JERUSALEM — An Israeli couple that blogs about terrorism has achieved international fame — and a bit of notoriety — by setting off a “dirty bomb” scare in New York City.
The brouhaha began last week with a report on DEBKAfile — the 7-year-old Web site operated from the Jerusalem home of veteran journalists Giora Shamis and Diane Shalem — asserting that al-Qaida had vowed on the Internet to plant a “dirty bomb” in New York.
It seemed like a standard posting for the site, which claims to attract hundreds of thousands of daily users with its potpourri of Hebrew and English alerts, predictions and analyses focused mainly on potential Islamist threats and the West’s military counter campaigns.
This time, however, it wasn’t just news junkies paying attention.
Prompted at least in part by the Debka report, New York City officials went on high alert, and the city’s Police Department set up checkpoints around lower Manhattan and deployed radiological monitoring equipment on land vehicles, boats and helicopters.
Nothing untoward transpired, and city officials made clear that they had responded to a vague tip.
“These actions are like those that the NYPD takes every day — precautions against potential but unconfirmed threats that may never materialize,” Mayor Michael Bloomberg said in a statement.
Mainstream media frequently write off Debka — the word refers to an Arab folk dance — as a fringe outfit catering to conspiracy theorists. But the recent episode marked the second time in recent months that the site caused a stir in more mainstream circles.
In June, following what quickly proved to be a false report in Debka, The Associated Press and Reuters filed news stories incorrectly suggesting that Turkish forces were now operating inside northern Iraq.
Critics claim the site, which often relies on anonymous sources, relies on information from parties with an agenda.
“DEBKAfile has frequently promulgated materials put out by rightist elements of the Republican Party, whose worldview is that the situation is bad and is only going to get worse,” Yediot Achronot investigative reporter Ronen Bergman wrote.
Bergman said Israeli intelligence officials do not consider even 10 percent of the site’s content to be reliable, and that the New York alert suggested U.S. authorities, still reeling from the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, wanted “ass-cover” lest disaster strike again.
But Shamis, a former spokesman for the Hebrew University and Weizman Institute, was quoted as saying that 80 percent of what Debka reports turns out to be true.
The site predicted in 2000 that al-Qaida, having tried to blow up the World Trade Center in the 1990s, would strike the landmark again. It also spoke of an impending Israeli-Palestinian conflict and warned of thousands of Hezbollah rockets pointed at northern Israel.
Still, Shamis voiced surprise at the New York alert.
“We did not think it would make such a stir,” he told the Ma’ariv newspaper. “This is the first time that a Debka story prompts a security alert in the United States.”
In an Aug. 9 posting, Debka reported that its analysts had picked up an al-Qaida pledge over the Internet to strike “by means of trucks loaded with radioactive material against America’s biggest city and financial nerve center.” The report also mentioned Miami and Los Angeles as potential targets.
A day later New York police kicked into action, with police officials reportedly saying that the measures were in response to the Debka report.
In a post on Monday, the Web site declared that “the chatter continues” and claimed that the New York police had come up “with a further piece of information which was not sourced to DEBKA suggesting that a dirty bomb may go off on Friday evening around 34th Street in Manhattan, where the Empire State Building, Madison Square Garden and Macyâ€™s department store are located.”
Debka proceeded to slam its critics, complaining of “unbridled, gratuitous assaults on this publicationâ€™s credibility from the publications which missed the story, prominently Associated Press, the International Herald Tribune and FoxNews.”
In the Monday post, Debka claimed credit for exposing al-Qaida’s efforts to recruit followers to fight in Iraq and set up networks in Egypt and Gaza. “Had the powers-that-be responded in timely fashion to these advance alerts,” Debka stated, the situation in these areas “might have evolved differently.”
Shamis reportedly said that he uses four analysts trolling the Web for “chatter” from al-Qaida sympathizers that could provide details on upcoming attacks. Debka is free, making its money from advertising, though it also provides special e-mail bulletins for paying customers.
One expert criticized the notion of New York police responding solely to a Debka report; another rejected it.
“I don’t take Debka seriously as a reliable source,” Boaz Ganor, an Israeli anti-terror expert, said in an interview with The Associated Press. “But,” he added later, “there are people who take it seriously and that’s what makes it dangerous.”
If American officials took actions based on a Debka report, Ganor said, it indicated “panic and unprofessionalism.”
Paul Goldenberg, national director of a security network that services American Jewish organizations, described the New York Police Department’s intelligence-gathering operation as top notch and said it was impossible that the force would respond solely on the basis of a Debka report.
As for his operation, known as SCAN: The Secure Community Network, Goldenberg said it would only issue warnings or take other steps after consulting with government agencies.
In general, Goldenberg said, Internet users need to understand that privately operated Web sites are often less reliable than official government sources.
“The information should not be taken as 100 percent factual,” said Goldenberg, who in the 1980s headed up an intelligence unit in the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office.
That said, Goldenberg added, several private organizations — including the Anti Defamation-League, journalist Steve Emerson’s Investigative Project and MEMRI, a group that translates media reports from the Arab and Muslim worlds into various languages — maintain longstanding relations with law enforcement agencies and have proven to be valuable sources of information.
JTA managing editor Ami Eden in New York contributed to this report.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.