The mediatic strategy
of the Al Qaeda gurus
It has often been said that the West is fighting an asymmetric war, against an enemy which has neither territory nor uniform. On looking more closely, however, the jihadist people, this collection of individuals which constitutes the ‘enemy’ we must fight, has, in effect, its territory, which is reachable and identifiable. It is a territory which must be seen in a different way. It is in a system where the boundaries are not geographical, but electronic; where there are no faces, but nicknames; where there are no frontiers, but log-ins and passwords. The attention which is rightly given to all that appears on the web, transforms the electronic fundamentalist network into a kind of ‘virtual State. ‘State’, in the more ancient meaning of the word, i.e. state-community, inasmuch as it assumes a real credibility, a real power, which is based on the characteristics and structure of the world media system which, involuntarily, supplies ‘cover’ and diffusion to the Islamic codes and message weapons.
Raising the conflict level
One of the “musts” in the operative methodology of the terrorist groups, and not only for them, is that of raising the conflict level between the parties in combat so as to reinforce the internal consensus, also thanks to the counter attacks of the enemy. In fact, provoking the adversary to retaliate with every kind of action reinforces the necessity to “close the ranks”, to develop a better and tougher defence, moulding the forces into “one single mind” in the common sharing of the objective.
The enemy must be “provoked”.
In this way, such actions reach two objectives contemporarily: one ad intra (ones own troops) and one ad extra (the enemy).
This “must” is even truer at the mediatic level. Indeed, modern technology, offers, as never before - also thanks to its versatility - a multiplicity of possibilities in carrying out “psychological warfare”.
Finalities, targets and methods
Wishing to make, at this time, a synthetic analysis of the jihadist war being fought on the web, it seems opportune to underline the finalities, objectives and methods employed, with an end to better arrange adequate measures of contrast.
In our opinion, the development of the use of Internet by the jihadist groups has the following scopes:
a) “holding the ground” against the diverse enemies of the global jihad;
b) “propaganda” in its various forms;
c) The “exchange of information” in coded form, among the jihadist operative groups.
Such ends are relative to two objectives which are, fundamentally, the following:
1) an objective ad intra: the Islamic world and particularly, those who are a part of the jihadist reality or those who support this reality or, again, those who are undecided between adhesion to the armed fight and the search for a less sanguinary path for the “defence of Islam”;
2) an objective ad extra: all those subjects which can be generically defined as “enemies of the true Islam and of the global Jihad” (this category of “enemies” goes from corrupt Arab regimes, to integralist groups who accept, however, certain aspects of the Western democratic rules, to the “crusaders and Zionist”).
The intended functions through the use of Internet, with respect to the ad intra objective ((Islamic world) can be summarized as follows:
- the diffusion of the idea of a “virtual Umma” (Umma = Islamic community);
- to raise a “model for imitation” of both the jihadist community and its leader, the Emir, Bin Laden, for the establishment of a new caliphate, even if it is only “virtual” ( however, Bin Laden has stated that he does not wish to be the Caliph because he lacks the formal requisites);
- to distinguish itself from “the “corrupted Arab regimes”, which make agreements with the western countries and fear to attack them;
- to transmit its political and theological interpretation of Islam, which intends to be global and, at the same time, unifying; presenting itself as the only entity capable of overcoming the internal divisions of the Islamic world, of the Sunnite kind;
- to convey messages which are easily understood for those who belong to the Islamic culture, but often enigmatic for people who belong to different cultures;
- this data also wants to affirm a cultural “superiority” due to the fact that the Arabic language is little known to western people, while the English and French languages are well known in the Arab world;
- to exalt the jihad and those who fight for it by showing war films with jihadist attacks, by making Internet a “showcase of jihadist successes;
- to recruit other jihadists (1) ;
- to identify targets to be hit and to signal them to the jihad community, also furnishing the priorities and scale of values (2) ;
- to diffuse the jihad ideas at a low cost.
There is no need for large capitals to start a “jihadist newspaper” or a “jihadist TV news programme” on the Internet, but, most of all, there is no need to account to any “financers”. Consequently, “maximum freedom at the lowest costs” (even though there are always financers);
- last, but not least, to permit the jihadist ‘operative’ activity, through the exchange of information in the submerged web or utilizing different expedients (e.g. the “dead hole”). In addition, the “on-line training” is quite strong, with the birth of proper “virtual academies” with the various course sections (doctrinal and military). Moreover, the web is very useful to obtain maps of cities or symbolic places against which attacks can be made or further still, to obtain specific information on persons and things.
As far as the ad extra objectives are concerned, let us see what functions are served by the use of Internet:
- to take position on the battlefield for the “net-war”: (Internet can take a front position in the area of “psychological warfare”);
- “The war on the enemies of God is not only waged with weapons, but also with ink, knowledge and the sword”;
- confront the enemy, face to face, showing that you are not afraid;
- to send “messages” of warning to the West because it must end the occupation of the Dar of Islam and the plunder of all the riches of Islam (3) ;
- to conduct mediatic terrorism to intimidate the enemy, showing how they, after having received warning, are “severed at the neck” (decapitation becomes a form of “quoting” from the Koran);
- to try to “politically” condition the choices of the western countries;
- to send messages of truce which, if not accepted, become warnings of further attacks;
-to underline, in various ways, the superiority of Islam in the face of its enemies.
Within this scheme, it must be said that Internet has a number of different types of sites which pertain in one way or another to the jihad world. Some are clearly traceable to jihadist groups, while others are simply “sympathizers”. Thus, we can have jihadist webmasters, terrorist sites, but also independent media groups, until we arrive at groups which are obviously non-terrorist, but which perform a function, more or less knowingly, of “outside support”.
In this sense, apart from Internet, consideration must be given to the television media which, often, can serve precisely this function of outside support.
In a recent communiqué, Bin Laden, in criticizing “the butcher of world freedom”, George W. Bush – who took to task the media that reported facts about the real situation, stating that, in any event, the information was always vetted by the USA Administration - makes a reference to the Qatari television, Al Jazeera, in which, although defining the station as “one of your creations” nevertheless, recalls the bombings of the Kabul and Baghdad stations and how the idea of attacking also the principle Qatari station was being scrutinized by the American Administration. What seems to emerge from the words of the Yemenite Emir is that, today, this television station is the lesser evil in the media panorama.
In this respect, then, certain programmes, like the ones of Yousef al-Qardawi, could be interesting to follow insofar as – the Sheikh being an eminently authoritative source with an extremely high viewing index in the Moslem world – he is capable of moulding and channelling the opinion of his co-religious Islamic audience. Even before the content analysis of the Islamic tele-preachers, the fact is significant that his presence on the Qatari and Islamic world TV is almost daily and scheduled for the peak-viewing hours, according to the time-band of transmission (4) .
Therefore, if such an authoritative Islamic source is in favour of, for example, suicide attacks, and the transmission is shown on a satellite network in the Arabic language in the peak viewing hours, even if not directed linked to the Al-Qaeda, this TV transmission performs a role of “outside support” (involuntary?) in the diffusion of the “jihadist moral suasion”
Coming back to the use of Internet, at least four basic elements must be considered for a more precise analysis of the propagated messages:
- the site that publishes the threat;
- who signs it;
- the date of the message;
- the language used.
If, for instance, we make a brief consideration of the threat messages to Italy – keeping in mind the difference between the threats of Bin Laden and those of the Abu Hafs al Masri Brigades – it is possible to grasp certain basic elements:
1) The West is at war with Islam and this implies “the individual obligation” of each Moslem to defend the sacred soil of Islam;
2) Whoever is associated with the U.S.A. and Israel, is automatically an “enemy” to strike;
3) Italy is among the countries which support the United States, in Iraq and in Afghanistan, therefore, it must be hit.
This is what we can define as the “political” premise: ‘Political’ liberation of the Islamic lands, both from the military yoke and from economic and cultural submission.
To this end, Bin Laden or Zawahiri often refer to historical events like colonialism to confirm that this eternal war between the Christian West and the Arab East will continue and will finish only with the defeat and demise of one or the other.
And here, the other premise enters: the religious and “apocalyptic” one.
In this endless struggle, Rome has a very particular significance. If, on the one side, Bush is defined the “new Cesar” or the “Pharaoh”, therefore, the emblem of evil and the Roman Christian Empire: leading the crusaders, almost assuming a double political and religious valence (with a terrible confusion of roles and historical data, but with no importance to the ends of the Islamic listener), on the other side, the City of Rome, Italy and the Vatican maintain all of their symbolical weight and, for the Islamic people, are the reference point for all Christendom, thus raising a double symbolic element: political and religious.
In this regard, a vast Islamic political and religious literature exists, with strong “apocalyptic – millenary” connotations, which are taken and exploited for political ends.
Communicative function of the symbol
A small explanation regarding the function of the symbols: each “symbol” always has a ‘plus’, which goes beyond the direct significance: a plus which is left open to the interpretation of the reader. It is the communication power of the symbol, typical of the analogy or the allegory.
So, while in the western mentality that which generally prevails is the “logic of identity”, typical of the rational scientific-mathematic way of thinking, in which, to “A” corresponds a meaning “A”; in the Oriental world, in general, and, in particular, in the Arab world, the logic of the analogy often prevails, so that, more than one significance corresponds to “A”. It is the symbolical speech which is typical of the poets.
In this sense, the sub-strata of the Arab culture are strongly influenced by poetry and by the “oral” culture (5) . Even the Koran, with the recitation of the “sacred” poem, is considered by the Islamic people, a poetic text and not prose.
Then, the fact cannot go unobserved that some poems have been attributed to the Emir, Bin Laden himself and likewise, the fact that his speeches are full of citations from the Koran, from the Sunna and from learned interpreters of the Islam Traditions.
In other words, the full Islamic identity of the author emerges to the extent to which his ‘cultural history’ appears to be in tune with the ‘sensitivity’ of those who can recognize him as their ‘guide’ in that particular social context. It is because of the “cultural level” that the “recognition” emerges to legitimate the leader, in those places where legitimacy is ‘verified’ by the ‘obedience’ of the audience through the fact of following the indications of the guide.
In the case of internet, such obedience is not created by constriction, but from a free and voluntary adhesion, ripe fruit of that etat d’esprit which is the sign of maximum unity between “the governors” and “the governed”. It is the “moral suasion” which the speaker can obtain only through knowing the ‘mind’ and touching the ‘heart strings’ of his listeners.
There is no doubt that all this ‘moves’ on-line, and Bin Laden, Zawahiri and followers are able to touch these chords.
How can we ‘deal’ with this phenomenon?
To ‘deal’ with this phenomenon, in the broadest sense of the term, means:
1) to know it, 2) to follow it, 3) to stop it.
As far as ‘knowing’ it, it is held that this has already been illustrated. What must be known is, what are the: objectives, ends; means to be used; available resources; resources to be found. ‘To know’ is by monitoring, by deepening knowledge of the method used, but also by knowing the linguistic terms of the underlying culture, of the military techniques, of the doctrinal and historical references, both religious and military. In other words it is a “full immersion” in the Islamic world. It requires time, patience, willpower and, above all, the wish to do it.
And here, a disenchanting reflection cannot but emerge.
While it is typical of the Arab culture to have a less frenetic rhythm of life than that of the West, we are, often, so taken up with our affairs that we no longer feel that ‘relish’ to stop or find the ‘time’ to reflect upon what we are doing. To have ‘time’ to think is a great wealth and, in the ‘military’ sense, a great strength. If others have, and have had the time to think, to observe, study and know us, to identify our weak points…. and, therefore, to strike us, and we do not do likewise?…. taking the necessary time, we are already in a weak position.
The same applies to the question of ‘patience’, which is strictly tied to the preceding discussion.
In general, he who is ‘defeated’ or feels to be so – the syndrome of the ‘beaten and exploited’ is typical of the jihadist groups – dedicates his time to revenge. Also in this respect we are decidedly lacking, accustomed to burning everything in haste, also our historical and cultural heritage or our fears (including the ‘fear of the other’) which fade and come back with amazing speed.
The ability to wait for the “right moment”, when ‘demand synchronizes with circumstance’ is a sign of wisdom which, nowadays, reductio ad absurdum, favours exactly who has this ‘time’.
The desire and the will: it is the desire which moves the will. The greater the desire, the stronger the will is to pursue the goal. What do the jihad people want? What desire pushes them forward? Revenge? Redemption? Hatred? The glory of Allah and/or Islam? Whatever it is, it is a powerful propulsive force, which moves the will to the point of voluntarily sacrificing ones own life for it.
But, what ’powerful’ desire can and must move our will?
To follow it: this is the technical side. Always more sophisticated technical capabilities are required because the possibilities of escape in the net are immense, even if it is possible to trace the messages. The more one method is developed, the more the others are perfected. It is a fight without time, but also against time. Web sites appear and disappear; the way of sending messages which cannot be intercepted is being brought to perfection etc., Never, as in this field, however, besides Sigint and Digint….. the Humint is necessary!!
To stop it. But to stop what? the web sites that are too filo-jihadist? For every site that is closed, ten more sprout up, but one does not know the I.P. address anymore. This is one of the first big problems. Knowing where the sites are, one also knows what they are saying and important information can be acquired. But, on the other side, if the propaganda activity continues, that etat d’esprit is created, which is exactly what must be avoided. When sites are closed, they reconstitute themselves, but in the meantime, one does not know where to look for them and, above all, one does not know what they are saying.
Therefore, the first question is this; is it good to close sites and providers?
And, in any case, even being able to flush them out, this would enter the activity of monitoring and/or repression.
On the other hand, one could, perhaps, create an Islamic debate which goes against the jihadists: counting on moderate Moslems who condemn the jihadists, Moslems who could represent a counter positive position, but who are not traceable either to the West or to moderate or pro-west Islamic countries. Otherwise, it would not have any effect. In other words, what it means is to try to divide the Moslem opinion from within; to try to get fatwa from well-known Imams (on the example, equal and contrary, of an Al Qardawi), which condemns and does not absolve (6) .
In fact, the cultural battle and the battle of ideas is the only path, certainly over a long period, which can give some effective results (not ephemeral like the ‘truces’) – yet without leaving the road of repression, - but at the same time, the West should also recuperate the consciousness of its own identity… In fact, although military and economically strong, the West is often perceived by the Islamic world as profoundly weak because it is considered morally corrupt and without its own strong identity. Such criticism, beyond the fact of whether it is right or not, requires consideration.
The problem is also: “who are we?”
The West, in fact, should, perhaps, try to re-discover its identity, to be able to debate in an authentic manner – even through war, – but on equal bases.
To the, more or less, found identity of the Moslem world, which is ever-increasingly bound to the religious path, the western counterbalance seems lacking in any ‘superior’ reference, whatsoever, (from the defence of the fundamental liberties of the laical tradition – and here we can refer to the case of the cartoons, which divided this very same tradition – to any sort of religious roots) which could be truly unifying. And it certainly cannot be the military force, which remains a means of communication, but is not, in itself, a unifying element.
On this fact, there is surely need for reflection.
(1) However, Internet is still considered by the Jihadists as a very unsure means of recruitment because of possible infiltration by Police Forces and Intelligent Services.
(2) For example, what nations to strike first and what type of person. On Al Battar of 29.04.06, a list of nations was supplied – in which Italy took the 6th place –and of the persons to strike. First: business men and the last, tourists.
(3) The bottle of water being drunk by an American soldier, with the Arabic label “Water from Mecca”, seen for about two seconds in the “first Jihadist animated cartoon”, as well as wanting to underline that Saudi Arabia finances the American unbeliever (therefore, an ad extra message towards Saudi Arabia and the United States), it also makes reference to the ‘sacred’ water from the Springs of Zam Zam. And here, the ad intra message wants the Moslem Internet navigator to understand how a “precious Islamic commodity” is undersold by the Saudis and “plundered and exploited” by the Americans. The parallelism is evident also with the typical Jihadist propaganda of the exploitation of Islamic possessions such as oil; today, a commodity as “vital” as water: all this in one image of two seconds in an animated cartoon.
(4) In fact, except for Wednesday and Thursday, (the equivalent of our Saturday and Sunday, when minors are viewing), in the other days, in direct or taped, Al Qardawi is present in the palimpsest of Al Jazeer, Saturday, Sunday, Monday and Tuesday at hours which vary between 14:35 and 23:35. Practically, it involves the time band of peak viewing by the diverse segments of the population (students, housewives, senior citizens and workers).
(5) Where, for example, the ballad singers served a fundamental function, i.e. the transmission of the identity and the traditions of the Arab people.
(6) But we have seen that as soon as someone accepts only certain aspects of the Western World - reference to Egyptian and Palestinian elections – he had been charged with betrayal of the true Islam (Hamas and the Moslem Brotherhood..