Report: Pentagon Paid a PR Firm $500 Million to Make Fake al-Qaeda Videos

October 3, 2016 Updated: October 3, 2016

A PR firm in the United Kingdom was handed $500 million by the Pentagon to make fake terrorist videos to portray al-Qaeda in a negative light and to track sympathizers.

The White House and Gen. David Petraeus signed off on the content produced by PR firm Bell Pottinger, according to a former employee, as reported by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and the Sunday Times. The company made short TV segments made in a similar manner to Arabic news networks along with fake insurgent videos that could be used to track people who viewed them.

Bell Pottinger worked alongside U.S. military officers in the Baghdad Camp Victory headquarters as fighting went on outside. It reported to the Pentagon, the CIA, and the National Security Council, according to Bell Pottinger’s former chairman, Lord Tim Bell.

Former employee Martin Wells told the Bureau that he was hired by Bell Pottinger as a video editor and edited content for secret “psychological operations” at Camp Victory. They created TV ads that portrayed al-Qaeda in a negative light and created content to make it look as if it was produced by “Arabic TV.” The crews were sent out at night to film bombings to produce low quality videos, and the firm would edit them to make it appear as if they were real news footage.

“We need to make this style of video and we’ve got to use Al-Qaeda’s footage,” Wells was told. “We need it to be 10 minutes long, and it needs to be in this file format, and we need to encode it in this manner.”

What’s more, they created false al-Qaeda propaganda videos and would plant them in homes that the military raided. U.S. Marines would take CDs on their patrols and drop them as they raided targets.

“If they’re raiding a house and they’re going to make a mess of it looking for stuff anyway, they’d just drop an odd CD there.” The CDs were set up to only play use Real Player, a popular streaming application that requires an Internet connection. A code was embedded on the CDs which was linked to a Google Analytics account, producing IP addresses where the CDs were played.

Wells said the CDs provided valuable intelligence.

“If one is looked at in the middle of Baghdad… you know there’s a hit there,” he said. “If one, 48 hours or a week later shows up in another part of the world, then that’s the more interesting one, and that’s what they’re looking for more, because that gives you a trail.”

CDs turned up in Iran, Syria, and even the United States, Wells said.

Bell told the Sunday Times he was happy with Bell Pottinger’s work in the country. “We did a lot to help resolve the situation,” he said, adding that it was not enough. “We did not stop the mess which emerged, but it was part of the American propaganda machinery.”

Bell noted that it’s unclear if the material achieved its intended goals.

He said, “I mean if you look at the situation now, it wouldn’t appear to have worked. But at the time, who knows, if it saved one life it [was] a good thing to do.”

The company stopped working with the Pentagon in 2011. Documents show that the U.S. intelligence agency paid some $540 million to Bell Pottinger in contracts between 2007 and 2011.