Al-Qaeda’s Media Doctrine: Evolution from Cheerleader to Opinion-Shaper

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 4 Issue: 15

Al-Qaeda has always regarded media work as a key weapon in its arsenal, although the group has no claim to originating the use of the media as a weapon for the mujahideen. The Afghan Islamist insurgent organizations—especially Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-e-Islami and Ahmad Shah Masoud Jamiat-e-Islami—ran extensive if rudimentary media operations during their jihad against the Soviet Union. The groups employed inexpensive magazines, local radio broadcasts, newsletters, video and audiotapes and posters to promote their cause in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Arabs who came to support the Afghan insurgents took this locally-oriented media project, translated its products into Arabic and distributed them across the Arab world. Later, the Arabs and their respective NGOs reproduced these items in a number of languages, making them accessible to Muslim readers in Europe, the Far East, Africa, Central Asia and North America. The NGOs’ far flung branches, of course, served as an already-in-place distribution network. Osama bin Laden’s mentor, Sheikh Abdullah Azzam and his Maktab al-Khidamat (MK)—or Afghan Services Bureau—were leaders in this effort, and probably brought more of the media products to North America than any other NGO due to the multiple MK offices across the continent.

The initial content of these media productions was unsubtle, and meant to attract attention, evoke and maintain outrage against Moscow and sympathy for the Afghan people, and generate military, financial, and diplomatic support for the mujahideen. The themes were basic: the infidel Soviets invaded Muslim Afghanistan without provocation; the Red Army was murdering thousands of children, women and old men and driving millions of others into foreign refugee camps; and the brave and pious mujahideen were resisting the Soviets with only their faith and outdated small arms. The Islamists’ media efforts played particularly strongly on the David vs. Goliath theme, and in doing so helped to ensure that the Muslim world poured financial and human aid into Afghanistan until the Red Army was defeated in 1989. The same media, it must be said, stimulated a similar flow of aid from the United States and several of its European allies.

When al-Qaeda was formed in 1988, Osama bin Laden established a media department as part of the group’s organizational structure, and in essence built on the groundwork laid by the MK’s earlier efforts, of which he had both witnessed and helped fund in the 1980s. Al-Qaeda’s media operatives focused first on the David vs. Goliath theme and expanded it from Afghans vs. Soviets to Muslims worldwide vs. their multiple oppressors, infidel and Muslim. In addition to the Russians—who were still “occupying” Islam’s Central Asian territories—al-Qaeda focused on identifying India, Israel, China and especially the United States as the enemies of all Muslims; the latter because of its support for Israel and for the incumbent authoritarian Arab regimes. At this stage, however, al-Qaeda’s media apparatus was still rather unsubtle and focused on keeping the attention of Muslims, stimulating their continued support for mujahideen in various locales and urging them to begin thinking about themselves as part of a larger Muslim world, or ummah.

During bin Laden’s hiatus in Sudan from 1991-1996, al-Qaeda’s media operations tended to focus primarily on agitating for reform of the governmental system in Saudi Arabia. Bin Laden set up the “Advice and Reform Committee (ARC)” in London and it transmitted regular electronic newsletters in Saudi Arabia supporting the Islamic clerics, scholars and jurists there who were urging the al-Saud family to rule in a manner more consistent with Sharia law and thereby prevent civil disorder and violence. The ARC’s material was strongly anti-American, claiming that the al-Sauds were really clients of Washington, and that their decision to allow the deployment of U.S. forces in the kingdom in 1991 to evict Iraq from Kuwait proved they were apostates. Late in bin Laden’s Sudan residence, al-Qaeda’s media operations went relatively quiet as the ARC office in London was closed and the Khartoum regime pressed bin Laden to curtail his public denunciation of the Saudis.

The return of bin Laden and his senior lieutenants to Afghanistan in May 1996 was followed almost immediately by an intensification of al-Qaeda’s media operations. Bin Laden published his “Declaration of War on the United States” in late August 1996, and it inaugurated new media themes and goals. Gone for the most part were blunt attention-getting efforts, the frank appeals for money and the proposals that pro-Islamic reform in the Arab world might yet prevent violence (, September 1, 1996). They were replaced by a fixed determination to identify the United States as the enemy of all true Muslims and as the sponsor and protector of the Muslim regimes that repressed Muslims. More important, al-Qaeda’s media products sought to fix the concept of an armed, defensive jihad as the sole recourse left to Muslims; to destroy the defeatism common among Muslims after three Israeli defeats of Arab armies, and three defeats of Pakistan by India; and to provide both military and religious instruction that would teach Muslims how to defend themselves and then ultimately defeat the United States, its agent regimes and Israel.

Since 1996, al-Qaeda’s media operations have grown more sophisticated, pervasive and effective. From a media world in which al-Qaeda and other Islamist leaders repeatedly and simplistically urged Muslims to wage jihad “in God’s path,” emerged such sophisticated and multi-topic electronic journals as al-Ansar, al-Neda and Sawt al-Jihad. Today, al-Qaeda’s media arm provides in-depth religious instruction for Muslims on the justifications for jihad that are found in the Quran, the sayings and traditions of the Prophet Muhammad and Islamic history. Even using selective portions of scripture, al-Qaeda’s scholars have fashioned a cogent religious foundation for waging a defensive jihad that has won support among tens of millions of Muslims, and especially among the young. Militants are now armed with religious arguments with which to match, and in their own minds trump, the anti-jihad arguments of those the West regards as “moderate” Muslims.

Al-Qaeda also has developed what can only be judged as a spectacularly successful online university of strategy, tactics and training for guerrilla warfare and terrorist operations ( In journals such as those mentioned above and others, al-Qaeda’s analysts and strategists have developed a worldview that neatly fits the Islamists’ struggle into the context of contemporary international relations, explaining why there are solid geopolitical reasons—such as status quo U.S. foreign policies in the Muslim world, and the West’s dependence on Muslim oil and need to defend its access thereto—that make al-Qaeda’s war aims of “bleeding America to bankruptcy” and “spreading out U.S. forces” attainable (, December 25, 2005). On issues of conducting the war, the media organizations of al-Qaeda and its allies have provided detailed instructions on everything from building fertilizer bombs to small-unit infantry tactics, to techniques to resist interrogation, to a several-dozen-lesson course in conducting intelligence operations—including data collection and encryption, recruiting penetrations of state security services and conducting kidnappings and phone taps—authored by senior al-Qaeda lieutenant Sayf al-Adl (Terrorism Monitor, March 29). The use of these media products by would-be mujahideen around the world has been documented during the past year in places like Australia, Morocco, Canada, Germany and Britain, where downloaded materials have been seized when local Islamist cells were broken up by police. In essence, the intense, wide-ranging and highly professional training for insurgents and terrorists that Omar Nasiri described in his recent book Inside the Jihad, and which were once available only in al-Qaeda camps, is now available electronically wherever the internet is accessible.

Most recently, al-Qaeda’s al-Sahab media organization has demonstrated an ability to present, and help others to present, a reliable source of near real-time news coverage from the jihad fronts for Muslims. From both Iraq and Afghanistan—where heretofore the Taliban took almost no interest in media operations—there now flow almost daily, high-quality videos of mujahideen military activity against the forces of the U.S.-led coalitions, interviews with important insurgent commanders and tapes of the retribution exacted from those Muslims who cooperate with the “occupiers.” These tapes are a solid contribution to al-Qaeda’s goal of reducing Arab and Muslim defeatism, and offer Muslims around the world a third news source option. In addition to Western outlets like CNN, VOA and BBC, and the Arab satellite channels like al-Jazeera and al-Arabiyah, al-Qaeda and its allies have, via the internet, given Muslims another option for viewing the news from the war zones, and one with a blatant but well-informed Islamist slant.

Beyond its battlefield successes, therefore, al-Qaeda and its allies have scored an impressive media achievement, moving from the status of jihadi cheerleaders to that of highly modern and competent media operatives and propagandists whose focus is on influencing the Muslim audience. In addition to al-Sahab’s ability to dominate the international media for days at a time when it presents new audio or videotapes of bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, it and the other media organizations it supports or cooperates with have established a pervasive media presence via the internet. This not only provides on-demand religious and military instruction and near real-time news coverage, but denies the militaries of the United States and its Western allies one pillar of their military doctrine—information dominance. The success of al-Qaeda and the Islamists in the media arena has denied Western military planners much of their previous ability to shape the battlefield environment by controlling information flows. Indeed, it may be that the U.S. military and its allies are now in the position of having to look for means with which to break the Islamists’ information domination on battlefields and contested regions across the Muslim world.