Per new discoveries revealed by the The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, the United States government paid over $500mm to a British public relations firm, Bell Pottinger, between May 2007 and December 2011 to create fake Al Qaeda propaganda films aimed at tracking terrorist viewing locations. According to a Bell Pottinger insider, propaganda films were categorized into three categories with “White” being accurately attributed, “Grey” being unattributed, and “Black” being falsely attributed material. The media firm created various types of content ranging from TV commercials to news items and “fake Al Qaeda propaganda films.”
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.”
The “Black” propaganda videos included tracking software linked to a Google Analytics account so U.S. military officials could track the location of people watching the content around the globe. The content was distributed by U.S. marines who would drop the videos at various locations during patrols. The whole process was described by one Bell Pottinger employee as a “pretty standard part of the industry toolkit.”
U.S. 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.”
Bell Pottinger’s work in Iraq was a huge media operation costing roughly $100mm per year and employing almost 300 British and Iraqi staff. The agency’s staff worked alongside high-ranking U.S. military officers in their Baghdad Camp Victory headquarters.
The Bureau’s investigation identified transactions totaling $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. That said, the bulk of the money was used for production and distribution costs with Bell Pottinger pocketing about £15m a year in fees.
According to video editor Martin Wells, who worked on the project at Camp Victory in Iraq, the production materials from Bell Pottinger were signed off by very high-ranking U.S. military officials, including General Petraeus, and sometimes were even escalated to the White House for approval.
Bell Pottinger’s output was signed off by the commander of coalition forces in Iraq. Wells recalled: “We’d get the two colonels in to look at the things we’d done that day, they’d be fine with it, it would then go to General Petraeus.”
Some of the projects went even higher up the chain of command. “If [Petraeus] couldn’t sign off on it, it would go on up the line to the White House, and it was signed off up there, and the answer would come back down the line.”
Seems that reality is even more interesting than any fiction that Hollywood can conjure up.