As the Sun's "chief investigative reporter" Simon Hughes explains:
FIRST, we obtained an email address for Awlaki's Yemen-based "al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula" network hidden in material on an extremist website.
THEN our investigator, posing as a UK-based fanatic named "Q. Khan," sent an email addressed personally to Sheikh Anwar al-Awlaki. FINALLY, we received a reply from the terror chief - convinced he was in contact with the leader of a British cell eager to obey his commands.
I too have managed to obtain the email address the Sun used, cunningly hidden as it was on the penultimate page of the latest edition of Inspire magazine, a periodical published by the propaganda wing of AQAP, al-Malahem media. While the magazine does indeed print two articles by Awlaki, along with translations of communiques from other al-Qaida high-ups, the magazine itself claims to be edited by someone called Yahya Ibrahim; others have said the magazine's actual editor is Samir Khan, a former blogger who moved to Yemen a few years back, and who also contributes a comment piece.
Is it then even slightly realistic to imagine that by emailing an address in a jihadi publication you're likely to be straight in touch with someone as senior as al-Awlaki? Hardly. While Awlaki previously managed to maintain a blog, this was shut down shortly after the Fort Hood shootings. More recently, a judge in Yemen has called for him to be captured dead or alive, and Barack Obama has also authorised his targeted killing. As was shown with the death of bin Laden at the weekend, when you're in such a position, having direct contact to the internet or even a phone line is potential suicide. jihadica.com has also been sceptical about the magazine's actual links to AQAP, even though it claims to be produced by their media arm.
It's possible that those the Sun did contact may have asked al-Awlaki as to his response to their "sting", but if they did then they hardly make this clear: they simply signed their message as "your brothers at al Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula". Their advice also was hardly specific, apart from how they should conduct their operation, and as they say, they shouldn't really contact them again as it might well result in their plot coming to the attention of the authorities. This isn't to play down the fact that the Sun has at least got in contact with someone connected with the Inspire magazine and that they've suggested what their next step could be in launching an attack: that's still a serious thing. That though isn't a good enough story, or worth clearing the front page for; it had to be al-Awlaki himself, even when it's instantly apparent they almost certainly weren't talking to him.
And just in case you have your doubts, who should pop up at the end of the article than a former acquittance of ours:
Tory MP Patrick Mercer said of our probe: "I have no doubt the Home Office will want to investigate how simple it is to get in touch with Awlaki and his people.
"He is a leading contender to fill the power vacuum left by Osama Bin Laden."
Yes, that would be the same Patrick Mercer who previously contributed to such investigative triumphs in the Sun as the "TERROR TARGET SUGAR" masterpiece, and also told the paper that the Taliban were making "HIV bombs". The ISAF response when asked about these deadly devices was "no reports, no intel, nothing". Sums up the Sun and Mercer's critical faculties fairly well.