.
“Chris Booth, Baghdad bureau chief, tells me the following two websites are a good point of reference for casualty figures in Iraq (classified by time period, nationality etc). Useful for graphics and cues (with attribution):
“www.icasualties.org for military casualties (also deals with Afghanistan)
“www.iraqbodycount.org for civilian casualties (NB this is not a definitive count, but a trusted estimate, so needs to be qualified)."
It was from a producer. Unsurprising, unfortunately, that there is no mention of the ORB survey. Even given the recent update of the survey.
Anyway, I thought you'd find it interesting, depressing and perhaps useful.
Appreciate if you don't mention my name.
Name Withheld (Email to Media Lens, March 20, 2009)
No mention of the Opinion Research Business [ORB] survey reporting 1,033,000 deaths (January 2008, http://www.opinion.co.uk/ Newsroom_details.aspx?NewsId=88), nor of the 2004 and 2006 Lancet studies. That the BBC’s Baghdad Bureau Chief can believe that Iraq Body Count offers an “estimate” of the death toll in Iraq is staggering. In fact, it offers a figure based on media reports of violent civilian deaths in a country where journalists, who have been targeted and killed in large numbers, have been unable to function during the awesome violence that has accompanied the occupation (data from morgues and government records have been added in recent years).
The IBC website team - which is as qualified to act as a primary source on the Iraqi death toll as we are - is “trusted” by the mainstream media because it offers an extremely low number, has a superficial veneer of academic rigour, and has not been subjected to the unrelenting attacks mounted on studies offering higher numbers.
Stephen Soldz, Director of the Center for Research, Evaluation, and Program Development at the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis, notes:
“We have recently learned that Gilbert Burnham, the lead author of second Lancet study, has been sanctioned by Johns Hopkins for deviating from the approved IRB protocol and collecting the names of many survey respondents, a fact that was implicitly denied in numerous public pronouncements.” (http://www.zcommunications.org/ znet/viewArticle/20890)
This collecting of names potentially placed lives at risk, although it is thought that no one was in fact harmed. But Soldz argues that Burnham’s lapse means Lancet II’s estimate can no longer be trusted:
“If one major methodological detail was distorted, we simply cannot know whether other aspects of the study were carried out as stated.”
It is a bold leap of doubt to take on such an important issue. After all, a key finding of Johns Hopkins’ internal investigation, unmentioned by Soldz, took a different view:
“Inclusion of identifiers did not affect the results of the study.” (http://www.jhsph.edu/publichealthnews/ press_releases/2009/iraq_review.html)
We asked John Tirman, Executive Director of MIT's Center for International Studies, for his opinion on March 18:
Hope you're well. We exchanged some emails last year. I wonder if you agree with Stephen Soldz's comments on the findings of the internal investigation by Johns Hopkins into the 2006 Lancet study on mortality in Iraq:
"This error, and its possible coverup in subsequent public statements means that, in my opinion, we can no longer rely upon the Lancet II mortality estimates. If one major methodological detail was distorted, we simply cannot know whether other aspects of the study were carried out as stated.
“Until and unless there is far greater detail on these methods, I do not feel that their estimate of 650,000 post-invasion surplus deaths can be trusted." (http://www.zcommunications.org/znet/viewArticle/20890)
Isn't that an irrational response, unless the misbehaviour affected the results? There's no indication that it did. Gilbert Burnham was censured personally. The study wasn't impugned.
What are your views (for quoting please)?
Tirman replied on March 19:
Yes, I agree with you, and the Hopkins statement makes clear that the confusion about identifiers (in Arabic) has nothing to do with the integrity of the methods and their implementation. In fact, the Hopkins review verified that the data was collected and entered properly, something several critics have harped on for 30 months. It's now clear that the data and the analysis are solid. Of course, there could have been a sampling error, but that is always a risk; I don’t believe we can see one, and the main-street-bias folks are simply off kilter on this, as I've explained before.
It is interesting how this small cadre of harpies persists the argue [sic] on diminishing grounds, when the IBC and DoD numbers, and the MoH/WHO survey, goes without critical comment. This tells us what they're up to.
My own estimate, for what it's worth, of the current figures, using the earlier surveys and the IBC trend line, is between 800,000 and 1.3 million dead as of January. The numbers of displaced, widows, etc., is supporting evidence.
Thanks for keeping up with this.
As Noam Chomsky has often noted, the propaganda system will embrace any level of idiocy and error, if it is in the best interests of power. Describe all attacks in Iraq as the result of “al-Qaeda”, for example, and no-one even notices. On the other hand, contributions that harm powerful interests trigger the most exhausting and exacting standards of scrutiny.
The two Lancet studies have been faced with exactly that, endlessly, and still their results and basic methodology have not been found wanting. We wonder how many similar studies, if subjected to a similar level of hostility and examination, would emerge spotless. The effect is powerful, particularly in the academic world, where any hint of political controversy is damaging. Perhaps because such conflagrations are quite rare, there is a tendency to assume that there must surely be +some+ fire amidst all that smoke. But that is often not the case in politics, where propaganda may well be unrelieved, cynical deceit.
The reality of the US-UK catastrophe in Iraq is, or could be, a major catastrophe for US-UK propaganda - for the lie of benevolence that gives policy free rein. And so an absolute torrent of mud has been directed at the Lancet studies. A clear cut victory has never been sought - the goal is simply increased confusion, additional doubt. The technical term: mud sticks!
This is the power of flak, and one result, at least, is very clear - the courageous, compassionate, sincere and highly qualified lead authors of the Lancet reports have been, for the moment at least, silenced.
The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. If you do write to journalists, we strongly urge you to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.
Write to Hugh Sykes at the BBC
Write to Steve Herrmann, BBC online editor
Write to Madeleine Bunting at the Guardian
Write to Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian