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The War on Terror Evolved Into a War of Ideas and Propaganda

By Haris Ahmed

June 2, 2018

After the initial ‘success’ of Operation Enduring Freedom, the US quickly lost interest in Afghanistan, partly because its head had been turned by Iraq and its oil. As a result, Al-Qaeda, more or less, fell off its radar.

Their back broken, the Al-Qaeda leadership in Afghanistan fled across the border and dispersed into the urban and tribal parts of Pakistan. The US was lulled into a false sense of victory. Yet, Al-Qaeda was merely nursing its wounds. It took this time to regroup and reorganise, cementing itself into Fata and its adjoining areas.

Its resurgence in the mid-2000s was marked, among other things, by its embrace of modern technology as a propaganda and recruitment tool. Its media arm, Al-Sahab (The Cloud), established in 2001, began producing material which had never been used before by a terrorist group. Since then, Al-Sahab has produced cutting-edge videos to recruit members and rally its supporters – videos that could rival those produced by Western media companies.

Initially, CDs and DVDs of these videos were distributed by hand and spread via mobile phones. Later, dead-drops were arranged in other parts of the country such as Karachi that resulted in these videos spreading far and wide. As secure storage platforms, such as Google Drive and Drop Box, were introduced, Al-Qaeda was quick to embrace their potential as secure reservoirs of limitless data. Access to these cloud platforms was limited, and only to those the host chose via secure links. Islamist websites, affiliate forums and local TV stations were instrumental in their dissemination.

It was obvious that Al-Sahab required people who had skills beyond making traditional bombs and suicide vests, and Adam Yahiye Gadahn was the perfect Al-Qaeda recruit for the new century. He was born in the US, where he converted to Islam, and migrated to Pakistan in 1998. Gadahn was the new breed of ‘Westernised’, tech-savvy militants that terrorist outfits such as Al-Qaeda had sorely missed.

Under Gadahn’s tutelage, Al-Qaeda managed to brand itself, hone its message and reach out to Americans and Westerners with ease. Al-Sahab began to churn out professionally made videos, ranging from DIY bomb-making tutorials to Osama bin Laden or other senior Al-Qaeda’s discourses on the war on terror. These videos often incorporated high-end graphics, split-screens and maps.

Gadahn’s first appearance in an Al-Qaeda video was in 2005. Calling himself “Azzam the American”, here was a white American teenager on video eulogising those martyred for the jihad cause, speaking fluently in Arabic as well as American English and threatening attacks on Los Angeles. His impact on Al-Sahab was huge and he shot to immediate notoriety in the West. Gadahn used his knowledge of the West to hone Al-Qaeda’s recruitment capabilities.

He became a leader – a sort of hero for Al-Qaeda foot soldiers in Europe. The British police frequently found copies of Gadahn’s videos in home-grown terrorist cells. In the year following Gadahn’s first appearance in an Al-Sahab video, Al-Qaeda’s media efforts expanded. Al-Qaeda turned to him for advice on how to target a US audience.

Gadahn helped produce Al-Qaeda videos and speeches by Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, providing voiceovers as well as other assistance in the last will and testament videos of some of the 9/11 attackers. In his own videos, Gadahn cited leftist Western writers and films – a result of his upbringing in a family that belonged to the far-left counterculture of the 1960s. He quoted from and praised the work of Noam Chomsky, Robert Fisk and George Galloway. His references to actors such as Sean Penn and Michael Moore who opposed the war on terror resonated with a wide audience.

In 2007, Al-Sahab produced 97 original videos, which was a six-fold increase from 2005. All this coincided with Al-Qaeda’s increasing foothold in Pakistan’s now-defunct tribal belt and its emergence in Iraq. As Al-Qaeda began to bear the fruit of its propaganda efforts and welcomed new recruits, it began to tap into new avenues that the internet offered. In 2008, Ayman al-Zawahiri announced that he would entertain web queries from across the world on any topic. He proceeded to answer one-fifth of the 1,888 queries that he received, even hostile ones that decried Al-Qaeda and their distortion of Islamic teachings. Put into context, here was the world’s second most wanted man conducting a public chat with the people, right under the very noses of the US.

Al-Zawahiri and Gadahn were a fearsome duo. They collaborated frequently and their most significant piece of propaganda would prove to be the 2007 documentary titled ‘The Power of Truth’. In the film, Zawahiri and other Al-Qaeda leaders offer a long narrative of alleged offences against Muslims by the US government and use video excerpts of US leaders and commentators to bolster their argument. “It’s beautifully crafted propaganda,” said Jarret Brachman, a research director at the Combating Terrorism Center at the US Military Academy at West Point. “You’re left shaking your head and saying, ‘Yeah, I guess they’re right’.”

Al-Qaeda, at Gadahn’s behest, began its foray into social media, operating accounts on all popular platforms. These accounts scoured these networks for willing recruits. Although they were brought down, they resurfaced under different names. It was like a game of whack-a-mole.

US analysts and those charged with bringing down the organisation were baffled. Al-Qaeda and other terrorist organisations operated on a budget that was peanuts as compared with that of the CIA or other agencies tasked to bring them down. Al-Qaeda leaders were not only evading a global manhunt for their capture, they were producing expertly-crafted propaganda videos every other day. As US Secretary of Defence Robert Gates was quoted to have asked in November 2007,“How has one man, in a cave, managed to out communicate the world’s greatest communication society?”

Analysts reported that Al-Sahab was equipped with the best technology available at the time. But whenever these militants appeared in a video, they risked their lives. These analysts pored over these videos, looking for any clue that could help them trace their whereabouts. And it often bore fruit. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of Al-Qaeda’s franchise in Iraq, was killed in a military airstrike in June 2006, barely two months after he showed his face on a video for the first time.

It was to America’s great relief when they finally managed to kill Adam Gadahn in a drone strike in Pakistan in 2015, after which Al-Sahab retreated to become a shell of its former self. Not only did Al-Sahab videos no longer have that lustre, they began to appear less and less often. Gadahn’s importance to Al-Qaeda can be gauged by the fact that Zawahiri paid homage to him in an audio recording released last August. He said Gadahn and his fellow Jihadis in Al-Sahab “exemplified patience and endurance, and sacrificed their lives to expose the deception of the contemporary crusade”.

By the time of Gadahn’s death, Al-Qaeda had already been overtaken by Isis, which picked up the baton dropped by Al-Qaeda, not just as the more bloodthirsty terrorist organisation, but one that also operated a more veritable propaganda arm. But it was the likes of Adam Gadahn, who took advantage of technology and built a prolific propaganda operation, enabling it to communicate constantly, securely and in numerous languages with loyalists and potential recruits worldwide. They blazed the trail for those who followed.

Sometime after the US invasion of Afghanistan, the war on terror evolved into a war of ideas and propaganda. With his knowledge of the West, his expertise with the media operations of Al-Sahab, his technological expertise and his devotion to Al-Qaeda’s cause, Adam ‘The American’ Gadahn was the quintessential 21st century Jihadi who helped Al-Qaeda emerges from the ashes. He helped the terrorist outfit fight the battle for hearts and minds. For some time at least, he beat the West at their own game: propaganda.