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Radical magazine ‘Inspire’ may have motivated other terror aspirants

By Franco Ordoñez and Greg Gordon
McClatchy Newspapers

WASHINGTON The al-Qaida Internet magazine that allegedly guided the Tsarnaev brothers to build two Boston marathon bombs has become increasingly popular in radical circles.

Inspire magazine – co-founded and once edited by a former Charlotte man – has reportedly been used or cited by multiple terrorism suspects in recent years as inspiration for their attempts to carry out attacks in the United States. Investigators say suspects have been particularly attracted to one article titled “Make a bomb in the kitchen of your Mom.”

The founders, editor Samir Khan – who once wrote “I am proud to be a traitor to America”– and radical American-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, have become cause celebrities in the extremist world for their propaganda work, including creating the glossy magazine that delivers incendiary messages with, as one expert said, the “spark and crackle of Vanity Fair.”

Khan, a Charlotte resident before moving to Yemen in 2009, and al-Awlaki were killed in 2011 when an unmanned U.S. drone fired missiles at their vehicle as it drove through the desert. Al-Awlaki was the target.

The online magazine continues to be produced, but it’s unclear by whom.

Lying in a Boston hospital bed, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19, has passed notes to investigators stating he and his older brother, Tamerlan, killed in a police shootout, learned how to make the shrapnel-jammed, pressure-cooker bombs from the Web magazine, according to a federal law enforcement official familiar with the matter. The two explosions killed three people and injured more than 260 others.

Inspire magazine, launched in 2010, gave al-Qaida and proliferating affiliated groups “a foot in the door” in their attempts to foment violence and convert people such as the Tsarnaevs to terrorism, said Bruce Hoffman, director of Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program.

“They just plant the seed, and they hope someone will be fertilized somewhere,” Hoffman said. “You can ponder how to be a terrorist, but if you have no means to actually get off the dime and become one, you may not go anywhere.

“That’s why I think things like Inspire and ‘How to make a bomb in your mom’s kitchen’ are so important. They give people the confidence, or you might say the hubris, to make that next step.”

One issue went so far as to describe how to build an “ember bomb” to start forest fires when droughts strike Montana and other Western states.

‘Extremely easy to get’

It’s unclear how successful the magazine has been in recruiting U.S. terrorists, but the dilemma for governments around the world is how to stop it. The Internet transcends international borders and is hard to police, and although Inspire’s quarterly issues are routinely taken down by host servers, they reappear elsewhere.

Hoffman likened the magazine’s resilience on the Internet to a mimeographed underground newspaper, known as Samizdat, once circulated in the Soviet Union.

“No matter what the KGB did to stop it, it still popped up. As soon as a new issue of Inspire is out, it’s circulated all over. It’s extremely easy to get.”

Inspire magazine’s influence has been documented in several U.S. terrorism cases, some in which suspects tried to use its bomb-making instructions to carry out attacks.

Law enforcement officials reportedly found a copy of the same Inspire article in the hotel room of Army Pfc. Naser Jason Abdo, who is serving a life sentence for plotting to blow up soldiers at a Texas restaurant with a pressure-cooker bomb.

Jose Pimentel was arrested in November 2011 by New York law enforcement after allegedly turning to Inspire magazine for bomb-building instructions in a foiled plot to blow up police and post offices New York City. And Abdel Daoud, wrote in a jihad-related Internet forum before he was arrested last year in a foiled Chicago bomb plot, that Inspire was “the best magazine I have read.”

In a six-page memorial to editor Khan in Inspire in early 2012, the first issue after his death, al-Qaida associate Abu Yazeed celebrated “his shining face of joy,” while displaying photographs of Khan wearing a toothy grin and brandishing an AK-47 as he stood next to al-Awlaki.

‘A martyr if God wills’

The article praised Khan for giving up his worldly possessions to follow al-Awlaki to Yemen, recounted how he’d escaped “heavy surveillance by the CIA,” and quoted him as wishing that all American Muslims “had partaken in Jihad in that country.” It ended with a lengthy last will found on Khan’s computer hard drive, in which he decried the sufferings of Muslims in the Middle East and Asia “because of the enemy’s animosity towards Islam.”

Khan was a Saudi-born U.S. citizen whose family moved to New York City when he was 7 and to North Carolina in 2004.

While attending Central Piedmont Community College, he started a blog called “Inshallahshaheed” – or “a martyr soon if God wills.” It was the first of a succession of blogs he edited from his parents’ home in northeast Charlotte. His parents have since left North Carolina, but some family members still live in Charlotte.

In a 2010 interview with the Observer, Jibril Hough, spokesman for the Islamic Center of Charlotte, said Khan’s views were widely rejected in the local Muslim community at the time. He was not allowed to speak at any of the major mosques, Hough said.

Hough told the Observer that he and other Muslim community leaders met with him in late 2007 and early 2008 in a failed effort to steer Khan away from supporting terrorism.

Outbursts at mosque

Tamerlan Tsarnaev is thought to have instigated the Boston attack after turning devoutly religious, according to the federal law enforcement official. The Islamic Society of Boston said the brothers were neither members nor regular attendees of their mosque, but that Tamerlan Tsarnaev twice interrupted a service. Mosque representatives said that he was counseled about inappropriate outbursts.

Nichole Mossalam, the mosque’s executive director, said Tamerlan once stood up during a sermon and challenged the preacher who was saying that it was permissible for Muslims to celebrate U.S. holidays such as the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving.

In January, Tamerlan stood up during a sermon and shouted a challenge to a preacher who called Martin Luther King Jr. a person of historic significance, calling him a “non-believer” who was “contaminating people’s minds,” Mossalam said. Tamerlan walked out of the sermon after participants told him to leave.

Yusufi Vali, a spokesman for the Islamic Society of Boston, said the elder Tsarnaev showed no hint of interest in extremism or violence, and that if there had been, the mosque would’ve notified law enforcement. Lesley Clark contributed to this report.

Email: fordonez@mcclatchydc.com
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