Un-Inspired

Posted: 6th July 2010 by Thomas Hegghammer in al-Qaida on the Arabian Peninsula, propaganda, Western Analysts, Yemen

International media have been in a frenzy recently over the publication of an English-language jihadi magazine entitled Inspire. The magazine – available here (beware of possible virus) – appears to be the work of the Yemen-based group al-Qaida on the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The magazine features the logo of the “al-Malahim foundation”, AQAP’s media arm, and contains articles by and about AQAP members such as Anwar al-Awlaqi and Nasir al-Wahayshi. Unfortunately, only 3 of the 67 pages are legible, as the PDF seems to be corrupt. The coverage has been followed by extensive blogospheric speculation about the document’s significance.

Rarely have I seen so much fuss over such an insignificant event. The hulabaloo says a lot more about Western media than about al-Qaida. Specifically it reveals a level of ignorance about the world of jihadi propaganda that I find very disappointing nine years after 9/11.

For one, Inspire is not – I repeat: not – the first English-language jihadi magazine. It is not as if non-Arabic speaking Muslims have been isolated from the world of jihadi propaganda until now. There have been several online magazines in English in the past, and most have been of higher quality than Inspire. Has everyone forgotten last year’s Jihad Recollections? Besides, there were several English-language paper magazines in the 1990s. London-based GIA supporters had a newsletter in the early 90s, Abu Hamza al-Masri’s “Supporters of Sharia” group had another in the late 90s, and Australian Islamists published the magazine Nida ul Islam from the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s.

Second, online jihadi propaganda of other types – such as websites and videos – have been widely available in English for over a decade. (Remember Azzam Publications?). Al-Sahab, the entity that disseminates statements from al-Qaida Central, has been subtitling videos and translating transcripts on a regular basis since at least 2005.

Third, the market for English-language propaganda is not quite as large as people think. Many Muslims living in the West speak the language of their country of origin, so they don’t need English-language material. In fact, many aspiring activists prefer ideological material in Arabic because they consider it more authentic. Those who don’t speak it themselves can rely on friends to convey the content for them, use translation software, or simply watch videos.

Fourth, the question of authenticity is neither soluble nor particularly important. Most commentators address the issue of authenticity in binary terms, as if documents are either fabricated by the CIA or manufactured by the inner core of al-Qaida. This is not how propaganda production works. Virtually no propaganda today is produced by the inner core of militant organizations. Propaganda production is usually outsourced to cells and individuals with varying degrees of contact with senior operatives. In fact, a considerable amount of jihadi media is produced by self-started entrepreneurs with no direct ties to militants whatsoever. Authenticity is therefore most often a matter of degrees, not a question of either-or. Inspire may well be the work of genuine religious activists, but not necessarily of the inner core of AQAP. Without signals intelligence it is extremely difficult to determine the precise nature of the link between the editors and the AQAP leadership.

Judging from the amount of recycled material in Inspire, I would be surprised if the AQAP connection is very strong. Remember that AQAP’s Arabic-language magazine Sada al-Malahim (published since 2008) usually contains much more original material, suggestive of much closer links between editors and operatives. Even if Inspire was produced by AQAP cadres, I am not sure it would tell us anything we didn’t already know. We already know that the group is alive and well, that it has ambitions to recruit in, and strike at, the West, and that it has a very active media apparatus.

Fifth, there is nothing particularly new or uniquely worrying about the content of Inspire, at least judging by the table of contents. The exact same types of articles have appeared in other magazines for years. The article on “make a bomb in the kitchen of your mom” is hardly a game changer in the world of terrorism. Tactical instruction manuals abound online and have done so for a decade.

The bottom line is that Inspire is a drop in an ocean of jihadi propaganda. The recent media coverage suggests that otherwise educated observers don’t seem to realise 1) how large and 2) how old that ocean is. I find this both disappointing and disconcerting. For a decade, militants have been pumping out sophisticated propaganda and genuinely dangerous training manuals to a vast Arabic speaking audience. In comes a sloppy magazine in English, and suddenly people speak of a new al-Qaida media offensive. This ignorance and linguistic myopia is inexcusable, since blogs and translation services have made information about jihadi propaganda more available than ever.

In my view, the only interesting thing about the release of Inspire is the fact that the PDF file is corrupt and rumoured to carry a Trojan virus. This is somewhat unusual. However, before we can say what it means, we need to know for sure whether the file was simply corrupt or whether it actually contained a virus. Basically we need more input from people who know the technological side of things (Aaron, have you looked at this?) Personally I don’t see why either jihadis or intelligence services would deliberately disseminate viruses, given that a virus would hurt both friends and enemies. In any case, whoever created Inspire wanted attention, and they certainly got that – in spades.

  1. Benjamin says:

    It’s great to know that I’m not the only one sharing a disappointement about the level of ignorance about the world of jihadi propaganda. I spend the last week … screaming around “Jihad Recollections”… “Jihad Recollections” !!!

    Now, I have been upset for couple months about how journalists are reporting about jihadi media and I believe that I can explain why.

    Have you notice how the majority of Western journalists – who usually are not fluent in arabic – are relying not on primary sources (by consulting directly the forums) but on secondary sources (by using reports written by SITE or IntelCenter) ?

    Have you notice that for months, the majority of Western journalists are now subscribing to SITE or IntelCenter in order to get update about what’s happening on jihadi forums ?

    I think this is the core of the problem. Journalists are very lazy, receiving pre-written reports from SITE and IntelCenter, and they don’t do the job of 1) making a background check on the source, 2) following up in order to know if a message/video/publication has already been published in the jihadisphere, 3) asking information to scholars who are up to these issues. How many journalists did call you last week in order to get more information about “Inspire”?…

    Just for example, the CNN report about “Inspire” is citing SITE as primary source (http://edition.cnn.com/2010/WORLD/meast/07/01/al.qaeda.magazin/?fbid=F3uXesqNcR6), making the point that the journalist has consult neither al-Faloja nor al-Ansar.

    On the same topic, you can see that more and more journalists are using contents coming directly from SITE or IntelCenter. See some examples here (http://www.vancouversun.com/news/Qaida+launches+English+newspaper/3227444/story.html) or here (http://blog.lefigaro.fr/malbrunot/2010/07/inspire-le-premier-magazine-en.html).

    I’m not saying that SITE or IntelCenter are making a bad job – most of the time they are doing a great job – only that journalists are not making their job by questioning the news and the sources…

    Less sensational would help…but the modern market of journalism is not working on that direction !!!

  2. The (Afghan) Taliban also had and have an English language output. Even during the 1990s they had English magazines and newspapers.

  3. Atle says:

    I read your article with great interest. I must say I do not agree that the publishing of the magazine is insignificant. For sure there have been other English Jihadi magazines available. However, I have never seen anything quite like this before.
    In the larger picture, I believe it is an example of a trend that is not that new, and that is the use of English in the Jihadi videos and articles.
    But additionally this magazine also shows AQ is speciffically targeting the youth. A recent document on strategy from al Shabaab demonstrates that some Jihadis are becoming more aware different target groups, and I consider Inspire to be tailor made for the youth, especially in the West. This is due to the language and the style of the magazine. There is a large difference between AQAPs regular magazine, Sada al-Malahim and the preliminary parts of Inspire.
    I do agree it is a bit early to fully conclude since all facts are still not known, but it has been clear at least since May that AQAP was to introduce a new publication. If the connection to the websites have been hacked I agree there is not that much to gain, only a limited delay. But is quite clear from many messages, the viruses were the work of the Jihadis enemies.

  4. Tbone says:

    “Third, the market for English-language propaganda is not quite as large as people think. Many Muslims living in the West speak the language of their country of origin, so they don’t need English-language material. In fact, many aspiring activists prefer ideological material in Arabic because they consider it more authentic. Those who don’t speak it themselves can rely on friends to convey the content for them, use translation software, or simply watch videos.”

    Quite the generalization here. Of course most Muslims living in English speaking countries in the West are not Arabs. Many others do not speak Arabic (Berbers) or, if they do, they speak it poorly/idiomatically. Clearly there have been English language websites for awhile and they have been influential to those who are proficient in Arabic and who have limited/nascent jihadi material in their own language (Bouyeri translated English to Dutch; many of the German radicals use English literature)

  5. Fishman says:

    This is spot on–appreciate the sanity check.

  6. Guyver says:

    Excellent points, but I wouldn’t call 66 hits on Google News a “frenzy”.

  7. Slate says:

    Hi Thomas,

    Thanks for the post. I couldn’t agree more. It seems like everyone has lost their mind on this one. Really, based on the table of contents, it appeared to be nothing more than a regurgitation of past English-translated items. As someone who reads the forums every day for work, my eyes were tiring from rolling over the past week with all the reactive Western press on this one.

    A couple of notes on this.

    A few little birdies in the know have told me that there does in fact exist a intelligible version without the computer code on ~64 pages. However, it’s mysteriously a close-hold item that no one’s letting out. This leads me to believe that some institution[s] with the technological ability to encrypt the meat of the piece might have done so.

    Also, the post seems to have mysteriously disappeared from the sites, furthering my speculation about what’s going on here. Indeed, after an exhaustive search, it appears to have just simply vanished.

    I have relatively strong on-the-ground experience in Yemen and have ties to individuals who know a lot more about this stuff than do most Americans and Westerners. They are equally apathetic and dubious about the whole thing. And they have also not seen a solid, intact copy without the computer code.

    Thanks for the great work.

  8. All good points.

    Benjamin: I would be happy if journalists read SITE and MEMRI reports, but many clearly don’t even do that.

    Alex: thanks!

    Atle: Points well taken. I am not saying it is utterly insignificant. But as you say it is part of a well-established trend – and therefore not news.

    Tbone: True. I guess I should have made clear that I distinguish between new material written originally in English on the one hand, and direct translations of preexisting documents on the other. There is a certain market for the latter, but much less so for the former. My sense is that non-Arabic speaking jihadis want unadulterated translations of documents that they know exist in Arabic. But they can get that in all sorts of ways (not least on the forums) so they don’t need magazines.

    Gyuver: I got 604 hits on the same Google News search.

    Slate: Thanks for some very interesting points.

  9. CWOT says:

    Great post Thomas! Now let’s see how many poser journalists, bloggers and academics take your argument posted here, and recycle it as their own.

  10. Steve W says:

    Thomas. Two words…THANK YOU.

  11. It seems that this post and the comments are primarily about the bluster and ongoing tug of war over intellectual theft, which is rampant, in a field where access is undeniable but credibility still lacking.

    Tammy

  12. Raff says:

    A good point overall. I would ask did anyone get an uncorrupted copy? I have yet to find one – am sort of curious what it looks like in its entirety..

  13. fakhrunissa says:

    Great post Thomas as always.
    I have a legible full version which I can share with you, nothing new.
    Alex is right, the taliban have an English language output, just like mujahidin had English language magazines in the 80s…

  14. CWOT says:

    Well, what did I tell you Thomas,

    It didn’t take long for everyone to read your blog and jump on your great analysis!
    See
    http://jarretbrachman.net/?p=726.

  15. Raff says:

    @fakhrunissa can you share? Or can someone else?

  16. [...] propagandist who was based in the United States until October 2009. As with the first issue, the magazine contains a mix of original material and reprints of older texts by Bin Ladin, Abu [...]

  17. Guy Macher says:

    I hope someone doesn’t hack the Inspire site and introduce some computer destroying virus, worm or webbomb!

  18. Sig says:

    You are an idiot. That is all. Like you or any of us would know of signals intelligence linking Al Qaeda to this publication. Dream on.

  19. [...] past few years and have been responsible for producing al-Qaeda’s English-language magazine, Inspire. Awlaki also had an operational role directing AQAP’s external attacks. This is yet another [...]

  20. [...] magazine Inspire. Thomas Hegghammer of the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment characterized Inspire as “a sloppy magazine”. It's heavy reliance on “recycled material” contrasted [...]

  21. [...] magazine Inspire. Thomas Hegghammer of the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment characterized Inspire as “a sloppy magazine”. It’s heavy reliance on “recycled material” contrasted [...]

  22. i think its about time someone with alternative views has a voice other then the same old tired propaganda we get everyday!

  23. [...] written tabloid that experts consider poor quality and lacking the impact the media claim it has [5]. Thomas Hegghammer of the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment argued that “there is [...]

  24. [...] written tabloid that experts consider poor quality and lacking the impact the media claim it has [5]. Thomas Hegghammer of the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment argued that “there is [...]

  25. Jim says:

    Having served both in the field and as an analyst stateside, I agree with Hegghammer. The original Al-Qaida, and similar groups which published comparable materials in the 90′s, were not interested in some cheap sophomoric rendering of Heideggerian duality, either in general or as a means to recruit competent practicioners, and I highly doubt AQAP is either.

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  27. [...] a szerzőség problémakörén túlterjesztjük,  egyetérthetünk Thomas Hegghammerrel, aki a Jihadica-n olvasható cikkében a kiadványt övező médiaérdeklődés eltúlzott voltára mutatott rá.Kétségtelen: a [...]