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."