Open source Jihad? Al-Qaeda’s changing tactics

This is a cross post by Shiraz Maher from Standpoint

Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has released the second edition of its new English language magazine, Inspire. It only came out last night and there is a lot to say about this so, for now, I’m just going to give a quick overview of the key themes emerging from this important document.

  • AQAP has established itself as the primary mouthpiece for al-Qaeda in the English language. Whereas al-Qaeda in Afghanistan has the American Adam Gadhan, AQAP has a number of highly articulate and charismatic leaders who can now project their message into the English speaking world. Not least is the radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki. However, beyond him there is also a recent defector Samir Khan, a Saudi-born US citizen.
  • The production values behind Inspire are very high. This is what recruits like Khan bring with them – equally important as their ability to speak English is the intellectual and cultural capital they can offer.Inspire is couched in the idioms of the West speaking to, as it were, the ‘MTV generation’. The previous issue, for example, quotes from The Late Show with David Letterman.
  • Awlaki wrote the cover story for the last edition and has another piece in this month’s copy, suggesting his increasing involvement in the heart of the AQAP network.
  • The level of research which has gone into some of the articles is very high – including a timeline of the cartoon controversy.
  • It is clear that that AQ (both in AP and AfPak) is heavily monitoring the Western media and, more generally, Western culture.
  • The magazine is deliberately wide ranging covering a number of themes: inspirational and motivational stories, theological views/rebuttals, operational pieces. Some of it is pretty dramatic stuff.
  • The most notable is what AQAP calls, ‘open source Jihad’, which they define as: “A resource manual for those who loathe the tyrants; includes bomb making techniques, security measures, guerrilla tactics, weapons training, and all other jihad related activities”. What al-Qaeda is doing here is teaching its followers in the West how to launch attacks without them ever needing to attend actual training camps.
  • This style represents a new strategy for al-Qaeda – which its chapter in the Arabian Peninsula is spearheading. That is, inspiring and creating self-starter and lone wolf cells which are practically impossible to detect or thwart. Indeed, the magazine and other communiqués too tell potential operatives not to try and recreate the kind of big, 9/11 or 7/7 type of ‘spectaculars’ because the intelligence and security agencies are able to uncover them. Instead, they want lots of small-scale, autonomous – but more frequent – attacks.
  • This is something Jonathan Evans, the head of Mi5 commented on recently when speaking specifically about Anwar al-Awlaki (although the principle applies to AQAP as a whole to): “He speaks perfect English, unlike many al-Qaeda leaders, which gives him a broader appeal. He also encourages his followers to think about mounting small-scale attacks that can cause widespread fear without always trying to stage a September 11-style “spectacular” which risks alerting the authorities”.

As I say, these are just some initial thoughts – there is a lot to digest here against the wider backdrop of al-Qaeda’s changing strategy. Small wonder, then, that the current terrorist threat against Europe is of ‘Mumbai style’ attacks.

In one sense there is a positive here: al-Qaeda is weakening and struggling to stage the kind of big operations it did in America, London, and Madrid. The converse, however, is that if its new strategy finds expression then it will represent a mutation of the threat which we are currently ill-equipped to manage.