Fox News “falls into the abyss,” and CNN “seems to be in cooperation with the government.” But the American Broadcasting Channel, ABC, is “one of the best [news] channels, as far as we are concerned,” according to a 2011 memo discovered in Osama bin Laden’s safe house in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Mixed up with notes on the ideal number of suicide bombers for a mission – two – and jotted worries about global warming, the internal Al Qaeda document is titled The Issue of Preparing for the Tenth Anniversary, and How It Will Be Marketed, and How to Exploit the Media in General.
Terrorists have always courted the press. In the 1950s, Algerian revolutionaries had “Directive Number Nine”: it is always better to kill one man where the American press hear of it than nine where no one will find out. In the 1980s, the leader of Northern Irish political party Sinn Féin described its relationship to its militant wing, the Irish Republican Army, as “armed struggle becomes armed propaganda.” And in the 1990s, Al Qaeda provided Qatari news network Al Jazeera with pre-recorded press releases.
But since 2001, Al Qaeda has become the press. It has launched an online news channel, two magazines (one, aimed at women, recommends skincare tricks like staying indoors with your face covered), and a prolific video production house called Al Sahab, “the cloud,” which creates feature-length documentaries and slick viral videos packed with speeches and explosions, designed for smartphones and iPods. By 2007, Al Sahab was releasing a new video online every three days, distributed through a growing network of jihadi web forums whose members added subtitles in every language and shared across social-media platforms.
“Nowadays, Al Qaeda is going local,” says Augusto Valeriani, associate fellow of the Arab Media Centre at the University of Westminster, London, UK. “Much of the Al Qaeda social-media effort has been focused on ‘inspiring’ potential followers, showing them that they can easily join the jihad even with small actions, even just sharing a video on Facebook or liking a post.” It’s a new era of terrorism recruitment, pioneered by the recently assassinated “Facebook Sheik” Anwar al-Awlaki, whose Facebook fans numbered in the thousands and whose YouTube videos were viewed more than 3.5 million times before being removed.
[ 1 ] Osama bin Laden wearing a US-military field jacket in a screenshot from a video message released on October 7, 2001.
[ 2 ] Before his death, US security analysts would examine the grayness of bin Laden’s beard to determine each video’s production date.
[ 3 ] Bin Laden eventually switched from cave settings to digitally generated backgrounds of comfortable offices.
[ 4 ] This image quality suggests that the camera was tripod-mounted and the video was not hastily made.
Screenshots from selected video messages issued by Al Qaeda militants and affiliates. 2004 - 2013.
From the pages of COLORS #86 - Making the News.