Basic investigative reporting

posted this lovely little find:

An elderly Iraqi woman shows two bullets which she says hit her house following an early coalition forces raid in the predominantly Shiite Baghdad suburb of Sadr City. At least 175 people were slaughtered on Tuesday and more than 200 wounded when four suicide truck bombs targeted people from an ancient religious sect in northern Iraq, officials said. (AFP/Wissam al-Okaili)

So, What’s Wrong With This Picture?

Actually, there are two things — one obvious, one subtle. See if you can catch them both.

The obvious one, which I hope you got, is that the only way those bullets could have hit this woman’s house is if they had been thrown at it — those bullets haven’t been fired. They’re still in their shell casings.

The less-obvious one is hidden in the attribution line of the photo: “AFP/Wissam al-Okaili.” Let’s take a quick look at who this fellow is.

Wissam al-Okaili is an Iraqi name, which is hardly surprising because pretty much all journalism in Iraq has to be done by local sources; westerners can’t exactly walk around in the streets there. (Remember General Odierno explaining that Baghdad was much safer because he could walk a whole 1,000 meters, with a heavy guard, and not be shot?) But if you’re using local sources, it pays to check them out a bit. In the Middle East, and particularly in Iraq, tribal affiliation is really the key. So let’s see what I can find out — knowing little to nothing about local tribal battles and so on — using the net.

First of all, al-Okaili: Okail is a pretty special name. In fact, if you read this commentary on line 69 of Sura al-Anfai (“The Spoils”), about the rules for handling captives of war, you’ll see:

“Among the seventy prisoners whom the Muslims took in this battle were al Abbás, one of Muhammad’s uncles, and Okail, the son of Abu Tálib and brother of Ali.”

The Ali in question is the Ali ibn Abu Talib, fourth caliph and the guy at the center of the foundation of Shi’ite Islam. So right here, I can tell you that the Okaili tribe is an old and established Shi’ite tribe, probably a very respected one (given that they’re all descended from a brother of Ali!). I should also say that someone whose surname is al-Okaili is not just going to be related to this tribe, but from its main line, and is generally advertising that he and his family are in some way Important People in this tribe.

What I can’t tell you, lacking area knowledge, is whether the al-Okaili tribe has split up since then, and some of them become Sunnis or whatever; many tribes have done this sort of thing, and it’s worth knowing. I also can’t tell you who the al-Okaili tribe’s main friends and enemies are, or what particular agenda they’d like to push. But I can do a little more research…

Here, let’s try searching for (okaili -afp -france-presse) to find Okailis other than the photographer. Who else is active in that family right now? Well, we have Abdulmahdi1 al-Okaili, spokesman for Moqtada al-Sadr’s political committee, and Saleh al-Okaili, a legislator from the Sadrist bloc. Which means that this family is tied closely and personally to al-Sadr, who is running the biggest Shi’ite militia in Iraq, and has very close ties right now to Iran.

Now, on its own that wouldn’t be a sure sign that Wissam al-Okaili is really working for al-Sadr; but it sure as hell counts as a sign that one should keep a careful eye on his reporting if one is hiring him as a photojournalist in Iraq. And if you put it together with him reporting things like this… ladies and gentlemen, I think we have a plant.

My question is: This took me about 10 minutes to find via Google. When I started, all I knew was that I wanted to find out the tribal affiliations and biases of a man with a particular name; I didn’t use any specialized knowledge. Why didn’t AFP2 do the same?

I won’t say that Wissam al-Okaili’s close ties to the Sadrist militias disqualify him from being a journalist. But it’s not responsible for his agency to be publishing those pictures without disclosing that sort of affiliation.

And are we — the public, the press, the military, the intelligence community, the foreign service — doing the same sort of due diligence with the other people we’re relying on?


For reference, the sequence of queries I ran to figure all this out: (wissam al-okaili), (okail), (okail tribe) (okail abu talib ali) (okaili sunni -AFP -france-presse).

1OK, let me interject a bit of area knowledge that doesn’t come from a web search here: Abdulmahdi is about as hard-core a Shi’ite name as they come. It roughly translates to “servant of the Messiah,” where the messiah (Mahdi) in question is Muhammad al-Mahdi, twelfth Imam of Shi’a, believed to have been hidden away by God so that he may be sent back to the world in the future as the savior of mankind.

2Partial answer to this question: AFP is Agence France-Presse, one of the world’s oldest news services. It’s also notably unreliable, for reasons just like this: they’ve got an infamous bias in favor of Arab and Muslim groups, and have on many occasions been caught out allowing news to go through with little or no checking if it favors this bias, and heavy cutting if it doesn’t. Their coverage of the Intifada in Israel was particularly infamous. But other organizations haven’t exactly been innocent, either; take a look at the Wikipedia entry for “Pallywood” for a good intro, and a link to the film of the same title that shows some of the backend work involved in making a good event for the news.

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Published in: on August 15, 2007 at 14:28  Comments (2)  
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2 Comments

  1. When I was in the military, we used all sorts of sources to put together intelligence reports. I would quote ITAR-TASS not as a reliable source, but as an indication of what the party line was for those in power, such as in this (totally made up) example:

    ITAR-TASS said the military deployment was intended for “readiness and training purposes”. Despite photography of several destroyed Chechen and Russian assets (see Fig. 1), ITAR-TASS claimed that all of the training exercises were “completely successful, proving Russia’s ability to defend itself against NATO incursion.”

    I told you that story to tell you this one. When I worked in that field, if an AFP report aligned perfectly with what I was planning to report, I would go check my sources and make sure that I wasn’t missing something, or being baited into reporting the obvious (but wrong) conclusion. Good digging on the al-Okaili connection; it’s pretty obvious that anyone named Abdulmahdi would be a hardcore Shiite and from there I absolutely agree with the leap that this guy is a propagandist and not a journalist.

  2. When I was in the military, we used all sorts of sources to put together intelligence reports. I would quote ITAR-TASS not as a reliable source, but as an indication of what the party line was for those in power, such as in this (totally made up) example:

    ITAR-TASS said the military deployment was intended for “readiness and training purposes”. Despite photography of several destroyed Chechen and Russian assets (see Fig. 1), ITAR-TASS claimed that all of the training exercises were “completely successful, proving Russia’s ability to defend itself against NATO incursion.”

    I told you that story to tell you this one. When I worked in that field, if an AFP report aligned perfectly with what I was planning to report, I would go check my sources and make sure that I wasn’t missing something, or being baited into reporting the obvious (but wrong) conclusion. Good digging on the al-Okaili connection; it’s pretty obvious that anyone named Abdulmahdi would be a hardcore Shiite and from there I absolutely agree with the leap that this guy is a propagandist and not a journalist.


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