Saturday, August 9, 2014


In mid-July 2014, Time attempted an antiviral intervention against the first Internet hoax involving NSA leaker Edward Snowden. "Why Iran Believes the Militant Group ISIS Is an American Plot" read the headline above a lead that began, "Conspiracy theories are nothing new in the Middle East…." This particular rumor, said Time, had "assumed truthlike proportions through multiple reposts and links." It postulated a secret U.S., British and Israeli op—codenamed "Hornet's Nest"—hatching the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) to attract terrorists worldwide to so vex the region that Israel's enemies would be in Biblical disarray. Time traced the hoax to Iran's official Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA), which Time accused of "concocting an obviously fictional fake Snowden interview to bolster the narrative." Six days later, IRNA reacted testily, complaining that Time (which it called "Times") had smeared IRNA's report as "fabricated" without once referring to its original source, billionaire Pierre Omidyar's online startup The Intercept.
The problem is that, between its February 10, 2014 launch and July 14, The Intercept had posted 258 pages of NSA documents leaked by Snowden and numerous articles based on those leaks, but hadn't said a word about Israel's national intelligence arm, the Mossad, grooming ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as chief stinger for the Hornet's Nest. In the 30-day run-up to July 6, when the story first surfaced, The Intercept published just four articles, none of which mentioned Mossad or al-Baghdadi. "Hornet's Nest" occurred twice on The Intercept's website, in comments posted by reader Kelly on July 21 and July 29—weeks after the hoax began—both in the context of Hamas being ill-advised to stir the metaphorical Israeli hornet's nest causing the "entire swarm" to attack; her comment had nothing to do with a secret U.S., British and Israeli op involving ISIS. It's also significant that in rebuttal to Time, IRNA neglects to include a single hyperlink to The Intercept or any of "several other news outlets" that IRNA claims "also published The Intercept story." As we shall see, this omission of links to sources is de rigueur for articles spreading the hoax.
Ironically, among those failing to link crucial documents is Time itself, which somehow forgets to point us to what it calls IRNA's "scoop" that supposedly started the fuss. Instead we're linked to the Tehran Times, where Time says an English translation of IRNA's scoop "recently" appeared—only to be confronted with the Tehran Times home page, not any specific article. Using the site's search function, we get 50 hits on the keyword "Snowden," but none more recent than April 2014 and none translating IRNA's scoop. To conclude that IRNA "concocted an obviously fictional fake Snowden interview," a reader must rely on the opinion of Time's Middle East Bureau Chief, Aryn Baker. That leaves rigorous debunkers unfulfilled.
Regrettably, not knowing the date of IRNA's scoop, or being able to view its text online, complicates investigation. The earliest available evidence of the Snowden Hoax is a July 6 post in Arabic with a title that roughly translates as "Snowden: Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the result of a three-nation intelligence cooperation."
Its pseudonymous author is "shababek," which is also the name of the website where it is posted within a German domain, All of the elements of the nascent hoax are in place. Edward Snowden is said to have revealed that the NSA, together with Britain's secret intelligence service MI6 and Israel's Mossad, "paved the way for the emergence" of ISIS as part of "an old British plan known as the 'Hornet's Nest' for the protection of the Zionist entity." Al-Baghdadi underwent "intensive," year-long military training "at the hands of the Mossad." The source of Snowden's revelations is The Intercept. There are no hyperlinks.
Social media puts a face to "shababek." The Twitter account @shababekT is active but contains only three tweets, in Arabic, all from August 2012 and two containing busted links to the website The profile photo shows a well-groomed, black-haired man in his 40s with goatee, dressed in a conventional business suit with necktie, above the name Kareem Al baidani. The same photo adorns the Facebook page of Abosamir Albaidani, who posts in Arabic, most recently in October 2013, and self-identifies as a graduate engineer. Some of these posts too contain broken links to A different photo of the same man, taken later judging from his graying goatee, is on the Facebook page of Kareem Al-Baidani, who likewise posts in Arabic, mainly about Iraq and most recently in March 2014, and again with nonfunctional links to Without reading Arabic, one can glean from the Internet that Kareem Al-Baidani is an Iraqi Shiite writer based in Munich, Germany. His Facebook photo is copyright Irak Heute Programm, which is German for Iraq Today program. A TV show by that name—"Al-Iraq Alyom" (Iraq Today)—appears on Al-Alam, an Arabic news channel broadcasting from Iran by the state-owned media corporation Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting.
These tenuous connections between an Iraqi Shiite writer and Iran's state-controlled media are at most suggestive. We cannot say definitively that Kareem Al-Baidani is Hoaxer Zero, whose three-part inventions about the NSA, MI6 and Mossad hornet's nest exposed by Edward Snowden found a ready audience, initially in the Middle East but soon around the world. Nevertheless, we can note that a day after he posted the hoax online, it was picked up—word for word—on the Arabic website Iraq Now, with an expanded title: "Snowden: Abu Bakral-Baghdadi, the result of a three-nation intelligence cooperation and trainedby the Israeli Mossad." The following day, the Arabic version of Iran's semi-official Fars News Agency (FNA) ran the story, again identical to Al-Baidani's original but with a snappier headline: "Snowden:Baghdadi underwent an intensive course at the hands of Mossad."
FNA was no stranger to Snowden-related stories of shady provenance. In January 2014 and in apparent seriousness, FNA published "Snowden Documents Proving "US-Alien-Hitler" Link Stun Russia" to the effect that space aliens run the U.S. government. (No jokes, please.) It linked to a piece posted the previous day at that relied on, but provided no link to, a "stunning" report from Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB). Neither of these articles linked to any Snowden docs. And more than a year before, Fars had republished as straight reporting a piece from The Onion's satirical website claiming that a Gallup poll found rural white Americans preferred Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, then president of Iran, over U.S. President Obama. So it's entirely consistent for a propaganda arm of the Iranian government to disseminate disinformation by invoking that internationally recognized paragon of truthfulness, Edward Snowden. In this case, Fars would be especially motivated by a threat much closer to home than space aliens. About 90% of Iranians are Shia, which is the official state religion; only 9% are Sunni or Sufi. ISIS, by contrast, grew out of the Sunni insurgency and built its violent reputation by brutalizing Shia Muslims. Naturally Iran would strive to defame the hated and feared ISIS and al-Baghdadi through association with the demonic three-headed hydra U.S., Britain and Israel.
Citing FNA as an impeccable authority, the hoax next began to spread in languages other than Arabic. Just two days after Kareem Al-Baidani's brainchild emerged from its birth canal, Al-Manar—a Beirut-based Lebanese satellite TV station affiliated with the Shia Islamist terrorist organization Hezbollah—published the story in Spanish, titled "Snowden: el líder del EI fue formado por el Mossad israelí." Al-Manar added a decorative touch by illustrating its piece with a posed photo of NBC News anchorman Brian Williams and Edward Snowden taken to promote NBC's May 2014 exclusive interview with the leaker, televised 41 days before Al-Manar published this article that never mentions said interview. The picture of two men seated pensively in front of tasteful, well-stocked wooden bookcases just looks good, is all.
Finally, three days into the hoax, an article appeared that linked to a reputable news outlet. At last! Baghdad-based Iraqi satellite TV network Alsumaria's "Snowden: Al-Baghdadi is the product of three intelligence cooperation" identified its source with the familiar hyperlinked logo of Arabic CNN. Alas, this led merely to the homepage and no specific story. Good luck finding Alsumaria's source. The blog Going Global East Meets West soon followed suit by linking its story to the "original source" that turned out to be—you guessed it—Alsumaria's report relying on an unspecified post at Arabic CNN. The Snowden Hoax had now become circular and self-contained. Whereas earlier versions simply omitted sources outright and unashamedly, subsequent iterations would cite them as sources.
Five days in, the hoax transitioned to Persian with "Snowden: Abu Bakral-Baghdadi made in Britain, America and Mossad," published by Salam Times. The article cited the Iranian Students' News Agency, run by university students, but contained no links. That same day, the hoax debuted in French with Croah's "Snowden confirme que Al Baghdadi a été formé par le MOSSAD," linking to Al-Manar's day-old French translation of its two-day old Spanish report.
Croah, however, replaced the shot of Brian Williams and Snowden with side-by-side photos of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and Snowden seemingly glancing at each other with mutual distrust. This would thereafter fortify other articles and tweets promoting the hoax, as if one picture proved a thousand falsehoods.
Indeed, the same contrived image gilded the hoax's first article in English, from Som Daily News, based in Somalia, East Africa. All of five sentences long, it was titled "Snowden confirms that Al Baghdadi was trained by MOSSAD" (web page has since expired Four days later, the Som Daily News story was picked up by Gulf Daily News, the self-proclaimed Voice of Bahrain, headlined "Baghdadi 'Mossad trained,'" and by a blog calling itself The Real Syrian Free Press Network, headlined "Strategy 'hornet's nest': Snowden confirms that Al Baghdadi was trained by Mossad." Just to be safe, The Muslim Times then named both Som Daily News and Gulf Daily News as sources for "Baghdadi 'Mossad trained': Edward Snowden."
Ten days in, the virus jumped the Atlantic. "ISIS Leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi Trained by Israeli Mossad, NSA Documents Reveal" at the Canadian website Global Research cited as its source Gulf Daily News, which had cited as its source Som Daily News. Having spread geographically from Germany to Iraq to Iran to Lebanon to France to Somalia to Bahrain to Syria, and linguistically from Arabic to Spanish to French to Persian to English, the readily adaptable Snowden Hoax was ideally positioned to infect North America. As a bonus, foreign outlets could now point to an ostensibly authoritative Western source, as happened the next day. As its basis for "Former CIA Agent: 'The Isis Leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi Was Trained by the Israeli Mossad,'" The Moroccan Times cited the lofty-sounding, Montreal-based Centre for Research on Globalization, a self-described "major news source on the New World Order" that runs the Global Research website.
On July 19, scarcely two weeks after Kareem Al-Baidani cooked it up in Munich and the same day Time sought to discredit it, the Snowden Hoax arrived in America. InfoWars, the website of popular broadcaster Alex Jones, gave us "NSA Doc Reveals ISIS Leader al-Baghdadi is U.S., British and Israeli Intelligence Asset." It led off with an Editor's Note (never a good sign) stating that writer Kurt Nimmo's piece was based on "a document recently released by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden" (no link thereto), the validity of which "cannot be verified due to the exclusivity of the Snowden cache." So it was released (to whom?) but nevertheless remains secret. InfoWars said the cache was being kept by The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, journalist Barton Gellman, filmmaker Laura Poitras, Glenn Greenwald, the ACLU, Electronic Frontier Foundation and others, but didn't speculate as to why none of those privileged parties had breathed a word about the Mossad training al-Baghdadi. Those who had Snowden's ear and his stolen documents were strangely silent on this sensational story, whereas those covering it hadn't spoken to Snowden and were denied access to the documents about which they were reporting. Welcome to the upside-down, inside-out world of the Snowden Hoax.
As it happened, on August 6, Glenn Greenwald—principal keeper of the Snowden cache—did belatedly weigh in on the story. Starting more than three weeks before, 10 people had tweeted intermittently to Greenwald (renowned for his intense daily engagement on Twitter) alerting him to the hoax, providing links to false reports, and respectfully asking him to refute the fraud. Finally, London-based freelance journalist Sunny Hundal tweeted: "@ggreenwald Just to confirm, did Snowden ever say the ISIS chief al-Baghdadi was trained by Mossad? Hearing it all over FB [Facebook]." Greenwald replied immediately: "I've never heard him say any such thing, nor have I ever heard any credible source quoting him saying anything like that." On August 10, Greenwald reiterated: "I've never seen anywhere where he said that, nor any documents that suggest it." At exactly the same time, down to the minute, Snowden's ACLU lawyer Ben Wizner coincidentally concurred in a single-word tweet: "Hoax."
A few days after The Moroccan Times published "Former CIA agent: 'The ISIS leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi was trained by the Israeli Mossad,'" it appended its own EDITOR'S NOTE, going InfoWars one better by using ALL CAPS: "Time Magazine has released on July 19, 2014 an article arguing that this story, which was reported by many Iranian sources including Iran News Agency, is a conspiracy theory from Iran and that it is not true. Nevertheless, it is worth pointing out that though the piece of news went viral on the net, Snowden did not refute the claims of the Iranian News Agency." In the quaint intellectual discipline of logic, asserting that a proposition is true because it hasn't been proven false is called argumentum ad ignorantiam (argument from ignorance). Since The Moroccan Times intrepidly elevates this informal fallacy to the level of an EDITOR'S NOTE, it's doubtful they'd be much impressed by Greenwald's or Wizner's tweets. After all, it wasn't Snowden himself refuting the hoax. So it must be true.
Two days after Greenwald spoke out, his rival WikiLeaks chimed in, tweeting: "#Snowden docs reveal #ISIS trained by Mossad—falsely claims #Bahrain gov affiliated newspaper Gulf Daily News." A link was provided thereto. "It is," WikiLeaks resumed in a follow-on tweet, "intentional fabrication by or accepted by the Bahraini government affiliated news site Gulf Daily News." WikiLeaks seemed unaware that Gulf Daily News almost word-for-word plagiarized the Som Daily News story published four days before. Over an hour later, WikiLeaks tried again, tweeting: "Ground zero for false 'Snowden docs show ISIS leader trained by Mossad' story goes back to last month in Algeria." This time the link was to Algé's "Snowden: « Le chef de l’EIIL, Al Baghdadi, a été formé par le Mossad » [Snowden: 'The head of EIIL, Al Baghdadi, was trained by Mossad']." The Algerian article was dated July 11—three days after Iran's Fars News Agency ran the story. Hardly ground zero, Julian.
In any case, Twitter's role in spreading the Snowden Hoax was instrumental. To measure its effect, a search was conducted to find tweets containing all three names "Mossad al-Baghdadi Snowden" within the 30-day range July 8–August 7, 2014. The results were entered into a database, omitting only tweets where the sender questioned the rumor's authenticity. The goal was to capture tweets promoting the hoax, not doubting or disputing it.

A total of 1219 tweets was compiled from 1016 unique senders. Nearly 89% (903) of senders tweeted just once, accounting for 74% of the database. Among the 11% who tweeted twice or more (113 senders for a combined 316 tweets), only two hit double digits: @kelpo1002 (27), who tweeted in French to more than 1K followers, and @AnonOperations2 (11), who tweeted in English to 560+ followers. Based on this analysis and on a visual review of every tweet collected, it seems unlikely any were generated by automated methods such as bots. These have the look and feel of genuine tweets from real people.
Spikes on July 10 and July 14 correspond to publication of, respectively: "Snowden confirms that Al Baghdadi was trained by MOSSAD" [expired]

In conclusion, more than 30 days after its initial outbreak, the Snowden Hoax continues unchecked. Any notion that WikiLeaks might halt the spread was quickly dispelled, due mainly to their clumsily worded tweet: "#Snowden docs reveal #ISIS trained by Mossad—falsely claims #Bahrain gov affiliated newspaper Gulf Daily News." Some readers missed or misunderstood the throwaway "falsely claims" and took it as confirmation of the hoax by WikiLeaks, the organization Snowden himself had praised to the sky: "They are absolutely fearless in putting principles above politics. Their efforts to build a transnational culture of transparency and source protection are extraordinary. They run towards the risks everyone else runs away from."
No surprise, then, that among the replies posted directly were these:
Sheba ‏@sahi_100: "I could well believe this."
Naheed R ‏@naheedR: "Doesn't surprise one bit. They all look like bad actors."
Abdul Rahman @Engr_AR: "Agree, shame on Mossad."
nu2twitr ‏@4in4mation: "Filthy Zionist Jews are Behind ISIS Terror Group."
Within 24 hours of posting, WikiLeaks's tweet had been retweeted 465 times by readers to their followers, and marked as a favorite 155 times. (In contrast, Greenwald's by then three-day-old tweet still hadn't made it out of single digits for either RTs or favorites.) Abandoning the orphaned "falsely," some readers extracted the first clause as a standalone, unqualified endorsement, attributing to WikiLeaks the very untruth that WikiLeaks had sought to expose.
the hermawans ‏@KerjaInterior: "RT @wikileaks: #Snowden docs reveal #ISIS trained by Mossad."
Riswandha Risang ‏@r_risang: "Snowden docs reveal that ISIS trained by Mossad – Wikileaks."
David Plater ‏@PlaterDavid: "'@wikileaks: #Snowden docs reveal #ISIS trained by Mossad.' So @foreignoffice @StateDept What does yr intel say?"
Hell, David, at this point, after the feverish onslaught of a month-long infection by the Snowden Hoax, it might be a relief to see a tweet from the verified U.S. Department of State @StateDept account conceding, once and for all, that Snowden's phantom NSA documents and imaginary interviews do indeed prove that Mossad trained al-Baghdadi and that Operation Hornet's Nest is real. Maybe then these loonies on the Internet will give it a rest.
Nah. Who am I kidding? They're like the alien seed pods in Invasion of the Body Snatchers. They're here already! You're next! You're next!