In 2003, Debka.com said it was the first to expose a recruitment campaign by al Qaeda for its army of jihadists to fight U.S. forces in Iraq.
Since 2005, it has been consistently warning that al Qaeda is building networks in the Sinai and the Gaza Strip.
Last week, the husband-and-wife team that founded Debka.com in June 2000 and monitors terrorist chatter over the Internet, made international headlines after its report about an al Qaeda plot to bring a dirty bomb here in a truck prompted the New York City Police Department to add additional checkpoints and radiological sensors.
After the NYPD and other intelligence agencies were unable to substantiate Debka’s report and removed the extra surveillance, Debka came under scrutiny from security experts and some members of the media.
Just what is the Jerusalem-based counterterrorism news service Debka and how reliable is it? Most agree it has a checkered reputation.“I wouldn’t rely on it,” Paul Goldenberg, a security expert, said of the Debka Web site.
Steven Emerson, a Washington-based terrorism expert, said of Debka, “It’s not credible. They have a much better career as fiction writers.” “I don’t read them anymore,” he added. “Years ago people would send me their reports and the problem was you couldn’t tell the difference between what was true and what was not true, and a lot was not true. It turns out a lot of it was simply untrue.”
Nevertheless, Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said that “sometimes they have come up with very good material.”
On the other hand, he said, “it has been said that it is as much a source of information as disinformation. But we should not forget that there is the potential [for such an attack] and we shouldn’t allow this to become a cry in the woods situation because it is real.”
And Shoshana Bryen, director of special projects for the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, said that although “every once in a while they are way ahead of the curve … at other times they” carry reports that are false.
“It used to be my experience that they were good at reporting but that their analysis is not great,” she said. “But lately there are more instances where the reporting is untrue. … I’d rather that the NYPD was careful rather than irresponsible.”
Paul Brown, a police spokesman, said the department’s counterterrorism posture changes daily in response to intelligence reports. After Debka posted a report late last week claiming its Internet monitors had picked up a “rush of electronic chatter on al Qaeda sites” about the planned use of a dirty bomb in the city, “we deployed additional radiological monitoring equipment, and in the meantime we continued to try to determine the veracity of the information.”
“Had it been substantiated, we would have continued a robust deployment of police resources,” he said. “It is not something we believed at the outset. We just took precautions until we could determine whether there was substantiation” to the claim.
Extra checkpoints were set up in the city Friday evening with officers equipped with radiological monitoring devices. They were “pulled back” Saturday morning after checks with various intelligence agencies worldwide failed to substantiate the report, Brown said.
Diane Shalem, who cofounded Debka in 2000 with her husband, Giora Shamis, said by phone from Jerusalem that it was “impossible to gauge how real the threat was — we just reported what we picked up.”
Told that the police said they and other intelligence agencies were unable to verify the report, Shalem said: “The police might not be telling you if they did or didn’t because they wouldn’t want to start a panic. On the other hand, they were very responsible. They took no chances and stepped up security. … It was definitely said and we reported what was said.”
She said Debka, a name that refers to an Arab folk dance, has about 10 freelance reporters worldwide and four full-time Arabic-speakers who monitor the Internet around the clock. “We are going into the 9/11 season and so we stepped up monitoring,” Shalem said. “They [Debka’s monitors] are real experts. They know how to pin down these chameleon-like forums and sites. Al Qaeda is very fond of the Internet and really knows how to use it. They very often disguise their instructions. … If you don’t pick it up at that particular moment, you don’t pick it up.”
Asked about Debka’s credibility, Shalem said: “Show me one publication that isn’t sometimes wrong. We often have been right. I think we are right more often than some media. … We are 70 or 80 percent right.”
Despite the police response to the Debka report, Goldenberg, who is director of the Secure Community Alert Network (SCAN), a nationwide security alert system for Jewish organizations, said he did not issue an alert to the network. He said a New York City police notification — not an alert — informed him last Friday of the additional radiological monitoring equipment and that he simply e-mailed it to SCAN’s management committee. The committee is composed of the presidents and executives of 13 major Jewish organizations in the United States.
“This was not perceived as a major event,” Goldenberg stressed. Asked why he decided even to forward the police notification, he replied: “A lot of our Jewish organizations are in New York and if they saw an increase in checkpoints and police activity, I wanted them to know why and to have an understanding for why they may see an increase over the weekend. … My staff monitored the situation over the weekend and we advised the management committee that we would be monitoring.”
Hoenlein, who along with Steve Hoffman oversees SCAN, said an alert was not issued because “this is a nationwide system” and the threat was directed at the city.Leonard Cole, a bioterrorism expert and author of the book, “Terror: How Israel Has Coped and What American Can Learn,” said the police responded appropriately.
“Al Qaeda on many occasions has promoted false information,” he said. “On the other hand, we in the United States must never forget the most egregious assault on the mainland of the United States from a foreign country. I’d rather us be safe than sorry.”
Philip Wilcox, president of the Washington-based Foundation for Middle East Peace who served as U.S. ambassador-at-large for counterterrorism between 1994 and 1997, said “there is still a substantial threat of terrorism from international sources.”
“Homeland Security and the FBI have done a lot to tighten the borders, but this is a big open society and we are quite vulnerable,” he said.