Note: Massive thanks to Dr. Jarret Brachman for his guidance and support in putting together this post. He’s one of the best out there studying violent extremism, and we recommend that you check out his book “Global Jihadism: Theory and Practice” and follow him on Twitter.
The Boston bombing investigation continues to reveal new information on the two primary suspects, but quietly reported last Friday was the discovery of jihadi propaganda Inspire Magazine – produced by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) – on a computer belonging to the elder Tsarnaev brother’s widow. The publication, particularly its first issue containing instructions for building a pressure cooker bomb, was spotlighted as a possible resource immediately after the bombings.
The news the Tsarnaevs possessed Inspire, whether it directly influenced their actions or not, serves as evidence of the AQAP magazine’s reach and visibility in the jihadist community.
Now, Max Fisher at the Washington Post rightly pointed out Inspire is not the only place to find such information; so, why exclusively call out and analyze Inspire?
What makes the magazine so intriguing from a counter terrorism perspective is its seemingly unique ability to spur people into action.
There are many places where you can learn to build a destructive device; there are far fewer that emotionally instigate actual mass killing operations. As communication scholars at Arizona State University have explained, some of al-Qaida’s most effective pied pipers have been able to link widely accepted collections of stories or “master narratives” (“insult to Islam” or “support of Israel”) to challenges being faced in specific geographic locations “local narratives” to calls for individual-level action, such as using pressure cookers, knives on trucks, etc.
Narrative as the Hook
Instructions for IEDs are typically uninteresting when disconnected from incentive. Where Inspire has proven competent is living up to its name and making an act of terrorism accessible to the radicalized malcontent without an army. Take the following excerpts from Inspire #2 and Inspire #10 respectively:
Inspire #2 (October 2010): This idea could be implemented in countries like Israel, the U.S., Britain, Canada, Australia, France, Germany, Denmark, Holland and other countries where the government and public sentiment is in support of the Israeli occupation of Palestine, the American invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq or countries that had a prominent role in the defamation of Muhammad. In such countries we may strike at the public at large. As long as they target our noncombatants, we will target theirs. This is one of many ways to implement this idea. You may modify it and add or subtract to it according to what is suitable for your particular conditions.
Inspire # 10 (March 2013): The French crusade on Mali is certainly connected to the historic crusades, and definitely its result won’t defer from its predecessors. So, why is France so thick in learning from its past mistakes? Is it leaving Paris undefended once again to engage in a war away from home? Woe upon you from tens of Muhammad Merah!
As you can see, there’s a heavy dose of “why” one should be willing to carry out a attack in the name of Islam. Providing a narrative, whether it be insult of Muhammad, occupation of Palestine, or American wars, loads the rest of the instructions with emotion. Next in the process is localizing the capacity for an attack.
Localizing a Mission
The above map created using Recorded Future details all of the countries mentioned in the ten issues of Inspire Magazine. As you can see, there are very specific actions tied to distinct locations following the explanation and rationalization for an attack. Pulling examples from above:
- From Inspire #1 – On the other hand, there were some completely misguided efforts such as those of some of the callers to Islam who paid a visit to Denmark along with young Muslim boys and girls to start a dialogue in order to build bridges of understanding between the Muslims and the people of Denmark! It is not enough to have the intention of doing good. One must do good in the proper way. So what is the proper solution to this growing campaign of defamation? The medicine prescribed by the Messenger of Allah is the execution of those involved.
- From Inspire #2 – This idea [to use a pickup truck as a mowing machine] could be implemented in countries like Israel, the U.S., Britain, Canada, Australia, France, Germany, Denmark, Holland and other countries…
- From Inspire #9 – Choosing the targeted country [for an ember bomb]: This is done according to the basis of weather this country or that is at war with Islam and Muslims… Leading the list of the countries that are waging this war is America, Britain and Israel. Then comes the NATO’s countries and whoever enter into their alliance. The targeted areas must be in the land of Kuffr but away from Muslims populated areas so that damage is only restricted to the people of Kuffr.
So after two steps, Inspire has outlined the “why” and the “where” to make attacks both emotionally and locally relevant. The final step is convincing a reader that they can do this on their own, which brings us back to the instruction manuals that have drawn much of the mainstream media’s attention.
Blueprints for DIY Destruction
Instructions for individually organized attacks and homemade weapons of mass destruction are a recurring feature in Inspire. The timeline above shows plots that have been connected to a description of the “human mowing machine” in Inspire – though not necessarily examples of an attack actually being put into practice that we can confirm – from the publication’s second issue:
You would need a 4WD pickup truck. The stronger the better. You would then need to weld on steel blades on the front end of the truck. These could be a set of butcher blades or thick sheets of steel. They do not need to be extra sharp because with the speed of the truck at the time of impact, even a blunter edge would slice through bone very easily. You may raise the level of the blades as high as the headlights. That would make the blades strike your targets at the torso level or higher.
There have been instructions for other devices and tactics ranging from pressure cooker bombs and remote detonation to fire bombing forests and igniting parked vehicles. The above visualization shows how we can look for and analyze events that fit the model and have been tied to it in public discourse, which in some ways, may help to further amplify the utility of certain sections whether or not they were initially inspired by the magazine.
This narrative style used by Inspire becomes the perfect storm for individual acts of violence: an argued “moral” obligation to act on behalf of Islam and Muslims around the world; the declaration of “ideal” target locations for particular kinds of attacks; and the finally, the piece by piece instruction of how to construct the necessary weaponry.
Web intelligence tools for analyzing the original text of Inspire alongside open source information on events connected to the publication’s recommendations can be useful in understanding its resonance in the jihadi community.