So Is it an Inspired Parody?

What's to make of Al Qaeda's first foray into the English-language magazine publishing business? To a lot of folks here, including our publisher, it reads almost like an Onion parody. The article offering tips about how to make a bomb in your mom's kitchen seems to be a dead give away.

But then again, we shouldn't necessarily expect a Western-quality magazine from people who don't edit such magazines for a living.

A senior U.S. official and SITE, a private intelligence research firm, have told me they believe it to be authentic -- a genuine production of people allied with Al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula. 

The content mostly comports to the content that Al Qaeda promised in banner headlines on jihadi websites. It appears to be a mix of borrowed and rehashed interviews and clips, as well as some new content. George Washington University's Marc Lynch, on Twitter, thinks that it is "impossible to say at this point whether it's authentic, but some reasons for caution." Christopher Boucek, an Al Qaeda expert at the Carnegie Institute, told me, I'm skeptical of its authenticity (for several reasons), but I'd really need to see more of it to be more definitive."

The 67-page PDF I have -- you can view it on another site here -- contains ASCII-text debris after the first three pages. Jihadi forums seems to be skeptical that the magazine is real because of the existence of the debris, which seems to them to be a virus of some sort. One expert I spoke with said that the non-gibberish version of all 67 pages was up on some sites yesterday but is no longer there.

One of my correspondents, ActionFromTheBackSection, notes:

Here's the original file as uploaded to (from where, I suspect, your sources got it):

People who have Adobe Acrobat (not Reader) can download PDF (and no, it has no viruses), go to any page after 3 and open Document -> Crop pages menu. In the "Margin controls" replace 0.5 inches in the "Top" and "Bottom" sections with 0 inches. You will see that what was cropped out in the pdf are the page number (bottom) and this string (top):

""C:\Users\m050\Desktop\ellenbca.pdf 29 June 2010 16:45"

Which means that the debris _was_ put into the file deliberately, and was present in the initial file from which it was printed ("ellenbca.pdf").

From a counterintelligence standpoint, adding debris to a file is the best way to make sure that no one reads it. Whether or real or not, the U.S. government is quite worried about even the prospect of English-language Al Qaeda propaganda. So it would be within their interests  -- and the interests of a number of countries -- to sabotage any document that exists, whether it's a hoax or not.

The Navy's 10th Fleet, based in Massachusetts, and various active Air Force elements conduct offensive cyber war, and one can't put aside the possibility that they, or some other entity, created a semi-foolish Al Qaeda-type magazine in order to confuse and demoralize the enemy by subjecting it to ridicule, or that they managed to somehow hijack the copy and mess with it, either adding a tracking trojan (to see who downloaded it) or just rendering most of the content illegible.

These sailors and airmen have incredibly powerful cyber weapons at their disposal, and their activities tend to be highly classified. It would not be legal for them to create a magazine with the intention of influencing a domestic audience, however -- see this column's discussion of psychological operations (or MISO) -- but perhaps there's an exception, buried somewhere in the law, for countering propaganda aimed at influencing Americans to become terrorists.

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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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