It’s Like Slate for Terrorists

What’s in al-Qaida’s Web magazine?

Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula has claimed responsibility for the attempted bombing of a Northwest Airlines passenger jet on Christmas Day, and the man who carried out the mission acknowledged that he was trained and outfitted in Yemen, where the group is headquartered. Meanwhile, the al-Qaida affiliate made a posting in the most recent issue of its Web-based magazine that recommended the use of small bombs for terrorist attacks. What else can I read about in al-Qaida’s magazine?

All things jihadi. Over nearly two years and 11 issues, Sada al-Malahim (PDF) (“The Echo of Battles”) has published interviews with terrorist leaders, fighter biographies, tips on how to become a better al-Qaida foot soldier, lists of terrorists held by the Yemeni government, and thought pieces on the role of women in jihad. It also publishes fan mail. (Letters might celebrate the announcement of a successful strike against al-Qaida’s enemies.) The magazine has given out several Gmail addresses—most now abandoned or shut down—for reader comments.

In some ways, Sada al-Malahim isn’t all that different from Slate. The content is separated out into various departments and rubrics—like “Martyr Biographies,” which recount the life stories of suicide bombers. Many of its articles are penned by notable figures, like Nasser al-Wahishi, a former secretary to Osama bin Laden who heads the al-Qaida affiliate in Yemen. (Al-Wahishi may have been killed in a Dec. 24 airstrike.) Some Sada al-Malahim pieces are published in installments. The recent “Victory Over the Interrogators” series, for example, began by instructing readers on what to expect if captured and followed up with tips on how to resist divulging sensitive information. There’s even an Explainer-like feature that answers reader questions about current topics in jihadism. (Here’s one: The prophet commanded us to expel infidels from the Arabian Peninsula. Which countries was he referring to?) The column, called “Fatawa” after the Islamic tradition of seeking scriptural interpretations from a mufti, was spiked earlier this year.

Sada al-Malahim manages to get by without paid advertisements. The staff  keeps costs down by having no central office. The editor sometimes communicates with his far-flung jihadi writers through the pages of the magazine itself. (In one issue, he apologized that he had too much content to run in a single issue, but he promised jilted contributors that their work would appear in the subsequent issue.) Most of the contributors are either members of al-Qaida or their relatives, and they’re probably not paid for their writing. (Bylines can be hard to trace, though. Authors are usually identified by kunya, an honorific used in place of a formal name. Al-Wahishi is easily identified by his kunya, Abu Bashir, but lesser-known writers can use the kunya as a pseudonym.) Articles are of varying quality, with more misspellings and grammatical errors than you might see in a commercial magazine.

Sada al-Malahim is not the first al-Qaeda publication—many affiliates occasionally put out a magazine or publish articles in jihadi forums—but it is the first to be released on a fairly reliable schedule over a number of years. (The November 2009 issue, however, is still not forthcoming. Many attribute the delay to increased pressure by the Yemeni government.) Circulation is unknown, but the content and format would be better suited to the tastes of elite, active members of the movement than potential Yemeni converts. Some of the more sophisticated theological discussion would be challenging for local recruits, who are often poorly educated. Its electronic format also leaves out the wide swaths of the Yemeni population who lack electricity, let alone computers and Internet access. (The PDF format does lend itself well to printing.) Journalists and intelligence officials, however, read the publication religiously.

When al-Qaida claimed responsibility for the failed Christmas attack, the notice came under the title of “al-Malahim,” suggesting that the group is looking to turn the magazine brand into the cornerstone of its public-relations wing.

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Explainer thanks Gregory Johnsen of Princeton University.

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