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Slick al Qaeda online magazine aims to train a generation of killers

FBI via AP

This image from an FBI and Department of Homeland Security bulletin shows the remains of a pressure cooker that the FBI says was part of one of the bombs that exploded during the Boston Marathon. The surviving suspect has told investigators that he and his brother were inspired by an al Qaeda online magazine, federal officials say.

It is as slickly designed as any magazine you would find at the supermarket checkout line, or in the seat pocket in front of you on an airplane. It even has snappy cover headlines — teasing articles like “Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom.”

And now Inspire, the recruitment magazine of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, probably has its next cover story: It allegedly helped inspire the two brothers accused of bombing the Boston Marathon.

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the hospitalized suspect in the marathon attack, has told federal investigators that the brothers got information on building bombs from Inspire, law enforcement officials told NBC News.

The magazine, which terrorism monitoring groups say was published for the first time in 2010, exists mostly as PDFs and obscure links passed around the Web. In the Internet era, shutting it down would be virtually impossible, terrorism experts say.

It is published in English and targeted at Western audiences, particularly young readers who might have inclinations toward terrorism.

“It’s one thing to have Osama bin Laden speaking and subtitles, and how interesting is that going to be to a young, radicalized individual? As opposed to lots of graphics,” said Oren Segal, director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism.

One issue, published in the summer of 2010, illustrated just how closely Inspire copied the eye-catching design of American magazines. Articles about jihad are advertised in the same style that Western publications use for 30-minute recipes or sex advice.

In the summer 2010 issue, headlines invited readers to check out an “Exclusive Interview with Shaykh Abu Basir.” Another advertised a piece about “Mujahideen 101.” At the bottom of the cover: “What to Expect in Jihad.”

Other articles have offered blueprints for destroying buildings and carrying out attacks against cars, trains and malls — particularly small operations to unnerve the enemy because “hitting him in his backyard drives him crazy.”

The advice for radicals is so practical, said Bruce Riedel, director of the Intelligence Project at the Brookings Institution, that it even offered advice on what to wear if you go on jihad — good shoes.

“The message,” Riedel said, “is you can advance jihad in your home neighborhood. You can strike America or Canada or whatever at home and become a hero. And here’s how to do it.”

NBC's Pete Williams outlines the charges against Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and the types of questions authorities are asking him now that he is able to communicate, as well as a foiled bomb plot on a train in Canada.

The same 2010 issue included instructions on precisely how to use a kitchen pressure cooker, explosives and shrapnel to produce a bomb — the exact method of attack that authorities say the Tsarnaev brothers used in Boston.

On the cover, the article was teased as being written by “The AQ Chef.”

Inspire was the brainchild of Samir Khan, a young blogger and Photoshop whiz from Charlotte, N.C., who moved to Yemen in 2009 and leveraged his skills to help al Qaeda produce a magazine that could appeal to young would-be radicals.

He was killed in September 2011, at age 25, by an American drone strike in Yemen that also killed Anwar al-Awlaki, a prominent radical cleric. Since Khan’s death, terrorism analysts said, the magazine has taken on a less professional look.

Part of the magazine’s appeal to its audience, the analysts said, is that it engages its readers: It invites them to share stories of their jihad skills. And getting published, just as it might in Time or People, imparts a certain celebrity status.

Jose Pimentel, an Algerian immigrant sentenced to 10 years in prison for plotting to blow up churches and synagogues in Manhattan, maintained a website with bomb-making instructions copied from Inspire, the ADL said.

And Naser Jason Abdo, a former American soldier sentenced to life for planning to use pressure-cooker bombs in an attack on a Texas restaurant, was found with a copy of the Inspire “Kitchen of Your Mom” article.

“Nothing makes them feel more empowered than having their materials published,” Segal said. “Frankly, that’s just really good marketing. Fortune 500 companies are trying to engage their demographics this way.”

Because it spreads through chat boards and email, just as a dishy story about a Kardashian might, or a rumor about the next Apple product, the magazine is almost certainly read by thousands of people. It is impossible to say for sure. 

“It becomes viral very fast, and people share it the way people used to pass around baseball cards,” Segal said.

The magazine’s link to the Boston case is critical, terrorism analysts said. While investigators have said Dzhokhar Tsarnaev claimed no links to terror groups, the mention of Inspire shows that the brothers were influenced by al Qaeda, they said.

“Inspire magazine was intended to inspire and instruct,” Riedel said. “And I think they can say it worked.”

Pete Williams and Robert Windrem of NBC News contributed to this report. Reuters and The Associated Press also contributed.