MEDIA WAR: AL QA'IDA; Al-Qa'ida Turns Jihad into War by Media ; to Gain Muslim Support, Bin Laden's Outfit Is Fighting a Multimedia Battle, Says Fawaz Gerges
Gerges, Fawaz, The Independent (London, England)
Afortnight ago, the US government released a letter that it had intercepted from Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden's deputy and confidant. It had been addressed to al-Qa'ida's 'emir' in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and it sheds interesting light on al-Qa'ida's thinking and goals.
Zawahiri gently reprimands Zarqawi for the televised and webcast scenes of hostage beheadings, slaughtering of ordinary Shia Muslims, and bombing of their mosques. The elder Zawahiri reminds the overzealous Zarqawi that Muslim public opinion is put off by these 'terror' methods and 'will never find them palatable'.
Zawahiri, the ideologue and brain of al-Qa'ida, then concludes: 'I tell you: we are in a battle, and more than half of it is taking place in the battlefield of the media. We are in a media battle in a race for the hearts and minds of our Ummah [the worldwide Muslim community]. However far our capabilities reach [in the media], they will never be equal to one-thousandth of the capabilities of the kingdom of Satan [the US] that is waging war on us. We can kill our captives by bullet. That would achieve what we're seeking without exposing ourselves to questions. We don't need that.'
The Egyptian physician then listed and enclosed his most recent publications " written, audio and video " and urged Zarqawi to 'publish them' on his 'blessed website and then send us a copy, if that is possible'.
Zawahiri sounds like a media junkie, but it would be foolish to trivialise the matter. Al-Qa'ida's media war is as important, if not more so, as their armed campaign. Bin Laden and Zawahiri know that their survival depends on gaining the support of Muslim public opinion. Throughout his letter, Zawahiri cautions against 'separating from the masses' and alienating ordinary Iraqis and Arabs: 'Our planning must strive to involve the Muslim masses in the battle, and also to bring the mujahid movement to the masses.'
In the last three years, winning Muslim hearts and minds has gained added urgency for al-Qa'ida, particularly after suffering crippling military blows and losing its power base and refuge in Afghanistan. Al-Qa'ida no longer exists as a centralised movement with functioning command-and- control decision-making. That has been replaced by a centralised international and ideological outreach programme. In this new reality, TV and websites are vital propaganda outlets to disseminate al-Qa'ida's message and inspire young Muslims to join its decentralised and loose network of local affiliates and cells.
The new media also serve as substitutes for al-Qa'ida training- camps by featuring detailed tutorials on bomb-making, assassination, even a workshop on hacking into secret US websites. In short, they enable al-Qa'ida to do battle from afar without micro-managing every front in this global war.
Al-Qa'ida has proved resourceful and creative in the media " it has recently launched a newscast, 'Voice of the Caliphate', which promises weekly updates online. Al-Qa'ida fuels the drive for recruits worldwide, including in the UK, through magazines, pamphlets, the internet, audio- and videotapes. In a videotape broadcast after the July bombings in London, Zawahiri took responsibility for inciting the four British suicide attackers.
In another fascinating innovation, a website affiliated with al- Qa'ida posted an announcement seeking to fill a number of vacant posts " all of which focus on media activities. These include compiling reports about attacks carried out by insurgents in Iraq, both written and audiovisual, and assembling information from satellite TV channels on militant Islamists and their activities in Palestine, Iraq and Chechnya. …