Syria 'rebel chemicals' story gets weirder

The story behind the story about Saudi Arabia supposedly providing Syrian rebels with chemical weapons gets weirder and weirder, though perhaps also a little clearer.

For readers who haven't been following the tale, I'll start with a quick catch-up. Last month an American website, Mint Press News, reported claims from anonymous sources in Syria suggesting that Prince Bandar of Saudi Arabia had provided rebel fighters with chemical weapons which the rebels then handled "improperly", causing mass deaths on August 21. 

The story was widely circulated on the internet and has since been cited by Russia and others in order to cast doubt on the findings of the UN weapons inspectors.

Mint Press named the journalists who wrote the story as Dale Gavlak (an established freelance based in Jordan who has worked regularly for the Associated Press) and Yahya Ababneh (a young Jordanian who claims 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"). 

The story got more attention than it might otherwise have deserved because Gavlak's relationship with the Associated Press gave it an air of credibility. Ababneh, on the other hand, is virtually unknown and Google searches for examples of his previous journalistic work issued a statement denying that she was an "author" or "reporter" for the article. "Yahya Ababneh is the sole reporter and author," she said. It was a carefully-worded statement which did not specifically exclude the possibility that Gavlak had been involved in some other capacity in helping to produce the story.

Today, Gavlak's actual role has become clearer. In an email to the Brown Moses blog she stated that although she did no reporting in Syria and could not corroborate Ababneh's account she had edited his article because he normally writes in Arabic, and submitted it to Mint Press on his behalf.

Brian Whitaker's e-book is a detailed account of the disinformation campaign surrounding chemical attacks in Syria.
Read it online
Download as PDF
See also:
Collected blog posts
Related documents

Gavlak also says she asked Mint Press to publish the article under Ababneh's name only, because "I helped him write up his story but he should get all the credit for this".

Mint Press apparently ignored this and published the article under both names and, according to Gavlak, has since refused to remove her name from it.

It seems that Mint Press wanted Gavlak's name to appear on the article for reasons of credibility but that Gavlak did not want to be publicly associated with it even though she had helped Ababneh to get it into shape and, judging by her email, may even have pitched it to Mint Press in the first place.

It's easy to see why Gavlak, as a correspondent for a major international news agency, might not want to be associated with it. The central part of the story was basically an account of some rumours circulating in Syria with no real supporting evidence. 

If these had been reported simply as interesting rumours there might not have been a problem but they were presented in a way that promoted them as an alternative explanation for the hundreds of sarin deaths in Syria on August 21. Since Gavlak was editing/supervising Ababneh's work she clearly bears some responsibility for that. 

Gavlak also states that she provided Mint Press with biographical information about Ababneh to accompany the article and had unspecified "further communications" with Mint Press about his background. In other words, she appears to have vouched for him as a reporter.

Given that nobody else has succeeded in discovering much about Ababneh or his work, let us hope that Gavlak's next statement or email will cast some light on that.
Posted by Brian Whitaker
Saturday, 21 September 2013