For a publication once considered by many - both analysts and participants on jihadist forums - as a hoax,Inspire is now taken quite seriously. It commands the kind of attention most extremist publications could only dream of. Perhaps its continued influence is even more surprising considering American drone strikes killed the founding editors, Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan, in 2011.
How has Inspire done it? Simply put, it appears to have inspired terrorists by developing (and sticking to) a model for its content to influence the behavior of readers. For its target audience, Inspire provides the information, motivation, and skills to move some people toward taking violent action.
Whether or not it is intentional, Inspire’s model links to successfully tested models of behavioral change. Our research team has recently published a paper in the journal Terrorism and Political Violence that provides a detailed account of this analysis, and Tony Lemieux has previously blogged about it here. We argue that for jihadi publications, Inspire appears to have some unique properties that may help explain its apparent potential to influence its readers. Of course, it is difficult to definitively prove a publication’s real world impact, but the evidence is getting hard to dismiss or deny. As New York Police Commissioner Bill Bratton told the New York Daily News: “We are certainly concerned by Inspire…Inspire, if we understand it correctly, was the inspiration, if you will, for the Boston Marathon bombers.”Interestingly, the article notes, the current issue relies on quotes from Western sources and leaders to lend credence to its claims of how powerful is Al Qaeda and the lack of success of Western anti-terrorism efforts.
To motivate readers, this issue uses the powerful barbs of guilt and the threat of Hell to discourage inaction. As such, Inspire tells its readers about injustices, then argues that to know and not act is cowardice. In other words, it tries to create a feeling of moral obligation and personal responsibility in the reader. In a posthumous piece by Samir Khan on his personal journey from activism to joining Al-Qaeda, he confides to the reader: “When people brought up subjects I used to explode upon, I would find myself exceptionally quiet. It was because I felt a sense of utter hypocrisy for just being a talker…If one knows that he has the ability to fight…then nothing should stop him.” Throughout this issue, as in previous ones, readers are told that sympathy is pointless. The only way out of shame is to act.
This is not enough in itself. Although its been years since I examined the literature, I remember that one of the important points of indoctrinating terrorists is to isolate them from counter-influences--to break down existing social networks, and subsume the prospective terrorist into a new social network consisting of his/her terrorist compatriots. In reality, no different than the indoctrination by a cult or a gang. Unfortunately, this is relatively easy to do within a Muslim community that is sympathetic to the terrorists or their goals. And, with the spread of the internet, a person no longer has to be isolated in a compound or separate community--as long as he or she is socially isolated. Sufficient time on-line in terrorist friendly chat-rooms and web sites may be more than sufficient to indoctrinate and radicalize a person.