Amid all the news about TSA scanners and full-body pat-downs this past week came a reminder of why the government insists that such precautions are necessary: a new threat from Al-Qaeda. Much of the reporting on the new threat stems from the publication of the third issue of Inspire, an English-language “magazine” that claims to be the work of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The “special edition” details the recent attempt to bomb two cargo planes using tampered-with printers sent from Yemen, a plan dubbed “Operation Hemorrhage,” and warns of more to come—a tactic of “a thousand cuts.” Inspire’s writers brag about how inexpensive it had been to so thoroughly disrupt and rattle U.S. security. The plot had cost just $4,200, a figure which features prominently on front of the magazine—a crafty cover.
The magazine first made news in late June and early July, when the inaugural edition was released with the intent to reach disaffected Muslims in the English-speaking west; to find, in other words, the next London bus-bombers or Fort Hood shooters. And in that month, while headlines rang loud with news of Al-Qaeda’s new “Full-length English Magazine”, there was a fair amount of skepticism among the marvelings about its sordid details and famous bylines (Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri). When Atlantic blogger Marc Ambinder reported on Inspire, he acknowledged the magazine could be a fake; The New York Times’s Jeremy W. Peters allowed Brookings Institution scholar Bruce Riedel to muse that it “could have been the work of hackers, possibly working for the United States government.” The Christian Science Monitor ran the headline “Al Qaeda’s new online Magazine: Is it for real?” The intelligence community—and the reporters they fed—soon speculated, with some surety, that U.S. citizen and now Yemeni resident Samir Khan, twenty-three, was behind the magazine.
Reading the latest terror reports it seems that any questions about the validity of Inspire have disappeared. The magazine once greeted with skepticism and perspective—to what extent one publication can speak for as disparate and fractured a community as the jihadists is always a question—is now being treated as the unquestioned and official spokes-journal of Al-Qaeda. And some close watchers of Al-Qaeda caution against the approach.
Critics say it’s important to treat Inspire with nuance—this is not simply a press release from a unified organization. While there is little evidence to dispute the fact that there are Al-Qaeda members from Yemen behind the magazine, terrorist groups are not seamless, homogenous entities. By pushing the fear factor with a new and scary magazine that forecasts terror to come, reporters might be ceding too much influence, and power, to the five-month-old journal.
Max Fisher, who blogs on foreign affairs and national security for The Atlantic, says it’s important to provide a lot more context when using Inspire as a source than many reports did this week. While the reporters themselves may understand the complexity of the organization, and the origins of the magazine, readers aren’t always going to come to the table with such stores. And then, sometimes, not even the reporters do.
“There’s this assumption among a lot of reporters that Al-Qaeda is a monolithic entity, partly because U.S. politics has framed it that way,” says Fisher, who wrote a post titled “5 Reasons to Doubt Al-Qaeda Magazine’s Authenticity” back in July. “It was very easy for a lot of people to see this and say, of course Bin Laden and Zawahiri and Awlaki were all sitting around a conference room table somewhere trying to hash out the best headline. The fact is that these organizations are a lot more fractious than that. The whole idea that they would get together and put out a glossy English magazine that accurately reflects all of their viewpoints, as if they even have a unified viewpoint to reflect, it’s kind of silly.” Still, he understands the urge to report on the magazine. “It looks like this big scary new thing and we’re always looking for scary new things from Al-Qaeda. It’s exciting to editors and people like to read about it.”