05.05.10

The Taliban's Favorite Website

When the Pakistani Taliban claimed credit for the failed Times Square bombing, they did it via an American terrorism blog. John Avlon talks to the guy who both the U.S. military and the terrorists get their news from.

The scoop came straight from the Taliban to a house in southern New Jersey at 2 a.m., where Bill Roggio—the founder of LongWarJournal.org—was sleeping with his wife and three children.

The subject header read: “Qari Hussain Mehsud from Tehreek e Taliban Pakistan accepts the responsibility of recent Attack on Times Square Newyork USA.”

“Knowing that these guys are watching and reading is one thing, but to have them actually reach out to you and use your material is really another,” said Roggio.

Hours later, a second email was sent from a Gmail account—the text was oddly cordial, even complimentary, in its clipped English introduction to the chilling video clips attached:

“hi
you’re again the first one to see it
share it with as many as you can
I appreciate your site, only few things are confusing to you, rest is clear”

And so Roggio received the first claim of credit for the attempted Times Square bombing, which had been foiled less than four hours before.

“I just was sort of blown away,” Roggio told me two days later. “It was surreal and shocking… like, ‘Why the hell are they contacting me?’ I was just very confused, and almost concerned that it was fake.”

Gerald L. Shargel: Lieberman Stomps on the Constitution But a quick check of sources confirmed the email was authentic. Roggio linked to the video on YouTube early Sunday morning, affirming the Pakistani Taliban’s role in at least training the would-be bomber in the attack and establishing that Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud was not dead, as previously reported. While journalists and agents scrambled for information in the hours after the bomb-laden Nissan Pathfinder was found smoking in Times Square, the donation-supported Long War Journal had scooped mainstream news—and even gotten ahead of the U.S. government—because of its Taliban fans.

The radically anti-modern Taliban, it seems, follow their own exploits on Western websites that chronicle the U.S. military’s fight against radical Islam like B-movie actresses scour the gossip page.

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More on the Times Square bomb scare
“Knowing that these guys are watching and reading is one thing, but to having them actually reach out to you and use your material is really another,” said Roggio, a 40-year-old Army and New Jersey National Guard veteran. “Half of me is saying, ‘Man, I wish these guys would just go away.’ They’re not my audience and they’re not the people I want to communicate with. The other half of me is saying, ‘Boy, that’s damn interesting that I’m getting this first,’ and it really helps me do my job.”

Roggio’s job has allowed him to transform from an amateur blogger into an internationally recognized expert on the war on terror—i.e., the Long War—who is called on by the U.S. military for information and insight. His website and its staff of three draw 23,000 unique visitors a day from around the world and are published as a nonprofit entity. Budgets are tight, and Roggio’s wife works three days a week as a nurse at a local hospital to support their children, including a son with autism. But Roggio’s work has gained a devoted following among the military and intelligence communities, including General David Petraeus, who has been a source for some stories.

In some ways, The Long War Journal’s success and its latest scoop mark the coming-of-age of highly specialized Internet sites that are covering specific areas—even wars—with greater depth and long-term focus than big-budget news operations from half a world away.

Roggio’s site went live in 2007, but its roots began in blogs after the second battle of Falluja, in 2004. Roggio then was working at an IT company, but he found himself chronicling the assault: “I realized that there was a lot being missed in the reporting in that area and it helped me learn a lot about al Qaeda’s network… After the operation in Falluja, some Marines picked up on what I was doing. They called my website ‘the command chronology of western Iraq’—which is a compliment in the military. They basically said I was documenting what was happening there more accurately than any reporter at the time. They invited me to come out for an embed, and so I took a leave of absence.” It was the first of six trips to the war zone to date, and Roggio’s IT career was put on hold.

“The Long War Journal is a daily reporting mechanism for what’s going on, in a granular way, on the ground in our fight against terrorism in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere,” said senior editor Tom Joscelyn. “The elites inside the Beltway and elsewhere are all about credentials. But after 9/11 there was nowhere to get that expertise on our enemies—you had to do it yourself. There was an open market to be entrepreneurial on this front in the fight against terrorism.”

Joscelyn exemplifies that intellectual DIY spirit. A 33-year-old with an economics degree from the University of Chicago, he has transformed himself into one of the most trusted authorities on the al Qaeda network because of his encyclopedic knowledge of terrorist biographies. Also a regular counterterror columnist for The Weekly Standard, Joscelyn’s newest publication is a book-length essay titled, What President Obama Doesn’t Know About Guantanamo, which will be released this month.

Roggio and Joscelyn have essentially willed their way into becoming issue experts during a time of war. Reporting and analysis is their service to their country, chronicling the battlefront daily from their homes in the tri-state area. They are quoted in the international press, and Roggio is a regular guest on John Batchelor’s nationally syndicated radio show, where I first spoke to him on Tuesday night as he helped break the news that the newly captured Times Square bomber, Faisal Shahzad, is the son of a Pakistani air force general.

The Taliban’s attention to The Long War Journal is the ultimate backhanded compliment from an enemy in the Internet age—a testament to the site’s accuracy and understanding. Critics may charge that publishing information gained from the Taliban amounts to disseminating propaganda during wartime, but Roggio said he has wrestled with that ethical issue and found clarity. “I think the propaganda cuts both ways,” he said. “They might be getting to gloat and maybe benefit in terms of recruiting, but it really should serve another purpose from the U.S.’s perspective: The propaganda should be viewed as a reminder that these people really are our enemies and they really do want to kill us.”

We are at war. The Times Square plot is just the latest reminder that terrorism is always one day from being the No. 1 issue in our nation. The new journalism practiced by The Long War Journal helps keep our focus and increases the competitive metabolism of the media.

John Avlon's new book Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking America is available now by Beast Books both on the Web and in paperback. He is also the author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics. Previously, he served as chief speechwriter for New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and was a columnist and associate editor for The New York Sun.