Disrupting AQAP's Inspire
The Washington Post reports today that American intelligence operatives covertly sabotaged prominent Al Qaeda magazine Inspire successfully in the wake of the Boston bombing. By using enhanced cyberhacking techniques to monitor the publication cycle, agents were able to mangle the May 14th edition of the English-language AQAP propaganda publication. When the issue appeared online, the text on page two was compromised and the following twenty pages completely blank. Within a half hour of the flawed issue's publication, it had been taken down in response to the hack.
Apparently this is not the first time the United States has interrupted normal publication of Inspire. While this particular hack affected the entire issue, the Post reports that in the past operatives have made much smaller, more nuanced changes that perhaps might go unnoticed for longer periods of time. One intelligence official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss sensitive internal debates shared with the Post, “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.” Content changes in the past have included switching up one line in bomb-making directions in order to render a bomb ineffective and similar tweaks to neuter the magazine's step-by-step guides.
While this type of interference in Inspire's publication is certainly not bad, it seems to this author that our energy is being misspent. Inspire is an important magazine for aspiring jihadis, but even if America were to somehow terminate its publication forever, it comes nowhere close to fully encompassing Al Qaeda's propaganda machine. Successfully sabotaging homemade-bomb directions is great, but the internet is literally full of such information. If someone wants to make a bomb, he will make a bomb. People don't become jihadis because they read Inspire; they come to the magazine with an interest in jihad and will find outlets for their crooked aspirations regardless of whether the magazine exists.
Inspire's existence is a symptom of the terrorist problem rather than its root cause. While interrupting it is unobjectionable, what does each of these interruptions truly garner for the United States and at what cost? On May 30, a new issue of the magazine appeared like clockwork and portrayed the Boston bombing as vindication of the message that “a single lone jihad operation can force America to stand on one foot and live in a terrified state, full of fear.” If this were just the mission of a magazine and nothing more, the war on terrorism would have been won and done. We shouldn't lose sight of the fact that disrupting this publication does little to eradicate the value system it is predicated on.