5 Reasons to Doubt Al-Qaeda Magazine's Authenticity

Late Wednesday evening, The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder reported that the first-ever English-language propaganda magazine purportedly written by al-Qaeda officials had surfaced on websites in the vibrant online jihadi community. The publication, "Inspire," carries the emblem of al-Qaeda's Yemen-based spin-off, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The magazine, which was uploaded in PDF format, carries the bylines of such super-star jihadists as al-Qaeda founders Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri as well as U.S.-born radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who now lives in Yemen. Ambinder's report cited a U.S. official confirming that the PDF has appear on jihadi web forums, which independent analysts have confirmed to CNN. Still, wrote Ambinder, "It is possible, although not likely, that the magazine is a fabrication." Indeed, here are some reasons to question the authenticity of this document:

(1) Bin Laden and Zawahiri are extremely secretive and issue statements rarely and directly to the media. It would be unusual for them to write for a third-party publication, especially one put out by the Yemen-based AQAP, with which they have little or no direct ties. However, it is possible that the magazine's producers simply copied old statements they had made.

(2) The language of the magazine, such as "Make a bomb in the kitchen of your mom," reflects either a poor command of English or a light-hearted sense of self-parody. AQAP is not known for either. Awlaki, whose location in Yemen makes his participation very plausible, is a native, fluent, and very articulate English speaker. His fiery English-language sermons are not funny.

(3) The magazine includes an essay by Abu Mu'sab al-Suri. But Suri, whose connection to al-Qaeda is uncertain, has been locked up in Guantanamo--and possibly a CIA black site--since 2005. However, as with bin Laden, it is possible the magazine simply copied old statements.

(4) Analysts tell me that the magazine PDF file either does not load properly or carries a trojan virus. This is unusual because al-Qaeda and AQAP have produced and disseminated such PDF publications many times without such problems. If the report was produced by U.S. counterintelligence, or if the U.S. operatives attached the virus to the original file, would the trojan really be so easily detectable by simple, consumer-grade virus scanners? Surely U.S. counterintelligence has less detectable viruses at their disposal.

(5) The web-based "jihadi" community itself seems suspicious. The report has received little attention on web forums, especially given its apparent importance. A publication including such high-profile figures would normally receive far more attention than it has so far.

There are also reasons to doubt that the report was produced by U.S. counterintelligence, as CI officials would likely know enough to edit out these red flags. It's unclear who that leaves, but the most likely culprit could simply be mischievous, if knowledgeable, pranksters in the U.S. who wanted to disseminate a trojan virus among jihadi forum visitors. That would also explain why the document was written in English.

Of course, none of these doubts are definitive and it remains a significant possibility that the publication is authentic. Leah Farrall, an AQAP expert and former Australian counterterrorism official, expressed doubt about the publication but disputed some of the cases against its authenticity.

"The make a bomb in the kitchen of your mum is not by Awlaki. It may be an effort to play on an old series of manuals released a few years back on how to build IED's from materials in your home. Many readers would be familiar with these manuals since some sections have been translated into English before. So that by itself is not really enough to bring into question the authenticity of the document," she wrote in an email. "The addition of an al-Suri excerpt is curious, but not unexpected. AQAP ideologues have mentioned his book before. So, this is also not enough to bring into question the authenticity of the document."

It's not clear who produced this PDF and why. But there are some compelling reasons to doubt that it was produced by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula for the purpose of spreading the group's message to English speakers.

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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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