(Charlie Hebdo/Handout via Reuters)

Big media outlets today are busy reporting the news that al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has taken responsibility for last week’s Charlie Hebdo attack. A video released by this branch of al-Qaeda is authentic, according to the director of national intelligence, though U.S. officials aren’t ready to confirm the group’s claim that it helped orchestrate the killings.

Last Friday, the Intercept’s Jeremy Scahill reported pretty much the same set of facts. “AL QAEDA SOURCE: AQAP DIRECTED PARIS ATTACK,” was the headline on Scahill’s story, which includes a full statement of responsibility from the group. The scoop relied on an AQAP source who “demanded anonymity because the group had not yet released an official statement.” In addition to providing the official word on the attack, the source told Scahill that the previous edition of the al-Qaeda publication “Inspire” contained a “clue” regarding the imminence of the Charlie Hebdo massacre.

A modicum of Twitter-based skepticism met Scahill’s story:


The Erik Wemple Blog today sent a bundle of questions to Scahill about terrorists and anonymous sources, and he responded with a extensive response, the gist of which is: Just as anonymous sourcing is sometimes critical to reporting on government, so it is vis-a-vis terrorists.

“Being able to interview AQAP sources before such statements are officially announced is part of doing aggressive, informative journalism and I will continue to do this,” writes Scahill in an e-mail. “As I stated in my original story on this, we granted anonymity to the AQAP source because the group had not yet released an official statement. Sound familiar? We read that rationale all the time in big newspapers about anonymous US officials.”

Though Scahill says that, as a rule, he doesn’t support granting anonymity to top U.S. government officials, he has agreed to such arrangements in “very limited cases.” As for the AQAP source in Friday’s story, Scahill argues that the case for anonymity is particularly firm: “Another factor here is that this source’s life would potentially be endangered if I identified the source by name, which is exactly when anonymity is most justified. We had to weigh the benefit of this story against granting anonymity, and decided that verified claims of responsibility for the attacks, which we could only report if we granted anonymity, was important enough to justify it.”

The decision to confer anonymity, says Scahill, was a collective one that drew in Editor-in-Chief Betsy Reed, two senior editors, general counsel and Scahill himself. The Intercept is the national security-oriented digital magazine of First Look Media, a creation of eBay founder Pierre Omidyar. “I believe that, as journalists, we have a responsibility to interview and understand the people and groups we are told we are at war with. That means talking to al Qaeda, ISIS, AQAP and others,” says Scahill.

He, of course, is not alone on this front. The New York Times, in a story today on the developments, used information from an anonymous “member of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.” The New York Times hasn’t yet responded to an interview request regarding the handling of such things. Washington Post national security reporter Adam Goldman tweeted today:

Jay Rosen, a former adviser to First Look Media, once issued a ranking of scoop categories, in which the “ego scoop” is described as an instance “where the news would have come out anyway -– typically because it was announced or would have been announced -– but some reporter managed to get ahead of the field and break it before anyone else.” Is that what Scahill did? No, he says: “At the time we published that, it was unclear that an official statement was forthcoming soon. Sometimes AQAP waits quite a while to take responsibility. My motivation was not to be first, but to provide information that would be of public value.”

Full Scahill response:

First of all, I have spent quite a bit of time on the ground in Yemen and have very well-connected sources with a variety of factions and groups, including AQAP. I would never publish or report something from an unverified source. If I use a source, it means I have confirmed that they are who they say they are. That was the case here. My source for these stories, whose information has now been proven to be a completely accurate account of AQAP’s (now) public claim of responsibility, is a source that has given me solid and accurate information for a sustained period of time. AQAP does not have a variety of public spokespeople. Communications are tightly controlled and coordinated. They have a meticulous way of communicating their claims of responsibility through official channels and senior AQAP officials. Being able to interview AQAP sources before such statements are officially announced is part of doing aggressive, informative journalism and I will continue to do this. As I stated in my original story on this, we granted anonymity to the AQAP source because the group had not yet released an official statement. Sound familiar? We read that rationale all the time in big newspapers about anonymous US officials. In general, I do not support giving senior US officials anonymity. I have, at times, used anonymous sourcing, but in very limited cases. I’ve never spoken with a journalist I respect who has argued for an absolute ban on anonymity, only that it should be done in limited circumstances that justify it. Another factor here is that this source’s life would potentially be endangered if I identified the source by name, which is exactly when anonymity is most justified. We had to weigh the benefit of this story against granting anonymity, and decided that verified claims of responsibility for the attacks, which we could only report if we granted anonymity, was important enough to justify it.

Also, my source is not authorized to have their name used because AQAP has specific people appointed as public faces of the organization. That said, AQAP’s media tactics are changing and they are using social media a lot more these days. Soon after we published the messages from AQAP on Friday, they began tweeting those exact messages out, in Arabic, on their publicly confirmed Twitter accounts. (Twitter has not verified these accounts, of course. But they have been confirmed through AQAP’s official channels as authorized accounts). I believe that, as journalists, we have a responsibility to interview and understand the people and groups we are told we are at war with. That means talking to al Qaeda, ISIS, AQAP and others. We will continue to do this on this story and others at The Intercept.

In re: Rosen’s “ego scoop”:

At the time we published that, it was unclear that an official statement was forthcoming soon. Sometimes AQAP waits quite a while to take responsibility. My motivation was not to be first, but to provide information that would be of public value. If I wanted to make sure I was first, I would have tweeted the statement. Instead, I believed we needed to run it through our editorial and legal process given the sensitivity of the developments. Also, please note that the very first statement we received from AQAP stopped short of claiming responsibility for the attack, but did praise it. A second set of messages AQAP sent me made clear they were taking responsibility. We were in a position where we were in the middle of a breaking story and moved swiftly to responsibly report the developments. Our sole motivation was to inform our readers of claims we were receiving from verified sources.