By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
A ready-made headline was awaiting the US President’s decision to ban people from seven Muslim-majority countries. Days after the “Muslim ban” was announced, we learned that “Jihadist groups hail Trump’s travel ban as a victory,” according to the Washington Post.
According to the article the ‘Jihadist groups on Sunday celebrated” and the ban “validates their claim that the United States is at war with Islam.” The article claimed there were comments posted to “pro-Islamic State social media accounts” and referenced one posting that called Trump “the best caller of Islam.”
One posting? By who? Well the report didn’t tell us who posted this. I looked in Twitter and found one account that had written Trump was the “best caller to Islam.” It was written on January 29 at 4:47am while the Washpo piece came out at 6:13pm. So was that the source? But the account isn’t a pro-ISIS account exactly, it does re-tweet info about ISIS, and it only has 1,105 followers. The account claims to be “An advocate of peace, justice and equality. Allergic to Shia scums. Love Muslims. Retweet not endorsement.” We’ll never now if this was the account referenced, since the article won’t say which source they relied on. It seems that far from finding many “Jihadist groups” posting on social media, that only a few individuals were found.
The article also claimed to find “one posting to a pro-Islamic State channel on Telegram.” Another posting on Telegram claimed Trump “clearly revealed the truth and harsh reality behind the American government’s hatred toward Muslims.” But this quote isn’t “hailing” the Trump ban as a “victory.” This quote is just explaining what many people believe. There is no evidence the person that wrote this is a “Jihadist” or a “Jihadist group.” The article provided no other examples, except claiming that ISIS seeks to divide the West from Islam and that experts agree. So actually, there is no evidence that Jihadist groups celebrated the ban as a victory.
The fact that “CIA veteran Robert Richler” had told the Post that “this was a win for Jihadists,” should have merited a headline indicated “Experts: Trump ban aids extremism.” So why did the headline claim “Jihadist groups”? These headlines were picked up by other media such as the National Post and commentators, including the Daily Kos. In their telling “terrorist groups celebrate Trump’s Muslim ban.” Actually there is no evidence that terrorist groups celebrated.
The Independent claimed that “Isis hails Donald Trump’s Muslim immigration restrictions.” The article notes: “Al Qaeda, Isis and other jihadi groups are thrilled with US President Donald Trump’s executive order on immigration targeting Muslim countries, describing it as proof that the US is at war with Islam.”
The article claimed “Isis-friendly channels on the Telegram messaging service described the ban as ‘blessed’, echoing how the US 2003 invasion of Iraq was called a ‘blessed invasion’ for reinvigorating anti-US sentiment in the region.” The article repeated the Washington Post story, noting “One user greeted the news of the ‘Muslim ban’ as ‘the best caller to Islam’, hoping it will draw Muslim Americans to their cause.” Wait, “one user,” not “ISIS,” but one person. And was it on Telegram or “social media,” as in the original report? It seems The Independent didn’t know. The article provided no evidence that ISIS itself or its spokesman or official publicans had “hailed” the ban. To replace the lack of evidence that ISIS itself had hailed the ban, the article interviewed Dr Renad Mansour, a fellow from the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House. Another bait and switch, where readers are presented with a major claim and then given an expert, but no real evidence for the claim.
It happened before
The claim that groups celebrated the ban seems to have been set in stone during the Trump election victory. After the victory the Washington Post also claimed that “Islamist extremists celebrate Trump’s election win.” The article noted “a number of prominent Salafist ideologues linked to jihadist outfits in the Middle East took to social media to cheer the prospect of a Trump presidency.” But the article didn’t name any “Salafist ideologues.” It also claimed “Social-media sites associated with both the Islamic State and al-Qaeda also hailed Trump’s success.” This is a nice loose definition, since the author can claim anything is “associated” with such groups. Supposedly the al-Minbar “Jihadi network” had published “Rejoice with support from Allah, and find glad tidings in the imminent demise of America at the hands of Trump.” New York Daily News repeated the claim that “Islamic extremists” had celebrated, but provided no more details beside similar references to SITE Intelligence Group. USA Today had a similar article.
The click-bait style “Jihadist group” headline is particularly problematic because the article fails to provide any evidence for “groups.” Providing evidence of only a few individuals is like confusing a few men tweeting in Montana with “The Republican Party says…” FoxNews host Shepherd Smith bought into the claim that ISIS had hailed the ban as a “blessed ban,” rely on the same faulty information.
So why does media do this, why invent “Jihadist groups” or exaggerate claims that “ISIS” said something when there is no evidence? Because the requirement for having official sources changes when journalists write about extremists. Because a journalist isn’t required to actually interview ISIS members, they can rely on “social media”, which means a search in Twitter, and conclude or extrapolate from a few posts that “Jihadist groups” support something. The Jihadists can’t demand a retraction or correction, because they aren’t even named. This is convenient. To write “one account claimed,” without providing a name means the reader is left with no real sources and the source can’t contest the claim. Maybe the “Jihadist group,” is just a bored college student using Telegram or Twitter in Norway? But he or she becomes a whole “group” to fit a narrative.
Readers should be skeptical and ask which “groups” were involved. Unfortunately we assume the writer of the article is an expert who did real research. It may be that the public has been misled.