In pictures, Nicholas Teau sant is thin and gaunt, with large black-rimmed glasses and a short, scrawny patch of hair on his face that is more of a furry chin strap than a beard. For two years, he was a member of the National Guard and also a student at San Joaquin Delta College. But his future, ultimately, wasn’t to be found in either school or government duties. A single father who lived with his mother in Acampo, California, a tiny Central Valley hamlet of 341 people, Teausant wanted to become a terrorist.
His radicalization began a few years ago. Around the spring of 2013, he considered becoming a “lone wolf” terrorist after reading a letter written by Omar Abdel Rahman in Inspire, an English-language magazine published online by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Produced about three times a year, Inspire is snarky and slick; it models itself on glossy American magazines.
Inspire offers how-to guides for building bombs and staging terrorist attacks, and it gives space to famous voices in the global jihadi movement, including the Blind Sheikh, as Abdel Rahman is known. (He was convicted in 1995 for planning to bomb U.S. targets, including the U.N. headquarters and the Holland Tunnel.) In his letter in Inspire, Abdel Rahman outlined terrible conditions at the federal supermax prison in Florence, Colorado, where he was being held at the time; he wrote that he was placed in isolation and also speculated that people were trying to poison him. According to a federal criminal complaint, the article prompted Teau- sant to send a text message to a friend. “[W]e HAVE TO DO SOMETHING NOW!” he wrote. “I want this to end someone or something needs to happen. I’ll do anything possible. We need to plan In [sic] person and get together and I’ll do the acting I’ll be the pawn.”
It wasn’t the only time Teausant — raised Catholic, he later converted to Islam — had suggested action. He once disclosed to the same contact that he was considering “hitting” Los Angeles on New Year’s Day 2014. “Don’t go to LA Anytime soo[n],” he texted. “Please trust me on this…and if you do go don’t use the subway.” Eventually, Teausant concocted a plan to join the Islamic State. On a March night in 2014, the 20-year-old, his head shaved beneath a black-and-white kufi — a short, brimless, rounded cap often worn by Muslims — took a train to Sacramento and then another to Seattle. There, he got on a bus to Canada, where an Islamic State contact had supposedly arranged a flight from Vancouver to Syria.
But Teausant’s journey ended at the U.S.-Canadian border, where he was handcuffed by police. His arrest was not a coincidence: The contact he had been texting was actually an undercover FBI informant, and the Islamic State liaison was also someone at the bureau. The FBI has about 15,000 paid informants on its books, according to a 2008 budget request; most spend their days searching websites for people like Teausant and making contact in order to build cases against them. (Teausant, who was initially identified after posting angry comments on Facebook and Instagram, among other places, is now facing trial. His attorney has announced that he has been diagnosed with schizophrenia.)
The informant system, in other words, worked. But Teausant’s case also highlights what many terrorism experts and intelligence officials fear is a new threat over which they have little control: the growing influence of Inspire. “It’s the branding of al Qaeda. It’s glamorous,” a former CIA clandestine intelligence officer posted to Yemen told me. Bruce Hoffman, a professor and terrorism researcher at Georgetown University, has called Inspire the “Vanity Fair of jihadi publications.” And Frank Cilluffo, director of George Washington University’s Center for Cyber and Homeland Security, told a congressional hearing in 2013, “I think [AQAP’s] greatest hallmark has been Inspire magazine and the role that it plays in radicalizing and lone-wolf jihadists, especially in the West.”
Long before the Teausant case, the magazine, which is now in its sixth year of publication, had been a focus of intelligence officials and members of Congress. In 2011, the House Homeland Security Committee and in particular Republican member Peter King had expressed concern that people in the military could download it. “We have learned,” King said at a hearing, “that, for instance, in barracks … Inspire magazine is available to members of the armed forces.” A witness, a senior Army counterintelligence official, agreed: “That is one of those behavioral indicators that we want soldiers to report, when they observe other soldiers reading Inspire.”
Many officials have also noted Inspire’s possible connections to the Boston Marathon bombing and the recent attack on Charlie Hebdo’s office in Paris. According to a U.S. Defense Department report, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the brothers behind the marathon plot, “learned how to make bombs from the Inspire magazine article: ‘Make a bomb in the kitchen of your Mom.’” And Inspire’s spring 2013 issue featured an article titled “Wanted Dead or Alive for Crimes Against Islam” that included a picture of Stéphane Charbonnier, Charlie Hebdo’s editor. During the attack on the magazine this January, which killed 12 people, including Charbonnier, one of the gunmen asked for him by name.
Alarmed, Western governments are scrambling to stop the magazine from finding readers. The first line of defense is closing websites on which the magazine is published — but the effect is limited. Robert Grenier, former chief of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, told me, “You can shut down a site, but they have so many options available to them that it will quickly pop back up somewhere else, so it really is something like whack-a-mole.”
This strategy has also spurred a heated debate about freedom of speech, including proposals for censorship that would be more at home in China. In 2013, Democratic Congressman Adam Schiff suggested suspending the right to free speech when it comes to Inspire. “I don’t think al Qaeda has a First Amendment right to put out its propaganda, to encourage people to commit acts of terrorism,” he told the Washington Post. This January, attorney Martin London wrote an op-ed in the New York Times in which he asked, “Is this publication protected by our First Amendment? Not on your life!” The federal government, he said, should “move decisively to block Inspire on the web. It is criminal incitement that has produced lawless action, and no sentient judge would today say otherwise.” London called anyone who opposes drastic action “First Amendment fundamentalists.” The suggestion, however, alarmed Marty Lederman, a professor at the Georgetown University Law Center. “Mr. London does not specify what ‘actions’ he believes the Attorney General should take ‘against’ Inspire,” Lederman wrote on the blog Just Security. “Criminal prosecution of publishers? of readers? mailing restrictions within the U.S.? asking allies to shut down servers? some form of cyber-sabotage?”
Elsewhere, some governments have already gone to extremes, including taking a page out of George Orwell and jailing people who dare read so much as a single paragraph of Inspire. In the United Kingdom, the police are tracking down anyone who pulls the publication off the web. According to a May 2013 article in London’s Times, “Downloading Inspire has led to more than 20 people being arrested and prosecuted in Britain in the past 18 months.” Possession of the magazine is enough to lead to arrest under Section 58 of Britain’s Terrorism Act 2000. (A broad law granting sweeping powers to law enforcement, the act prohibits possession, without a “reasonable excuse,” of something useful to a terrorist and carries a sentence of up to 10 years in prison.) Even journalists doing research are not necessarily protected. “We wouldn’t say just because you were doing it for journalistic purposes you would be immune. You have to be careful,” a spokesman for Scotland Yard told GlobalPost.
Australia has enacted a similar law, and in 2011, the country’s then intelligence chief, David Irvine, said that Inspire is of great concern because it is “intended to resonate with a youthful, audience: the i-jihad generation. It sends them a simple message: ‘Jihad — just do it!’” One person arrested for possessing Inspire was Melbourne resident Adnan Karabegovic. In 2012, the then 23-year-old was charged with having six issues of Inspire on his computer and faced 90 years in prison. The court eventually dismissed five of the counts against him, but Karabegovic is now awaiting trial for the single count, which could still cost him 15 years.
To put this in another perspective, because I downloaded all 13 issues of Inspire published to date as research for this column, in theory I could be facing 130 years in prison in Britain and nearly 200 years in Australia.
Pictures of Muslims being tortured at Abu Ghraib, humiliated at Guantánamo Bay, and slaughtered by the thousands in Gaza and by the tens of thousands in Iraq are all powerful weapons in the hands of a good editor. Especially an editor with a devoted following and an online magazine unstoppable by jet fighters, guided missiles, and even cyberweapons. That is why the United States has targeted the editors of Inspire. The idea goes, if the head is cut off, the body dies.
The success of Inspire’s founding editors — Anwar al-Awlaki, a Muslim cleric born and educated in the United States, and Samir Khan, another American and an expert in digital graphics — placed large bull’s-eyes on their backs. On Sept. 30, 2011, a CIA drone pilot found his mark, killing them both with Hellfire missiles. It was the first time in U.S. history that Americans had been deliberately targeted and killed without even a trial.
But if the CIA thought that assassinating the two editors would destroy the magazine, they were in for a surprise. “Although the original authors and publishers of Inspire … are now deceased,” Cilluffo, of the Center for Cyber and Homeland Security, told the House panel in a statement, “the magazine continues and its production values have improved recently.” Inspire is now run by Yahya Ibrahim, a mysterious individual whose use of English vernacular is as good as that of Awlaki and Khan, leading many to suspect that his name is simply a nom de guerre and that he also may be an American. Worse, as someone who recommends launching a “botulin attack” that could kill “hundreds if not thousands,” and building a human “mowing machine” — a pickup truck with steel blades welded onto it at headlight level, sped through a crowd “to strike as many people as possible” — he is considered far more violent and radical than his predecessors.
Wasting little time following the assassination of Awlaki and Khan, Ibrahim turned out a new issue of Inspire in May 2012. “To the disappointment of our enemies, issue 9 of Inspire magazine is out against all odds,” said one of the articles. “[W]e are still spreading the word and we are still publishing America’s worst nightmare.” An indication of the turn to a more hard-line approach came from another senior member of AQAP, Ibrahim al-Rubaish, writing in the same issue: “[Awlaki’s and Kahn’s] writing with the ink is replaced now with writing with their blood. And this is what will have a greater impact.”
Rubaish’s words are a reminder that the real danger with Inspire is not the show and tell on the pages. Anyone who wants to build bombs can easily find instructions elsewhere on the web. The true threat comes from Inspire’s ability to deliver to Muslims the message that they are under constant assault and the only thing left to do is to fight back wherever and however they can. “We fight you because you attacked us and continue to do so,” wrote the author of a recent Inspire article, directing his words at Americans. “The American people pay the taxes that pay for the planes which bomb us in Afghanistan, the tanks that demolish our houses over our heads in Palestine, the armies which occupy us on the Arabian Peninsula, and the navies that surround our children in Iraq, taxes that go to Israel so that it can continue to attack us and confiscate more of our land.” In other words, a violent magazine is responding to, and in many ways capitalizing on, a violent U.S. foreign policy.
A hallmark of that foreign policy has been overreaction. America responded to the 9/11 attacks by invading Iraq, only to discover that Saddam Hussein had palaces of mass luxury, not weapons of mass destruction. The results were the deaths of, perhaps, hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqis, the loss of thousands of American soldiers, and the waste of a trillion dollars or more. Then the country overreacted to the threat of terrorism by engaging in torture and secretly unleashing the National Security Agency to conduct mass surveillance of Americans.
Now, the United States may be teetering yet again toward overreaction, this time with regard to Inspire. Given the recent, sharp right turn in Congress, it might not be so wild to think that legislation similar to that in the United Kingdom and Australia might follow, allowing the state to jail people simply for reading. Republicans, however, aren’t the only risks: Congressman Schiff, who suggested that the First Amendment shouldn’t apply to Inspire, is now the most senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee.
Excessive regulation would be unacceptable in the United States. If Americans have to live with the danger of guns because of the Second Amendment, then they’ll also have to live with the danger of publications like Inspire because of the First Amendment. To paraphrase an old pro-gun slogan: Words don’t kill people — people kill people.
Illustration by Matthew Hollister