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Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Mowing Machines And Other Circus Acts

The second issue of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula's Inspire magazine has been released, and it's much like the first -- a mix of amateurish and questionable advice, predictable tracts from terrorist leaders like Anwar Awlaki and overproduced graphics.

The issue's major emphasis is on "lone wolf" style terrorism, suggesting that readers attack Americans in their hometowns without openly espousing jihad or doing anything which might alert authorities, such as reading jihadi websites. It's not clear how these readers are supposed to keep up with Inspire if they don't look at jihadi websites, but never mind that for now.

Thomas Hegghammer at Jihadica accurately diagnoses the major flaw in this approach.

Khan’s strategy presupposes that individuals can aquire the motivation to die for the cause almost in a vacuum. However, in most historical cases, individuals only acquired this motivation after interacting with other radicals, going abroad for jihad, or accessing jihadi propaganda - all of which are activities discouraged by Samir Khan. Of course there have been exceptions, such as the Fort Hood shooter Nidal Malik Hassan, but even he was not completely “clean”, as evidenced by his email correspondence with Anwar al-Awlaki. Decentralized jihad is indeed a scary concept, but it does not necessarily work.

The biggest concern for those fighting terrorism today is whether or not the paragraph above is true. I tend to think it is, although we could certainly see some borderline personalities acting out based on Khan's advice, and anyone familiar with Western media and politics knows that two or three lone lunatics can make a significant impact on this country's national dialogue.

Aside from the obvious issue that, as Hegghammer points out, almost no one engaging in explicitly jihadist violence is totally clean, the Inspire approach to jihadism has a few more noteworthy problems.

First, and foremost, it is apparent from reading the operational advice in Inspire that its writers and editors have no direct experience of violence. They have not dirtied their hands -- fired guns at the enemy, blown up buildings, executed prisoners. Their advice on committing violence is completely speculative and often childishly stupid, as in last issue's "Build a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom" and this issue's "Ultimate Mowing Machine" in which aspiring terrorists are advised to weld lawnmower blades to the bumper of a truck and drive it into a crowd.

This leads to the second problem with Inspire. Jihadism is a social movement. It's trying to create social change in Islamic countries, within Islam writ large, and in the West. Lone-wolfism is the Unabomber, a pathological narcissist hurling bombs from a remote cabin in the woods. There is a meaningful distinction between jihadism and lone-wolfism (albeit sometimes a distinction without a difference).

A procession of individual lemmings driving their mowing machines off a bridge without community context is ultimately a very limited tool for Al Qaeda, which is built on a fraternity of experienced fighters whose most effective recruiting tools are credibility and commitment, both as soldiers and as religious figures. Awlaki aside, history shows us that the most effective terrorist recruiters are those who have fought in traditional conflicts in "defense" of Muslims overseas.

Mowing-machinists, on the other hand, will be flavors of the month, at best, laughingstocks at worst. They won't become recruiters or elder statesmen. The smart ones won't even sit behind mowing machines. They will aspire to be like Samir Khan himself, all talk and no action.

I'd love to tell you that the broad Al Qaeda movement will degenerate into this kind of absurd circus act, but I don't think Inspire as it currently exists has real legs. Eventually, someone will decide that Samir Khan needs some experience on the front lines. He probably won't come back from that experience, but if he does, he won't be churning out the same crap.

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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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