Fight Fire with Funny

By Brachman, Jarret | Newsweek, August 30, 2010 | Go to article overview

Fight Fire with Funny


Brachman, Jarret, Newsweek


Byline: Jarret Brachman

Every night I sit on my couch and search the Web for new Qaeda videos. My work--first as director of research at West Point's Combating Terrorism Center and now as a private scholar and security consultant--has long required this grim ritual, and I don't usually smile while doing it. But in November 2008, I downloaded an unusual interview with Ayman al-Zawahiri, Al Qaeda's most prominent ideologue. Wearing his familiar white turban and smog-grey beard, Zawahiri criticized Israel, George W. Bush, and Tom Friedman. Then he turned to me--or, at least, my work.

It wasn't the first time one of our West Point reports--a series of publicly available papers on Al Qaeda's strategy and ideology--was referenced in an official Qaeda video. It was, however, the first time the video was funny. "Do they think they can have enormous budgets," Zawahiri deadpanned, "then have me come along and correct their mistakes for free?" Asked by an off-camera interviewer for a list of errors, he pointed to typos and a misspelled name, and denied certain parts of his biography. "That's but a small part of their copious knowledge and integrity," he concluded, tongue firmly in cheek. Sarcasm, it seemed, was a universal language. Zawahiri appeared to believe that by zinging us in cyberspace he could score points for the movement.

This got me thinking: if Al Qaeda is using humor against America, couldn't we do the same against them? I left West Point a few months before Zawahiri's video surfaced, so for the last two years I've been testing this strategy on my own counterterror blog. During that time, I've ribbed Al Qaeda's online cheerleaders, dubbing them "jihobbyists" and referring to them as "Orcs" (those warmongers from The Lord of the Rings). I've joked that Abu Abdullah as-Sayf, a pseudonymous contributor to jihadist magazines, probably lives in his mom's basement. His response was revealing for its defensiveness: "I am actually very self-sufficient," he wrote. Another Qaeda sympathizer issued a three-minute video death threat against me, which included excerpts from The Lords of the Rings and a dubbed audio track of his own maniacal laughter.

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