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.”