In the last few years radical Islamist jihadis have exerted substantial efforts to boost their propaganda capabilities by encouraging their followers to exploit all means at their disposal, such as the internet, mobile phones and preaching in mosques. In his communiqués, al-Qaeda’s second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri has repeatedly emphasized the importance of jihadi media, declaring that 50 percent of the “war on the enemies” is a media war. The al-Qaeda leader has followed through by initiating an unprecedented public dialogue through jihadi websites (http://vb.roro44.com, December 18, 2007). In obedience to al-Zawahiri’s guidance, jihadis are now using their expertise in information technology to develop jihadi media capabilities. The most effective of these efforts is al-Qaeda’s so-called Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) “TV channel,” available on the video-sharing website YouTube (www.youtube.com:80/islamicstate).
Al-Zawahiri’s open dialogue was announced on jihadi websites in December 2007. Questions concerning global jihad were relayed through the most prominent jihadi websites (alfirdws.org; al-boraq.org; al-hesbah.com; ek-ls.org). Al-Qaeda’s media outlets are to publish al-Zawahiri’s answers some time after January 16, 2008. The most frequent questions posed to al-Zawahiri so far include: Why has al-Qaeda not attacked Jews in Tel Aviv? What is the purpose of attacking peaceful countries like Saudi Arabia that have many al-Qaeda sympathizers? How do you justify killing innocent bystanders in suicide attacks? Was there unanimous religious consent by ummah (Muslim community) sheikhs to perpetrate 9/11 attacks? Is al-Qaeda planning to attack targets in Egypt?
The call for open dialogue is the latest effort by mainstream al-Qaeda to reach as large an audience as possible and depict al-Qaeda leaders as intellectuals rather than mass murderers. Saudi Arabia’s “al-Sakinah” campaign for dialogue with extremists—headed by the Saudi minister for Islamic affairs—announced its readiness to open a religious debate with al-Zawahiri through any means of the latter’s choosing, but al-Zawahiri has not responded to Riyadh’s initiative (alhayat.com, December 25, 2007).
Another big stride in the jihadi media campaign is the establishment of the internet-based ISI “TV channel” on YouTube. The ISI account with YouTube was set up in January 2007 with only around 40 subscribers, but over 7,000 viewers. The site contains a large number of video clips of insurgent attacks on Coalition and local Iraqi security forces. Emotive speeches by ISI spokesmen and officials appeal to potential jihadis seeking to join al-Qaeda forces in Iraq.
In an attempt to portray al-Qaeda’s concern for humanitarian issues, the ISI site also contains a clip entitled “Care for Civilians during Jihad,” in which terrorists abort the detonation of a road bomb against a passing Coalition military convoy to avoid harming a civilian car parked right over the bomb. Viewers’ comments posted to the ISI YouTube account vary from generally supportive statements such as “May God render victorious the Islamic Iraq and protect its Emir and Jihadis,” to comments that carry operational messages between jihadis such as “Our brothers received one shipment of the subsidies you sent. Pray for us.”
This first-time al-Qaeda media effort to open public dialogue comes amid the controversy over the Salafi-Jihadist ideological reevaluations penned by the imprisoned Sayed Abdulaziz al-Sharif—better known as Dr. Fadl, a prominent Egyptian Salafi-Jihadist ideologue (see Terrorism Monitor, December 10, 2007). Dr. Fadl’s recantation of major Salafi-Jihadist extremism has harmed al-Qaeda’s capabilities to recruit new jihadis and secure funds for terrorism. In response, al-Qaeda is trying to counter Dr. Fadl’s attacks on the legitimacy of al-Qaeda’s terrorist operations.
It was once the common practice of Salafi terrorists to videotape their attacks and smuggle them from battlefields to collect money from rich Salafi-Jihadist adherents. Today, with the use of the YouTube “TV channel” and other file-hosting websites, al-Qaeda has ensured that its announcements and combat footage will reach its adherents quickly and without risk of interception.