How Do I Get in Touch With a Terrorist?

Call his cell.

Taliban spokesman Muslim Khan

The Taliban claimed responsibility for the bombing of the World Food Program headquarters in Islamabad, Pakistan, on Monday. In an interview with the Associated Press, a spokesman for the Taliban promised to “send more bombers for such attacks.” How do news organizations land interviews with militants and terrorist groups?

They call them. Each group, from the Taliban to various al-Qaida factions, has its own method for getting its message out. (The United States does not officially recognize the Taliban as a terrorist organization, but the United Nations has put some of its leaders on its blacklist.) The most media-friendly ones have a designated spokesman. These tend to be trusted devotees—as opposed to hired flacks—who put out communiqués with contact numbers. The Taliban, for example, have two spokesmen covering Afghanistan: Muhammad Yusuf in the western region and Zabiullah Mujahid in the east. (Read a CNN interview with Mujahed here.) For the article about the bombing in Islamabad, the AP contacted a Taliban flack in Pakistan named Azam Tariq.

Al-Qaida is harder to reach than most groups of its ilk. Its last official spokesman, Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, sought sanctuary in Iran in 2003, and the organization hasn’t had a communications officer since. Instead, it uses its media wing, as-Sahab Productions, to create and distribute video statements, interviews with leaders, and documentaries about up-and-coming jihadists. (As-Sahab even has its own coffee mugs.) Al-Qaida doesn’t do many media interviews, but there are some exceptions. In June, al-Qaida’s commander in Afghanistan, Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, gave a televised interview to Al Jazeera in which he said al-Qaida would use nuclear weapons against America if the group acquired them.

The main method of distribution, however, is the Internet. When al-Qaida’s media arm makes a new video, it is first teased on a network of jihadist Web forums, such as al-Muslm or al-Faloja. A few days later, it is either posted directly to a few forums or fed to a loose network of distributors called the Al-Fajr Media Center, which then distributes the video through forums or peer-to-peer networks. The Taliban usually post their messages and videos to their own Web site. (Check it out the latest press releases here.)

Having a spokesman can be dangerous—both for the terrorists and the media. Journalists are regularly kidnapped when trying to meet for an interview. Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl was kidnapped and killed in 2003 after arranging to interview an al-Qaida official in Pakistan. Likewise, spokesmen are relatively exposed. Pakistan-based Taliban spokesman Muslim Khan was arrested in September. As a result, both sides tend to be nervous about in-person interviews: Jihadist groups make reporters show up alone and keep interviews short. And just in case journalistic credibility isn’t enough to keep news organizations from ratting out their subjects, the terrorists usually bring guns.

Palestinian groups Hezbollah and Hamas have media operations closer to those of political organizations than terrorist groups. Hamas, for example, has a user-friendly Web site, public spokesmen, and regular press conferences.

Got a question about today’s news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Jarret Brachman, author of Global Jihadism: Theory and Practice; Bernard I. Finel of the American Security Project; and Adam Raisman of the SITE Intelligence Group.