The propaganda wars since 9/11
Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, the U.S. State Department has made a series of attempts to counter the spread of Islamist militant ideology. At the same time, propaganda efforts by al-Qaeda and its offspring have become increasingly sophisticated. A look at the evolution in messaging from the State Department, al-Qaeda and the Islamic State:
From a $15 million campaign profiling Muslims in the U.S. ...
... to a grisly low-budget video featuring sneering sarcasm
Islamic extremist evolution
From al-Qaeda’s single-camera tapes of bin Laden’s lectures...
... to the Islamic State’s special effects-rich feature-length films
2002 TV network Al Jazeera gains international attention in the wake of 9/11 for airing videotaped messages from Osama bin Laden.
A $15 million campaign called “Shared Values” profiles Muslims in the United States, including a baker in Ohio and a fire department medic in Brooklyn, N.Y. Some derisively label it the “Happy Muslim” campaign; it is quickly shelved.
Osama bin Laden
Osama bin Laden's speeches from remote hiding spots consist mainly of on-camera lectures, often with out-of-date references to global events.
2006-2007 A National Intelligence Estimate titled “Trends in Global Terrorism” warns of the increasing importance of the Internet for jihadist groups, saying that all “stripes” will increasingly rely on the Internet for propaganda, communication, recruitment and training.
‘Portraits of America’
During the Bush administration, public diplomacy chief Karen Hughes creates the Digital Outreach Team to defend the United States in online chat rooms. Hughes enlists Disney to produce a feel-good “Portraits of America” video shown in airports and U.S. embassies.
Ayman al-Zawahiri, who became the leader of al-Qaeda after bin Laden’s death, delivers messages calling on militants to fight the United States and its allies. Although released in April 2006, the video references events from a month earlier – a typical lag for al-Qaeda until the rise of social media.
2010 As President Obama vows to end wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, al-Qaeda forms a new branch in 2009 called AQAP, or al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. It becomes one of the most active branches of the terror network and is adept at propaganda.
The U.S. regroups
The State Department urges the creation of a new unit to combat AQAP and other adversaries online, but the proposal languishes for more than a year. The White House issues an executive order establishing the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC) in September 2011.
AQAP's rise puts Anwar al-Awlaki in the spotlight. As a senior member of the organization, he spearheads an effort to deliver extremist propaganda in English. The swift spread of his videos puts pressure on the U.S. government to respond.
2014 The Islamic State comes to prominence with sophisticated propaganda and active social media feeds. The group releases videos that alternate between gruesome beheadings and BBC-style news reports. The U.S. shifts its counter-messaging focus from al-Qaeda to the Islamic State.
‘Welcome to the “Islamic State” land’
Alberto Fernandez, who headed the CSCC, devises a mocking response to Islamic State videos depicting a lavish lifestyle for their fighters. Inspired by Monty Python spoofs, Fernandez includes grisly footage of the terror group’s atrocities.
To watch the unedited version of this video, click here. WARNING: The unedited video contains graphic images of violence.
‘Flames of War’
Exceeding the sophistication of al-Qaeda-era propaganda, the Islamic State creates highly-produced videos in numerous languages and deploys sophisticated social media strategies. “Flames of War,” an English-language film, becomes one of ISIS’s signature recruitment films.
SOURCES: U.S. Department of State, Search for International Terrorist Entities Intelligence Group, staff reports. GRAPHIC: Katie Park, Swati Sharma, Greg Miller, Scott Higham and Jorge Ribas. Published May 8, 2015.