Anatomy of a Media Counter-Terror Operation

Police at glasgow airport
Armed police pose at Glasgow Airport, 2012

Earlier this month, the Sunday Herald invited me to write a guest column taking a critical look at ‘Prevent’, the controversial government scheme that is supposedly intended to stop people turning to terrorism.

The article was published a couple of days later, on 9 August. The Sunday Herald didn’t change what I’d written, and they gave it a headline that accurately reflected the article. That puts the Sunday Herald way ahead of a lot of papers.

It might be good manners to stop there, but  it only seems like that because the bar for the media has been set so very, very low.  Screw good manners.

The words that the Sunday Herald printed were all mine, but the picture was not. They used a photo of Aqsa Mahmood, the Glasgow woman who travelled to Syria in 2013 and married a man fighting with Islamic State (aka IS, ISIS, ISIL, Daesh) forces. A blog and social media posts attributed to her are said to have been directed towards recruiting others to the Islamic State.

The caption to the photo in the print version of the Sunday Herald said:

“Prevent is a programme aimed at stopping people like Scottish schoolgirl Aqsa Mamood [sic] turning to terrorism. But critics claim it is an open conspiracy against Muslims.”

Aqsa Mahmood was not in fact a schoolgirl when she left Scotland for Syria, but was a student at Glasgow Caledonian University. I’m not sure that it’s fair to say that she turned to terrorism, as the caption might be thought to imply. I wouldn’t myself have put it that way.

My article also appears on the SACC website with a different photograph, and with some informative links included.

Discouraging recruitment to ISIS and travel to Syria (whether to join ISIS or not) has been a theme of the government’s ‘Prevent’ strategy for a year or two. I didn’t refer to these issues in my article at all. I thought that doing so would have needed a longer article. Perhaps the editorial staff at the Sunday Herald thought that the omission was a weakness. It’s their paper. They could have included another article dealing with the matter. Instead they added a pictorial and textual sidenote to my article, raising an issue I hadn’t addressed. Subsequent events have made this rather awkward.

On the day that my article appeared in the Sunday Herald, the Mail on Sunday revealed  that “sources” had told it of an Islamic State plot to blow up the Queen at the VJ Day commemoration the following Saturday. ISIS was, perhaps, going to become very big news. Did  Sunday Herald staff know that the terror story  was about to break when they rummaged around for an image that would link my article to ISIS? And did they already know that it would soon get a lot closer  to home?

You might say that I have a suspicious mind. But there wouldn’t be any problem if the Sunday Herald had simply picked a photograph to illustrate my article, instead of one that annotated and expanded it.

As it turned out, the story about ISIS, the Queen and Scotland became the littlest big story of the year. Or maybe the biggest little story.

The Mail on Sunday claimed that two months ago, “a series of terror manuals” giving “detailed advice on bomb-making, assassinations and firearms techniques” had been circulated online. And it said that the VJ Day plot was “understood to involve” a pressure cooker bomb, similar to the devices used to bomb the Boston marathon in 2013. The Queen had been told of the plot, it said. Neither Buckingham Palace nor Scotland Yard would comment.

A Daily Mail graphic illustrated the route for the commemoration, with the best bomb-exploding locations handily marked.

On  Tuesday 11 August, a couple of days after publication of the Mail on Sunday’s thriller and my opinion piece, Sky News revealed that it had been investigating potential IS attempts to recruit people to carry out terrorist attacks in Britain. A freelance investigator working for Sky News posed on the internet as two different individuals and succeeded in attracting the interest of Syria-based IS recruiters Junaid Hussain and Sally Jones. The recruiters sent Sky News “detailed guidebooks” on terrorism and exchanged messages with Sky News on encrypted networks.

Sally Jones said that the VJ Day commemorations were a target. She directed Sky News to buy bomb-making materials, including a pressure cooker. They did so.

Once the Sky News team realised they were “talking to people actively involved in a real terror plot”, they called the police. And then they agreed to continue their contact with the Islamic State recruiters.

Boston marathon bombing
Aftermath of the pressure cooker blast at the Boston marathon

The information supplied to the police “was later reported by a Sunday newspaper”, Sky News says. They also say that the police deny involvement in the leak. If the police really weren’t responsible, it leaves a member of the Sky News team or MI5 as the most likely source for the Mail on Sunday’s story.

Did the leaker go straight to the Mail on Sunday, or did they tout their story to other papers too? If so, the existence of an ISIL-linked terrorism story might have been an open secret amongst journalists for a day or two before it finally broke.

Journalists plot to assassinate the Queen

The terrorist plot revealed by the Mail on Sunday exactly matches the “plot” that Sky News journalists were engaged in. “Journalists plot to assassinate the Queen” might have been an apt headline.

The official police view of all this, reported by Sky, was:

“It is always helpful when journalists share with us information, as Sky did in this case, that could indicate terrorist or criminal activity and we will investigate and take action where appropriate.”

Is this the view that police would take of anyone else who participated in an apparent plot to bomb the Queen, and then told them about it? Either the police are even more in awe of Big Media than you might suppose, or they saw political or operational benefits from the story Sky had created, or they were deferring to someone else – MI5 perhaps – who was happy about Sky’s conduct. It would not be the first time that a terrorism investigation has been shaped by political needs.

Was there really a plot to bomb the VJ Day Commemoration, or any comparable plot? The specific plot revealed by the Mail on Sunday seems to have been neither more nor less than the Sky journalists’ plot. But let’s suppose, for the sake of argument, that the recruiters Sky was communicating with really were Junaid Hussain and Sally Jones, that they really were working for ISIS rather than a UK intelligence outfit,  and that they were really fooled by Sky .

Sky News says its final message from Sally Jones was:  “Do it.” Could Jones have said the same thing to another, perhaps authentic, wannabe terrorist?

Sky says that Jones had already “revealed she had another potential bomber in Scotland and two others who had so far failed to attack.”

A second article from Sky, published on the same day (11 August), revealed that the “potential bomber in Scotland” was “a girl in Glasgow.”

UK counter-terrorism outfits must,  you would suppose, be at work infiltrating the IS recruitment process in much the same way as Sky. That might account for some or all of the three potential bombers claimed by Jones. Or it might not.

On the other hand, the potential bombers may be even less real than the journo-bomber. They may just be false claims made by Sally Jones to encourage her new recruit.

On Tuesday 11 August, the day that Sky broke its story, Police Scotland issued a statement saying:

“Police Scotland is working with The Metropolitan Police following media reporting about potential terrorist activity in the United Kingdom.”

They added:

“The latest media reporting has been included within our day to day considerations.”

Police Scotland did not mention the potential Scottish bomber but the Evening Times, reporting on the police statement, claimed:

“Scots have been warned to be on their guard as Police Scotland investigate reports that a woman in Glasgow is poised to commit a terrorist attack.”

The Daily Mirror, on the same day, reported extensively on the Sky News story and added the statement issued by Police Scotland. The article was headlined:

Female ISIS bomber ‘is in Glasgow and going to launch attack at Saturday’s VJ commemorations’.

No explanation was given for the use of quotation marks in the headline.

The Daily record also reported on Sky’s story, saying: “A female Scots jihadi planned a lone wolf attack to kill the Queen, it was reported today.” It used the headline:

Female jihadi based in Glasgow planned attack to ‘kill the Queen using improvised explosive device’

Again, there is no obvious justification for the way that quotation marks are used in the headline.

On Friday 14th August – the day before the VJ Day commemoration – the Birmingham Mail, the Daily Record, the Express and the Independent all reported an un-named source  as saying that Islamic state recruiter Sally Jones had possibly been sighted in Birmingham, and that Special Branch officers were “on full alert” for her. The source is quoted as saying Sally Jones was “last seen in Birmingham with two individuals, aged 18 and 22.” No one says when this sighting occurred.

There appear to be no reports of any incidents on VJ Day that might be related to the supposed plot.

The Guardian quite sensibly gave minimal coverage to the IS terrorism story, and the Scotsman seems to have given it none at all,

Coming late to the party, the Sunday Herald said in article published an article on 16 August:

“Counter-terrorism officers say they are hunting a female jihadist from Scotland who is preparing to launch a deadly attack in her home country.”

A “police source” told the paper:

“In terms of day to day policing, officers have been briefed on the latest developments and reports of a female terrorist suspect in Glasgow… Enhanced patrols will continue at crowded places, including shopping centres and train stations, as well as iconic landmarks that people may visit.

Police Scotland officers are working with officers from the Met Police to identify her. This is the top priority.”

It’s an oddly official-sounding statement to be attributed to an un-named “police source”.

Betty Bomber

The Sunday Herald also says that “our source” – presumably the police source already referred to – “confirmed that part of the investigation is also looking at whether or not the Scottish Daesh supporter might in fact be a fake propaganda exercise by terrorists rather than a real person.”

“Fake propaganda exercise” seems a needlessly elaborate way of describing the possibility that Sally Jones may not have been telling the truth.

According to the Sunday Herald, the unidentified and perhaps non-existent Glasgow woman has been nicknamed “Betty Bomber” by the security services.

How do they come up with these names? Isn’t Betty Bomber a bit in-your-face for a suspected would-be assassin of Queen Elizabeth? And why should the lass – if she exists – have to share a name with a Japanese WW2 aircraft?

The Sunday Herald also says:

“It recently emerged that up to seven British jihadis have been trained by Daesh and are now back in the UK.”

The claim appears to originate in a careless reading of the earlier Sky News story. While the online Sky sting was underway, Sky journalists went to a secret location in Turkey to meet a man they said had been “part of IS internal security for more than a year-and-a-half.” He said that his job had been to oversee foreign jihadists as they underwent training, that four or five of these people had been English, and that they had finished their training and “returned to Britain to carry out an attack.”

Sky News said in its report:

“British security services cannot afford to ignore the possibility that seven bombers could be operating in the UK.”

The seven bombers were the four (at a conservative estimate) Syria-trained men mentioned at the meeting in Turkey, plus the three people in Britain that Sally Jones claimed had been recruited online.

The danger posed by seven Syria-trained terrorists is perhaps not very different from the danger posed by four. But it’s the kind of mistake you would probably only make if you thought you were reporting on a colourful story where the facts didn’t matter and were unlikely to be challenged.

Terrorism stories are routinely muddied by journalists’ tolerance of police and security service sources who don’t wish to be named, or even to have their service named. This story has been muddied still further by the unattributed recycling of material from a single media source, which many people are likely to mistake for material obtained through off the record briefings from security service sources.

Female Militia filmed in Syria
Sunday Herald, 16 August 2015

The photo accompanying the Sunday Herald article shows a group of black-clad women with guns, and is rather quaintly captioned (in the online edition): “Scots terror police hunt female jihadi nicknamed Betty Bomber”.

The photo comes from a video released earlier this year showing  an  all-female militia training with guns. The Independent says that the location can be identified as the Church of Saint Simeon in north-west of Aleppo, an area not currently controlled by ISIS.  It finds nothing in the video to link the militia to ISIS or any other known group.

The Daily Mail, on the other hand, says that the video “is believed” to show Sally Jones “leading women fighters in a hate-filled chanting session in Syria.”

The media circus surrounding the claims of potential ISIS terrorism may, just possibly,  have deterred an attack on the VJ Day commemoration. If so, good. But the same effect could have been achieved with a straightforward announcement that the authorities were concerned about a possible attack and that enhanced security measures were in place. The media operation that was rolled out instead was a counter-terrorism operation, or perhaps a propaganda operation.  It wasn’t journalism.

More a stunt than an investigation

The story rests entirely on the Sky investigation. Sky says that it was trying to find out whether ISIS had moved on from its strategy of attracting recruits to Syria, and was instead pressing supporters to carry out terrorist attacks in Britain.

It found evidence that tends to support its hypothesis, in that IS recruiters (if that’s what they really were) urged the Sky investigator to carry out a terrorist attack. But the evidence that others had been recruited in the same way depends not on demonstrable actions, but on unverifiable claims by supposed IS representatives. It’s very difficult to know what to make of this information.

The Sky investigation created a risky drama that illustrated some guesses that the UK authorities had already made. It appears to have been  incapable from the outset of reliably verifying the guesses. In other words, it was more a stunt than an investigation.

The story may perhaps have alerted the authorities and the public to the threat from ISIS.  It may  also have  alerted would-be UK  terrorists to the likelihood that ISIS would like to hear from them. It may have given temporary encouragement (until it was made public) to ISIS recruiters and drawn them deeper into the strategy of UK terrorism that Sky says it was investigating.

The Sky investigation certainly hasn’t furthered the traditional goals of objective journalism and it’s difficult to say, on balance, whether it might have helped or hindered the fight against terrorism.

Did Sky make contact with police or with the security or intelligence agencies before the moment, late in the investigation, when it told police about the bomb plot it was involved in? Sky hasn’t said, and other journalists reporting on the story apparently haven’t asked.

Did Sky worry, right at the outset, that their online activity was as likely to attract the attention of MI5 as of ISIS?

Who was the “undercover freelance journalist” who posed for Sky News as two different potential online recruits and exchanged messages with ISIS?

Did a UK or US security or intelligence outfit play any part in Sky’s meeting with the supposed IS security man in Turkey?

At least from the moment that Sky contacted UK police, they were somewhere near the centre of a very high-profile counter-terrorism operation. So from at least that moment, Sky couldn’t help but follow a course that can’t really be called journalism. Shouldn’t it  have been obvious from the outset that something like that would happen if the investigation yielded results?

Who leaked the Sky investigation to the Mail on Sunday, and why? Would  Sky have revealed their investigation that week if the leak hadn’t occurred?

And why aren’t other journalists talking about these problems? Why do they think it’s OK to hiss Sky’s findings down a tunnel of Chinese whispers without explaining what they are doing?

Journalists probably don’t like to quiz other journalists. That’s quite a problem, since in this case journalists are almost the whole of the story.

Whatever else the terror story was intended to do, it at least provided handy opportunities to stress the value of communities and police working together, Prevent-style.

The statement issued by Assistant Chief Constable Ruaraidh Nicolson of Police Scotland on 11 August said:

“Through the excellent relationship we have with the diverse communities across the country, Police Scotland and our partners remain committed to reducing the risk associated with people becoming involved in, or supporting terrorist or extremist behaviour.

Communities are our biggest ally in the threat against terrorism.”

An anonymous “leading figure in the Muslim community” was quoted in the Sunday Herald on 16 August as saying:

“More needs to be [done] to stop vulnerable young people seeing these online messages and being influenced by them.”

How do you lead anonymously?

If the anonymous leader had paid attention to the Sky News story, he would have realised that the only people known definitely to have been “recruited” for ISIS terrorism in the UK were Sky journalists who far from having been influenced (even fictionally) by ISIS, had themselves made posts calculated to attract ISIL recruiters to them.

Ali Khan, executive chairman of Roshni, is quoted in the same article as saying:

“With regards to there being young people being drawn in from Glasgow, why would Glasgow be any different from any other part of Scotland or UK?

“Unfortunately, there are young vulnerable, perhaps misguided, young people all over UK who are seen as targets to be manipulated.”

Roshni is a Glasgow-based organisation that works for the “safety and wellbeing of children, young people and vulnerable adults within the ethnic minority communities.”

Ali Khan has recently been critical of the government’s strategy for countering radicalisation, telling the Scotsman that it is too much of a “top-down” approach. But Roshni’s own approach to the issue seems to have been engineered to circumvent friction with the government’s strategy. Instead of putting ISIL recruitment where it belongs, in the context of UK foreign policy and military strategy, they have tried to deal with it alongside child sexual exploitation.

ISIS is reactionary, cruel, divisive and destructive. So is US-UK imperialism. ISIS cannot be dealt with except by also dealing with that.

Every media outlet that has dealt substantially with the latest ISIS scare has done it badly. Bad journalism is one of the main obstacles to tackling terrorism in the UK. Officially-sanctioned hysteria against ISIS makes the public uncritical of bad journalism and makes journalists believe they can say whatever they wish, as long as it is directed against ISIS. Bad journalism pumps oxygen back to the hysteria that makes it possible.

The official UK doctrine is that ISIS seeks to manipulate young Muslims. Some young Muslims can see very well that they and the wider public are being manipulated by the media and the British state. Why wouldn’t some of them give the Islamic State a try?

The state and the media are making themselves distrusted and quietly feared. The fearful acquiesce. It shouldn’t be a surprise if some of the fearless seek desperate remedies.

Does this sound a little too  apocalyptic? Maybe it is. Part of the cure is very easy: traditional journalistic standards, and healthy caution when faced with a story that smells wrong. Even if important people say that it smells of roses.


Armed police posing at Glasgow airport, 2012: © Hazelisles, some rights reserved.

Aftemath of the pressure cooker blast at the Boston marathon: © Aaron Tang, some rights reserved

Photo from the Sunday Herald, 16 August: Screenshot from a video circulated by various media outlets, original provenance unknown.

Disclosure: I wasn’t paid for my Sunday Herald opinion piece.

Please help: If you know the answer (or part of it) to any of the questions raised here, get in touch