Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is aiming closer to home. On May 14, the group released the 15th issue of Inspire magazine. Like the magazine's previous two issues, the latest edition calls on jihadists who live in the West and operate under a leaderless resistance model to assassinate economic leaders, including policymakers, CEOs and company owners. But while Issue 14 provided instruction on attacking corporate leaders at work in its "Open Source Jihad" feature, Issue 15 offers a tutorial on assassinating business leaders at their residences.
Though the magazine also discussed operations in the West more generally, AQAP continues to emphasize attacks against U.S. business and commerce. In AQAP's view, the U.S. economy underpins the global system and allows the United States to intervene in the Islamic world to thwart jihadists. Al Qaeda therefore believes that if the U.S. economy were to crumble, the group could achieve its goals. The latest installment of Inspire promises further guidance in future issues on assassinating corporate executives.
AQAP's focus recalls its previous efforts to provoke attacks on figures linked to controversial cartoon depictions of the Prophet Mohammed. Just as that initiative triggered several grassroots attacks on cartoonists and publications, such as Charlie Hebdo, it is quite likely that Inspire's current campaign will spur militants to strike corporate executives.
Cartoon Controversy: A Chronology
In March 2008, al Qaeda released a recording from Osama bin Laden threatening attacks against the West in response to the publication of satirical drawings of the Prophet Mohammed. Following bin Laden's statement, Anwar al-Awlaki, an AQAP recruiter and ideologue, exhorted grassroots jihadists living in the West to attack artists and publications responsible for creating and disseminating the cartoons. Al-Awlaki further promulgated this theme in the first issue of Inspire.
Beyond a June 2008 truck bomb strike on the Danish Embassy in Islamabad, al-Awlaki's calls for violence against Western targets connected with the cartoons went unheeded until 2010. That year, several attacks were attempted or foiled. In January 2010, a Somali man with ties to al Shabaab broke into the home of Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard, whose 2005 drawing of the Prophet Muhammad with a bomb in his turban incited the original controversy. Westergaard retreated to a safe room, and police shot and wounded the intruder, who was armed with an ax and a knife. Three months later, seven people were arrested in Ireland in an investigation of a plot to kill Swedish cartoonist Lars Vilks. That May, Vilks was assaulted while giving a presentation at Uppsala University, and his home was targeted in a failed arson attack three days later.
In September 2010, a Chechen man was arrested after a letter bomb he was assembling detonated in his Copenhagen hotel room, injuring him. The bomb was intended for Copenhagen's Jyllands-Posten newspaper, Westergaard's employer. Danish and Swedish authorities thwarted another attack on the newspaper, which appeared on the hit list in Inspire's first issue, in late December 2010. Earlier in the month, an Iraqi-born Swedish citizen who had expressed outrage over Vilks' cartoon died after detonating a suicide vest, having first set off a poorly constructed explosive device in his car.
An arson attack with Molotov cocktails gutted the Paris office of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in November 2011. In response, the magazine defiantly published additional images of the Prophet Mohammed. Motivated and mobilized by AQAP, two gunmen attacked Charlie Hebdo's headquarters in January 2015, killing 12 people, including a police officer assigned to protect the office, and wounding 11 others. Four months later, an off-duty police officer averted an attack, later claimed by the Islamic State, on a Prophet Mohammed cartoon contest in Garland, Texas. The officer, who was providing event security services, engaged the two heavily armed gunmen and kept them at bay until a nearby SWAT team responded.
A Change of Style
Despite its thematic continuity, Inspire's latest Open Source Jihad feature departs from past issues in both style and substance. Unlike earlier installments written by the magazine's editors, the article reads like a clumsy translation from Arabic by a nonnative English speaker. The stilted English of the piece, for instance, refers to "fire weapons" instead of firearms. Furthermore, in repeated references to "professionalism" when planning and conducting assassinations, the author seems to be trying too hard to sound sophisticated. He tends to overcomplicate his instructions, increasing the odds that, in heeding his directions, grassroots jihadists will be identified and stopped.
The author advises operatives to select dummy targets on whom to practice gathering information, and recommends using fireworks to build simulated booby traps to use in practicing bombing operations. When suggesting that jihadists use ruses and disguises to get near their targets, he provides only the example of a young man using a cane as a prop to pretend to be an old man. Moreover, the article stresses the importance of avoiding capture — for instance by making sure not to leave any forensic evidence behind — in order to conduct additional attacks. This constitutes a change from past guidance, which has championed suicide missions over serial strikes. But rather than offering practical advice, the article directs jihadists to television programs and forensics textbooks for tips on minimizing evidence.
In outlining possible venues for assaults on business leaders, the author notes that company offices, though easier to find than private residences, usually have more security. Consequently, in deciding where to strike, jihadists must consider what message they intend to send, what security measures are in place at a prospective target location and how likely they are to escape without being identified. Although the author proposes hiding in bushes or using video cameras or commercial drones to conduct surveillance, he reveals a lack of familiarity with the West in suggesting that operatives pose as street sweepers or vendors when observing a target's home. Nonetheless, the recommendation to use hidden video cameras is interesting in light of reports that the Islamic State cell behind the Brussels attack used similar devices to conduct surveillance on the home of a senior nuclear scientist.
Methods of Attack
In addition to advocating gun and knife attacks, the Inspire article provides building instructions for three types of rudimentary bombs for use in residential strikes: a parcel bomb made from a book and a pressure-release switch, a sticky bomb to be affixed under the target's vehicle, and a very simple pipe bomb that would activate when the target opens a door. Like previous bomb designs featured in Inspire, these devices are cumbersome and poorly designed.
Considering the magazine's continued promotion of shoddy bombmaking strategies, AQAP's master bombmaker, Ibrahim al-Asiri, is probably not involved in Inspire's Open Source Jihad series. In fact, it is possible the magazine's staff writes all the bombmaking tutorials without help from professionals. Court documents recently released in the case of Minh Quang Pham, who was arrested in a 2011 plot to bomb Heathrow Airport, reinforce this idea. In the documents, Pham claims that he received bombmaking instruction from al-Awlaki, the driving force behind the magazine's creation.
Inspire's greatest danger lies not in its instructions but in its propaganda potential.
Despite the poor designs offered in the magazine, several grassroots jihadists have conducted or attempted attacks with devices found in past editions of Inspire. Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the brothers who carried out the Boston Marathon bombing, provide the most successful example. Still, even though the Tsarnaev brothers had copies of Inspire and followed some of the magazine's suggestions — such as using pressure cookers as bomb components — they designed their own firing chains. Even so, we will undoubtedly see more bomb designs from Inspire in future plots and attacks.
By far, Inspire's greatest danger lies not in its instructions but in its propaganda potential. The magazine's repeated emphasis on attacking corporate leaders eventually could lead grassroots jihadists to conduct simple and effective attacks such as the 2015 Charlie Hebdo assault. It is therefore prudent to alert economic leaders, as well as their family and staff members, to the looming threat and to particular devices or techniques that might be used. Law enforcement officials who patrol the areas where prominent businesspeople live and work should also be aware of the risk.
But there is good news: Grassroots jihadists tend to exhibit terrible surveillance skills, and Inspire has yet to publish any detailed guidance on the subject. As a result, grassroots jihadists inspired by the magazine's rhetoric will likely remain vulnerable to detection while conducting surveillance and throughout the terrorist attack cycle. As always, good situational awareness, both individually and as a society, will be crucial to defeating the grassroots jihadist threat.