Editor's Note: We published this analysis about Inspire, a magazine by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula that has in fact inspired several terrorist plots, on March 21, 2013. The magazine has increased in stature after the revelation that the alleged Boston Marathon bombers apparently relied on the publication when planning their attack.
By Scott Stewart
Vice President of Analysis
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula released the 10th edition of its English-language magazine, Inspire, on March 1. After discussing its contents with our analytical team, initially I decided not to write about it. I concluded that Inspire 10 conformed closely to the previous nine editions and that our analysis of the magazine, from its inception to its re-emergence after the death of editor Samir Khan, was more than adequate.
Since making that decision, however, I have been very surprised at how the media and other analysts have received the magazine. Some have overhyped the magazine even as others have downplayed — even ridiculed — its content. I have heard others say the magazine revealed nothing about al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. All these reactions are misguided. So in response, I've endeavored to provide a more balanced assessment that can be placed in a more appropriate perspective.
A Balanced Assessment
I am certainly not among those who want to sensationalize the threat the magazine poses. Inspire 10 is not going to launch the grassroots jihadist apocalypse al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula seeks to foment any more successfully than the magazine's previous nine editions. The fact that a photograph of Austin, Texas, appears in the magazine does not mean that the city is somehow being secretly targeted for attack by jihadist sleeper cells.
But laughing at the magazine or dismissing it as irrelevant would be imprudent. The magazine has in fact inspired several terrorist plots. In some cases, the connections to the magazine have been obvious, as in cases where plotters have attempted to assemble improvised explosive devices using instructions provided in Inspire magazine's first edition. This happened in July 2011, when U.S. Army Pfc. Naser Jason Abdo was arrested as he attempted to assemble explosive devices he planned to use in an attack against a restaurant in Killeen, Texas, that was popular with soldiers from nearby Fort Hood.
In November 2011, the New York Police Department arrested Jose Pimentel, also known as Muhammad Yusuf, a 27-year-old Dominican-American. Pimentel was arrested at an apartment in Manhattan as he was allegedly constructing homemade improvised explosive devices, again following the instructions provided in Inspire.
Other cases have not been as blatant as those involving Abdo and Pimentel. However, they have involved individuals who were radicalized or motivated by Inspire. As recently as March 15, three men in the United Kingdom pleaded guilty to terrorism charges related to attending terrorism training camps in Pakistan. The men allegedly were motivated by Inspire. They had discussed attack ideas from the magazine, and the wife of one of the men was convicted in December 2012 on charges of possessing two digital copies of the magazine on a memory card.
There are several other recent and notable cases connected to Inspire magazine.
- On Nov. 29, 2012, two brothers from Florida, Raees Alam Qazi and Sheheryar Alam Qazi, were arrested and charged with plotting attacks in New York. Prosecutors noted that the pair had been motivated by Inspire magazine.
- On Oct. 17, 2012, Bangladeshi national Quazi Nafis was arrested as part of an FBI sting operation after he attempted to detonate a vehicle bomb outside New York's Federal Reserve Bank. Nafis reportedly was an avid reader of Inspire magazine.
- On Sept. 15, 2012, Adel Daoud, another avid Inspire reader, was arrested after he parked a Jeep Cherokee outside a Chicago bar and attempted to detonate the bomb he thought it contained. His was also an FBI sting operation.
- On April 25, 2012, four men were arrested in the British town of Luton and charged with plotting attacks against a British army base. The four were also charged with downloading and possessing six editions of Inspire magazine. They pleaded guilty March 1, 2013.
Some commentators have noted that most of the suspects arrested in connection with these plots were fairly hapless and clueless — the type of individuals we have long referred to as "Kramer jihadists." Though partly incompetent, these grassroots operatives are exactly the demographic al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is targeting for radicalization and mobilization.
Inspire seeks to reach amateur terrorists living in the West; professional terrorists already know how to create pipe bombs. For this reason, the magazine urges amateurs to undertake simple attacks rather than the complex attacks. Too often they find assistance from an FBI informant.
It is a grave error to dismiss Kramer jihadists and assume they pose no threat. They can indeed kill people if they heed the advice of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and conduct simple attacks that are within their capability. That is what Maj. Nidal Hasan did in Fort Hood in November 2009 and what Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad, also known as Carlos Bledsoe, did in June 2009. Both men were inspired to action by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
Kramer jihadists can also be deadly if they actually find a real terrorist, rather than a government informant, to assist or equip them. It is very important to remember that amateur, committed jihadists such as shoe bomber Richard Reid and underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab nearly succeeded in destroying an airliner.
Twenty years ago last month, I witnessed firsthand the dangers of discounting Kramer jihadists when I peered into a massive crater in the floor of the World Trade Center parking garage. The FBI had deemed those responsible for the attack too hapless to do much more than assassinate the leader of the Jewish Defense League in a midtown Manhattan hotel. And they were — until a trained terrorist operative traveled to New York and organized their efforts, enabling them to construct, deliver and detonate a massive 590-kilogram (1,300-pound) truck bomb.
I also take umbrage at those who snicker at the thought of grassroots jihadists lighting fires. As noted last month, I believe that fire is an underappreciated threat. Many people simply do not realize how deadly a weapon it can be, even though starting fires does not require sophisticated terrorist tradecraft.
Despite claims to the contrary, Inspire 10 reveals much about al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Like all propaganda and political rhetoric, its assertions must not be taken at face value. But to claim that the magazine tells us nothing about al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is simply lazy analysis.
Clearly, the concept of reaching out and attempting to radicalize and equip English-speaking jihadists was not something promoted only by Anwar al-Awlaki and Khan. English-speaking outreach has continued after their deaths. The group maintains that traveling to places such as Yemen for training is too dangerous.
That al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula continues to publish Inspire, which takes time and resources to produce, is also revelatory. The group has been under increased pressure over the past 18 months. The jihadists have been pushed back to their desert hideouts from much of the territory they conquered in southern Yemen. Yet despite these setbacks, they continue to devote resources to publishing Inspire, they have people with access to computers and the Internet, and they remain in contact with jihadists in other parts of the world, such as Pakistan and Mali.
The copyediting in Inspire 10 was also cleaner than the previous edition, which had a major typo on the front cover. The new editor, who uses the nom de guerre Yahya Ibrahim, has worked with Khan since the first edition of the magazine. He is a native English speaker who is familiar with Western culture and idioms. Ibrahim was clearly influenced by Khan and has attempted to continue Khan's work, but he lacks Khan's acerbic wit and irreverence. In Inspire 10, for example, Ibrahim attempts to replicate the insulting one-page "advertisements" that Khan included in earlier editions of the magazine — one in particular racially derided U.S. President Barack Obama — but they lack the bite and general snark of Khan. Inspire seems to be more serious and less edgy than when Khan was in charge. This may dull its appeal to its targeted audience.
Another thing we can ascertain from Inspire 10 is that, despite al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula's continued commitment to foment grassroots terrorism in the West, the group is clearly disappointed by the response it has gotten. The magazine has mobilized some jihadists but probably not as many as the group would like. Those who have been inspired have not been very successful in their attacks.
The Open Source Jihad section also continues to show the low view that al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula's professional terrorist cadre has for grassroots operatives. They see them as not-so-exceptional individuals incapable of much more than simple attacks. Yet, since al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula lacks the ability to attack the West, the group must depend on these less than ideal individuals to do so for them.
In addition to what it reveals about al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Inspire 10 can also tell us some important things about what tactics we can expect the group to use and what locations we can expect it to target. Clearly the magazine continues to focus on targets in the West that have insulted the Prophet Mohammed. It revives the "the dust has not settled" theme from the first edition of the magazine and provides an updated hit list of individuals who have insulted Mohammed, including Terry Jones, the controversial Koran-burning pastor; Morris Sadek, who made a controversial film that disparaged Islam; and Stephane Charbonnier of the French magazine Charlie Hebdo.
We have seen several attacks and thwarted plots directed against these individuals in the past. In fact, in November 2011, Charlie Hebdo's office was completely destroyed by fire, which was started by the very type of accelerant and match attack promoted in Inspire 10. We believe we will continue to see grassroots plots against these targets.
Despite the weakening of the al Qaeda core group and the serious blows that regional franchises such as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and al Shabaab have suffered in recent months, jihadism continues to attract new adherents. And Inspire hopes to motivate and equip them to conduct attacks in the West.