The pipe bomb, a hallmark of many a half-witted terrorist venture, made a reappearance yesterday when Mayor Bloomberg of New York announced the arrest of Jose Pimentel. The Dominican-born American convert to Islam is accused of planning to use the device to target U.S. post offices and military personnel returning from active duty in Afghanistan. Although he appears to be the latest in a long line of hopeless "lone wolves," there are aspects of this story which are worth keeping in mind.
It appears that Pimentel constructed the bomb using instructions found in Inspire magazine, an online English-language publication created by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The magazine was run by Anwar al-Awlaki and his media-savvy sidekick Samir Khan until their recent assassination, and is designed to target Western Muslims and mobilize them in the cause of global jihad. Its pages therefore offer the requisite ideological, strategic and tactical information for carrying out attacks on Western cities, while also encouraging the lone wolf model. Pimentel appears to fit this mold, and according to Mayor Bloomberg, there is "no evidence he worked with anyone else."
Inspire's first issue includes a section entitled "How to Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom," which offers instructions for building precisely the same device shown in the picture released by the New York Police Department. The police commissioner also suggested that Pimentel was a follower of Awlaki's, a recurring feature now to be expected of almost any Western jihadi terrorist suspect.
Not only does this case contribute towards answering the ongoing questions about the potential of Awlaki's work to continue to inspiring terrorism after his death, but also demonstrates the (very slight) success of al-Qaeda's strategy in the West.
Even before 9/11, al-Qaeda strategists had already begun devising ways in which they could project their ideas across the globe. They concluded that in order to survive the group had to morph into something more akin to a social movement, thus freeing itself from the shackles of a formal and tightly-knit organization. Through the establishment of online media centers and support for charismatic preachers, they therefore sought to inspire support for the group on a global scale. They would no longer need to venture out in search of recruits; enthusiastic supporters would come to them, or even remain hidden in their host societies and strike without warning.
Much of these efforts have focused on the English-speaking world, identified as fertile ground for recruitment due to its relative freedoms compared to the police states in the Arab world. Freedom of speech and lack of internet censorship meant that for many years jihadi websites and media centers operated with impunity, and in some cases they still do.
Inspire was but one of the conduits through which Awlaki sought to inspire a mass-movement in support of al-Qaeda in the West. Before his formal affiliation with al-Qaeda, he had produced a number of lectures in which he sought to tailor the key aspects of al-Qaeda's ideology so that it would appeal to a Western audience. He has succeeded in doing this, albeit to a much smaller extent that he had hoped. There are now many examples of young Western Muslims who have acted alone in their pursuit of the glories of the hereafter after consuming al-Qaeda media.
In May 2010, London-student Roshonara Choudhry nearly killed British legislator Stephen Timms after stabbing him at his local doctor's office in East Ham. Also completely unconnected to any terrorist group, she was moved by Awlaki's work, which she had come across on YouTube only months earlier, and decided to kill Timms due to his support for the Iraq war. Thus far, she has been among the more successful of this type of jihadi in recent years (the worst example being Nidal Hasan, who killed 12 fellow soldiers and a civilian in Fort Hood, Texas), and thankfully most have turned out like Pimentel. As the global jihadist threat begins to diminish in the West, these cases remind us that it is not the time to grow complacent.
Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens is author of As American as Apple Pie, How Anwar al-Awlaki Became the Face of Western Jihad.