YouTube War/Terrorist Home Videos: The Power of the Image
Technology, however, and the rapidly improving ways making it possible to distribute and disseminate content, are nothing without the content itself. Today’s terrorist groups were ready to take advantage of the opportunities afforded by these new technologies when they came along because they had realized the power of imagery in propaganda (and the capacity of new media technologies to put imagery within their reach for propaganda purposes) some time ago.
Beginning with the Chechens fighting against the Russians in the early 1990s, one innovation in terrorist propaganda made possible by innovations in media technology was the filming of terrorist attacks by the terrorists themselves. The Chechens took the footage they accumulated and produced full length videos, a development that quickly spread throughout the jihadist movement.12 The logic that led the Chechens to this innovation is on a direct trajectory from the logic that first brought terrorism up-to-date for a world that included modern mass media (meaning, of course, television.) The Chechen leader, a Jordanian-born terrorist named Ibn al-Khattab, justified the filming of attacks in a way that paralleled—and extended— the thinking of the Algerians back in the 1950s. The Algerians’ “Directive Number Nine” argued that it was better to kill one man where the American press would hear of it than nine where no one would find out. What Khattab realized was that technology had finally put into the terrorists’ reach the ability to cut out the middleman—the Western reporter.
He felt that if they killed a few Russian soldiers in an ambush along a road, the impact of the strike was limited. However, if the operation was filmed and then shown to the Russian people, that impact was multiplied manifold. Following through on this logic, Khattab’s men regularly began filming roadside bombings, hostage takings, ambushes, rocket attacks, and other activities.13
Hezbollah, fighting to force Israel out of southern Lebanon, was in a somewhat different situation since, while their use of technology to film insurgent attacks for propaganda purposes was new and innovative, they had access to traditional broadcast venues for their footage—television networks, in other words, which were willing and eager to use their material. Thus they were able to combine the new with the old, as their use of television was anything but traditional, since their material was being shown by networks under the control of those sympathetic to the cause and looking for ways to maximize the footage’s impact, not seeking to use it in the service of objective journalism. Nonetheless, the precedent they set is still important to mention:
The visual media proved one of Hezbullah’s most effective weapons. Stills, videos, and films became so central to the organization’s military activities that it might reasonably be claimed that they dictated both the overall strategy and daily operations. Indeed, the organization’s motto could be summed up in the words: “If you haven’t captured it on film, you haven’t fought.” In this context, the home video camera was king. A Hezbollah guerrilla unit was accompanied by a cameraman who would videotape their operations from the front line.14 [My emphasis]
Today even the smallest terrorist or insurgent group active in the Islamist movement, certainly those in the combat theaters of Afghanistan and Iraq, will have a specific position within the organization for the person whose responsibility is “media affairs”—in this they mirror al-Qaeda itself15—but this is invariably one of the highest ranking posts, obviously seen as a job of great importance and authority.16 Indeed, Hamid Mir, the Pakistani journalist and bin Laden biographer, described how he watched al-Qaeda men fleeing U.S. bombardments of their training camps in November 2001: “Every second al-Qaeda member [was] carrying a laptop computer along with his Kalashnikov,” he reported.17
According to Lara Logan, CBS News’ Senior Foreign Correspondent and one of the very few reporters to have continued reporting regularly from Afghanistan during the time she was stationed in Baghdad, the Taliban always give the person with responsibility for media and information in an operational cell the number two position in the cell overall.18
As that suggests, part of the reason terrorists can take advantage of this technology as easily as American “citizen journalists” can is that this is hardly a phenomenon restricted to the developed world or to citizens of the developed world. Laptops, the Internet, cameras, cell phones equipped with cameras, and the software that allows the user to tie it all together, have penetrated all but the most remote corners of the globe.19 This is “the era not only of the citizenjournalist, but also the terrorist-journalist.”20 For this to be useful to the terrorist or insurgent, of course, some of these technologies need to have penetrated the larger societies they are hoping to influence. Obviously Westerners were able to see it as soon as the video was uploaded to their own computers, but average Iraqis, without computers and often without electricity, were watching the Saddam hanging on their cell phones; often those who do not have computers at home or do not have regular electricity do have easy access to Internet cafes, and this is the case throughout the Islamic world.
The latest estimates suggest that Internet use in the Middle East and North Africa is growing at a rate higher than any other place in the world. Between the years 2000-05, Internet access rates grew at a measure of around 411.5% (compounded growth.) Connectivity may be even higher than is estimated by conventional measures because of the large number of people in the region who use Internet cafes or community access points. . . . Jordan even made the Guinness Book of Records for the highest concentration of Internet cafes anywhere in the world. There are more than 200 Internet cafes on a single street in Irbid, Jordan.21
Connectivity has grown at a rate of 100 percent in Iraq—but 900 percent in Algeria, 566 percent in Yemen, and 900 percent in Morocco over that same 5-year period.22
But the use of these technologies is not only a feature of the insurgency in Iraq: if they are being used in a country without regular electric power, then obviously, they are being used in developed countries. In Britain, for example, police arrested a group on charges that they were plotting to kidnap a Muslim soldier on leave from duty in Afghanistan. But they were not interested in kidnapping him to bargain with authorities for the release of compatriots being held in various prisons as an earlier generation of terrorists might have done. Apparently the plan—from its original inception—was to kidnap someone so that the group would be able to film an execution, and then upload that footage onto the Internet.23 It is believed that it is when the group was spotted purchasing a camera that British security forces, after months of surveillance, finally moved in and made their arrests.24 This makes sense: in this context, the camera was as much a weapon as was the knife.
Or as one jihadi magazine found on Irhabi007’s computer (an infamous webmaster for Zarqawi until his eventual capture in London) explained: “Film everything; this is good advice for all mujahideen [holy warriors]. Brothers, don’t disdain photography. You should be aware that every frame you take is as good as a missile fired at the Crusader enemy and his puppets.”25
Today it is not just al-Qaeda but virtually every terrorist group, no matter how small, that has a presence on the web.26 Some groups have as many as 20 websites, many of which are extremely sophisticated, in multiple languages, even with separate pages specifically for children.27 The use of the Internet is not only for internal purposes, however. These groups also use the web as a means to communicate with the public, using the press as intermediary, posting communiqués, statements, and various declarations from terrorist leaders.
Without a doubt, this material is important to their ability to reach their own constituencies and for their ability to recruit from those who have been labeled “swing voters,” those in the Islamic world who have not decided whether or not they are going to support the global Islamist insurgency. But these are sophisticated propagandists who are not only constructing sophisticated texts meant to simultaneously reach multiple audiences, they are also constructing multiple texts targeted to reach a variety of different categories of audience. They understand that the trick is that, in doing so, texts targeted to different audiences need to be modified slightly for each different audience.