WASHINGTON - U.S. intelligence operatives covertly sabotaged a prominent al-Qaida online magazine last month in an apparent attempt to sow confusion among the group’s followers, according to officials.
The operation succeeded, at least temporarily, in thwarting publication of the latest issue of Inspire, the English-language magazine distributed by al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. When it appeared online, the text on the second page was garbled and the following 20 pages were blank. The sabotaged version was quickly removed from the online forum that hosted it, according to independent analysts who track jihadi websites.
It’s unclear how the hacking occurred, although U.S. intelligence agencies have invested heavily in cybercapabilities in recent years. Security officials said the recent operation was only the latest U.S. attempt to disrupt al-Qaida’s online propaganda.
“You can make it hard for them to distribute it, or you can mess with the content. And you can mess with the content in a way that is obvious or in ways that are not obvious,” said one intelligence official.
The hacked version of Inspire magazine appeared May 14, according to Evan Kohlmann, an analyst who tracks jihadi websites. His firm, Flashpoint Global Partners, captured an image of the issue, which featured a cover showing a fighter in a heavy coat, shouldering a rocket-propelled grenade launcher and a Kalashnikov rifle. The title was, “How Did it Come to This?”
Within a half-hour of its appearance, the magazine was removed, presumably in response to the hacking, Kohlmann said.
On May 30, a new version, Issue 11, appeared. That issue portrayed the Boston Marathon bombing as vindication of Inspire’s message that “a single lone jihad operation can force America to stand on one foot and live in a terrified state, full of fear.”
Inspire comprises first-person accounts of operations, exhortations to jihad and do-it-yourself advice for extremists. A second intelligence official said the publication is seen as a threat because it “has a specific readership — a following. People will look for it, as opposed to something randomly posted. What’s more, it is very user-friendly. Inspire uses pictures and step-by-step diagrams, and that’s a problem.”
The decision to disrupt the magazine last month was part of a debate within the Obama administration over the response to online publications that promote radicalization. The debate spiked after the April 15 Boston Marathon bombing. One of the suspects, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19, told the FBI that he and his brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, learned how to make the pressure-cooker bomb used in the bombing from the magazine. He also told them they had been inspired by sermons and other material from the Internet, according to officials briefed on the disclosures.
“There’s a robust debate in the community about where do you draw the line on whether or not you should interfere with or take down certain sites,” the second intelligence official said.
Current and former government officials said the debate has been swayed by an argument that Inspire represents an incitement to imminent lawless action, which outweighs First Amendment protections. A 2011 Justice Department “white paper” invoked a similar concept in debates over the lethal targeting of U.S. citizens.
Incitement to violent action is an Inspire staple. A 2010 issue, for example, provided instructions for turning a pickup truck into “The Ultimate Mowing Machine” by welding steel blades onto the front at headlight level — roughly the height of a human torso — and then plowing into a crowd “to strike as many people as possible.”
The FBI later investigated a homegrown terrorist cell on the East Coast that discussed using the mowing machine technique, according to a consultant who worked on the investigation.
“I don’t think al-Qaida has a First Amendment right to put out its propaganda, to encourage people to commit acts of terrorism,” said California Rep. Adam Schiff, a member of the House Intelligence Committee. “Unfortunately, I think Inspire magazine is a significant threat to the extent that it disseminates information about how to build a bomb or encourages people to get radicalized. It has shown a dangerous effectiveness. And one that’s difficult to address.”
Others contend that disruption is not the best long-run strategy. “The only way that you’re really going to be effective is to help amplify more mainstream moderate Muslim voices,” said Michael Leiter, former director of the National Counterterrorism Center. “That’s vastly more effective than trying to disrupt radical voices.”