Al-Qaeda's new issue of its English-language Inspire magazine was released to the Internet on May 30th, 2013. It mainly focuses on the Boston marathon bombings as it takes credit for having "inspired" the Tsarnaev brothers to carry out their attack. Like the previous editions of the magazine, the latest issue, subtitled "Who and Why," emphasizes the importance for Al-Qaeda to continue to appeal to grassroots terrorists in Western countries.
For the past years, Al-Qaeda has been under great military pressure leading to the weakening of its core. Activists in the Arabic Peninsula and the Sahelo-Saharan region are entrenched in deserts hideouts. Besides, it has become much harder for terrorists to travel to Western countries and conduct attacks. Al-Qaeda's response to this situation has been to fully embrace the grassroots operative approach. Indeed, the purpose of the grassroots operatives is to circumvent the security barrier that the United States and Western countries have set at their borders and focus on homegrown radicalized individuals or groups of militants.
While Al-Qaeda is still composed of professional terrorists within its core organization as well as in its regional franchises, it also increasingly relies on more amateur activists who might neither join the organization nor be guided by orders coming from higher ranks. The grassroots activists are individuals or militant groups who have been radicalized by Al-Qaeda's ideology without necesarly being in contact with the organization. In fact, grassroots operatives can vary a great deal. At the low end of the spectrum there is the lone wolf, a solitary militant having the discipline and will to learn about the theory (how to make a bomb) and translate it into practice. The Norwegian right-wing terrorist Anders Breivik is an example of a patient, meticulous, and resourceful lone wolf, simply from a different pack. Incidentally, this shows that the lone-wolf threat is not exclusive to Al-Qaeda, but encompasses a wide range of ideologies. At the other end of the grassroots activists, there are individuals who interact more closely with a terrorist group without necessarily joining it. Such individuals might even have received some training at Al-Qaeda's camps but are neither directed nor funded by the organization. Among the grassroots who receive training, few of them will actually join the organization's core or its regional franchises, as most would rather return home to put their acquired skills into practice.
The letter from the editor in Al-Qaeda's issue number 3 Inspire Magazine (November 2010) clearly explains this operative, which is labeled "Operation Hemorrhage":
"However, to bring down America we do not need to strike big. In such an environment of security phobia that is sweeping America, it is more feasible to stage smaller attacks that involve less players and less time to launch and thus we may circumvent the security barriers America worked so hard to erect. This strategy of attacking the enemy with smaller, but more frequent operations is what some refer to as the strategy of a thousand cuts. The aim is to bleed the enemy to death."
In the latest issue, the article "Inspired by Inspire" makes a clear connection between the Tsarnaevs' attack in Boston and the instructions given by the magazine. Subtitled "Who and Why," the Tsarnaev brothers are the "who," homegrown radicalized activists who can make a bomb in their "mom's kitchen." There is even a short article ("The Dear Price and the Constant Turmoil") mentioning the May 22nd murder of the British solider in London by alleged killers Adebolajo and Adebowale as examples of successful attacks according to the grassroots operative. As for the "Why," it is clearly American foreign policy in the Middle East as well as that of France and Great Britain.
This magazine might have inspired several grassroots terrorists' plots. The cases of Naser Jason Abdo in July 2011 or Jose Pimentel in November 2011 could indeed be occurrences where Inspire has provided motivation and instructions. There is, however, no evidence for such allegation. Yet, the magazine says something important about Al-Qaeda's adaptation to the security measures taken by Western countries. It seeks to appeal to grassroots terrorists who are not particularly competent but who are willing to carry out an attack against the West. Confronted with the difficulty of planning large-scale attacks such as those perpetrated in 9/11 or the Madrid and London attacks in 2004 and 2005, Al-Qaeda resorts to low-level threats. They are cheaper ($4,200 is the alleged cost of Operation Hemorrhage according to issue number 3), more numerous and are perpetrated by radicalized individuals already present in the targeted country. Certainly most of the planned attacks are doomed to fail given the amateurism of their perpetrators. Yet they pose a new and broader challenge to the police force and intelligence agencies simply because there are too many soft targets to protect. Consequently, some of these attacks will succeed.
Nevertheless, Western populations should not expect a grassroots apocalypse. The rate of success and the scale of the damage are very low and there are in fact proactive approaches to counter grassroots operatives: grassroots solutions that would involve the police force and the citizens who report suspicious activity. This requires dispensing adequate security education and pedagogy that would make people more alert and better adapted to an environment where ambiguous threats overwhelm the capacity of law enforcement to see everything, while at the same time would avoid giving way to collective paranoia.
You can find the latest edition of Inspire, as well as back editions, on Jihadology here.