Chemical attacks and a mystery reporter

Among those who blame Syrian rebels for the chemical attacks near Damascus on August 21, the most-circulated story during the last couple of weeks has been one headed: "Syrians in Ghouta claim Saudi-supplied rebels behind chemical attack".

Originally published with an "exclusive" tag by Mint Press, a website which says it is dedicated to covering "issues and stories often overlooked by the current establishment media", this flimsy tale has been widely re-posted as well as being uncritically cited by Russia Today and the Voice of Russia. In the US, too, it has been enthusiastically taken up by a number of the more eccentric websites.

Yesterday, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov appeared to cite the story once again when he suggested rebel forces were responsible for the sarin deaths on August 21. Reuters reports:

"Lavrov said the UN report [from the weapons inspectors] should be examined not in isolation but along with evidence from sources such as the internet and other media, including accounts from 'nuns at a nearby convent' and a journalist who had spoken to rebels."

Basically, the Mint Press story alleged that Prince Bandar of Saudi Arabia supplied some of the rebel fighters with chemical weapons which the rebels then handled "improperly".

This claim, the story said, was based on numerous interviews with doctors, residents, rebel fighters and their families. It continued: 

Many believe that certain rebels received chemical weapons via the Saudi intelligence chief, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, and were responsible for carrying out the dealing [sic] gas attack.

"My son came to me two weeks ago asking what I thought the weapons were that he had been asked to carry," said Abu Abdel-Moneim, the father of a rebel fighting to unseat Assad, who lives in Ghouta [on the outskirts of Damascus].

Abdel-Moneim said his son and 12 other rebels were killed inside of a tunnel used to store weapons provided by a Saudi militant, known as Abu Ayesha, who was leading a fighting battalion. The father described the weapons as having a "tube-like structure" while others were like a "huge gas bottle" ....

Abdel-Moneim said his son and the others died during the chemical weapons attack ...

"They didn't tell us what these arms were or how to use them," complained a female fighter named 'K'. "We didn't know they were chemical weapons. We never imagined they were chemical weapons.

"When Saudi Prince Bandar gives such weapons to people, he must give them to those who know how to handle and use them," she warned ... 

A well-known rebel leader in Ghouta named 'J' agreed. "Jabhat al-Nusra militants do not cooperate with other rebels, except with fighting on the ground. They do not share secret information. They merely used some ordinary rebels to carry and operate this material,” he said.

"We were very curious about these arms. And unfortunately, some of the fighters handled the weapons improperly and set off the explosions," 'J' said.

The report ends with a caveat from Mint Press saying: "Some information in this article could not be independently verified."

That is an understatement, to put it mildly, and the way the story has been regurgitated is a classic example of how people who demand extremely high levels of proof where the Assad regime's crimes are concerned don't apply similar standards to reports blaming the rebels.

It's certainly possible that some kind of accident occurred in a tunnel with rebel-held weapons. But if it did happen, how do we know they were banned chemical weapons? 

The story merely says some of them had a "tube-like structure" while others were like a "huge gas bottle".

Confronted with such a vague description, most reporters would have asked more questions. Roughly, how big were they? Did the "tube-like structures" resemble rockets, or what? Were there no markings on the things that resembled gas bottles? What, exactly, made Abu Abdel-Moneim's son puzzled about them? And so on.

The story also gives no indication of the injuries suffered by those who reportedly died in the tunnel – whether there were signs of chemical poisoning – or how this single incident could have caused so many deaths in multiple locations.

It's an intriguing tale, certainly, but the facts are so thin that it's difficult to take seriously without more information.

Brian Whitaker's e-book is a detailed account of the disinformation campaign surrounding chemical attacks in Syria.
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The story got a lot of attention partly because one of its authors was an established journalist – Dale Gavlak, who reports as a freelance from Jordan for the Associated Press – thus providing more credibility than it might otherwise have merited.

However, according to Mint Press, Gavlak only "assisted in the research and writing" of the article and was not on the ground in Syria. Gavlak's main contribution to the story, presumably, was to provide a lengthy section of general background about Prince Bandar and Saudi Arabia's involvement in the Syrian conflict.

Mint Press says its correspondent on the ground in Ghouta "who spoke directly with the rebels, their family members, victims of the chemical weapons attacks and local residents" was Yahya Ababneh. 

None of the people quoted from Damascus are identified in the article which says they did not want their names used for fear of retribution. That is understandable in the circumstances but it does mean the article's credibility depends heavily on the reporter's previous track record.

So, who is Yahya Ababneh and what is his track record? According to Mint Press he is "a Jordanian freelance journalist and is currently working on a master's degree in journalism". It adds: "He has covered events in Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Russia and Libya. His stories have appeared on Amman Net, Saraya News, Gerasa News and elsewhere."

Meanwhile, Ababneh's LinkedIn profile says he has been a self-employed journalist since 2007 and that his work "includes assignments in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Russia, and Libya for clients such as al-Jazeera, al-Quds al-Arabi, Amman Net, and other publications". He is also described as having been a freelance financial journalist for just over three years, from 2008 to 2011.

For most of that time, according to his profile, he has also been studying at universities in Jordan as well as doing voluntary work among the elderly and "poor Bedouin and Palestinians living in camps".

Oddly, though, examples of his previous reporting have proved very elusive. Internet searches (in Arabic and English) of the publications mentioned – al-Jazeera, al-Quds al-Arabi, Amman Net, Saraya News and Gerasa News – have all drawn a blank.

It is possible, of course, that Ababneh has worked for these organisations in some journalistic capacity other than reporting – though that is not what the biographical note at Mint News implies. 

Someone using the name Yahya Ababneh does appear on the Amman Net website, in comments posted on a couple of articles (here and here). There's also a comment under the same name on the website of the Jordanian newspaper al-Ra'i.
Posted by Brian Whitaker
Wednesday, 18 September 2013