Print, broadcast, and Internet news outlets had a bad week last week when it came to identifying Arabs by name.
Gawker.com’s Sam Biddle published an article Thursday entitled “Jihad Me at Hello: Tinder Flirting With Osama bin Laden’s Love Letters.” It uses excerpts from a recently declassified letter, written from a terrorist to his faraway wife, to try to pick up women using the smartphone app Tinder.
It’s not bad as love letters go — it calls the recipient “the apple of my eye, and the most precious thing that I have in this world.” It also contains explicit instructions for his will in the case of his death.
The problem: That letter isn’t from Osama bin Laden.
In the letter’s official English transcript, released by the Director of National Intelligence Wednesday, its author signs the letter “Sa’ad Ibn `Usama Bin Ladin, 15 August 2008.”
That is, the lovesick jihadi is 29-year-old Saad, Osama bin Laden’s son. This should be obvious not just to fluent Arabic speakers, but anyone who knows “ibn” is a word meaning “son of” that Arab men use in their names to honor their fathers.
Journalists writing about terrorism generally can understand the name of the person who signs a letter, and not confuse him with the most infamous terrorist in modern history.
The letter was released alongside other physical and digital records found in the Pakistani compound where Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden in 2011. The “Bin Ladin’s Bookshelf” release includes hundreds of files, comprising direct communications from the al Qaeda leader, summaries of longer documents, and other relevant files.
Gawker isn’t the only outlet that made this basic error. Vox.com and Business Insider both corrected their original articles and headlines, the former only after The Daily Caller News Foundation repeatedly highlighted Vox’s error.
*Osama’s son’s letter to his wife @voxdotcom
— Ivan Plis (@ivanplis) May 20, 2015
The Wall Street Journal’s liveblog of the release quoted a later section of the letter as Osama bin Laden “ask[ing] his father to take care of his family,” even though Osama’s father Mohammed died in 1967. USA Today and Britain’s The Independent and The Guardian also retain the claim, uncorrected.
The mix-up over Saad bin Laden wasn’t the only recent failure to provide a basic understanding of Arabic. After special forces killed an Islamic State operative last weekend named “Abu Sayyaf,” outlets including CNN, the New York Times and the Washington Post all misrepresented the jihadi’s nickname.
“Abu Sayyaf” is a single name, called a kunya in Arabic. “Abu” here means “father of,” and Sayyaf is a male name that means “swordsman.” Arabic speakers use kunyas as a respectful name referring to one’s children: Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas is sometimes called Abu Mazen, for example, after his firstborn son, Mazen.
Some terrorists also use kunyas as symbolic nicknames to raised their credibility as warriors. The female equivalent is “Umm,” meaning “mother of.”
Individually, “Abu” and “Sayyaf” are not names that make sense. But the New York Times’s original article on the raid called the terrorist “Mr. Sayyaf,” as though Sayyaf were his last name. The Times issued a correction after TheDCNF pointed out the error.
The mistake recalls an error in January, in which the Times seemed to invent a new country called “Kyrzbekistan.”
The Washington Post also flubbed the practice in its report, saying that his wife’s name “Umm Sayyaf” means “wife of Sayyaf.”
— Derek Davison (@dwdavison9318) May 16, 2015
The Department of State’s Jeff Rathke on Monday failed to recognize that “Umm” is a common prefix rather than a unique first name.
State re: Abu Sayyaf: His wife, Umm Sayyaf – “that’s spelled U-M-M” — may also have been complicit. Reporter: That just means mother — Hannah Allam (@HannahAllam) May 18, 2015
And CNN also apparently treated “Umm” as a first name in its international coverage of the raid.
CNN thought Umm was her first name. WaPo thinks Umm means wife. AKHHH
— Maya Gebeily (@GebeilyM) May 16, 2015
TheDCNF can confirm that “AKHHH,” as tweeted by Agence France-Presse’s Beirut correspondent Maya Gebeily, is not only the Arabic word for “brother,” but also a universal noise expressing frustration.
This report, by Ivan Plis, was cross-posted by arrangement with the Daily Caller News Foundation.