Inspire Magazine: The Most Dangerous Download on Earth
Al Qaeda’s scariest and most unpredictable weapon right now? The digital magazine that inspired the Boston Marathon bombers and a growing army of “lone wolf” terrorists around the world. James Bamford investigates the search for the mystery men behind Inspire—and learns that for some, the laptop is mightier than the suicide bomb
Inside Brooklyn’s federal courthouse, a curving cylinder of greenish glass and gray steel, Lawal Babafemi sat silently with his attorney at the defense table as prosecutors got ready to present their case. It was September 27, 2013, a warm Friday in New York, and Babafemi, a 33-year-old Nigerian man with a neatly trimmed goatee, was dressed casually in a blue-and-white-striped polo shirt. It’s safe to say that he was the first magazine employee in the history of publishing to ever face a possible life sentence for trying to recruit writers.
Inspire, the magazine Babafemi allegedly worked for, is not your typical glossy. It’s published by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and its special issue on “the Blessed Boston Bombings” contained twenty-two pages of glory and praise to Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. “They crossed their own finish line at 2:50 P.M.,” read one article in the English-language digital magazine. “The real worthy winners of the Boston Marathon were the Tsarnaev mujahideen brothers.” The issue hit its emotional crescendo on page 26 with a luminescent photo illustration of Tamerlan the martyr against a vision of heaven, a scarf tied loosely around his neck, designer sunglasses on his face, a pair of doves aloft in the sun-dappled clouds behind him.
“The brothers have been inspired by Inspire,” wrote Yahya Ibrahim, the editor-in-chief. American investigators concurred. After the attack, they searched Dzhokhar’s computer and, according to the indictment, found the first issue of Inspire, published in July 2010. The issue included an article entitled “Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom,” by “the AQ Chef.” “Glue the shrapnel to the inside of the pressurized cooker, then fill in the cooker with the inflammable material,” he wrote. “Place the device in a crowded area. Camouflage the device with something that would not hinder the shrapnel.”
The Tsarnaev brothers, as we now know, were careful and obedient readers. They have also become the poster boys for the new breed of grassroots and “lone wolf” jihadists who are changing the nature of the terrorism we’re fighting. In recent years, as it has become more and more difficult for Al Qaeda’s dwindling leadership to plan and execute the kinds of grand attacks that made it famous, the group has focused on radicalizing would-be terrorists who live in North America and Europe and have no formal ties to known organizations. Just two months ago, on the twelfth anniversary of September 11, Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Egyptian doctor who succeeded Osama bin Laden as the leader of Al Qaeda, released a video in which he praised the Boston bombings and rallied lone wolves in America to carry out similar operations. “These dispersed strikes can be carried out by one brother, or a small number of brothers,” he said. Such tactics, he added, will “bleed America economically by provoking it to continue in its massive expenditure on its security.”
These “brothers” won’t train in the wilds of Yemen; they’ll never scan the sky for drones above the tribal areas of Pakistan. But what they lack in sophistication and experience, they make up for in rage and the will to act. And they take their cues from Inspire. As Peter Neumann, director of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College London, has said, “In almost all the homegrown cases that we’ve seen over the past three years in Britain and in America, it turned out that Inspire was on the hard drives of these people.”
For years the U.S. intelligence community has wanted to capture and interrogate anyone associated with the magazine. Now, with the arrest of Lawal Babafemi, they may have succeeded. If the charges are true and if he cooperates, Babafemi could offer insight into the magazine, including how it functions, who is involved with it, and whether any Americans are connected to it. Babafemi has pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial.
According to the prosecution, the defendant went to Yemen in January 2010, six months before the first issue ofInspire was published. In the early days of the magazine, Anwar al-Awlaki, a top leader of AQAP, was a frequent contributor, and the editor was a man named Samir Khan. Both were American-born Muslims who had traveled to Yemen to wage jihad. At Babafemi’s arraignment, the prosecutor said Awlaki arranged for Babafemi to be paid nearly $9,000 “to recruit other English-speaking individuals from Nigeria to train and work on behalf of [AQAP]. He worked with the media branch…to publish Inspire magazine.” He is also accused of receiving weapons training from AQAP in Yemen.
Babafemi worked for the magazine until August 2011, the government says, at which point he returned to Nigeria and was arrested for unknown reasons. A month later, the CIA discovered the whereabouts of his AQAP bosses. On September 30, a drone killed Awlaki and Khan as they were traveling together in remote southern Yemen.
“One of the reasons Awlaki was targeted in particular,” says Greg Markham, a former clandestine CIA officer posted to Yemen, “was because Inspire was so dangerous.”
Markham (a pseudonym to protect his identity) and I were sitting at a corner table in a hotel lobby in a distant foreign city, and he was quietly telling me about the covert war the CIA has been waging against AQAP in Yemen since 2009. For years, until he changed assignments, Markham watched the buildup of the group from the CIA’s station in the heavily protected U.S. embassy in Yemen’s capital of Sana’a. The most active and dangerous Al Qaeda organization on earth, AQAP picked up where Bin Laden left off, with a focus on attacking the U.S. mainland, and President Obama responded with a long and bloody drone campaign that has killed hundreds of suspected militants. At this point, Markham says, the list of AQAP core leaders posing the greatest threat to the U.S. is down to three: the Yemeni emir Nasir al-Wuhayshi, leader of AQAP and onetime personal secretary of Bin Laden; the Saudi Arabian bombmaker Ibrahim al-Asiri, an endlessly inventive tactician who masterminded the failed Christmas Day bombing on a Detroit-bound flight in 2009, among other plots; and Inspire’s current editor, Yahya Ibrahim, whose nationality is unknown.
If the CIA thought wiping out Awlaki and his editor, Samir Khan, would wipe out the magazine, they were quickly disabused of that notion. Stepping in for Khan was Yahya Ibrahim, a man who, to judge from his editorial output, possesses a fertile imagination for the many ways to kill. Seven months after the killing of his colleagues, he published two new issues of Inspire (at the same time) and delivered an explicit message that the deaths of his predecessors would not destroy the magazine. “To the disappointment of our enemies, issue 9 of Inspire magazine is out against all odds,” he wrote. “The Zionists and the crusaders thought that the magazine was gone with the martyrdom of Shaykh Anwar and brother Samir.… As for this blessed magazine, it is here to stay.”
The problem isn’t merely finding Ibrahim; it’s identifying him. “His name is almost certainly a nom de guerre,” says Scott Stewart, a former counterterrorism special agent at the State Department. Now with Stratfor, a global intelligence consultancy, Stewart still follows the magazine and Ibrahim closely. “He’s been with Inspire since the beginning, and he worked very closely with Khan,” Stewart said. “From his writing, some people think he sounds British, but I think it sounds more Americanized English. I believe he has a very similar background to Khan, and I believe he probably lived in the U.S. or Canada, due to word usage. I think he was here and then fled to Yemen, like Khan.”
Because of the tribal nature of Yemeni society, which makes it extremely difficult for intelligence agents to develop contacts, gather information, or even travel to the regions, or “governorates,” where AQAP members hide out, the likeliest way to locate and kill Ibrahim would be for him to make an error—to use a phone or send an e-mail that somehow tips his whereabouts. In November 2012 a similar mistake killed Said Ali al-Shihri, AQAP’s number two official. While in the northern province of Sa’dah, he used a cell phone to make some inquiries. That was all it took. As soon as he turned the phone on, U.S. intelligence detected its signal, and a CIA drone in the area fired a missile at the car in which he was riding, killing Shihri and others. Later, in an AQAP video of the memorial service for Shihri, a spokesman referred to his breach of security procedures: “This enabled the enemy to kill him.”
It’s unlikely that Ibrahim or his colleagues will commit the same breach. “It’s when you’re communicating that you’re most vulnerable,” says Robert Grenier, who has been monitoring AQAP for years, especially while serving as director of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center from 2004 to 2006. “With Inspire, you can do most of that on a laptop in a remote location, completely unconnected to the Internet. Then it’s just a matter of getting your file on a thumb drive, then getting it to a location where it can be rapidly uploaded onto the Internet, and it’s gone. So if you’re disciplined about it and in as anonymous a fashion as possible—say, from an Internet café—you can do it in a way that provides very little window for U.S. intelligence to strike on a real-time basis.”
Ibrahim exercises great caution in cultivating recruits via Inspire, providing readers a means to communicate secretly with him and others at the magazine (and thus an opportunity to discuss, in greater detail, ways to carry out attacks). The method makes use of an encryption system in which multiple e-mail addresses are listed alongside a public key, a long series of random characters. The addresses are typically on free e-mail providers such as Gmail and Yahoo that, in light of the Edward Snowden affair, appear to have cooperated with the NSA. Apparently aware of this likelihood, Inspire sets out page after page of additional security instructions on top of the key, intended to allow readers to get in touch with the magazine without raising any flags. Readers who fail to observe these protocols—or do so but somehow attract attention anyway—do so at great risk. In two cases—one in England, one in Australia—people have been arrested, tried, and in one instance jailed for having Inspireon their hard drives.
···Fortunately I was in America when I downloaded all eleven issues of the magazine, over 600 pages, while researching this article. It’s a reading experience I can’t say I recommend, but it was morbidly fascinating nonetheless. What’s consistent about Inspire from its inception is the effort to be accessible, slick, and visually appealing, with pop graphics and colorful layouts. “It’s the branding of Al Qaeda,” said Markham. “It’s glamorous. And many wannabes don’t speak Arabic. The Boston bombers didn’t speak Arabic.” The magazine is also “aspirational,” to borrow a term from commercial magazine publishing, in that the editors make it clear on almost every page that you, the reader, are very much needed for the cause. “There is a series called ‘Open Source Jihad,’ with articles like ‘Qualities of an Urban Assassin’ and ‘Torching Parked Vehicles,’ ” Markham said. “So if someone said, ‘What do I do?’ it’s right here.”
If it didn’t lead to tragedy, it could almost be parody: Inspire, the magazine for terror enthusiasts. Here, a few pages that reflect its typical mix of incitement to violence (“Get out to your enemy, he is just next door”) and instruction (“Make sure to leave the antenna intact since it is the wireless signal to your remote”). Below, the un-spell-checked cover of the Winter 2012 issue.
As I studied the evolution of the magazine, I noticed a clear shift in tone. Awlaki, a forceful and constant editorial presence in the early issues, comes off as much more of a scholar than a firebrand. Rather than writing about making bombs, he uses reason and history to argue for the underlying ideas behind jihad. According to Markham, the CIA considered him a great danger not because of his violent rhetoric but because of his persuasive message. “That’s why Awlaki was such a threat,” Markham told me. “He could deliver his arguments in such beautiful English.”
If Awlaki was the professor, Samir Khan, the editor-in-chief, was the geek, the digital-magazine expert, with critical experience putting together a similar publication in the basement of his home in North Carolina before moving to Yemen. Thus, he was also the perfect person to design Inspire, on the laptop he always carried with him. On the pages of the magazine, Khan was a thoughtful but accessible voice, his language stripped of the Koranic references and stiff didactic pronouncements common to Awlaki’s prose. He wrote in a colloquial American vernacular, and his articles were also up-to-the-minute and peppered with references to Western media: Fareed Zakaria on CNN, Tony Blair being interviewed on the BBC. “Khan was always very cheeky, very snarky, very sarcastic,” says Stewart, who adds that when Ibrahim took over, that tone disappeared. “Ibrahim doesn’t seem to have it. The magazine is less edgy than it was under Khan. He had a sense of humor that appealed to their target audience.”
Ironically, by assassinating Awlaki and Khan, who had a moderating effect on the magazine, the Obama administration may have helped make Inspire even more incendiary by increasing the influence of Ibrahim, whose writings are anything but moderate. In one particularly gruesome article, Ibrahim suggests making your own “mowing machine, not to mow grass but to mow down the enemies of Allah. You would need a 4WD pickup truck.… Weld on steel blades on the front of the truck. Even a blunter edge would slice through bone very easily. Go for the most crowded locations. Narrower spots are better because it gives less chance for the people to run away.” If that sounds ridiculous, bordering on parody, recall the case of Lee Rigby, the English soldier who was brutally murdered in broad daylight by a pair of lone-wolf jihadists last spring. At about 2:20 p.m. on May 22, on a quiet street in the London district of Woolwich, two British men of Nigerian descent ran Rigby down with their car, then stabbed and hacked him to death with a knife and a cleaver.
Barely a week later, in the same issue that hero-worshipped the Tsarnaevs, Inspire celebrated the Woolwich attack with a two-page spread. On the left-hand page: a stock photo of a serrated butcher knife dripping with what appears to be fake blood. On the right: a screen grab of one of the lone wolves, from a video shot by a bystander moments after the attack. The blood on his hands couldn’t be more real.
···Whether or not the CIA is closing in on Ibrahim and the other remaining leaders of AQAP, the agency has certainly been stepping up the killing. In late July and early August, after several months of relatively little activity, the CIA launched a series of deadly drone attacks, killing at least thirty people in Yemen over a period of fifteen days. In the midst of all this, the Obama administration shut down U.S. diplomatic facilities throughout the Middle East after warning of a serious threat from a group suspected to be AQAP. Was the suspected plot retaliation for the drone killings? Did those killings take out a senior leader? Like much about the secret war in Yemen, there is far more behind the shroud than in front of it.
But now, with one of the alleged recruiters for AQAP and Inspire on U.S. soil and in their custody, federal prosecutors are hoping to finally get a peek at what, and who, is there. Babafemi “trained with Al Qaeda, assisted in its propaganda efforts, and actively recruited others to join its demented cause,” said George Venizelos, the assistant director-in-charge of the FBI’s New York field office, in a statement. “We will continue to work with our international partners to mitigate the global terrorist threat.” But in the age of the Internet, it will take more than an arrest or two to put an end to Inspire—no matter who’s editing it.