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
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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 That has been replaced by a centralised international and ideological outreach programme.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. Mirroring the recruitment requirements of the CIA, the al-Qa'ida job announcement also sought language specialists who speak and write excellent Arabic and English. Other vacant slots are for a video programmer and a researcher for news on Muslims worldwide. The "Global Islamic Media Front", an al-Qa'ida unit, said that its PR department would follow up submitted applications and communicate with interested candidates by private e-mail.

Although this job announcement is more propaganda than real, it is instructive in one respect. For al-Qa'ida, the struggle seems to have shifted away from the battlefield to the media. Yet the Bush administration, along with the Blair government to a lesser extent, continues to fight the wrong war with the wrong tools, "the war on terror" now having been renamed the war against "Islamic radicalism". Its hearts-and-minds strategy consists of a public diplomacy full of sound and fury and devoid of any substance.

Despite overwhelming evidence, there is little recognition among Bush administration officials that their expansive war on terror has damaged America's image, standing and interests in the international community. In my book, The Far Enemy: Why Jihad Went Global, I show that, contrary to the received wisdom, the dominant response to al-Qa'ida in the Muslim world was very hostile, and few activists, let alone ordinary Muslims, embraced its global jihad. Bin Laden and his cohorts have certainly lost the war of ideas, the struggle for Muslim minds.

And that was a critical achievement overlooked by American policymakers, who turned their attention to al-Qa'ida and like-minded militants, and overlooked the fault lines among jihadists, and the vast societal opposition to global jihad. Had they tuned in closely to the internal struggles roiling Muslim lands, they would have had second thoughts about the military expansion of their "war on terror", and would have realised that al-Qa'ida is a tiny fringe organisation. Had they listened carefully to the multiple critiques of al-Qa'ida by Muslim clerics and opinion-makers, they would have had answers to their oft-asked question: where are the Muslim moderates? Had they observed the words and deeds of Islamists, they would have known that the jihadist movement has been torn apart, and that al-Qa'ida does not speak for or represent Islamists - or Muslim public opinion.

American commentators and policymakers would also have realised that the internal defeat of al-Qa'ida on its home front - the Muslim world - was and is the most effective way to hammer a deadly nail into its coffin. The US and the international community could have found intelligent means to nourish and support the internal forces that were opposed to militant ideologies such as the Bin Laden network. The way to go was not to declare a worldwide war against a unconventional paramilitary foe with a tiny or nonexistent social base of support, and try to settle scores with old regional dictators.

That is exactly what Bin Laden and his senior associates had hoped the US would do - lash out militarily against the Ummah. As Seif al-Adal, al-Qa'ida's overall military commander recently put it: "The Americans took the bait and fell into our trap."

The Far Enemy: Why Jihad Went Global, by Fawaz A Gerges, has just been published by Cambridge University Press, £16.99