Nov. 29, 2010 — -- If the latest issue of Al Qaeda's online magazine Inspire reads like it was written and edited by a twentysomething American, that's because it was.
U.S.-born radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki may rely on sermons to recruit jihadis, but his Yemen-based understudy, 24-year-old New York-raised Samir Khan, uses sarcasm and idiomatic English. As Khan himself has said, "It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that I [am] Al Qaeda to the core."
Khan solidified his extremist credentials earlier this month when he published a "special edition" of the English-language "Inspire," which revealed details of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula's failed cargo bomb plot and mocked the stepped-up security that has ensued in the West.
Khan's skills as a propagandist have grabbed the attention of U.S. intelligence and law enforcement, who say he is a rising star in Al Qaeda.
"He does appear to be increasingly involved with operational activities [of Al Qaeda]", a U.S. official told ABC News. One counterterrorism official told ABC News that U.S. intelligence analysts view Khan as an "aspiring" Awlaki, the radical Yemeni-American cleric at the top of the U.S. government's "kill list" because of his operational involvement in AQAP.
Of greatest concern, say government officials and others who have tracked his evolution from a U.S. blogger and jihadi wannabe to an online voice of jihad, is his ability to speak to Western audiences in a vernacular that connects with Americans.
In the first issue of Inspire, which Khan released in July 2010, he titled an article on assembling homemade explosives, "How to make a bomb in the kitchen of your mom."
"He's a model of what Americans can do in the propaganda sphere," said Oren Segal, a researcher at the Anti-Defamation League, who has followed Khan's online rhetoric since 2004.
"He's what's next. His message resonates and appeals to Western audiences."
Samir Khan Born In Saudi Arabia, Raised in New York
Khan was born in Saudi Arabia and raised from the age of seven in Queens, New York. He was a normal city teenager who listened to hip hop and wore baggy clothing.
Even before his family relocated to Charlotte, North Carolina in 2004, however, Khan had begun to take an interest in Islam. He ditched his baggy pants for jalabiyas, the long white robes traditionally favored by Saudis. He joined two Islamic groups, but neither espoused violence.
But with the move south, Khan took a turn towards radicalism. In 2004, after watching online videos of suicide bombers blowing themselves up at American military checkpoints in Iraq, Khan began to openly support Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda and to express that support on-line.
In 2007, shortly after Osama bin Laden released a communiqué, the New York Times reported that Khan, who had launched a blog called "A Martyr, God Willing" in Arabic, praised the al Qaeda leader, and beseeching Americans to "take his message with great seriousness."
In one of his only interviews, Khan told the New York Times that his favorite online video showed a suicide bomber striking a US base in Iraq.
"It was something that brought great happiness to me," Khan said.
Khan spent years in his parents Charlotte basement blogging, posting al Qaeda messages, and becoming increasingly radicalized by the war in Iraq. His blog's popularity rose as his rhetoric became more extreme.
In 2009, he started a precursor to Inspire called Jihad Recollections, saying, "We have decided to take it upon ourselves to produce the first jihadi magazine in English." In the third issue, amidst calls for jihad and attacks against non-Muslims, Khan devoted space to a gushing review of a product dear to the hearts of American jihadis and infidels alike, Apple's iPhone 3. According to Khan, iPhone was "quickly becoming a standard as opposed to just another phone. With over 35,000 applications available, it becomes a joke when we hear about the so-called 'iPhone killers'."
Samir Khan Moves to Yemen
According to Segal of the ADL, Khan left the U.S. for Yemen in October 2009, which is around the time the fourth and final issue of Jihad Recollections appeared. In Yemen, he launched Inspire, and since his arrival in Yemen, say U.S. authorities, his on-line efforts have been in conjunction with AQAP. Inspire's second edition, which was published before the October printer bomb attempt and included Khan's claim to be "Al Qaeda to the core," featured a photo of the Chicago skyline, which U.S. intelligence and law enforcement officials think was a tip-off of the terror group's intention to address the bombs to Jewish targets in Chicago.
There has been skepticism about Inspire's authenticity and Khan's connection to some Al Qaeda figures in Yemen, but several organizations outside the U.S. government that monitor extremist web sites and statements have concluded that Khan and Inspire are in fact working with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
Ben Venzke, who runs IntelCenter, one of the groups that monitors extremist sites, quickly concluded that Khan's magazine was real. He pointed to the most recent issue of Inspire, which took gloating credit for the cargo bomb plot.
"We have never seen a jihadist group in the Al Qaeda orbit ever release, let alone only a few weeks after, such a detailed accounting of the philosophy, operational details, intent and next steps following a major attack," said Venzke.
"This may represent a new level of interaction by jihadi groups following an operation and is a far cry from the days of shadowy claims and questions as to who was actually responsible."
In the most recent issue of the magazine, Khan's used a mocking tone to respond to Western security procedures intended to prevent further bombs sent via cargo shipments.
"The British government said that if a toner weighs more than 500 grams it won't be allowed on board a plane. Who is the genius who came up with this suggestion? Do you think that we have nothing to send but printers?"