Arab Media Lacks Original Reporting on Times Square Bomber Plot, Intercepted Al-Qaeda Communication

Arab media conducted little original reporting of the attempted Times Square bombing, which was carried out by Faisal Shahzad in May 2010. Many reports attributed their information to U.S. media outlets like The New York Times and The Washington Post, occasionally reprinting entire articles. James Baron and Sabrina Tavernise, “Faisal Shahzad Taghayara khilal a’m.. wa Sara Akthar Intiwa’ wa Ashad Tadinan,” New York Times, May 7, 2010, http://classic.aawsat.com/details.asp?section=4&article=568520&issueno=11483#.U6oFOLFCyqkThe initial focus was also on Shahzad’s connections to the Pakistani Taliban, which first claimed responsibility for the attack and then retracted its claim. Articles from the Arab press only began mentioning Shahzad’s connection to Anwar al-Awlaki after several days of reporting.

The day after Asharq al-Awsat reported on the bomber’s link to Awlaki, Yemen’s Mareb Press carried reporting entirely from The New York Times that also discussed how Awlaki may have impacted Shahzad. The article noted that it was “unknown whether Shahzad had met al-Awlaki in Yemen, or was one of [Awlaki’s] followers who communicate with him” through his website. The article then cited that the U.S. military believed it was “not surprising” that Shahzad was influenced by Awlaki because of the cleric’s ability to communicate to jihadists in English. “Al-Mushtabih fi Qadiya Maidan Times Shahzad Istalhama Afkara mi Al-Awlaki,” Mareb Press, May 9, 2010, http://marebpress.net/news_details.php?lng=arabic&sid=24701.

Mainstream Arab media outlets also provided far less detail than their Western counterparts concerning the intercepted communications between Ayman al-Zawahri, Nasir al-Wuhayshi, and other al-Qaeda leaders. The incident, which led the U.S. to temporarily close 19 embassies and consulates in August 2013, was heavily reported by U.S. outlets. However, most reports in the Arab media were taken straight from Agence France-Presse (AFP) or Reuters.

For example, one of the first stories that Al Arabiya ran with any substance on the subject was copied from AFP, briefly mentioning that “intercepts involved some kind of group communication between al-Qaeda supremo Ayman al-Zawahri, and AQAP leader Nasir al-Wahayshi.” The rest of the article focused on claims that al-Qaeda’s “center of gravity is shifting away from its historic base in Pakistan.” The article quoted Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, who highlighted al-Wahishi’s promotion to al-Qaeda’s second in command as an indication that the organization’s “core is expanding.” According to Gartenstein-Ross, “When we talk about al-Qaeda core there’s no reason it can only exist in Afghanistan-Pakistan—[al-Wahishi] being made the general manager, that very clearly makes him part of the core.” “Al-Qaeda’s Center of Gravity ‘Shifting’ from Pakistan to Yemen,” Agence France-Presse, August 14, 2013, http://english.alarabiya.net/en/perspective/analysis/2013/08/14/Al-Qaeda-s-center-of-gravity-shifting-from-Pakistan-to-Yemen.html.

When details about the nature of the intercepted communications actually emerged in late August, Al Jazeera sourced its story from Reuters, AFP, and the Associated Press. That story claimed Yemen’s President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi “revealed” that the U.S. embassies closed because of a conversation in which al-Wahishi told al-Zawahri, “[Y]ou will hear something [that will] change the face of history,” an apparent reference to forthcoming attacks. According to Al Jazeera, al-Wahishi made those comments while holding a meeting with 20 al-Qaeda leaders in Mareb province on July 29. “Hadi: Al-Qaeda Kanat Tukhatit ‘li Taghyir Wajh Al-Tarikh,” Al Jazeera, August 24, 2013, http://www.aljazeera.net/news/pages/b68dfd0f-609d-4fba-b8b1-ffe9ae0ca752.