This week Dzhokhar Tsarnaev told law enforcement agents that he and his brother learned how to make their homemade bombs from Inspire, the English-language magazine of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Bob talks to JM Berger about the magazine, which has gone from being a late-night punchline to something much more terrifying.
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BOB GARFIELD: Pressure cookers? In the aftermath of the Boston bombings, the media and everyone else marveled at the use of cookware to create mayhem, but the explanation was quickly forthcoming. Not once but twice the instructions for building such a device have been published in Inspire, the English-language magazine of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. On Tuesday, NBC quoted law enforcement sources as confirming that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, from his hospital bed, credited Inspire for his lethal inspiration. Sounds plausible, except we’ve been down this road before, and never quite gone in the right direction. JM Berger is an editor of INTELWIRED.com and he wrote about the facts and fictions of Inspire for Foreignpolicy.com. He says that even before founder Samir Khan was killed in Yemen, along with fellow American firebrand Anwar al-Awlaki in a predator drone strike. Inspire had been both inflated in significance and snickered at as a laughingstock.
JM BERGER: The snickering, I think, actually it's appropriate, in some ways, because the magazine had a lot of content that was frankly ridiculous. They proposed that people weld lawnmower blades to a truck and drive it into a crowd. Its most recent issue proposed that people rub cooking oil on highways in order to cause traffic accidents. I mean, there was a lot of ridiculous content in it. At the same time, it was always something to look at and be concerned about. What, what happened when it first came out and continued throughout its history is that the media coverage on Inspire has been just wildly inaccurate and kind of overblown. So it became an easy punch line because quality of the product was not really all that good. And the way that US officials and journalists were talking about it was extremely dramatic.
BOB GARFIELD: What constitutes quality in a terrorism motivational magazine?
JM BERGER: The same things that constitute quality in any magazine. So, for instance, the first issue after Khan’s death featured a gigantic typo on the cover. They were – they were trying to say that they were winning on the ground. That was the banner headline, “Winning on the Ground” and instead it – they left out one of the N’s, so it said “Wining on the Ground.”
BOB GARFIELD: What did we, the media, as an institution, get wrong over and over and over?
JM BERGER: From the beginning of the coverage on this, and I’m not really sure how to explain it because people who otherwise did very good work just didn't seem to be able to wrap their heads around this concept. The Atlantic’s website, for instance, had a detailed analysis of the article by somebody who hadn't opened the file because he was afraid that there was a virus in it, which there wasn’t. NPR reported that it was printed on glossy paper. It never had a print component; it was always on a PDF.
For some reason, these kinds of ideas just entered into circulation, and they really continued up, up until today. Mark Mazzetti, a New York Times reporter, has a new book out on the CIA, and he describes Inspire as having been read by Nidal Hasan, the Fort Hood gunman and Faisal Shahzada, the Times Square bomber, but both of those guys did their attacks before Inspire even existed. I don't know what it is, but for some reason this magazine just seems to bring out the worst in reporting.
BOB GARFIELD: You’re explicitly not saying we should pay no attention to Inspire Magazine.
JM BERGER: Well, I have never said that we shouldn’t pay attention to it. The issue with how we talk about it is that when people are radicalizing, they get their information from watching television or reading newspapers, and so, when they're in that process of radicalizing we sort of created a much bigger audience for this publication than, than it necessarily had to have.
BOB GARFIELD: And we’re making that worse right this minute, are we not?
JM BERGER: Well, it's over now. Going forward, they're going to claim, regardless of the veracity of whether these guys used Inspire in a significant way to build their bomb, Inspire is going to claim credit for this attack, and we’re going to see a huge increase in its credibility because of that.
BOB GARFIELD: So if I understand this correctly, the press kinda got it wrong from the very beginning, has repeatedly mischaracterized the magazine, credited it for things that it could not possibly have influenced, and so forth, but now whatever mistakes are made in the past, it is very much a part of the, the ecosystem. A lot of wannabes are gonna go there now because it's now famous for inspiring the – Tsarnaevs.
JM BERGER: Just the reporting of this Inspire claim, you know, based on the very thin sourcing and without a lot of qualifications is already - that's all Inspire needs to make a hay out of this. The very likely next step in this process is going to be that Inspire will release an issue commemorating the bombing. The only real question is, is how much credit they're going to assume for it and how much they're going to use it to trumpet their own position.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, JM, thank you so much, appreciate it.
JM BERGER: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: JM Berger is an editor of Intelwired.com.