Al-Qaida Magazine Details Parcel Bomb Attempt

Host Melissa Block talks to Ben Venzke about the latest issue of al-Qaida's English-language magazine, Inspire, which contains a detailed account of the failed parcel bomb last month. Venzke has been studying the publication. He runs Intel Center, a private intelligence firm specializing in counterterrorism.

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Im Mary Louise Kelly.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And Im Melissa Block.

They called it Operation Hemorrhage. That was al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula's code name for the plot to send package bombs on cargo planes last month. And AQAP has now trumpeted details of the plot in its English language magazine called Inspire. Forty-two hundred dollars, the group writes, that is all Operation Hemorrhage cost. And they say it's costing Western countries billions of dollars in new security measures. That, AQAP boasts, is what we call leverage.

Well, Ben Venzke has been studying the publication. He runs IntelCenter, a private contractor specializing in counterterrorism. Ben, thanks for coming in.

Mr. BEN VENZKE (CEO, IntelCenter): Thank you, good to be here.

BLOCK: This is a pretty extraordinary read. It's a lengthy article published in English, as we said. Have you ever seen this terrorist group publish details such as this?

Mr. BEN VENZKE (CEO, IntelCenter): We've never seen it at this level from this group or any other group, for that matter. And what also sort of amplifies its effect is the fact that it's in English and the speed with which they put it out is unprecedented.

BLOCK: Let's talk about some of the details. They talk about a three month operation from start to finish, $4,200, as we say. They lay out how they were able to sidestep security - metal detectors, sniffers, X-ray scanners. What else?

Mr. VENZKE: I think what they're explaining here, is they're explaining - with sort of great pride, if you will - how they were able to defeat security, how they were able to put this operation together in a very short period of time. They were able to do it for only $4,200. And I think what - the point they're trying to make here is that it's not just about blowing up the plane, although obviously that's an outcome they would have wished to have happen. But it's about getting past security; the fact that they were able to show our vulnerability. Now, if it wasn't for tracking numbers that we were able to obtain, very likely these packages would have detonated in the air.

So theyre saying that this is an attack not just against a cargo plane, but against our own sense of security and what they coin the security phobia in the U.S.

BLOCK: Im looking at one page, which is so striking, I think. It's a photograph of the package as they sent it out. And you see the printer in which they packed the explosive. There's also a copy of a book: Charles Dickens "Great Expectations" that was included in the box. Why? They explain this.

Mr. VENZKE: And they explain it because theyre saying that, you know, they had great expectations for their operation. They had very high hopes. And this is the kind of things they're doing. Now, if this device had gone off, very likely you would have never ever found that book. But they're taking these photographs of the things that they're putting in.

They're paying attention to these little details to sort of explain themself and what the position of the group is. And to show their sort of pride and, you know, expectations, high hopes for the operation going forward.

BLOCK: And al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula says those hopes were warranted. They say that the operation was a success. They say to bring down America, we do not need to strike big. And that by spreading fear in a sense, they say, we succeeded.

Mr. VENZKE: Exactly. What they're advocating now is a strategy of death by a thousand cuts; to say that you don't need to do a large scale operation like 9/11 to have the same kind of impact. Rather, what you can do is these much smaller operations where you have much less at stake. But if two or three or four of these succeed back to back, it's going to cumulatively wear on the country as a whole. It's going to have a cumulative economic impact.

And if one of them doesnt quite go as they intended it's not the end of the world. It's just a couple months of time, a few thousand dollars. They can very easily recuperate from that, as opposed to a larger scale attack.

BLOCK: Ben, who's behind this publication, Inspire? And who's the intended audience, since it is published in English?

Mr. VENZKE: Yeah, there are a number of individuals that we now know are operating with al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen. One of them is an American, Sumer Khan, who had lived in North Carolina for while. We know Anwar al-Awlaki, who had lived in the United States, is there now. These are people that are very fluent in English. They've lived in America. They understand the country, the culture, the mindset. And you can see their sort of influence at work in these publications, which have a very direct aim at Americans.

In terms of audience for the magazine, its many fold. In one case, you have the actual people that were targeted in the attack; in this case, the United States and all Americans. But at the same time, they're also talking to recruits. They're talking to fundraisers, people that might be donating money.

And they're talking to another very important group. And that is the group of people that might wish to participate in an operation like this, that share a similar ideology but have never met an actual terrorist before. They're not going to go to a training camp in Yemen. They don't know how. They don't have the resources.

What AQAP is working to do is to arm and empower them with the information: Which targets should they go after; how should they attack those targets; how to build a bomb in your kitchen; and then the ideological framework to justify and feel confident about that action. And that's, I think, the most disturbing audience that they're addressing in all of these magazines.

BLOCK: Ben Venzke, thanks very much.

Mr. VENZKE: Thank you.

BLOCK: Ben Venzke runs IntelCenter. Thats a private contractor specializing in counterterrorism.

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