The SITE Intelligence Group, an online tracker of terrorist organisations, stands as the lone source of linking the Islamic State (ISIS) to the murder of Italian citizen Tavella Cesare in Dhaka Monday.
The online SITE (Search for International Terrorist Entities) had posted in its restricted forum a screenshot written in Arabic that was supposed to be the ISIS claim of the murder. All foreign media houses — from the CNN to the Guardian — used this as the lone source of the IS claim. No other sources were available to verify or crosscheck the information.
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But the SITE itself has had several controversies in the past and this casts doubt on the authenticity of the IS snapshot and claim.
Iraqi Jewish Rita Katz with Josh Devon founded the SITE Institute in 2002 to track online activity of terrorist organisations. In 2008, the Institute dissolved and its staff formed the SITE Intelligence group — a for-profit entity, to continue some of its activities, according to www.sourcewatch.org.
Rita was raised in Israel where she served in the Israel Defence Force before beginning to work for the Middle Eastern Research Institute in 1997.
Critics of Katz claim she is giving terrorists a larger platform than they would otherwise have, and is too eager to find plots where they don’t exist. Some people also do not think a private group with limited resources can do as good a job as government agencies can. Katz maintains professionals missed many signals about al-Qaeda before 9/11, and she is simply filling a gap.
In early September 2007, SITE announced that Osama bin Laden would release a video message on the anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States. Bloomberg News also reported that IntelCenter, another web monitoring service, noted that al Qaeda’s media production group as-Sahab flagged the video in an online media statement.
While Bloomberg only reported that the video would be released, the Associated Press stated that “the 30-minute video was obtained by the SITE Institute” and had provided a copy to the AP. The report stated that “American officials said the U.S. government had obtained a copy even though the video had not been posted yet by al-Qaeda.” AP noted that “during the video, bin Laden’s image moves for only a total of about 3 1/2 minutes in two segments, staying frozen the rest of the time while his remarks continue.” An anonymous US intelligence official told the AP it may have been a technical glitch that occurred during production. While the video was intercepted by US intelligence agencies, how SITE Institute got its hands on it was never explained. It may have been a boon to the small group, which made it available on its website only to subscribers. However, Fox News released a transcript of the tape.
A little over a month later, the Washington Post reported that SITE had given the video to two senior officials “on the condition that the officials not reveal they had it until the al-Qaeda release.” SITE’s Rita Katz complained to reporter Joby Warrick that within 20 minutes of providing access to it on the group’s website, several government agencies began downloading it. “By midafternoon that day, the video and a transcript of its audio track had been leaked from within the Bush administration to cable television news and broadcast worldwide,” Joby Warrick wrote. “Techniques that took years to develop are now ineffective and worthless,” Katz said.
“Ms Katz’s institute, which relies on government contracts and corporate clients, may be the most influential of those groups, and she is among the most controversial of the cyberspace monitors. While some experts praise her research as solid, some of her targets view her as a vigilante. Several Islamic groups and charities, for example, sued for defamation after she claimed they were terrorist fronts, even though they were not charged with a crime,” said the New York Times on September 23, 2004.
The Daily Telegraph on May 30, 2008 published an online article reporting that SITE had attributed footage from the post-apocalyptic computer game Fallout 3 as being created by terrorists considering a nuclear attack against the West. According to the article, SITE found the Fallout 3 images in a video called Nuclear Jihad: The Ultimate Terror, posted on two possibly al-Qaeda affiliated and password protected websites, where it also gleaned chat logs from users discussing nuclear attacks on the West.
This prompted the SITE to release a statement to clarify its position, stating that it never claimed the images were produced by terrorists, although it didn’t admit to knowing from the start that they were video game images.