Here be witches

The Times seems to have become the favourite dumping-ground for spooks who want to offload their latest scare story, however preposterous. It's only a few days since they were telling us that Skype phone services were creating manifold opportunities for terrorists. Now they claim that these same terrorists are escaping police detection by pretending to be paedophiles.

The "link between terrorism plots and hardcore child pornography is becoming clear after a string of police raids", claims the report, offering as evidence the information that indecent images of children have been discovered during anti-terrorist swoops. That rang a bell - didn't they find such images during the Forrest Gate raid on that family that turned out to have nothing to do with terrorism? Anyway, this would be just about credible were it not for the frankly bonkers claim in the next sentence that :

Secret coded messages are being embedded into child pornographic images, and paedophile websites are being exploited as a secure way of passing information between terrorists.

This sounds like conspiracy theory at its looniest, on a par with claims that if you play certain heavy metal records backwards you can discover secret messages from Satan. Given the intense resources aimed at cracking paedophile networks - second only to the resources aimed at cracking terrorism networks - for a terrorist to disguise himself as a paedophile would be about as sensible as going undercover at a fetish party disguised as Neville Thurlbeck. A far more effective disguise for an Al Qaeda network would be as a ladies handicrafts group: they could hide their bomb-making plans in the knitting patterns and no-one - certainly not Inspector Knacker - would be any the wiser.

It's almost as though, in 1590 or thereabouts, someone had discovered a conspiracy of Catholic witches to assassinate Elizabeth I, who were using black cats and toads to communicate with the pope. Although to make the analogy more exact, Walsingham would have leaked the story to William Shakespeare to use in one of his plays.

So off the wall is the article, indeed, that it's hard to escape the conclusion that the spooks planted it as part of some sort of psychological test. To see how far they could go with their scaremongering before the public stopped nodding politely - after all, they're the experts, if they say there's a major threat then surely there must be a threat - and just started laughing at them. Or perhaps they seriously believe that since the sheep-like public will apparently accept any intrusion into their liberty if it's done in the name of protecting children or fighting Islamists, putting the two together will square a neat little circle. Of course, they might actually believe in the connection. It would be the first time members of the intelligence services succumbed to this type of delusion.

There are also suggestions that terrorists are grooming children to become the suicide bombers of the future by approaching them for sex. The police were considering further research. "One source familiar with the proposal said that this could eventually lead to the training of child welfare experts to identify signs of terrorist involvement as they monitor pornographic sites."

"A way of finding who the extremists and terrorists are", an anti-terror source said, "is to go through the child-porn sites."

An ingenious tactic for the police to master since, as the source puts it, "we will get an operational strategy with the paedophile unit when they are infiltrating a paedophile site. If... they are using these kind of sites as a smokescreen, as a safe haven, they will never think we are cops."

Of course not. The terrorists presumably imagine that the cops only pose as 13 year old girls.

The evidence offered for all these claims is rather thin. A former preacher at the East London mosque who was convicted of rape "was being examined for his links to a hardcore Islamic militant who was later convicted of terrorism." In Spain, the alleged mastermind of a Muslim cell has also been accused of downloading hundreds of child sex abuse pictures and videos. Child porn has turned up on several computers seized in terror raids in Britain, it is said - although "in one case fewer than a dozen images were found." Which is more likely to be evidence of incautious browsing habits than any actual sexual interest in children.

The usual unnamed source claimed that the suspects' alleged interest in child porn presented a contradiction with their religious commitment. "Here they are hating Western decadence but actually making use of it and finding that they enjoy this stuff." On the other hand, in a companion piece an Italian magistrate was quoted as doubting that they were actually paedophiles: "in many parts of the Arab world wives are often very young girls of 11, 12 or 13...But that is not paedophilia, it is a question of Arab culture." It was more likely that they were using the pictures as "an instrument to hide messages of quite a different content ... they use pornographic images simply to camouflage the content of their messages." But he offered no evidence for this extraordinary claim, which seems to be the basis for the whole story.

Several different ideas seem to have been mixed up in these articles. Alongside the suggestion that some of the suspected terrorists have paedophile leanings and the "secret codes" business - which really belongs in a bad spy novel - there's a rather different claim that paedophiles and terrorists have similar characteristics, a notion that would seem to be based on dubious psychological profiling. The report claims a "startling similarity in the way that jihadis and paedophiles target vulnerable young people", as though Osama's sidekicks set up profiles of themselves as 14 year old boys into emo and texting. Furthermore:

Shahien Taj, the director of the Henna Foundation, which deals with domestic violence against women and children, said that both terrorists and paedophiles were obsessed with control and domination. She attacked the hypocrisy of terrorists who claim to espouse religious motives on one hand while degrading children on the other.

One might say much the same about any shadowy clandestine organisation. Satanists, perhaps, or Freemasons, or reds under the bed, or indeed witches (or Jews, or Bulgarian heretics). But these days it's paedophiles and terrorists. But perhaps it's more of a tactical alliance than natural sympathy:

The source explained that both types of criminal also share a need for great secrecy and indeed it is the paedophiles' status as outcasts as well as their expertise in encryption techniques that may have first attracted the terrorists...

Some paedophiles have become adept at encrypting information and burying it so deeply in the internet that no outsider can easily find it. Paedophiles then meet in cyberspace and swap notes on how to reach the images. None is likely to rush to police saying they suspect that they have spotted a terrorist loitering on their child porn website.

I wonder if they've been won over with promises of underage brides under the new Islamic dispensation.

Does anyone believe this obvious bollocks? Well, Labour MP Andrew Dismore, chairman of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, was on hand to describe it as an "important development" which "could become a very important weapon in the fight against terrorism"; and the Conservatives' Pauline Neville-Jones, who once chaired the JIC, thought the discovery "potentially provides useful insight". But in the comments below the original article there was more scepticism. "These claims are made by the same people who said their were weapons of mass desctruction in Iraq", said Gary from Houston. While Bill in Bristol noted that "I have never in all my born days read a more ridiculous load of drivel." And Jack in Guildford thought it "offensive the government think we'll swallow this tripe".

However, there's an approving write-up over at the BNP's website, where many commenters spotted a link between paedophilia and Muslim immigration. "It underlines the grave danger that they are putting EVRYONE in", wrote one. "If they are ignoring the fact that our children are at a serious risk from the terrorist nonce cases, then they have totally lost the plot." Another doubted that the BBC would dare to report on this scandalous plot. For several, it stood to reason that terrorists would be into kiddie porn, Mohammed being a paedo himself of course.

This rather misses the point. The security people aren't saying that the terrorists are actually paedophiles, merely that they're pretending to be such as a sneaky way of avoiding attention; they go on to make the same claim in relationship to extreme right-wing groups. But perhaps the BNP endorsement is just what they're looking for. The government and its stooges have on several occasions shown themselves more than happy to flirt with the far right if they think it will advance their authoritarian agenda.

UPDATE: David Gerard has a nice parody.


David Gerard said…
This is transparently ludicrous rubbish - why use illegal images when they could use wedding photos or LOLcats? - and it defies rational thought that the Home Office spinmeisters could think this one would pass uncommented. See the reader comments on the original Times story - they all think it's idiocy too. I wrote a blog rant on it - - but I'm not sure it's clear it's a parody of an actual ridiculous assertion.
Anonymous said…
I read this story in the Times this morning and found the story ridiculous. If they actually believed the terrorists to be so chronically moronic that that they would pretend to be Paedophiles to try and hide away, despite the great efforts to monitor these sites. Then its hard to except that this is a new and much more dangerous act on our way of life.

Also don't know if you saw Geoff Hoon on Question Time talking on the subject of terrorism, but he was a right jerk.
Anonymous said…
That's a nice dissection of the article and I'm glad you covered the many disbelieving comments. There were over forty comments when I saw the article and most of them were some variation on "this is a set up by the government."

Good catch on the BNP approval as well. Exactly the sort of target audience for this. Unfortunately for the Times Online.
David Gerard said…
Oh, a further note - the BNP approval is snickerworthy, considering the one terrorist paedophile known to exist just happens to be a neo-Nazi.
Anonymous said…
The entire purpose of steganography is to hide an message in order to go unnoticed. If you use encryption, you can be forced to give your encryption keys & passphrase. If no one knows there's an encrypted message hidden somewhere, then the situation changes. As for going unnoticed in the internet, there are so many ways, onion proxies, plausible deniability encryption, steganography, etc...
Not to mention that terrorists not only would know this, they would also know that there's a high degree of surveillance on all forms of electronic communications going on, and would avoid using these forms of communication, in favour of using trusted couriers for instance. But the entire idea of the article (or should i say press release from the Home Office, since The Times doesn't even bothers anymore to disguise the fact that it just copy&pastes propaganda) was to probably just sense the public response - just add terrorism and paedophile in the same sentence, and all rational thought should vanish.
Sad, when a government has this image of its citizens. I won't be much longer before this all degenerates into plain fascism.
Anonymous said…
Perhaps a more balanced story - and a much shorter one - would have said: 'A lof these religious nutters are into all sorts of porn', which is perfectly believable and not at all surprising. But it'll be interesting to see how this plays out. How will so-called Muslim community leaders react?
David Gerard said…
@valdemar - probably nothing at present. So far the rest of the UK press hasn't followed. Except of course the Daily Mail.
Anonymous said…
Just one more reason this whole thing is absurd: the government agencies which track and prosecute pedophiles surely maintain databases of all the images being traded back and forth between pedophiles which the authorities have confiscated. Any terrorist contemplating the idea of hiding their messages inside images of child pornography would surely figure out that not only is it the best way to make sure their messages are intercepted by the authorities, but that the authorities would quickly be able to find whatever secret message was embedded in the image, simply by comparing it to the image pre-embedding.
Anonymous said…
I wonder if the source of the story was inspired by the defence plea of the Scots lad found guilty of terrorist charges last - his lawyer argued that he was just looking for 'answers' on the web which is a common argument from those accused of looking up indecent images of children.

The story has every sign of being a plant of course.

Popular Posts