Among the last known images of Osama bin Laden is a video seized at his compound the night he was killed, which shows the al-Qaeda leader hunched before a television screen studying a video of himself. It’s testimony to bin Laden’s obsession with the media side of his war against the United States.
This modern face of bin Laden’s jihad comes through clearly in a 21-page letter from his media adviser, a U.S.-born jihadist named Adam Gadahn. The letter is undated, but it appears to have been written after November 2010, in the last six months of bin Laden’s life.
Gadahn wrote much as if he were a media planner corresponding with a client. He included suggestions about the timing of video appearances after the 2010 U.S. midterm elections and use of high-definition video, and made snarky evaluations of major U.S. networks.
As I wrote last week, Gadahn hated Fox News (“falls into the abyss”); he liked MSNBC but complained about the firing of Keith Olbermann; he had mixed feelings about CNN (better in Arabic than in English) and made flattering comments about CBS and ABC. Basically, he wanted to play them all off to al-Qaeda’s best advantage. He also mentioned print journalists, most prominently Robert Fisk of The Independent of Britain. He cites three Americans (“Brian Russ,” “Simon Hirsh” and “Jerry Van Dyke”), though it’s uncertain whom he meant.
The media guidance was among the documents taken from bin Laden’s compound the night of May 2. It was made available to me, along with a small sample of other documents in the cache, by a senior Obama administration official.
Gadahn’s memo shows an organization struggling to stay on the media offensive despite devastating U.S. attacks. It’s partly aspirational, with dreams of jihad, but there’s a core of sharp self-criticism that makes clear Gadahn, like his boss, understood that al-Qaeda was losing its war.
Gadahn even worried that al-Qaeda’s reversals in Iraq and elsewhere represented “punishment by God on us because of our sins and injustices.” Like bin Laden, he was deeply upset that al-Qaeda’s affiliates had killed so many Muslims and listed 13 operations that showed “the tragedy of tolerating the spilling of [Muslim] blood.”
Gadahn is an intriguing figure whose life story would seem far-fetched if sketched by a Hollywood screenwriter. He was born Adam Pearlman in 1978, grandson of a California doctor who had served on the board of the Jewish Anti-Defamation League. Gadahn converted to Islam when he was 17, migrated to Pakistan at 20 and then disappeared in March 2001 into al-Qaeda’s world. In 2006, he was indicted by the United States for treason.
In the letter, the media adviser focuses on “how to exploit” the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001, on television. He worries that CNN “seems to be in cooperation with the government more than the others,” though he praises its “good and detailed” Arabic coverage. “I used to think that MSNBC channel may be good and neutral a bit,” he continues, but then notes the firing of Olbermann.
The media chatter continues: CBS “has a famous program (‘60 Minutes’) that has some popularity and a good reputation.” ABC “is all right; actually, it could be one of the best channels,” because of its chief investigator and terrorism expert, Brian Ross. But all the networks, he complains, will bring in analysts who will “conduct a smearing” of al-Qaeda figures.
Gadahn discusses how to game the coverage. Bin Laden could offer “an exclusive press scoop” to one network; but better to spread the material “so that there will be healthy competition.” As for the print journalists, he suggests informing 30 to 50 of them that they’ve been selected to “receive special media material” for the 9/11 anniversary. If just a third of them respond, he notes, al-Qaeda will have 10 journalists who “will display our mission.”
Gadahn argues that the aftermath of the November 2010 U.S. elections is “very suitable” for new video: “All the political talk in America is about the economy, forgetting or ignoring the war and its role in weakening the economy.” He says bin Laden shouldn’t worry about being overexposed, because he can reach “millions of admirers” in the Muslim world, and “raise the morale” of al-Qaeda fighters who are “facing disaster after disaster.”
The al-Qaeda spinmeister didn’t like Fox News (“let her die in her anger”), but it’s hard to understand why. Surely Rupert Murdoch’s network, with its saturation coverage of the war on terror, did more to elevate bin Laden’s profile than any other news outlet.
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