The al Qaida Internet magazine Inspire, which federal investigators say provided a guide that the Boston Marathon suspects used to build pressure-cooker bombs, has become increasingly popular in radical circles.
The magazine, cofounded and once edited by a former Charlotte, N.C., man, has reportedly been used or cited by multiple terrorism suspects in recent years as inspiration for their attempts to carry out attacks in the United States. Investigators say suspects have been particularly attracted to one article titled “Make a bomb in the kitchen of your Mom.”
The founders, editor Samir Khan – a U.S. citizen who once penned, “I am proud to be a traitor to America” – and radical American-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, have become cause celebs in the extremist world for their propaganda work, including creating the flashy magazine that delivers incendiary messages with, as one expert said, the “spark and crackle of Vanity Fair.”
Khan, a Charlotte resident before moving to Yemen in 2009, and al-Awlaki were killed on Sept. 30, 2011, when an unmanned U.S. drone fired missiles at their vehicle as it drove through the desert. Al-Awlaki was the target.
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The online magazine continues to be produced, but it’s unclear by whom.
Lying in a Boston hospital bed, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19, has passed notes to investigators stating that he and his older brother, Tamerlan, killed in a police shootout, learned how to make the shrapnel-jammed, pressure-cooker bombs from the web magazine, according to a federal law enforcement official familiar with the matter who insisted upon anonymity because the investigation is ongoing. The two explosions killed three people and injured more than 260 others.
Inspire magazine, launched in 2010, gave al Qaida and proliferating affiliated groups “a foot in the door” in their attempts to foment violence and convert people like the Tsarnaevs to terrorism, said Bruce Hoffman, director of Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program.
“They just plant the seed, and they hope someone will be fertilized somewhere,” said Hoffman, whose comments about Inspire have been quoted by the authors of the magazine. “You can ponder how to be a terrorist, but if you have no means to actually get off the dime and become one, you may not go anywhere. That’s why I think things like Inspire and ‘How to make a bomb in your mom’s kitchen’ are so important. They give people the confidence, or you might say the hubris, to make that next step.”
One issue went so far as to describe how to build an “ember bomb” to start forest fires when droughts strike Montana and other Western states.
It’s unclear how successful the magazine has been in recruiting U.S. terrorists, but the dilemma for governments around the world is how to stop it. The Internet transcends international borders and is hard to police, and while Inspire’s quarterly issues are routinely taken down by host servers, they reappear elsewhere.
Hoffman likened the magazine’s resilience on the Internet to a mimeographed underground newspaper, known as Samizdat, once circulated in the Soviet Union.
“No matter what the KGB did to stop it, it still popped up,” he said. “As soon as a new issue of Inspire is out, it’s circulated all over. It’s extremely easy to get.”
Inspire magazine’s influence has been documented in several U.S. terrorism cases, some in which suspects tried to use its bomb-making instructions to carry out attacks.
Law enforcement officials reportedly found a copy of the same Inspire article in the hotel room of Army Pfc. Naser Jason Abdo, who was accused in 2011 of plotting a deadly copycat attack on soldiers at Fort Hood, Texas, just two years after the 2009 shooting rampage by Maj. Nidal Hasan.
Jose Pimentel was arrested in Nov. 2011 by New York law enforcement after allegedly turning to Inspire magazine for bomb-building instructions in a foiled plot to blow up police and post offices in New York City. And Abdel Daoud wrote in a jihad-related Internet forum before he was arrested last year in a foiled Chicago bomb plot that Inspire was “the best magazine I have read.”
In a six-page memorial to editor Khan in Inspire in early 2012, the first issue after his death, al Qaida associate Abu Yazeed celebrated “his shining face of joy,” while displaying photographs of Khan wearing a toothy grin and brandishing an AK-47 as he stood next to al-Awlaki.
The article praised Khan for giving up his worldly possessions to follow al-Awlaki to Yemen, recounted how he’d escaped “heavy surveillance by the CIA,” and quoted him as wishing that all American Muslims “had partaken in Jihad in that country.” It ended with a lengthy last will found in Khan’s computer hard drive, in which he decried the sufferings of Muslims in the Middle East and Asia “because of the enemy’s animosity towards Islam.”
Friends of the Khan family said the Boston attacks and links to Inspire magazine and Khan have been difficult for the family. The family has filed a wrongful death suit in the wake of the drone attack against the U.S. government that contends Khan was not in engaged in any hostile activity and that the government failed to take necessary steps to avoid harming civilians.
Some of their hardships might be attributed to Khan’s writings, but in Charlotte, family friend Jibril Hough said that only the courts can decide who’s responsible. He cautioned people from getting too caught up in emotions and stressed that the United States should not be in the business of prosecuting “mind crimes.”
“If we get to the point in this country where arresting or even drone-killing someone simply because of what they may have wrote or said, then we’re going down a road that I don’t think anyone wants to go,” Hough said.
Tamerlan Tsarnaev is thought to have instigated the attack after turning devoutly religious, according to the federal law enforcement official. The Islamic Society of Boston said the Tsarnaev brothers were neither members nor regular attendees of their mosque just blocks from their Cambridge, Mass., home, but that Tamerlan Tsarnaev twice interrupted a service. Mosque representatives said that he was counseled about inappropriate outbursts.
Nichole Mossalam, the mosque’s executive director, said Tamerlan once stood up during a sermon and challenged the preacher who was saying that it was permissible for Muslims to celebrate American holidays such as the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving. In January, Tamerlan stood up during a sermon and shouted a challenge to a preacher who called Martin Luther King Jr. a person of historic significance, calling him a “non-believer” who was “contaminating people’s minds,” Mossalam said. Tamerlan left the sermon after participants told him to leave.
Yusufi Vali, a spokesman for the Islamic Society of Boston, said the elder Tsarnaev showed no hint of interest in extremism or violence, and that if there had been, the mosque would’ve notified law enforcement.
Lesley Clark in Boston contributed to this report.