Posted in Behind the News

AP first and fast on Soleimani strike

, by Patrick Maks

In a memo to staff on Friday, Managing Editor Brian Carovillano described how sourcing and teamwork allowed AP to dominate on the news of a U.S. drone strike killing Iranian Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani, nudging the U.S. and Iran closer to the brink of war:

The initial tip from a security source seemed fairly run-of-the-mill for Baghdad: A late-night rocket attack hit the international airport. But when the caller added that one of the rockets had slammed into a car, AP’s Baghdad correspondent Qassim Abdul-Zahra sensed something unusual was afoot. He alerted Zeina Karam, AP’s news director for Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, and kept digging.
Protesters demonstrate over the U.S. airstrike in Iraq that killed Iranian Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani in Tehran, Iran, Jan. 4, 2020. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)
More calls to militia sources deepened Abdul-Zahra’s suspicions. Then, from another source, Abdul-Zahra teased out a name that set all alarm bells ringing: Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s top general and one of the Middle East’s most powerful protagonists, might have been in the car.  If Soleimani had been targeted in the strike and killed, Abdul-Zahra and Karam knew the repercussions would be huge for the Middle East and beyond.  But as much as they wanted The Associated Press and its customers to be first with the news, they most of all wanted AP to be right. AP proved to be both. 
Protesters hold up posters of Iranian Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani during a demonstration in Tehran, Iran, Jan. 4, 2020. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)
As Karam roused sleeping colleagues across the region and prepared the words that would quickly flesh out the first AP alert breaking the news, Abdul-Zahra worked his sources. Soon, from three sources, came confirmation that Soleimani was dead.  Karam filed the AP alert just as Soleimani’s death was being announced on Iraq state TV. It put AP and its customers ahead of other agencies by nearly 10 minutes, a whopping margin.  Across the region and beyond, AP teams sprang into action, quickly producing a competition-beating array of photos, video and text coverage astounding in its breadth, speed and insight. As Abdul-Zahra was working to confirm the death and details, senior producer Ahmed Sami and photographer Nasser Nasser, both in Baghdad, sourced and processed the first photos. Sami also organized live video from Baghdad’s Tahrir Square at the crack of dawn.  The first video edit reached AP’s broadcast customers within 35 minutes of the initial alert. The first photos of the burning wreckage of the car in which Soleimani had been riding were transmitted to AP customers 50 minutes ahead of the competition. With 40 video edits the first day, AP offered a larger selection than the competition and filed consistently faster throughout. Photos by Tehran photographer Ebrahim Noroozi made the front page of the New York Times online edition two days in a row. On the text side, 400 words transmitted moments after the first AP alert were speedily followed by a constant stream of breaking developments and insightful analysis from Gulf and Iran News Director Jon Gambrell, working with Tehran reporter Nasser Karimi, Dubai-based writer Aya Batrawy and many others. Gambrell and Karimi expertly and quickly pulled together a thoughtful profile of Soleimani explaining why the general was so influential and popular in Iran. For their standout work in a competition-beating tour de force by AP’s Middle East team, Abdul-Zahra, Karam, Gambrell, Karimi, Sami and Nasser are this week’s Best of the Week winners.

Read the full Best of the Week citation.