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Struggling Against al-Qaeda on the Airwaves

Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, June 24, 2008 1:00 PM

Post foreign correspondent Craig Whitlock, was online Tuesday, June 24 at 1 p.m. ET to discuss his articles about how the U.S. is losing its battle with al-Qaeda for hearts and minds in the Middle East.

Part 1: U.S. Network Falters in Mideast Mission Part 2: Al-Qaeda's Growing Online Offensive (Post, June 23-24)

The transcript follows.

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Craig Whitlock: Hello to everyone from Geneva, where I'm on assignment. Let's get started.

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Anonymous: What is the audience "reach" of al-Hurra in the Middle East compared to Voice of America?

Craig Whitlock: Voice of America stopped broadcasting in the Middle East several years ago. It was replaced by Radio Sawa, a U.S.-government-funded FM radio network. Voice of America's Arabic service had a tiny audience, in large part because it was only broadcast shortwave. Radio Sawa's is much larger, thanks to FM broadcasting. It's mostly pop music, with news bulletins every half hour or so.

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Los Angeles: The second of the two articles blew me away. Is there any chance you will develop the "al-Qaeda online" meme into a book? If not, can you suggest some resources (preferably books) for those of us who want to dig deeper into their 'Net strategy and tactics? Thank you so much for your work!

Craig Whitlock: Thanks for the comment. I have no plans for a book; it's hard enough for me to write a long newspaper article. Good online public resources regarding al-Qaeda online are the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, the NEFA Foundation (Nine Eleven/Finding Answers), IntelCenter and a host of others.

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Fairfax, Va.: Craig -- in your al-Hurra article on Monday, you identified BBG chairman Jim Glassman as former New Republic publisher and former Washington Post columnist. Both true, but more significant than those titles is that he's also Karen Hughes' replacement at the State Department as Public Diplomacy czar. Why the omission? Might that have been a relevant fact to shed light on State's relationship with al-Hurra, or perhaps distancing themselves as damage control?

Craig Whitlock: Fair question. Honest explanation: It was an omission. We should have identified Glassman as the nominee to replace Karen Hughes, in addition to his other experiences.

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Freising, Germany: One of the things that most irked me about your article was that when Hamas spokesman Sheik Ahmed Yassin was killed, almost all Arabic news channels interrupted their regular programming, except for al-Hurra, which continued with a cooking show. To use a comparison, in the late 1980s, Radio Free Europe really did seem to be a beacon of the free Western world to citizens of the oppressed Soviet Union. There was instant credibility by virtue of the fact that these people were being oppressed by their own Communist governments. If Saddam Hussein were still in power in Iraq, I think that this instantaneous credibility would still be present in the Middle East.

But after the Iraq War, the U.S. and the entire Western world is facing an uphill battle in terms of credibility in the Middle East. Whereas no government wants to give known terrorists any popular or public reclaim, a news agency still has to report the news that is relevant to the regional population. Otherwise it'll be considered as a mouthpiece of Western propaganda, don't you think?

Craig Whitlock: Yes -- it's hard to argue with your points. I do think al-Hurra nowadays reports most of the basic news in a fairly straightforward manner. In speaking to a number of Arab journalists and others who want al-Hurra to succeed, however, there was a common complaint: al-Hurra doesn't go far enough in reporting the hard stories, the pieces about corruption and torture that also are ignored by their competitors in the Arab world. Covering those subjects would allow al-Hurra to stand out, and give it more credibility.

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Washington: Per "Declaring Victory" in the September 2006 edition of the Atlantic Monthly, James Fallow writes that a number of experts suggests that al-Qaeda's reliance on the Internet is a sign of their weakness. Now that the U.S. has destroyed their centralized organization capable of operations, they are reduced to being a "philosophy." The existence of talking heads spouting repugnant philosophies, though unfortunate, is rampant -- and declaring a "global war" on the philosophers elevates and provides credibility to their cause. What are your thoughts on Fallow's ultimate recommendation in the article that we "declare victory" and push the fighting of terrorism back into the realm of law enforcement?

washingtonpost.com: Declaring Victory (The Atlantic, September 2006)

Craig Whitlock: I think Fallows has a point, but I'm not sure I agree. Some intelligence officials I've interviewed said there is a correlation between the timing of as-Sahab's propaganda explosion and al-Qaeda's resurgence as a coherent, centrally organized network.

As-Sahab's video production really ramped up starting in 2006. It was around the same time that al-Qaeda's central leadership was able to resurrect itself, to a degree, in the tribal areas and border regions in Pakistan -- helped, in part, by the Pakistani government's willingness to sign cease fires with Taliban and other militants.

in other words, as-Sahab's prolific production could be a sign of al-Qaeda's strength, not its weakness.

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Springfield, Va. (al-Hurra representative): In your article on al-Hurra you give credence to opinion polls and label the Broadcasting Board of Governors's research as "internal surveys," when in fact the BBG's research -- which states al-Hurra has an audience of 25.8 million weekly viewers, is done by ACNielsen and others. What is more credible for television research than ACNielsen?

Craig Whitlock: Good question. BBG hires ACNielsen to do their surveying for them. They, in turn, rely on contractors in the Middle East. So the ACNielsen surveys are not independent.

In general, there is a paucity of reliable surveys of broadcast audiences in the Arab world.

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Washington: To get back to your earlier comment about breaking news coverage, al-Hurra was a start up in those days of the assassination. Now it has a enhanced news gathering and reporting. Takes time to set up a 24-hour news network.

Craig Whitlock: That's true. The Sheikh Yassin assassination did happen during al-Hurra's early days, but the network was up and running, and the decision to stick with the cooking show was an editorial judgment, not a technological problem. Did al-Hurra not cover Yassin's death because he was a Hamas leader, and therefore an enemy of the U.S. government? I think that's a fair question to ask.

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Washington: We can't win the Mideast propaganda fight for one reason -- our nation is based on law and order, and we teach history and world events as they happen. We have free and open societies, where people have access to information. Police states in the Middle East restrict access to information, and people are taught false history and folk talks as facts in schools across the Middle East. Just look at Middle East Media Research Institute and you can see this.

I mean, this is especially true in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Children are taught that Jerusalem isn't a holy city to Jews, are encouraged to strap bombs on their chests and are told that the highest honor is to kill themselves and others for their cause. Until the indoctrination in the Middle East stops, we shouldn't even fight a war, because we live in the real world they live in a police state.

Craig Whitlock: You're right: This is an extraordinarily serious problem. The history that is taught in many Arab countries -- much of it brutally anti-Semitic -- would make your toes curl. How should the West counter that? Should it try? Is it enough just to hold up our free society -- with its vigorous debates and protected speech -- as an example for the rest of the world? I don't know the answers, but that's at the heart of the problem.

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faithfulservant3: How has one man in a cave manage to outcommunicate the world's greatest communication society? This can only happen when the U.S. message is weak. And isn't it about time that they admitted that they don't have a clue where bin Laden is?

Craig Whitlock: I think they have admitted they don't have a clue where bin Laden is. Best guess is that he's hiding in Pakistan.

As for the first part of your question, as Jarret Brachman of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point said, as-Sahab's great strength is using our words against us. Their videos constantly quote Americans and Europeans about the flaws in the "war on terror," about Iraq, about U.S. Middle East Policy -- and then they cite that as proof of their arguments.

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georgemeringolo: I find it interesting that the writer of this piece chose to use the following sentence: "He patiently answered about one-fifth of them, even hostile postings that condemned al-Qaeda for harming innocents and perverting Islam." This man is a killer. I wonder if the same writer would have be so solicitous if the al-Qaeda leader were a registered Republican.

Craig Whitlock: Please. I can assure you that partisan politics had nothing to do with how the article was written. The point of that sentence simply was to illustrate how Zawahiri willingly took on many hostile questions -- he didn't duck.

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arrabbiato: " 'It's beautifully crafted propaganda, and it's a huge problem for us,' said Jarret Brachman, research director at the Combating Terrorism Center at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. 'You're left shaking your head and saying, "Yeah, I guess they're right." ' " And my question is, what the hell kind of response is this? "I guess they're right"!? That's the best you can come up with, Brachman? As a U.S. counterterrorism expert? Maybe you're not so "expert" at your job, and instead of scratching your head and agreeing with it, you might want to be thinking of strategy and counterpropaganda to meet the threat that such propaganda creates for the U.S. Something tells me that other opinions of such propaganda would find that it's not all that!

Craig Whitlock: I think you misunderstand what Brachman was trying to say. He wasn't saying that he agrees with al-Qaeda's ideology or views in the slightest -- he just was saying that an average viewer, in the Muslim world perhaps, might see their videos and be seduced by the arguments.

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wingspread257: As for the war to win the hearts and minds ... long ago it was said that "one picture is worth a thousand words." Thousands of the Abu Ghraib pictures are spread throughout the Middle East, indeed all over the world. All the words ever spoken cannot undo the truth of those pictures. They will live forever in Arabic history.

Craig Whitlock: Fair point.

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Tysons Corner, Va.: Has al-Qaeda become more or less organizationally centralized in recent years (since September 2001)? Has overall membership increased or decreased since then? Recent books about terrorism have put out different and confusing answers. Perhaps al-Qaeda is larger in total membership (and in monetary and computer resources) but more dispersed and decentralized in control -- taking less direction from major leaders like bin Laden and Zawahiri. Thank you.

Craig Whitlock: Those are excellent questions, and as far as I can tell, nobody has a clear set of answers. There is a vigorous debate going on right now among counterterrorism officials and experts about whether al-Qaeda has become more or less decentralized in recent years. Some have said that the al-Qaeda core command has lost almost all their capability and influence; others say they prematurely have been written off. The answer, I suspect, is somewhere in between. There is a functioning, centrally organized al-Qaeda core leadership, overseen by bin Laden and Zawahiri, but they are also dependent on decentralized groups and cells to act in their name.

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nofluer: Their communications are "bulletproof"? Then we should find out what they do and make our government's communications "bulletproof." Thirteen-year-old hackers seem to have no trouble getting into U.S. government computers and posting silly stuff. Maybe the U.S. government needs to offer prizes for successful hacker-messing with 'Qaeda's communication network? Give 'em a free iPod or something.

Craig Whitlock: Well, bulletproof may be a strong word, but as-Sahab and the al-Fajr media center have managed to create a secure enough communications and distribution network that it would be incredibly difficult to destroy. It's possible to penetrate it, I think, but there are limits to how deep the damage would be.

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Concord, N.H.:"I mean, this is especially true in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Children are taught that Jerusalem isn't a holy city to Jews, are encouraged to strap bombs on their chests and are told that the highest honor is to kill themselves and others for their cause. Until the indoctrination in the Middle East stops, we shouldn't even fight a war, because we live in the real world? they live in a police state." Well, what is taught to Jewish children in Jerusalem about the Palestinians? Something tells me the propaganda isn't entirely one-sided. Are they taught that Palestinians, even though they lived on that land for hundreds of years, don't have any claim to it?

Craig Whitlock: Thanks for the comment.

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jlee77: Seems to me that this increasing use of the net by al-Qaeda and access to it by the general Islam world creates an opportunity to promote alternative ideas, maybe disinformation, highlight potential splits and even track down the terrorists!

Craig Whitlock: I think some U.S. government agencies are trying to do that -- highlight the splits among the al-Qaeda ideologists and foster internal disputes -- but I think that effort was very late in starting, and remains limited in scope. Also, keep in mind that al-Qaeda and other Islamist ideologues have been squabbling among themselves for decades, so they're used to it.

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donkennedy1932: Isn't that just like bureaucrats? While they fuss and fume and try to crack the terrorist Internet communications network, the scumbags formulate and implement propaganda. What our effort needs to be centered on is locating where they live, eat, recreate and procreate, and killing them with well aimed missiles with powerful warheads that destroy everything within 20 miles of the hit area. What America really needs is some realists in charge of our war on terrorists. First we need to take the freaking wasted $12 billion dollars we spend in Iraq and put it to use finding these scumbags and killing them.

Craig Whitlock: Fair point, though I think we certainly have tried that for the past seven years. We haven't hit bin Laden or Zawahiri with a missile yet.

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Seattle: Isn't it still the case that more than 90 percent of all funding and volunteers worldwide for al-Qaeda comes from one country -- Saudi Arabia -- and the Wahhabi extremists that that country's monarchy encourages to push their religious views worldwide? How can we focus on just a part without cutting off the supply line of money and volunteers work?

Craig Whitlock: I think 90 percent is an exaggeration. There are plenty of other nationalities in the al-Qaeda hierarchy -- especially Egyptians and Libyans. But the U.S. Treasury has been trying to crack down again recently, without much to show for it, against alleged terrorist financiers and charities from Saudi Arabia.

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josebee: Early on in the article, the author mentioned that "as-Sahab" means "the clouds," which he seems to assume is a reference to the mountains of Afghanistan. Is it possible that as-Sahab is a reference to "in the cloud computing," as in the method of Internet-powered computing (for example Google Docs are in the cloud, Microsoft Word is not). Certainly it could mean both, but referencing in the cloud computing is the most pertinent reference for this production company, at least in so far as the Internet is a much more important place for terrorists than the mountains of Afghanistan.

Craig Whitlock: I hadn't thought of it; I suppose it's possible, but some as-Sahab productions literally showed clouds in the mountains, so I think it's safe to assume that was their meaning.

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fixitj: " 'It is just plain embarrassing that al-Qaeda is better at communicating its message on the Internet than America,' Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said in a speech in November." Well, Mr. Gates, it is always easier to recruit people to fight for their own freedom then it is to recruit others to be illegal invaders and occupiers of someone else's land!

Craig Whitlock: Thanks for the comment.

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titmouse: Why doesn't the CIA start releasing dozens of phony al-Qaeda/Laden messages to undermine the legitimacy of the real ones? I'm sure we have actors and technology equal to the part!

Craig Whitlock: Good question. Maybe they have, who knows? What's striking is that as-Sahab and al-Fajr media center have devised a way to release their videos in "secure" Web forums. If a phony video is released, they immediately can denounce it.

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tryreason: The price for not talking to terrorists is the hearts and minds of the people we wish to influence. The cost of denying the culture and ideology of other countries while continuing to meddle is war. This pattern of behavior only can be described as arrogant stupidity!

Craig Whitlock: Thanks for the comment.

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uzs106: The use of PGP is not at all limited to secret services, it is pretty common. They just use free speech, and that they are more influential is their right -- to be unable to convince your audience is the risk is a free society. That's the marketplace of ideas.

Craig Whitlock: Yes, PGP is widely available. The point was that it is of such a high quality that even counterterrorism agencies rely on it.

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shmaryahoopizzaman: It is quite condescending to suddenly wonder at the ability of terrorists to present themselves in "new media," They are as bright and as up-to-date as any neocon in the White House basement, and they have plenty of time on their hands.

Craig Whitlock: Thanks for the comment, though I disagree. I don't think anyone quoted in the article took a condescending view or implied that, well, look what these dumb guys have pulled off.

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Craig Whitlock: That's all the time we have. Thanks, everyone, for the questions and for participating in the discussion.

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