Product Placement

Alexander Scrimgeour

Ever since the reports of October’s foiled ink-cartridge bombings mentioned that a book was in one of the boxes along with the printer, I’ve wondered what it was, and if it had some symbolic meaning. It was impossible to make out in news photographs, but the mystery is solved in the November issue of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula’s English-language magazine (via Christopher Hitchens in Slate), which published pictures of one of the bombs being made and a close-up of the book:

Is the cover torn off because of Islamist hard-liners’ objections to graven images? On the front of the Oxford World’s Classics edition in question there’s a portrait of a mournful-looking boy by the Liverpudlian painter Thomas Hargreaves. As for the book itself: ‘We were very optimistic about the outcome of this operation,’ the article says. ‘That is why we dropped into one of the boxes a novel titled, Great Expectations.’ It’s as unsophisticated as the magazine’s own name, Inspire. There may be a bit more to it, though: Anwar Awlaki, AQAP’s chief theoretician, read Dickens while he was in jail in Yemen; he liked Hard Times.

Inspire looks a bit like a British local authority’s magazine in the pre-austerity era. Much of its content, as Shiraz Maher of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence has pointed out, is aimed at ‘goading Western intelligence services’. The magazine boasts that the plot cost only $4200 (the Dickens a snip at £3.50) and was a success even though the bomb was detected, since the new airport security measures that have been introduced in response to it will cost the West ‘billions of dollars’, while doing nothing to prevent another attack. On this, at least, al-Qaida and Hitchens agree.


  • 3 December 2010 at 4:39pm
    Tom McCarthy says:
    Hi Alex. There's a rich history of this, or a history at least. The Baader-Meinhof gang used a hollowed-out copy of Moby-Dick to smuggle weapons into their comrades in prison. And, a little more abstractly, the British secret services in WW2 triggered explosions and assassinations in occupied France by reading lines of poetry over the radio (the Resistance members knew which lines were the trigger ones). It's Burroughs's fantasy: the word itself as a weapon. Books are dangerous, and should be.

    • 4 December 2010 at 9:24am
      outofdate says: @ Tom McCarthy
      Personally I've always gone in for the pen as penis, but chacun a son gout.

  • 6 December 2010 at 10:25am
    Imperialist says:
    My favourite bit is al-Awlaki's rather middle-class reading of Dickens."The amazing cruelness of Stephen Blackpool was similar to some people who appear on the surface to be decent and kind human beings; and Uriah Heep was similar to some pitiful Muslims today."

    Has Slavoj Žižek already written about the counter-revolutionary character of jihad?

    • 6 December 2010 at 12:35pm
      outofdate says: @ Imperialist
      Is that middle class? Is there an upper middle-class reading available? It's naive, but so what? At least Awlaki has the courtesy to treat the book as the work of a man who took pains to speak about something he found remarkable -- unlike some windbags we could name for whom no work of someone else's imagination is anything but a pretext to release a great putrid burst of verbal flatulence.

      If that's middle class then up the middle class and fuck the lower orders.

    • 6 December 2010 at 2:43pm
      A.J.P. Crown says: @ outofdate
      Outof, do you have anyone in mind for putrid bursts?

    • 6 December 2010 at 2:44pm
      A.J.P. Crown says: @ A.J.P. Crown
      Literary criticism?

    • 6 December 2010 at 2:47pm
      outofdate says: @ A.J.P. Crown
      Slavoj Zizek I meant, don't know why I was so elephantinely coy about it.

    • 6 December 2010 at 5:40pm
      A.J.P. Crown says: @ outofdate
      Oh, some of my best friends are elephantine.

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