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Strong sourcing, teamwork put AP first with US drone strike on al-Qaida leader

FILE - In this television image from Arab satellite station Al-Jazeera, Osama bin Laden, right, listens as top al-Qaida deputy Ayman al-Zawahri speaks at an undisclosed location in this image made from undated video broadcast by Arab news channel Al-Jazeera, April 15, 2002. A U.S. drone strike killed al-Zawahri in Afghanistan, President Joe Biden announced, Aug. 1, 2022. . , according to a person familiar with the matter. President Joe Biden will speak about the operation on Monday night, Aug. 1, 2022, from the White House. (AP Photo/Al-Jazeera/APTN, file) Al-Qaida's then-deputy leader Ayman al-Zawahri speaks in video broadcast by Arab news channel Al-Jazeera on Jan. 30, 2006.

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Kicking off one of the biggest Washington, D.C., journalism chases of the year was a terse White House statement at 5:02 p.m. on Monday night that the president would soon announce a “successful counterterrorism operation against a significant Al Qaeda target in Afghanistan.”

That launched a scramble by news organizations around the globe to find out who had been targeted and what had happened. AP came up with the answer well ahead of its major competitors.

By 5:07 p.m., AP diplomatic writer Matthew Lee had advised: “Rumor is it is al-Zawahri,” and just minutes later he had a source confirming that al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahri had been killed. With additional confirmation needed, AP colleagues jumped in, getting off-the-record winks and background confirmations.

AP’s alert on al-Zawahri’s death moved at 5:27 p.m. Within minutes that initial reporting had been backed up by five sources and additional nods procured by Lee,intelligence reporter Nomaan Merchant,White House reporters Aamer Madhani and Zeke Miller,Justice Department reporter Mike Balsamo,investigative reporter James LaPorta and Pentagon reporter Lolita Baldor.

The fast-moving conversation on AP’s White House Slack channel exemplified what the news cooperative does best: leverage sources, collaborate with vigor and use AP’s footprint and authority to win on the big story.

Madhani anchored the mainbar story and reporters around the company shared information, provided important background and landed key interviews. Cairo-based Lee Keath’s masterful obit prep provided deep context on al-Zawahiri’s rise and influence.

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Al-Qaida’s then-deputy leader Ayman al-Zawahri speaks in video broadcast by Arab news channel Al-Jazeera on Jan. 30, 2006. – Al-Jazeera video image via AP

Miller put together a richly textured “How it Happened” piece that laid out how months of planning ended with the precision drone strike that hit al-Zawahri as he stood on the balcony of the home that was his latest hideout. And national security reporter Ellen Knickmeyer provided a block-text explainer to answer the question that dominated online searches: Who was al-Zawahri?

AP’s video and photo teams also responded with speed. Video offered quick edits,went live with Biden’s announcement and provided archive images of al-Zawahri,al-Qaida terror attacks and meetings between Osama bin Laden and al-Zawahri. The AP team in Kabul filed drive-by visuals from the part of the city where al-Zawahri’s hideout was located and accessed video showing a plume of smoke rising above the Kabul skyline,believed to have been caused by the drone attack. Photo editors were quick to the wire with file photos as well as Biden’s address.

Brian Stelter cited the AP in his daily newsletter as first with the story. It had some 500,000 pageviews on AP platforms,and video was among the most-used as well.

For a virtual global beat on this highly competitive breaking story,the team of Lee,Madhani,Miller,Merchant,LaPorta,Keath,Baldor, Balsamo and Knickmeyer is AP’s Best of the Week — Second Winner.

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