Amid all the news about TSA scanners and full-body pat-downs this past week came a reminder of why the government insists that such precautions are necessary: a new threat from Al-Qaeda. Much of the reporting on the new threat stems from the publication of the third issue of Inspire, an English-language “magazine” that claims to be the work of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The “special edition” details the recent attempt to bomb two cargo planes using tampered-with printers sent from Yemen, a plan dubbed “Operation Hemorrhage,” and warns of more to come—a tactic of “a thousand cuts.” Inspire’s writers brag about how inexpensive it had been to so thoroughly disrupt and rattle U.S. security. The plot had cost just $4,200, a figure which features prominently on front of the magazine—a crafty cover.
The magazine first made news in late June and early July, when the inaugural edition was released with the intent to reach disaffected Muslims in the English-speaking west; to find, in other words, the next London bus-bombers or Fort Hood shooters. And in that month, while headlines rang loud with news of Al-Qaeda’s new “Full-length English Magazine”, there was a fair amount of skepticism among the marvelings about its sordid details and famous bylines (Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri). When Atlantic blogger Marc Ambinder reported on Inspire, he acknowledged the magazine could be a fake; The New York Times’s Jeremy W. Peters allowed Brookings Institution scholar Bruce Riedel to muse that it “could have been the work of hackers, possibly working for the United States government.” The Christian Science Monitor ran the headline “Al Qaeda’s new online Magazine: Is it for real?” The intelligence community—and the reporters they fed—soon speculated, with some surety, that U.S. citizen and now Yemeni resident Samir Khan, twenty-three, was behind the magazine.
Reading the latest terror reports it seems that any questions about the validity of Inspire have disappeared. The magazine once greeted with skepticism and perspective—to what extent one publication can speak for as disparate and fractured a community as the jihadists is always a question—is now being treated as the unquestioned and official spokes-journal of Al-Qaeda. And some close watchers of Al-Qaeda caution against the approach.
Critics say it’s important to treat Inspire with nuance—this is not simply a press release from a unified organization. While there is little evidence to dispute the fact that there are Al-Qaeda members from Yemen behind the magazine, terrorist groups are not seamless, homogenous entities. By pushing the fear factor with a new and scary magazine that forecasts terror to come, reporters might be ceding too much influence, and power, to the five-month-old journal.
Max Fisher, who blogs on foreign affairs and national security for The Atlantic, says it’s important to provide a lot more context when using Inspire as a source than many reports did this week. While the reporters themselves may understand the complexity of the organization, and the origins of the magazine, readers aren’t always going to come to the table with such stores. And then, sometimes, not even the reporters do.
“There’s this assumption among a lot of reporters that Al-Qaeda is a monolithic entity, partly because U.S. politics has framed it that way,” says Fisher, who wrote a post titled “5 Reasons to Doubt Al-Qaeda Magazine’s Authenticity” back in July. “It was very easy for a lot of people to see this and say, of course Bin Laden and Zawahiri and Awlaki were all sitting around a conference room table somewhere trying to hash out the best headline. The fact is that these organizations are a lot more fractious than that. The whole idea that they would get together and put out a glossy English magazine that accurately reflects all of their viewpoints, as if they even have a unified viewpoint to reflect, it’s kind of silly.” Still, he understands the urge to report on the magazine. “It looks like this big scary new thing and we’re always looking for scary new things from Al-Qaeda. It’s exciting to editors and people like to read about it.”
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.
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.”