One of the pictures accompanying the scare stories of Al Qa'eda taking control of part of the Syrian insurgency (Photo: AP)
This is the story of a story.
Or, rather, this is the story of the creation of a myth --- the myth that Al Qa'eda has taken over parts of the Syrian insurgency.
This is the story of how that myth --- based on failure to consider sources, let alone evaluate them; built by exaggeration and distortion --- points to the media's failure to responsibility cover important developments. More importantly, it indicates how that failure can have political consequences which are counter-productive and dangerous, contributing to poor decisions by policymakers.
On Wednesday, an audio recording emerged. It allegedly contained a statement by Abu Mohammad al-Golani, a leading figure in the Syrian Islamist insurgent group Jabhat al-Nusra.
Responding to an earlier statement by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the head of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), al-Golani stressed that Jabhat al-Nusra is a local group. He said the insurgents would continue to operate under the JAN banner and not that of ISI.
In other words, the Islamist faction --- which has been prominent in offensives taking over villages and towns in northern Syria, which has then been involved in setting up local governments and providing essential services --- was not answering to al-Baghdadi, the ISI, or any other foreign force. It was being guided towards an Islamic state "through the actions of the people and by the advice of the scholars".
That is an important feature of the Syrian crisis. Whether or not Jabhat al-Nusra is "terrorist", as the US Government has declared, whether or not its vision of politics, law, and society is beneficial to the Syrians it is "liberating" --- it has established itself as a Syrian group which will be significant in the future of the country.
The problem is that almost no one in the Western media even glimpsed this. They could not, because they had already breathlessly declared that JAN had merged with "Al-Qaeda in Iraq".
That narrative had been set on Monday, after al-Baghdadi's statement, which asserted "that Jabhat al-Nusra is merely an extension and part of the Islamic State of Iraq".
The media could have critiqued that statement. It could have assessed al-Baghdadi's political motives and manoeuvres. If it had done so, it might have realised that al-Baghadadi was announcing a union of ISI and Jabhat al-Nusra, but was trying to create the image of one. It might have comprehended that this attempt was born partly of fear --- both ISI's concern over the growing support of Western countries for the insurgency and its concerns that factions within the insurgency, including within Jabhat al-Nusra, do not really want ISI's "leadership".
Instead, the Associated Press' Beirut bureau handed down this tablet:
Al-Qaida’s branch in Iraq and the most powerful rebel extremist group in Syria have officially joined ranks against President Bashar Assad to forge a potentially formidable militant force in the Middle East.
Meanwhile, the BBC reported, "Al-Qaeda in Iraq has confirmed for the first time that a prominent jihadist group fighting in Syria is part of its network."
Note the verb. Not asserted or claimed but confirmed. Therefore, al-Baghdadi was not involved in a public-relations effort, trying to spin his authority. He was confirming an already-existing fact.
This mis-reporting over Jabhat's position vis-a-vis Al-Qaeda is not a sudden development. Instead, it reflects the pre-disposition of many in the media to view Syrian -- and other -- Islamist insurgencies as part of a growing, global "jihad" threat. Doing so, they ignore the significance of JAN and others as indigenous groups that act locally.
Why Misreporting Matters
The AP and BBC reports quoted above not only misunderstood --- or, at best, over-simplified --- the statement. They labeled al-Baghdadi as the head of "Al Qa'eda in Iraq", when he is the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq, an even more important group but one with a less threatening name. They unquestioningly assumed al-Baghdadi's audio message was genuine and constituted an "official" announcement.
And then they compounded the errors.
Both AP's Al Jazeera English reported that a "website linked to Jabhat al-Nusra" had confirmed the merger.
However, on closer inspection, the website referred to in both reports --- a blog named al-Muhajir al-Islami --- is neither linked to Jabhat al-Nusra nor did it "confirm" union between the Islamist State of Iraq and the Syrian insurgents.
That blog did post an opinion piece --- by Arab writer Abdullah Mohammad Mahmoud and circulated on jihadi sites and social media --- which defended al-Baghdadi's declaration, saying it was the right move for the ISI given the West's ongoing arming of other insurgent factions in Syria.
At no point, however, did Mahmoud indicate that al-Baghdadi was declaring a fact. He was praising the intention.
Given that AP and Al Jazeera English had already mistakenly assumed that this was a statement from Jabhat al-Nusra, they were not going to see this distinction. Instead, they and their media counterparts skipped past the "local" dimension of the story.
Then, 24 hours later, those outlets would mis-hear the audio statement of Jabhat al-Nusra's al-Golani --- or, rather, not even hear it but circulate misguided, one-line summaries of it --- as confirmation of their misguided line.
This could not be a story of what was actually occurring on the ground. It had to be a narrative of Al Qaeda™ threatening Western interests in a regional proxy war.
***It is no coincidence, then, that on Wednesday, the media chose to frame the story of al-Golani's audio message as "Al-Nusra Pledges Allegiance to Al Qaeda".
AP's Beirut branch twists the story still further, not only leading with al-Golani "pledging allegiance" to Al Qaeda, but saying that the JAN leader had "confirmed his rebel group was tied to al-Qaida in Iraq for the first time".
AP did not bother to mention that al-Golani said JAN was a local group operating under its own banner, instead claiming that "he did not deny they had merged".
Over to "analyst" Brian Fishman of the New America Foundation, who seized his moment in a piece for Foreign Policy.
Fishman lays his cards on the table right away, with an open admission that the truth of the story is not important. Indeed, what is happening on the ground in Syria is not important. For Fishman, what matters is pure image: "The relevant issue...is not whether Baghdadi's statement is true. Rather, the important questions to ask are who made the branding decision."
Unwittingly, Fishman has gotten to to the heart of the matter --- "Al Qaeda" is a media brand, a proxy that conveys a set of values, all of them the exact opposite of the "values" in the West.
Having established thus, Fishman maintains his determination to prevent the truth or inconvenient facts from obstructing a good scare story. Jabhat al-Nusra leader al-Golani announced JAN is not affiliated with the Islamic State of Iraq, but Fishman informs us that the "looming question" in Syria is "how Jabhat al-Nusra's open affiliation with al Qaeda will affect its relationships with other rebel groups fighting against Assad".
Continuing with his theme of branding, Fishman notes that the "most interesting conclusion" from the "creation of the ISIGS" --- a group that does not exist --- is that mythical Al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri is still in charge.
Fishman's "proof" is that, on Monday, al-Zawahiri also put out a statement. Although he does not give any significant information about that statement --- for example, about its relationship to the Syrian situation --- he assures the reader that the conjunction of this with the Islamic State of Iraq declaration suggests a "high degree of coordination with Zawahiri's PR team".
Because this is a marketing issue, there is no need to consider the political detail on the ground. Instead, Fishman can declare, without any further investigation beyond Zawahari's and al-Baghdadi's statements --- which he may or may not have actually read in full, rather than in translated summary:
Al Qaeda's role in Jabhat al-Nusra is now widely acknowledged, making hiding behind localized branding no longer feasible....
It makes sense that the Islamic State of Iraq -- which fundamentally rejects the legitimacy of existing borders in the Middle East -- would broaden its overt claim on territory, including parts of Syria.
But does Fishman know about the audio from Jabhat al-Nusra's al-Golani? He does, and that leads to a delicious twist, albeit one buried in the "analysis".
Fishman realises that al-Golani's statement --- because it emphasises Jabhat al-Nusra's independence --- does not back his thesis. This, however, is not a problem because al-Golani's declaration is "disjointed".
So Fishman can march on, disregarding the clear indication that the Syrian insurgency is not allying itself with the Iraqi brach of Al Qa'eda. Marketing is now tied to a policy prescription to deal with this non-existent alliance:
Jabhat al-Nusra's new branding may lower the legal hurdles to targeting it with drones.
The facts are that a local Syrian faction, albeit one of the most important in the insurgency, has responded to pressure from a powerful foreign group by insisting on its independence. It has made clear that its operations, and its approach to politics and society during and after the conflict, are driven by its concerns in Syria.
This is a difficult story to understand, however, given the ground-level complexities of a rapidly-changing conflct with multiple actors. So the Western media, and analysts like Fishman, choose the easier if false construction of Al Qa'eda inserting itself into part of the insurgency, exploiting the common short-hand in popular consciousness of Us v. Them.
But how can they cling to that construction in this case?
Jabhat al-Nusra's al-Golani gives them a lifeline --- as well as a headline --- with his praise of the ideas of Al Qa'eda's al-Zawahiri, translated by the media into "allegiance".
However, that claim of "allegiance" is a leap: al-Golani's declaration that he shares the values of al-Zawahiri does not equate to a desire to become a regional branch of Al Qaeda. Expressing sympathy with a version of Islam does not mean handing over military operations to a group in another country, in this case, an "Al Qa'eda" which has been decimated in recent years and is little more than a loud public-relations campaign.
The paradoxical danger is that, by invoking the false narrative of an Al Qa'eda in Syria, the Western media may help it turn into reality. If proclamations push both local and Western policy-makers into confrontation, such as Fishman's drone strikes or other covert attacks on Jabhat al-Nusra --- or, indeed, try to tilt the conflict farther by rewarding "good" insurgents and punishing "bad" ones --- then polarisation and "extremism" may be the outcome.