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The Threat from Yemen: Top Administrators Tell Senate al Qaeda-inspired Terrorism Threat Rising in U.S.

The nation’s leaders in the fight against terrorism testified before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee that homegrown terrorism is making the threat America faces more complex. DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano, FBI Director Robert Mueller and National Counterterrorism Center Director Michael E. Leiter each underscored the growing threat of homegrown terrorism and warned that there are increasing numbers of Americans inspired by al Qaeda.

This testimony comes at a time when al Qaeda is clearly and actively working to inspire Americans to commit atrocities. This summer, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) released an English-language magazine, appropriately titled Inspire. A report from the DHS Office of Intelligence and Analysis and the FBI states that “As AQAP’s first official publication geared towards English-speaking readers, Inspire reflects the group’s interest in reaching a Western audience and is a significant addition to the group’s media campaign.”

Inspire is 67 pages of hate-filled rhetoric designed to coax English speakers (primarily Americans and Europeans) into a radical Islamist mindset and to violent action. It also helps AQAP overcome one of its most significant challenges – winning martyrs without bringing recruits to Yemen. Why does AQAP want this?

It’s no secret DHS, the Intelligence Community and other parts of the U.S. government closely monitor those entering and leaving Yemen and other countries known to harbor al Qaeda (see the accidentally released TSA Screening Management SOP and instances of U.S. citizens/green card holders detained when returning from countries harboring terrorists). And though the recent $60 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia is largely an example of U.S. containment efforts against Iran, have no doubt that the Saudis’ new formidable air force will also be used to obliterate terrorist training camps in the lawless deserts south of the Hijaz.

Things are only going to get harder for AQAP, and it seems the group recognizes that harboring green recruits from foreign shores may not be the most effective method for swelling the jihadi ranks. Inspire attempts to overcome this obstacle by eliminating the need for travel to follow terrorist intents, taking rhetoric and training to English speakers around the world, particularly, to Americans.

Inspire, AQAP Magazine

Producing Propaganda

The concept of jihadi propaganda is not new; mujahedeen papers and other terrorist publications have been around since the 1980s, if not earlier. The Internet has made document production easier, and more importantly, cheaper. Indeed, as Mueller said in his testimony:

“The Internet has expanded as a platform for spreading extremist propaganda, a tool for online recruiting…all of which may be contributing to the pronounced state of radicalization inside the United States.”

AQAP made its foray into online propaganda on July 11, 2010, when Inspire was released online in pdf format. Initial files were corrupted, possibly infected with a virus, which some have suggested was the work of U.S. counterterrorism or intelligence agents. The file was rereleased uncorrupted, and the magazine has since been reposted on numerous websites and is easy to find and download.

The magazine is a somewhat-polished publication with design aesthetics that show a hand practiced in layout, formatting and use of graphics. Inspire was initially credited as a work from Anwar al Awlaki, the AQAP recruiter and trainer who has been tied to Nidal Hasan, the Fort Hood shooter, and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the so-called Christmas Day Bomber. However, Inspire is now believed to have been created by a 23-year-old Saudi-born U.S. citizen, Samir Khan, who left America for Yemen in October 2009. Before his journey to join AQAP, he blogged from North Carolina using the screen name “inshaAllahshaheed” or “God Willing a Martyr” and produced the English-language magazine, “Jihad Recollections.”

But did Khan write and produce the magazine alone? Some of the “articles” are simply past speeches from al Qaeda leadership, easily lifted from jihadist websites. Others may have been crafted specifically for Inspire. What is clear, however, is that Inspire is a dangerous propaganda tool for which AQAP has taken credit.

Analysis of the magazine’s online prevalence suggests it is not having a widespread influence on potential extremists, that is, few in the online jihadist communities are talking about Inspire. For the purposes of understanding AQAP’s goals and tactics, however, there is much that can be gleaned from an analysis of some of the magazine’s content. And in any case, it isn’t masses of jihad-waging Americans that we foresee threatening homeland security – it’s the lone wolf radicalized in secret, which is exactly for whom Inspire was written.

Abu Basir al Wuhayshi

Abu Basir al Wuhayshi: Explosive Devices and Sacrificing Souls

One of the first pieces in the magazine is an interview with Abu Basir Nasir al-Wuhayshi, Osama bin Laden’s former secretary and leader of AQAP. It is written in a Q&A format, and al Wuhayshi’s quotes are based on predictable al Qaeda rhetoric.

In short, the interview reviews “evidence” of America’s hostile action against Islam and suggests that if one considers themselves Muslim, one is compelled to commit violence against the United States. The writer groups concepts to lead the reader from a contentious current event to a perceived slight against Islam to an obligation to wage jihad.

For example, al Wuhayshi cites heated tensions that erupted when Danish cartoons depicting the Muslim prophet Muhammad were published (and republished) in several newspapers.

He says:

“These heinous crimes which the human soul rejects such as the cartoons of the Messenger and holding celebrations and awarding those who curse the Prophet require us to target the Americans. In fact they require us to wipe them out of the map completely.”

But that matter unfolded initially and primarily in Europe. Why blame America? Because the intent is not to remind the disenchanted that we live in a world where Islamophobia exists and freedom of the press is protected; the intent is to direct anger and spur action against the primary target (i.e., the United States).

Al Wuhayshi speaks directly to Europeans and Americans, hoping someone will take the bait. He says:

“My advice to my Muslim brothers in the West is to acquire weapons and learn methods of war. They are living in a place where they can cause great harm to the enemy and where they can support the Messenger of Allah…the successful means are through explosive devices and sacrificing souls.”

He adds that if one cannot fight, then one should emigrate from the country that is “awaiting the wrath of Allah.” Failing that, al Wuhayshi seems to plead, “at least boycott the disbelievers and proclaim the oneness of Allah.”

In this way, al Wuhayshi’s message to Western Muslims is clearly laid out. Defend the faith, and commit terrorist acts in America. But how does one make a bomb and sacrifice their soul?

How to Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom

Open Source Jihad: A “How To” for IEDs

It’s the Secrets of the Mujahedeen (Asrar al Mujahideen), and from the title, “How to Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom,” the intended audience is clear – young people (young people live with their parents and would therefore need to use Mom’s kitchen). There are pictures showing a simple step-by-step process for creating a pipe bomb, complete with tips about how to best pack it with nails for maximum damage.

Designs and instructions for building improvised explosive devices (IEDs) are not hard to come by. The counter-culture Anarchist’s Cookbook, which contains directions for building many kinds of bombs, has been around since the 70s, and a quick Google search returns tens of thousands of results for “homemade bomb recipe.” Yet, the inclusion of the bomb-making process in Inspire is the follow through on the propaganda delivered elsewhere in the magazine, such as in al Wuhayshi’s soul-sacrificing message.Instructions

The instructions, attributed to an unnamed “AQ Chef,” read:

“My Muslim brother: we are conveying to you our military training right into your kitchen to relieve you of the difficulty of traveling to us. If you are sincere in your intentions to serve the religion of Allah, then all what you have to do is enter your kitchen and make an explosive device that would damage the enemy if you put your trust in Allah and then use this explosive device properly.”

The danger posed by these instructions is evident, but the ramifications for U.S. security are significant. The intended user, as named in the instructions, is the “lone mujahid.” How can DHS and other security agencies detect and prevent an individual who shows few, if any, signs of violent radicalization? If an American reads Inspire, is persuaded by the argument, follows the instructions, makes a pipe bomb and uses it, how do we prevent that?

Our homeland resources would be stretched even thinner if homegrown terrorism gained a firm footing in America. And if we ramp up federal investigations in the country, it could be interpreted as persecution against Muslim Americans rather than law enforcement efforts, and al Qaeda propaganda would paint it as such in any case.

But any disgruntled individual can construct lethal instruments at any time and use them against their own country. That remains a consistent threat, one that is not reserved for al Qaeda-inspired individuals. The danger in Inspire is the way the information is packaged. In addition to an interview with al Wuhayshi, violent images and photos of AQ leaders, instructions on how to make deadly devices, and many other hateful elements, Inspire also includes a “main article” by Anwar al Awlaki, an AQAP member, but also, an American. Who better to guide an American to terrorist action than one of his or her countrymen?

Anwar al Awlaki

Anwar al Awlaki: The Heart of the Narrative

Anwar al Awlaki is an American citizen who also holds a Yemeni passport. He was born in New Mexico, and after many years as a religious leader and lecturer, he became a trainer and recruiter for al Qaeda. He is believed to be hiding in a village in South Yemen.

In his piece, Awlaki gets straight to the heart of the Narrative. Unlike the other pieces, which are filled with a hateful tone, peppered with words like “jihad” and “mujahedeen,” and blend fact and myth into a story many Americans would have a hard time believing, Awlaki focuses on crafting an argument for fighting in the name of Islam. It is not blatant propaganda; it is propaganda masquerading as an editorial that advocates “a golden opportunity to have the honor of performing an act in service of Islam greater than any form of jihad.”

After his examples and subtly twisted logic are spent, Awlaki delivers the Narrative’s core argument:

“The government, political parties, the police, the intelligence services, blogs, social networks, the media, and the list goes on, are part of a system within which the defamation of Islam is not only protected but promoted. The main elements in this system are the laws that make this blasphemy legal. Because they are practicing a ‘right’ that is defended by the law, they have the backing of the entire Western political system. This would make the attacking of any Western target legal from an Islamic viewpoint. The entire Western system is staunchly protecting and promoting the defamation of Muhammad and therefore, it is the entire Western system that is at war with Islam. Assassinations, bombings, and acts of arson are all legitimate forms of revenge against a system that relishes the sacrilege of Islam in the name of freedom.”

That is the long and short of it. At its core, the Narrative argues that the “West” and “Islam” are diametrically opposed. The competing ideologies are irreconcilable, and one is either with the AQ version of Islam (therefore compelled to violence) or against it (therefore justified collateral damage). This argument is the driving force for inspiring violence.

Inspire, like its authors, is dangerous, without a doubt. It provides the impetus, rationalization and method for conducting terrorist attacks, and it is clearly designed to create radicals in America, avoiding dangers that come with moving between Yemen and the United States. It hasn’t gained much notice online, suggesting (but not proving) that the magazine has had little influence.

But it doesn’t matter as much whether the publication has extremists coming out of the woodwork. The high impact, low probability event that many security experts are talking about is what Inspire attempts to create and what Napolitano, Mueller and Leiter warned about – an American, radicalized in secret, who follows the Narrative to martyrdom.

Read about AQAP’s origins and intentions in the first installment of the Threat from Yemen series.

Justin Hienz is Editor for Security Debrief. He blogs primarily on radicalization, aviation security, cultural issues related to security, religious and Middle Eastern affairs, and communications. Read More