Will the Army Ever Learn Good Media Relations Techniques?
Walter Reed as a Case Study
COL James T. Currie
Note: Previously published in Military Review, May-June 2008, and reprinted with permission. The views expressed in this article are the author's and are not necessarily those of the Industrial College of the Armed Forces, the National Defense University, or the Department of Defense.
If you ever wanted a near-perfect case study of how not to deal with the press, the Walter Reed Army Medical Center (WRAMC) controversy would be a great place to start. Of course, the WRAMC episode also offers lessons in leadership and accountability. Some of those lessons manifest themselves in this article, but the focus here is on the Army's bungled interaction with the news media and on how to avoid a repeat of this nightmarish fiasco.
On Sunday, 18 February 2007, The Washington Post-with a circulation of just over 900,000-carried a major story by Dana Priest and Anne Hull, two of the newspaper's staff reporters. Titled "Soldiers Face Neglect, Frustration at Army's Top Medical Facility," the story ignited a firestorm in Congress and the Department of Defense (DOD). The opening paragraph of the story was an eye-catcher: "Behind the door of Army Spec. Jeremy Duncan's room, part of the wall is torn and hangs in the air, weighted down with black mold. When the wounded combat engineer stands in his shower and looks up, he can see the bathtub on the floor above though a rotted hole. The entire building, constructed between the world wars, often smells like greasy carry-out. Signs of neglect are everywhere; mouse droppings, belly-up cockroaches, stained carpets, cheap mattresses."1 Duncan had suffered a broken back in Iraq, lost an ear there, and had been brought to WRAMC to be treated for his injuries and to recuperate.
The Post story went on to describe how the two reporters had spent four months visiting WRAMC, talking with patients and their families, and seeing for themselves the conditions at what they dubbed "the other Walter Reed."2 The reporters had interviewed the WRAMC's commander, MG George W. Weightman, and included his comments and explanations as part of the story.3
The story was a nightmare for the Army, and the Post reprised it the following day with a lengthy piece about the WRAMC's Mologne House and the Soldiers housed there. A facility originally designed for housing families of WRAMC patients, Mologne House now accommodates recuperating Soldiers and their families. Although the story describes Mologne House's wingback chairs and fine chandeliers in its first paragraph, the story's emphasis was not on the physical surrounding, but on the bureaucratic intransigence convalescing Soldiers and their families encountered: "Mostly what the Soldiers do together is wait-for appointments, evaluations, signatures, and lost paperwork to be found". The reporters quoted the wife of one Soldier as saying, "If Iraq don't kill you, Walter Reed will."4
The Army's handling of this public relations disaster began before the Post even printed the initial story. The Post sent a long list of questions to the Army six days before publication of the Priest/Hull article.5 According to the Army, none of these questions dealt specifically with the conditions patients experienced at WRAMC. The questions related solely to the process and paperwork of medical disability claims and how the Army handled them. None of the questions alerted the Army to issues that would be the focus of the Post's story-the condition of the facility in which it housed patients. COL Daniel Baggio, the chief of media relations for Army public affairs at the time, noted that, "Building 18 was not even mentioned in the questions from the Post."6
The Army took advantage of its receipt of the list of questions from the Post to stage what the newspaper's media critic, Howard Kurtz, labeled a "preemptive news briefing."7 Calling in six rival news organizations, the Army offered them what it knew about the forthcoming Post story and the Army's response to it, asking them not to publish anything-"embargo the story" is the term used in the news business-until the early Sunday edition of the newspaper hit local grocery and convenience stores on Saturday afternoon.8
The preemptive briefing succeeded in part. The Associated Press (AP) ran a story on Saturday that cited MG Weightman several times. The Army is aware, said Weightman, of complaints from some of the patients at WRAMC. "From our internal reviews of these perceptions," he was quoted as saying, "we have been modifying our policies and procedures as necessary to address these perceptions."9 The AP story did not mention conditions in Building 18, apparently because the Army did not know that the conditions there would be part of the Post story and, therefore, did not brief the other news organizations on the subject.10 The AP story did not receive much play, however, because there was not much news in it. Problems with bureaucracies, after all, are nothing new in Washington.
Of the six news organizations the Army alerted, only the Los Angeles Times was problematic. On the positive side, the Times quoted Weightman acknowledging many of the problems at WRAMC and noted that he was increasing the number of personnel assigned to care for wounded veterans, a detail the AP story omitted. From the Army's perspective, this was a good revelation. It demonstrated the first rule in dealing with a negative story: admit when you have made a mistake, and tell the world what you are doing to correct it.
On the other hand, the Times quoted extensively from the Post story, giving the Post's effort a presence on the West Coast that might not otherwise have been there. The Times also advanced the Post's account by reporting Paul Reickhoff, the head of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, as saying that he had a "friend who had suffered 'catastrophic injuries' in Iraq and was forced to 'carry his paperwork through the snow' when he became an outpatient."11 Reickhoff's comments did not appear in the Post story, so this new detail added to the Army's public relations problems, rather than reducing them.
To make matters worse, the Army's preemptive briefing spurred the publication of yet more investigative reporting on WRAMC. One of the newspapers invited to the briefing was the Army Times, which declined to attend. Instead, the Army Times decided to release its own story on WRAMC, which it had been working on for several months. According to the Columbia Journalism Review Daily, Army Times had intended to publish its story several weeks later, but the timing of the Army's briefing caused this Gannett-owned weekly to post its story online immediately, with the print version coming out on Monday, 19 February, doubling the Army's media troubles.12
The Army's attempt at media manipulation through the "preemptive news briefing" thus assumed a problematic life of its own. COL Baggio insisted, however, that the Army had done nothing wrong in calling in the outside reporters. "I wish I had invited in more of them," he related when asked about the matter.13 His take on the episode was that the briefing allowed the Army to get its message out simultaneously with the publication of the Post story, rather than waiting for the next news cycle. That view is one way of looking at the situation, but sharing the Post story with rival news organizations, even with the embargo provision, caused distress in press circles that led to unpleasant ramifications.
Peter Spiegel, who wrote the Los Angeles Times story, told Kurtz, author of the Columbia story cited above, "It made us feel very uncomfortable that we were being set up to be the Army's public affairs arm."14 The briefing also drew a negative reaction from the lead reporter on the Post story. "How do you think this is going to affect our relationship?" Priest asked an Army public affairs officer. "Do you think I'm going to be willing to give you that much time to respond, if you're going to turn around and tell my competitors?"15
One can also assume that various editors at the Post will now be wary about dealing with Army public affairs officers in the future, as will other journalists. They will think to themselves, "If the Army did this to as powerful a newspaper as the Post, what will they do with me and my story? Maybe I shouldn't give them a preview of it." This, of course, is pure speculation, but it is realistic to assume a normal person would react that way.
So, what should the Army have done when it received at least a partial heads-up from the newspaper, conditions in Building 18 not included? When given such a preview, most organizations would use the time to alert higher-ups as to what was coming, prepare counter-points to the story, and prepare to point out any factual mistakes. Waiting until the publication of the story before calling in other news organizations is not only the right thing to do, but also the pragmatically prudent thing to do. Not engaging in manipulative, preemptive briefings might mean never having to address a story at all. At the very least such forbearance avoids the potential for unintentionally spawning tangent stories that can compound the difficulties.
Three days after the Post's initial story, the news got worse for the Army. On Wednesday, 21 February, the Post ran an editorial addressing problems at WRAMC. Titled "Rotten Homecoming," the editorial skewered the Army for the "bureaucratic contempt and physical squalor that too often await badly injured outpatient Soldiers" at WRAMC. It also cited Weightman's pledge that "conditions on the post will improve rapidly," calling the WRAMC commander's response "commendable."16
I should interject here that, of all the high-level Army officials involved in this story, only Weightman seems to have understood how to deal with the press on a series of negative stories like these. Unfortunately, he became the first designated fall guy for the problems at WRAMC-even though he had apparently begun to clean up the mess he found when he took over the command in August 2006.17
The same two reporters who wrote the initial story and its Monday follow-up (Priest and Hull) had another piece in the newspaper that same day. "Top Army officials yesterday visited Building 18 . . ." the reporters wrote. "Army Secretary Francis Harvey and Vice Chief of Staff Richard Cody toured the building and spoke to Soldiers as workers in protective masks stripped mold from the walls and tore up soiled carpets." Weightman was quoted as saying that "all of the staff increases he had requested would be met." Army Secretary Harvey was also quoted on the causes of the problems at WRAMC: "It's a failure . . . in the garrison leadership . . . that should have never happened, and we are quickly going to rectify that situation."18 It was clear that the search for a scapegoat had begun, but at least people at high levels in the Army were beginning to acknowledge that there were problems at WRAMC.
By Thursday, Army Surgeon General Kevin Kiley felt that the situation at WRAMC was under control. In what was clearly the beginning of his problems in dealing with the public relations disaster, Kiley offered his thoughts at a news conference on the grounds of the medical facility. Referring to the building the Post had identified as filled with "mouse droppings, belly-up cockroaches, and stained carpets," he told assembled reporters, "I do not consider Building 18 to be substandard." Minimizing the conditions at WRAMC and ignoring the systemic problems identified in the Post's stories and addressed by his subordinate, Weightman, Kiley reported, "We frankly fixed all of those problems."19 In making such statements, Kiley violated another of the key rules in addressing a public relations disaster: do not try to deny the obvious. If high-ranking officials did not see mouse droppings and mold-encrusted walls as a problem at a medical facility, then the Army is in worse shape than anyone thought.
Kiley then offered a theme of detachment that proved all too revealing and eventually led to his downfall. In doing so, he provided another example of how not to address real problems. Referring to the Post's stories as "one-sided representations," he defended the conditions in Building 18, saying, "This is not a horrific, catastrophic failure at Walter Reed."20 The "one-sided representation" comment is what stands out. One wonders what he thought the other side of the story was. Was he thinking it would excuse the situation if some rooms in the building did not have mold, or rodents, or dead cockroaches? This theme would surface again.
The WRAMC episode clearly damaged the Army's credibility. The best approach would have been for Army leaders to understand and accept the reality that WRAMC had issues with its physical plant, with the conditions in which some recuperating Soldiers and Marines were living, and with DOD bureaucratic procedures for designating levels of disability. The Post's accounts never made clear, however, that the Army's medical department was not responsible for these bureaucratic inconveniences. Had the principals involved responded more deliberately, addressing such inaccuracies would have ameliorated the cumulative impact. Instead, their defiance born of dismissive arrogance prevented constructive engagement of the problems themselves. Kiley evinced an attitude that the story was the problem, not the conditions at WRAMC.
On 1 March, the Post reported that the Army had "relieved of duty several low-ranking Soldiers who managed outpatients"-presumably shortly after the initial story had come out. But there was no leadership mea culpa from the Army's medical department.21 That same day, the higher-level scapegoating began. Weightman was removed as WRAMC commander. However, his firing again compounded the Army's problems because his replacement, Kiley, had been in charge at WRAMC before becoming Surgeon General in 2004.22
The Post's story pointed out that Weightman had only been in command at WRAMC since August 2006 and had attempted to correct some of the deficiencies he found there. The Post noted that Kiley's appointment "surprised some Defense Department officials because Soldiers, their families, and veterans' advocates have complained that he had long been aware of problems at WRAMC and did nothing to improve its outpatient care." In an ominous portent, the Post report also observed that Defense Secretary Robert Gates "was not involved in the appointment of Kiley."23
By the next day, Army Secretary Harvey was also gone, presumably because of his role in naming Kiley as interim commander at WRAMC. Secretary Gates was quoted as saying, "The problems at Walter Reed appear to be problems of leadership." Gates, who never served in the military, seems to have understood intuitively that heaping all of the blame on Weightman, while placing Kiley back in charge of WRAMC, was simply not going to wash.
Kiley, meanwhile, continued to dig in with greater defiance. "I want to defend myself," he said. "It was . . . yellow journalism at its worst . . ."24 Almost immediately, Kiley was replaced at WRAMC by MG Eric B. Schoomaker, younger brother of the Army's Chief of Staff.25 However, the damage had been done. The Army had already lost a major general and a service secretary, plus various lower-ranking Soldiers, and the bleeding still had not been stopped.
Secretary Harvey violated a key principle of leadership: find out who is actually responsible before you start firing people. Taking action for its own sake is rarely appropriate, although it seems common enough in Washington. As Secretary of the Army, Harvey should have been more deliberate, realizing that the problems at WRAMC had to have developed over a period of years. Kiley had recently served an entire tour of stewardship, and there had not been enough time since then for those conditions to fester out of nothing.
At this point in the story, two things stand out clearly: Secretary of Defense Gates "got it"; he understood the problems, and much of the Army's leadership did not. For example, the same day that he fired Harvey, Gates was quoted as saying, "I am disappointed that some in the Army have not adequately appreciated the seriousness of the situation pertaining to outpatient care at WRAMC. Some have shown too much defensiveness and have not shown enough focus on digging into and addressing the problems."26
Long before matters had reached this point, however, President Bush's office weighed in. He was "deeply concerned," said Press Secretary Tony Snow. Members of Congress also expressed concern. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi asked the Armed Services Committee to investigate the matter and several presidential contenders decried conditions at the facility.27 But some folks in the Army-or recently part of the Army-still did not seem to understand.
As if he were not listening and had not heard the statements of concern from the country's political leaders, former Secretary Harvey-perhaps understandably, given his fate-continued to place the blame on the news media and not on those running WRAMC or on himself for his poor choice of Weightman's successor. The Post's stories lacked balance, said Harvey. He then mirrored Kiley's fateful and incomprehensible detachment by asking, "Where's the other side of the story?"28
At a hearing before a congressional committee, Kiley issued a convoluted admission of responsibility of sorts: "I'm trying not to say that I'm not accountable," said the Surgeon General. Then a reporter asked him how Kiley could have failed to know about problems that existed directly across the street from his quarters. In one of those four-second sound bites that so often become the emblematic video clips that make the evening news, Kiley's ironic detachment sealed his fate. "I don't do barracks inspections at Walter Reed," said the general.29 While there might have been some hope for Kiley's survival before that moment, those eight words-featured with his photo on the front page of the next day's Post-signaled his demise. He uttered the words on Monday, 5 March 2007, and handicappers were betting that he would not last a week. They were right. On Monday, 13 March, Kiley announced he was retiring, having submitted his request to do so to acting Army Secretary Pete Geren the previous day.30
According to the Post, Geren, a former Democratic Congressman from Texas, "had sought Kiley's removal in recent days."31 MG Gale S. Pollock, Kiley's deputy, was quickly named interim Surgeon General. Unfortunately, she, too, immediately had her problems with the press.32
At no time over the several weeks that this debacle took place did anyone representing the Army ever point out a factual error in the reporting. There were accusations of exaggeration, but never any concrete examples demonstrating that any reporter had written anything misleading or inaccurate-for instance, the fact that the Byzantine bureaucracy has nothing to do with Army medicine. The profound inference that emerges from this and other aspects of the debacle is that the Army must be doing a terrible job of preparing its general officers to work with the press.
The "press-as-enemy" syndrome, so common during and after Vietnam, is still alive and well among general officers in today's Army. This is true despite the fact that not one of them served while the Vietnam War was going on.33 This inherited fear of the press betrays an untoward fear of transparency. One wonders if it stems from a corrosive lack of confidence in the rightness of one's aims and the strength of one's abilities. It certainly reveals a skewed attitude toward public service. Following are some lessons Army leadership can take away from this fiasco.
In the final analysis, if senior leaders can see what went wrong in the Army's handling of this abysmal series of revelations and then draw the right conclusions, perhaps some good will have come out of this episode, painful as it was. For example, will Army officers continue to whine about press coverage, or will we realize that the press is always going to be there, doing a necessary job for a free republic? The press has a right to be there, and the sooner we embrace it, the better off we will be. We have to accept that having the press watching what we do and reporting on it will make us more accountable to our citizens and to Soldiers under our stewardship. Failing to accept that fact is the zenith of hypocrisy.
The upshot of this entire mess is that it was, indeed, a mess, and the Army is now doing what it should have done years ago: cleaning up. Would the Army have done so without the press revelations? Would commanders support the Army Wounded Warrior program with garrison budgets the way they do now had the WRAMC situation not surfaced? One would hope so, but the Post's stories certainly accelerated the process. Former DOD Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs Torie Clarke wrote a book on this subject titled Lipstick on a Pig.36 If what you have is swinishly dirty, as Clarke says, putting a shine on it will not fool anyone in an open society. Even states without a free press do not always get away with that.
1. Dana Priest and Anne Hull, "Soldiers Face Neglect, Frustration at Army's Top Medical Facility," The Washington Post, 18 February 2007, A0.
3. Ibid., A03.
4. Anne Hull and Dana Priest, "The Hotel Aftermath," The Washington Post, 19 February 2007, A01.
5. Telephonic interview, James T. Currie with Howard Kurtz, 29 March 2007.
6. Telephonic interview, James T. Currie with COL Daniel Baggio, Chief of Media Relations, Army Public Affairs Office, 28 March 2007.
7. Howard Kurtz, "The Army's Preemptive News Briefing," The Washington Post, 24 February 2007, C1.
8. Telephonic interview, James T. Currie with COL Daniel Baggio, Chief of Media Relations, Army Public Affairs Office, 28 March 2007.
9. "Head of Army's Walter Reed Hospital Acknowledges Outpatient Complaints," The Associated Press, 17 February 2007.
10. Telephonic interview, James T. Currie with COL Daniel Baggio, Chief of Media Relations, Army Public Affairs Office, 28 March 2007.
11. Peter Spiegel, "Walter Reed Couldn't Handle Wounded from Iraq, Leader Says," http://latimes.com, 18 February 2007.
12. Alia Malek, "Army Tries to Spin Walter Reed Story, Gets Bitten in the Ass," CJR Daily, 1 March 2007.
13. Telephonic interview, James T. Currie with COL Daniel Baggio, Chief of Media Relations, Army Public Affairs Office, 28 March 2007.
14. Howard Kurtz, "The Army's Preemptive News Briefing," The Washington Post, 24 February 2007, C1.
16. "Rotten Homecoming: This is No Way to Treat a Veteran," The Washington Post, 21 February 2007, A14.
17. The senior chaplain at WRAMC, John R. Kallerson, sent out a broadcast e-mail on 11 March in which he stated that immediately after assuming command, MG Weightman had requested funds for repairs at WRAMC and that it had taken the Army four months to come through with such, which was not very long before the stories broke in the press.
18. Dana Priest and Anne Hull, "Swift Action Promised at Walter Reed," The Washington Post, 21 February 2007, A08.
19. Dana Milbank, "Painting Over the Problems at Walter Reed's Building 18," The Washington Post, 23 February 2007, A02.
21. Anne Hull and Dana Priest, "Hospital Officials Knew of Neglect," The Washington Post, 1 March 2007, A01.
22. Steve Vogel and William Branigin, "Army Fires Commander of Walter Reed," The Washington Post, 2 March 2007, A01.
24. Thomas E. Ricks and Ann Scott Tyson, "Defense Secretary Sends Stern Message About Accountability," The Washington Post, 3 March 2007, A08.
26. Michael Abramowitz and Steve Vogel, "Army Secretary Ousted," The Washington Post, 3 March 2007, A01.
27. Dana Priest and Anne Hull, "Swift Action Promised at Walter Reed," The Washington Post, 21 February 2007, A08.
29. Dana Milbank, "Two Generals Provide a Contrast in Accountability," The Washington Post, 6 March 2007, A01.
30. Josh White, "Surgeon General of Army Steps Down," The Washington Post, 13 March 2007, A01.
33. Said General William Tecumseh Sherman: "I regard all these newspaper harpies as spies and think they could be punished as such." James M. Perry, A Bohemian Brigade: The Civil War Correspondents, Mostly Rough, Sometimes Ready (New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2000), 176.
34. I found the following stories, for example, with just a few minutes of effort with Google and a troll through The Washington Post archives:
35. Howard Kurtz does relate a similar occurrence involving a 2006 exchange among the Treasury Department, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal. See Kurtz, "The Army's Preemptive News Briefing," The Washington Post, 24 February 2007, C1.
36. Torie Clark, Lipstick on a Pig (New York: Free Press, 2006).
The Al-Qaeda Media Machine
Philip Seib, J.D.
Note: Previously published in Military Review, May-June 2008, and reprinted with permission.
Like an aging rock star who has dropped out of the public eye, Osama bin Laden occasionally decides to remind people that he is still around. He makes video appearances that first appear on Arabic television channels but which the world quickly sees on television or on multiple Web sites. Bin Laden's message is "Hey, they haven't caught me yet," which cheers up his fans, but his threats and pronouncements are mostly terrorist boilerplate. For all the parsing of his sentences and scrutinizing of the color of his beard, hardly anything in his videos helps us better understand and combat terrorism.
Meanwhile, significant al-Qaeda media efforts go largely unnoticed by news organizations and the public. This myopia is characteristic of an approach to antiterrorism that focuses on bin Laden as terrorist-celebrity, while ignoring the deep-rooted dynamism of a global enemy. Most jihadist media products make no mention of bin Laden, but they deserve attention because they are vital to al-Qaeda's mission and to its efforts to extend its influence. Al-Qaeda has become a significant player in global politics largely because it has developed a sophisticated media strategy.
Lacking a tangible homeland-other than, perhaps, scattered outposts in the wilds of Waziristan-al-Qaeda has established itself as a virtual state that communicates with its "citizens" and cultivates an even larger audience through masterful use of the media, with a heavy reliance on the Internet. For every conventional video performance by bin Laden that appears on Al-Jazeera and other major television outlets, there are hundreds of online videos that proselytize, recruit, and train the al-Qaeda constituency.
Growth of Media Machine
The al-Qaeda media machine has grown steadily. Al-Qaeda and its jihadist brethren use more than 4,000 Web sites to encourage the faithful and threaten their enemies. The al-Qaeda production company, As-Sahab, released 16 videos during 2005, 58 in 2006, and more than 90 in 2007. Like a Hollywood studio, As-Sahab understands what will attract an audience and how to shape the al-Qaeda message.
You will not get As-Sahab's videos from Netflix, but any Web user can easily find them, and the selection is wide. In 2006, the Global Islamic Media Front, an al-Qaeda distribution arm, offered "Jihad Academy," which includes footage of attacks on U.S. troops, insurgents assembling improvised explosive devices (IEDs), prospective suicide bombers reading their last testaments, and general exhortations to join the war against the United States, Israel, and other foes.
Another distributor with ties to al-Qaeda, Ansar al-Sunnah's Media Podium, produced "Top 20," a selection of filmed IED attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq "in order to encourage the jihad and the competition between the mujahideen to battle and defeat their enemy." For this greatest hits video, criteria for selection included "the degree of security conditions while filming the operation's site" and "precision in hitting the target."1
With the stirring music and graphic images of an action movie, the videos fortify the resolve of the al-Qaeda faithful and, even more importantly, capture the attention of 15-year-olds in cyber cafes-the next generation of al-Qaeda warriors. Al-Qaeda takes recruitment seriously, recognizing that potential martyrs require convincing that their sacrifice will be noble and worthwhile. Once inspired by the videos, the prospective jihadist might move on to a Web posting such as "How to Join al-Qaeda," which tells him: "You feel that you want to carry a weapon, fight, and kill the occupiers . . . . Set a goal; for example, assassinating the American ambassador-is it so difficult?"2
Spreading the Message
As-Sahab is part of the media department bin Laden established when al-Qaeda formed in 1988. The first message to emerge was that al-Qaeda was a brave underdog facing the monstrous Soviet Union. Soon thereafter, al-Qaeda announced its resolve to take on other purported enemies of Islam. In 1996, bin Laden issued his "Declaration of War on the United States" and used the al-Qaeda media machinery to spread the call for jihad.
Before a U.S. air strike killed him in June 2006, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the self-proclaimed head of al-Qaeda in Iraq, took this kind of media work to a new level. He first displayed his grisly flair for using media when terrorists abducted American businessman Nicholas Berg and beheaded him in Iraq in 2004, with Zarqawi apparently the executioner. The terrorists videotaped the beheading and presented it on a Web site, from which it was copied to other sites and downloaded 500,000 times within 24 hours.3
The following year, Zarqawi began an online magazine, Zurwat al-Sanam ("The Tip of the Camel's Hump," meaning ideal Islamic practice), which featured 43 pages of text, including stories about fallen jihadists and photographs of Osama bin Laden and George W. Bush.4 Later, Zarqawi's "information wing"-which included his own online press secretary-released "All Religion will be for Allah," a 46-minute video with scenes including a brigade of suicide bombers in training. As The Washington Post reported, the video was offered on a specially designed Web page with many options for downloading, including Windows Media and RealPlayer versions for those with high-speed Internet connections, another version for those with dial-up, and one for downloading it to play on a cell phone.5 Production quality has become more sophisticated, with many videos now including subtitles in several languages and some featuring 3-D animation.6
Al-Qaeda-related operations outside the center of the Middle East have also copied the As-Sahab look, as we can see in the al-Qaeda organization's video productions in the Islamic Maghreb. Videos of the December 2006 attack in Algeria on a convoy of employees of Halliburton's subsidiary Brown & Root-Condor and the April 2007 attacks in Algiers featured the professional technical quality of As-Sahab productions. Terrorism experts speculated that an al-Qaeda condition for affiliating with the North African Salafist Group for Call and Combat was an upgrade of the local group's media competency.7
Even cartoons depicting children as suicide bombers are easily available on the Web, and Hamas's Al-Aqsa Television has featured children's programming that extols martyrdom. On one popular program on this channel, "Pioneers of Tomorrow," a Mickey Mouse-like character becomes a martyr when he refuses to turn over his family's land to Israelis. In another episode, the child host of the show sings, "We can defeat the colonialist army. We have regained our freedom through bloodshed and the wrath of fire. If we receive good tidings, we will meet our death with no hesitation."8 It is hard to calculate the damage that the poisonous residue of such fare may cause over time.
Through news reports, satellite television provides al-Qaeda and the public with graphic representations of al-Qaeda's work and occasional glimpses of bin Laden himself. More significantly, the Internet supplies more detailed versions of what the news media have covered, all the while furthering operational connectivity and a sense of cohesion. Michael Scheuer observed that "the Internet today allows militant Muslims from every country to meet, talk, and get to know each other electronically, a familiarization and bonding process that in the 1980s and early 1990s required a trip to Sudan, Yemen, Afghanistan, or Pakistan."9 As author Gabriel Weimann noted, Sawt al-Jihad (Voice of Jihad), an al-Qaeda online magazine, reflects the multiple purposes of such ventures: "Orchestrating attacks against Western targets is important, but the main objective remains that of mobilizing public support and gaining grassroots legitimacy among Muslims."10
A further aspect of this effort to build a Web-based constituency is an online library of training materials explaining how to mix ricin poison, how to build a bomb using commercial chemicals, how to sneak through Syria and into Iraq, and other such advice. Experts who answer questions on message boards and chat rooms support some of these items.
Another al-Qaeda online magazine, Muaskar al-Battar (Camp of the Sword), underscored the value of online instruction: "Oh Mujahid brother, in order to join the great training camps you don't have to travel to other lands. Alone in your home or with a group of your brothers, you too can begin to execute the training program."11 To enhance cyber security for such connections, the online Technical Mujahid magazine was begun in late 2006 to instruct its readers about electronic data security and other high-tech matters.
During the past few years, the online training curriculum has expanded to include small-unit infantry tactics and intelligence operations such as collecting data, recruiting members of state security services, and setting up phone taps. Readers have downloaded this material in places such as Australia, Canada, Germany, Great Britain, and Morocco, and it has turned up when law enforcement raided cells in those countries. Some intelligence experts argue that online training has its limits-that technical skills and tradecraft require more than Web-based instruction. However, although al-Qaeda's students might be able to glean only rudimentary knowledge from Internet sources, it is enough to make them dangerous.12
The al-Qaeda leadership has stressed Internet use in directives to its citizens/followers, as was illustrated in this message carried on one of its Web sites:
This appreciation of the value of the Internet is nothing new for al-Qaeda. Even when under attack by U.S. forces in late 2001, al-Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan clung to their high-tech tools. A Pakistani journalist who was on the scene wrote that while retreating, "every second al-Qaeda member was carrying a laptop computer along with his Kalashnikov."14
The Internet allows access to an almost infinite array of information providers and is attractive for other reasons, as well. For terrorist organizations, the Internet is preferable to satellite television because it provides unmatched opportunities to reach a global audience with video productions without having to rely on any particular television channels. In addition, using the Internet avoids problems associated with distributing a physical product. Instead of establishing clearing houses to mail videos-a process that law enforcement agencies were able to disrupt-these groups now rely on pirated video-editing software and Web sites onto which material may be uploaded for their followers to access. These sites feature items such as the 118-page "Comprehensive Security Encyclopedia," which was posted in 2007 with detailed instructions about improving Internet and telephone security, purchasing weapons, handling explosives, transferring funds to jihadist groups, and other useful hints.15
One of the masters of this craft was Younis Tsouli, a young Moroccan whose nom de cyber-guerre was "Irhabi007." Based in England, Tsouli provided technical skills needed by al-Qaeda after it left Afghanistan and established an online headquarters. He assisted Zarqawi when he used the Internet as part of his war plan in Iraq. Tsouli was adroit at hacking into servers that he then used to distribute large video files. (One of his hacking victims was the computer system of the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department.)
Arrested in London in 2005 and sent to prison by a British court in 2007, Tsouli understood the effectiveness of the Internet in reaching potential recruits for al-Qaeda's cause. The 2006 U.S. National Intelligence Estimate acknowledged the importance of this: "The radicalization process is occurring more quickly, more widely, and more anonymously in the Internet age, raising the likelihood of surprise attacks by unknown groups whose members and supporters may be difficult to pinpoint."16
By mid-2007, some al-Qaeda-related Web sites were broadening their agendas. "Media jihad" included entering online forums with large American audiences in order to influence "the views of the weak-minded American" who "is an idiot and does not know where Iraq is." The "weak-minded" were to be targeted with videos showing U.S. troops under fire and with false messages purportedly from American Soldiers and their families lamenting their involvement in the Iraq war. At the same time, Web forums for Islamist audiences featured information gleaned from Western news reports, such as poll results showing lack of public support for the war and, occasionally, information about weapons systems that news stories published.
Beyond the material directly addressing warfare, such Web sites devote some of their content to ideological and cultural issues that are at the heart of efforts to win the support of young Muslims. Because al-Qaeda's leaders believe this will be a long war, they see appealing to prospective jihadists and enlarging their ranks as crucial to their eventual success. The number of English-language jihadist sites has been growing, with approximately 100 available as vehicles for militant Islamic views. Some of these operate overtly. In October 2007, the New York Times profiled a 21-year-old Saudi-born American living in North Carolina whose blog extols bin Laden's view of the world. He includes videos designed to appeal to North American and European Muslims who are angry about the Iraq war and are responsive to claims that Islam is under siege.
This blogger had apparently not violated any U.S. laws, so he continued his online efforts, reaching-he claimed-500 regular readers. Although some law enforcement officials want to shut down such sites and prosecute their proprietors, some terrorism experts propose that such sites be allowed to operate in public view because they may provide insights into terrorist thinking and operations.17
Al-Qaeda's recruiting efforts have targeted British and American Muslims, such as a 2006 video that described rapes and murders allegedly committed by U.S. Soldiers in Iraq. Released to mark the first anniversary of the 7/7 bombings in London, the video featured bin Laden's deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri; Shehzad Tanweer, one of the London bombers who died during the attack; and Adam Gadahn, also known as "Azzam the American," who grew up in California.
Tanweer, delivering his final testament in English with a Yorkshire accent, said: "We are 100 percent committed to the cause of Islam. We love death the way you love life. . . . Oh, Muslims of Britain, you, day in and day out on your TV sets, watch and hear about the oppression of the Muslims, from the east to the west. But yet you turn a blind eye and carry on with your lives as if you never heard anything, or as if it does not concern you. . . . Oh, Muslims of Britain, stand up and be counted. . . . Fight against the disbelievers, for it is an obligation made on you by Allah." To this, Gadahn added, "It's crucial for Muslims to keep in mind that the Americans, the British, and the other members of the coalition of terror have intentionally targeted Muslim civilians."18
Among more recent videos aimed at a U.S. audience is "To Black Americans," which features Zawahiri criticizing Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice and introducing video clips of Malcolm X talking about the unfair treatment of African-Americans. (These video clips date back to the Vietnam War years.) This video resembles Cold War-era communist propaganda, and it does not appear to have caused much of a stir, but it gives some indication of where al-Qaeda's propaganda efforts are heading.
Terrorist organizations see young Muslims in non-Islamic countries as likely prospects for recruitment, and so they use media tools to stoke anger about purported economic and political discrimination. Al-Qaeda is apparently trying to create an online community where members of the Muslim diaspora will feel at home. Once they are part of this "community," they can view a steady stream of jihadist messages of varying degrees of subtlety.
Al-Qaeda recognizes the value of developing online networks. Chris Zambelis wrote, "The Internet enables like-minded militants to associate and communicate anonymously in cyber social networks. This process reinforces their sense of purpose and duty and encourages solidarity with the greater cause."19 Extending such efforts beyond an Arabic-speaking core of support is a crucial part of al-Qaeda's expansion.
YouTube and other such sites make videos like "To Black Americans" easily available, which differentiates today's propaganda from its antecedents during the Cold War and earlier. It can reach a global audience instantly. Just how big that audience really is remains open to question, but as al-Qaeda increases its video production output, it seems to be operating on the theory that at least some of its messages will reach its desired viewers.
During the second half of 2007, U.S. forces in Iraq shut down at least a half-dozen al-Qaeda media outposts in that country. One house the U.S. raided in Samarra contained 12 computers, 65 hard drives, and a film studio. The American military effort to halt such media operations relied in part on the belief of GEN David Petraeus that "the war is not only being fought on the ground in Iraq but also in cyberspace."20 Petraeus's concern relates to an issue raised in U.S. Army and Marine Corps Field Manual, Counterinsurgency-insurgents attempt to shape the information environment to their advantage by using suicide attacks and other such tactics to "inflate perceptions of insurgent capabilities."21
Information dominance is a modern warfare tenet that is increasingly important, particularly if conventional military strength accompanies the effective exercise of soft power. Al-Qaeda understands the limitations of its own use of "hard power"-the coercive force of terrorist attacks-and continues to expand its conceptual approach to information warfare. Recognizing the pervasiveness of the information delivered by satellite television and the Internet and the influence of news organizations ranging from the BBC to Al-Jazeera, al-Qaeda is now offering, in the words of Michael Scheuer, "a reliable source of near real-time news coverage from the jihad fronts for Muslims." From Iraq and Afghanistan, wrote Scheuer, Iraqi insurgents and Taliban forces produce, on an almost daily basis, combat videos, interviews with their commanders, and graphic footage of retaliatory measures against locals who cooperate with American or U.S.-backed forces.22
This effort reflects al-Qaeda's dissatisfaction with Arab news organizations as vehicles for its media products. Zawahiri has criticized Al-Jazeera in particular because it refused to be a mere conveyor belt for al-Qaeda videos, dared to edit bin Laden's pronouncements rather than show them in their entirety, and gave airtime to al-Qaeda's critics. Because of As-Sahab's video producers' technical expertise, al-Qaeda can now set itself up as a third force that provides a message different from Western media and the new generation of Arab news providers.
Zawahiri has said that what he calls "jihadi information media" have been "waging an extremely critical battle against the Crusader-Zionist enemy" and have "demolished this monopoly" by confronting conventional media organizations. Taking things a step further, in late 2007, Zawahiri offered to participate in an online interview in which he would take questions from individuals and news organizations.23
To some extent, this might be mere gamesmanship on the part of al-Qaeda. By making himself available for a cyberspace chat, Zawahiri taunts those who have been hunting him for years. By holding a "news conference," the al-Qaeda leadership positions itself on a plane comparable to that where "real" governments operate. By using new media to communicate with the rest of the world, al-Qaeda stakes a claim to being an exponent of modernity.
One is tempted to dismiss these maneuvers as just another distracting ploy by murderous thugs, but for those who see al-Qaeda's cadres as heroic defenders of Islam-and their numbers are substantial-this exercise is evidence of legitimacy, despite al-Qaeda's vilification by much of the world.
The inadequate responses to al-Qaeda's media messages heighten the danger. Even a flawed argument has appeal when we allow it to stand in an intellectual vacuum. Moderate Muslims and non-Muslims who do not accept the idea that prolonged conflict is inevitable must recognize this reality and act on it in a sophisticated, comprehensive way.
This means providing a steady stream of videos and other materials through the new media that many members of the al-Qaeda audience use. This counter-programming should not feature defensive, pro-American content, but rather should concentrate on undermining al-Qaeda's purported nobility, such as by reminding the audience how many Muslims have died in the terrorist attacks and insurgent warfare al-Qaeda instigated.
Osama bin Laden will undoubtedly pop up in another video before long. Note what he says, but then look to the always expanding reservoir of jihadist media to see what al-Qaeda is really up to.
2. "On Islamist Websites," Middle East Media Research Institute, Special Dispatch Series no. 1702, 31 August 2007.
3. Naya Labi, "Jihad 2.0," The Atlantic Monthly (July/August 2006):102.
4. Robert F. Worth, "Jihadists Take Stand on Web, and Some Say It's Defensive," New York Times, 13 March 2005.
5. Susan B. Glasser and Steve Coll, "The Web as Weapon," The Washington Post, 9 August 2005.
6. Craig Whitlock, "The New Al-Qaeda Central," The Washington Post, 9 September 2007.
7. Andrew Black, "Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Mahgreb's Burgeoning Media Apparatus," Jamestown Foundation Terrorism Focus, vol. IV, issue 14, 15 May 2007.
8. "On Hamas TV Children's Program," Middle East Media Research Institute, Special Dispatch Series no. 1793, 27 December 2007.
9. Michael Scheuer, Imperial Hubris (Washington, D.C.: Brassey's, 2004), 81.
10. Gabriel Weimann, Terror on the Internet (Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of Peace, 2006), 44.
11. Steve Coll and Susan B. Glasser, "Terrorists Move Operations to Cyberspace," The Washington Post, 7 August 2005, A1.
12. Michael Scheuer, "Al-Qaeda's Media Doctrine," Jamestown Foundation Terrorism Focus, vol. IV, issue 15, 22 May 2007; "The Role and Limitations of the 'Dark Web' in Jihadist Training," Stratfor Terrorism Brief, 11 December 2007.
13. Weimann, Terror on the Internet, 66.
14. Abdel Bari Atwan, The Secret History of Al-Qaeda (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2006), 122.
15. Even F. Kohlmann, "The Real Online Terrorist Threat," Foreign Affairs 85, no. 5 (September-October 2006): 117; Middle East Media Research Institute, "Islamist Websites Monitor 82, 84," Special Dispatch Series no. 1543, 13 April 2007.
16. National Intelligence Council, National Intelligence Estimate, "Trends in Global Terrorism: Implications for the United States," April 2006, Key Judgments (Unclassified).
17. Michael Moss and Souad Mekhennet, "An Internet Jihad Aims at U.S. Viewers," New York Times, 15 October 2007; Michael Moss, "What To Do About Pixels of Hate," New York Times, 21 October 2007.
18. "American Al-Qaeda Operative Adam Gadahn, Al-Qaeda Deputy al-Zawahiri, and London Bomber Shehzad Tanweer in New al Sahab/Al-Qaeda Film Marking the First Anniversary of the 7/7 London Bombings," Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), Special Dispatch Series no. 1201, 11 July 2006; Jessica Stern, "Al-Qaeda, American Style," New York Times, 15 July 2006.
19. Chris Zambelis, "Iraqi Insurgent Media Campaign Targets American Audiences," Jamestown Foundation Terrorism Focus, vol. IV, issue 33, 16 October 2007.
20. Jim Michaels, "U.S. Pulls Plug on Six Al-Qaeda Media Outlets," USA Today, 4 October 2007.
21. The U.S. Army-Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 5.
22. Scheuer, "Al-Qaeda's Media Doctrine."
23. Shaun Waterman, "Zawahiri Pledges Online Chat," United Press International, 17 December 2007.
Last Reviewed: May 18, 2012