How a clueless “terrorism expert” set media suspicion on Muslims after Oslo horror

Downtown Oslo after 22 July 2011 bombing. Image posted to defunct photo site Yfrog.

photographer unknown

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.

The danger of such speculation is that it adds little knowledge but causes real harm by spreading fear and loathing of Muslims, immigrants and other vulnerable and routinely demonized populations, and whether intentional or not, assigns collective guilt to them.

“Experts” who supposedly study this topic — almost always white men and very often with military or government backgrounds — direct suspicion toward Muslims by pointing to claims of responsibility on “jihadi” web sites that only they have access to. Notorious attacks invariably inspire false claims of responsibility, or false reports of claims of responsibility, but this apparently doesn’t discourage the media and experts from giving them undue attention.

From the “experts” to The New York Times to the world…

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 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.

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.
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. This whole rush to disseminate a false, unverifiable and flimsily sourced claim strikes me as a case of an elite fanboy wanting to be the first to pass on leaked gadget specs.

In fact, much of the online discussion today focused on the notion of terrorism expertise, what it means and who has it.

Coincidentally, Andrew Exum from the Center for a New American Security posted his top 5 terrorism experts, and McCants was at the very top.

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.”




What he actually said as more accurate information became available was:

"right, so we have no info.reminds me of Spain's rex after Madrid attack. not tryng 2 hype AQ. just dont take off table yet"!/will_mcc...


"my prob w/ RW theory is that RW terror in Norway seems to come out of blue. or have there been smaller attacks?"!/will_mcc...

The Islamist link was plausible, for reasons discussed above, so that was the starting theory, although qualified and caveated.

As more information became available he didn't discard the Islamist theory immediately, but sought to explore other theories in parallel by digging into right wing terrorism alongside the Islamist angle.

I agree and accept that this is where confirmation bias may have crept in and he should have gone deeper into the right-wing theory at this point.


In defence of Mr. McCants, when you're fixated on the study of something, you generally see it everywhere. So when your rough area of expertise comes up, and there's something that points in the "right" direction, you do begin to make conclusions. I did much the same myself; when this first came up, my first thoughts were "probably the far-right", mostly because I have an axe to grind about the growing threat of right-wing terror, but also based on the modus operandi. The MO didn't really strike me as Islamist - the bomb target wasn't crowded enough, and they generally don't go for something like youth camps. Didn't strike me as red-terror, since they always used to phone in, and again, didn't target youth camps. That narrowed it down. But even then, my biases were probably the primary influence. Granted, I didn't broadcast it over twitter (and hell, I'm pretty much at the bottom of the academic pecking order of talking heads), and shared my thoughts more privately. So long as Mr. McCants eats a substantial piece of humble pie and admits he was wrong, it's okay. That he shed some light on how the jihadi network reacted to the attacks is useful in itself, I might add. It could even be that the claim was posted by the perpetrator himself in order to muddy the informational battlefield.

Other than that, I do agree. The world info-sphere has been so fixated on Islamist terror that they've forgotten that it wasn't that long ago this kind of stuff was coming from both the far-left and far-right, and the departure from it was probably more a hiatus than a real break with the past. When something like this hits, I understand that the immediate reaction is to just get something vaguely informed out there - it's usually the best way to get your name discussed on blogs like this! But that's no excuse for failing to keep a little perspective.


Having just read the "Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" trilogy - an incredibly popular detective series- the first speculation that came to mind as to the source of the Norway attacks was right wing extremists. I'm sure I was not alone in that speculation, yet the only speculation the press picked up on was that informed by islamophobia.

It occurs to me that if this so called terrorism expert could gain access to the forum, so could other islamophobes, meaning that what appears on the site could have virtually any origin. In addition, the name of the cited online forum might be a corruption or alternate spelling of schmuck, a Yiddish word for penis, fool, or jerk. Does it have some other meaning in Arabic?


It is really sad that ANY news source would publish such tripe. In the first place, the bomb was ammonium nitrate, the weapon of choice for the white Nordic or Anglo Saxon bombers like Timothy McVeigh after the read The Turner Diaries. Second, anyone who has the least inkling of the terrorist killings in the world, knows that most of the terrorist attacks are committed by white, Christian men. Followed closely by Israeli agents. Most Muslim attacks are Muslim on Muslim attacks.
Perhaps the advertisers in the NY Times will withdraw their advertising from a scandal sheet that publishes such asinine gossip posing as journalism. The NY Times no longer deserves the name of newspaper. It is the National Enquirer without the pictures.


From Dan Gardner (columnist for the Ottawa Citizen, Canada):

"If someone mentioned terrorism in Europe, you would probably have an idea about the size of the threat and who's responsible.

It's big, you would think. And growing. As for who's responsible, that's obvious. It's Muslims. Or if you're a little more careful with your language, it's radical Muslims, or "Islamists."

After all, they were at it again just in the past month. On Dec. 11, a 28- year-old naturalized Swede - originally from Iraq - injured two people when he blew himself up on the way to a shopping district. And on Dec. 29, police in Denmark said they thwarted a plan by five Muslims to storm the office of a Danish newspaper and kill as many people as possible.

So the danger is big and growing, and Islamists are the source. Right?

Wrong, actually.

The European Union's Terrorism Situation and Trend Report 2010 states that in 2009 there were "294 failed, foiled, or successfully executed attacks" in six European countries. This was down almost one-third from the total in 2008 and down by almost one-half from the total in 2007.

So in most of Europe, there was no terrorism. And where there was terrorism, the trend line pointed down.

As for who's responsible, forget Islamists. The overwhelming majority of the attacks- 237 of 294 - were carried out by separatist groups, such as the Basque ETA. A further 40 terrorists schemes were pinned on leftist and/or anarchist terrorists. Rightists were responsible for four attacks. Single-issue groups were behind two attacks, while responsibility for a further 10 was not clear.

"Islamists? They were behind a grand total of one attack. Yes, one. Out of 294 attacks. In a population of half a billion people. To put that in perspective, the same number of attacks was committed by the Comité d'Action Viticole, a French group that wants to stop the importation of foreign wine."


We should remember that experts are usually such in one field only, it is their function to present their findings for examination by the media, the public, etc.. When we digest these findings we should be doing so together with the findings of other experts as well as other evidence.

This, in my opinion was the greatest failure yesterday, the media looked at one source only, they did not bother to consult with anyone else and were too eager place this particular act of terrorism within the context of the Al Qaeda against the West narrative.


I think someone really needs to do some serious academic research into these so called 'terrorism experts'. A vast industry has grown around this area and it has to be looked at. Who runs them? What is their aim? Who funds them?
They are unaccountable and can say what they want. The main stream 'media' then pick this nonsense up and quote them verbatum as if it is authoritive. This is very dangereous. This McCants person apparantly read a 'jihadi' website who claimed responsibility for this atrocity. Now, should he not have known that ANYONE can claim what ever online?! Honestly if this is the sort of expertise available then all are doomed!


I may seem a bit old-fashioned, but during my time, journalists were to verify information before publishing. Secondary information made available to experts should be made public and verified no matter what the language is. Hmmm, seems strange that only ONE person claiming to be an expert, Mr. McCants, had access to information HE made public - setting a global anti-Islam frenzy. Posts on Yahoo, in response to an article on the tragedy in Norway, made me sick to my stomach. Why are hate laws not applied when it comes to Muslims?

Thanks Ali once again for reporting with journalsitc integrity.


I write about the history of terrorism and believe me, this had none of the earmarks of a terrorist attack. Political terrorists don't target children if only because the appalling nature of the crime would outweigh any message they wish to convey. Any person with even a rudimentary sense of the way terrorists organizations operate could easily see this. No really good "terrorism expert" would have identified this as the act of an organized terrorist cell.


The people killed were not of a different race or ethnicity, but in fact of his own "group". If not race, what then was his motivation? From what I have read it can only be political. He was a right winger. His victims were members of a labour youth group. It appears to me that this is a terrorist attack. Terrorism can be committed just as easily by individuals as by organized groups.

In fact, uni-terrorists may be the wave of the future. The fairly easy access to weapons of mass death(automatic weapons, explosives) combined with the difficulty of discovering such plots makes it possible that de-centralized terrorism will become the favored method of terrorists everywhere. Centralization makes it easier not only to plan large scale attacks, but also for discovery.

picture these experts are "almost always white men", eh? And those behind terrorist attacks are "almost always Muslim men". See what I did there? Or rather, see what you did there?


Excellent airing of debate on a frustrating topic: fear, ignorance and the human tendencies toward violence and retaliation, prejudice and closed-mindedness. And the ever-tempting ease of assumptions, as well. We all are so much more intelligent and compassion than we often allow ourselves to be. We just consistly need reminding, like children. Innocent children run amok. Thanks for letting me vent a little.


McCants' feed was one I followed from the moment I heard about the attacks. All he did was report was he was hearing on the jihadi forums. Why shouldn't he do that? It was not a blog post or published article. I thought that is what Twitter is for. He made all the proper caveats as he transmitted. What did he say that was false?


The hypocrisy in this post is rather amusing. You cant bash someone for making assumptions and correcting them while making assumptions yourself. And really the problem you are having is with the press rather then the man himself.

And while I'm on the subject anyone who is sensible takes journalistic descriptions of events with a grain of salt. Their job is to sell papers not to communicate the news.


All the comments trying to give credence to McCants' pathetic role in feeding false information to mainstream media are simply pathetic.

Joining a web forum (ohh! a password-protected one!) where people can anonymously impersonate whoever they wish, and then giving serious weight to the BS being spouted by other actors on the wire (ohh! they wrote it in Arabic!)?

Give me a break! Do you believe it when BigBoobsBertha on chat-roulette tells you she is a gorgeous 22-year old?

Our media is nothing more than a tool of the military-industrial complex, and pukes like McCant are just another cog in the wheel of manufactured consent. You trolls would be better of keeping quiet, since you just look like fools saying falsehoods where they can easily be countered.

In any case, big thanks for the excellent article and analysis, Mr. Doherty. It must have been painful to have to bear carefully reading the output of a mediocre shill like McCant.


Take the most progressive, intelligent person in the US and raise the spector of "terrorism" and you will suddenly see an incredible tap dance erupt, where even when bald-faced mistakes are not retracted but allowed to spin and spin and spin, someone will defend the lazy journalism and even lazier academics involved. Even "adjuncts" should at least adhere to general academic standards in which you don't just speculate based on one internet "souce." I know. I know. Our so-called "journalists" do it all the time. But McCants is associated with a university and should know better. Unfortunately, I teach at a university and have seen that there is a hell of a lot of "Homeland Security" money out there for a lot of non-experts to apply for and get junkets to Israel, work in "community policing," where crap films like "Jihad in America" are shown to students. It's a big racket, as anyone who has seen who gets grant money and for what knows.


Through your tears of laughter, you might want to take the time to revisit McCant's utterances - none of which attributed blame to jihadist groups.


Seriously, I appreciate this article's muckraking, but I'm myself a bit frustrated (I almost wrote "perplexed") by what seems to be the perplexity of the author. I do not mean to be disrespectful, but I feel like contemporary intellectuals should by now recognize that "expertise" is by and large a Weberian notion that has fallen flat just in virtue of the impossibility of genuine, rigorous, law-like knowledge of the relationships between causes and effects in human behavior. Expertise originally arose out of a conception of the social sciences embedded in the hope that they could accurately and consistently predict (or in this case identify) causes for particular actions. I think people should be reading, for example, Alasdair MacIntyre on this. "After Virtue" is a seminal work where he treats exactly the failure of this kind of "managerial expertise" as a modern problematic, and his recommendation is to stop treating this knowledge and these people as if they know what they're doing. They simply cannot accurately predict or identify consistently the causes of the social phenomena of which they pretend to be predictors and identifiers. Perhaps the crucial push needs to be against the corporate and otherwise managerial (e.g., bureaucratic, governmental) structures which provide them with the financial cover - and with financial cover in the U.S. comes prestige - that make them into - as you rightly say - "elite fanboys."


"Political terrorists don't target children if only because the appalling nature of the crime would outweigh any message they wish to convey. Any person with even a rudimentary sense of the way terrorists organizations operate could easily see this. No really good "terrorism expert" would have identified this as the act of an organized terrorist cell."

beslan school hostage crisis. its on them interwebs.

ps i don't write on on history on terrorism.


Now the news says that he was a fundamentalist Christian. The liberal media loves giving Christians a bad name, that's were they dump all the problems. As a Christian, I say that he was not following the will of God. Dare they call him a Christian.


Two things stand out in McCant's tweets which seem just so interesting. First, when "Leialya" asks to see the Shmukh website (the name of which just sounds like the biggest middle finger to credibility of all, as if jihadists are going to intentionally call themselves schmucks), he doesn't blab the password. If you were on the web site of an enemy and you claimed a claim of responsibility for a major crime was posted there, wouldn't you be letting everyone know the password??? Well evidently someone did, because he then tweets claiming that THE MEDIA ARE GETTING "INFO STRAIGHT FROM THE FORUM". Which media, and WHO gave THEM the password McCants is refusing to reveal to "Leialya"???? Anyone who believe this TRUE SCHMUCK after this is KOPFLOSS!


We all know by now the media is a giant propaganda campaign. Their money comes from big business and government and so they always do this kind of stuff. The reality is that there are no big bad boogiemen-type arabs in the dessert and our govt killed tons of its own citizens to go to war. It's not even about religion or color of skin. If the oil was in Oslo itself, you can bet that our "experts" would find them out to be terrorists there.

Ghandi said it best. "There is no path to peace. Peace is the path."