Does al-Qa'ida's Increasing Media Outreach Signal Revitalization?

Author:Forbes, Jami

According to the 2018 National Strategy for Counter-terrorism, the United States has not been effective at targeting the means by which groups such as al-Qa'ida and the Islamic State inspire, radicalize, and recruit. As a result, the strategy directed that the United States must bolster efforts to "undermine the ability of terrorist ideologies to create a common identity and sense of purpose among potential recruits." (1) Central to any group's ability to draw support and project its ideology are media campaigns, which help to not only inspire action but direct overall strategy.

The Islamic State was particularly effective in the media domain. At one time, the group disseminated regularly-published magazines (Dabiq and then later Rumiyah), along with video productions (to include beheadings), and its "Cubs of the Caliphate" series. (2) The group mastered the use of imagery and historical narratives to inspire support for its movement. Conversely, media outreach has been a shortfall for al-Qa'ida--particularly following the 2011 death of its leader, Usama bin Ladin. The group has faced challenges from limited communication from senior leaders, a failure to vocalize a clear and focused strategy, and an inability to adapt to changing conditions in the Middle East (to include the emergence of its rival, the Islamic State). (3)

However, al-Qa'ida appears to be attempting to reverse these shortfalls. For instance, the group has significantly increased the pace of its statements from its current leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, gradually increased the pace of statements from Hamza bin Ladin (offering him up as a voice for the next generation), created greater cohesion amongst media efforts of its affiliates, and established a new website that provides a repository of speeches and reference materials. (4) (a) These efforts suggest al-Qa'ida is attempting to reintroduce its movement to the world, and possibly rebrand its long-term strategy.

In addition, on several occasions in 2018, al-Zawahiri vocalized al-Qa'ida's intent to target the United States. This includes the labeling of the United States as the "first enemy" of Muslims worldwide. (5) Although criticisms of the United States are not new for al-Qa'ida, the pace at which al-Zawahiri is disseminating the messages has changed, providing the opportunity for greater saliency. In addition, these messages serve as a reminder that the group, for whom perceptions of its threat have been overshadowed by the Islamic State, has not abandoned targeting far enemies and its long-term ambition of establishing a caliphate.

Leadership Expands its Media Outreach

Ayman al-Zawahiri has served as the emir of al-Qa'ida since 2011. Al-Zawahiri, who was born and raised in a Cairo suburb, is a trained surgeon and the son of an aristocratic family. (6) As a young man, he was actively involved in efforts to protest the use of heavy-handed tactics against Islamists by the Egyptian government and founded a cell dedicated to replacing the secular Egyptian government with one he perceived to be Islamic when he was only 15 years old. (7) He later participated in the Afghan jihad, forged close ties with bin Ladin, and played an integral role in the development of al-Qa'ida and its overall strategy. (8)

Although al-Zawahiri technically possesses the credentials to lead the movement, he has been criticized for being a "black hole of charisma," and described as "pedantic" and "overbearing." (9) He has also been criticized for going long periods without issuing any public guidance or direction (almost certainly due to concerns such communication could compromise his personal security). For instance, between 2014 and 2015, he went nearly an entire year without making any type of public statement at all. (10)

Since January 2018, al-Qa'ida has released 15 statements attributed to al-Zawahiri, with the most recent released on December 24, 2018. (11) While this may not seem like a significant amount of statements to Western audiences, it reflects a 67-percent increase over the pace of al-Zawahiri's media outreach in 2017. Although al-Zawahiri still lacks the charismatic persona of his predecessor, the increased outreach may help to diminish perceptions of his reclusiveness and to reintroduce him to al-Qa'ida followers...

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