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Friday, July 2, 2010

Al Qaeda's New Magazine, Or Was It Web Site, Or Is It Really Al Qaeda? Or... Or...

This week saw the debut of a new English-language magazine called "Inspire" and branded as coming from Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or rather, the first three pages of such a magazine. I don't think I've ever seen such a crazy welter of bad coverage.

To start with, dozens of news outlets began trumpeting Al Qaeda's new English-language "Web site" -- apparently an army of supposedly tech-savvy reporters and/or headline writers are unable to distinguish between PDF documents and Web sites. Apparently many major news outlets are also incapable of distinguishing between Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and Al Qaeda central in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Hint: Osama bin Laden is only directly involved with one of these groups. (At most.)

Then, the real hand-wringing began (and continues today). Was it REALLY an Al Qaeda magazine or was it fake? Few of the reporters could answer that question because they were all afraid to open it and actually read the magazine. Turns out the PDF got corrupted or was parsed wrongly in the first place, so the file just had three pages and then a lot of alphanumeric junk. Reporters and jihadis alike leapt to the conclusion that the file was some sort of Trojan horse that would beam your sexual preferences directly to the CIA. (Hint: The author prepared the PDF on a Mac.)

So reporters began not just reporting but analyzing a document they had not viewed, and which even if they had viewed it, they could basically only have read the cover and the table of contents. However, if they HAD read the three pages they might have noticed that it did not match their imaginings. Click here for the most egregious example of would-be analysis of a document that the analyst clearly had not even glanced at and the broader logic of which wouldn't stand up even if the actual magazine reflected the author's assumptions. (Hey, Max, in case you missed it, the "secretive" Ayman Al-Zawahiri and other top AQ leaders like Abu Yahya Al-Libi have written and distributed plenty of books online since 9/11, a publishing process which is identical to putting out this magazine.)

Could it be a FAKE? Let's take a moment to consider what that even means. First off, no one except hyperbolic journalists are even claiming that this magazine was produced by Al Qaeda Central. (Spoiler Alert! That's the one with Osama bin Laden.) The only question here is:

  • Was the document produced by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula proper or by its online jihobbyist fans?
  • If the latter, did AQAP formally endorse the publication?
  • If none of the above, was the document created by the CIA or online terrorist hunters to serve as misinformation or a trap?

    The answers to these questions, in my opinion, are Jihobbyists, Maybe, and No.

    The table of contents pretty clearly indicates that the magazine consists mainly of transcripts of earlier communiques by celebrity jihadists such as Bin Laden and AQAP's own Anwar Awlaki. There is nothing in the table of contents which suggests new or original material by anyone important. Click here to see the TOC as an image if you are too terrified to find and open the PDF.

    The selection of authors (lots of celebs and relatively little from AQAP's main leaders) plus the fact that there doesn't seem to be any original material suggests that the person who assembled the magazine was not part of AQAP proper. In fact, the format of "Inspire" strongly resembles last year's "Jihad Recollections," composed by American jihadist blogger Samir Khan of North Carolina.

    So assuming it is not a trap, a point which I will not belabor because those who think it is a trap are unlikely to be swayed by anything I say, the main question is whether AQAP formally endorsed the publication or played any other role in its publication. And to be honest, there is really only one reason to care about that question -- "material support."

    When a lone American like Khan makes what is essentially a fan magazine about Al Qaeda, there is room for debate about whether he is exercising his first amendment rights. If an American like Khan is creating a magazine at the behest of AQAP or with its direct cooperation, that is material support for a terrorist organization, and as the Supreme Court recently ruled, exactly this kind of material support is appropriate for prosecution by the Justice Department.

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    INTELWIRE is a web site edited by J.M. Berger. a researcher, analyst and consultant covering extremism, with a special focus on extremist activities in the U.S. and extremist use of social media. He is a non-resident fellow with the Brookings Institution, Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, and author of the critically acclaimed Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam, the only definitive history of the U.S. jihadist movement, and co-author of ISIS: The State of Terror with Jessica Stern.


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