Al-Qaeda's PR Strategy on the Internet

Free Propaganda

The violent Islamists of al-Qaeda, the notorious international terror network, may be accused of promoting an antiquated ideology, but when it comes to the movement's PR strategy, they adhere to the most modern standards. Alfred Hackensberger reports

Ayman al-Zawahiri on Al-Jazeera (photo: Al-Jazeera)
Al-Qaeda's media strategy is inseparable from its political strategy: Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden's "deputy", is a standard and recurring feature of the news

​​Ten years ago, the appearance on television of bearded men in turbans preaching an Islamic world revolution would have caused furrowed brows of disbelief. Most European viewers would have thought it a joke or an episode of "Candid Camera." Today, however, bearded religious figures are a standard and recurring feature of the news. Especially Osama Bin Laden and his lieutenant Ayman Zawahiri.

Since 9/11, the two al-Qaeda leaders have regularly appeared in video and audio messages, which are then broadcast around the world by the international media. Of course, we only get snippets, as the seemingly endless monologues on the final victory of Islam are simply out of the question for a modern media audience used to a constant flow of varied information.

Besides, the messages are much too long for any available broadcast or print format. Bin Laden and Zawahiri don't care. Once could hardly imagine a better way to freely distribute their propaganda.

New communication methods

The terrorist leaders are familiar enough with the media world to know that any format, no matter how successful its initial run, tends to wear thin over time. This is why the two al-Qaeda "anchormen" have instructed the movement's media department, as-Sahab, to come up with a new communication format to add a breath of fresh air into the monotonous presentations.

As-Sahab chose to introduce an interactive element to the new propaganda. Nowadays, this technique forms an integral component of the PR strategies of newspapers and television and radio stations to foster "customer loyalty."

From December 2007 to January 2008, anyone with a command of Arabic could direct their questions to Ayman Zawahiri on a website sympathetic to the group.

Last week, the answers finally came as an audio message from the al-Qaeda lieutenant, who was extremely pleased at the flood of questions he received. With the "help of Allah," claimed Zawahiri, he selected the "90 most important" questions and especially turned his attention to those that were critical.

An inadvertent error

With the first batch of questions, it already became clear that al-Qaeda had launched its new interactive game not only for PR purposes, but also to justify its actions. "Who is it that has killed innocent people in Baghdad, Algeria, and Morocco in your name? Why doesn't your organization conduct attacks in Israel? Is it simply easier to kill Muslims in the marketplace?" Such themes were repeatedly raised by other questioners.

Osama Bin Laden on as-Sahab (photo: AP Photo/Site Institute via AP Television News)
In order to create "customer loyalty", al-Qaeda instructed the movement's media department, as-Sahab, to come up with propaganda innovations and new ideas

​​They regard the killing of thousands of innocent civilians as unacceptable and this has cost al-Qaeda all most all of its support among Muslims that it has enjoyed, in part, since 9/11. Instead of attacking the real enemy, they have killed Muslim women and children.

With respect to Israel, Ayman Zawahiri's answers may still convince a few sympathizers. He boasts of the attacks on a synagogue in Tunisia and on an Israeli tourist hotel in Kenya. "Didn't we fire two rockets at an El-Al plane in Kenya?" he asks.

On the death of innocent civilians, he could only say, "we have not killed any innocent people," and should this have nevertheless happened, "it was an inadvertent error."

Human shields

There was a massive negative reaction to these statements in Algeria, where on 11 December 2007, 41 people, most of whom were Algerians, were killed by an al-Qaeda attack on a UN building.

The response will probably be similar in Baghdad, where every day countless people die while shopping, on the way to work, or going to school. The families of the victims will find Zawahiri's justification irrelevant. He claims that the occupation troops in Iraq misuse civilians as a "human shield." This is, incidentally, the same argument used by American President George W. Bush to explain the "collateral damage" suffered by the Iraqi civilian population.

During the Lebanon War in the summer of 2006, the Israeli government also claimed that "human shields" were being used by Hezbollah terrorists. Similarly, this was meant to cover up the deaths of innocent civilians.

The downfall of the USA and Iran

The questions and answers were otherwise relatively uninteresting and aimed at Islamic insiders. There were questions on al-Qaeda's position on Hamas, on Yussuf al-Qardawi, the influential Egyptian sheik who condemned the terror organization on Al Jazeera, the Arabic news channel, and on al-Qaeda's attitude towards Iran.

Zawahiri spoke of the downfall of the USA, which began with 9/11, and, as with all great empires, will not take place at once, but could last another ten years.

The al-Qaeda lieutenant had no objections to a possible American attack on Iran. After all, it would be against the Shiite infidels, who only sully the pure Sunni teachings. It wouldn't matter who emerged victorious from such a conflict, as the winner would be seriously weakened and therefore easier for al-Qaeda to attack and annihilate.

Alfred Hackensberger

© Qantara.de 2008

Translated from the German by John Bergeron

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