Summary: This news story might be important. Or fake. Either way, it illustrates hidden dynamics in the Middle East and provides a useful lesson — how the Internet can help us sift through the morass of information to find the useful gems of information.
“When I was sixteen, I went to work for a newspaper in Hong Kong. It was a rag, but the editor taught me one important lesson. The key to a great story is not who, or what, or when, but why.”
— Elliot Carver, in Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)
See the updates to this mystery in the comments!
- Setting the stage
- The timeline of stories
- Tentative conclusions
- Updates to the story (also posted in comments)
- Tips for reading the news for information
- For more information
(1) Setting the stage
(a) Useful backgrounder on Prince Bandar: “The Prince and the Revolution“, Simon Henderson (Washington Institute for Near East Policy), Foreign Policy, 24 July 2012 — “Saudi Arabia is bringing back its most talented operator to manage the Arab Spring. But can Bandar stem the rot in Riyadh?” Note Bandar’s biographer is William Simpson, not “Sampson”.
(b) What might have been a key overlooked note: “Saudi Prince Bandar: a flamboyant, hawkish spy chief“, Reuters, 20 July 2012:
“He’s just the right person for the right time in Saudi. They have a more hawkish foreign policy and he’s the leading hawk of the House of Saud,” said David Ottaway, Bandar’s biographer and a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. The United States’ closest Arab ally is a firm supporter of the Syrian rebels now battling in Damascus to oust President Bashar al-Assad and is mending fences with Washington after a disagreement over last year’s Arab uprisings.
“Bandar is quite aggressive, not at all like a typical cautious Saudi diplomat. If the aim is to bring Bashar down quick and fast, he will have a free hand to do what he thinks necessary. He likes to receive an order and implement it as he sees fit,” said Jamal Khashoggi, an influential Saudi commentator.
(c) “Blast rocks Saudi Arabia intelligence headquarters“, Kurdpress News, 22 July 2012 — Iranian news media also reported this (Press TV, Fars News).
“Riyadh- Reports from Saudi Arabia said that a Sunday explosion rattled the country’s intelligence headquarters in Riyadh.Reporting from Saudi Arabia, the Yemeni al-Fajr news website said the deputy head of the Saudi’s intelligence service has been killed in the blast.The website side Mashaal al-Qarni, deputy of Bandar bin Sultan, the head of the secret service, has been killed in the blast.
(2) The timeline of stories
None of these are reliable sources, except the Times of Israel (their story is straight reporting). But they tell interesting stories, and sometimes they’re right.
(a) “Syria reportedly eliminated Bandar bin Sultan in retaliation for Damascus bombing“, Voltaire Network, 29 July 2012 —
Prince Bandar had just been appointed head of Saudi intelligence on July 24: a promotion which was interpreted as a reward for having organized the attack in Damascus on July 18. The Saudi services, with logistical support from the CIA, had managed to blow up the headquarters of the Syrian National Security during a Crisis Cell meeting: Generals Assef Chaoukat, Daoud Rajha and Hassan Tourkmani were killed instantly. General Amin Hicham Ikhtiar died soon after from his wounds. This operation, called “Damascus Volcano” was the signal for the attack on the capital by a swarm of mercenaries, mainly coming from Jordan.
Prince Bandar was himself the target of a bomb attack on July 26, and subsequently succumbed to his injuries. … His death constitutes a serious blow to the whole system of Western covert action in the Muslim world. It took Syria only one week to mount this spectacular reprisal operation.
(b) “Riyad neither confirms nor denies Prince Bandar’s death“, Voltaire Network (see Wikipedia for details & history), 30 July 2012
(c) Israeli websites report the story, providing more information: “Pro-Assad websites claim Syria has killed Saudi intelligence chief, to avenge Damascus bombing“, Times of Israel, 30 July 2012:
In a new indication of the escalating hostility between the regime of Syria’s President Bashar Assad and Saudi Arabia, pro-Assad Syrian websites claimed that Syria has assassinated Prince Bandar bin Sultan, Saudi Arabia’s flamboyant former ambassador to the United States, who was appointed to head his country’s intelligence services earlier this month. The reports, which cited unofficial sources and for which there was no confirmation, claimed that Bandar was killed because it was he, with American support, who organized the July 18 bombing in central Damascus that killed several of Assad’s most senior ministers and aides.
One analyst said privately that, whatever the truth of the claim, it underlined the profound hostility between Assad’s regime and the Saudis.
The Syrian reports, quickly picked up elsewhere Monday, including on Israel’s Mako Hebrew news site, asserted that Bandar orchestrated the Damascus bombing with logistical support from the CIA.
(d) “Saudi silence on intelligence chief Bandar’s fate denotes panic“, Debkafile, 31 July 2012 — Opening:
Washington, Jerusalem and a row of Middle East capitals is gaining ground the longer the Saudi government stays silent on the reports of the assassination of the newly-appointed Saudi intelligence chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan, purportedly in a revenge operation by a Syrian intelligence death squad. If true, it would shoot a devastating tentacle out from the Syrian conflict to the broader region. It is widely feared that Saudi rulers are too traumatized to respond by the fear of Iranian penetration of the highest and most closely guarded circles of Saudi government, possibly climaxing in Bandar’s assassination.
The unconfirmed reports of his death attribute its motive to revenge by Iran and Syria for the bomb explosion five days earlier in Damascus which killed four of Bashar Assad’s top managers of his war on the uprising against his regime. The prince, son of the late crown prince Sultan, has not been seen in public since Saudi General Intelligence headquarters in Riyadh was hit by a bomb blast Monday, July 23 killing his deputy, Mashaal al-Qarni.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly 550 of Friday, July 26, was the first world publication to report this attack, in the face of a massive official blackout, from its exclusive intelligence sources. Now as then, debkafile’s sources have obtained no confirmation that Prince Bandar was injured or killed in that attack.
But our sources doubt whether a Syrian intelligence squad would be capable of reaching deep inside Riyadh. They therefore postulate that the deed was committed or orchestrated by a clandestine Iranian agency. It wouldn’t be the first time.
Here is the opening of the gated Debkafile Weekly 550 of July 27 (as shown on their website, not July 26): “Tehran Strikes at Heart of Saudi Intel to Avenge Damascus Assassinations“: “Tehran accuses the new Saudi intelligence chief, Prince Bandar bin Sultan of engineering bombing attack which killed half of Assads top team in Damascus. It sought to drive home the message that enemies of Assad are enemies of Iran and will be punished.” This doesn’t look like mention of the hit on Bandar. Nor did Debkafile have any follow-up stories, as would be normal for such an important event.
(e) Perhaps an indirect Saudi reply: “Crown Prince Salman commends Kingdom’s judicious leadership“, Saudi Gazette, 1 August 2012 –Prince Bandar was at a party Monday night. The article has a photo of some Princely guests, but it doesn’t include Bandar.
(3) Tentative conclusions
“You change the world with rivers of blood.”
— Saleem Igor Ulma, terrorist leader in NCIS season 7
We cannot yet evaluate the validity of this story. If true, it’s big — both in itself and as an indication of the magnitude of events sweeping through the Middle East.
But smoke suggests fire. Probably something is happening in the Middle East, powerful dynamics yet unseen by the American public
In fact, we probably don’t accurately understand much of what’s happening. The players, their goals, their relative strength, what our own government is doing in our name. Probably everybody lies to us, because they see we prefer lies. Facts disturb the comfortable coma into which we’ve fallen.
(4) Updates to the story (these will also be posted in comments)
“Where is Prince Bandar?“, Pepe Escobar, Asia Times, 2 August 2012 — Excerpt:
Was Prince Bandar “Bush”, 63, son of Prince Sultan bin Abdulaziz (perennial Saudi Defense Minister,1963-2001), semi-perennial ambassador to Washington (1983-2005), and secretive jihad financier, killed by a Syrian intelligence death squad? Thunderous silence prevails on Syrian, Iranian and Arab media (most of it controlled by the Saudis). The same applies for al-Jazeera. This is DEBKA’s somewhat fanciful take.
Dates are crucial. Prince Bandar bin Sultan bin Abdulaziz Al Saud may have pulled off operation “Damascus Volcano” on July 18. He was definitely promoted to head of Saudi intelligence on July 19. And he might have been killed in a bomb attack on the Saudi General Intelligence HQ in Riyadh on July 22.
… So what happened in Riyadh? A graphic Tehran message to the House of Saud? A rogue suicide bomber? An internal Saudi war? The House of Saud is not talking. And Bandar is not moving.
(5) Tips for reading the news for information
As previous posts in this series have shown, few news stories include the key pieces of the new puzzle, and many accurately describe the facts. In this case, we can see the evolution of the story — from the Syrian websites through Voltaire Network, to the Iranian and Israeli news — and only then to us in America. But most reporters only follow the chain back one or two links. That’s bad, since facts get tweaked each time the story gets passed on.
Google News is your best friend. To sort through the many stories, narrow your search — then hit the Sort by Date button. Start with the earliest story, then move forward in time.
Focus on the reliable news agencies. IMO those are Reuters, BBC, Der Spiegel, AFP (France). If there’s nothing better, use the US sources — the wire agencies (AP, McClatchy) and the major newspapers.
(6) For more information
For all posts about this see the FM Reference Page about Information & disinformation, the new media & the old.
Posts about rumors and misinformation. The Internet can make us dumber — or smarter! These are case histories, like this post.
- Cable Cut Fever grips the conspiracy-hungry fringes of the web , 7 February 2008
- Resolution of the Great Submarine Cable Crisis – and some lessons learned , 8 February 2008
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- Update on the rumored armada sailing to Iran, 13 August 2008
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- UPI reports on the multi-national armada sailing to Iran, 15 August 2008
- Stop the presses: no naval armada has sailed to blockade Iran!, 20 August 2008
- Proposed legislation prepares the way for war with Iran!, 25 August 2008
- Forensic analysis of propaganda: “Michelle Obama Keeps Socialist Books in the White House”, 19 February 2010
- We are ignorant because we enjoy being lied to. Today we look at lies about the US debt., 8 August 2011
- A small incident that tells much about America – a flag gets lowered in a classroom!, 5 September 2011
- Facts are an obstacle to the reform of America, 20 October 2011