Wall Street Journal Grants Anonymity to al-Qaeda’s “First Easily Accessible Media Liaison”

The Wall Street Journal today quotes at length from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s (AQAP) “first easily accessible media liaison” and explicitly grants the source anonymity in an article titled “Al Qaeda Gets Media Makeover in Yemen.”  This is an especially interesting marker following the ruckus in January when FBI Director, James Comey sent a letter to The New York Times stating: “Your decision to grant anonymity to a spokesperson for Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula … is both mystifying and disgusting.”

The WSJ article generally concerns AQAP’s publicity operations and media strategies, for example how the group is moving into the age of Twitter. How does the paper describe the reason for anonymity in this case? The paper states that the liaison “ask[ed] to remain nameless so that only the group’s top leaders serve as the public face for al Qaeda.”

There are two reasons why this particular use of anonymity is significant:

First, one might have thought the use of anonymity by the NYT (and other media outlets like The Intercept) was limited to the nature and exigencies of the situation following the Charlie Hebdo attacks.  For example, The Intercept’s Jeremy Scahill told the Washington Post’s Erik Wemple that “verified claims of responsibility for the attacks, which we could only report if we granted anonymity, was important enough to justify it.” And Scahill added that in that instance “we granted anonymity to the AQAP source because the group had not yet released an official statement” and “it was unclear that an official statement was forthcoming soon.”

None of those reasons apply in the case of the WSJ article—the importance of claiming responsibility for an attack or the exigent circumstances awaiting release of an official statement.

Second, it is an open question how news media practices might change following the harsh letter from the FBI Director. In the particularities, the FBI spokesperson told the NYT Public Editor that a factor that animated Mr. Comey was use of the phrase “on the condition of anonymity.” The WSJ article comes close to the same language.

But the broader picture is that the WSJ has in effect responded here as well to the Director’s Letter. Comey told the NYT: “I fear you have lost your way and urge you to reconsider allowing your newspaper to be used by those who have murdered so many and work every day to murder more.”

After their own reflection of the Director’s words, the WSJ appears to be marking a path toward greater and more explicit use of anonymity for al-Qaeda sources in a wider range of cases. 

About the Author(s)

Ryan Goodman

Co-Editor-in-Chief of Just Security, Anne and Joel Ehrenkranz Professor of Law at New York University School of Law, former Special Counsel to the General Counsel of the Department of Defense (2015-2016). You can follow him on Twitter @rgoodlaw.