Ten years ago, before the attacks of Sept. 11, Americans didn’t pay much attention to threats emanating from Islamic extremists. Now, we’re paying attention, but, with the help of round-the-clock news coverage, often hearing the messages that matter least.
Take, for instance, the recent tidal surge of reports over the threats against David Letterman.
In the aftermath of that frenzy, we invited terrorism expert Evan Kohlmann to offer his take on how reports on jihadist chatter have started to take on a life of their own, with the most buzz being generated by whatever seems the silliest. What’s less silly, Kohlmann points out, is that more online jihadists have started to realize just how easy it is to use Western news organizations for their own purposes.
In this environment, Kohlmann says, “reasoned analysis of al-Qaeda’s remaining viability as a terrorist organization risks being lost in the fog, whereas wild rumors about Osama bin Laden’s attempts to poison America’s cocaine supply receive instantaneous top billing.”
Read the rest of Kohlmann’s essay below.
In the waning days of August, for what seemed like an endless 72-hour cycle, the media became obsessed with the bizarre notion that al-Qaeda was dead-set on silencing the voice of comedian David Letterman. Al-Qaeda was threatening Letterman’s life, the story went, in revenge for a series of late-night quips about the death of Osama bin Laden.
As the Web site of Fox News Channel put it: “Al Qaeda Threatens to Cut Letterman’s Tongue Out.”
[Editor’s note: Here’s a blog post from The Washington Post as well.]
The problem with this narrative was that al-Qaeda never actually threatened Letterman, and it is doubtful the group’s members know (or care) what jokes he makes on U.S. broadcast television.
To understand why this is the case, one must first understand the rather humble origins of this errant piece of would-be “intelligence.” On Aug. 16, an anonymous user known as “Umar al-Basrawi” posted a new message on a top-tier jihadi Web discussion forum, “Al-Shamukh,” calling on American Muslims “to cut the tongue out of this lowly Jew,” a reference to Letterman, who is not Jewish. Al-Basrawi complained that he didn’t find the gap-toothed comic’s jibes about the killing of al-Qaeda’s leaders funny in the least, and appealed for immediate action to punish him.
On the Shamukh online Web forum, this sort of thing is hardly an unusual occurrence. Registered users post testosterone-driven death threats on a daily basis, aimed at everyone from Egyptian musicians to Finnish politicians. This is because the tens of thousands of participants on the forum include hardcore al-Qaeda members on jihadi frontlines in Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia. Far, far more often, however, they include embittered and isolated cranks who really don’t have anywhere else to vent their tangential and unpopular opinions.
In the case of al-Basrawi, there is simply no evidence whatsoever to suggest he is anything more than the latter. He is neither an authentic al-Qaeda spokesman, nor a courier, nor an insider of any sort whatsoever. As far as anyone knows, he’s simply an angry individual on the Internet with too much time on his hands.
It’s also worth noting that the reaction of fellow forum users to the Letterman post wasn’t terribly overwhelming. Popular discussion topics posted on Shamukh often garner hundreds of written responses within a matter of hours. After 48 hours on the forum, al-Basrawi’s rant against Letterman resulted in fewer than 10 replies — most of which were awfully bland. For real al-Qaeda supporters, it was about as significant an issue as dishing details about outfits worn by attendees at Britain’s royal wedding.
Nonetheless, Al-Basrawi himself could have hardly predicted the avalanche-like reaction that his informal, meandering rant would end up provoking in Western media. Indeed, the way in which the media latched on to this tale is less a story about terrorism or al-Qaeda than about the increasingly tabloid and celebrity-driven nature of American journalism when it comes to covering Islamic extremism. When online chatter actually reveals worthy bits of intelligence, many mainstream reporters are absent. For instance, last week there was hardly a murmur in the press after al-Qaeda’s central media wing suggested that a senior terrorist leader in Afghanistan -- Atiyah Abd al-Rahman -- was still alive, despite confident, conflicting reports from senior U.S. officials indicating he had been killed in a drone missile strike.
Worse still, judging from messages on al-Qaeda online forums, the network and its supporters are carefully taking stock of fiascoes such as the one over the Letterman threat, and they are leaving with a remarkably cynical understanding of how easily the media can be used to terrify the American public.
Another registered Shamukh forum user – who likewise managed to deceive a swath of media observers into believing al-Qaeda was responsible for terror attacks in Norway – brazenly boasted to me in a recent e-mail that “what happened was good … as jihadists, we get free advertisements on TV by the news reports.”
What he neglected to add is that this is only the case when the threats in question are so overly sensationalist and “buzzworthy” that they have a reasonable chance of going viral in the blogosphere. In this environment, reasoned analysis of al-Qaeda’s remaining viability as a terrorist organization risks being lost in the fog, whereas wild rumors about Osama bin Laden’s attempts to poison America’s cocaine supply receive top billing.
Television networks and other media organizations are certainly within their rights to try and improve their ratings by catering to the general interest and publishing entertainment stories that have arguably negligible news value. Yet, when dealing with weighty subjects like terrorism and national security, it is equally reasonable to expect journalists to observe a higher editorial standard. Spinning up the significance of such a story based solely on the involvement of a celebrity name is not only unprofessional, but moreover, it allows the press to be amateurishly manipulated by violent extremists into spreading needless fear and confusion.
Evan F. Kohlmann is a founder and senior partner at Flashpoint Global Partners, a New York-based security consulting group. He has served as a consultant and expert witness on terrorism matters on behalf of the Defense Department, Justice Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.