British Spies Swapped Bombs for Cupcakes in Al-Qaeda's Magazine

Uri Friedman
British Spies Swapped Bombs for Cupcakes in Al-Qaeda's Magazine

The Pentagon's decision this week to classify cyber attacks against the U.S as an act of war has ignited a debate about what exactly the rules of engagement are in 21st-century warfare. One particularly vexing question is what constitutes a hostile target. To illustrate this point, The Washington Post recently recounted the moment last year when U.S. intelligence officials learned that al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula was launching an online English-language magazine called Inspire. The Department of Defense's Cyber Command believed that blocking the magazine was a legitimate counterterrorism measure to protect U.S. troops overseas. The C.I.A., however, disagreed, arguing that it would interfere with a critical source of intelligence and that the covert action should fall within the purview of the intelligence community, not the military. The C.I.A, the Post explains, ultimately won the argument, but British intelligence officials launched a cyber-attack anyway, garbling the inaugural 67-page summer issue of Inspire, including its "Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom" article (al-Qaeda re-issued the magazine two weeks later).

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Today, thanks to The Telegraph and The Guardian, we know what greeted Inspire readers instead of instructions for how to assemble a lethal pipe bomb using sugar, match heads, a miniature lightbulb, and a timer: cupcakes. Yes, British intelligence officials inserted a web page from The Ellen Degeneres Show entitled, "The Best Cupcakes in America." The primer informed readers that  "the little cupcake is big again" because it "summons memories of childhood even as it's updated for today's sweet-toothed hipsters." No word on where the C.I.A. or Department of Defense stood on Carmel Apple Cupcakes as a cyber-weapon (as a dessert it's apparently "irresistible" and diet-killing).