Asharq Al-Awsat, London – Journalists need to take utmost care in selecting and quoting their sources, especially if the source is a message on an obscure website.” This warning could be part of introductory lesson in journalism. In fact, these are the words of Magda Abu Fadel, commenting on a story published on Bloomberg.com less than a week ago. The Director of the Institute for Professional Journalists, based at the Lebanese American University in Beirut, Abu Fadel emphasized journalists ought to be vigilant when the story they are researching has repercussions for the security of a certain country.
Bloomberg.com published, on 24 July, 2005 a story about an “Islamic website warning the United Arab Emirates, the Middle East’s fourth-largest oil producer to expel non Muslims and Westerners, including the US ambassador and other US citizens within 10 days or risk being attacked.” According to the article, the threat was posted on the “al Sakifah” site, on 19 July, “an Islamist forum where groups, including al Qaeda, and individuals post statements”.
Abu Fadel argued that in situations such as this, it is best to report the threat as it is, while indicating that it could not be verified, or to mention it alongside other opinions that might corroborate or deny it.
In the case of the Bloomberg story, the co-authors Andy Critchlow and Dania Saadi did not express any doubts on the source but did quote a security analyst who revealed “There are only a few instances of threats linked to actual attacks.” However the expert also explained, “The U.A.E.”s open borders, cosmopolitan demographics and pro- U.S. stance could make it a target for terrorism,” before advising to treat the Internet posting with caution.
Two diplomatic sources, from the U.S Embassy in Abu Dhabi and the U.K Embassy in Dubai were interviewed. The American spokeswoman said, “All threats are taken seriously,” while her British counterpart said it had no plans to change its advice to travellers to “exercise caution. ” and was unable to judge whether postings on the Sakifah site had any credibility.
In spite of the investigation, journalists at Bloomberg inexplicably failed to notice that, while the threat was posted online on July 19, 2005, it was dated “8 Saffar 1426 Hijri”, following the Islamic calendar. This corresponds to 19 March, 2005, indicating that the threat is four months old!
Saud al Sarhan, a Saudi expert on Islamic groups confirmed, “This threat is old.” He said the message had already appeared four months ago on another Islamic forum, on the internet, called “Muntada al Ansar.” He noted the threat was fake and “already denied by sources close to al Qaeda.”
He revealed a number of internet sites are indeed affiliated with al-Qaeda such as “Markaz al Ilam al Alam al Islami”, “Ansar”, “Ikhlas”, “Masaada”, and “al Hisba” for developments in Iraq. Al Sakifah, however, is not.
Abu Fadel indicated the journalists ought to have questioned the date discrepancy and noted that the website in question was not associated with al-Qaeda. She said, “This would have made the threat less credible. It might have also forced its authors to issue a confirmation.”
On her part, one of the authors of the story told Asharq Al-Awsat that she did not notice the different calendar used. When asked whether U.S or British sources had mentioned a similar old threat, she said, “Yes, they did tell us they had read a message to that effect posted on the internet around two months ago.” Inexplicably, however, this last statement did not feature in the article.
Al Sakifah responded to the story on Bloomberg.com and Arab reports on the issue by blocking access to the posting and issuing an apology to the people of the UAE.
Asharq Al Awsat tried to interview the owners of al Sakifah to no avail; the only contact was with the site supervisor, by email. He confirmed that “Due to a large number of contributions from our users, we were unable to monitor the subject of the threat. It is strictly forbidden to post threats, images of killings and beheadings on our site.”
As for the individual who posted the threat, nicknames al Baraa al Makki online, the supervisor alleged he was an anonymous user, posting from outside the Arab World. He said, “It is impossible to block all anonymous users from taking part in discussions on our forums.” Al Sakifah, Sarhan contended, is owned by citizens of Oman.