Al Qaeda Propaganda In Haditha

Propaganda in Haditha: Al Qaeda’s victory keeps on giving

by Nathaniel R. Helms

November 1, 2007. Words and pictures used by al Qaeda fighters after the incident in Haditha inflicted more harm to the Marine Corps than the bullets and shrapnel on November 19, 2005 that killed one Marine and wounded eleven others. The impact of the insurgents ingenious propaganda campaign is still wounding the Marine Corps almost two years after al Qaeda agents spoon fed their artfully conceived deception to the gullible Western press.

Noted war crimes expert and author H. Wayne Elliott says al Qaeda’s brilliant campaign of lies was also a violation of the Geneva Convention and international law because al Qaeda agents responsible for disseminating images of the dead Iraqis to Western and Arabic news outlets obviously intended to inflame emotions and ignite smoldering passions by using images of dead women and children to incite further bloodshed.

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Elliott, a retired Judge Advocate General Corps lawyer, and protégée of renowned war crimes expert W. Hays Park, said that taking photographs of dead civilians for intelligence purposes was perfectly legal, but using them for either propaganda or purely prurient interests was a violation of the Geneva Convention and US military customs and law.

“The Geneva Convention only applies to the living,” Elliott said during a telephone interview. “The instant people are killed they are no longer viewed as individuals. They are objects because they are dead and the Geneva Convention no longer applies.”

“A crime is committed only when pictures of the dead are used for propaganda purposes. For example, using pictures of dead people to incite violence or influence opinion such as what happened in Bosnia or Somalia, or what is occurring in Iraq, is a war crime because it affects people that are living.”

Elliott offered his opinions in a telephone interview last Friday regarding Marine Corps First Lieutenant Andrew A. Grayson, charged with covering up and lying about war crimes he allegedly perpetrated at Haditha. Ironically, Grayson, 26, is charged with three criminal complaints for ordering a subordinate to destroy digital images of dead Iraqi civilians killed in the battle between Marines and insurgents at Haditha so they couldn’t be exploited.

The strange case against Lt Grayson

According to Elliott, a retired US Army lieutenant colonel who taught military attorneys the laws of armed conflict, keeping and using photographs of the dead civilians for anything other than intelligence purposes is a violation of both the Geneva Convention and US military law.

The government asserts Grayson gave the order to conceal evidence of a crime although he had no way of knowing a criminal investigation would ensue in the future, according to his civilian attorney Joseph Casas, once a Navy JAG.

Elliott referred to an essay he originally wrote in Army Lawyer magazine called ‘Dead and Wounded’ to clarify his perspective. The condensed version of his paper was later incorporated into an Internet offering called Crimes of War: The Book

“There are no hard and fast answers….If the dead are left on the field solely so that they might be seen by journalists or photographed, that is stronger evidence that the threshold of mistreatment is near. If the dead are placed on display as propaganda (dragging the bodies through the streets as occurred in Somalia is a ready example), then the threshold has been crossed and a war crime has been clearly committed,” he wrote. 

Elliott’s analysis flies in the face of government allegations that Grayson violated the law by ordering subordinate Staff Sergeant Justin Laughner to destroy digital camera pictures he took after a battle between an ambushed squad of Marine infantrymen and an al Qaeda-led attack force.

The images showed the immediate aftermath of the battle in which the men, women and children died. At the time, Laughlin was a counter-intelligence specialist with 2nd Counter-Intelligence HUMINT (Human Intelligence) Company. Both he and Grayson were tasked with gathering information about the Haditha ambush and subsequent battle

Grayson is tentatively scheduled to stand before an Article 32 investigating officer beginning November 12 at Camp Pendleton to determine whether there is evidence to charge him with dereliction of duty, obstruction of justice, and making a false statement for his role in the Haditha battle. Each of those charges comes with the possibility of five years’ prison time and dismissal from the service.

The lieutenant is the last Marine among eight who were originally charged last December 21 with war crimes who has not been examined in the Article 32 investigatory process. Four of the Marines charged have been exonerated, two face courts-martial, and Grayson and an enlisted Marine are still waiting to discover their fates.

During the fighting at Haditha, 24 Iraqis were killed. Seven of the dead Iraqis were identified as insurgent fighters and at least one civilian women detained that day was suspected of being an insurgent agent. Pictures and other physical evidence pertaining to the suspected insurgents was obtained and recorded. Some of it, including captured weapons and bogus Jordanian passports crucial to the defense, later disappeared.

Grayson claims he ordered the pictures of the dead civilians destroyed after he determined they were without any intelligence value. He claims he had a responsibility to issue the order to Laughlin to remain in accordance with standing orders not to take or keep casualty pictures for personal reasons. Laughlin has already testified he thought Grayson was ordering him to destroy evidence of a possible war crime. Two months ago Grayson declined a government plea deal which required him to admit that he covered up the killings in Haditha in exchange for having all charges against him dismissed.

Political pressure    

Casas believes the politics of the controversial case have compromised reason. The Haditha incident has polarized both military and political figures and is a rallying point for opposition to the war in Iraq.   

“I think that there are a lot of politics involved in this case at a much, much higher level than Andrew,” Casas said last summer.

Testimony and physical evidence already introduced during the summer-long inquiry revealed that Time magazine was duped by insurgent counter-intelligence operatives into accepting and publishing the videotaped images of Iraqi citizens killed at Haditha for propaganda purposes. On March 6, 2006 Time magazine published a story using images recovered from the insurgent-produced video purportedly showing the aftermath of a murderous rampage by Marines.

The month before Time published its report, insurgent counter-intelligence operatives Thaer Thabit al-Hadithi and Abdul-Rahman al-Mashhadani, sole members of the so-called Hammurabi Human Rights Association, provided the inflammatory video tape to McGirk. For more than a year the Marine Corps resisted revealing it knew of the Iraqis plot to prevent disclosing the Marine Corps highly classified signals intercept capabilities.

McGirk’s flawed report inspired world-wide condemnation of the Marine Corps and the Coalition-led war effort. Remarkably, McGirk never personally went to the scene of the alleged crimes to discover for himself what happened. He relied solely on the Iraqis for evidence that mass murder had been committed. McGirk’s intransigence was an unusual development in an extraordinary case. Usually journals of record and international reputation insist on close scrutiny and multiple sources to verify the veracity of controversial news reports.

Time’s report almost completely ignored that the embattled Marines from Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines were in a crucible of deadly fire for an entire day after a squad of 12 Marines from Third Platoon endured an IED ambush in which a fourth of their number was killed or wounded in the opening seconds of the fight. Nor did McGirk mention then or later that, in the days following the fight, 11 insurgents identified as part of the al Qaeda inspired plan to attack the Marines to precipitate civilian casualties were either killed or captured by Coalition forces. Had he met with the 3/1 staff he would have been briefed, Marine Corps documents show.

Ultimately eight Marines from 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines were charged with murder or cover up after Pennsylvania Congressman John Murtha, himself a former Marine, used McGirk’s specious evidence to accuse the Marines of unprovoked, cold-blooded murder in the international press. Battalion commander Lt Col. Jeffrey Chessani was relieved and later charged with masterminding a cover up of the incident. Three of his officers were similarly charged and three senior officers were censured, their careers destroyed. Four Marine enlisted men were charged with multiple murder and aggravated assault.

Like-minded reporters and pundits looking for a spectacular story, New York Times reporter Paul von Zeilbauer called Haditha the ‘defining atrocity’ of the war, followed Murtha’s lead. For more than a year network wags and uninformed newspaper reporters compared the civilian deaths at Haditha to the massacre of hundreds on innocent civilians at My Lai, South Vietnam four decades ago. The incident at Haditha remains a huge propaganda victory for the insurgents.

Critics of Time magazine and Tim McGirk’s reports claim his stories were published to damage the credibility of the Marine Corps and further Time’s unabashed anti-war agenda. Undoubtedly, dozens of Marines already said, the news stories his reports inspired did immeasurable harm to an organization in which honor and integrity are fundamental building blocks.

Seasoned Marine officers with years of intense combat experience routinely argue that the Haditha tribunal has impaired the combat efficiency of the most assertive military force in the United States arsenal. They say that the very fact Grayson’s investigation has gone forward is itself evidence of the success of the Iraqi insurgency’s brilliant counter-intelligence coup.

Time magazine officials and Tim McGirk have declined numerous requests to answer the charges.

Did the media influence investigators?

A Naval Criminal Investigation Service forensic consultant, Michael Maloney,testified at former defendant LCpl Justin Sharratt’s Article 32 hearing that the investigative team read media accounts of the incident before beginning their investigation. It is obvious from their subsequent testimony it colored at least one agent’s perception of events.

During the Article 32 hearing of exonerated Marine Justin Sharratt on June 12, 2007, NCIS Special Agent Mark Platt revealed his apparent bias under questioning by Sharratt’s attorney, James Culp. At the time Culp was cross-examining Platt about the solatia payments (money given to the families of Iraqis killed by Marines) that a 3/1 officer paid to families of the dead civilians: 

Q. And when you interrogated or interviewed people, do you try to make yourself aware of what motives they may have to fabricate?

A. Of course.

Q. Did you know whether or not the people who lived in houses three and four had received any solatia payments at this time?

A. At the time I conducted the interviews of the two women in house four, I was not aware of any solatia payments being made to them.

Q. My question is: Did you think that they had not been paid at that point?

A. I was not aware of whether or not they had been paid.

Q. Did you ask whether or not they had been paid?

A. No, I did not.

Q. Though it would be important as regards to their motive to fabricate perhaps?

A. I wouldn’t say that, no.

Q. You wouldn’t say seeking solatia payments may affect their credibility?

A. I think the pain and suffering of their husbands being murdered literally right in front of them was more severe than the $1,500 that the United States government —

Q. So now we get to the issue, Agent Platt. Isn’t it true that the reason you didn’t go investigate why Kahtan was working on the border is because you thought there had been a murder? Isn’t that true?

A. That is not true.

Q. You didn’t think there had been a murder when you investigated on 29 March?

A. I knew individuals had been killed. I didn’t know whether or not it was a murder.

Q. Well, on 6 April, when you decided not to ask about solatia payments, you thought there was a murder then. Right?

A. No, I did not.

Q. I thought you just said that the reason you thought that solatia payments couldn’t affect their credibility is because they were upset about their family members being murdered?

A. I misspoke. I should have stated that they were upset with their family members being killed.

Q. Why did you use the word “murder?” Did you think there was a murder?

A. I misspoke.

Evidence already submitted to Lt. Gen James N. Mattis, currently the convening authority and final arbiter in Grayson’s case, shows that Marine Corps signals intercept specialists heard the insurgents planning to videotape the aftermath of the battle before the first ambush was sprung.

“I would rather get shot…than kill the enemy, face a court-martial, and spend the rest of my life in prison.”

Ironically, Grayson was a designated hero at Haditha for foiling two other planned IED attacks included in the complex al Qaeda attack plan. For his efforts Grayson was recommended for the Bronze Star. The recommendation for his award was being processed the same time the investigation into allegations of murder and cover up were being conducted, Casas said.

Despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary that has already been introduced, the government doggedly maintains that 17 men, women and children were intentionally gunned down by Marines from 3rd Platoon, Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines in retaliation for the death of Marine LCpl Miguel Terrazas. The young Marine rifleman was killed by an IED ambush at the beginning of the battle. Laughlin, who arrived after the battle was over to take pictures, was granted government immunity from prosecution to testify against Sharratt.

Sharratt, a savvy combat Marine who performed meritoriously at Fallujah the preceding year was later exonerated by Lt. Gen. Mattis. In his decision the general warned that “our nation is fighting a shadowy enemy who hides among the innocent people, does not comply with any aspect of the law of war, and routinely targets and intentionally draws fire toward civilians.”

Other counter-intelligence specialists from the 2d Intelligence Battalion Marines assigned to 3/1 during and after the battle determined that the incident at Haditha was financed and led by al Qaeda foreign fighters who led well paid local Wahabi fundamentalists to create maximum mayhem and death among defenseless Iraqi families. The counter-intelligence specialists findings, attached as an exhibit to the ‘secret’ investigation conducted by US Army Major General Eldon Bargewell last year, was never disclosed by the Washington Post or any other mainstream media organization that was privy to it last April after it was leaked.

James Culp, a Desert Storm veteran and former Army paratrooper who represents several soldiers and Marines prosecuted for war crimes, said the impact of al Qaeda’s propaganda war on the trigger-pullers in Iraq and Afghanistan is incalculable.

One measure is a Marine who Culp spoke with recently. The Marine told him, “I would rather get shot, get a Purple Heart and sent home, than kill the enemy, face a court-martial, and spend the rest of my life in prison.”

Nathaniel R. Helms
Defend Our Marines
1 November 2007

Note: Nat Helms is a Contributing Editor to Defend Our Marines. He is a Vietnam veteran, former police officer, war correspondent, and, most recently, author of My Men Are My Heroes: The Brad Kasal Story (Meredith Books, 2007).