U.S. Intelligence Hacks Al-Qaeda's Inspire Magazine

Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley
June 11 2013 2:45 PM

The U.S. Seems Awfully Proud of Its Boring-Sounding Hack of Al-Qaida's Inspire Magazine

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According to the Washington Post, the United States hacked al-Qaida's English-language newspaper

File photo by Patrick Lux/Getty Images

The Washington Post reports that U.S. intelligence operatives hacked an online al-Qaida magazine last month in order to confuse the group's followers. The payoff from the hack sounds pretty simple, even a little boring: When the new edition of Inspire first appeared online on May 14, text on its second page was garbled and the following 20 pages were blank. The compromised version was quickly taken offline.

From that description alone it's not clear whether the hack was worth the time it took, although if you read between the lines, the Post's sources seem to be suggesting that they're playing a longer game here (emphasis added):

It’s 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 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 condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive internal debates.
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Why try so hard to mess with the magazine? It seems that its readers take the magazine's violent calls to jihad very seriously: Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev reportedly told authorities that he and his brother learned to make their pressure-cooking bombs from the magazine, most likely from the 2010 issue which featured the headline: "Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom."

But the hacking didn't seem to stop the magazine's ever-violent agenda. In the May 30 issue, the Boston Marathon bombings were praised and even glorified. One article in Inspire even read: "When one looks at the terrific Boston Marathon operation and its aftermath, including the accusation of the two brothers, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, he understands how a single lone jihad operation can force America to stand on one foot and live in a terrified state, full of fear and rare restlessness."

Jennifer Lai is an associate editor at Slate. Slate Plus members, email her here.

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