Al Jazeera's Awful Week

How the voice of Arab freedom became a shill for Egypt's Islamists.

Office raids, expulsions, popular anger, staff resignations, verbal abuse, and the loss of a friendly government in Cairo. It's easy to see why this wasn't Al Jazeera's week.

On July 3, hours after the military putsch that ousted Mohamed Morsy's government from power in Egypt following days of protests, attention turned to the Muslim Brotherhood's media enablers. Egyptian security forces raided Al Jazeera's office in Cairo -- along with those of other Islamist-leaning channels -- detained several staff members, and took the channels off the air. Three days later, another raid was reported by Al Jazeera.

A number of Egyptian expatriates have since petitioned the military-appointed interim president, Adly Mansour, to cancel Al Jazeera's license and block it from broadcasting on the Egyptian-owned satellite operator Nilesat. Cairo's prosecutor general also issued an arrest warrant for Al Jazeera's Cairo bureau chief, Abdel Fattah Fayed, (the same reporter who was expelled by fellow journalists from an Interior Ministry news conference on July 6) over charges of threatening national security and public order by airing inflammatory news. Fayed was released on bail the next day -- not that you'd know any of this from reading the Egyptian press syndicate, which chose to remain silent over the assaults on Al Jazeera's staff and offices.

But let's back up to what prompted Egypt's wholesale rebuke of the network that rose to global prominence covering the Arab revolts of 2011. As Arabs rose against their governments in those heady, hopeful days, Al Jazeera provided nonstop coverage -- often against the will of dictators -- of the unfolding revolutions. But once the dust settled, the network was accused of taking the side of Islamists. "Many of the editors and anchors in Al Jazeera Arabic are de facto Muslim Brotherhood sympathizers," said Fadi Salem, a Dubai-based researcher specializing in Arab media. "This has been reflected in the channel's pro-Islamist coverage over the past two years, relying heavily on a combination of incitement, bloody scenes, and Islamic preachers and media commentators."

Al Jazeera's slow descent began with the advent of the Syrian civil war, when it blatantly abandoned journalistic standards in favor of a specific narrative. Since then, I have recorded various instances of Al Jazeera's biased coverage, some of which have veered into the comical -- like when live reporters in man-on-the-street interviews hastily snatch their microphones back from Egyptians who dare to criticize Morsy or praise Mubarak on camera.

Qatar, Al Jazeera's home country and financial patron, gave billions of dollars in aid to Morsy's government in the past year and has been accused of supporting regional Islamist movements, much to the chagrin of neighboring Arab states. At the height of the Egyptian uprising against the Brotherhood on June 30, Al Jazeera disregarded the protests and instead aired an interview with a Syrian dissident -- as well as soccer training updates. Al Jazeera's live Egypt service, a 24/7 news affiliate of the Qatari media giant, did cover the protests, but it isn't as widely available in the region. Al Jazeera's live Egypt service, moreover, is equally biased in favor of the Brotherhood -- so much so that Brotherhood spokesman Gehad El-Haddad directed his followers on Twitter to tune in following the fatal shooting of 51 Morsy supporters by the army on Monday, July 8.

Al Jazeera's bias is often subtle, as when its Cairo bureau chief announced on Morsy's second day in office that the Rafah border crossing with Gaza has been turned "upside down" -- a considerable overstatement. At other times it can be glaring, like in June 2012, when it aired a report claiming that Morsy deserved a military salute simply because his wife asked to be called "Um Ahmed" instead of the first lady. This week, it didn't win any sympathy from non-Brotherhood Egyptians with a controversial report headlined "US bankrolled anti-Morsi activists," which declined to mention that many of the civil society organizations it cited received funds even during Hosni Mubarak's era.

To Al Jazeera's twisted coverage of events, Egyptians reacted with rage. On July 8, leaflets featuring a hand dripping with blood were dropped outside the network's Cairo office. They read: "The makers of the news" and "Sedition and the Other Sedition," a play on Al Jazeera's motto, "The Opinion and the Other Opinion." Foreign Policy reported that another leaflet was distributed near Al Jazeera's offices, reading "A bullet may kill a man, but a lying camera kills a nation."

Even journalists showed their frustration. At a news conference held by spokesmen for Egypt's Interior Ministry, also on July 8, Egyptian journalists were heard chanting "Barra! Barra!" or "Out! Out!" at Al Jazeera's bureau chief. The journalists accused the network of broadcasting images from the Syrian civil war, alleging they had taken place in Egypt. Ironically, the Interior Ministry spokesman pleaded with everyone to calm down. "We are in Egypt, the land of freedom of democracy," he said.

That same day, Dubai-based Gulf News reported that 22 staff members of Al Jazeera's Egypt channel resigned "over what they alleged was coverage that was out of sync with real events in Egypt."

That Al Jazeera is biased in favor of the Brotherhood is now widely accepted as fact. In a January 2013 article titled "Must Do Better," the Economist excoriated the network for its "breathless boosting" of "the Qatar-aligned Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt." In November 2012, political scientist Alain Gresh wrote that the channel had "lost much of its lustre -- and some of its best journalists -- as a result, and has become a mouthpiece for the Brotherhood." Adel Iskandar, a Washington-based scholar of Arab studies whose research focuses on media, said that "by cheerleading for the Brotherhood, the station has effectively lost its market in the region's most populous country and become a pariah in society."

In Egypt, Al Jazeera's lopsided coverage quickly alienated viewers, many of whom took to social media to voice their displeasure. So toxic was the Twittersphere during the latest round of protests that on July 1, two days before the coup, I predicted that "Egyptians will kick Al Jazeera Arabic out of the country" once Morsy was overthrown.

Al Jazeera's news anchors haven't always been against military intervention. In one telling tweet last December, Jamal Rayyan, one of the channel's star news anchors, called on Morsy to dispatch the Army to put an end to what he called "the chaos" of anti-Morsy protesters who objected to the country's new constitution, which was written almost exclusively by the Brotherhood and other Islamists. Likewise, a video that emerged after Morsy's ouster shows Ahmed Mansour, another Al Jazeera anchor who is believed to be a member of the Brotherhood, giving advice to the audience on how to reinstate the president. "Raise the Egyptian flags like they [Morsy's opposition] who stole the revolution did," says Mansour, adding, "I beg you to listen to me. Egyptians won't come out on the streets with us otherwise."

Iskandar, the Washington-based media scholar, called the video of Mansour a "worrying development," indicating that even veteran Al Jazeera journalists "have abandoned their role as practitioners and turned into political operatives."

It must be a confusing time in the Al Jazeera newsroom. Qatar has abandoned its allies in the Brotherhood literally overnight. The Persian Gulf state issued a surreal press statement not only acknowledging the facts on the ground -- the overthrow of its ally -- but also praising the role of the Army, the perpetrator of the coup, in defending the country's security. This may be a pragmatic move by Qatar's new emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, who does not wish to start his reign allied to a Muslim Brotherhood in decline.

Al Jazeera has altered its coverage to suit its owners' interests before. Prior to the Qatari-Saudi rapprochement over the past few years, Al Jazeera hosted critics of Saudi Arabia and even produced a documentary on the Al Yamama weapons deal between the Saudi and British governments that was mired in corruption allegations. Now that relations have improved between the two countries, Al Jazeera has changed its tune and was rewarded with the reopening of its bureau in Riyadh in January 2011.

A similar reversal took place with Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant group allied with the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad. Qatar emerged as a major supporter of Hezbollah following the latter's 2006 war with Israel. When Qatar's former emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, visited southern Lebanon after the war, Al Jazeera heaped praise on the group in one report, saying the "guest [the emir] is kind and those receiving him [Hezbollah] are kind as well."

In August 2008, Al Jazeera's Beirut bureau hosted a birthday party live on air for a Lebanese fighter who was released as part of a prisoner exchange deal with Israel. The festivities featured a large cake decorated with a photo of a smiling Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah. But following Hezbollah's intervention in Syria, Al Jazeera's change of heart was evident in its daily coverage and talk shows, on one of which a presenter recently alleged that "hundreds of women were raped by Hezbollah in [the Syrian town of] Qusayr; it's all documented."

Last month, Al Jazeera Arabic posted a controversial poll asking who was responsible for the descent of the Syrian war into a sectarian conflict: Sunnis or Shiites (read: Hezbollah). Qatar also recently expelled 18 Lebanese Shiites after the Gulf states collectively agreed to take measures against the group's members. Salem, the Arab media researcher, said that "Al Jazeera in the past positioned itself as the 'resistance' channel in the region. In 2011, it became the 'Arab spring' channel. Today, unfortunately, Al Jazeera Arabic is the 'state channel' of the Muslim Brotherhood across the Arab region."

That said, the Saudi-funded Al Arabiya television channel, Al Jazeera's closest competitor -- like most news media covering Egypt today -- has been faring just as badly when it comes to selective reporting of recent events. The difference is that Al Jazeera's dramatic fall comes from what many saw as a higher journalistic pedestal.

As it prepares for the launch of its U.S. channel later this year, Al Jazeera remains a network staffed largely by good journalists, but run by a shortsighted and biased administration. One of the first steps Qatar's young new emir took upon succeeding his father was to replace Al Jazeera's director-general, who was a member of the ruling family. Perhaps the new replacement will be able to save the channel at this critical time.

It's also possible that Al Jazeera's Brotherhood sympathies amount to a long-term play by the channel's backers. "I don't think Egyptians turned against Al Jazeera for good" says Salem. "The Muslim Brotherhood will always enjoy relatively large support in the country." Perhaps, in time, Al Jazeera will too.



Willful Ignorants

Pakistan’s leaked bin Laden report proves that the country’s vaunted spy agency is either shockingly inept or duplicitous. Or both.

"Everyone, including the United States, thought Osama bin Laden was no longer alive." That was the explanation senior Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) officials gave when asked how the world's most-wanted man had eluded them for a decade. But members of a Pakistani government commission charged with investigating the U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden didn't buy it, and they said so in a remarkably candid 336-page report published by Al Jazeera this week.

The report, written by a four-man panel that included a retired supreme court judge and general, paints an alarming picture of Pakistan's storied spy agency -- one that hints strongly that ISI is either shockingly inept or duplicitous, or both. The members of the commission were given sweeping authority, and they seem to have used it in a refreshingly thorough manner, summoning more than two hundred witnesses, including Ahmed Shuja Pasha, the head of ISI and one of the most powerful men in Pakistan.

The report -- which took nine months to produce and another 15 to be leaked -- goes well beyond examining bin Laden's presence in the country, questioning the wisdom of delegating Pakistan's entire counterterrorism effort to a single, secret, military agency that is too proud to share its burden with anyone else. 

At a time when much of the domestic outrage over the raid centers around the Pakistani military's inability to defend against the American incursion, the commission turned the question on its head, saying the best defense would have been capturing al Qaeda's leader a long time ago. 

Refusing to rule out "some degree of connivance inside or outside the government," the commission places the blame for failing to find bin Laden on the ISI. The agency's "naivete and its lack of commitment to eradicating organized extremism, ignorance and violence," the report says, "is the single biggest threat to Pakistan."

At times literary in its retelling, the report gives us the clearest picture so far of what life was like for the 9/11 mastermind in the years leading up to his spectacular demise. Bin Laden was found in an expansive three-story home -- complete with 18-foot walls topped with barbed wire -- situated less than a mile from Kakul, the country's top military academy.

The home's size and placement were not lost on the commission, which questioned why it never came under suspicion so close to the Kakul academy. Pakistan's top military officials, constant targets of al Qaeda and the Taliban, must have passed by the home on a regular basis. Surely, someone in charge of their security detail must have made a mental note to look into what paranoid Pakistani lived in that fortress.

The house had four separate electricity and gas connections, an illegal third story, and its walls were well beyond the maximum height allowed by the cantonment, the military housing scheme the house was situated in. The owners also never paid their taxes, and bin Laden's two handlers, brothers Ibrahim and Abrar, used fabricated identities. All of this should have raised red flags -- except that Pakistan is notorious for its failure to enforce the law.

The cantonment that bin Laden called home contained between 7,000 and 8,000 unregistered buildings, according to the officials who were supposed to regulate them. And less than one percent of Pakistanis pay their taxes. At checkpoints ringing highly secured Pakistani cantonments like the one in Abbottabad, moreover, it is the poor who are disproportionately stopped -- the rickshaw driver, the day laborer on a bicycle, the tired student going home on a motorcycle at the end of a long day.

Of course, authorities simply cannot check everyone all the time. The commission's report acknowledges this fact, however, saying the only institution in Pakistan with the resources to look for high-value targets like bin Laden was the ISI.

"The actual role in counterterrorism," the report says of civilian institutions, "was at best marginal, and in the tracking of Osama bin Laden it was precisely zero."

The lesson from the bin Laden saga, the commission concludes, is that police and other civilian institutions should be given the resources and space to do their jobs. The survivors of the bin Laden raid, the report says, should have been handed over to the police, which should have tracked down what kind of support network they had in Pakistan. The report laments the fact that the Bin Laden raid investigation, like every other major terrorism case in Pakistan, was handled by the ISI, instead of civilian institutions that are readily accountable to others. 

Bin Laden lived with two other families -- dozens of people in all -- in the same home for six years. Before that, he was not sitting in a cave, but moving around what the report refers to as many of Pakistan's "settled areas." He and his family spent time in cities like Karachi, Quetta, and Peshawar. Bin Laden might not have had a Facebook account, but his social network was vast, and some of its members had even been touched by the otherwise non-existent Pakistani state.

We know that Bin Laden's couriers went to extreme lengths to hide their tracks. But they nonetheless had social lives at least until 2003, when they were spooked by the arrest of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM), the self-proclaimed operational mastermind of the 9/11 attacks

Ibrahim's wife Maryam, who was extensively quoted in the commission's report, recalls that her wedding party took place at KSM's home in Karachi. Bin Ladin's wife Amal attended the party, and the pair travelled together to Peshawar, where they met up with a clean-shaven Osama bin Laden and another man dressed in a police uniform. From there, they went to Swat, where they lived for six to eight months, and bin Laden was apparently confident enough to go to the bazaar with his family.

KSM visited them in 2003, bringing his family along and staying for two weeks. A month later, he was picked up in Rawalpindi in a joint U.S.-Pakistani operation. The bin Ladens split up after KSM's arrest, meeting later in the small city of Haripur, where they lived in a relatively small home for two years. Amal gave birth to two children in a local hospital.

As the commission's report points out, the ISI had sole custody of bin Laden's surviving family members for five months before the commission questioned them. Yet the ISI failed to pursue any of these leads. It did not track down where bin Laden's wives lived in Pakistan, who arranged for their stay and transportation or whether or not their stories were corroborated by other evidence.

Bin Laden's oldest -- and reportedly his favorite -- wife, Khairiah, lived in Iranian custody from 2002 until 2010. After the American invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, she fled there with other members of bin Laden's family, including his son Saad bin Laden. How she got into Pakistan is still a major question. As the report points out, one possibility is that the Iranian government and al Qaeda arranged to exchange an Iranian diplomat for Khairiah. At any rate, Khairiah arrived in Pakistan in 2010 and travelled through Quetta to Waziristan. From there, she received a message from bin Laden inviting her to Abbottabad, where she arrived only three months before the raid that killed her husband.

Since there are no regular checkpoints on the highways connecting cities like Quetta and Islamabad, it is understandable that the police -- wholly underpaid and overstretched -- were not able to intercept Khairiah or bin Laden's other wives as they moved around Pakistan. But each of these movements required a support network on the ground: drivers, guides, safe houses. The ISI, the only institution in the country capable of tracing such a network, failed to do so.

And Abbottabad itself should have been on the ISI's radar as a hotbed of al Qaeda's activity.

In 2005, the ISI had helped capture Abu Farraj al-Libbi, the man that replaced Mohammed as al Qaeda's third in command, and they knew he had lived in Abbottabad starting in 2003. They had even tried to capture him at one point in a raid a few miles from bin Laden's home. Al-Libbi likely needed a local support network. The report points out that if the ISI had any more information about al-Libbi's stay in Abbottabad, they did not see fit to share it with the commission.

Also connected to Abbottabad was Umar Patek, an al Qaeda operative that helped plan the 2002 bombings in Bali, who traveled to the city in early 2011. The ISI claims he was only stopping there on his way to Afghanistan, but as the commission points out, he was more likely there to meet with bin Laden. Patek was captured in Abbottabad just two months before the bin Laden killing, and he was in Pakistani custody for four months afterwards. Yet, according to the commission's report, the ISI apparently failed to extract any useful information from Patek about the al Qaeda network in Abbottabad.

The commission blames the ISI for the fact that none of these leads were followed up on, saying civilians were unaware of Abbottabad's connections to al Qaeda. The ISI, in contrast, was "well aware of their presence but unwilling to share information."

The report also contains the extensive, candid testimony of Ahmad Shuja Pasha, the then head of the ISI (although one page is mysteriously missing from the leaked copy), It amounts to a damning illustration of why Pakistan's counterterrorism policy has failed.

Pakistan has lost 50,000 people -- including thousands of soldiers that were answerable to men like Pasha -- to terrorist attacks since 2004. Yet Pasha seemed to be stuck in another world when talking to the commission. He rightly pointed out that ISI was overburdened, but then blamed those who dared to criticize his agency's role in securing Pakistan, repeating the tired narrative that "the first line of national defense" was being attacked by "emotional" people that could be bought with "money, women, and alcohol."

To be sure, the United States has not worked well with the ISI, which some American officials claim have helped militants escape in the past. As the report points out, "there was never any trust between the two intelligence organizations ... [just an] understanding due to overlapping interests."

When, after years of silence, U.S. officials raised the prospect of bin Laden living in Pakistan in 2010, the ISI asked for details and offered to help. They never got a reply. At one point, the CIA gave the ISI four phone numbers to track, but did not disclose that they were related to bin Laden's handlers. As a result, the ISI failed to track the numbers, thinking the issue was of low importance.

Pasha, echoing a number of Pakistani military leaders, complained that there was not enough legal cover for his agency to detain and investigate suspected militants. The commission dismissed this, saying "in a democracy, an intelligence organization must be accountable and answerable to political oversight."

If Pakistanis were looking for insight into the bin Laden saga from the ISI, they did not get any. In fact, the problem the commission uncovered was one that has been known to Pakistanis for some time now. The ISI, which "neither had constitutional or legal authority, nor the necessary expertise and competence," for counterterrorism, was taking up the responsibility of civilian institutions that were "even less competent," because they had no long-term experience running the country. "The premier intelligence institution's religiosity replaced accountability at the expense of professional competence," the report concludes.

In other words, Pakistanis cannot depend on agencies like the ISI -- which either through incompetence or outright complicity failed to track down bin Laden -- to defend its borders, whether the threat is coming from a U.S. raid, or a Taliban suicide bomber. Pakistani civilians, who have just voted in historic elections, must own their own counterterrorism policy. In the end, they are the ones that stand to lose the most.

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