So what is a reporter to do? Include a lengthy explanation of the complicated relationships that exist behind a publication claiming to be the voice of the organization? In Fisher’s reporting on Al-Qaeda and its publications he says the best thing to do is to “approach people who monitor these statements and the Jihadi media as a full time job” to get some bearing on how valid and credible a publication or report is. “Typically if something comes out in English there’s already been a dozen or two statements about it in Arabic. Ask, have you seen anything before about this and what do you think about this? And if it’s reliable at all, chances are it’s already showed up six or seven times in the Arabic language media.”
Aaron Zelin, a research assistant at the Department of Politics at Brandeis and a blogger at Jihadology.net, has noted a change in the tone reporters have taken with Inspire since its mid-year launch. “The media has taken the latest edition as truth instead of being critical of the information in it—outlets have been taking what they say as fact,” says Zelin. While he adds that there is some truth in the material—Operation Hemorrhage “did cost little compared to the measures the U.S. or Britain’s security response is going to be”—reporters need to be more skeptical, particularly as they labor under the assumption that it is Khan who is producing the magazine.
“He’s not anywhere near the top leadership in AQAP,” Zelin told me. “It has the al-Malahim logo on it but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s coming from the top. It could be; but they also have an Arabic language magazine that they put out as well. That would be a better indicator of what they’re trying to do and their goals. This is just for consumption by so-called American jihadists and/or for creating fear in the American and British public.”
Zelin, like Fisher, says there is an understanding gap between Western reporters and Al-Qaeda. Language is partly to blame, but there is also a lack of historical understanding. “[In July] individuals were reporting on Inspire as if this was there first time that there had ever been an English-language magazine produced by Al-Qaeda—that’s not true. Even before Al-Qaeda was established in 1988 during the Afghan jihad against the Soviet Union, there was a lot of materials produced in English to support the Mujahedeen. In the 1990s there were publications created by Al-Qaeda that were translated into English, and there have been websites in English. This is not really something new.”
It’s not always lack of understanding or diligence that leads to overly simplified or under-qualified handling of Inspire’s revelations. Scott Shane, who writes on national security out of D.C. for The New York Times, says that whenever anything like Inspire shows up online, “You have to be wary of the possibility that it’s disinformation or a spoof or something like that.” Thus, when a new Bin Laden tape surfaces—or an allegedly new Bin Laden tape surfaces—he calls around to private experts or C.I.A. contacts to confirm its validity because “there is rarely certainty.”
Before he mentioned Inspire’s “thousand cuts” threat in his weekend piece, “Administration to Seek Balance in Airport Screening,” Shane checked the authenticity of the latest issue of the magazine with three groups who monitor Jihadi publications: Intelcenter, the Site Intelligence Group, and MEMRI (The Middle East Research Institute). Each in turn confirmed that they believed the third edition of Inspire came from the same people who had launched the first edition. At the bequest of an editor, Shane added language to his report to reflect the fact that the authenticity had been vetted. He remembers it as something like: “Three private organizations that track militant communications said they believed the magazine was authentic, and a result of AQAP.” He then named the organizations. But by the time the piece was cut down to run in Sunday’s paper, those sentences were gone. Shane’s report treated Inspired as the unquestioned and seemingly un-vetted mouthpiece of the AQAP just as Reuters and the ABC had.
While he says it would have been better to have included the language, Shane also says there is “not much doubt” that Inspire is the work of AQAP. The more challenging question that came up at the Times in dealing with the magazine was whether to link to the PDF in their online version of the story when the PDF became available. For the moment, it remains unlinked.