The British tabloid The Sun reported yesterday that al-Qaeda leaders rape male recruits to shame them into becoming suicide bombers. Let me start by congratulating the journalist on being able to fit the four words “al-Qaida”, “gay”, “rape” and “horror” in one and the same headline in the world’s largest English-language newspaper.
I would not normally bother with this kind of nonsense were it not for the fact that it sheds light on the recent reports about AQIM’s alleged plague experiments, covered previously on Jihadica. Both stories were broken in the West by The Sun, and both stories relied on Algerian security sources. We are most likely dealing here with an anti-al-Qaida psy-op, and a very poor one at that.
These latest stories echo an only marginally better operation targeting al-Qaida in Iraq last winter. It involved a steady stream of articles about al-Qaida exploiting all kinds of defenceless people for suicide missions: children, women with Down’s syndrome, orphaned homeless children with mental disabilities, and what not. This rapid succession of articles over the same theme reeked of information warfare. Of course al-Qaida in Iraq has used suicide bombers under 18 as well as female attackers. But given that reports from the same period highlighted a steady influx of able-bodied foreign fighters, why on earth would al-Qaida spend precious resources on disabled operatives? I am surprised that so many serious media outlets have uncritically conveyed these articles.
While the gay rape story wins the prize for worst psy-op ever, the silver medal goes to the Saudis, who claimed in 2003 that al-Qaida had planned terror attacks on pilgrims in Mecca and had booby-trapped copies of the Quran. In fact, since then the Saudi Interior Ministry has made a tradition of “warning against” or “foiling” attacks in Mecca almost every year around the Hajj; most recently in 2007 and 2008. To my knowledge, there is not a single indication in the jihadi literature that al-Qaida or its affiliates have ever contemplated an attack on pilgrims in Mecca. (The Juhayman group which attacked the Mecca mosque in 1979 represented a highly unusual apocalyptic sect).
For the record, several of these reports were subsequently denied. This was the case with the stories about the plague, the use of women with Down’s syndrome and the 2008 Hajj attacks. But of course the denials do not get nearly the same attention as the initial impact story.
Does it matter if we circulate stories that are not completely true, if it helps defeat al-Qaida? Well, maybe not, if counterterrorism is our only concern. But then we shouldn’t complain about the spread of conspiracy theories in the Muslim world.