Sometimes, we in the news business can get carried away.
So after jihadist-watchers this week noted that an extremist had posted a cartoon he was creating to inspire children to join the cause of al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen, the reaction was swift.
There was this.
The cartoon was posted by a jihadist using the nom de guerre Abu al-Laith al-Yemeni, and it showed young boys firing RPGs and other weaponry, reveling in the joys of terorrist activity.
The problem is the cartoon idea wasn’t exactly original — jihadists have previously distributred flash animation and other propaganda aimed at youth — and, in the grand scheme of terrorist communications, wasn’t particularly disturbing.
“I don’t regard this as the most worrying thing I’ve seen in the past 10 minutes, never mind the past 10 days,” said Evan Kohlmann, a senior partner at Flashpoint Global Partners, which tracks jihadist Web forums.
The cartoon was posted on al-Shamouk, a genuine al-Qaeda-linked Web forum. But, Kohlmann and others note, it didn’t come through the official media arm of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, known as AQAP. It didn’t even come from a well-known figure within the group.
Forums like Shamouk are basically huge bulletin boards, making it relatively easy for anyone to contribute.
“At most, [the cartoon] is something created by an AQAP hanger-on, or a low-ranking person ... or maybe someone not affiliated with AQAP at all,” said Kohlmann.
None of which is to diminish the threat posed by AQAP, which was responsible for the Christmas Day 2009 bombing attempt aboard a Detroit-bound airliner and last year’s cargo plane bomb plot. It’s also not to diminish the ugliness of any attempt to recruit children to terrorism.
Indeed, terrorist organizations including the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, a group with close ties to al-Qaeda, have posted Internet videos in which children can be seen receiving training on how to become suicide bombers.
But children’s involvement in terrorism is more likely to spring from indoctrination by parents than a cartoon.
That, expert say, won’t stop jihadist supporters from trying any means they can to incite further violence.
“They will support the groups by means of issuing their own propaganda. This children’s cartoon is one example. There have been flash cartoons in the past. There have been stick figures. This is not the first time they’ve tried to appeal to younger generations,” said Adam Raisman, a senior analyst with SITE Intelligence Group, which also monitors Internet traffic on jihadist Web sites and picked up on the cartoon earlier this week.
Asked why the latest cartoon might have gotten so much attention, Raisman said that, while not unheard of, cartoons appealing to kids are relatively rare. He also said it could be explained by AQAP’s recent ascendancy.
Whatever the case, the frenzy set off by the cartoon’s release has only helped to perpetuate its propagnda value.
Over the past few days, users of al-Shamouk have taken Arabic versions of stories about the cartoon that have appeared in the Western media and reposted them on the forum.
Raisman said they’re pleased that the cartoon has inspired fears about the recruitment of children.
They are also probably quite happy for the publicity.