Syria 'rebel chemicals' mystery deepens

The mystery surrounding an internet article cited by Russia to cast doubt on the findings of UN weapons inspectors in Syria took a new twist yesterday when one of the alleged authors denied having written the article.

The article, headed "Syrians in Ghouta claim Saudi-supplied rebels behind chemical attack", was originally published by an American website, Mint Press News, under the names of two journalists, Dale Gavlak and Yahya Ababneh. It reported uncorroborated claims by anonymous sources in Syria that Prince Bandar of Saudi Arabia supplied some of the rebel fighters with chemical weapons which the rebels then handled "improperly", causing mass deaths on August 21.

Yesterday, Dale Gavlak, a respected freelance journalist who is a frequent correspondent for the Associated Press, issued the following statement:

"Mint Press News incorrectly used my byline for an article it published on August 29, 2013 alleging chemical weapons usage by Syrian rebels. Despite my repeated requests, made directly and through legal counsel, they have not been willing to issue a retraction stating that I was not the author. Yahya Ababneh is the sole reporter and author of the Mint Press News piece. To date, Mint Press News has refused to act professionally or honestly in regards to disclosing the actual authorship and sources for this story.

"I did not travel to Syria, have any discussions with Syrian rebels, or do any other reporting on which the article is based. The article is not based on my personal observations and should not be given credence based on my journalistic reputation. Also, it is false and misleading to attribute comments made in the story as if they were my own statements."

Meanwhile, another website – – which collaborated with Mint Press in circulating the story, issued an apology. It said:

"We originally linked to [the article], but then reprinted [it] on our site at the request of Mint Press because traffic on their site was crashing their server. The validity of the story was primarily based on the fact that the supposed co-author (Dale Gavlak) is a reporter for Associated Press ...

"The staff of sincerely and deeply apologises for being a part of spreading this article. We also apologise to Dale Gavlak."

Mint Press itself has so far made no comment beyond attaching a note to the original article which says: 

"Dale Gavlak assisted in the research and writing process of this article, but was not on the ground in Syria. Reporter Yahya Ababneh, with whom the report was written in collaboration, was the correspondent on the ground ..."

While Gavlak insists that she was not an "author" of the article and did not contribute to the "reporting" in the story, the statement does not specifically say she had no involvement at all. This leaves open the possibility that she contributed in some other way – for example by helping to edit it.

Gavlak is plainly embarrassed at the extent to which her name has been linked to such a dubious and highly-publicised story but she does appear to have a more-than-casual relationship with Mint Press. Its website describes her as one of its Middle East correspondents; she has previously contributed at least 15 articles and has her own Mint Press email address. 

There are two other oddities relating to Gavlak's role or non-role in this affair. One is that a "Dale Gavlak" Twitter account (see screenshot) was deleted around September 3 – just a few days after the Mint Press article appeared. The other is that someone created a "Dale Gavlak" Facebook page on August 30, one day after the Mint Press article, and there are claims that the page may be a fake.

Brian Whitaker's e-book is a detailed account of the disinformation campaign surrounding chemical attacks in Syria.
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Now that Gavlak has dissociated herself from the "rebel weapons" story, its credibility hinges entirely on her alleged co-author, Yahya Ababneh and his anonymous sources in Syria.

There seems to be no doubt that Ababneh does exist and that he is a Jordanian who has studied journalism. So far, however, no evidence has been uncovered to support his claim to have carried out journalistic 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".

Extensive Google searches in Arabic and English have so far failed to locate any article published under his name – apart from his apparent scoop for Mint News on Saudi-supplied chemical weapons in Syria (see earlier blog post). Various people have also been trying to contact him through social media, so far without any response.

If it turns out that Ababneh has made false claims about his journalistic career there will be no reason to trust his reporting from Syria either. Unless he surfaces soon to defend himself, people are surely going to assume the worst.