The problem with breaking news

Faisal Shahzad, seen in this undated photo released by the U.S. Marshal's Service, has been indicted on 10 terrorism related charges by a federal grand jury in connection to the May 1 attempted car bombing in New York's Times Square the U.S. Justice Department announced on June 17, 2010.  UPI/U.S. Marshal's Service/HO Photo via Newscom

Breaking news coverage is very difficult. The moment when people most desire updates coincides with the moment when a news outlet knows the least on the given topic.

One important function media outlets can perform is to keep crazy stories from spreading.

That’s an important job but sometimes I wonder if media outlets overreact and go out of their way to deny specifics. After Faisal Shahzad tried to blow up Times Square this spring, some politicians and reporters made a point of saying there was no indication that it was Islamic terrorism or part of an organized plot with the Pakistani Taliban.

Of course, the facts started coming quickly and, when they did, it turned out that religion played a significant role in Shahzad’s decision to try and bomb Times Square. It takes time to gather facts that help explain who a terrorist is and what motivated him. We already praised Andrea Elliott’s May 15 New York Times story about Shahzad’s religious views.

Now that Shahzad has pled guilty to his crimes, she has another fascinating piece with more information. It seems to me that the reporter is comfortable enough reporting on Islam and its adherents that she can easily explain how some adherents can end up on the Shahzad path while others don’t. That’s called journalism.

In her previous piece, Elliott discussed Shahzad’s reaction to the 9/11 terror attacks and his 2006 email complaining of Muslim humiliation around the globe. This piece looks at the time when his curiosity about violence became something more. The July 2007 raid of the Red Mosque in Islamabad, where Shahzad had worshiped, made him believe that he needed to do more in the “global jihad” (more on that term later):

The men sometimes prayed at Lal Masjid, or the Red Mosque, a hotbed for militancy. By the summer of 2007, the mosque had drawn international attention as its cane-wielding students, intent on installing a theocracy, kidnapped Chinese masseuses, raided music stores and took police officers hostage. It is unclear whether Mr. Shahzad was in Pakistan when the government’s security forces stormed the mosque in July, but he was “close to individuals who were associated with that event and that mosque,” an American administration official said.

If before the siege Mr. Shahzad and Mr. Hussain were on the sidelines of militancy, “they heated up after what happened,” said a person familiar with the case. “They realized that more than sympathy was required.”

People may be aware that Shahzad was radicalized in the years after he first came to America. But this story shows how much of that occurred within the borders of Pakistan. It gives readers a timeline — of friendships, discussions and life events. The idea behind the piece seems to be summed up here:

Mr. Shahzad appears to fit a pattern among young Muslims in the United States who have joined militant groups over the last year. In contrast to their predecessors — the 9/11-era jihadist leaders who framed their movement in religious terms — Mr. Shahzad and other recent recruits carry the attributes of “foot soldiers,” driven less by religious rhetoric than by personal bonds and their sense of obligation to the ummah, or global Muslim community, the American officials said.

“It’s much more attached to kinship with other Muslims,” a senior administration official said. Mr. Shahzad seemed motivated by the duty he felt toward his fellow Muslims and his loyalty to the friends who trained with him in Waziristan, the official said. In court on Monday, Mr. Shahzad said he had made a “pact” with the Pakistani Taliban that he would attack America.

I sense that this is an important point and distinction but I’m not sure how well I understand it. It seemed to me that the 9/11-era jihadist leaders spoke a great deal about the global Muslim community as well. Still, this is the kind of reporting that adds value to our understanding about the changing nature and shape of Muslim terrorism.

Another issue to raise is the reporter’s use of “jihad” and “jihadist” without a modifier. It seems that this could be dangerous considering that jihad is a religious duty for all Muslims. To refer to terrorists as “the jihad leaders” could give the impression that jihad necessarily involves violence and terrorism.

All this to say: breaking news is important but this article provides another example of the good that reporters can do when given some time to research their stories.

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  • Paul of Alexandria

    To refer to terrorists as “the jihad leaders” could give the impression that jihad necessarily involves violence and terrorism.

    Um, it does.

    Jihad literally translates as “struggle.” Strictly speaking, jihad does not mean “holy war” as Muslim apologists often point out. However, the question remains as to what sort of “struggle” is meant: an inner, spiritual struggle against the passions, or an outward, physical struggle.

    As in any case of trying to determine Islamic teaching on a particular matter, one must look to the Quran and the Sunnah. From those sources (see above) it is evident that a Muslim is required to struggle against a variety of things: laziness in prayer, neglecting to give zakat (alms), etc. But is it also plain that a Muslim is commanded to struggle in physical combat against the infidel as well. Muhammad’s impressive military career attests to the central role that military action plays in Islam.
    Jihad Watch, Islam 101

    [emphasis mine]

    Read the rest of the article; it’s quite clear that according to the Quran and other authoritative Muslim teachings jihad is meant to establish a caliphate and bring all of the world under the dominion of Islam.

  • Jerry

    One important function media outlets can perform is to keep crazy stories from spreading.

    That’s an important job but sometimes I wonder if media outlets overreact and go out of their way to deny specifics.

    It’s no surprise that when sensationalism (eyeballs, money, bragging rights) meets real journalism, too often sensationalism wins.

    I also like the story. We need a deep understanding about what is going on and I’m happy to see we have a story here that helped in that respect.

    To comment on Paul of Alexandria’s comment, it’s clear from the Bible that Jesus preached war and civil war: Matt 10:34, Luke 12:49–53 and 14:25–33. So any Christian involved in civil war is fulfilling God’s injunction. (sound familiar?)

    Or perhaps we should be careful about both Biblical exegesis and Islamic fatwas.

  • MJBubba

    Jerry, the verses you cited are Jesus foretelling of the divisions that will be caused within families because some will believe and others will not. These are in no way comparable to the Suras in the Quran that incite warfare against the infidels.
    Paul of Alexandria, Jihad Watch has a lot of good information, but be careful; they make their own interpretation and then criticize it as being representative of a vast majority of Islam. However, when they point out that all schools of Islam share a history of interpretations that support violent jihad, they are correct.

  • John M.


    I think that the first part of your statement was Jerry’s point: any message can be twisted to serve vile ends.

    Hence his warnings about being on guard for misguided (or outright evil) interpretations of holy scriptures in the service of obvious geo-political agendas.

  • Jerry

    John M. – yes that was my point. Muslims and Christians can misinterpret the Bible and the Quran. To avoid that, a superficial reading of the scriptures should be avoided. That’s why I referred to exegesis and fatwas from knowledgeable people.