Tuesday, November 14, 2006

When sorry seems to be the most expensive word to say

When I was reading last week's edition of the Economist on the bus to work I was struck by one full page advert. Despite being an Economist subscriber and a fan of its news coverage, I realise from the adverts in the paper that I'm not part of their core-demographic. My eyes just move over all the advertising without stopping: I don't play golf and never will so my brain can just ignore that Tiger Woods wears a certain watch or represents some management consultancy or other. As the kids say - I sooo don't care. But this ad was different - plain text with the large title:

"An apology to Sheikh Khalid Bin Mahfouz and Sheikh Abdulrahman Bin Mahfouz"
slap bang in the middle of the United States section of the newspaper.

The apology is from Jean-Charles Brisard and Guillaume Dasquié who together had written a book called “Forbidden Truth”, first published in French and later in English. It would appear that they had claimed that Messrs Mahfouz and Mahfouz had been involved in financing al-Qaeda. The Saudi gentlemen had clearly taken exception to this, sued Messrs Brisard and Dasquié, and won. News reports say that the businessmen will donate their damages to UNICEF, which is a nice touch.

The authors are described as “upstart Western writers who, passing themselves off as international terrorism financing experts, have been dishing out all kinds of nonsense in the name of journalism” by one unnamed Jeddah businessman in a news report on the case. Harsh words indeed, but perhaps there is a grain of truth there. This gets back to what in an earlier entry I have called “the terrorism industry”. Brisard is very industrious in his work and has carved a little niche for himself post-9/11 as an “international expert on terrorism financing” (see the blog header). But what this is built upon is slightly obscure. Google turns up various things: it seems he worked for Vivendi at some point, or was at least a consultant to them, and also for the “French secret services” (whatever that actually means – why the plural?). But he has given evidence to Senate committees in the US and the United Nations, as well as vast numbers of media interviews and has written a number of books. There is definitely a virtuous circle you can get into, once you are known as an “expert” journalists call you because of it. Then you say – “look at how many journalists want to ask me questions! I’m clearly an expert”. But not only is Mr. Brisard getting sued, loosing and having to publish grovelling apologies in international newspapers, the original work that propelled him to fame "Bin Laden; the Forbidden Truth" seems to be pretty dubious on many other grounds beyond his allegations about the Mahfouzes. David Corn of the Nation, a well known lefty, anti-Bush journalist, laid into Brisard back in 2002, along with other 9/11 conspiracy-mongers, for actually diverting attention from all the stupid things American governments have really done, by focusing on things they almost certainly haven’t. To their credit, the Nation gave Brisard a full right of reply, but this is just enough rope for Corn to hang him all over again.

The gist of Brisard’s argument seems to be that the US government provoked 9/11 by trying to pressure the Taliban into conceding to the US’s oil interests. The “it’s all about the oil” argument led to much interest in Brisard from the harder left in America (see the TruthOut.org article linked above). Yet Brisard is not to be pigeonholed, despite making friends on the US left, he seems to have more now on the American right – being quoted favourably by the circle of scholars and researchers that seems to revolve around the Counter-Terrorism Blog, and Steve Emerson’s organisation. Brisard’s thesis that Saudi Arabia is at the centre of the nexus of funding of Jihadi terrorism would find much favour with some of these writers who tend to be very sceptical about Saudi. There is of course plenty of evidence to back that scepticism up, but it just seems that Mr. Brisard got the names wrong. Brisard is also a long time member of the “get Tariq Ramadan”-squad. For those who don’t know, Tariq Ramadan – currently a visiting professor at Oxford University – is either the leading theorist of a new form of liberal, free-thinking Euro-Islam and a great hope for a future of peace between religions, or he’s an evil terrorist mastermind. It kind of depends on who you ask, but Mr. Brisard falls into the latter camp. For example on his blog he points to possible contacts that Ramadan had with Ayman al-Zawahiri in 1991. In fact Brisard’s blog isn’t very big and Ramadan is a reoccurring theme. We don’t know what the contacts were, even if they were true, but to Mr. Brisard that is enough to say he is linked to terrorism. Funnily enough, I have met Ramadan, as has Mr. Brisard himself, so are we now also “linked” to terrorism?

Some supporters (scroll down) see the libel cases against Brisard and Dasquié as being a case of the Saudi Kingdom using its bottomless pockets trying to silence its critics who have seen the truth of its support for terrorists, but courts in Switzerland and the UK disagree with that interpretation in this particular case at least. And if you want to Saudi-bash, there are so many easier ways of doing it.

I was on Finnish TV this morning talking about terrorism. They wanted me because they see me as “a terrorism expert”, a term I’m immensely uncomfortable with. I will continue to happily call myself a researcher as there is always something else to read, or another person to talk to, but I’m coming to the conclusion that if anyone calls themselves a terrorist expert, you should run a mile.

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