Was an elite congressional intelligence committee shown video footage from an off-the-shelf retail game and told by the Pentagon and a highly-paid defense contractor that it was a jihadist creation designed to recruit and indoctrinate terrorists?
It's looking more and more like that is the case.
The bizarre story began to unfold last week when Reuters reported that the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence was shown video footage of combat action which was represented as a user-modified version (or "mod") of Electronic Art's best-selling Battlefield 2, a modern-day military simulation which features combat between U.S. forces and those of the fictitious Middle East Coalition (MEC) as well as the People's Republic of China.
Reuters quoted a Pentagon official, Dan Devlin, as saying, "What we have seen is that any video game that comes out... (al Qaeda will) modify it and change the game for their needs."
The influential committee, chaired by Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-MI), watched footage of animated combat in which characters depicted as Islamic insurgents killed U.S. troops in battle. The video began with the voice of a male narrator saying, "I was just a boy when the infidels came to my village in Blackhawk helicopters..."
Several GP readers immediately noticed that the voice-over was actually lifted from Team America: World Police, an outrageous 2004 satirical film produced by the creators of the popular South Park comedy series. At about the same time, gamers involved in the online Battlefield 2 community were pointing out the video footage shown to Congress was not a mod of BF2 at all, but standard game footage from EA's Special Forces BF2 add-on module, a retail product widely available in the United States and elsewhere.
GamePolitics has been seeking comment on the video from the Pentagon and Science Applications International Corp (SAIC), a defense contractor based in San Diego. Committee chair Hoekstra's office referred GP back to the committee for comment. A call there had not been returned by press time.
According to Reuters, the U.S. government is paying SAIC $7 million to monitor Islamist web sites, which is where they apparently discovered a copy of the footage. However, the video can also readily be accessed via links found in the user forums of the popular Planet Battlefield site, operated by IGN Entertainment of Brisbane, California.
It is unclear whether SAIC vetted the origin of the video before showing it to key members of Congress and representing it as a terrorist recruiting tool.
But GP correspondent Colin McInnes has investigated the origin of the video. On behalf of GamePolitics, Colin tracked down "Sonic Jihad," the creator of the video for this revealing interview, conducted via e-mail. The video creator's screen name is apparently a tribute to an album called Sonic Jihad, by an American rapper who performs under the name Paris.
CM: Can you tell us a little about yourself?
SJ: I am Samir. I was born and raised in Holland. But my parents are from Moroccan origin. I'm 25 years old. I have a master degree in management, economics and law. I work for a hospital as a quality manager implementing the ISO quality certificate. My hobbies are Battlefield 2, movies and Thai-Boxing.
CM: Are you Islamic? What are your political views on what's going on in the Middle East right now? Did they affect your choice of theme for the video?
SJ: Yes I am Muslim. But my ethnic background and religion have nothing to do with this video. My political views are like most of the people of Europe. We think that Team America IS the WORLD police ;) I live in the west, I love the west and I do love American culture. Especially rap such as Eazy-E, NWA, Public Enemy, T-KASH and especially.... Paris! Did my views effect my choice? Nah man we were just making videos for fun. Just look at the [BF2] community, there are lots of videos made.
CM: What's the inspiration behind your handle, "SonicJihad"?
SJ: Paris is a rapper that is trying to put a positive message in his raps... Not that bling bling, 'ho this... that's what's dominating the charts nowadays. Believe me I love some good "gangsta rap" once in a while; but there has to be balance. And that is what's wrong with the hip-hop scene nowadays. I really liked the album Sonic Jihad. And I really felt the artist and his views of the messed up situation in the world nowadays.
CM: Paris once released a song called "Bush Killa", but it was about Bush Sr., not Dubya. When did you first come up with the idea for the video? Is there a story the video is trying to tell, or is it just a collection of interesting footage from the game?
SJ: The idea came to me when I saw that Team America movie. GREAT movie everybody should watch it. This video was just for fun with a Team America twist. There is a character [Gary Johnston] in the movie that talks about his goats getting killed by a Blackhawk helicopter and that's why he wanted revenge. I just took that story for my BF2 video and worked it out.
CM: What was the original intent in making the video? Fan-film, demo of gaming skill, protest, art project, clan recruitment, just for fun?
SJ: It was just a fan-film made by me. There are a lot of films made by the battlefield community. There is an in game battle recorder, so that encourages [you] to make movies about the game you have just played.
CM: When did you originally release the video?
SJ: I released the video in I think December last year. So I don't know why they come up with this about 6 months later. Is the defence department that slow in searching the net for possible threats? If that is the case I fear the worst...
CM: When did you first hear that your video was being touted as an example of "terrorist propaganda"? What was your reaction to hearing this?
SJ: I head it first from a PlanetBattlefield member named "Drezeir" he opened a topic about it at PlanetBattlefield.com. And he send me a mail about it... Of course I was shocked. It's not everyday that they label you part of al-Qaeda... and a Jihad recruiter. They demonised me by directly labeling me to someone from al-Qaeda who's trying to recruit innocent children that are playing this game, by using a mod.
CM: What did you think when you heard the claim that you had "modded" the game? Isn't the character in the footage just the "Insurgent" faction from the "BF2: Special Forces" expansion pack?
SJ: It is just in game footage from SF, no self made mod at all. I can't get even my own computer to work. So you can see programming isn't on of my strong points As a matter of fact my computer crashed just a few days ago, and for a month now I cant get BF2 to work...
CM: Do you regret having made the video at all? Or releasing it, considering how it's being treated by the media?
SJ: I don't regret making the video. It wasn't intended for the purpose what it was portrayed to be by the media. So no I don't regret making a funny video.. why should I? The only thing I regret is thinking that news from Reuters was objective and always right. The least they could do is some online research before publishing this. If they label me al-Qaeda just for making this silly video, that makes you think, what is this al-Qaeda? And is everything al-Qaeda? Or has this name become synonymous to the "communist" labeling a few decades ago...
CM: Have you seen any videos al-Qaeda uses to recruit members? Were any used as a template or inspiration for your film?
SJ: Everybody has seen videos of al-Qaeda. [They are] constantly in the news. If they were an inspiration... not directly no. The C4 blowing up and RPG are very popular in the game. You could say those are exactly the tools being used by al-Qaida, but to link this game to that organisation goes too far even for me. And I personally think it's a shame that BF 2 is put in a bad spotlight. I think whats wonderful about this game is that there are no politics at all. There is no good or bad, there are no evildoers. You can chose each side you want and enjoy the game. Hmmm that's not the case with America's Army. A game that was meant to recruit people. Do I smell a little bit of hypocrisy?
CM: Has anyone from the government contacted you about your film? How about major news media such as Reuters?
SJ: No, nobody from the government or Reuters. Thank god for that (governm.). Yes I have had interviews for CNBC, ABC and others... and a lot of online magazines.
CM: Other than Team America: World Police, what other sound clips did you use? Which were taken from fictional portrayals of al-Qaeda/insurgents (movies & video games), and which were from real-life circumstances (such as the Bush "crusade" speech remix)?
SJ: That crusade part was some audio clip with a "combat tune" underneath it, that I found online. And because the video was about the man getting revenge through "Jihad", I thought it fit the clip and the story. In the Team America sound clip he says that the Americans invaded his country and he was holding them responsible for that, so why not take a sound clip that quotes the man in charge? And that other "Allahu Akbar" ["God is Great"] sound clips were mostly from the movie "Lion of the Desert" and some of real life clips. I don't know where to find that stuff anywhere else. I first did it without the "Allahu Akbar", but I thought it wasn't complete without it. And it just fit the story.
CM: What prompted the various choices of music used in the background?
SJ: I was just looking for music that fit a "jihad" story and sounded middle-eastern. Most of the sounds are from the movie called "Lion of the Desert" with Anthony Quinn. And it just fit the movie that I was trying to make. And that music from the "crusade" part sounded just like some good drums before going to "war". I don't even know what they are saying, because I speak just a little bit of Arabic. I'm a Moor so I speak Berber. I hope that the message in the audio wasn't coming off too strong.
CM: Have you seen South Park/Team America writer Trey Parker's take on all this?
SJ: Yes I have seen it. It looks like I have involved him too in this messed up affair. Sorry for that ;) I just want to say to him, Loved Team America and keep up the good work... Stop involving Al-Jazeera in this...
CM: Once again, thank you for taking the time to talk to GamePolitics. I'll let you get back to dodging counter-terrorist agents. Best of luck getting your copy of BF2 running bug-free.
SJ: I hope EA helps me with finding a solution to this bugged out game. Thank you for the interview.
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