WASHINGTON - U.S. intelligence operatives covertly sabotaged a prominent al-Qaida online magazine last month in an apparent attempt to sow confusion among the group's followers, according to officials.
The operation succeeded, at least temporarily, in thwarting publication of the latest issue of Inspire, the English-language magazine distributed by al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. When it appeared online, the text on the second page was garbled and the following 20 pages were blank. The sabotaged version was quickly removed from the online forum that hosted it, according to independent analysts who track jihadi websites.
It's unclear how the hacking occurred, although U.S. intelligence agencies, including the National Security Agency and the CIA, have invested heavily in cyber-capabilities in recent years.
Officials at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which oversees the government's 16 intelligence agencies, said they would not comment, as did the White House and the Pentagon.
The hacked version of Inspire magazine appeared May 14, according to Evan Kohlmann, an analyst who tracks jihadi websites. His firm, Flashpoint Global Partners, captured an image of the issue, which featured a cover showing a fighter in a heavy coat, shouldering a rocket-propelled grenade launcher and a Kalashnikov rifle. The title was, "How Did it Come to This?"
Within a half-hour of its appearance, the magazine was removed, presumably in response to the hacking, Kohlmann said.
On May 30, a new version, Issue 11, appeared. That issue portrayed the Boston Marathon bombing as vindication of Inspire's message that "a single lone jihad operation can force America to stand on one foot and live in a terrified state, full of fear."
Inspire comprises first-person accounts of operations, exhortations to jihad and do-it-yourself advice for extremists.
The decision to disrupt the magazine last month was part of an debate within the Obama administration over the response to online publications that promote radicalization.
The debate spiked after the April 15 Boston Marathon bombing. One of the suspects, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19, told the FBI that he and his brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, learned how to make the pressure-cooker bomb used in the bombing from the magazine. He also told them they had been inspired by sermons and other material from the Internet, according to officials briefed on the disclosures.