Pentagon Paid for Fake ‘Al Qaeda’ Videos
A controversial foreign PR firm known for representing unsavory characters was paid millions by the Pentagon to create fake terrorist videos.
The Pentagon gave a controversial UK PR firm over half a billion dollars to run a top secret propaganda program in Iraq, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism can reveal.
Bell Pottinger’s output included short TV segments made in the style of Arabic news networks and fake insurgent videos which could be used to track the people who watched them, according to a former employee.
The agency’s staff worked alongside high-ranking U.S. military officers in their Baghdad Camp Victory headquarters as the insurgency raged outside.
In the first media interview any Bell Pottinger employee has given about the work for the U.S. military in Iraq, video editor Martin Wells told the Bureau his time in Camp Victory was "shocking, eye-opening, life-changing.”
The firm’s output was signed off by former General David Petraeus – then commander of the coalition forces in Iraq - and on occasion by the White House, he said.
There were three types of media operations commonly used in Iraq at the time, said a military contractor familiar with Bell Pottinger’s work there.
“White is attributed, it says who produced it on the label,” the contractor said. “Grey is unattributed and black is falsely attributed. These types of black ops, used for tracking who is watching a certain thing, were a pretty standard part of the industry toolkit.”
Bell Pottinger’s work in Iraq was a huge media operation which cost over a hundred million dollars a year on average.
The Bureau has identified transactions worth $540 million between the Pentagon and Bell Pottinger for information operations and psychological operations on a series of contracts issued from May 2007 to December 2011. A similar contract at around the same annual rate—$120 million—was in force in 2006, we have been told.
The work consisted of three types of products.
- The first was television commercials portraying al Qaeda in a negative light.
- The second was news items which were made to look as if they had been “created by Arabic TV”, Wells said. Bell Pottinger would send teams out to film low-definition video of al Qaeda bombings and then edit it like a piece of news footage. It would be voiced in Arabic and distributed to TV stations across the region, according to Wells.
- The third and most sensitive program described by Wells was the production of fake al Qaeda propaganda films. He told the Bureau how the videos were made. He was given precise instructions: “We need to make this style of video and we’ve got to use al Qaeda’s footage,” he was told. “We need it to be 10 minutes long, and it needs to be in this file format, and we need to encode it in this manner.”
US marines would take the CDs on patrol and drop them in the chaos when they raided targets. Wells said: “If they’re raiding a house and they’re going to make a mess of it looking for stuff anyway, they’d just drop an odd CD there.”
The CDs were set up to use Real Player, a popular media streaming application which connects to the internet to run. Wells explained how the team embedded a code into the CDs which linked to a Google Analytics account, giving a list of IP addresses where the CDs had been played.
The tracking account had a very restricted circulation list, according to Wells: the data went to him, a senior member of the Bell Pottinger management team, and one of the U.S. military commanders.
Wells explained their intelligence value. “If one is looked at in the middle of Baghdad…you know there’s a hit there," he said. "If one, 48 hours or a week later shows up in another part of the world, then that’s the more interesting one, and that’s what they’re looking for more, because that gives you a trail.”
The CDs turned up in some interesting places, Wells recalled, including Iran, Syria, and even America.
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