The South Asia Channel

Al Qaeda’s media plays follow the leader

Al Qaeda’s media plays follow the leader

In the span of a few days earlier this month, al Qaeda Central’s (AQC) Al-Sahab (Clouds) Media Foundation released a series of video and audio messages from Osama bin Laden and prominent U.S.-born spokesman Adam Gadahn on the severe flooding and resulting humanitarian crisis in Pakistan. This spate of releases strongly resembles the strategic response of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) to severe flooding in 2009 in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia and the year before in the eastern Hadramaut region of Yemen. This response leads the reader to question whether AQC’s current media response to the flooding in Pakistan is perhaps even modeled after AQAP’s earlier response, which in turn raises the larger question of to what degree, if any, AQC is still the model to follow, particularly in terms of media production, or whether it has instead begun to copy successful media campaigns by its regional affiliates like AQAP.

Much like AQC is doing now vis-à-vis the Pakistani government, AQAP in 2008 and 2009 highlighted the lackluster Saudi and Yemeni government responses to flooding in their own countries and their failure to provide adequate aid to their own citizens. The group accused the Saudi and Yemeni governments of corruption and siphoning the wealth of the nation into their own bank accounts while "neglecting and abandoning" those suffering from the flooding. AQAP’s flood narrative, particularly with regard to Yemen, fit into a larger media strategy that tapped, quite successfully, into existing in-country unrest and dissatisfaction with the government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Gadahn, in his video message "The Tragedy of the Floods," accuses the Pakistani and Afghan governments of corruption and pocketing aid money meant to benefit those impacted by the severe flooding. He lambasts Pakistani president Asif Ali Zardari for not canceling his trip to Europe as the flood crisis reached its peak in August. Zardari, who was seen by many Pakistanis as corrupt before becoming president, was widely criticized in Pakistan for dismissively refusing to postpone his luxurious state trip to Europe at a time when the suffering of his own people was at a crisis level.

Furthermore, both AQC and AQAP linked their criticisms of the governments’ responses to address humanitarian crises brought on by natural disasters to broader narratives of government neglect and indifference toward their own citizenries. The media narratives of both groups argued that the Pakistani, Afghan, Saudi, and Yemeni governments not only displayed this in their failure to adequately respond to flooding but also in their military alliances with the United States, alliances that permitted military strikes and campaigns that have resulted in the killings of Muslim civilians. These governments, so the argument goes, are motivated when aiding the U.S. militarily in Waziristan, Marjah, or central and southern Yemen but not when it comes to ensuring the well-being of their own people. Bin Laden, in his two audio messages released on October 1 and 2, noted that while the United Nations secretary-general, Ban Ki-Moon, visited the flooded Pakistani regions, Arab Muslim leaders failed to do so, belying their claims of "Muslim brotherhood."

Taking into consideration the highly capable media apparatus of AQAP, it is possible that in terms of media production, AQC may no longer be the model, but may instead have been overtaken by other transnational jihadi-takfiri groups. For instance, the production quality of AQC’s media output, particularly with regard to feature-length films, has declined over the past year-and-a-half. In contrast, the media outlets of AQAP, Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahideen in Somalia, the Islamic State of Iraq/al Qaeda in Iraq (ISI), the Afghan "Quetta Shura" Taliban, and even al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) have continually eclipsed AQC’s Al-Sahab in terms of both technical production quality and narrative. Whereas AQC has not produced a feature-length film since last September’s "The West and the Dark Tunnel," all of the aforementioned groups, some of them official affiliates of AQC, have collectively churned out a score or more. Even with "The West and the Dark Tunnel," AQC was trying to tap into "popular" opinion among the transnational jihadi-takfiri public, particularly online, by featuring the popular Gazan jihadi preacher Abu’l Nur al-Maqdisi, the "martyred" leader of the Gaza jihadi-takfiri group Jund Ansar Allah, which was crushed in a battle with Hamas security forces in August 2009.

The inauguration of the English-language Internet magazine Inspire, under the auspices of AQAP’s Al-Malahem (Epics) Media Foundation, in July marks another potentially important trend in transnational jihadi-takfiri media toward a more inclusive media program that brings in cyber jihadists (or "jihobbyists," to use jihadi forum-watcher Jarret Brachman‘s term) officially or semi-officially. The magazine, the second issue of which was published online on October 11, is believed to be edited by a U.S. citizen-turned media militant, Samir Khan, who is currently hiding in Yemen. Khan was the main editor and producer of a short-lived series of English-language jihadi magazines published in 2009 from the U.S., Jihad Recollections. Despite Khan’s cartoonish graphic design and layout, both Jihad Recollections and Inspire have been received with great fanfare by cyber jihadists. The first issue of Inspire has even been translated into Arabic. By incorporating Khan’s latest magazine, AQAP may be attempting to show the most dedicated of cyber jihadists that they are an integral part of the transnational movement. Although online users of jihadi web sites have long played an important role in creating and disseminating jihad propaganda, Khan has seemingly been granted the right to publish under the prestigious (to jihadists) imprint of an official jihadi media outlet. It remains to be seen whether AQC or other affiliates will follow in AQAP’s footsteps in trying to bring in more cyber jihadists into their media campaigns.

AQC, while it remains a potent inspirational force for jihadi-takfiris worldwide as the "original" transnational jihadi-takfiri group par excellence, is no longer the leading trendsetter within the wider transnational movement. Indeed, there are clear signs that AQC is now drawing upon the models, particularly with regard to media, developed by regional affiliates such as AQAP. AQC also continues to try and connect itself to local conflicts and causes, forming strong links with a host of extremist groups operating in Pakistan including Tehrik-i Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. AQC has developed particularly close links with the TTP, for which it has produced a number of important video releases under the al Sahab media banner. One of the most noteworthy things in Gadahn’s most recent video message was his decision to separate Baluchistan from Pakistan proper in a bid to perhaps tap into existing separatist insurgencies in both Iranian and Pakistani Baluchistan. Similarly, AQAP has tapped into local grievances and conflicts in Yemen by courting some of that country’s powerful tribes and the Southern Movement.

Still, AQC does not dictate strategies to the wider transnational jihadi-takfiri movement worldwide. Indeed, while increased military pressure in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region has likely disrupted al Sahab, AQC has also simply been outperformed by the more innovative and consistent media teams connected to regional affiliates such as AQAP, AQIM, and the Islamic State of Iraq. We are now at a point where AQC is but one group out of a number of groups that are actively engaged in an exchange of strategies and ideas. Facing increasing isolation and pressure, AQC is drawing upon the successful media models of affiliate groups, chief among them AQAP, in a bid to both remain relevant globally and within the local environments to which it has become so tied.

Christopher Anzalone is a doctoral student in the Institute of Islamic Studies at McGill University where he studies modern Muslim socio-political movements, Shi’ia Islam, and Islamist visual culture. He blogs at Views from the Occident.