News surrounding the murder Tuesday of Colorado Department of Corrections Chief Tom Clements centers now on white supremacist suspect Evan Ebel, who was captured clinically dead yesterday afternoon in a hail of bullets after a 100 mile-per-hour car chase ended in a wreck near Fort Worth, Texas.
But from the first reports of Clements’ death to the moment Ebel’s identity became public, media outlets in Colorado and then across the nation were floating a theory that the shooter was tied to Homaidan al-Turki, a wealthy Saudi sex offender with alleged links to al Qaeda imprisoned here.
The theory — that al Turki or his sympathizers orchestrated a hit on Clements after the chief denied his request to serve out the remainder of his sentence in Saudi Arabia — was never supported with evidence. And now Colorado Muslims are decrying early coverage of the shooting as irresponsible and predictably biased against members of their religion. They say the media overplayed the al-Turki angle at the expense of other theories.
Northeast Denver Islamic Center Imam Abdur-Rahim Ali said the lines separating mainstream journalism from opinion outlets like Fox News have become too porous.
“You’d expect this kind of speculation from Fox News but not from The Denver Post,” the state paper of record, he said. Ali is demanding the paper apologize.
“[F]or the media to put Islam in the middle of this, it’s just unconscionable. It’s the worst form of yellow journalism,” he said. “Here’s a man [Clements] who oversees twenty-something-thousand prisoners, and to just make a leap and say that it had anything to do with al-Turki… it’s just unbelievable. Hate groups have more than tripled in America. These other things are going on and you just jump to so-called Islamic terrorism? It’s an outrage.
“This kind of journalism, we have to speak out against it. The Muslim community is going to demand an apology.”
Ali said The Post owed it to readers, even in the rush of reporting the fast-evolving story, to be more well informed about the system housing prisoners in the state. According to Department of Correction statistics easily accessible online (pdf), only 34 of 20,140 Colorado inmates hail from predominantly Muslim countries. Those statistics should have raised red flags about the probability that the Clements shooting would be connected to one of those foreign-born prisoners.
Djilali Kacem, Imam at the Metropolitan Denver North Islamic Center, said he has come to expect the U.S. media to jump at the chance to draw links between members of the Muslim faith and politically charged violent crimes.
“[Reporters] should get their facts right before they publish anything like this because it has consequences,” he said. “When they speculate about Muslims being involved, they’re sending the wrong message — that everything wrong that happens, there’s a Muslim behind it. If it were a Christian or someone of another religion, they would just mention the person’s name and that’s it. Faith would not be involved.
“We have a lot of Saudi students in Denver. They will be affected by this as Saudi nationals. There are thousands of Saudi students in the country.”
Seeing connections in a coincidence
The Denver Post never explicitly referred to terrorism in its Clements articles, but it dedicated three paragraphs to al-Turki in an early story on the shooting, reporting that he had decried his 2006 conviction as “politically motivated” and that his conviction “angered Saudi officials.” The paper listed no other likely suspects and published an entire piece on al-Turki the next day, describing him as the “Colorado prison inmate who has been the subject of intense media interest.”
The Colorado Observer, a conservative media site, pushed the terrorist connection.
In addition to his sex crimes, al-Turki has been tied to al-Qaeda member Anwar al-Awlaki, who was killed by a U.S. drone strike for his role in the planning of numerous terrorist attacks against the United States. Al-Turki’s publishing company owned the rights to a number of Awlaki’s jihadist sermons and he was reportedly in contact with the now deceased terrorist.
More typical was the Associated Press story reprinted in outlets around the country, where al-Turki is given center stage, his prominent placement, the relative inches he takes up in the piece, standing in for evidence that would link him to the crime.
While Clements generally kept a low profile, his killing comes a week after he denied a request by a Saudi national to serve out the remainder of a Colorado prison sentence in Saudi Arabia.
Homaidan al-Turki, a well-known member of Denver’s Muslim community, was convicted in state court in 2006 of unlawful sexual contact by use of force, theft and extortion…
Al-Turki insisted the case was politically motivated. He owned a company that some years ago sold CDs of sermons recorded by Anwar al-Awlaki, killed in a drone strike in Yemen in 2011.
Al-Turki’s conviction angered Saudi officials and prompted the U.S. State Department to send Colorado Attorney General John Suthers to Saudi Arabia to meet with King Abdullah, Crown Prince Sultan and al-Turki’s family.
After Clements’ shooting, someone with the State Department called the Colorado Corrections Department. Prisons spokeswoman Alison Morgan said she had no details on the call other than to say it wasn’t connected to the shooting investigation and may have been a simple courtesy.
Sources in many of the first-wave articles went unnamed.
In its write-up, The Huffington Post cited anonymous sources that spoke to Fox 31.
The New York Daily News referred to “Sources [that] told ABC affiliate KMGH in Denver investigators are looking at the al-Turki case.”
7News said “a source familiar with the investigation told CALL7 Investigator Theresa Marchetta that the investigation into Clements’ murder would look into the al-Turki case.”
Layered speculation and ‘sloppy reporting’
Nabil Echchaibi, journalism and media professor at the University of Colorado Boulder and director of the university’s Center for Media, Religion and Culture, lamented the layered speculation reporters relied on to tie al-Turki to the Clements murder.
“They don’t know who the shooter is, nothing really, but maybe the killer knows al-Turki and maybe al-Turki’s family hired him and maybe al Qaeda’s involved.”
Echchaibi said it would all be laughable if it weren’t so clear that speculation doesn’t stop a story from spreading — and often speeds its way.
“I went on Twitter tonight and no surprise that the top trending tweet on this story was posted by Pamela Geller.” He was referring to the New York-based anti-Muslim activist most famous for launching a campaign in 2010 against an Islamic community center under construction near the toppled World Trade Center towers. She famously referred to the center as a “Ground Zero Mosque,” despite the fact that it was not at Ground Zero and there was no mosque included in the construction plans.
“It’s the same with this,” said Echchaibi. “Fox News picked up that ‘Ground Zero Mosque’ and it went everywhere, without any subsequent verification, just sloppy reporting to feed the story. If there’s no Saudi or al Qaeda connection to the shooting [in Colorado], then it’s another journalism failure. It’s a doubly sad day. Journalism is another of the victims — and there will be others. There are always other victims. First is speculation then accusation. It happens too often. Muslims are attacked or mocked. Sikh places of worship are shot up. Crazy stuff.”
Muslim Americans and critics of U.S. news media have been lamenting this kind of bias for decades.
In 1995, after a truck bomb cratered the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City and killed 160 people, the FBI nabbed Ibrahim Ahmad, who was on his way to Jordan from his home in Oklahoma. Ahmad was grilled for hours by authorities in Chicago and then London. His detention fed media reports about “Middle East links” to the “Beirut-style bombing,” even as it became clear right-wing American extremists had carried out the attack.
“If you are going to speculate wildly, why not say [the bombing happened on] the anniversary of the Waco siege? Why isn’t that as plausible as bearded Arabs fleeing the scene?” Harper’s Publisher John MacArthur told the American Journalism Review.
Speaking to the Review Hamzi Moghrabi, chairman of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, blamed the Oklahoma City coverage for the wave of anti-Muslim death threats, rock throwing, broken windows and other forms of intimidation that came in the aftermath of the bombing.
Qusair Mohamedbhai, general counsel to the Denver-based Colorado Muslim Society, told The Independent that no one from his community has complained about harassment in the days since the Clements shooting. But, he said, reporters have been calling with “ridiculous questions” about al-Turki.
“He’s been in jail for ten years,” he said. “What do we know about him? Same as everybody in Colorado — that he’s some guy convicted of doing some really bad things.”
Al-Turki will elicit little sympathy from most Coloradans. The day after the shooting he was moved to solitary confinement at the Limon Correctional Facility, where he’s serving an eight years-to-life sentence.
“It’s because of the increased attention in the media,” Alison Morgan, spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections told The Denver Post. “He is not being punished. He was removed from population for his own safety.”
Echchaibi said that if it turns out, as appears increasingly likely, that there is no Muslim connection to the Clements shooting, the damage has already been done.
“Despite all the disclaimers, the qualifications, it’s still out there,” he said. “It was just too good: ‘Al-Qaeda operating in the heartland!’ Journalists still find that kind of thing irresistible.
“And Pamela Geller on Twitter, she’s not going to take any of that back. You won’t see a retraction or tweets about how, ‘OK, it was a white supremacist,’ or whatever. Lots of people don’t follow up. The conversation is going. The Saudi connection was a gift that will keep on giving.”