I’ve been following the story of a few weeks ago, claiming that Prince Bandar of Saudi Arabia was shipping chemical weapons to the Syria rebels, which they were using on the battlefield. As so much of the reporting on this subject, this story really stank. But I didn’t give it much thought until I learned more about the professional histories of both Dale Gavlak, the AP reporter who helped birth the story; and Yahyah Ababneh (aka Yan Barakat) who allegedly “reported” it from Syria.
The quick background on this is that Gavlak, who works for a number of news organizations including AP, recommended that the Mint Press publish a story she’d received written in Arabic, purporting to describe a Syrian rebel chemical weapons attack. After the story had circulated for a week or so journalists began questioning various elements of it. Eventually, Gavlak dissociated herself from the story even though she played a critical role in getting it published. Mint Press was hung out to dry because it hadn’t done due diligence itself and couldn’t say whether the story was true or false. It had relied on Gavlak and trusted her judgment.
Antiwar.com also republished the story on its website. But it apologized to its readers within a few days of the controversy beginning. That was more than its editors offered me when they yanked my published profile of Meir Javedanfar, under the censorious direction of Justin Raimondo.
Gavlak must’ve thought she’d got hold of a great story and in her eagerness to publish and take credit, she rushed it into print. Only afterward, did she begin to realize she may’ve been had.
Yahya Ababneh, the journalist credited with the story seems to be a charlatan. Everything about him seems either fictional or dubious. Though he does appear to exist, nothing beyond that seems certain about him.
This intrigue would still be little more than minor skirmish in the battle for truth and credibility in the Syrian story were it not for Gavlak’s and Ababneh’s connections to Israeli journalism.
Brian Whitaker, former Comment is Free editor, writes in his blog that Ababneh and Barakat are one and the same. He also notes that Barakat published a piece in the Jerusalem Post. What, you may ask, is a reputed Jordanian journalist doing publishing in one of Israel’s most right-wing newspapers? Good question.
The column is one of those feel good stories that Israel’s media love to publish about Arabs who see the errors of their ways and liberate themselves from the anti-Israel propaganda they drank with their mother’s milk. In other words, it’s typically self-serving and propagandistic. I’m guessing that someone in the foreign ministry came across this guy on social media and contacted him and asked him if he’d expound the wonders of Israel for an Israeli audience. This isn’t a rare occurrence. There are numerous similar episodes involving people like Mark Halawa, Walid Shoebat, Tawfiq Hamid, and a host of Iranians (Reza Khalili and Amir Fakhravar). The latter have regaled Israeli audiences about their lives as Iranian Revolutionary Guard officers before they saw the light and turned against the Iranian forces of darkness.
CORRECTIONS: I’ve just discovered an Israeli blog post written by someone who claims to have hosted a meeting with Barakat in Israel. So while some parts of his Jerusalem Post story may be true, there remains much that strains credulity.
Further, since Israel no longer considers Jordan an enemy state, Israelis do visit Jordan (mostly on day tours to Petra). But any citizen of an Arab country attempting to visit Israel would be vetted extremely closely by the Shabak, which controls border crossings with bordering Arab states. That means that Ababneh received a visa after a Shabak security interview. It may mean that the security services and/or foreign ministry were much more involved than that in arranging his visit.
Read the following in light of these caveats.
In his article, Barakat claims to have visited Israel on his own form of personal peace mission. This beggars belief. Just as it is illegal for Israelis to visit Arab states it is similarly illegal for citizens of Arab states to do so. So how did the Jordanian journalist do this? Or perhaps more appropriately, did he?
To all this we need to add that the Jerusalem Post has a long and checkered history of being ‘had’ by fraudulent reports and reporters. I’m going to hazard a reasonable guess that it’s happened again. Just as Yahyah Ababneh claimed to have witnessed rebels using chemical weapons inside Syria, Yan Barakat claims to have traveled to Israel to explore making peace with the Jewish enemy. We know his claims about Syria are false. I’m reasonably certain his claims about Israel are as well.
If the Jerusalem Post had any journalistic integrity it would’ve demanded that Barakat provide evidence of the meetings he claimed he had with scores of Israelis during his visit. I’m virtually certain they didn’t do that before publishing and won’t do it now that his credibility has been shot to hell. The Post wanted to believe an Arab loves Israel. But a good rule of thumb is that if a story looks too good to be true, it probably isn’t. Understanding this requires care and skepticism, something the Post lacks when it comes to publishing stories by or about “good Arabs.”
What’s clear is that Ababneh/Barakat is a petty con man. Like all good con men he knows how to tell his audience what they want to hear. He also knows how to aggrandize himself with readers and probably get paid well for his troubles. It shouldn’t surprise us that he’s also an actor and has posted pictures of his performances on his social media accounts.
I think those who speculate why he might’ve worked for either Israeli or Jordanian intelligence regarding the Syria story are missing the point. A guy like this doesn’t work for one side alone. He works for whoever pays the best and most. One day it’s the Jerusalem Post or an intelligence agency, the next its Bashar al-Assad (or Vladimir Putin).
Look at it this way: the Syrian government (and its Russian ally) knew it had a huge scandal breathing down its neck. What better way to diminish some of the momentum of the story than to put out a fake rebel CW counter-story. Until the world discovered it was a hoax, it would help counter the damage done by the Gouta disaster. Cynical you say? What intelligence agency isn’t cynical? And there are scores of provocateurs and self-promoters eager to jump on such a gravy train.
There’s also an interesting factor in Dale Gavlak’s connection to Israeli media. Besides working for AP (Gavlak now says she’s been suspended), Times of Israel lists her as one of its writers.. It’s likely she isn’t formally employed by TOI, but that in its desperation for journalistic credibility the publication has glommed onto anyone it re-publishes and calls them a TOI “writer.” Any story she’s written there (or anywhere else for that matter) should be scrutinized carefully to ensure she didn’t take any of the same shortcuts she took in publishing Ababneh’s nonsense.
Further, a commenter has noted that most of her articles dealt with Jordan and Syrian refugees there, making it likely that her “friend” Ababneh was involved in reporting those stories as well. That may be why AP has suspended her since his credibility is shot to hell.
Silverstein has published Tikun Olam since 2003, It exposes the secrets of the Israeli national security state. He lives in Seattle, but his heart is in the east. He publishes regularly at Middle East Eye, the New Arab, and Jacobin Magazine. His work has also appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Nation, Truthout and other outlets.