We're all to blame for giving al Qaeda's magazine more credit than it's due.
Have you heard the one about the English-language jihadist magazine targeting Western Muslims?
No, not the Taliban’s whimsically named In-Fight Magazine. And it’s not Mujahedin Monthly, or Al Hussam, or Afghan Mirror, or Afghan Jihad. And not the half-in-English Al Qaeda Airlines or Gaidi Mtaani. (And yes, those are all real things.)
NBC News reported this morning that the surviving Boston Marathon bomber, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, told investigators that he and his elder brother, Tamerlan, learned to build their bomb by reading Inspire, which is published by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
At this point, it doesn’t really matter if NBC’s report is accurate or if Tsarnaev’s claim is true. Inspire has become the worst kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, in which our collective worries about terrorism magnified our enemies’ reach.
Inspire was the brainchild of naturalized American citizen Samir Khan. It originated as an online fanzine called Jihad Recollections, which he published as a PDF from the basement of his parents’ home in North Carolina.
After four amateurish issues, Khan moved to Yemen and went pro, rebranding the magazine as Inspire and releasing it as an online PDF under the official umbrella of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, under the supervision of American-born cleric Anwar Awlaki, beginning in July 2010 with its tenth issue published last month.
Although there have always been jihadist magazines targeting Western Muslims in English, Inspire‘s official al Qaeda branding prompted an explosion of media attention, including a number of laughably bad reports by people who normally do good work, with some even claiming it was printed on glossy paper, as if you could walk down to the local newsstand and pick up a copy.
The quality of the coverage has remained hysterical and inaccurate over the three years that Inspire has been in circulation. New York Times reporter Mark Mazzetti claims in his new book The Way of the Knife that accused Fort Hood gunman Nidal Hasan and Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad were both "readers of Inspire," even though both of those attacks took place before Inspire ever existed. The list goes on and on.
Media coverage of Inspire is entirely relevant to its ability to reach an audience, so much so that every issue of the magazine includes a full page or more of quotes by Western journalists and terrorism analysts waxing on about how terrifying and impressive the magazine is.
That doesn’t mean Inspire was never something to be concerned about. Samir Khan’s command of English idiom and Western publication styles made the magazine novel and accessible.
Inspire‘s one meaningful innovation was its combination of terrorist how-to tactics with propaganda and incitement. Both had been available in English before Inspire, but not together between two covers. A number of would-be terrorists have been found with the magazine in their possession, although until now no one has invested enough perspiration to make its inspiration into a deadly reality.
The magazine’s best moment on the technical front came in its very first issue, with an article called "Build a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom," which described in some detail a device similar to that used by the marathon bombers.
Since then, most of its tactical advice has ranged from bad to ludicrous, suggesting people weld lawnmower blades to a truck in an early issue, and degenerating in its most recent issue to a recommendation that lone jihadists rub highways with cooking oil in order to cause traffic accidents. (This trend toward fantasy may reverse itself in the wake of the marathon bombing.)
Inspire was never nothing; it was never a non-story. It always deserved scrutiny and analysis. But the bottom line is that Inspire would never have reached so many people as it did if not for the constant and overwhelming inflation of its value in the Western media, an inflation that was often based on inaccurate information.
And Inspire lapped up that coverage like a thirsty kitten, using it to further enhance its credentials and assuring further commentary from writers who were pleased as punch to see their names cited in its pages.
Now it’s too late. Although Khan and Awlaki were killed by a drone in September 2011, other people involved with the magazine have kept the flame alive, albeit with a distinctly lower level of quality.
It is as close to certain as a prediction can be that Inspire‘s surviving editorial team will make hay from the Boston Marathon bombing and the surrounding media coverage, regardless of how important the magazine ultimately was to the plot and the construction of the bombs.
The magazine appears erratically and it’s unclear how long it will take the editors to assemble an issue commemorating the attack and recounting all the complimentary things being said by the media. But I have virtually no doubt that such an issue is coming, whether sooner or later.
I won’t say we only have ourselves to blame. Al Qaeda and its online sympathizers are experts at the propaganda game, and Inspire would likely have found some kind of audience even without all the help it got from Western media and analysts.
But they sure didn’t help. And the threat presented by Inspire has now become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Despite its many weaknesses and flaws, and even if the reports of its role in the marathon bombing turn out to be misleading, incomplete, or even untrue, Inspire is here to stay, and it has nowhere to go but up.