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.