In an April 6 article for Ha'aretz I wrote with two co-authors, I traced the widely circulated claim that 90 percent of Christians had been ethnically cleansed from the Syrian city of Homs by Islamist militants back to a site known as al-Haqiqa (Arabic for "The Truth"). This site, despite claiming to oppose the Assad regime while being critical of the Syrian opposition, is accurately described by the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) as a "pro-Assad" site.
Having shown the dubious veracity of the claim, I received abusive messages via Facebook on the following day from a Syrian journalist named Nizar Nayouf, who is currently living in exile in Europe. He started with, "Had it not been published in 'Haaretz', and you taught [note: I'm a student] in 'Oxford', I would think you are a member of the 'Al Qaeda' or 'Mujahid' with 'Abu Musab al-Zarqawi!!'" He also included a denunciation for working with the "U.S.-Israeli racist Daniel Pipes."
Nayouf's attacks didn't stop there. I was also greeted with my photo (along with a shot of Daniel Pipes) posted with the headline "Israeli Newspaper Recruits Daniel Pipes' Boys To Attack 'al-Haqiqa' and Defend the Criminals of the 'al-Farouq Brigade'" on the front page of the al-Haqiqa website.
In the purported exposé, al-Haqiqa supposedly cites an anonymous Iraqi student at Oxford University to claim that I am actually an Israeli spy directing a Mossad operation network in Iraqi Kurdistan, hiding under the pseudonym of Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi. As further evidence of this, al-Haqiqa draws attention to the fact that my profile picture on Facebook is an IDF paratrooper badge from the Yom Kippur War, as well as my affiliation with the Middle East Forum.
A self-proclaimed Marxist-Trotskyite and founder of the "National Council for Truth, Justice and Reconciliation in Syria" (SYNATIC), which is said to be the publisher of al-Haqiqa, Nayouf appears to have started life as a legitimate critic of the Assad dynasty. He was apparently imprisoned for just over nine years by the Syrian regime (from 17 March 1992 until 6 May 2001). He has also received numerous awards pertaining to press freedom.
Nonetheless, many of his recent articles, especially those on al-Haqiqa, push regime-friendly propaganda with numerous stories that can only be described as bogus.
Nayouf furthers his writing by playing to the fringe conspiracy-theorist community. In December 2011, Nayouf was interviewed by and contributed to a story with 9/11 conspiracy theorist James Corbett (an "independent journalist" who has also written a series of essays on the "New World Order"). The interview centered on Nayouf hilariously claiming (based on unnamed sources of his in Jordan) that U.S. troops were amassing on the Jordanian border with Syria.
Nayouf's other Arabic articles are rife with harebrained conspiracy theories. In a number of other pieces, he makes rambling references to American, Saudi, and Israeli plots against Syria -- many following a line established by the Assad regime.
In one note he published on Facebook and subsequently carried on other websites, Nayouf accused French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy and Free Syrian Army commander Riad al-Assaad of being agents for the CIA and French intelligence in an effort to assist with, "criminal acts in Afghanistan during the '80s and '90s for al-Qaeda." In the same note Nayouf addressed a nonexistent "campaign to expel Syria from UNESCO," stating "all those who take part in the campaign to expel Syria from UNESCO are committing an Israeli and Talbanistic crime."
He even accused Lebanon's pro-Western and anti-Assad Sunni Muslim party, al-Mustaqbal, of being a "gang of spies" hell bent on furthering "Wahabbism" in Syria. This was all part of an effort to "open the door for all forms of invaders, starting with the generals of Israel."
Often Nayouf mixes anti-Semitic themes with his critiques of Islamism by accusing the Wahabbism of being "Talmudic." In another article covering Mohamed Merah, the al Qaeda inspired gunman who murdered three French soldiers, three young Jewish students, and a rabbi, al-Haqiqa implied that the perpetrator might have been a controlled asset of the Israelis or French intelligence services.
Coming back to the article for Ha'aretz, it is to be noted that one of the reasons that the veracity of al-Haqiqa's original story on alleged mass ethnic cleansing of Christians from Homs was challenged is that the "report" made no reference to the phenomenon of imposition of jizya (the traditional "poll-tax" in Islam extorted from Jewish and Christian minorities living under the "protection" of Islamic law: a concept not dissimilar to the Sicilian Mafia's protection rackets).
And so, what does Nayouf have his al-Haqiqa outlet put out just three days after our article was published? An "exclusive" 1300-word report claiming that the al-Faruq Brigade has been imposing jizya on Christians in Homs Governorate. This is no coincidence: Nizar has clearly intended his outlet's "report" to be a refutation of the Ha'aretz article.
Credit for drawing attention to this al-Haqiqa report goes to BBC Monitoring Middle East (BBC-MME), which, like MEMRI, does a good job of highlighting Arabic media discourse for English speakers via a mailing list for subscribers. Indeed, it should immediately be noticed that the BBC-MME summary of the story does not in any way vouch for the claims made by al-Haqiqa. Had the BBC thought there was any veracity to the report, it would surely have highlighted the story on its website.
What further reveals the bogus nature of this latest al-Haqiqa story is the additional claim that "hundreds of Pakistani armed men" have flooded into the Homs area to fight the regime's forces. Nayouf's outlet traces this claim to "very reliable local sources" that account for this Pakistani presence by attributing the fighters' origins to Turkey and Europe (and the UK in particular).
Really? There no other reports in other outlets to corroborate these claims. Why have these Pakistani fighters come to Syria but did not similarly head to Iraq to fight the Shi'i-led Iraqi government's forces and the "infidel" coalition forces that were occupying a Muslim country at the height of the Iraq War?
In fact, hundreds of foreign Sunni jihadists were captured in Iraq by coalition forces, and none of them had Pakistani origins. A 2008 report from the West Point based Combating Terrorism Center only reported one Pakistani being detained at Camp Bucca, the main detainment center for third-party nationals in Iraq. The fact is that the overwhelming majority of foreign Sunni insurgents were Arab fighters from the Middle East and North Africa.
Dr. Jonathan Spyer is a senior research fellow at the GLORIA Center and spent time in February embedded with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) inside Syria. When asked about al-Haqiqa's report his answer was clear, "File under regime cut-out, fake opposition, straight out of the Ba'athist playbook.… Of course there are Islamist fighters in the FSA and this should not be denied or underestimated but this particular info sounds very much like regime info-ops."
For good measure, I also forwarded al-Haqiqa's story to left-wing journalist Nir Rosen. Like Nayouf, Rosen is no fan of U.S. policy in the region. Yet unlike Nayouf, Rosen has traveled extensively inside Syria (especially in Homs) over the past year.
Rosen stated that al-Haqiqa's story of imposition of jizya was completely fictitious, pointing out that even if the al-Faruq Brigade wanted to impose jizya, it is not in control of the areas named in the report, lacking sufficient organization to gain said control. Moreover, there is no evidence that the al-Faruq Brigade is led and dominated by Islamist militants wanting to impose jizya on Christians.
It is unfortunate that Nayouf and al-Haqiqa are continuing to disseminate false claims of mass persecution of Christians in Syria by the opposition, and putting such unsubstantiated stories in the mouths of "Christian sources" in Homs Governorate. The effect of this material portrays Christians as propagandists for the regime. This is something that will only inflame any anti-Christian sentiment that already exists and could turn claims of mass persecution into self-fulfilling prophecies.
Lacking arms or a defensible geographic hinterland to defend themselves, Christians are generally "sitting on the fence" and refraining from openly taking sides in the present conflict. It is not in their interests to be portrayed as partisans. Thus, Nayouf and al-Haqiqa are not helping Syrian Christians.
Let us hope they will desist from any further irresponsible dissemination of bogus reports and conspiracy theories.
Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi is a student at Brasenose College, Oxford University, and an adjunct fellow at the Middle East Forum.