It is unclear how the hacking occurred, although U.S. intelligence agencies, including the National Security Agency and the CIA, have invested heavily in cyber-capabilities in recent years. Security officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the recent operation was only the latest U.S. attempt to disrupt al-Qaeda’s online propaganda.
“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,” said one intelligence official, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss sensitive internal debates.
Officials at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which oversees the government’s 16 intelligence agencies, declined to comment, as did the White House and the Pentagon.
The hacked version of Inspire magazine appeared May 14, said Evan Kohlmann, an analyst who tracks jihadist Web sites. His firm, Flashpoint Global Partners, captured an image of the issue, which featured a cover showing a fighter in a heavy coat, shouldering a rocket-propelled grenade launcher and a Kalashnikov rifle. The title was “How Did It Come to This?”
Within half an hour of its appearance, the magazine was removed, presumably in response to the hacking, Kohlmann said.
On May 30, a new version, Issue 11, appeared. That issue portrayed the Boston Marathon bombing as vindication of Inspire’s message that “a single lone jihad operation can force America to stand on one foot and live in a terrified state, full of fear.”
Inspire comprises first-person accounts of operations, exhortations to jihad and do-it-yourself advice for extremists. A second intelligence official said the publication is seen as a threat because it “has a specific readership — a following. People will look for it, as opposed to something randomly posted. Two, it is very user-friendly. Inspire uses pictures and step-by-step diagrams, and that’s a problem.”
Does disruption work?
The decision to disrupt the magazine last month was part of a debate within the Obama administration over the response to online publications that promote radicalization.
The debate spiked after the April 15 Boston Marathon bombing. One of the suspects, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19, told the FBI that he and his late brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, learned from the magazine how to make the pressure-cooker bombs used in the attack. He also told them they had been inspired by sermons and other material from the Internet, said officials briefed on the disclosures.