Since 9/11, the US National Security Agency (NSA) and Britain’s GCHQ have justified their mass interception of their citizens’ private communications by claiming that this helps them to identify “terrorists”. At the same time, the US Treasury has made great efforts to detect and block financial donations to al-Qa’ida-type movements across the world. But, given the spectacular expansion of such groups over the past 12 and a half years, the efforts by these institutions are demonstrably failing.
A reason for this failure is that, in seeking to disrupt the secret infrastructure of jihadists, security services neglect the public-support systems of the movements which are as important as their covert backing.
“Half of Jihad is Media” is one slogan posted on a jihadist website, which, taking media in its broadest sense, is wholly correct. The ideas, actions and aims of fundamentalist Sunni jihadists are broadcast daily through satellite television stations, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook. As long as these powerful means of propagandising exist, groups similar to al-Qa’ida will never go short of money or recruits.
Much of what is disseminated is hate-propaganda against Shia and, more occasionally, against Christians, Sufis and Jews. It calls for support for jihad in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and anywhere else holy war is being waged: a recent posting shows a romantic- looking suicide bomber who was “martyred” carrying out an attack on an Egyptian police station in Sinai.
Looking at a selection of online posters and photos, what is striking is not only their violence and sectarianism but also the professionalism with which they are produced. The jihadists may yearn for a return to the norms of early Islam, but their skills in using modern communications and the internet are well ahead of most political movements in the world.
On the other hand, the content, as opposed to the technical production, is frequently violent and crudely sectarian as in three pictures from Iraq. The first shows two men in uniform, their hands tied behind their backs, lying dead on what looks like a cement floor. Blood flows from their heads as if they have been shot or their throats cut. The caption reads: “Shia have no medicine but the sword – Anbar victories.”
The second picture shows two armed men beside two bodies, identified by the caption as members of the anti-al-Qa’ida Sunni Awakening movement in Iraq’s Salah ad-Din province. The third shows a group of Iraqi soldiers holding a regimental banner, but the words on it have been changed to make them offensive to Sunni: “God curse Omar and Abu Bakr” (two early Sunni leaders).
More sophisticated are appeals for money for jihadi fighters by Sunni clergy and politicians, one raising $2,500 (£1,500) for every fighter sent to Syria and claiming to send 12,000 fighters to the country. One picture shows seven shelves, as if in a shop, but when you look closely you see that each shelf carries a different type of grenade. The caption reads: “Anbar’s mujahedeen pharmacy for Shia.”
It is not just Twitter and Facebook accounts that are used but two television stations, Safa and Wesal, based in Egypt but reportedly financed from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, with journalists and commentators who are vocally hostile to the Shia. Wesal TV broadcasts in five languages: Arabic, Farsi, Kurdish, Indonesian and Hausa.
Hate preachers, likewise, have enormous followings on YouTube. For instance, Sheikh Mohammad al-Zughbi in Egypt calls God to protect Egypt from “the criminal traitors and the criminal Shia,” as well as from the Jews and Crusaders. Another sermon entitled “Oh Syria, the victory is coming,” says President Bashar al-Assad is “seeking help from these Persians, the Shia, the traitors, the Shia criminals.”
These rants could be dismissed as being addressed to a small, fanatical audience, but the numbers of viewers show them to be immensely popular. Muhammad Ali Haji, of the Centre for Academic Shia Studies, points out that “the 3.9 million Saudi Facebook users use it much more than in the US or UK”.
The internet has allowed jihadist fighters to establish an intimate link with their financial and political supporters because they can post pictures and films of their exploits.
Observers of rebels in Syria notice that they spend much of their time on the internet, from which they get their vision of what is happening (the same is true of pro-government civilians). Film of atrocities by the other side are a driving force for sectarian and political hatred, although some of these are fabricated.
A foreign journalist in a Syrian refugee camp in south-east Turkey noticed children watching a video of what was claimed to be Alawites cutting off the heads of Sunni prisoners with a chainsaw. He recognised the film as in fact coming from Mexico, where a drug lord had decapitated some of his rivals and posted a film of it to intimidate others.
There is additional evidence about the impact of satellite television and jihadist websites from prisoners taken in Iraq. While, like all prisoners they are likely to say what their captors want them to say, their accounts in interviews on Iraqi television ring true. Waleed bin Muhammad al-Hadi al-Masmoudi from Tunisia, the third-largest supplier of foreign jihadists to Syria, said he was a driver in his home country. In taking his decision to come to Iraq to fight, he said, “I was deeply influenced by al-Jazeera TV channel”. Together with 13 other volunteers from Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Yemen, he had no difficulty in making his way to Fallujah.
Abdullah Azam Salih al-Qahtani, a former Saudi officer, said: “Arabic media and jihadist websites convinced me to come.”
An interesting point that emerges from these interviews is the degree to which the war is self-generating, because veteran fighters had all lost brothers and other relatives. An Iraqi car mechanic, Sinan Abd Himood Nisaif al-Janabi, said he was deeply affected when “the Americans, who lost some of their soldiers in an explosion, killed my brother”.
How far will the flood of Salafi-jihadist propaganda, most of which emanates from or is paid for by Saudi Arabia and the Sunni monarchies of the Gulf, be restrained by the recent Saudi turn against the jihadists? As I described in previous articles, this change of policy has so far involved decrees against Saudis fighting in other countries. The Saudi official who was most associated with using jihadists to overthrow Assad, the intelligence chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan, has been removed from control of Syrian policy.
Ominously for the Saudi state, jihadist social media has begun to attack the Saudi royal family. There is a picture of King Abdullah giving a medal to President George W Bush, captioned: “Medal for invading two Islamic countries.”
Another more menacing photo on a Twitter account is taken in the back of a pick-up truck. It shows armed and masked fighters and the caption reads: “With God’s will we’ll enter the Arabia Peninsula like this. Today the Levant and tomorrow al-Qurayat and Arrar [two cities in northern Saudi Arabia].”
But the propaganda tap cannot be switched off so abruptly because the jihadist cause has too many genuine adherents in Saudi Arabia and other Sunni states. Saudi second thoughts have come too late because jihadist movements such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis) and Jabhat al-Nusra are well-established and have their own revenues. Isis has a tax system in Sunni parts of Iraq and both movements have control of oil wells in north-east Syria.
A deep-seated problem is that the Wahhabi variant of Islam, the creed which is at the heart of the Saudi state, is not so different from the ideology of al-Qa’ida-type groups. Both wholly reject other types of Islamic worship as well as non-Muslim beliefs.
Shia leaders are doubtful that the Saudi about-turn on its support for the jihadists is happening at a deep enough level. Yousif al-Khoei, who heads the Centre for Academic Shia Studies, says: “The recent Saudi fatwas delegitimising suicide killings is a positive step, but the Saudis need a serious attempt to reform their educational system which currently demonises Shias, Sufis, Christians, Jews and other sects and religions. They need to stop the preaching of hate from so many satellite stations, and not allow a free ride for their preachers of hate on the social media.”
The Saudi educational and judicial system recognises only Wahhabism, the puritanical and literalist version of Islam as interpreted by Abdul Wahab in the 18th century. Its most rigorous adherents regard Shia and Sufis as non-believers and polytheists. Those worshipping at shrines or praying at the graves of holy men are denounced as apostates, against whom it is legitimate to use violence.
Shia cite a number of fatwas targeting them as non-Muslims, such as one that declares: “To call for closeness between Shia and Sunni is similar to closeness between Islam and Christianity.”
Christian churches are considered places of idolatry and polytheism because of pictures of Jesus and his mother and the use of the cross, all of which shows that Christians do not worship a single God. This is not a view confined to Saudi Arabia: in Bahrain, 71 Sunni clerics demanded that the government withdraw its permission for a Christian church to be built. When the al-Khalifa royal family crushed pro-democracy protests by the Shia majority in Bahrain in 2011, the first act of the security forces was to destroy several dozen mosques, shrines and graves of Shia holy men, on the grounds that they had not received the correct building permits.
There is no doubt that well-financed Wahhabi propaganda has contributed to the deepening and increasingly violent struggle between Sunni and Shia. A study published last year by the directorate-general for external policies of the European Parliament is called “The involvement of Salafism/Wahhabism in the support and supply of arms to rebel groups around the world”. It begins by saying: “Saudi Arabia has been a major source of financing to rebel and terrorist organisations since the 1980s.” It adds that Saudi Arabia it has given $10bn (£6bn) to promote the Wahhabi agenda and predicts that the “number of indoctrinated jihadi fighters” will increase.
So far the jihadists have largely targeted Shia or related sects in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Pakistan, where they are numerous, and in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia where they are a small minority. But violent hostility to Shia does not mean that the Salafi-jihadists approve of Sunni or Western states. If there is another Palestinian uprising, or some such event creating pan-Islamic anger, then the West is likely to be targeted once again. All the ingredients for a repeat of 9/11 are slipping into place, the difference today being that al-Qa’ida-type organisations are now far more powerful.