SACC urges caution over Glasgow terror claims

SACC Press Release, Sunday 16 August 2015

SACC urges great caution over claims that an unidentified Glasgow woman is planning to carry out a terrorist attack in the UK.

The claim was made by an Islamic State recruiter based in Syria in online chat with a member of a Sky News team posing as a potential recruit. It appears not to have been corroborated from any other source.

The supposed Glasgow terrorist may be a fiction invented by the recruiter in order reassure the would-be "recruit" by offering indications of a trend. Or the supposed terrorist could be another investigator, either from the media or from an intelligence agency.

The Islamic State recruiter is said to be a British woman called Sally Jones (aka Umm Hussein), who is believed to have travelled to Syria in 2013.

The information about the supposed Glasgow terrorist was made public by Sky News on Tuesday and was said to have followed a four-month Sky News investigation. The revelations came two days after the Sunday Herald published an article by SACC Chair Richard Haley, critical of  the ‘Prevent’ strategy that the government says is intended to stop people turning to terrorism.

SACC continues to believe that ‘Prevent’ is one of the factors that could drive people in Britain towards terrorism, as well as being widely damaging to democracy and community relations.

Police obviously need to follow up any indication that a terrorist attack may be being planned. But the evidence in this case is very flimsy. Sensational media reporting of the story is in our view extremely unhelpful.

The Sunday Herald reports today that the security service has nicknamed the hypothetical terrorist "Betty Bomber". The evidence that "Betty" exists is at the moment much thinner than evidence that "Nessie" exists. Whatever the intentions of the officer who coined the phrase, its repetition by the media creates a spurious impression that the security service is looking for a definite individual.

The Sunday Herald’s headline squeals: "Scots terror police hunt female jihadi nicknamed Betty Bomber." But the police are reported in the article as saying that the supposed terrorist "might in fact be a fake propaganda exercise by terrorists rather than a real person."

The Daily Record's article today runs under a similar headline, with "fears grow over a potential attack" for an added thrill.

Various newspapers reported a week ago that un-named sources had told them of a specific terrorist threat against the Queen, with an attack planned for the VJ Day commemoration held in London yesterday. More recent reports have linked this to the supposed Glasgow terrorist.

All this recalls the hype that Scottish media manufactured over the arrest of seven Algerian men on terrorism charges in December 2002. The charges were eventually dropped, but they served nicely as a warm-up for the US-UK attack on Iraq in March 2003.

The Sunday Herald says in today's article that "it recently emerged" that "up to seven" British recruits had been trained by "Daesh" and that "it is understood" that training includes bomb-making and the use of grenades and other weapons. The paper does not explain that this information came from a meeting reported this week by Sky News between their journalists and an Islamic State representative in Turkey, held as part of the same investigation as the sting that supposedly revealed the existence of the Glasgow terrorist.

A reader could easily form the impression that evidence is accumulating to corroborate the Sky News story. There is no such evidence.

On Friday various media outlets, including the Birmingham Mail, the Daily Record and the Independent reported an un-named source – presumably from Special Branch or MI5 (the Security Service) – as saying that Islamic state recruiter Sally Jones had possibly been sighted in Birmingham, and that Special Branch officers were "on full alert" for her. The source is quoted as saying Sally Jones was "last seen in Birmingham with two individuals, aged 18 and 22." No date or approximate timeframe is given for the sighting. The reader is left to infer from the context that it must have been recent.

Scotland Yard was less forthcoming than the un-named source and refused to comment on the story to the Birmingham Mail.

The story about the Sally Jones sighting has given fresh life to the Sky News revelations, but it is not clear that it has any value beyond that.

The Sky News story raises difficult questions about journalistic ethics. It isn’t clear whether the Sky News team’s first reported contact with police – after they had been told online by Islamic State about other recruits in Britain – was indeed their first contact with law-enforcement or intelligence agencies. It isn’t clear how they dealt with the risk that their own social media posts might amount to offences under UK terrorism laws. It isn’t clear how they dealt with the possibility that their posts might have encouraged Islamic State to believe that the mood amongst UK sympathisers was ripe for induction into acts of terrorism. Yet this is the very issue that Sky News says it was investigating.

Inserting a journalist into a script that might have been written for "Homeland" is good entertainment and may perhaps be exciting for the participants, but it isn't necessarily an investigation.

Investigative journalism like this risks muddying waters already made very murky by terrorists and intelligence operatives. Uncritical re-mixes of the story by other media outlets exacerbate the problem. Journalists must behave responsibly.

Notes

Scots terror police hunt female jihadi nicknamed Betty Bomber, The Sunday Herald, 16 August 2015

Exclusive: IS Bombers In UK Ready To Attack, Sky News, 11 August 2015

How New Islamic State Threat Was Uncovered, Sky News, 11August 2015

ISIS recruiter Sally Jones 'spotted in Birmingham' as fears mount of UK terror attack, Birmingham Mail, 14 August 2015

ISIS recruiter dubbed 'Mrs Terror' may be heading for Scotland with two young jihadis in tow, Daily Record, 14 August

Anti-terror cops hunt Scots jihadist dubbed 'Betty Bomber' as fears grow over potential attack, Daily Record, 16 August