But the authenticity of the magazine—whether it is the third edition and whether it came from someone associated with AQAP—is less important than whether it can be taken as a statement on behalf of Al-Qaeda and AQAP, as it has. “There’s a growing tendency to treat Inspire as the official media arm of Al-Qaeda,” says Fisher. “Part of it is a cultural tendency in the U.S. to view Al-Qaeda as monolithic, but part of it is also something institutional to reporting. If you are a reporter, especially someone who works in national security, you are accustomed to very organized agencies that scrupulously put out detailed statements that are incredibly carefully crafted to reflect specific policies.”
He mentions the Defense Department as one example, Hamas as another. “Reporters really need to understand that this is not how these groups work. In more cases it’s just one guy going out on his own and saying something; there are a lot of people saying different things.” There was some of this in Shane’s response to me. “Frankly, when we get a press release from CJR we don’t necessarily call CJR and ask if they’re aware it was sent out,” he told me. Ahem!
In an area as sensitive and sensational as terror, both Fisher and Zelin say the most important thing to do is to be informed, and to inform your reader—something many outlets failed to do in the reporting on Inspire’s third edition. And is there a rule of thumb? “If the only place it’s showing up is in Inspire,” says Fisher, “that’s suspicious because it’s only showing up in one place.”