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17 December 2001

Did the newspaper miss the joke?

By Johann Hari

Arrrgh! Run! Quick – to the bunkers, before it’s too late! Haven’t you read the Times? Al-Qaeda has all the information needed to build a nuclear weapon! Those chaps from News International found the evidence in an abandoned Osama Bin Laden lair in Kabul! It’s cold war, mark two!

Or, er, not. The newspaper stable that brought us the “news” that Hitler’s diaries had been discovered, that Michael Foot had been a dastardly KGB spy, and that at Hillsborough the “animal” Liverpool fans had been urinating on the dead may have been deceived yet again. The Times reported that Bin Laden has access to nuclear secrets. In fact, a perusal of his “top-secret documents” reveals that they are based on a spoof.

The website www.rotten.com is a favourite of students sipping coffee at 3am in university computer rooms across the world. Best known for its library of real photos of severed limbs, dead celebrities and deformed genitalia, the website has outclassed the journos of the Murdoch stable by being the first to realise that the Times‘s “world exclusive” was rather less than it seemed.

The site’s authors have analysed photos of these incendiary documents. They found “detailed bomb-making instructions” abandoned on a desk, which listed “ten easy steps” to build a nuclear bomb. These steps are in fact drawn from a scientific parody widely distributed on the net. The authors of these supposedly serious plans proudly make references to an earlier guide to building a time machine, and how to “make contact with an alien race”.

This is how the Times‘s Anthony Loyd described this document: “The vernacular quickly spun out of my comprehension but there were phrases through the mass of chemical symbols and physics jargon that anyone could understand.” Yes, quite. Phrases such as these pearls of wisdom: “Plutonium . . . is especially dangerous. Wash your hands with soap and warm water after handling the material, and don’t allow your children or pets to play in it or eat it.”

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Yet the BBC also judged these uncovered “plans” to be so potentially explosive (excuse the pun) that their news item only scanned the instructions quickly, leaving parts obscured from the viewers. Otherwise, it was clear, terrorists could freeze-frame the shots and use them for their own wicked ends.

These al-Qaeda “plans” were first published in 1979 in a satirical magazine called The Annals of Improbable Research. Both the Times and the BBC were rather sheepish when the New Statesman called asking for more details. It would seem that the Times drew in part on this “evidence” to suggest that Bin Laden might have been working on a fission device similar to the bomb dropped on Nagasaki in 1945. Don’t relax just yet, but perhaps it isn’t quite as bad as it seemed.

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