Jihadi Public Relations Spin: The Arab Revolutions and Al-Qaida’s Media Response

The central theme in Al-Qaida’s prognosis has always been the promotion of violent jihad as the principal tool with which to challenge the status quo. A campaign of militancy with Al-Qaida at the helm would be the only way to topple secular leaders and challenge their Western backers. Any other forms of activism would be like “treating cancer with aspirin”, according to a 2006 statement by Ayman Al-Zawahiri. The mass uprisings that sparked the ‘Arab Spring’ two years ago, therefore, were contrary to and undermined Al-Qaida’s core argument in several significant ways. Not only were secular regimes in the Middle East toppled – a major objective and preoccupation of the Al-Qaida leaders – the primary vehicle for change was popular uprising, not violent jihad, and Al-Qaida played no role. To make matters worse for the movement’s leadership, the initial protests spawned mass movements that promoted nationalism, equality and democracy, something Al-Zawahiri and his colleagues had consistently condemned throughout Al-Qaida’s lifetime.

These seminal events, therefore, called for a dedicated public relations campaign where Al-Qaida’s propaganda apparatus would reframe the Arab Spring according to the core values and principles of the leadership.With the death of bin Laden in May 2011, Zawahiri became the most prominent voice of Al-Qaida and his media efforts were backed up by other initiatives from affiliates and supporters who all tried to present the Arab Spring as favourable to Al-Qaida and conforming to its world view. As part of this effort, Zawahiri authored one of his most expansive series of appeals, titled ‘A Message of Hope and Glad Tidings to Our Fellow Muslims in Egypt’. He used these and other statements from the period to argue the pitfalls of democracy and elucidate other perceived dangers that might prove a side effect of the revolutions, as well as offering advice for the steps ahead. On the back of these interpretive efforts, affiliated outlets such as the Inspire magazine highlighted the points made by the leadership and sought to convince that Al-Qaida was not caught off guard and that the events did not undermine its position or agenda.

In substantive terms, four general and interlinked themes can be discerned in relation to Al-Qaida’s media response to the Arab Spring. First, Al-Zawahiri and others tried to make the case that the revolutions were only the beginning of a new activist phase for the Muslim ummah. This would offer unprecedented opportunities to settle the score with America and other adversaries and usher in a new form of social justice, modelled on the system said to have prevailed during the time of the Prophet Mohammed and his immediate successors. Indeed – the argument went – the revolutions might constitute the initial spark that would ignite even more expansive (and violent) uprisings against the chief sources of hardship, suffering and moral degradation, such as America, Israel, secularism and Western media and culture. The implicit implication of this argument, of course, was that the ummah needed guidance during this tumultuous period more than ever before and Al-Qaida – the experienced fighting vanguard – would be best placed to provide it.

Second, Al-Qaida’s media efforts in the wake of the Arab Spring relied to a substantial degree on historical revision and half-truths. What provoked the uprising, according to Al-Qaida, was collective desire for an Islamic state, a need to confront Israel and regain social morality rather than any material grievances or lack of self-determination. Third, Zawahiri and other Al-Qaida figures sought to convince Muslims that grave dangers lay ahead in the aftermath of the revolutions that could undermine Islamic values. These warnings reiterated Al-Qaida’s position that democracy was a form of idolatry that could facilitate the spread of vice and un-Islamic practices, so long as the majority agreed with them. More recently, this evolving narrative has focused more intently on ‘mild’ Islamist groups, such as the Tunisian Ennahda movement, that are accused of diluting the faith and cherry-picking from doctrine. Fourth, the Al-Qaida leadership has used the opportunity in the chaotic aftermath of the uprisings to reemphasise its core tenets and agenda for change. This relates both to internal and external developments: from the wording and focus of written constitutions to the anticipated broadening of activism to Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and beyond. Thus, in terms of media efforts alone, Al-Qaida has sought to present the Arab uprisings as part of its global struggle against unbelief and ‘Zionist-Crusader’ conspiracies, whilst preparing to exploit the disillusionment and turmoil that inevitably follow political upheaval of this magnitude.

How is this significant? A systematic study of Al-Qaida’s media efforts in relation to these events illustrates that its leaders have not always been consistent or coherent and have sought to tailor their arguments to fit current realities, regardless of what they have said before. But Al-Qaida’s interpretation of the Arab uprisings also illustrates how its leadership can be opportunistic in seeking to exploit such a tumultuous period: it has tried to use the time after the Arab Spring to turn the grave crisis that the revolutions represented for Al-Qaida into a new set of opportunities. Although the core tenets of Al-Qaida’s doctrine remain the same, new events are framed in light of these principles. As a result, the Al-Qaida leadership has sought to maintain a narrative that justifies continued support for violent jihad and sustains the movement beyond the lifetime of Zawahiri and the other leaders. This central message, in turn, is picked up, redrafted, honed and polished by a new generation of activists, eager to participate in jihadi efforts to exploit new opportunities after the Arab Spring.

For a fuller discussion see: https://www.terrorismanalysts.com/pt/index.php/pot/article/view/228/458

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    Paul Kamolnick
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