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Al Qaeda’s Media War: From Fax to Facebook and Twitter | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Jeddah, Asharq Al-Awsat – On the eighth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, the US administration took another step against Al Qaeda by shutting down the majority of the Islamic fundamentalist websites and forums affiliated to it. The US did this in order to prevent audio or visual recordings that incite violence being broadcast by Al Qaeda leaders, as is customary during this time of year. The ‘Ansar Al-Mujahideen’ and the ‘Ana Muslim’ websites were exceptions to this clampdown.

According to observers who spoke to Asharq Al-Awsat, this step contributed to the broadcast of the audio recording made by Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden being delayed until 14 September, rather than being broadcast – as originally anticipated – on 11 September [the anniversary of the attacks].

Therefore on the eighth anniversary of the infamous 9/11 attacks, Islamic fundamentalist websites contented themselves with posting a [new] picture of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind behind the attack, along with a picture of his nephew Ammar al Baluchi, who is one of the five highest-ranking Al Qaeda suspects being held in Guantanamo Bay’s secret Camp VII.

It is anticipated that over the coming few days, many [new] pictures of Al Qaeda members [being held in Guantanamo Bay] will be posted in light of the fact that last July the International Red Cross took around 107 photographs of these Al Qaeda members to send them to their families and relatives in order to reassure them of their safety. Therefore it is very likely that these photographs will find their way to the websites mentioned above. This proves that Al Qaeda’s media is capable of reaching its target audience in a variety of ways.

Anyone observing the development of the way Jihadist groups use the media will notice that this has gone through a number of phases, contingent upon circumstances and the available technology. In the 1980s, propaganda leaflets that called for Jihad were sent via fax to Muslim youth across the Islamic world. This phase was followed by the issuing and distribution of audio and visual footage that presented heroic Jihadist actions performed by Arab fighters in Afghanistan during the Soviet war, as well as other material that depicted Jihadist exploits in the Chechen and Bosnian Wars. Further development took place with the introduction of new technologies, and this coincided with the emergence of the Al Qaeda organization and Jihadist exploits becoming acts of terrorism. Al Qaeda attempted to employ these new media techniques following the 9/11 attacks.

Al Qaeda started off by broadcasting recordings during which it would claim responsibility for a terrorist attack and attempt to incite violence. In the beginning such recordings were broadcast by satellite television stations. Al Jazeera broadcast the first visual recording by Al Qaeda on 7 October 2001; this coincided with the start of the US invasion of Afghanistan.

Al Qaeda gradually realized how effective these recordings could be internally, after a large variety of television channels broadcast these records, or segments of them, in their news bulletins. These recordings of Al Qaeda leaders spreading their message prompted the majority of governments across the world to pressure satellite television channels not to broadcast these recordings. This move was partially successful and resulted in Al Qaeda losing one of its most influential media sources. This caused the movement to turn to the internet in order to target a brand new audience. Al Qaeda found the internet to be a fertile medium for interaction as it offers the opportunity to exchange information and reaction [rather than just to present it].

Al Qaeda went on to hit social and interactive websites like Facebook and Twitter. The movement managed to broadcast its audio and visual recordings via both websites, and through a number of internet forums and video-sharing websites. It has become normal for members of these websites to watch a presenter with a long beard dressed in traditional Islamic attire read out Al Qaeda news from his private television station somewhere in the Tora Bora caves.

The Chairman of the Gulf Research Centre [GRC], Abdul Aziz al Saqr said, “Terrorist groups began their journey towards employing communication and information technology by using fax machines to transmit and spread their organization’s announcements and statements made by their leaders, until the term ‘fax war’ emerged as a sign of the wide-scale usage of fax machines made by terrorist groups, and the incapability of official bodies to control this modern means of communication.”

Al Qaeda made use of the fax machine to spread its statement during the organization’s early stage. Once satellite telephones were invented, Al Qaeda invested a large amount of money to provide its leaders all over the world with this technology in order to facilitate communication and escape security surveillance, as this kind of surveillance was only imposed upon traditional terrestrial communication at the time.

It is well known that the top leadership of the Al Qaeda organization ran and perhaps still does run the media battle internationally from its isolated strongholds in the mountains of Afghanistan by making use of satellite communication technology.

GRC Chairman al Saqr said, “When science introduced new ideas and equipment to the list of communication and information technology inventions, the [Al Qaeda] organization was one of the early groups who explored the potential benefits of any modern technological invention, and would try to utilize this as much as possible in order to serve its activities.”

Al Saqr added, “Using the internet has become a key factor in transferring Al Qaeda ideology and news by way of written, as well as audio and visual means. Then email came to facilitate and secure direct personal communication by using coded language between the leadership and members of the organization. This was followed by the extensive use of mobile phone networks, not for the purpose that they were originally developed for, which is to serve society, but rather to facilitate communication between Al Qaeda members, as well as a means to engage the public by way of sending text messages, pictures, and videos which support the policies of the organization. More than this, mobile phones could also be used as automatic or remote bomb detonators.”

GRC Chairman al Saqr also noted that it could be said that this usage of modern technology has resulted in a radical revolution in Al Qaeda’s ideological and operational capabilities. Employing this communication and information technology to their full potential has helped the organization transform itself into a global phenomenon. Al Qaeda was previously a local organization with limited geographical, ideological, and operational capabilities, whereas it is now a global organization in the broadest sense of the term.

Al Saqr explained, “By employing [technology] in such an effective manner, Al Qaeda has been able to survive and be continuously active operationally, ideologically, and in the media, despite the tremendous and coordinated security pressure enforced at the international level.”

Al Saqr also revealed that by using modern technology, Al Qaeda has been able to widen its base in a way that cannot be easily controlled. Communication and information technology were used as a means for rallying support, and as a means to spread ideology, and obtain financial support. Most importantly, they were used as a means to recruit new members to the organization from all four corners of the earth, as well as to create off-shoot organizations in new areas, and to plan terrorist attacks across the world.”

“The Al Qaeda leadership gave the strategy of adopting this technological revolution and utilizing modern technology to facilitate communication and the dissemination of information top priority with regards to the organization’s other strategies. This policy resulted in the strong bonds we see today between terrorism and communication and information technology. We can describe the basic fundamentals behind the survival of Al Qaeda as allocating the necessary funds to obtain modern technological equipment – if available – regardless of the high financial cost of this. This [survival] also requires Al Qaeda to launch a broad campaign to recruit a new generation of youth who possess the intrinsic or academic technological abilities in the field of communication and information technology. This category of recruits with their technical capabilities is key for the survival of Al Qaeda, as well as to export its ideology, expand its membership base, enhance its abilities with regards to raising funds and organizing terrorist operations, not to mention keeping up with new inventions on the market, attempting to possess reliable equipment, and applying modern ideas before they become commercially widespread,” explained al Saqr.

New evidence has surfaced that shows that terrorist organizations have been monitoring academic and commercial websites looking for new ideas and applications that are still in the development stage in order to utilize them to support their activities and enhance their ability to make complex adjustments to their computer operating systems in order to serve Al Qaeda’s purposes.

The adjustment made to mobile phones is a perfect example of Al Qaeda’s high technical and technological capabilities, as well as its ability to develop a technological counter-strategy to reduce the effectiveness of the international security apparatus.

Al Saqr also indicated that the quality of the media produced by Al Qaeda increased after it established a specialist media production house ‘As-Sahab’ [As-Sahab Foundation for Islamic Media Production] which possesses high technical capabilities and the ability to centrally supervise all media productions. It is difficult to appreciate the magnitude of the financial and technical investment allocated to support the As-Sahab institute.

Al Qaeda did not stop at employing fax machines, the internet, email, and satellite and mobile telephones. The Al Qaeda organization even used the Global Positioning System [GPS] to pick locations for terrorist operations, and to facilitate the transfer process.

GRC Chairman Abdul Aziz al Saqr underlined the disturbing relationship between Al Qaeda and its use of technology to serve its purpose, saying that there must be international cooperation in order to counteract this in an effective manner.

Dr. Saud Katib, Professor of Media and Technology at King Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah described Al Qaeda’s current media role as being far greater than its actual military role, particularly due to the technology available on the internet, which has opened up the possibility of establishing television and radio stations that can broadcast to the entire world from any place. The third generation of mobile phones also offers Al Qaeda a direct means of communication, in addition to the possibility of sending audio and video material to others. This is something that is clearly evident in the video recordings [currently] being produced by As-Sahab.

Dr. Katib said that the greatest danger [to society] comes from the opportunity that such technology grants Al Qaeda with regards to directly communicating and interacting with others, as this constitutes a direct means for Al Qaeda to convince others of their cause. This prompted governments to focus upon the idea of raising awareness against Al Qaeda, and also to develop strategies to increase the capabilities of the security apparatus that specialize in monitoring communication technology.

Commenting on the US Intelligence Service shutting down the majority of Islamic fundamentalist websites and forums with ties to Al Qaeda, deputy director of the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies [ACPSS] Diaa Rashwan said, “I think that Bin Laden’s address that was produced by As-Sahab and broadcast on 14 September was originally set to be broadcast on 11 September to mark the eighth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. However the US agencies intervened and took control of the sites in order to postpone this.”

As for the presence of these websites on the internet and the reason they are not shut down all the time, Rashwan said “Their existence is part of the US Intelligence’s philosophy to know what is going on in the mind of Al Qaeda.”

Rashwan noted that the large number of Jihadist websites present on the internet could also be attributed to the fact that the internet is a modern medium and an easy mean to influence others, especially after pressure was exerted upon the satellite television channels to stop broadcasting Al Qaeda material.

The deputy director of ACPSS also revealed that Egyptian Islamist groups were the first groups to use the internet, and the first group to have a website was the Egyptian Al Jihad group, back in 1996. However this was really nothing more than a gesture to emphasize the group’s presence and did not prove to be very beneficial to the operations of the group as there were very few people using the internet at that time. Al Qaeda’s internet operations, on the other hand, began following the 9/11 attacks in 2001. Prior to this date, Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden only conducted one interview with an Arab satellite television channel. However following the September 11 attacks – which proved to be an important media event as well – Bin Laden reappeared in the media in a variety of different manners.

Rashwan said, “Al Qaeda began to develop its audio and visual media. And the first Al Qaeda recording appeared on 7 October 2001. More recordings followed, through which Al Qaeda was able to convey its message. However due to the pressure exerted by the other side [security apparatus] this method stopped, and Al Qaeda had no other option than to utilize the internet. It recruited a group of experts and technicians who produced high quality media.”

According to some reports, Osama Bin Laden was the Al Qaeda figure most interested in addressing the enemy by way of the media. From the late 1980s till the early 2000s, Bin Laden was clearly interested in addressing the Western media, rather than approaching its Arab counterpart. During this time, Bin Laden conducted around 10 interviews with Western media, in particular US and British media, whereas during the same period of time there is significantly less exposure towards the Arab media. Bin Laden realized at an early stage the importance of addressing the Western public through its media, and the impact that this could have on his global war with the West.

Therefore the credit for establishing a new media strategy for Al Qaeda must go to Bin Laden, however the next stage of this was to establish an internal mechanism to convey and export Al Qaeda’s ideology. This second – and perhaps most important – stage can be seen in the development of Al Qaeda’s media, which began with the establishment of the As-Sahab Media Production House. As-Sahab would go on to be in full control of all audio and video recordings produced by Al Qaeda. The first video produced by this institution is said to be the recording claiming responsibility for the 30 October 2000 attack on the US Navy Destroyer, the USS Cole, which took place in Yemeni territorial waters. At the time observers believed this tape was an indication that the Al Qaeda organization had established an independent media production house.

As-Sahab then began producing tapes showing Al Qaeda members in training in camps in Afghanistan, perhaps because the Al Qaeda leadership felt that the 9/11 attacks would make the prospect of communicating with Western media extremely difficult.

Following the US invasion of Iraq, Al Qaeda’s media entered a new and perhaps critical phase. Al Qaeda focused on delivering strong messages to the viewers but also effecting a terrible impact upon their audience by broadcasting grisly scenes showing the death of innocent victims [at the hands of US forces]. These scenes shocked the world and brought Al Qaeda’s media production back to the forefront.

Over the past three years, Al Qaeda media has begun to adopt a different strategy. Al Qaeda deputy leader, Dr. Ayman al Zawahiri, has begun to regularly appear in recordings, but in a different style from previous Al Qaeda recordings – a style that to a great extent resembles that of a lecture delivered by an intellectual or theorist. Al Zawahiri no longer appears with a machine gun propped up behind him – as was the custom previously – but rather sitting in front of a pile of books. Speaking in a calm and confident manner, al Zawahiri would then proceed to address the American people in particular, or the West in general, in the same manner as if he was taking part in an electoral debate.

This new method of discourse was initially established by Osama Bin Laden in his famous recording of October 2004, before he gradually left the stage for his deputy, Al Zawahiri, to take over, to the point that a Bin Laden recording today has become something of a rarity. As-Sahab has been successful in presenting this new academic strategy in a distinct and professional manner.

Al Qaeda has adopted the media policy of making an appearance at the appropriate time. Al Qaeda is currently engaged in a military and media war with the US and the West, and therefore attempts to release recordings at times when this could have the most impact, such as when a Bin Laden tape appeared on the eve of the 2004 US presidential elections, during which the Al Qaeda leader ferociously attacked former President Bush in an attempt to sway American voters.

Experts here point out that the appearance of this Bin Laden video recording on the cusp of a presidential election had the opposite effect than the one envisioned by the Al Qaeda leader, and in fact worked in George W. Bush’s favour [helping him to secure a second presidential term]. As a result of this, Bin Laden has only appeared in the media three times since 2004. However keen observers believe that Bin Laden may reappear if the occasion demands it, otherwise al Zawahiri is currently Al Qaeda’s mouthpiece.

Al Qaeda has always attempted to fight this media war as best as it can and it has achieved considerable success at times, while recording failure at other times. However, despite this, Al Qaeda has not given up on the media war, and is keen on advancing this. Whenever those in charge of Al Qaeda’s media felt that its influence was weakening, they would resort to broadcasting never seen before images from their archive, particularly during specific occasions such as the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, or events commemorating the invasion of Afghanistan or Iraq, or even whenever an Al Qaeda member is arrested. For example when Ramzi Bin al Shiba was arrested, recordings made by him were broadcast by Al Qaeda, and years after the 9/11 attacks, the final video recordings made by the suicide bombers responsible for this were broadcast in an attempt to restore and re-strengthen Al Qaeda’s support, and negatively influence its enemies.

It goes without saying that this fierce media battle is taking place side by side with the military war being waged by Al Qaeda against its enemies, and Al Qaeda is very aware of the importance of this media war.

Observers know that Al Qaeda’s media wing, As-Sahab, is equally as important as its military wing, as it is the media wing that spreads the Al Qaeda ideology. It is an institute that remains mysterious, appearing suddenly and out of nowhere to release a tape, and then disappearing without a trace. Until just two years ago, As-Sahab would operate solely by sending its videos to satellite television stations like Al Jazeera, and also by posting a small number of recordings on the internet. However major technological advancements occurred and these allowed As-Sahab to widen what it could broadcast. As-Sahab began by posting video recordings directly on the internet, drawing upon a global network of unidentified [Al Qaeda] officials to ensure this.

In 2005, As-Sahab produced 16 video recordings, and the quality of its production improved greatly, as these video recordings included the usage of subtitles in different languages, and also employed 3D technology.

Under what we now know as the “Media Jihad” the Al Qaeda organization and its affiliates have started to utilize advanced technology in this media war which is running parallel to the bloody clashes taking place on the ground between the fundamentalist militants and the US troops in Iraq or elsewhere.

As-Sahab claims that it has successfully attacked more than 1,600 forums and internet mailing lists, and that some of its recordings receive more than 60,000 hits. Moreover, As-Sahab has published more than 350 documents, and these include videos showing attacks in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, and other countries where extremist groups have undertaken [terrorist] operations.

It is also worth noting that according to a Washington report quoted in ‘Terror on the Internet: The New Arena, the New Challenges’ by Gabriel Weimann, a researcher at the United States Institute of Peace and a Professor of Communication at Haifa University, the number of [Islamist] fundamentalist websites has soared from around just 12 websites in 1998, to around 4,800 today.

Terrorist groups and organizations also utilize the internet as a means to provide military training to their cadres by posting pamphlets about weapons, combat tactics, and information about how to manufacture explosives as well as related information. This all takes place in the same manner as the ‘Mu’askar al Battar publication which is affiliated to the Al Qaeda organization and published on the internet by the ‘Al Mujahedeen Group in the Arabian Peninsula.’

This magazine [Mu’askar al Battar] not only provides information and contact information for Al Qaeda members, its activities has taken a more dangerous turn towards what has become known today as “Virtual Jihad.” This has become an integral part of the goals and tactics used by Islamist terrorist organizations by way of intellectually and ideologically attacking groups and organizations that oppose them with the purpose of undermining their morale.