The Al-Qaeda Media Machine

Article excerpt

LIKE AN AGING ROCK STAR who has dropped out of the public eye, Osama bin-Laden occasionally decides to remind people that he's still around. He makes video appearances that first appear on Arabic television channels but which the world quickly sees on television or on multiple Web sites. Bin-Laden's message is "Hey, they haven't caught me yet," which cheers up his fans, but bis threats and pronouncements are mostly terrorist boilerplate. For all the parsing of his sentences and scrutinizing of the color of his beard, hardly anything in his videos helps us better understand and combat terrorism.

Meanwhile, significant Al-Qaeda media efforts go largely unnoticed by news organizations and the public. This myopia is characteristic of an approach to antiterrorism that focuses on Bin-Laden as terror-celebrity while ignoring the deep-rooted dynamism of a global enemy. Most jihadist media products make no mention of Bin-Laden, but they deserve attention because they are vital to Al-Qaeda's mission and to its efforts to extend its influence. Al-Qaeda has become a significant player in global politics largely because it has developed a sophisticated media strategy.

Lacking a tangible homeland-other than, perhaps, scattered outposts in the wilds of Waziristan-Al-Qaeda has established itself as a virtual state that communicates with its "citizens" and cultivates an even larger audience through masterful use of the media, with heavy reliance on the Internet. For every conventional video performance by Bin-Laden that appears on Al-Jazeera and other major television outlets, there are hundreds of online videos that proselytize, recruit, and train the Al-Qaeda constituency.

Growth of Media Machine

The Al-Qaeda media machine has grown steadily. Al-Qaeda and its jihadist brethren use more than 4,000 Web sites to encourage the faithful and threaten their enemies. The Al-Qaeda production company, As-Sahab, released 16 videos during 2005, 58 in 2006, and produced more than 90 in 2007. Like a Hollywood studio, As-Sahab has a carefully honed understanding of what will attract an audience and how to shape the Al-Qaeda message.

You won't get As-Sahab's videos from Netflix, but any Web user can easily find them, and the selection is wide. In 2006, the Global Islamic Media Front, an Al-Qaeda distribution arm, offered "Jihad Academy," which includes footage of attacks on U.S. troops, insurgents assembling improvised explosive devices (IEDs), prospective suicide bombers reading their last testaments, and general exhortations to join the war against the United States, Israel, and other foes.

Another distributor with ties to Al-Qaeda, Ansar al-Sunnah's Media Podium, produced "Top 20," a selection of filmed IED attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq "in order to encourage the jihad and the competition between the mujahideen to battle and defeat their enemy." For this greatest hits video, criteria for selection included "the degree of security conditions while filming the operation's site" and "precision in hitting the target."1

With the stirring music and graphic images of an action movie, the videos fortify the resolve of the Al-Qaeda faithful and, even more important, capture the attention of 15-year-olds in cyber cafes-the next generation of Al-Qaeda warriors. Al-Qaeda takes recruitment seriously, recognizing that potential martyrs require convincing that their sacrifice will be noble and worthwhile. Once inspired by the videos, the prospective jihadist might move on to a Web posting such as "How To Join Al-Qaeda," which tells him: "You feel that you want to carry a weapon, fight, and kill the occupiers. . . . Set a goal; for example, assassinating the American ambassador-is it so difficult?"2

Spreading the Message

As-Sahab is part of the media department Bin-Laden established when Al-Qaeda formed in 1988. The first message to emerge was that Al-Qaeda was a brave underdog facing the monstrous Soviet Union. …