The recent arrest of Jose Pimentel, a 27-year-old convert to Islam who was allegedly planning to detonate an explosive device in New York, underscores the ongoing danger posed by so-called "lone wolf" terrorists. Pimentel, busy preparing a bomb at the time of his arrest according to prosecutors, is alleged to have wanted to kill American troops returning from Afghanistan and Iraq. The real significance of his plot, however, lies in the method he was using.
Pimentel is believed to have read Inspire magazine, a quarterly publication that is produced in English by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and is aimed at Muslims living in the West. The magazine was largely put together by Samir Khan, an American of Pakistani ethnic origin, who grew up in Queens, New York. He left the United States in 2009 to join al-Qaeda in Yemen where he teamed up with another American, the radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki.
Although both were killed earlier this year in a drone strike, their destructive legacy lives on in Inspire magazine. Its primary aim Is to incite Muslims in the West to support al-Qaeda by appealing to them directly, in terms they can relate to. This is where Inspire's American propagandists come in useful – they are able to sell their ideas in a language and style that resonates with many young Muslims in the West. Notably, rather than telling them to migrate to Yemen, Afghanistan, or Pakistan, each edition of the magazine aims to inspire self-starting "lone wolves."
The overall approach of Inspire is simple: First, it primes sympathetic Muslims with anti-Western anger; then it provides theological arguments which legitimize terrorism -- before it finally offers detailed technical instructions on how to commit acts of terrorism.
This strategy is something the group calls "Open Source Jihad," which it defines as:
A resource manual for those who loath the tyrants; includes bomb making techniques, security measures, guerrilla tactics, weapons training and all other jihad related activities...the open source jihad is America's worst nightmare. It allows Muslims to train at home instead of risking a dangerous travel abroad.
Coupled with that, Anwar al-Awlaki would tell readers to target the United States with statements such as:
In the case of the United States, both the government and private citizens should be targeted. America and Americans are the Imam's [in this case he means "leaders"] kufr [infidels] in this day and age. The American people who vote for war mongering governments are intent on no good. Anyone who inflicts harm on them in any form is doing a favor to the ummah [Islamic nation].
Awlaki's influence in this regard has been well documented and is explored in this new report by Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens. Khan explains that the strategy of Open Source Jihad is based on disseminating all the necessary things a would-be terrorist needs so that they can form independent cells of their own and need never leave their countries for training elsewhere. As a result, each edition of the magazine typically carries bomb making instructions.
It is alleged that Pimentel was following one of the recipes outlined in Inspire at the time of his arrest; it is a method that makes detecting self-radicalized individuals extremely difficult. Samir Khan even noted that:
Thousands of productions were produced and dispersed to both the net and real world. Something that was produced thousands of feet above in the mountains of Afghanistan was found distributed in the streets of London and California. Ideas that disseminated [sic] from the lips of the mujahidin's leaders were carried out in Madrid and Times Square.
All this focuses attention on the role played by the internet in radicalizing individuals. Through sophisticated and password-protected web forums, al-Qaeda is now able to prime sympathisers with everything they need to become active terrorists.
The attack in December 2009 on the CIA's forward-operating base, Camp Chapman, in Khost, Afghanistan, was carried out by a prolific forum participant, Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi, a Jordanian doctor who wrote online under the names Abu Dujaanah al-Khorasani and Malik al-Ashja'ee. Shortly before his suicide attack, Balawi conducted an interview with al-Qaeda's media production unit, As-Sahab Media (meaning, "The Clouds"), and explained:
Your brother is the poor slave Abu Dujaanah al-Khorasani, from Jordan…I used to write in the Jihadi Internet forums under the name Abu Dujaanah al-Khorasani, and I was also a supervisor in al-Hisbah network – may Allah bring it back – under the name Malik al-Ashja'ee. So this is me in a nutshell. I mobilized to the land of Jihad earlier this year, in March of 2009.
During the interview, Balawi describes how he used the forums to make contact with the mujahideen. He is not the only forum participant to have become an operational terrorist. In 2010 the Ansar al-Mujahideen forum announced that two web participants, Mohammed bin Ali Al-Tamimi – who wrote under the name "Qahar Al-Saleeb" ["Defeater of the Cross"] and "Saleel Al-Soyoof" ["Sabre Rattler"] -- had been killed in Waziristan. They were registered members on both the Ansar al-Mujhaideen forum as well as the al-Faloja forum, based in Gaza.
The connection of these web forums to al-Qaeda is also shown by Ayman al-Zawahiri's offering members of the Ekhlaas and Hesbah forums (Hesbah means: "the act of holding others to account") the equivalent of a town hall meeting in December 2007 and January 2008: members were told they could pose any question to Zawahiri who would then respond, which he did in April 2008. Zawahiri's use of these forums to communicate with the outside world would seem to underscore their potency and relevance.
Since 9/11, Western governments have become more effective at closing down many of the routes terrorists traditionally had used to reach al-Qaeda camps in places such as Afghanistan, Pakistani and Yemen. Now, however, equal attention should be given to the more difficult task of also clamping down on those being radicalized and "Inspired" through the internet.