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BBC denies Whitehall unit influenced al-Qa'ida report

The BBC has admitted that a senior journalist making a programme about al-Qa'ida met members of a government propaganda unit before the programme was broadcast.

Suspicions over the BBC's relationship with the unit were raised after a leaked report said the unit was "pushing" material, designed to undermine al-Qa'ida among its supporters, to "a BBC radio programme exposing tensions between AQ leadership and supporters".

The BBC admitted yesterday that its security correspondent Frank Gardner and a colleague met members of Whitehall's research, information and communications unit (Ricu). The programme, al-Qa'ida's Enemy Within, was broadcast on Radio 4 on 7 August. It was presented by Gardner and produced by a BBC expert in Islam, Innes Bowen.

It assessed how former Islamic extremists and scholars had turned away from al-Qa'ida's philosophy and were trying to urge supporters to turn against it. The leaked Ricu report had explained that one of the unit's aims was to show that al-Qa'ida was vulnerable to attacks by influential figures.

Nicola Meyrick, executive editor of current affairs on BBC Radio, dismissed any suggestion of collusion between the programme's makers and the Whitehall propaganda unit.

"The programme explored how the war of ideas within the jihadi movement is becoming as important as the military front line," she said. "Was it the result of a 'push' from Ricu? Absolutely not. Frank and Innes did have contact with Ricu and saw three members of the unit after they had finished recording interviews. Ricu gave them briefing materials that were not used in the programme."

Gardner has won plaudits for first-hand knowledge of the Islamic world, having completed a degree in Arabic and Islamic Studies. He is a fluent Arabic speaker. He was shot and left for dead while working in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, in 2004 and left paralysed by the attack.

Ms Meyrick added: "The programme was completely independent, not inspired by a Whitehall counter-terrorism unit or necessarily coming to the conclusion such a unit would like."