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The ‘Vanity Fair’ of Al Qaeda

As provocative headlines go, the editors of Inspire magazine chose a doozy for their inaugural issue last summer.

“Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom,” it promised. The author of the crude how-to guide was identified only as “The AQ Chef.” That’s AQ as in Al Qaeda.

The terrorist network long has exploited gory YouTube videos, fiery Facebook pages, hate-filled chat rooms, and other incendiary Internet websites to radicalize recruits and gloat over mass murder.

Now the media wing of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, an offshoot group based in Yemen, is producing an online propaganda periodical that gives pop culture a lethal twist. Color photos and glitzy graphics flank interviews of celebrity jihadists and reader-friendly stories, such as “What to Expect in Jihad,” complete with a packing list.

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The slick English-language magazine, which posted its third issue this week, may appear like an Onion parody. But FBI and other counter-terror experts say it is no joke. The extremist rhetoric and blood-soaked Islamic imagery appears consistent with Al Qaeda’s cult of death, and they believe it is authentic.

“It’s like the Vanity Fair of jihadi publications,” said Bruce Hoffman, director of security studies at Georgetown University. “It’s glossy and snarky, and is designed to appeal to Generation Z.”

“It’s Madison Avenue, terrorist style,” agreed Yonah Alexander, terrorism specialist at the nonpartisan Potomac Institute for Policy Studies in Arlington, Va. “It’s much more sophisticated than what we’ve seen before.”

The target audience, experts say, appears to be disaffected Muslims in the English-speaking world. The message: Embrace the mythology of martyrdom and take up arms against the infidel West.

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“They’re not looking to outdo the readership of the Economist or Time magazine,” said Bruce Riedel, a former senior CIA officer now at the nonpartisan Saban Center for Middle East Policy in the Brookings Institution. “They only need to inspire one or two people to blow something up in the right place and they’ll make back their start-up costs.”

After Inspire first appeared in July, the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security’s intelligence and analysis office warned in a report that it “could appeal to certain Western individuals and could inspire them to conduct attacks in the United States in the future.”

“Al Qaeda sees fertile ground for recruitment in Europe and North America,” said Edward Turzanski, senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia. “That’s where the jihad retains vibrancy.”

But Andy Johnson, former chief of staff for the Senate intelligence committee, thinks the magazine mostly preaches to the converted. “Does this really sell violent extremism and murderous plots to unsympathetic minds?” he asked. “I don’t think so.”

Inspire traces its lineage to a now-defunct Arabic-language magazine, called Al Jihad, that Osama bin Laden published in the 1980s before he gained infamy. But the chatty style and colloquial English of the new version suggests an American editor.

U.S. intelligence officials suspect Samir Khan, a 24-year-old Pakistani American. A shy youth with a stutter, Khan ran a rabidly pro-Al Qaeda blog and website from his parents’ home in Charlotte, N.C., after 2003, drawing close scrutiny from the FBI.

Khan moved to Yemen last year and his byline is atop a first-person feature in Inspire’s second issue, published last month. Under the lurid headline “I am proud to be a traitor to America,” he described himself as “al Qaeda to the core.”

U.S. officials say the journal reflects the growing influence of Yemen-based Anwar Awlaki, a radical Muslim imam who was born in America and now seeks its violent destruction. The charismatic cleric is quoted at length in Inspire’s first two issues.

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U.S. authorities have accused Awlaki of aiding in last year’s slaughter of 13 soldiers and civilians at Ft. Hood, Texas, the botched Christmas Day bombing of a Detroit-bound airliner, and other deadly plots around the world. They have tried to kill him with Predator missile strikes and other efforts.

The third issue of Inspire, which appeared Sunday, was the most topical. It is also the most alarming.

Labeled a “Special Edition,” it focused on the failed attempt to bomb two cargo planes headed to the United States last month. Authorities in Britain and Dubai, acting on a tip from Saudi intelligence, foiled the plot when they found PETN explosive compound hidden inside printer cartridges sent from Yemen.

The magazine urged followers to plant similar bombs on civilian and cargo planes and provided detailed technical instructions.

The goal of what it dubbed Operation Hemorrhage, the authors said, is not just to bring down aircraft, but to force Western governments to spend huge sums for new security measures, further burdening their faltering economies.

“We will continue with similar operations and we do not mind at all in this stage if they are intercepted,” one article said. “It is such a good bargain for us to spread fear amongst the enemy … in exchange for a few months of work and few thousand bucks.”

The magazine cover shows a blurred photo of a United Parcel Service plane and the sum $4,200 in large type — the supposed cost of the failed plot.

An article inside breaks down the bombers’ budget: “Two Nokia phones, $150 each, two HP printers, $300 each, plus shipping, transportation and other miscellaneous expenses.”

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Photos show the LaserJet cartridges used in the plot as well as a torn copy of Charles Dickens’ novel “Great Expectations,” which was packed in one of the parcels. The title was chosen, the author explained, because “we were very optimistic about the outcome of this operation.”

While Bin Laden’s core Al Qaeda group traditionally has emphasized multiple simultaneous attacks for maximum impact, the 2-year-old Yemeni affiliate has embraced smaller scale and lone-wolf attacks that are cheaper to sponsor and more difficult to detect.

By publishing easy-to-read technical guides in English, Inspire says its goal is for wannabe bombers to “train at home instead of risking a dangerous travel” to terrorist training camps in remote Afghanistan, Pakistan or elsewhere.

The tactic poses some risk to Al Qaeda too. The instructions gave valuable tips to law enforcement and intelligence officials on how terrorists encrypt their e-mail, evade metal detectors and defeat other security systems.

Larry Johnson, a former CIA analyst, said the latest magazine mostly shows that Al Qaeda is a spent force that is trying to make the best of a failed attack.

“This is spin worthy of a Washington pundit,” he said. “I think they’re trying to maintain their image of being a ferocious, deadly organization. But at the end of the day, they just showed they were incompetent.”

bob.drogin@latimes.com


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