Global Independent Analytics
Thomas Fazi
Thomas Fazi

Location: Italy

Specialization: Civil rights

The Paris attacks and the privatisation of counter-terrorism

The incredible story of how a little know-known US-based ‘jihadist-monitoring organisation’ single-handedly convinced the world that ISIS was behind the Paris attacks – and how we all took their word for it.

First of all I’d like to establish what is article is not about: it is not a study about ISIS’s involvement – or lack thereof – in the Paris attacks. Neither is it a comprehensive account of the media’s coverage of the event. It is the story of how a little know-known US-based ‘jihadist-monitoring organisation’, in the wake of the shooting, single-handedly convinced the global media – and with it the majority of people on the planet – that ISIS was behind the attacks – and how we all took their word for it, no questions asked.

I repeat: the aim of this article is not to ascertain whether ISIS was indeed involved in the attacks or not; it is to solely ascertain whether the global media’s initial reporting of ISIS’s involvement was justified or not. The point might seem moot at this stage, considering everything has happened since – the killing of the alleged ‘mastermind’ by French police, the French air strikes in Syria, talk of all-out war, etc. – but I beg to differ: those first reports largely set the stage, narratively speaking, for what followed and thus, given the enormity of the issues at stake, deserve to be scrutinised – far more than they have been until now.

As is well known, within 12 hours of the tragic events in Paris, every media outlet on the planet was reporting that ISIS had claimed responsibility for the attacks in a communiqué ‘distributed via Twitter’ and other social media platforms. Yet, none of the articles – none of the ones that I’ve been able to review, at least, and I’ve reviewed a great number of them – cited an actual ISIS-related Twitter account (or other social media account) as a source. They all pointed to the same source (when they bothered to quote a source at all): SITE Intelligence Group, a for-profit company that ‘constantly monitors the Internet and traditional media for material and propaganda released by jihadist groups and their supporters’, according to the company’s website. Rita Katz, the director and co-founder of SITE Intelligence Group, ‘has studied, tracked, and analyzed international terrorists, the global jihadist network and terrorism financing for more than a decade’, the website also reads. The group consist of other two ‘senior advisors’, one of whom is Bruce Hoffman, the former corporate chair in counterterrorism and counterinsurgency at the RAND Corporation and former director of the RAND’s Washington, DC office. Over the past decade, SITE has garnered some attention by distributing alleged ‘terrorist videos’ that were then broadcast worldwide.

SITE’s involvement in this story begins just a few hours after the start of the attack, which is reported to have begun on November 13 at 21:20 Paris time (20:20 UTC). In a series of tweets – the first one at 23:14 Paris time – SITE director Rita Katz started to speculate – or better, to imply that others (allegedly close to ISIS) were speculating online – that ISIS was behind the attacks ‘due to #France involvement in attacks against ISIS in Syria’.

This is the first of a long string of tweets in which Katz purports to ‘relay’ information – web chatter – taken from IS- or more in general jihadist-related Twitter accounts. The primary source for the information is never provided.

A few minutes later, in another tweet, Katz recalled that ‘ISIS fans’ had recently launched a hacking campaign against French websites, using the #FranceUnderHacks hashtag.

The first time the hashtag was ever used appears to be October 22 – the same day that SITE announced on its website that ‘the Islamic Cyber Army (ICA), a group of self-proclaimed “hackers of the Islamic State (IS)”, has released a video announcing France as the target of their sixth hacking campaign, called “#FranceUnderHacks”’. The only actual ‘hack’ to have taken place in the subsequent weeks appears to be the publication of a document containing the contact information of various officials of the French ministry of defense – information that was later revealed to be already available online. The alleged ‘hack’ was the subject of much derision among Twitter users and experienced hackers, which in reaction launched the hashtag #IslamicClownArmy.

In response to Katz’s tweets, people started asking her for a link to the source(s) she was allegedly taking the information from…

… but received no answer.

In another tweet, Katz stated that ‘ISIS fans’ were celebrating the attacks in Paris with ominous threats.

At 00:50, she tweeted that the ‘Dabiq France channel’ had released a message stating that the attacks in Paris were a response to the French air strikes in Syria, and that ‘today [France] drinks from the same cup’.

According to Wikipedia, ‘Dabiq is the title of the monthly online magazine used by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/ISIS/IS) for propaganda and recruitment. It was first published in July 2014 in a number of different languages including English’. The Clarion Project, another private ‘jihadist-monitoring platform’ that has all the issues of Dabiq available for download on its website, describes it as ‘sophisticated, slick, beautifully produced and printed in several languages’. For an ‘online magazine’, Dabiq is especially hard to find on the web; a Google search for ‘Dabiq’ didn’t reveal anything resembling an official website (in fact the main online ‘distribution channel’ of the magazine seems to be the Clarion Project itself). Then again, ISIS might be using channels other than the ordinary World Wide Web to distribute the magazine. Locating anything resembling an official Dabiq Twitter channel (French or otherwise) – assuming that Katz is indeed referring to a Twitter channel, which is not clear – proved equally difficult.

This appears to be the first of many of Katz’s tweets to be picked up by the international media. The Italian version of Wired magazine, for example, shortly thereafter published the tweet on its website with a caption noting that ‘ISIS has claimed responsibility for the attacks’ (‘l’ISIS ha rivendicato gli attacchi’) – an assertion that at this point in time was grounded in no fact whatsoever, not even Katz’s tweets.

Shortly thereafter, in another tweet, Katz stated that ‘ISIS channels’ were celebrating the attacks with the slogan ‘Remember, remember the 14th of November’.

I asked for the source but got now answer. Assuming the channels/sources in question were writing in English, a Twitter search for the phrase ‘they will never forget this day same as 11 September to the Americans’ yields only a single result prior to Katz’s tweet.

It’s from an account with just 12 tweets on record – hardly a propaganda powerhouse.

It is of course a possibility that at the time of writing the ‘ISIS channels’ referred to by Katz had been deleted. In response to Katz’s tweet, some people noted that it was curious that ISIS supporters would quote the ‘14th of November’ as the date of attack when the attacks started at around 21:00 – 22:00 Syrian time – on November 13.

At 01:24, Katz posted another tweet, showing some images – again, purportedly taken from ‘ISIS channels’ and then watermarked with the SITE logo – celebrating the Paris shootings.

Once again, people inquired about the source(s) are but received no answer.

Google has a function called ‘reverse image search’ that allows you to search for websites (including Twitter) that include a specific image (which you can either upload or provide an URL for). Of course, the image has to be sufficiently ‘unique’ for the search to work; so the image of a French flag with some text written over it will not cut it, and neither will an image of the Eiffel Tower with an ISIS flag flying over it (too common). Of the images posted by Katz, only one image – the upper left one – seemed sufficiently unique. So I gave it a shot: at the time of writing, the search yielded a good number of results – mostly from Twitter and news sites – but interestingly the images contained in the tweets/sites in question were all already watermarked by SITE (the latest results can be accessed by clicking here). While this is understandable as far as the news sites are concerned, it is less understandable for Twitter. If ‘ISIS channels’ were indeed using Twitter to spread the images in question, the original non-watermarked versions should be picked up by Google. As mentioned already, it is of course a possibility that at the time of writing the channels had been deleted. Another possible explanation is that Google’s software is so accurate that it automatically excludes the non-watermarked images, but this appears unlikely since, according to Google – and as anyone that has used the software knows –, the program also searches for similar images.

At 01:36, the SITE Intel Group account tweeted a link to the following article published on the company’s website: ‘Jihadists on Twitter Celebrate Attacks in Paris, Speculate Who Planned them’. It states that ‘Jihadist-affiliated Twitter accounts celebrated the November 13, 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, France, and speculated which jihadi group might be behind them. Many users expressed the belief that IS was behind the attack’. It also states that ‘Jihadi supporters celebrated the attack with Arabic-language hashtags translating to “#Paris_On_Fire,” as well as the more widely used hashtag “#FranceUnderAttack”. Islamic State (IS) supporters, in particular, used Arabic hashtags translating to “#Caliphate_State_Strikes_France” and “#Crusader_France_OnFire”’.

According to Newsweek, the Arabic hashtag used by ISIS supporters to celebrate the attack was باريس_تشتعل# (the Arabic translation of #ParisOnFire); according to BBC journalist Julia Macfarlane, the hashtag being used was instead فرنسا_تشتعل# – a slightly different translation of the same phrase.

A quick search on Twitter for both hashtags (here and here), though, shows that the hashtags in question were indeed widely used during and after the attacks, but – as far as I could ascertain – in the same way the English versions of the hashtags were used: overwhelmingly, to express sympathy for the victims, not the perpetrators. In fact, there appear to be more tweets about people saying that that the jihadists are using the hashtags in questions than actual jihadi-related tweets. Again, it is a possibility that those tweets were subsequently deleted.

In the early hours of the morning of November 14, more and more articles began to appear in the international media linking ISIS to the Paris attacks – all citing Katz and/or SITE Intelligence Group as the primary source. The following article by the Italian daily la RepubblicaParigi, la rivendicazione dell’Is: “Vendetta per la Siria”’ (‘Paris, IS claims responsibility: “Vengeance for Syria”’), essentially consisting of a mash-up of Katz’s tweets – is a perfect example:

It is worth stressing that at the time of the article’s publication there wasn’t even any speculation – by Katz or by anyone else – of an ‘official claim’ by ISIS. Nonetheless, other media outlets – in Italy and around the world – followed suit.

At 02:02, Katz tweeted some more images, also purported to be ISIS propaganda.

Interestingly, Katz writes that ‘while there is not claim from any group on #ParisShooting, #ISIS accounts and media behaving as if ISIS did’ – despite Katz herself (and her company, SITE) being, at this point in time, the primary sources of speculation of ISIS’s involvement in the attacks.

At 04:28, SITE Intel Group tweeted a link to the following article published on the company’s website: ‘Coordinated Celebration by IS Supporters for Paris Attack May Speak to Group’s Involvement’. Accompanying the article is the following image:

The article states that, even though at this point in time there had been no official claim by ISIS (or anyone else), ‘if you looked at Twitter’ – especially, one might say, if you had been following the Katz-SITE ‘coverage’ of the event – ‘you would have thought IS claimed the attack’. It then reiterates the unsubstantiated claim that ‘IS accounts and established media groups have started releasing large amounts of media campaigning against Paris’. The article also contains the screenshot of the following tweet, containing the link an alleged ‘IS video’:

It would appear that the account in question has since been deleted. A Twitter search for the link to the video contained in the post, though, yielded 5 posts – all by the same account, which appears to have been created on November 14 (the first available post is dated 03:11 Paris time).

The SITE article goes on to say that a particularly popular post among IS supporters was a quote by IS spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani from his March 12, 2015 speech, wherein he claimed that the group would reach ‘Paris before Rome’. ‘The quote – the article concludes – may just contain disturbing truth in that IS may very likely be responsible for this attack’.

A reverse image search for the ‘burning man’ image contained in the article – a slightly modified version of this this wallpaper image – returns only web pages relating to Western media outlets, which in turn appear to have taken it from the SITE website.

Then, at 11:43 on November 14, Site Intelligence Group dropped the bomb, metaphorically speaking, reporting that ‘ISIS has claimed credit for the Paris attacks’.

A few minutes later, SITE posted two alleged ISIS communiqués, in Arabic and in French.

The next day I asked what the original source was but got no answer.

Most journalists, though, did not appear to be concerned with the details of the claim. Within a few minutes, news that ISIS had ‘claimed responsibility for the Paris attacks’ was making headlines around the world. This is what The Guardian’s live blog published a few minutes after the announcement by SITE:

A series of tweets – including some rather opinionated comments – by Katz followed.

Shorty thereafter Katz tweeted a link to an English translation of the communiqué by SITE.

Curiously, a few minutes later, SITE also tweeted about the translations, but wrote that ‘ISIS [has] released an English translation of the communiqué’ – when it was allegedly their own translation of the Arabic/French originals.

Then, a few minutes later, Katz tweeted that ISIS had also released an English translation of the claim, and attached a picture of the communiqué in English, slightly different from the translation provided by SITE and purportedly taken from an IS-related social media channel (again, no source was provided).

Then, a few minutes later, Katz tweeted that ISIS had also released an English translation of the claim,

Here is the document:

The English-language version of the claim was swiftly published by media outlets across the world, though it is worth noting that at this point in time there was only a single, unverified source for the document in question: SITE, a private company based in Bethesda, Maryland. As far as I can tell, no major media outlet probed the reputability of SITE or the validity of the information it was distributing, nor asked SITE to provide the source(s) for the information in question.

Within just over 12 hours from the attack, SITE Intelligence Group had pretty much convinced the entire world that ISIS was behind the Paris attacks – without providing a single shred of evidence. Here are some of the articles that appeared in rapid-fire succession following SITE’s report:

New York Times:

NPR:

Time:

It wasn’t long before media outlets starting quoting each other, further cementing the fact as an established truth.

So Rolling Stone

… could write that ‘the Islamic State (ISIS) have claimed responsibility for the multiple attacks on Paris… according to Metro’, even though Metro had simply noted that ‘ISIS have reportedly claimed responsibility for the attacks’. Rolling Stone basically copy-and-pasted the Metro phrase, dropped the ‘reportedly’ and used it as its title

 

By lunchtime on November 14, the notion that ISIS was behind the Paris attacks had become a self-evident truth, despite the absolute lack of evidence, except for a series of tweets/articles published by a private company. To reiterate what I stated at the beginning of the article: I am not implying that ISIS is not responsible for the attacks in Paris (new information has emerged in the past weeks that is beyond the scope of this article to analyse), nor am I implying that the information provided by SITE Intelligence Group is not legitimate. I am, on the other hand, questioning the reputability and integrity of a global media apparatus in which practically all the major news outlets – without exception, as far as I could ascertain – considered it acceptable to present the information provided to them by a private company like SITE as established facts, without stopping for a second to probe the company’s methods and findings, especially when dealing with issues of such magnitude. At best, it represents a colossal failure of basic journalistic standards on the media’s behalf; at worst, something much more ominous.

Site Intelligence Group was contacted for a comment but did not reply. 

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