Tabloid terror: Inside al Qaeda's online magazine

Inspire online magazine
A photo of the latest Inspire online magazine issue.

(CBS News) Inspire, an online magazine associated with an al Qaeda affiliate group called AQAP or al Qaeda of the Arabia Peninsula continues to be published a year after its publisher and editor were killed. This week, the magazine surprised some when it released a double issue.

The glossy, highly produced online magazine has become the Vanity Fair of terrorism. Its publisher was Anwar Awlaki, al Qaeda's master propagandist. Its editor, Samir Khan, was American. Both were killed in a drone strike last year.

The latest issues of Inspire came out together Wednesday after a long delay. Some of the work to prepare these issues may have come from Samir Khan, the American who ran the magazine. But since Kahn and Anwar Awlaki were killed in a U.S. drone strike in Yemen last year, it is clear that al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has found new publishing talent.

Much of the two latest issues of Inspire magazine offer instructions on how to carry out a variety of attacks.

Bruce Reidel, former CIA officer, "Al Qaeda has now moved to simpler, smaller plots that don't cause as many casualties, but which can still terrorize the West."

The publication calls for al Qaeda's followers to set intentional wildfires out West using ember bombs. The magazine includes detailed instructions on how to operate guns and then to follow people and assassinate them, and how to develop plots using chemical and biological weapons in U.S. cities.

Former CIA analyst Phil Mudd said, "If you look at the kinds of targets al Qaeda wants to hit you have to look at a couple of characteristics. You have to look at casualties, not just because of the number of dead hurts the West, but because it gathers more media attention."

Almost every issue of Inspire has a section with detailed bomb-making instructions. Issue number 8 had a section on remote-controlled detonators. Intelligence analysts believe the instructions come from Ibrahim al Asiri, al Qaeda's Yemen-based explosives expert.

Riedel, now senior fellow for foreign policy at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., told CBS News, "This is a guy who designed the bomb that almost killed the deputy chief of Counterterrorism in Saudi Arabia. This is the guy who designed the bomb that was used on Northwest (Airlines Flight) 253 in an attempt on the United States on Christmas Day. He designed the bombs that were put in parcel posts and mailed to Chicago in 2010."

CBS News senior correspondent John Miller is even mentioned in the recent issue of Inspire in a section called "Friends and Foes." This is the quote featured about lone wolves in the magazine: "having effective communicators, using social media and the web to reach out to the lone wolves and to say you can be alone or you can have the force of personality to gather just three or four people around you and you can do something that's low-tech and low-cost, but high yield. This is something that they have honed almost to an art." The quote was featured alongside counter-terrorism officials and al Qaeda spokesmen.

Miller said on Friday "CBS This Morning," "(They) mix (the quotes) together to show that people are talking about them. It's part of the struggle for relevancy."

The magazine reaches more people than the U.S. government would like, Miller said. "It's hard to get the number, though, because once people get it they turn it into a pdf, they start passing it around," he explained. "We know from looking at that, at least from when I was in the government, that tens of thousands of downloads happen here in the United States (as well as other countries)."

He added, "They are leveraging the internet and globalization with a pretty high-end product."