Understanding Online Radicalization: The Jihadi Magazines
In Parts One, Two, and Three, this series has discussed the types of websites and social media that influence would-be radicals, but not the materials that make up their ideology. This edition in the series will discuss prominent English-language magazines that are motivating jihad among Americans.
“Terrorizing you, while you are carrying arms in our land, is a legitimate right and a moral obligation,” said the cover of the September 2009 issue of Jihad Recollections, a glossy jihadi magazine put out by al-Qaeda graphics artist Samir Khan. “These youths love death as you love life. These youths will not ask you for explanations. They will sing out that there is nothing between us that needs to be explained.”
Jihadi web forums make massive amounts of information available to would-be extremists. Blogs and social media synthesize those materials into a narrative about the suffering of Muslims and the solution of jihad. But it is the materials that peddle violence themselves -- particularly the written word -- which are the building blocks of terror.
The September 2009 issue of Jihad Recollections focuses on the background, motivation, and “real story” behind the “9/11 raid.” Like a personal tutor, the magazine explores the issues from multiple vantage points. It goes through the causes that motivated the attack in general and the hijackers in particular. As for the economic consequences of 9/11, it proclaims that “you can very well choose to interpret today’s situation as a result of 9/11, and thus maybe" Osama bin Laden "did succeed after all.” Other articles go further into the history and the side stories that show how 9/11 became a “launching pad” for Islamic revival:
It was not an attack on humanity but an attack on the symbols of the new world order that seeks to control the Muslims from within as well as from its external forces. The planes attacking New York and Washington then resulted in setting free the slavery mindset from the Muslims who were lost in the world of confusion. We all saw together the beginning of America’s demise and the rise of Islam’s head.
The glory attributed to attacking America, as outlined in Jihad Recollections, was more than words to some of the magazine’s writers. Abdullah as-Sayf Jones inspired terror through his leadership of the popular blog Revolution Muslim, while authoring the September 2009 issue’s article on the motivations of the 9/11 hijackers.
Another young man acted on the sentiments he read and wrote in the magazine. Mohamed Osman Mohamud, a Somali-American college student, started as a writer for the publication but later carried his violent fantasies to action. He was arrested in late 2010 after attempting to detonate what he thought was a massive car bomb near a Christmas lighting event in Portland.
Mohamud submitted three articles for publication in Jihad Recollections. His articles focused on the practical physical preparations necessary to undertake jihad, like “getting in shape without weights.” In that article, he wrote that a mujahid "must fulfill the obligation of preparing himself physically for jihad … in order to damage the enemies of Allah as much as possible.”
The criminal complaint against him noted that "Mohamud also wrote that it terrorizes the enemy when the Mujahideen strike with speed and planning, and that the ability to carry on for a long period of time is especially helpful during raids on the enemy."
And Mohamud further claimed to have authored a piece for Inspire Magazine, an al-Qaeda sponsored publication that continues in the footsteps of its homegrown counterpart, Jihad Recollections. Both magazines show the hand of Samir Khan, a graphics designer who moved from creating jihadi media in his parent’s Charlotte, NC, home to directing English-language publishing for al-Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula.
The magazines may fill the same role, but they represent two different phases of English-language jihadi development. Jihad Recollections is an attempt to raise English-language jihadi material up to the level of its Arabic counterparts. Inspire Magazine, by contrast, is so popular that it has inspired Arabic translations of its articles.
Inspire is glossy, sharp, and sophisticated. Its articles cover all aspects of jihad, ranging from the theological to “Open Source Jihad: How to make a Bomb in the Kitchen of your Mom.” Osama bin Laden wrote for the magazine, supposedly authoring a piece about jihad and environmentalism called “The Way to Save the Earth.”
Since its inception, the magazine has functioned as a compact guide on how to train for jihad, how to send encrypted messages to terrorist leaders, and “What to Expect in Jihad.” Over time, it has shifted from recruiting for international jihads in Somalia and Yemen to promoting cheap and shocking attacks by lone wolves.
It is also a powerful medium for preachers like Anwar al-Awlaki who have used it to communicate new threats to the "disbelievers" and to deal with contemporary issues like this year’s Arab revolutions. Other Awlaki articles have attacked anti-extremist summits and the New Mardin Declaration, and promoted robbing disbelievers to solve al-Qeida’s growing economic crisis. Awlaki is even suspected of answering letters from the magazine’s readers.
The rise of Inspire shows the growing maturity of al-Qaeda inspired media in English. Alongside web forums, blogs, and social media, magazines are a key piece of the radicalization puzzle.