In the latest installment of a strange terrorism saga, Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev allegedly told investigators that he and his brother learned how to make pressure cooker bombs by reading Inspire, an English-language jihadist magazine in PDF format that began publishing in 2010.
Although interrogations of Tsarnaev are ongoing, it is important to note the circumstances under which they took place. Tsarnaev received a gunshot wound to the throat last week—it is unclear whether it was self-inflicted or not—and is currently listed in “fair” condition at Boston's Beth Israel Deaconness Medical Center. Tsarnaev was also shot in the legs and in one hand. Law enforcement authorities have said Tsarnaev is primarily communicating through written statements; it is unclear how much he can communicate due to the extent of his injuries.
Al Qaeda and its various local affiliates have a long history of spreading propaganda through PDF-form Internet magazines. Inspire is occasionally published by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula; the alleged brains behind the publication, Samir Khan, was a middle-class American of Pakistani heritage killed in a 2011 drone strike in Yemen. Khan was killed in the same attack that also took out Anglophone Al Qaeda propagandist Anwar al-Awlaki, also an American citizen. In the mid 2000s, Al Qaeda began publishing primitive Internet magazines in Arabic that offered bomb recipes and instructions for homemade terrorist attacks; Fast Company previously reported on a Al Qaeda-published womens' magazine that mixed advice columns with odes to Iraqi insurgents attacking American forces.
While Inspire and its sibling publications make for great joke fodder on late night talk shows and seem like a plot point directly out of a novel, they do exist. Because the amorphous nature of Al Qaeda and other jihadist groups eschews the centralized hierarchies of other organizations, any independent terrorist franchise could conceivably use the Al Qaeda brand. Ironically, branding is a real concern for Al Qaeda—Inspire, for all its homemade bomb recipes and dorm newsletter aesthetics, serves as a valuable communication tool.
The latest issue of Inspire was released in March and showed a marked decline in quality from the period when Khan was affiliated with the magazine. Despite the simplicity of previous issues of Inspire, they did create one meme of note—the ”Make A Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom” article, which described how to make pressure cooker bombs. The article title was mocked in the media, but it is remarkably close to the setup the Tsarnaevs are alleged to have used to create their bombs.
However, the one thing that observers are missing about Inspire is that it isn't an isolated phenomenon. The magazine's creators were apparently Americans, and they operated in a long tradition of bomb- and weapon-making samizdat appearing online. Even before Inspire, there were websites that taught guests how to build homemade bombs. Before websites, illicit bulletin board services hosted text files with pipe bomb-making instructions which anyone could view. Before there were bulletin board services, bookstores and head shops sold The Anarchist Cookbook under the counter.
Talking about Inspire and various other jihadist forays into social and print media is an interesting exercise. But regardless of whether or not Inspire published instructions on how to build improvised IEDs or not, the Tsarnaevs had easy access to bomb recipes through their Internet search engine. By publishing Inspire, Khan sought to attach Al Qaeda's name and motivations to disparate other attacks and attackers. He succeeded.