In the wee hours of Thursday morning, the news broke that al-Qaeda had officially tapped Ayman al-Zawahri, Osama bin Laden's former second-in-command, as its next leader. But how did the news break? It turns out that terrorism experts who monitor jihadi forums managed to beat the super-fast wire services to the story.
Here's how it all went down. At around 2 am EST, Aaron Zelin, who runs the website Jihadology, tweeted that al-Qaeda's General Command had announced its new leader, linking to a statement on the Islamist website Ansar al-Mujahideen (Followers of the Holy Warriors, pictured above). He told The Atlantic Wire that he was randomly checking Ansar's Arabic forum when he came across the statement, which had just been posted. Zelin, who is currently in an Arabic immersion program at Middlebury College, isn't allowed to speak English, so he tweeted the news in Arabic and sent the link via instant message to Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, the director of the Center for the Study of Terrorist Radicalization, for distribution to the wider world. Gartenstein-Ross swiftly did just that in between observations about his dissertation and rioting Vancouver Canucks fans. After seeing Gartenstein-Ross's tweet, Leah Farrall, who runs the blog All Things Counter Terrorism, quickly observed, "Reason number one thousand why you should always read AQ primary materials. Succession of al-Zawahiri as amir."
Minutes later, the analysts transitioned to fact-checking mode. J.M. Berger, who runs the site IntelWire, asked about the document's authenticity and Farrall noticed that the properties data on the file announcing the promotion was created on May 21 and modified on June 14, with six revisions, though she decided to "leave it to those with funkier toys to have a look around the data." Berger concluded that since Ansar was running the statement as a banner headline, it's "either authentic or a whole new class of forgery," adding that since many people expected al-Zawahri to succeed bin Laden, the probability that people would spend time and effort on a forgery was low. Within the hour, Al Arabiya television was reporting the news, which was picked up in a Reuters "FLASH" and soon covered by hundreds of other sources. Al Arabiya and Reuters, of course, may have also spotted the statement on jihadi forums this morning and simply been delayed in publishing the news by internal verification requirements. But the genesis of the story gives us another example, in the wake of the 'Gay Girl in Damascus' hoax, of how collaborative fact-checking and news breaking can work on Twitter.