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Al-Qaeda’s Media Campaign

Prepared by: Eben Kaplan
May 12, 2006

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The information revolution has given voice to grassroots political movements across the world. Discrete individuals sharing a common cause can connect in cyberspace and coordinate their efforts to affect change in the world around them. Generally this has been viewed as a positive phenomenon, serving the interests of democracy and free speech. Yet modern communications have also helped fuel the rise of terrorism, as described in this CFR Background Q&A.

In its annual Country Reports on Terrorism, released last month, the U.S. State Department included a new chapter on 'terrorist safe havens' (PDF). Topping the list was the Internet, which the report says "has empowered the enemy with the ability to produce and sustain its own public media outlets." Testifying before the U.S. House Intelligence Committee on May 4, RAND counterterrorism expert Bruce Hoffman said the weapons of terrorism are no longer simply guns and bombs but now include now include email accounts and Internet access.

The Intelligence panel's hearing provided a rare public glimpse (VOA) into the U.S. government's activities monitoring terrorist websites. Congressmen heard testimony from members of a Pentagon team responsible for monitoring more than 5,000 jihadi websites (MSNBC). Though these sites serve a variety of aims, one of their major functions, counterterrorism experts say, is propaganda and recruitment. For instance, Pentagon experts said video games available on Islamist websites allow players as young as seven to pretend to be holy warriors battling U.S. troops (Reuters).

Terrorist videos have come to play an important role in what Middle East expert Marc Lynch calls "al-Qaeda's media strategy." In the National Interest, he writes "Al-Qaeda the organization has increasingly become indistinguishable from Al-Qaeda the media phenomenon." Among the savviest terrorist figures is al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Last month Zarqawi for the first time released a videotape of himself in which he promised victory against the "crusaders" (BBC). The following week, the Pentagon released "outtakes" from the video (DoD) showing Zarqawi having difficulty firing his machine gun and one of his associates burning his hands on the gun's hot barrel. But columnists noted that the Defense Department could have done a better job of providing a competing message (Slate). Speaking at CFR in February, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld likened U.S. efforts to compete in this propaganda war to "a five and dime store in an eBay world." But at least some progress has been made on this front. Karen Hughes, the top U.S. public diplomat, said at a May 10 CFR meeting that before releasing the Zarqawi video, the dominant Arab television station al-Jazeera asked the State Department to comment on it. "What used to happen," Hughes said, "was these groups would release tapes and the allegations would play for several days before America even said anything about them."

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