Why this story matters:
A story that the U.S. embassy in Sarajevo was planning a military exercise involving depleted uranium turned out to be false, but the rumor continued to spread -- despite denials by every government institution involved.
It's easy to understand why the story gained traction so quickly, and caused so much outrage. Depleted uranium was used by NATO during the conflicts in the 1990s, most notably in 1999 air strikes on Serbia and Montenegro. The chemical has long been blamed for higher rates of malignant diseases in several countries.
Then came the attack on the embassy. So far, speculations on the motives of the attacker are based on his rather limited activity on social media, which shows his resentment against the U.S. and NATO.
Whether the false news of the military exercise was as a "dog whistle" and became the tipping point for the attack, or the close proximity of the two events was purely coincidential, remains to be seen. But it should serve as a cautionary tale about the potential impact of false rumors.
Details from the story:
- On Feb. 20, an article claiming that depleted uranium would be used in a joint military exercise of BiH and NATO forces appeared in the Bosnian portal "Dnevnik".
- The exercise was to take place in 2019 near Banja Luka in the BiH entity Republika Srpska.
- "Dnevnik" backed the claims with photos of an unverified document with the name of BiH minister of defense, Marina Pendeš, in the header.
- The rumor quickly spread online and in mainstream media in the region, even though the Ministry of Defense immediately pointed to several falsehoods in the story. It was also refuted by the Serb member of the BiH Presidency, the U.S. Embassy and the NATO headquarters in Sarajevo.
- The story was overshadowed when a veteran of the 1999 war attacked the U.S. Embassy in Podgorica the next day and was killed when he activated a hand grenade.