Al Qaeda 2.0

MENASSAT takes another look at Ayman Al-Zawahiri's recent online Q&A and what it says about the evolution of Al Qaeda's media strategy.
Ayman al-Zawahiri has increasingly become the new face of Al Qaeda.

BEIRUT, May 6, 2008 (MENASSAT) – It was dubbed by some in the U.S. media as "Al Qaeda's Town Hall Meeting." In December 2007, Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, Al Qaeda's Nr. 2, had announced that a website sympathetic to its cause would be accepting questions about Al Qaeda's policies. The answers were released in two parts during the month of April – in an MP3 audio format with an Arabic transcript provided.

Naturally, the website was flooded with questions and al-Zawahiri was quickly overwhelmed. He addressed this point at the beginning of his speech.

"I wanted to answer any question asked. Then I noticed that the Brothers flooded me with questions, and is impossible for me to answer [all of them.] So, with God's help, I chose ninety questions to answer.”

No innocent civilians

Many of the questions put to al-Zawahiri were quite critical of Al Qaeda, attacking the organization for its killing of innocent Muslims in Iraq and elsewhere. Especially Algeria, where suicide attacks claimed by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb killed at least 62 people in December 2007, was the focus of many questions.

Jami’i Tib al-Jazaa’ir, a medecine student from Algeria, bluntly asked al-Zawahiri, "Is killing  women and children Jihad in your view? I want al-Zawahiri to answer me about those  who kill the people in Algeria. What is the legal evidence for killing the innocents?"

"My reply to Talib Jami’i Tib al-Jazaa’ir," al-Zawahiri said, "is that those who were killed... are not  from the innocents... The operation on the 11th of December was against the headquarters of the United Nations and the Constitutional Assembly and Police Academy, not against children's  schools or women’s hospitals. And the United Nations is an enemy of Islam and Muslims..."

The MP3 audio files of al-Zawahiri's answers (in Arabic) are available here (part I) and here: part II (HiFi), part II (LoFi).

  A full English transcript is available here (part I) and here (part II).

Al-Zawahiri's online "Town Hall Meeting" introduced a new chapter in Al Qaeda's media strategy. But the novelty may not be so much in the format – unusual for a secretive terrorist organization – but in the fact that Al Qaeda now feels the need to address an Arab audience, and even to justify some of its actions.

The early years

Of course, Al Qaeda has always made smart use of the media, and it is Osama bin Laden himself who is widely credited with realizing the importance of  a media strategy.

In the eighties and nineties, Osama bin Laden made himself available to a number of mainly U.S. and U.K. journalists, including Robert Fisk and Peter Bergen. His appearances in the Arab media were much rarer.

Clearly, Bin Laden recognized the importance of addressing the public opinion in the countries he considered to be the enemy even if it meant having to rely on the Western media to put his message across.

At a later stage, Al Qaeda decided it needed an in-house media strategy.

After the attack against the USS Cole in Yemen on October 30, 2000, Al Qaeda released a video of the attack which was credited as an "as-Sahab Media Production."

From then on, As-Sahab would monopolize Al Qaeda's media policy, producing Bin Laden's famous speeches addressed to the West after the attacks of September 11, 2001, right up to al-Zawahiri's online Q&A, another "As-Sahab production."

Iraq, a new chapter

After the American invasion of Iraq, a new era started for al-Qaeda media, categorized by the brutal videos of beheadings and other atrocities which greatly contributed to an already growing Islamophobia in the West.

It is at this time that Al Qaeda evolved from a centralized organization into a global idea  with local franchises – the most violent of which was Al Qaeda in Iraq founded by the late Abu Musab al-Zarkawi.

But as Al Qaeda in Iraq continued to unleash the most unspeakable horrors onto the Internet, back at the mother organization some new changes were already taking place.

In the past three years, Osama bin Laden gradually cleared the central stage in favor of Ayman al-Zawahiri. (Although he made a well-timed appearance in October 2004 during the U.S. elections in which he launched a fierce attack against Bush. Needless to say, experts believed Osama's Bush-bashing did not work in favor of his opponent, John Kerry.)

At the same time, al-Zawahiri himself has changed his appearance from that of a warlord to something resembling a scholar. He no longer appeared with an AK-47 by his side but surrounded by books, addressing the West, and America in particular, as if he was debating President George W. Bush in an electoral debate.

Al-Zawahiri's online Q&A was the latest step in the transformation of Al Qaeda's media strategy: an Al Qaeda which is inviting criticism and defending its position to an increasingly critical Arab audience.

Marc Lynch, an associate professor of political science at Williams College in Massachusetts, wrote in 2006:

"Many observers believe that Al Qaeda's influence is in steep decline and its ideas are at bay. The quantity and volume of anti-jihadi voices in the Arab media have dramatically increased in recent years, with every Al Qaeda-linked terror attack now met by a chorus of Arab criticism and condemnation. Public opinion polls have shown steep declines in support for Al Qaeda, particularly in countries directly affected by its terror attacks."

Battle for the umma

This also helps to explain Al Qaeda's switch from satellite TV to the Internet. As early as December 2004, Abu Musab al-Zarkawi attacked Al-Jazeera "the sultan of the airwaves", for "abandoning the mujahedeen."

"We are in a battle, and more than half of this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media... [We] are in a media battle for the hearts and minds of our umma," al-Zawahiri said in July 2005.

In the April 2008 Q&A, al-Zawahiri was indeed at his most defensive when answering questions about other challengers in the struggle for those hearts and minds.

For instance, he spends an extraordinary amount of time answering a question about Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the Muslim Brotherhood scholar who has his own popular call-in show on Al-Jazeera and who is a fierce opponent of Al Qaeda (although he considers suicide attacks against Israeli citizens legitimate.)

He also used Hamas' tactic of randomly firing missiles into Israeli territory in order to field another question about Al-Qaeda's spilling of innocent Muslim blood.

"What is Hamas' justification for killing those whose killing is not permitted
from the children in the Israeli colonies with the blessed Qassam rockets which don't differentiate between a child and an adult, and moreover, perhaps between the Jews and the Arabs and Muslims working in those colonies or in the streets  and markets of Occupied Palestine, even though the Shari’ah forbids their killing?"

The blessing of the Internet
Al Qaeda is in real trouble if its justification for killing other Muslims is that "Hamas does it too."

But, as Marc Lynch wrote in 2006, "We must not fall victim to the perennial problem of blowback: believing our own propaganda.

"It is clear that this upsurge in anti-jihadi discourse reflects official government policies more than changes in public opinion. The Saudi regime has deployed its vast media holdings in its own campaign against Al-Qaeda, initiated after several terror attacks struck the kingdom in 2003. Jordan's King Abdullah similarly declared a "total war" on takfiri thought – the denouncing of Muslims as insufficiently pious – after the November [2005] Amman bombings and publicly instructed the Jordanian media accordingly.

"There is little evidence as yet that this state-directed propaganda will be more successful than the decades of state propaganda against which the new Arab media such as Al-Jazeera rose up."

One thing is clear: facing increasing hostility form both the government-run Arab media and satellite TV stations such as Al-Jazeera, it is only logical that Al Qaeda's media strategy should become more and more Internet-oriented. 
According to an expert on extremist Islamic groups' use of the internet, quoted by Magharebia, "Al-Zawahiri is now looking at the use of the internet as the best way through which he can avoid censorship."

Ikbal Gharbi, a professor of Anthropology in the Institute of Sharia and Religious Principles, added, "In view of the high illiteracy rates in the Islamic world, the audio recording is considered an effective means to convey the message that can then be copied and sent via cell phones. To al-Zawahiri, the Internet is the 21st century's blessing."

(Joe Ghanem contributed to this report from Saudi Arabia.)