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Report: US Hacks al-Qaida's Online Magazine

Report: US Hacks al-Qaida's Online Magazine
File photo shows a computer screen shot of al-Qaida's Inspire magazine.

By    |   Wednesday, 12 June 2013 10:52 AM

U.S. intelligence agents secretly sabotaged al-Qaida's online magazine, Inspire, last month, temporarily disrupting publication of the May 14 issue.

Security officials told The Washington Post the operation was just 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," one intelligence official told the Post.

According to terrorism analyst Evan Kohlmann, the text on the second page was garbled in the hacking operation and the next 20 pages were blank when Issue 11 of Inspire, which is published in English and Arabic, was first posted.

The cover story was headlined "How Did It Come to This?" and featured a fighter with a rocket-propelled grenade launcher and a Kalashnikov rifle, said Kohlmann, who tracks jihadi websites.

His firm, Flashpoint Global Partners, apparently captured an image of the issue, which was taken down from the online forum that hosts the magazine about 30 minutes after it appeared.

On May 30, links to a new version of Issue 11 were disseminated on Twitter, according to the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), which monitors jihadi forums and was the first to publish excerpts of Issue 11 of the 3-year-old magazine.

Most of the articles in the new issue, which was published online June 2, focused on the Boston Marathon bombings. “Inspire’s publishers clearly believe they deserve credit for providing the Tsarnaev brothers with the motivation and operational know-how for the attack,” wrote Steven Stalinsky, executive director of MEMRI.

Inspire was founded by American-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who was killed by a U.S. drone strike. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the younger of the two brothers accused of carrying out the Boston attack, has told investigators the pair was inspired by watching online videos of al-Awlaki.

Stalinsky also pointed out that following the publication of Issue 11, al-Qaida’s military commander, Qassim al-Rimi, put out an audio tape saying "the Boston bombings revealed the fragility of security" and that making bombs such as the ones used in Boston was within everyone's reach.

Also important, noted Stalinsky, is that "in contrast to all previous issues of Inspire, which were published on al-Qaida-affiliated jihadi forums, this issue was circulated via Twitter, with a link for downloading it.

"This Twitter release circumvented the main problem that had plagued the publication of previous issues of Inspire -- that is, subsequent and intermittent removal of the jihadi forums," he said, adding, it is "further evidence that jihadis are becoming increasingly dependent upon it."

That information could enter into the ongoing debate within the Obama administration over whether to interfere with or take down certain radical sites.

"I don't think al-Qaida has a First Amendment right to put out its propaganda, to encourage people to commit acts of terrorism," Rep. Adam Schiff, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, told the Post. "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 say disruption of online sites may not be the most effective strategy.

"The only way that you're really going to be effective is to help amplify more mainstream moderate Muslim voices," Michael Leiter, former director of the National Counterterrorism Center, told the newspaper. "That's vastly more effective than trying to disrupt radical voices."

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U.S. intelligence agents secretly sabotaged al-Qaida's online magazine, Inspire, last month, temporarily disrupting publication of the May 14 issue.
Wednesday, 12 June 2013 10:52 AM
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