(Un) Inspire (d) Terrorism, Volume 2

Western terrorism analysts jumped with excitement over the release of the English jihadi magazine Inspire, volume two.  American analysts get really excited about this magazine because it’s in English, so they can actually read it without translator support.  If I had to guess, I’d estimate that 75% of all people that read this magazine are Western counterterrorism analysts.

Thankfully, two reviews of this new Inspire issue take a reasonable approach.  Internet Haganah and Thomas Hegghammer at Jihadica provide informed reviews illustrating the obvious weaknesses of the magazine.  Meanwhile, several of the “ePundits searching for iJihad” make this magazine out as a revolution in modern terrorism.  These Western analysts are horribly misguided.  They cannot explain why this new batch of jihadi literature would inspire someone more than the millions of pieces of jihadi propaganda currently on the Internet (in fact, much of this content is recycled old stuff).  At this point, there is no evidence that a significant number of new recruits are inspired by this publication. I’m certain that one or two zealous terrorist recruits who happened to read this magazine will ultimately commit attacks.  But, Inspire will be only one of hundreds of propaganda pieces that assisted in radicalizing these new recruits.

The only people we can be certain are inspired by this magazine are Western analysts who make money by speaking and writing about its ‘danger’, and government analysts who receive attention for hyping its threat.  Inspire will only motivate Westerners to participate in terrorism if we hype it to such a level that new recruits think it must be legitimate. The magazine itself recommends recruits access jihadi propaganda from ePundit monitoring sites that repost the magazine.  So thank you ePundits for making it easier for terrorists.

Here are my quick thoughts on Inspire.

This volume points to a serious leadership vacuum in Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and in al Qaeda (AQ) globally.  Thomas mentions that Samir Khan, the magazine’s author, remains relatively removed from the center of AQAP based on the magazine’s content.  I agree. Khan’s writings reflect exactly what he is; a guy who used to sit in his parent’s basement writing angry thoughts in private and being meek in public.

Khan’s strategy recommends low cost operations in America.  Khan advises new recruits not to travel abroad, not to use mobile phones or the Internet, not to interact with other activists, and not to access jihadi websites.  According to this strategy, I’m not sure how any follower would acquire Inspire magazine, volume 3.  Essentially, Khan has proposed a strategy that resembles the thoughts of a young, socially-isolated, basement dweller.  Khan is a tactical and strategic novice that can make flashy webpages.  Yes, he may execute a lesser Ft. Hood attack someday when he hits age 30 and still hasn’t found a girlfriend.

Khan’s strategy provides a diluted strategic vision for AQAP and AQ as a whole.  I imagine Abu Musab al-Suri, AQ’s noteworthy strategist, would be extremely frustrated by such a weak plan of action.  Shooting sprees and mowing down of pedestrians on crowded streets; these are not the attacks of strategic vision.  Khan’s suggested strategy is more similar to the approach of anarchist groups.  Khan’s “get your jihad on at home” approach:

1) points to no apparent strategic goal; how would this support the formation of a caliphate, promote Islamic law, deface a symbolic American target, or weaken the U.S.?

2) regurgitates attacks Khan watched in the states; Major Hassan’s 2009 shooting spree and the University of North Carolina (UNC) SUV Attack in 2006.

3) tells new recruits to remain isolated and harder to detect, and thus less likely to execute a meaningful attack.  There is always a tradeoff between security and operational control for terrorist groups, but this approach errors on the extreme side of security.  This isolation approach is harder for law enforcement and intelligence to detect, and is also not likely to produce a respectable attack either.

4) weakens AQ’s base of support.  Should a recruit execute these one-off attacks, they are unlikely to achieve significant media time or significant effect. The UNC driving attack hardly created a blip on the radar.  Instead, these do-it-yourself attacks will likely fail and appear the work of fools. This version of AQ-inspired terrorism looks amateurish and further alienates an ever decreasing base of popular support.

Ultimately, our over-reacting, public response to Khan’s proposed attacks will be the only thing that can empower his plan.

6 comments

  1. Hi Clint- good write-up. I have only the slightest disagreement (and I went over it a bit on my page). I think there is some strategic goal for AQAP in these kiddie-level attacks. Our media will over-react and freak out, and AQAP can use that to keep their name out there as they continue to establish themselves as the place to be for jihad. Samir Khan costs them very little, and they won’t be upset if he meets misfortune, but Inspire is worth it if it helps one loner shoot up a store while shouting in beginner Arabic. No cost, moderate reward- publicity. I completely agree that the burden for that pub. lies with the media, but AQAP knows how we’ll react.

    • Brian,
      I definitely agree. If I were leading AQAP, I would tell Samir Khan to have at it, of course keeping my distance from him at the same time. Khan brought an American audience with him to Yemen, and if some kid in the U.S. pulls off one of these lame attacks then even better for AQAP. My issue is more with Western analysts paying so much attention to every word uttered by English speaking jihadis. I think this leads analysts to miss the true threat; those terrorist operators that don’t make online magazines but instead lead major operations. I also think the ePundits that over-analyze the English speakers thrust this on the media; a media which needs exciting terrorism stories and either can’t or won’t evaluate each one of these purported jihadi thinkers as serious or erroneous. I used to work with people that would say, “I’m going to make this guy the next Bin Laden!” I found this very frustrating. The goal is to have no more Bin Laden’s, not make the next one.

  2. Something I didn’t note at Internet Haganah is how the Arabic-speaking jihadi faithful – whose English skills are poor at best – nevertheless have answered the call and are working to ensure that Inspire magazine gets into circulation and stays in circulation. This despite the fact that they can’t read it. They make a nice counter-balance to the Western analysts…

    The push for leaderless jihad appears to originate at the highest levels of al-Qaida Center – recall the as-Sahab video from Adam Gadahn praising Nidal Hasan and calling for more of the same. This predates Inspire magazine – Samir Khan is just touting the party line. I think it speaks to the weakness of al-Qaida generally. It’s all well and good to be a media organization first and foremost, but without terrorist events terrorist media is irrelevant.

    Any assessment of Inspire magazine has to take into account the context within which it has been released. The target audience – American jihadis – are under siege, with multiple individuals arrested and many more under investigation. Samir Khan’s departure from the United States appears to have precipitated a major crackdown on those he left behind. They’re not reading the magazine because they’re too damn scared, sitting at home waiting for the knock on the door that means the FBI has “just a few more questions” they would like to ask for the third time.

    • Aaron,

      Thanks for that interesting note about the Arabic-speaking audience pushing the magazine. I wonder if they really understand the American audience? I don’t know. I’m not sure if Khan and Gadahn do either. They seem to have been socially disconnected when they were here in the States, which led to their recruitment. So I debate whether they truly know how to draw a significant American audience when they couldn’t really make friends when they were in California and North Carolina. I’m sure they get some here and there, that is the power of the Internet afterall, but the assumption by many Western analysts is that these American jihadis resonate on a large scale in the West. The U.S. has 300 million people, so they will get some, but do they really get more than an occasional lost soul? I don’t know. It only takes one to commit a terrorist act, but it takes many to actually make significant change.

      • Speaking of mistaken analysis, I think many of us are at fault for relying on our own impression of Samir Khan and Adam Gadahn when assessing their effectiveness. I had my class of college freshman watch a Gadahn video and then write impression papers – one paragraph gut-level responses. What I found is that while none of them were swayed by his arguments, neither did they find him quite as repellent as most of us ‘professionals’ do. I imagine the same would apply to Samir. They (Khan and Gadahn) understand the American audience well enough – what they don’t understand is terrorism. Of course, neither do most terrorism experts.

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